Sunday, 31 January 2010

I am following you

I think.

Nicola Morgan over on Help I need a Publisher has just made me think about this bloggy thingy again. Nicola has about 400 'followers'. I have a vision of Nicola as a sort of Pied Piper who is being followed by a long line of would-be authors with a notebook in one hand and a pencil in the other. They are being led off to some publishing nirvana by way of baobobs of agents.

Some of Nicola's followers have followers and, no doubt, these followers also have followers. The lines of followers are clearly not tidy. People keep jostling each other. Some leap ahead and others lag behind.

It all sounds terribly untidy and rather competitive. I am not much good at keeping up with a mob either. I get diverted. I like to stop and look at the scenery. (Er, yes it does give me a chance to catch my breath. My writing fitness has a long way to go...almost as far as my general state of fitness.)

I like to wander in to the blogs I follow of course. If I did not I would not follow them. I like to think of it as a visit to a friend who has said, "I know we are both busy but drop in for a quick cuppa." It is also a little like the two cats who reside in our street prowling in to check up occasionally. They come through the cat door, do a quick tour of the house and then depart. "Just checking to see you are okay." I do not always hear them but I know they have been.

Somewhere far ahead there is Nicola, there is the Awfully Big Blog Adventure, there is This Itch of Writing and there are other worthy writing blogs, publishing blogs, editing blogs, self-publishing blogs (thankyou Dan - your shoes are amazing works of art) and endless other blogs.

They all have much to say. I read. I listen. I go my own way. I get lost. I am conscious of the light that blinks the occasional warning, "I know you think you understood what I said but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant."

Do I need to develop my tracking skills?

Saturday, 30 January 2010

So, where did you go next?

The MySchool site issue was inevitably under discussion at a meeting yesterday. The conversation also veered inevitably around to the question of which schools those present had attended.
Most people had attended two or three schools. They had typically attended an "infants" or "junior primary" school and then the "primary" school. Almost always these would be on the same grounds. They then went on to a secondary school. A couple of people had attended fee paying schools and stayed at the same school all through their schooling.
Then there was someone whose Dad was in the army. They shifted around a bit. She had attended five different schools but she had remained at the same secondary school right through.
Then there was me. I went to eight different schools. My father was the principal of most of them. My mother taught in most of them. The rule was you went where the Education Department decided to send you. My father was used as a 'trouble shooter' for schools in need of help in rural areas.
It might not have been too bad at primary level but five different secondary schools did nothing for my education. I changed subjects almost as often as I changed shoes. There was no continuity apart from English and mathematics and a science being compulsory. The curriculum changed in English, some topics had already been taught in maths and I missed others completely. Science was not much better. Geography suffered the same problem. History switched from modern to ancient and back again but always with different topics being covered from the ones I needed for the final examinations. I wanted to do a language and no languages were taught in rural areas.
My father was naturally aware of this and powerless to do much about it. I had to catch up where I could - and there have always been gaps in my knowledge.
There have been gaps in friendship too. There was no internet then, no Facebook or MySpace or any other networking site. There was no e-mail. A computer - slower than a modern lap-top - was being installed at the university as I was leaving school. We now have three universities and the students have their own laptops. They maintain their friendships through the 'net, through text messages and a social life that my generation would have found - different.
I never stayed long enough to cement high school friendships - and anyway my father was the school principal. You don't make friends with the 'head's kids'. My brother found the same thing. My two sisters escaped the problem because my father had returned to city appointments by the time they faced that problem.
So, at the meeting, people asked, "Where did you go next?" I tried to explain about the schools and why it had happened but I could see they thought it was all a little odd.
It was the wrong answer of course. Where did I go next? I think I chose a path before the many secondary schools. It was the path that said, "Books and reading. Educate yourself."
I dredged up an obscure fact yesterday as well. It was something that had come from my reading. "How on earth did you know that?" I was asked.
"I think it was something I read when I was doing economic history," I replied. I vaguely remember "economic history". I came across the text-book in a pile of books left behind by a teacher going overseas. It was not taught at the school I was then attending but it was an examinable subject. I read the text book, committed the crib summary at the back to memory and read some more historical novels. (There was a Country Lending Service from the city back then and I took full advantage of it.) My father put my name down to do the examination in Economic History as well because I said I wanted to try.
"You probably won't pass but give it a go if you want to,"he told me. (I passed with a B grade.) It was that path which said, "Books and reading. Educate yourself."
I wonder how the children at school now will answer when someone asks them, "So, where did you go next?" Will they say they educated themselves?

Friday, 29 January 2010

There are lies, damned lies and MySchool

statistics - as put out by the Federal Government's new website. I hope nobody, least of all the schools, take these results too seriously.
Why? Out of curiosity I looked up some schools I know something about. There is one small non-government school not far from here. I would say it is one of the best schools in the district. The discipline is good. The children are busy, productive, creative and as happy as any group of kids can be. Ask them if they like school and you will get an enthusiastic "yes!" There is some excellent creative writing going on. They read a lot. The school expects them to know their number facts etc. The parents are, I gather, pretty happy about the school. Certainly they do plenty to support it.
Surprisingly, the school did not do very well on the MySchool site. It might be said it did rather badly. Why? The answer is simple. They have some 'slow learners'. There are several children in each year who will bring the results down. These kids are struggling, really struggling with school. They still like school. They are doing well, their personal best. Their parents are pleased with their results. The school is small enough and has enough volunteers that they are not holding other children back. They get a lot of individual help - from the volunteers. It is a great scheme. In the public school system it is unlikely that they would be getting the same amount of help. They might get some but not as much. It just could not be done. These kids are never going to do as well as the rest - but they have several kids with well below average ability who are learning to read when it might not have happened at all.
The head of the school flung his hands up in despair. All he and the school's council and parents have worked for has been lost in a mass of statistics. The school is actually doing extremely well.
There is no mention that, at the other end of the scale, two of the kids won secondary scholarships last year. No, it is just those tiny little red bars that says the school is doing substantially below average. It is not true of course but that is the view that is being portrayed to the outside world.
The head of the junior school of another nearby non-government school complained of exactly the same thing. They have one year with - some little red bars. The reason? Much the same. They have five girls they have taken in because the state system was unable to give them all that they required. The school is doing an amazing job. I would be happy to have a child there or at the other little school.
I would be happy enough having a child at two out of five local primary schools - going on the results in the MySchool site. In reality though I would prefer my child to be at the poorest performing of the five. That school has a much better library and a substantially better literacy programme. The discipline is better too. The 'best' school in the district is the one where there was a mini-riot in a classroom the other day. Two parents have moved their children from the school because of bullying.
As for the high schools. Well only year 9 is tested - and that gives no clues at all as to the actual standards achieved by the schools. It tells me nothing about what the school is really like.
All this tells me is how a bunch of kids performed on one day at a particular time - and it does not tell me if they wanted to do it. As one of the teachers pointed out to me, "Can you imagine a bunch of stroppy teenagers who think this is a waste of time even trying to do well?"
I think I'll give the government an "F" on this one.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Our door bell rang

at 8:55 pm. I had been up since 5:00am and my father had been up at 6:00am. I was contemplating bed and a book I need to finish reading. My father was immersed in the autobiography he bought recently. This is not good. Has someone had an accident? Does one of the neighbours need some help?
The woman at the door is someone we have met once before. She has her daughter with her. My father had offered some help with study skills and, being the first day back at school, they think this would be a good time to call - unannounced.
Now I know that there are people who live their lives at night. We do not. I tend to rise early, too early even for me. It means that I can make contact with people in various parts of the world at times which is covenient for them - late afternoon and early evening for the most part. It is a quirk of my job. I have learned to live with it. That does not mean that local people, especially people we do not know well or at all, should assume that I need no sleep at all. My father likes a little more time in bed these days. Why not? He will be 87 at the end of next week. He is doing extremely well but he likes to 'contemplate his eyelids' for a bit after lunch and he definitely does not stay up until midnight.
I would not personally contemplate on calling on anyone before 8:00am - and between 8:00 and 9:00 it needs to be pre-arranged, inevitable or urgent. I say the same for the other end of the day. I would not call on someone after 8:00pm unless it was pre-arranged, inevitable or urgent.
I even resist 'phoning friends after 9:00pm.
I know, for some people this is the beginning - well, perhaps middle, of the day. For me it is the end of the day. I want a bit of time to myself even if it is not for myself. I can see my father feels the same way. We are just not 'night owls'.
Of course we make the visitors welcome. We say and do all the right things. I wonder if it is we who need to adjust and not them.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The childishness of politicians

