Tuesday 31 December 2013

A Greek Orthodox funeral

is decidedly different from an Anglican one or a Presbyterian one. I knew what to expect but the Senior Cat did not.
We were of course attending the funeral of my brother-in-law's mother. There is a very large Greek "clan"! and the church was full. People were standing.
My sister had come to get us, thus avoiding the traditional "return to the house" in which the coffin is taken back to the house for one last visit home and then on to the church. Nobody minded that. Only immediately family is expected to attend - if they can. We are however considered to be "family" and thus we were expected to attend the funeral.
The Senior Cat, at almost 91, was the oldest person there - just. He is treated with both respect for, and understanding of, his age. The extended family he knows also happen to like him - a few conjuring shows for birthday parties some years back have forever endeared him to the now quite grown up children of the next generation.  
I found the Senior Cat a seat at the side - the male side. Yes, there is still a male side and a female side. It is not quite as rigid as it used to be so I could sit with him. Most of the older generation separated. The younger ones tend to mix and sit together as couples. I suspect that, like others of their generation, they go to church for christenings, weddings and funerals and - when prompted to do so - a few might go for Christmas of Easter.
Greek was being spoken right around us. The Senior Cat knows not one word of Greek, especially Cypriot-Greek which is quite different from the Greek spoken in Greece. (Think the difference between broad Scots and old fashioned BBC English to have some idea.)
And, of course, as the church filled people had to stand in front of us so the Senior Cat could not even see what was going on. I doubt it would have made much difference but it might have made it a little more interesting.
If you don't know then I should explain that Greek Orthodox funeral services are largely "sung" or chanted by a chanter and the priests present - in this case two as Panayiota was a regular attender at church. It is all very formal but there is no participation on the part of the congregation in terms of hymns, prayers or responses.
It is, for the most part, meaningless unless you happen to understand Greek so part of it was repeated in English for the benefit of those who do not understand. The Senior Cat's hearing is not good enough to understand the chanting even in English. He is tolerant, indeed very tolerant, but he endured rather than enjoyed the service. 
A eulogy is not traditional but the younger generation does things their way. The youngest daughter stood up at the end of the service and read what we had written the other day - and she managed to read it clearly and without breaking down which is, I think, more than I could have done. There were some slightly shocked looks on faces of some of the older generation. Women do not speak in church! But, speak she did.
She was followed, again in a break from tradition by one of my nephews. He too kept his contribution short and light hearted. It lightened the otherwise sombre mood even when Panayiota's husband spoke the traditional farewell in Greek.
And it is what Panayiota would have approved of. Afterwards, in her kitchen, helping with the washing up and clearing away, we all agreed that it was right.
What did not feel right was to be working like that in her kitchen without her there to supervise.

Monday 30 December 2013

I did not read it but

I did see the first paragraph of an article in The Times about an investigation into the present reading habits of children. Apparently children would "prefer" to read those series of short, lightweight books that publishers love to publish - Seaquest, Dragonquest, Choose your own adventure, Babysitters, Pony Club.... and so on. I am sure you know the sort of thing I mean.
These are, presumably, the childhood equivalent of Mills & Boon Romance or Westerns. I don't know.
There was another article in our state newspaper this morning bewailing the fact that children are not getting enough physical activity. Apparently riding a bike to school has dropped from two out of five children to one out of twenty in a generation.
Why is anyone surprised by this? Allow your child to go to school on their own? It's not safe! They have to be delivered to the door, indeed some schools demand they are delivered to the door.
The article suggested that children needed to have more adult supervised activity but that it had to be "fun". Fun? Adult supervised "fun"?
Adult supervised fun does not exist. As a child you can enjoy time with an adult, of course you can.  It is not however anything like unsupervised time away from adults. You do not learn how to build a cubby house with your parent telling you what to do and how to do it. You don't learn how to climb a tree or do "wheelies" under adult supervision. You don't learn the fine art of childhood negotiations with an adult listening in.
You won't fight or bully or be fought or be bullied. You won't take risks and encourage others to take risks. You won't get teased or tease someone else. You won't use your imagination instead of having it used for you through an electronic babysitter. You won't find out what your body can and can't do until you fall out of the tree or off the swing or take a tumble from your bike. If you are unlucky you will break something - and that will also be part of the learning experience.
I don't think children really want "quest" series to read. They just think they do. The books are short and all they have time for. They move rapidly like the electronic entertainment they are used to.
A successful series is a publisher's dream with all sorts of commercial possibilities but it isn't really doing children any favours. Nor is closely supervising their active play so that it is the adult idea of "fun" going to do any favours.
Will someone please provide the money for real adventure playgrounds, take all electronic devices from children at the gate, don't let adults in - just leave one at the gate for emergencies.
It will take children a while to learn how to play but I think they could do it if adults didn't interfere.