never ceases to amaze me. I know I should be used to it by now. I am, after all, old. I am old enough to know better.
Politicians are a breed apart. They can never get enough publicity. They are worse than film stars or pop groups. They behave just as badly and often far worse.
Our Beloved Leader of the State refused to open an art exhibition yesterday. Why? His ex-girlfriend was in the audience. It could have been potentially embarrassing.
Now I have problems with this. For starters the event was a public event. Anyone could attend. No doubt there were people there who do not vote for the Beloved Leader's party. Any one of them could have kicked up a fuss. There is, apparently, no evidence to suggest that the ex-girlfriend wishes to have anything to do with him or that she was there to make any sort of fuss. To the contrary. She has made her fuss elsewhere and it is having far reaching consequences for her and not the Beloved Leader.
Then there is the issue that we live in a pretty small place. Encounters of a close kind are to be expected. The residents of our fair city are used to the occasional embarrassing encounter with someone they do not wish to meet. Most of them grit their teeth and move on. They do not make a fuss.
There is also an election coming up. If our Beloved Leader is not prepared to represent all residents of the state then perhaps he should consider leaving politics, making way for someone else?
Of course it was all carefully stage managed. It was carefully designed to try and obtain sympathy for the Beloved Leader. It was a planned 'event' - down to the demand by owner of the gallery that the ex-girlfriend leave.
It was just another cheap publicity stunt.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

I keep wondering why

some Australians are so keen to deny the past. There has been a lot of it around lately. There usually is in the lead up to Australia Day.
Now I confess Australia Day (today) does not excite me. It will be another routine day in our household. I will be getting on with some work. I will try to find time to write more than the blog post. My nephew will surface at some point and mooch on over to the shed to fix something for his mother. It will probably be an ordinary day. I really think we should give up on Australia Day.
What bothers me though are things like some people wanting Australia 'to be a republic', wanting to change the flag. and the insularity of the Honours List.
Australia is already technically a republic. This surprises many people. "No, we are not!" they will yell. They get hot under the collar and claim we are ruled from Great Britain and by Queen Elizabeth. Try and explain the legal reality and they refuse to listen. (For anyone who does want to know Australia is what is known as a 'crowned republic'. It is an entirely independent nation. The head of state is the Governor-General. The Governor-General is chosen by the Prime Minister in consultation with others. As Australia is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations the Governor-General has a dual role and will represent the Head of the Commonwealth (Queen Elizabeth) on the appropriate occasions.)
It is often these same people who say Australia should change the flag. That Union Jack in the corner is dreadful. How can Australians allow themselves to be reminded of the colonial past?
Perhaps it is the very thing that Australians should remind themselves. Keen to remember the convicts and first explorers and to acknowledge the prior indigenous ownership of Australia they want to forget the other history of Australia, indeed they know little about it and are less than interested. They want to change the flag because it screams 'we are a colony' in their eyes. They want to blot out any reminder of the past, ignore history and tell the next generation that there is only the future. Even the present is important only so far as it impacts on the future.
All of this is supposed to help Australia take its place in the world. The current Prime Minister still behaves as if Australia is a major world power. Many of the foreign policy initiatives under his government have been aimed at getting Australia a seat on the Security Council at the United Nations. Even if Australia did (and I hope Australia does not) it would have little or no influence.
When we turn to the Australia Day Honours List it becomes clear why not. No doubt those on the list were worthy recipients. There is the usual sprinkling of businessmen, sportspeople, and 'service to...' both sport and charity with the occasional academic thrown in. (The joint winner of the Nobel now lives in America but gets a gong.) While 'multi-cultural' Australia - a concept designed to emphasise diversity rather than cohesiveness - gets a good look in there is nothing, that I can find, that emphasises or even acknowledges Australia's connection with the world.
"Becoming a republic" will not change that, in fact it will have the opposite effect. Changing the flag will not change it. That too will have the opposite effect. Some Australians seem hell bent on denying the past and ignoring the present so that they can refuse the future. They want the very opposite of what they claim they want.
It is by having a past that you have a future. Australia cannot have a future without having a past.

Monday, 25 January 2010

"It's not all beer and skittles."

There was a Golden Jubilee celebration yesterday for our friend Polly. Polly is a nun. She was celebrating fifty years of being a nun.
I still cannot imagine this. Polly went into the novitiate at eighteen. She made her mind up not to marry, not to have children, not to have the freedom to choose - and she has stuck with it. I have often wondered whether she, and others like her, have ever regretted the choice. Perhaps it would be easier to understand if I was Catholic? I do not know.
Polly had Mass to celebrate of course. It was not a sombre formal affair however. It was not held in a church. There were little formal bits but very little ritual. Her fellow sisters and her extended family actively participated. Her uncle, a retired Archbishop, spoke with humour -and kept it short. The kids behaved perfectly.
When Polly started out she had to wear a habit, had to keep her hair covered. Her meals were taken in silence while one of the nuns read from a religious tome. Polly never went out alone and was permitted visits by family on only rare occasions. How an eighteen year old could handle all of that I do not know.
Polly was not wearing a habit yesterday. I do not know if she owns one, possibly not. One of her fellow nuns was in jeans and most of them were wearing trousers, none of them had their hair covered. They go out alone. They travel abroad. They visit family and friends. Polly takes it in turn to run the Sunday service held on the grounds of the convent where she and others live in single units and small groups alongside lay people.
When I was a child there was a Catholic orphanage not far from the home of my paternal grandparents. We were conscious of it because my grandfather, a staunch Presbyterian and church elder, would regularly drop boxes of fruit on their doorstep. He would ring the bell and then leave. There was no communication between them but they must have known who it was because three of them turned up at his funeral - in the days before it was at all the 'done' thing.
Looking back on that I suspect there was a desire for change then, a desire for communication with the outside world. To shut yourself away is not natural.
On giving her brief thankyou speech to the gathering Polly told us that, early on, her Mother Superior at the time had said rather crossly, "Being a nun is not all beer and skittles you know."
They have no Mother Superior now. Polly said, "It's not all beer and skittles. It is much, much better."
I am sure it is - now.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Sandy went missing yesterday.

By the time his wife rang me at nearly 2pm he had been missing for more than five hours. By then the police were involved.
The problem is that Sandy looks normal. He is forty-two not eighty-two. Eighteen years ago, eleven weeks after their wedding day, Sandy had a seizure, then another seizure and another. They found a tumour and removed it. Sandy survived but he now has the mental age of a three year old. He has profound receptive and expressive aphasia.
Occasionally there will be little bits of behaviour that suggest Sandy has not lost everything. He can, thankfully, go to the toilet alone. He can dress himself - although his wife will put out the clothes he is to put on. He cannot tie shoelaces anymore but they solved that problem with trainers with the velcro straps. He plays with the velcro straps. He will wipe the dishes but he can no longer mow the lawn.
His wife has stuck by him. "I married him for better or worse." They have no children. Her parents-in-law live in the next suburb. Whether they appreciate the problems is questionable.
Her mother is not alive. Her father comes in on Thursdays so that she can go shopping or to the doctor or to other appointments. He retired early to help.
Sandy should, at very least, be in day care but there are no places available. Day care is reserved for those whose families really cannot cope. She is coping. Just.
Yesterday someone left the gate open. Sandy walked out. Given the chance he will wander. He will go and watch the trains. If there is nobody in the little playground near their home he will go and play on the swing - just gently rocking backwards and forwards. They found him once playing in the creek bed that runs through the next suburb. There was not a lot of water in it but Sandy was soaked through. We can only assume he fell in.
Sandy knows me. He calls me "Daisy". He calls my tricycle "Daisy two". Somewhere, in the confusion of his brain, he seems to remember "A bicycle built for two". If you sing it he will nod excitedly and point to my tricycle. When I went to visit them first he got very agitated until I pointed to the seat, pointed to him and indicated that he could ride it. His wife and I stood by the closed gates while he rode it up and down their driveway.
Communication has been the big issue. It is why I became involved in the first place. Sandy has limited communication skills, very limited communication skills. He says about twenty words. He has a communication board and he can use some signs. You have to sign to Sandy. He understands very few words.
This makes searching for him difficult. He looks normal. He will not respond to people calling his name.
His wife wants to know if I can think of anywhere else Sandy might have gone. They have searched the obvious places. I have seen Sandy home on a number of occasions. He might be on the move of course. If he has seen any of the cyclists from the big race he will have stopped to watch. I ask what route they were taking. That's a thought. She passes me over to the policeman who is with her and I explain. I also suggest the underpass at the railway station further up the hill. He likes to sit in that, presumably to hear the train go over his head.
Forty minutes later there is another call. They have found him walking through the underpass. He will not come with them. They are concerned because he is getting agitated. His wife is waiting at home in case he reappears. Will I come up and see if I can make him understand?
I treadle up. Sandy is sitting on the ground rocking backwards and forwards. There are two policemen in one car and three just standing a little distance away. His behaviour suggests he is frightened. I ask them to go further down the hill before I go to talk to him. Yes, I am confident he will not attack me.
He sees me. "Dai-sy."
It seems to me that there is one sure way of getting him home safely. He must be thirsty by now.
"Sandy," I sign, "You - me - house. You drink. "
We start down the hill.
"My place," I tell one of the policemen. He nods.
Sandy and I go in silence. He holds on to the basket at the back. It is seven long blocks to where I live. The police car crawls some distance behind us. We get to my place. Dad is out. I take Sandy inside and give him a can of lemonade with a straw. He goes outside to drink it. I offer drinks to the two policemen. They accept cold water. They have 'phoned his wife. She will come and get him.
Sandy finishes the lemonade and rides my tricycle around and around in small circles leaving confused tracks all over the lawn. He is making a noise. The rest of us look at one another. Sandy is trying to sing. One word is almost clear, "Dai-sy."

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Natural authority

is a wonderful thing to have.
There were two little darlings, around about four and six - old enough to know better - running up and down the aisles of the supermarket yesterday. Their mother, apparently oblivious to their squealing, was standing at one end of the aisle chatting to a friend. Other people were frowning and someone went so far as to say, "Don't do that." They took no notice. They knocked down some biscuits from a display in the aisle and did not appear to notice.
There was a gentleman pushing a trolley ahead of me. We had just turned the corner in time to observe all this. He stopped. They stopped as well.
"That is enough."
The words were quietly spoken. The two little darlings looked at him. He looked back.
"Now pick those up."
They stared at him and then, slowly, picked the biscuits up and put them back.
Finished, they slunk off back to their mother with nervous, backward glances.
A little later he joined the queue behind me. We exchanged smiles. I comment positively on his intervention.
"Thirty-eight years in the army taught me something."
I wonder what rank he attained.

Friday, 22 January 2010

I have been trying to explain

"the blog thing" to my father. My father loves reading but he is not happy writing. Part of this has to do with the fact that he finds the physical act of writing a chore. His writing is close to illegible. I do not know who taught him to write but they did not do a good job. He grips his writing instrument as if it is about to run from him and laboriously forms the letters. He still writes a flat topped "8" - and one of my nephews once asked what it was.
My father's method of typing is the Columbus method - discover and land. That does not hasten the process of putting words on paper.
Then there are the words themselves. He uses too many. He will write something out and show me. I will say, "Why didn't you just say...?" Sometimes he will say, "I want to write to...about...." I will stand there and dictate it.
My father has a degree in English. He has an excellent vocabulary. He still reads widely and on all manner of subjects - after all he will be 'only 87' in a couple of weeks. That is much too young to stop learning. It is just the act of writing that seems to bother him.
I think it may be a generational thing. People wrote more in the past. He thinks things should be long. The idea of writing a diary or a blog is just not his "thing". I tell him it does not matter. He does not need to do it. He still wants to know why I want to do it. I tell him it is good discipline. If, as sometimes, I do not get anything else worthwhile written then I will have written something. I will not be putting in fancy photographs. I have still not found out how to put in the little links you can just double click on and get to the right address on the internet. I do not know how to turn the screen blue and the writing red. I sometimes wonder what to say but I will say something.
It does not matter if nobody reads it - but the comments encourage me to continue. I am not sure I want to turn the writing red. It does not matter. It does not matter. I am making myself use words. It's the 'blog thing' and it is the best explanation I have.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Is it sporting

for politicians to use sports events to promote themselves? I think not but they will do it anyway. That is why we have our Beloved Leader Rudd and our Beloved State Leader Rann appearing all over the paper with the Tour Down Under Cycling mob in this morning's paper.
It led me to wonder about the sports people involved. What if they do not want to appear to with a politician - of any flavour? Are they given a choice?
I rather doubt this. I suspect that the top sportsmen and sportswomen are told by their minders that there will be a photo shoot and that is it. They have to grit their teeth and meet another pollie who tells them how wonderful they are - but with the expectation that they will return the favour ten times over.
Sport at this level is really big business by another name. There is money to be made from sponsorship deals. We all know that. The obscene amounts paid to the small number of people at the top are excused on the grounds that these people are (a) at the top of their class and (b) under a lot of pressure to perform and (c) they will only be there for a few years. We should also perhaps add (d) they will have sold their souls to one devil or another.
Sport barely rates a mention in this house. I have a passing interest in cricket. The psychology of the game interests me. Football bores me to tears. I have no idea how to play golf or tennis. The giant school sports day they call the "Olympic Games" is an excuse to turn the television set off for the duration and read. It is riddled with drug taking and corruption. There is a logical limit to the breaking of world records.
I see no point in pumping human beings full of performance enhancing drugs and turning them into something they were never intended to be just so that couch potatoes can get an adrenalin fix. I would rather those who made shoes and balls employed adults and used their profits to provide shoes for those who have none. It won't happen.
I look at the smug faces of our Beloved Leaders. I am thankful I am not a sportsperson of any sort. I do not have to meet a Beloved Leader. I do not have to have my photograph taken. I do not have to be polite through gritted teeth and a pretence of a smile.
Yes, the money would be nice but I won't have sold my soul to a politician of any brand.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

"Look, he is actually buying a book!"

The shrill whisper came from behind me and I know Simon heard them too. I was in the city with my father yesterday morning. We had both been given book vouchers for Christmas and decided it was time to spend them as I had to be in the city anyway.
Simon was in the bookshop too. I have known Simon since he was a gap-toothed kid. I taught Simon to read. According to everyone else at the time Simon, like Peter before him, should not have been able to learn to read. Simon was supposed to be profoundly intellectually retarded. He was an apparently floppy kid who could not even hold his head up. He looked uncomfortable in a wheelchair that was obviously too big. Nobody seemed terribly bothered. He was just another of those drooling idiot kids they had to deal with.
I took along a couple cushions and shoved one each side of him. That helped a bit. I took along another one and shoved it down the back. That helped a bit more. He had more control over his head once his spine was being held more or less in place. His speech then improved to a point where, although very difficult to understand, could be understood by those who knew him. We quickly discovered that he knew far more than anyone had realised. They bothered about his seating after that.
I went through much the same process with Simon as I did with Peter but speech - however bad - helped. He was faster at some things and slower at others. He was not too keen on learning any arithmetic but he did want to learn to read. When his father realised what was going on he worked with me and then, when I left, he took over. Simon was reading by then. We had no idea how far he would go and his father must have put in hundreds of hours working on the reading itself and the practical problems of a page turner that (a) worked and (b) Simon could control himself.
It all paid off in the end. Simon is able to read and read well. He reads a lot. Book vouchers are the present of choice.
His carer had dropped him off just as I arrived. Simon sailed in confidently, expertly weaving his electric wheelchair through the customers. There is a second floor to this shop so he stopped by the lift and waited until the pre-arranged member of staff was free. I chatted to him. He is spending his Christmas money as well. There are a couple of books he has been reading about and thinks he might be interested in. The staff member arrives so I leave them to it. They are apparently old friends.
A little later I see him with three books laid out in front of him. He will have that one and that one he indicates with his head and a wide smile. They go on his wheelchair tray. If I will see him down in the lift he will cruise the top floor for a little longer. He can read the titles. If there is anything that really catches his interest he can ask me for help.
I select a book. My father selects a book. We all go down together. Simon goes into the queue ahead of us. He has his two vouchers ready. The shrill whisper makes him tense but he manages - just - to slide the two vouchers across for the assistant to take. Transaction complete he moves on. I take his place. My father takes my place.
Simon waits for us. He is looking down at one of the books he has chosen. It is the same book as my father has chosen. It is a biography of Charles Kingsford-Smith, the aviator. I have not looked at it but it must amount to at least 600 pages. The two of them grin at each other. So what if people make comments? Both of them are flying.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Haiti needs an army

There was apparently a minor riot this morning because someone falsely reported that there was water available at a certain point. They lack food, water, medicine, shelter, the equipment to move the rubble. There are supplies at the airport and out at sea and there is no way to get them safely to those who need them most.