Sunday 29 December 2013

I have just been ironing

a shirt for the Senior Cat. His own attempts at ironing leave something to be desired. He has other household skills so I am not concerned by this.
The shirt is one of his "good" shirts - in other words a conservative white shirt. He still prefers those. It took us years to get him to graduate first to pale blue and then to other things.
At the same time as I ironed the white shirt I ran the iron quickly over a shirt he now wears in the shed. It is a casual shirt, grey in colour and made from fabric that, when washed, is rather stiff and only softens after ironing.
I bought the shirt for the Senior Cat not long after my mother died. He was not too sure about it when I first presented it to him but soon decided it was "comfortable" and people commented that they liked it. Since then he has worn it to the point of worn out - I had to mark it "H" for "home" when the collar and cuffs showed signs of "about to fray".  They have frayed now but he continues to wear it.
As I was doing this I realised something that struck me as rather strange. If my mother suddenly appeared she would not know about that shirt. She would not recognise many things. We have changed in the past fourteen years.
There would be things missing. I have removed a considerable amount of "clutter" from the kitchen - although not nearly enough.
There would be more books in the house - brought in from where the Senior Cat and I had them stored in the shed because my mother thought there were "too many books" in the house. There would be photographs of her great-grandchildren - children she never met - as she came in through the front door. Or would she come in through the back demanding to know what we had done with her orchids? We gave the orchids away because the Senior Cat could not care for them and did not like them anyway. There is the storage shed too - something the Senior Cat rudely calls "the wool shed" because I stored a plastic container filled with knitting wool out there at one point.
There are other things that have changed - look in the linen press and the sheets are different. We finally wore out the polyester cotton ones she liked as "easy care" and are back to cotton - preferred by both the Senior Cat and myself.
I don't think the Senior Cat realises how many little things have changed. It happened gradually.
But it struck me suddenly that a lot has changed. And then, just as suddenly, I realised that today would have been my mother's 93rd birthday. I wonder what she would make of us after fourteen years...and what would we make of her?

Saturday 28 December 2013

The Senior Cat and

I watch almost no television.
He usually wanders in for an evening snack at the same time as a programme which shows very short documentaries about people and places around the world. It lasts about twenty-five minutes and it is usually excellent - so much so that even watching a repeat is pleasurable.
That is almost the sum total of his television watching. He says he is too old to be depressed by watching a news programme. I watch an international news programme - at least until the point where the sport segment starts - and then I too turn the television set off.
Once in a while, often months apart, we might watch something else.
My sister suggested that the Senior Cat might like to watch "Asterix and Obelix v Caesar" the other night. It was, naturally, in French but the Senior Cat thought he could put up with sub-titles. He thought the Asterix books were amusing and that the film might be fun.
I was doing something else. I left him to it but about half an hour later I heard the sound go off.
"I can't be bothered," the Senior Cat informed me, "It's all right I suppose but it just isn't funny in the way the books are. It doesn't translate into film."
My sister said much the same thing later when he asked her. She stopped watching it as well - and she was much more likely to go on watching it than he was.
If I have already read a book I almost never enjoy a film adaptation of it as much as I enjoyed the book. I am not sure why this is but perhaps it is because I have already "seen" the characters and places for myself - and they rarely coincide with someone else's ideas about character and place.
This does not bother me about the short documentaries. It is good to be challenged about what places and people are like. Last night's segments were about Bolivian shoe-shine boys and then about baroque music being played by young musicians in the Bolivian jungle. The first segment was a sad insight into the ways some young people work to overcome extreme poverty. The second was full of hope for the future in the most unlikely of settings.
I could accept both things as fact without difficulty. If they had been fiction it would have been much more difficult, especially the second segment about the young musicians. Who would want to believe that the music of someone like Johann Sebastian Bach is played in the high Andes because young people want to do it?
I know that the reasons behind why and how we see things are complex and heavily influenced by our experiences. I like to have my ideas challenged but sometimes things just don't feel right. 
I wonder if Asterix would have been more successful as a cartoon?