Haiti has what is left of a government meeting in a police station that is barely standing. Communication is fractured. Effective decisions cannot be made because they do not know what is out there. They do their best. Their best is not going to be good enough in this situation. It is not their fault. They were already trying to govern a country that was so corrupt and poverty stricken and violent it was almost ungovernable. Haiti needs an army with guns to restore order.

But, in between, there are small pockets of hope. A twelve year old girl arrived at the makeshift hospital Tom is working in. She had a new born baby in her arms. She had delivered the baby. The mother had died so she had brought the baby to the hospital. Did she know the mother's name? No, the mother was a complete stranger. The girl herself is bloody and bruised. She may still need to have part of her foot amputated. They found some milk somewhere for the baby and she sat on the floor and fed it. It is one small hope for the future.

Reasoning with bullies

is apparently the latest fashion in handling the problem of bullying in schools. The idea is that you do not punish the bully but draw them to one side and gently explain to them the error of their ways. You then ask them for a promise not to do it again. This is said to work well. Perhaps.
I am not sure where the idea came from, how the so-called research was conducted or why the results are considered to be so good. It was all reported in this morning's paper. As usual with such reports there is no data attached, just vague remarks about 'research'.
It would be delightful if such an approach actually worked. We could stamp out bullying in schools and, no doubt, later in life as well. If it was that easy we would have done it years ago.
There are some small problems attached to all this. The first of these is that most childhood bullying never gets to adult ears. The second is that adults often see bullying as something else. Yes, the behaviour may be unacceptable but it is not seen as bullying. Third, if you get one sort of bullying behaviour to cease it will often be replaced by another. Fourth...well I could go on but I will not. It is too depressing.
There are some groups of children who are more prone to being bullied than others. There are the obvious groups, kids who are overweight, kids who are already physically neglected, kids having problems with schoolwork etc etc. Then there is the "mainstreamed" kid with the disability. "Oh, he's fitting in so well." "The other kids are great about including him in everything." "She was invited to a birthday party last week - just like all the other girls in the class." "The other girls actually want her to join in with them at lunch times."
I hear these bright, positive comments from parents and teachers over and over again. They may be true - sometimes. All too often they are not. There is, according to these "well adjusted mainstreamed children", subtle bullying going on all the time. They have simply learned to accept it, accept their lot. They are not happy but they hide it. "Don't tell Mum and Dad!"
They are as frightened of the reaction by their parents as they are of the bullies. They believe they will not be believed. If they are believed they have to face the hurt, bewilderment and embarrassment of their parents. Some of them will then be bullied by their parents because they have not told, have not stood up to the bullying, have brought yet another sense of failure on their parents.
The reality is that Jack is not fitting in well. He is included under sufferance because the teacher is watching. Jill was included in the birthday party at the insistence of a parent or 'invited' because the teacher suggests it. "They all go and play footy at lunch. They say just to stand there and watch the goal posts." "Mrs X is standing there so that makes them say I can come"Jane said I only got asked because her Mum said she had to ask me." "They say I can sit with them but I have to sit there and not say anything." School is hell on earth for some of them and they say nothing at all.
Talking to the bullies and making them promise to change their ways will not work. They know they are not doing what adults expect of them but they cannot see why they should cease playing football or adjust the activities at their birthday party to fit in the kid who does not fit in. They do not even see it as bullying when they threaten, "Tell them you don't want to come to my party or we will never talk to you again."
As adults they are simply going to ignore people who do not fit in with their interests and activities.
The article in the paper was timely. I spent most of yesterday afternoon talking to a kid who is about to make the transition from primary to secondary school. She is going to be attending a school which has a poor reputation for handling these things. Her parents believe she is well adjusted, that she has friends, that she will cope. The reality is that none of her 'friends' have invited her to their homes during the holiday period. They have not accepted invitations to her place. Her mother excuses it all by saying that "everyone is so busy these days and so many parents work". She is a 'nice' kid. She is a good student, polite and independent. If anyone is going to "mainstream" well she should but the bullies are out. She is different. She needs to be reminded of this. They are not going to slow down so she can join in.
We talked about coping strategies. We both know that reasoning with bullies is not going to work.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

"I am standing here

because there is nowhere to sit..." writes my friend Tom. He's a doctor. He flew out on Wednesday morning. Destination? Haiti.
He has done Aceh for the Boxing Day Tsunami, Pakistan, the Thai-Burma border and more. Tom is a kid's doctor, a bachelor, the one who wears the socks with frogs or smiley faces or trains running around them. If there is a disaster somewhere Tom is one of the people they want. Tom is one of the "she'll be right mate" brigade. Tom is one of those people who will come up with a creative solution based on the materials to hand.
I knew Tom would be going before he told me. When he left a message in the middle of the afternoon asking for help I had already started working on what I knew he would want. I cannot mind read but I knew he would need what other people would need. There's a "smiley face" pain board and a board with pictures of body parts and a family relationship board and some more besides. I do not have to tell Tom how to use them. He is an expert.
He left with as many supplies as he could carry - some for himself so he can sustain himself and function in the heat, some so that he can do as much as he can. He is "on leave" again. His colleagues will cover for him. Tom will work long days. He will work with other people but he will also, in a sense, work alone. He is happiest around kids. They are happier when he is around.
Unless he needs something else from me I will not hear from Tom again until he leaves Haiti. It could be quite a while.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

There is the law and then there is

The current Premier of South Australia likes to regard himself as "tough on law and order". To that end he and his colleagues enacted what is commonly called "the bikie legislation". This is legislation designed to restrict contact between and with members of motorcycle gangs. It is meant to curb the criminal activities of groups like the "Hell's Angels" and the "Finks" and other similar groups.
I have no problem with curbing criminal activities but I do have a problem with the legislation.
The legislation has been written in such a way that, potentially, anyone who has contact with a member of a motorcycle gang is breaking the law.
Now obviously there have to be exceptions. Right? Wrong. I do not know what happens when a bikie goes into a bank or needs to see a doctor or a dentist or goes to work. Presumably the law covers such things.
Yesterday morning there were media reports of a STAR force invasion of the Women and Children's Hospital and the father of a new born baby was removed. According to media reports he had done nothing wrong and there was no warrant out for his arrest but he has a violent criminal history and so they went in with guns and removed him. No doubt there is more to the story but, even allowing for that, it does seem a little excessive.
What happened to me yesterday was also excessive. I was about to go into the library when I was stopped by a large, rough looking character - beard, tattoos, earrings and a provocative logo on his t-shirt. Of all things he wanted to know where the little memorial garden was. This is a "scented" garden with braille labels in honour of the local war service men and women. "I never been out here before but me Dad always said to have a gander because of his mate". Fair enough.
I did what I thought was the right thing and I took him around to the other side of the library and showed him where it was. Turns out it was the wrong thing.
I went back to lock my tricycle up at the library and, as I was doing so, I found myself confronted by a couple of cops. They have been sitting in a patrol car not far away. They accuse me of illegal contact.
With gritted teeth I explain politely that I had shown him where the garden was. That, they tell me, is beside the point. I should not speak to such people. They are telling me this for my own safety.
I am not an idiot. There were plenty of people going in and out of the library and the service station next door. I stayed on my tricycle and rode around - and I am hardly an attractive young kitten in provocatively short shorts and a skimpy top.
It is clear they have nothing better to do with their time. I suspect they are supposed to be doing something they do not want to do. It is much easier to have a go at me.
"You know him do you?" I ask.
No, they do not know him. That is not the point. It is illegal to make contact with members of motor-cycle gang members and they are there to enforce the law.
I cannot resist asking, "If you do not know him how do you know he is the member of a motor-cycle gang?"
They have no answer to that. I walk into the library. I definitely have a problem with this legislation.

Friday, 15 January 2010

"I think I need a new one,"

my father tells me. He is standing there with a singlet in his hand. The singlet now has a large hole in it. I had noticed a very thin point when I was hanging the washing out.
"Why do you wear a singlet in such hot weather?" I ask him. It is not the first time I have asked this question.
He shrugs. He has always worn singlets. He wore singlets to bed as a child. Why? I do not know. My mother apparently managed to break him of that habit in early marriage. He still wears singlets under shirts.
I can understand the need for the extra layer in winter but not in summer. Putting a singlet on is habit. He does not think about clothes. His wardrobe is testament to this. He keeps clothes until they fall apart at the seams. Can they be mended? Patched? Altered? Why throw out something that is 'perfectly all right' because it is 'not that old'?
I hold up a pair of grey trousers to the light and show him they are so thin that you can see straight through them. "These are house trousers. You wear that pair when you go out." It seems he cannot see the difference. "They both look the same to me." Aagghhh!
The truth of course is that he can see a difference - when it is pointed out. He just hates spending money on clothes. He hates that sort of shopping. It is to be avoided wherever possible.
I do not like it myself but I will bow to the inevitable. I will take Ms Whirlwind with me for her school supplies. She needs new school shoes. Her father could do it but she prefers it when I go instead. He is like my father. Shopping is to be avoided wherever possible.
There is however one thing in my father's wardrobe that neither of us will part with. It is old, older than I am. My grandfather made it for my father before my father even married. It still fits. It looks old but it is in remarkable shape. It is his Harris Tweed jacket, genuine handwoven tweed from a crofter's cottage on the other side of the world. It is worn along the edges and there are leather patches on the elbows. One genuine leather button is just slightly lighter than the rest. I keep meaning to give it a little shoe polish.
Now if that had a hole in it....

Thursday, 14 January 2010

I am surfacing for air

after having taken a deep dive into the world of earthquakes and French creole and frantic demands for things to be done not right now but before I even know they need to be done. The news about the earthquake in Haiti came through even before it hit the headlines here. An aid worker already in Haiti managed to get a message out, "XXL E BP" (major earthquake - be prepared.)
As always I cannot fully imagine the devastation. I do not want to know. I am not sure I could handle it. Disaster scenes are war zones. If you want to help you have to switch one part of your mind off and concentrate on what you can do. I think that is how those who go into help cope. You have to have priorities. If it is well done it will still be chaos but organised chaos. It if it is not well done it will a further catastrophe. Politics and poverty will get in the way. That is particularly true of Haiti.
So, okay we are getting there. I am always astounded by the micro-aid workers that drop everything and fly out, sometimes within hours of a disaster. They keep a bag packed. They have family and colleagues organised. Their work lets them go. They get the little things done.
It is the little things that get the big things done.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

It was a freak accident

that caused the death of someone in the same year at university as my youngest nephew. She was travelling home along one of Adelaide's gum tree lined roads when a large branch fell on her car and caused her to lose control. It was an accident. An accident.
My nephew did not know the girl well but it has still, quite naturally, had an impact on him. "It was not like she was speeding or doing something stupid!" Even if that had been the case he would have been upset but this, somehow, makes it even harder.
He, and his brother, have been brought up to believe that the place to get speed thrills is on the go-kart track (which is why their parents took them there in the first place) and that you do not do "stupid" on the roads. There is no reason to believe that they believe otherwise.
It seems other people have not been brought up that way. There were five deaths on our roads yesterday. The weather was a contributing factor. After two days of extreme heat - and a good many very hot days before that - it had cooled down slightly. We had a shower of rain. The roads were suddenly slick. People were tired because they had not slept well in the heat. The combination was a catastrophe. A mother, her two young daughters and a young friend lost their lives in an accident that put two other people in hospital. A young man hit a tree at high speed. I do not know if the accidents could have been avoided but other accidents could certainly have been avoided.
These were accidents in which people were injured. Some of them will recover and carry on with their lives without apparent lasting injury. Others will never fully recover. These road accident statistics are the statstics we do not hear about. They are the statistics that do not get mentioned in the media.
Yesterday I was acutely aware of all that and of my nephew's distress because I had a visit from the parents of a young man who had an accident. He was drinking. He was speeding. He has caused the death of a friend. He has injuries from which he will never fully recover. His parents are in a state of despair. Their son is looking at a lengthy custodial sentence in a secure hospital ward. He is there now and he will, the case now having been concluded, be there for years.
"No **** my fault!" is all he will say via the communication board I provided almost three years ago. The evidence says otherwise.
It is a life sentence for the family of his friend. It is a life sentence for his family. It is a life sentence for him. The worst thing is that it was not an accident.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

There was a koala

drinking from the bird bath when I went out this morning. They are shy creatures so I stopped still and let him/her (difficult to tell when you can only see the rear end) finish drinking. Koalas do not drink a lot. They rely largely on the moisture from gum leaves but the weather has been dry. They have been coming down from the hills behind us looking for water. I have heard them in the night. They make a strange noise, a sort of squealing-grunt if that makes sense.
This one was small, probably quite young. This bird bath is a wide, flat glazed dish made by my uncle in the days when he was a potter. It is just the right height for a young koala, no danger of toppling in and being unable to get out. Koalas cannot swim.
He finished his drink and scampered off across the street. It is likely that he is currently living in a gum tree at the back of the houses opposite ours.
As soon as he had gone the birds came back. We have been filling both the bird baths twice a day for their benefit. Water play is a favourite activity at the beginning and end of a hot day. In between they seem to be too busy foraging. We have the usual blackbirds and pigeons and sparrows but we also have magpies, a couple of kookaburras, some brilliantly coloured mountain lorikeets and some honey eaters. Yesterday a family of swallows arrived en route to somewhere. All of them seem to enjoy diving into the available water with a splash. I watched the young swallows being taught how to do this. The water flies out of the dish. It dislodges insects around it. These are quickly caught as food. There was a lot of chatter, a little squabbling - soon sorted by one of the magpies. He sat on the edge of the dish looking like a bewigged and gowned judge and scolded everyone.
The cats have no hope here. They get dive bombed by the birds. "It's our water! Find your own water!"
I put out another bowl of water for the two visiting cats. Studiously ignoring each other they drink from opposite sides of the bowl. I wonder what they are thinking.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Being able to prowl

into someone else's blog is a strange experience. I do not mind other people prowling in to visit my blog. That is what it is there for. Mind you, it was hard to actually get the courage up to start a blog. Would anyone else actually read it? Would I feel like an idiot writing a blog?
It has taught me a lot. I found other blogs. They are so varied and so interesting. I have to limit myself or I would not work, would not write.
But, once in a while, someone like Nicola Morgan or Jane Smith will throw a birthday party or a pitch party and I feel I have an excuse to go prowling into other people's blogs. I see little snippets of their lives and, from those clever enough to do it, there are pictures so I can see what they actually look like. I wish Nicola had shown us a picture of her pink wellies!
And it reminded me of another oddity in life that I have been pondering, the right to enter other people's property - or not.
Yes, I know about trespassing and invitee status and a few other legal niceities but it is the psychology that interests me. If I have been asked to water plants or feed a cat while someone is away then I feel comfortable about visiting their territory. I will open their letterbox, remove their mail, use a key to enter their house and so on -because I have been requested to do so. Once they are home again I hesitate to enter their property at all and would not dream of doing any of those things.
I wonder how other people can canvass for charity, political parties, action groups, their religion or a host of other things. How can they enter a stranger's property when I find it hard to enter the property of those I know? Is it perhaps easier to enter a stranger's property? I could not do it but perhaps it is easier for them? What is it that makes them feel they have the right to do it?Do they really feel comfortable?
Perhaps it is just simply that most people have more confidence than cowardice? I am a coward.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

8001 letters - and then some more

if you are visiting from Nicola Morgan's birthday blog party later today, welcome to my blog. If you want to know who the "cat" from "downunder" is then here is a paw print. (I would really appreciate if you left a paw print in the comments so I can come and 'meet' you too.)

I once wrote more than 8000 letters about one idea. It was madness, insanity, determination and stupidity. It wrecked any chance I had of a career but, I hope, it made a difference. Nicola, should you come to visit, this is not witty or wise but it is about writing, reading and communicating. Let me start though at the beginning.

We have trouble fitting all the books into our house. The interior design feature is, quite simply, books and more books. Our shelves are double and even treble stacked. I have been surrounded by books from the day I was born. I grew up believing reading was important, very important. I grew up believing that being able to communicate was important too, even more important than reading. Reading is just one part of the complex process of communication. Writing is another.

I trained as a teacher - but it had to be in "special education" because, as someone with a disability myself, I was considered unfit for the mainstream classroom. In order to pay my way at teacher training college I worked as a 'junior housemistress' at a boarding school for girls - board and lodging in return for the usual duties. I also worked at a school for deaf and blind children on my day off - pocket money to pay my day to day expenses in college. This was all rather a long time ago - before things like "equal opportunity" legislation.

I taught a class of 18 profoundly intellectually and physically disabled children before I did a specialised year overseas - in London. I paid my way by teaching English as a Second Language. I had to leave hurriedly at the end of the academic year without having seen Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Greenwich or Kew Gardens. I returned to Australia with extreme reluctance - to discover that (a) my mother had quite deliberately lied when she told me my father was ill and I was needed at home and (b) special education was being wound back as children were being placed in the mainstream as a cost-saving measure - dressed up as the better social and educational option. My dream of living and working in the UK was gone for ever.

I stuck it out in schools another four years, working with children who had profound communication impairments. I tried to introduce Blissymbols and communication boards into schools only to be blocked by those who thought it was all a waste of time. I also acted as head of the school I was based at on the headmaster's all too frequent days off. The school was due to close. I was told there was no teaching job for me. I spent a year in the central office and then there was no job at all.

At that point I announced my intention of going back to university. I had always wanted to do a degree. My mother was opposed, my father supportive. I reapplied to do the psychology course I had wanted to do four years previously. Once accepted into the course I had to rebuild a base of students to keep me housed and fed while I went to lectures, wrote essays and did all the work that students do. I did not have much time for student life.

There was talk around then about an International Year for Disabled Persons. I was already involved in the advance planning for that. My feeling however was that, important though the issues were, we were starting in the wrong place. People needed to be able to communicate. How can you complain if you cannot communicate? How can you get the services you need? It was also becoming increasingly obvious that many 'ordinary' people were just as badly disabled by a lack of ability to communicate. They needed to be able to read, to write, to comprehend in order to speak up for themselves.

I thought we needed another sort of International Year, something that would touch everyone.

My original idea was that we should have an International Year of Human Communication. I talked endlessly to people about it. My acquaintances must have been tired to death of the topic. I tried to think out a strategy to work on it. Who would support it? I wrote back to a friend in Australia, the poet Judith Wright. "Good idea" she wrote back, "Now go ahead and do something about it. You can do it." Judith was profoundly deaf by then. She added a list of people she thought I should talk to. They were Big Names. "Tell them I told you to make contact." Yes Judith. I would not have dared to contradict you.

It was at that point I began to write letters. This was March 1977. I was finishing the preliminary year that would lead to a Masters - or so I thought. I kept on writing letters. The responses were not encouraging. "International Years are expensive." "The idea needs a more specific focus". "Literacy has cultural implications you do not understand." A lot of people did not reply but I kept writing letters. I set myself a goal of two letters each morning and two letters each evening. I researched so I could individualise each letter, told the recipient something positive about themselves and saying that was the reason I was writing. Flattery and corruption will get you somewhere in the end.

After the first four months someone who worked for MI5 (not that I knew that then) gave me some good advice. From then on I asked people not to write to the UN itself but to the UN representative of their country. Some of them wrote to me as well. They were often pro-forma replies but little things kept me going, like a handwritten letter from a Mr Rabin, Minister of Education in Israel, a man later destined to become Prime Minister. Another letter, in Spanish, from Pablo Neruda who then told me (in English) that I had better learn some Spanish if I wanted to succeed! I had letters translated into other languages, Arabic, Russian, French, Korean, Japanese and more. My students came to learn it was part of the price for learning English from me. I was getting enough to eat and just covering the cost of my room. It was enough. It had to be enough.

I wrote a doctorate and kept on teaching English to support myself, writing letters without stop. The postage and the typewriter ribbons, paper and envelopes kept me poor, very poor. I had to return to Australia in the middle of the letter writing which only made it harder. I would have given anything at that point to stay in London because there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon then. Some very powerful people were starting to look interested - but not interested in the way which would get me a job and the right to stay in the UK. John Major sent me to talk to the Ministry of Education about the idea - but not about bending the rules so I could stay in the UK.

Back in Australia there was nothing, not even the hope of a job. I had been away too long. Special education no longer existed as a separate entity. The Australian and State Public Service organisations told me I was unemployable and made sure the private sector knew it - I was considered to have too many ideas and it was thought I would prove disruptive. Perhaps it was true. I came close to giving up.

I went back to university to do another degree - in Law. Again I supported myself by teaching English. I co-supervised some degrees, concentrating on the language use in them. I had also started to write "communication boards", boards designed to allow micro-aid workers to communicate with local people in disaster and emergency situations when an interpreter was not available. It is what I still do and, believe me, I need the law degree to do it.

There was still no time for myself. I was still writing letters about the international year. One day I was the subject of an editorial in a major newspaper - after a letter to the editor. There was another spike of interest. Then, quite suddenly, there was a 'phone call from my contact inside the UN. It was 9 July 1987. He was 'phoning to let me know that there had been a resolution of the Economic and Social Council the day before; they were designating 1990 as International Literacy Year. I had written more than 8000 letters by then.

I should have felt good. I did not. I felt drained. I thought we had barely started on the real work. I put in my application to head the ILY Secretariat in Australia and did not even get called for interview. The Prime Minister of the day had apparently intervened. I was not to be given the job. As a person with a disability I was considered "unsuitable" to be an ambassador for my country. That was it. The year went ahead officially without me. That hurt.

But there were little things, many little things, that I was indirectly involved in that year. There were thousands of small projects that made a local difference. Of course we do not have universal literacy but we have literacy where there was none before. That did feel good.

I resolved to be less involved this year. I want to write too. I do not want to write more letters. I do not want to write about my experiences. It is all out there somewhere. Would I do it again? I do not know. Other people can get on with it.

I want to write books for people to read.

We will not buy straight bananas?

I always wondered at the apparently dotty EU regulations in relation to the size and shape of fruit and vegetables but it seems that things are little better here. We will not buy straight bananas. Bananas must have a certain curve. Bananas must be a certain size. I was unaware of this until the news reader informed me of the situation last night.
It seems the situation is dire. Thousands of tons of perfectly edible food has to be discarded because it is the wrong shape and the wrong size. At present it just rots. Some of it is then returned to the soil as fertiliser but much of it is simply wasted.
The supermarkets insist that this is because customers will not buy bananas that are too big or too small or straight or....I do not know what else.
I have bought big bananas, small bananas and straight bananas. I buy them from the local greengrocer. He does not seem to know about the need for bananas to be bent. He just buys bananas he believes people will buy. He is still in the business of being a greengrocer but perhaps it is other items that keep him in business. Mind you there are the locally grown tomatoes that come in all shapes and sizes and the pears from the Adelaide Hills that are sometimes short and squat and sometimes long and slender. They taste like tomatoes and pears - in fact more like tomatoes and pears than some of the 'laid out individually in a box' fruit in the supermarket.
But, I suppose the supermarkets are right. They buy tons more than the greengrocer does. They line everything up with regimental precision and label things "Product of Australia" - sometimes - and "Australian owned". The greengrocer labels things "local grower", "Adelaide Hills", "River Murray", "South Coast" (we know what that means here) or Queensland or Victoria. There is a certain amount of regimental precision for the interstate items but a lot of the local items are just tidy instead. It's a tidy shop, a clean shop, a colourful, cheerful shop. I like it. I like the people who work there. We know each other by name.
I will occasionally and guiltily by fruit or vegetables in the supermarket. I use the locally owned supermarket when I can. I rarely venture into the bigger, darker more impersonal one which is one of the duopoly which dominates the Australian market and keeps grocery prices artificially high. You can buy just about anything at anytime in there but it might well have come from anywhere. "Product of Australia" should mean grown in Australia but it might have come, quite unnecessarily, from the other side of the country. "Australian owned" might well mean grown in the United States, Peru or China. It is like their "Made in Australia from local and imported products". You can be certain most of the ingredients have a heavy carbon footprint.
It may be however that this is the least of my problems. I passed the other supermarket yesterday. There was a display of ready to bake Hot Cross Buns "because people want them in January". They are imported from the United States.
I will wait until Good Friday and make our own...and go on buying bananas from the greengrocer.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Learning to share

is one of the hard lessons of childhood. Piagetian theory suggests that children are pretty much ego-centric until they reach about twelve years of age. I have news for Herr Piaget. Many adults do not like to share either. They are still ego-centric.
Australia has a water problem. I know. I live in the driest state of the driest continent on planet Earth. Strangely there have recently been floods over a large area of New South Wales. There should be water coming into South Australia along the River Murray. If nature was permitted to take its course then there would be a flow through to the Coorong and even out to sea. It will not happen. The Coorong will continue to dry up. The Lower Lakes will continue to dry up. The mouth of the river will silt up.
New South Wales will not share water. They are not required to share it yet. They have not reached their full storage allocation. If they do then the Victorians will want their allocation next. South Australia will be last. We are not likely to see any. It matters not one bit that the citrus trees and other crops along the Murray are dying. Of course there will be further complaints when certain commodities are in short supply and the price of some fruit and vegetables rises.
It would take a national referendum to change any of this. Under our Constitution it is the states which have responsibility for the water within their boundaries. To change that and give our Federal (national) government control we would need a majority of people in a majority of the states to vote in favour of change. They will not. Why would anyone want to give up water? Why give up control over one of the most precious commodities on Earth? Wars may well be fought over water rights in the future.
My father is trying to keep our garden alive - nothing more. He does not waste water. He waters those things that need water and uses only as much water as he judges they need. We have more rainwater storage than most Adelaide properties. I fill containers, place them on the little wheeled cart. He pushes them to the trees we are trying to save. I save the washing water and put it on the lawn to keep the roots alive although the top is almost crisp in places. That saved the lawn last year and, according to the man who mows the lawn, it will save the lawn this year if we keep it up.
We put out water for the neighbourhood cats in an old icecream container, for the lizards in a large but shallow pottery saucer, for the birds in the hanging containers they use as baths. A visitor to our home is horrified by this. "Why waste water?" they asked. My father and I looked at each other. It is not a waste of water. We are simply trying to share. I am not sure we are succeeding very well.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

I wonder whether Keats

would still have been considered a great Romantic poet if he had lived to 75 rather than a mere 25.
We went to see Jane Campion's "Bright Star" last night. The complex we went to has several small theatres. One of the other theatres was showing some extra screenings of "Finding Beethoven" which led to talk of "Finding Mozart" and then the "die young at the apparent height of your powers for certain immortality" question.
I do wonder. Did Keats really write that well? Is it because he died young that he is considered so great? How much does the tragedy of his life influence our perception and understanding of his poetry? What was he really like? Precocious? No. What is it?
We saw Campion's understanding of him on screen - viewed from our own understanding, background and experiences. I know I saw it differently from my father who is, after all, male and much older, and from my aunt who is female and not much older than I am but a scientist rather than an artist. All of us however shared the wondering at how much the fact that Keats died so young was an influence. It is the same with Mozart, although he was not quite so young. He has a tragic life. He (apparently) composes very early. (I still wonder how much input others had into his childhood efforts.) He dies young. He must be a genius. Would Keats and Mozart have burnt out if they had lived a great deal longer? Yes, almost certainly. I wonder how we would have seen them then.
I am more inclined to believe genius of Beethoven because he was not getting the most essential feedback of all for a composer -auditory feedback. He was angry and frustrated - and rightly so. He was driven, unable to stop writing. He was probably an appalling person to be around but his life must have been hell on earth. For me his music has a complexity that Mozart lacks. Is it maturity or is it something else? I know others will disagree and even accuse me of sacrilege.
Keats is a Mozart of words for me but not a Beethoven. It is a matter of taste.
But the film was worthy of attention. I wonder whether a male could have directed it with the same sensitivity. Perhaps. Perhaps not. The question of a "tragic and die young life" remains.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

"Why do the wheels stay on the rails?"

There was a small boy on the train. He was one of those delightful children who ask endless questions - and really want to know the answers.
I suspect he was about four, five at the most. Before we left the city station he had a good long look at my tricycle. Almost before I had it in the right position in the proper place he was out of his seat next to the bicycle space to have a look at it. "Why does it have three wheels?" "Does it have brakes?" "And gears?" "Can you go fast on it?" and "Can I ring the bell?" among other questions. He sat on it but, fortunately, could not reach the pedals. If he had been able to reach the pedals we probably would have had to pick him up from the far end of the platform - rather a long distance away.
When we finally set off he is asking more questions, "Why does this one go here?", "Where is that one going?" "How do they know where each one goes?" and then, as we come out into the daylight of the railway yard and he can see all the tracks, "Why do the wheels stay on the rails?"
and more and more questions. His mother cannot answer them and does not pretend to know.
I do not know the answers to all of them either.
Then diagonally opposite in another seat an elderly man stops reading a document, folds it and puts it away. He looks across and says quietly,
"May I help? I used to work for the railways."
He shifts across into a seat next to the small boy and starts to answer all his questions all over again.
The mother talks to me. It is the first time they have been on a train. The ride is an adventure. They are going "all the way" which means to the Belair station in the hills. There will be two tunnels and an interesting cutting as well as the stops and starts at stations. "Why does the train stop if nobody comes or gets off?" "Can it go faster than a car?" "How fast can it go?"
When we reach my station, which is a changeover point for the single track working, they have to wait for the down train and I hear the elderly man explaining why this happens. Then he says, "When we get to Belair would you like me to ask the driver if you can have a look in the cabin?"
There was the silence of suppressed excitement as I left the train. I wonder how long it lasted.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Supermarkets can be dangerous

for me, at least the local supermarket is. All I wanted was milk. I thought I could get in and out fairly quickly before it got too warm and before anyone I knew was out and about. No such luck.
"Cat! Just the person I wanted to see..." happens before I am even properly in through the barrier. I am told about an oldie who has been taken to hospital and needs someone to collect the mail. The speaker would do it herself but is going away. Fine. Not a problem. Will do.
It seems my strategy is working after that because I actually get straight down the aisle to the refrigerator section and the milk. I am even reaching for the milk when I hear, "Hello Cat, long time, no see."
I am caught. This is someone I try, at all cost, to avoid. She hems you in, invades your personal space, asks intrusive questions, delays people for long conversations. She is, in short, a menace. I am by no means the only person who tries to avoid her. We do not want to be unkind but she is her own worst enemy.
I try to back off as she stands far too close. I actually grab the milk.
"Hello, I really can't stop," I tell her.
"Of course you can, just for a moment," she tells me and launches in.
I try to move out of reach but she has me hemmed in between the milk and a display of soft drinks. She has no intention of letting me go and, short of being outright rude, I am effectively her prisoner. I look desperately around but, for once, there is nobody else I know in sight. She is asking questions I have no desire to answer. It is none of her business to know the answers.
If I actually told her that she would be hurt. She clearly believes that her prying is acceptable because she tells people, "Oh, I do like to take an interest in people. It's so important to do that. So many people have nobody at all. They really need to have someone take them out of themselves. I feel I can be of real help to people..." I cringe.
This time I tell her yet again, "Look I'm terribly sorry but I really do have to go..."
And again I get told not just yet. My desperation is growing. There is supermarket worker arriving with another milk laden trolley. We are in the way. Will this be my chance to escape. No. She looks at him and then directs him to move further down because she is talking to me. If she moves I will not be hemmed in. I will be able to escape. This is too much altogether. I give him a desperate look. He leaves the trolley, wanders off towards the office at the back.
A moment later the employee in charge of staff welfare comes out and says, "Oh Cat, could I talk to you for a moment in the office?"
I wonder what on earth she could want. Is the young employee I have been taking an interest in all right? I edge out and away from the menace and follow the member of staff into the office and look inquiringly at her. With a mischevious grin she says,
"I thought you might need rescuing."

Monday, 4 January 2010

I try to remember things

rather than write them down. My family keeps telling me I have a good memory. I am not sure about this. I do forget things! I also know that, for me, remembering is a matter of necessity. When I was much younger and writing anything down was an enormous challenge it was simpler easier to remember things. I was lazy. The act of writing got in the way of what I wanted to say. It was easier to simply remember it and, if I was fortunate, someone else might write it down for me. That did not happen often. I got into the habit of remembering things.
By the time I was about ten I could write things down but it was never terribly satisfactory. It took too long. I wanted a typewriter. My mother was set firmly against it. I would, she said, never learn to write legibly if I had a typewriter. It was, she said, only a matter of setting my mind to it. I could do it. I could not. I went on remembering things.
Even when I did get a typewriter I found I had to remember things. I had to remember things and then discard them. During my secondary and tertiary education I would remember things for long enough to pass the necessary examination and then, unless I was interested enough to remember, I would discard the information.
I can no longer remember most of my mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, dates in history or geographical formations. Ask me to analyse a character and comment on the structure of a poem and I would be lost. I assume I use those skills sub-consciously. I can add up figures without a calculator but that is purely mechanical. In recent years I have only occasionally needed to do the statistical procedures I somehow managed to learn at university. I have forgotten how to do trigonometry and calculus.
I can remember what is important to me or what will help me do those things which are important to me or things which are important to daily living. I remember things I have taught myself but not many of the things I have been taught. I remember shopping lists and appointments and dates of absences of neighbours whose mail needs to be collected - and then discard them. I do not really know these things.
I remember some Latin, how to read the treble line in music, how to use a Welsh dictionary, the basic moves in chess but I cannot translate Cicero or read an orchestral mss, write a sentence in Welsh or the opening gambits I was once told. So, what do I really know? What can I really remember?
I think remembering means knowing things, really knowing them. If that is right then I remember very little.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Predictions are as dangerous as resolutions

and I will not be making any. I do not need predictions. This is not because I know what is going to happen. I do not. I do not think I want to know. There is no comfort in knowing what is going to happen. Knowing is not anticipation.
I was once introduced to a woman of Indian origin. She lived in Singapore and was visiting a friend in London. A group of us were invited to afternoon tea in order to meet her. She had a reputation for being able to see the future. The others in the group were anxious to "have their fortunes told". I told her, as politely as I could, that I would prefer not to know. I was anxious lest I hurt her feelings as she seemed a very pleasant person. As it turned out there was not problem at all. I think she respected me for my decision. Whether she could tell fortunes or not I do not know. If it is possible to foretell the future I do not want to have to live knowing that there is a disaster coming that I can do nothing about or having pleasure diminished because I have been aware that pleasure is coming. Yes, it is better to travel hopefully.
But there is list making of another sort. Is there any harm in making lists, even just mental lists, of things I would like to achieve? Well yes there is if I spend too long on the lists and do not get down to action. Nevertheless mental list making can be achieved while washing dishes, hanging out clothes, unlocking the tricycle or getting mail out of the letter box. Occasionally it will help to commit those lists, like shopping lists, to paper. They may not all get achieved. Like shopping, not all the items may be available or achievable. I might need to wait for an item or there might be alternatives and I need to be more flexible about such things.
There is one very important list. The list of things that have been started and not yet finished. Why have I not completed them? Do they need to be done? Do I abandon them? Do I complete them? In which order do I do them?
Then there is the question, "What have I undertaken to do for other people?" That list is important too, very important. The ordering of that list can depend on many things but it is a must do sort of list.
What would I like to do for me? There is a less room here for any sort of certainty. I tend to feel guilty about doing things just for myself. I'll need to think about that list.
There is also a list which could be described as "just for the fun of it". The things on this list almost always involve sharing with someone else or secretly doing something that someone else will enjoy - like planting the third lavender bush in the front garden last year and waiting for my father to notice it. He did but it took nearly three weeks!
I don't want predictions and I have enough to do without making resolutions. I will continue to make mental lists.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Curious advice

is to be found in a book someone has given me. The book itself goes by the curious title of "A book of curious advice: most unusual manner, morals, medicine from days of yore".
There is advice to be had on losing weight here "To one who is fat, the best cure for it is to eat less and eat nothing except meat - one or two pounds of meat a day and four glasses of hot water between meals. No bread, butter, potatoes , pudding or anything else." I will not try this remedy.
I am also advised by the same publication that "Daily washing of the hair is very bad for it. Women should not wash their hair oftener than once in three weeks. For washing the hair the best thing to use is a little quilla bark and hot water." Later that advice is contradicted by a doctor, "Don't wash the hair more than once a month. Do not use soap..." Hmmm. Someone else advises the use of New England rum to wash hair. I do not think I will try these things either.
My father and I have had a good laugh over the, to us, strange ideas in this book. I wonder though what future generations will make of the items advertised for sale in those funny little pieces of advertising that sometimes come in a yellow envelope delivered by the postman. There are items there that are just as strange and, I suspect, useless - like the elastic straps which are supposed to give you instant good posture and the foot vibrator said to relax the entire body and all the little kitchen gadgets.
I got rid of several boxes of "surplus to requirements" kitchen gadgets some time after my mother died. Her mother collected gadgets. My mother kept them. I could not even work out what some of them were supposed to do. Others were the messy, time consuming and space wasting equivalent of a knife. I prefer a knife.
We still have too many things. Occasionally I remove something we have not used for a number of years. Most of the time I forget about them.
There is however a curious thing. Pencils and paper are something we use all the time. There is supposed to be paper and pencils by the telephone at all times. There is supposed to be paper and pencils on the kitchen bench. Occasionally my father will take eight or nine pencils of varying lengths and, with deadly accuracy, sharpen and shorten them. Then they wander off on some sort of journey or adventure of their own and return only when they need to be revived by his ministrations. I am left wondering where they went, wanting to take down a telephone number and being forced to remember complex messages in my head.
There is no curious advice in the book to tell me how to prevent the need for this.

Friday, 1 January 2010

I am hanging on by a paw

this morning. Yesterday it was more like a single claw. It was too hot. I hate my birthday and... well forget the rest.
2010: I have this vision of myself crouched over the keyboard, paws at the ready. I pat the keyboard tentatively. Am I stroking the right keys? Will anyone read this? Will the crevices in between the keys get clogged with stray hair or will I be able to keep them clean? Will my whiskers keep in tune with my paws? Will my tail twitch in time?
I want to finish the current book. It's a sequel (of sorts) to the previous one. This is a problem. If there are any inconsistencies Ms Whirlwind will inform me of them very rapidly - and her friends will probably find some more. My fur will undoubtedly be rearranged by a brisk brushing rather than a soothing stroking and a little scratch between the ears. I have vague plans for a third book but there are other places to explore as well. I need to prowl - but prowl with caution. I want to pad along and visit my cyber friends and listen to their words. I want to participate in providing purrs and pats and the occasional prod.
I want to spend time on my bookstack with my paws tucked neatly beneath me, tail twirled into a question mark of contemplation. I want to purr, purr loudly and positively.