Friday 27 December 2013

"You're not going

to the sales Cat?" a neighbour asked me yesterday.
I was out picking up the papers at about 6am. She was heading off to the Boxing Day sales in the city - or somewhere. I did not inquire.
"No, I don't want to get my paws trodden on," I told her.
"You might get a bargain," she told me eagerly.
"No thanks. There's nothing we need."
It is, after all, only a  bargain if you need something.
I just don't understand the obsession some people have with the Boxing Day sales. I know people for whom this is the Big Shopping Event of the year. They scour the advertisements beforehand. They make lists. They save. They plan. They change their minds.
Do they come home with what they planned? I doubt it. They will get there and find it is not in the size they wanted or the colour "isn't quite right" and even that "there weren't any left". Sometimes something else catches their eye.
Do they regret their purchases? I suspect that, sometimes, they do. They buy without due consideration or care. They discover that something is cheap because it is a "second". There will be a flaw in what they have bought. That does not mean it cannot be used  but it will be not quite as good as it could have been. It will mean it cannot be returned because it is a "sale item" and it is fit for the purpose for which it has been sold.
Unusually for me I bought a pair of shoes on the 24th December. I hate buying shoes. I don't walk into a shoe shop unless I absolutely have to do it. I only buy shoes when I absolutely must but even the Senior Cat had said, "Isn't it time you got rid of those?" of the pair I have been wearing around the house. He was right.
There is a shop in our local shopping centre which sells shoes. They actually sell some sensible shoes, the sort of shoes people might actually wear.
I prowled in cautiously. The assistant, holding a large pile of boxes, actually asked if she could help. I told her what I wanted.
"Sale starts on Boxing Day," she told me as she dumped the boxes on a display shelf.
I was about to open my mouth and mew that I was not interested in Boxing Day sales when she added, "But I've already marked some down. Just let me get the next lot out..."
She disappeared into the store room and came back with another pile and dumped them next to the first. She ran her finger up the end of the boxes, found the size I had mentioned and hauled out a box.
"Try those and see what you think," she told me.
I dutifully tried them. We both looked. They were "all right but not quite right" with respect to fit. She shook her head and ran her finger down the boxes again,
"Try these instead."
I tried them. We both looked. I prowled around the shop which was, thankfully, empty of other customers.
"They'll do very nicely," I told her. She nodded and smiled and said, "I can let you have them at the sale price."
Perfect - indeed purr-fect! I paid for them. I had my necessary shoes. They fit nicely. I have worn them without trouble and know I can continue to do so. It was all done without the stress of "going to the sales". I consider myself fortunate.
I wonder how many people entered the same shop yesterday and bought shoes because "they were on sale"? I wonder how many of those shoes will be worn for just a day?
Yes, I might have bought the same pair at the actual sale I suppose but I might have bought the first pair I tried on, the pair that was not quite right. I infinitely preferred getting a little attention and getting the right size. I was prepared to pay more for that. Getting them at sale price was a pleasant surprise.
I won't bother with Boxing Day sales.

Thursday 26 December 2013

Yesterday I was paid the ultimate

compliment by my sister's extended family. They are not readers. I doubt if any of them apart from my brother-in-law and my two nephews and one of the nine first cousins have read a book since they left school unless it was a text-book. They are not interested in fiction.
Yesterday they needed to write something. They needed to write the eulogy for their mother's (and grandmother's) funeral.
It was a strange thing to be doing on Christmas Day but they had decided they were going to get together and, even if it was subdued, the Christmas greetings were given. Food was shared and there was even some laughter as we sat around the table.
After lunch one of them came to me and said, "Cat, we need some help. We have to write something about Mum. We want to do it today and we want to make it the way she would want it. Will you help?"
"But, it's none of my business," I told her.
"But you knew her too and you can write," she told me.
And so we sat there after the Senior Cat had gone for a post-prandial nap and we talked and one of them took down ideas in the modern computerised way so that it could be shared later. We shaped it into simple language because there will be people at the funeral whose English is very limited and others who speak no Greek.
It will take no more than a couple of minutes to read. That too will be the way their mother would have wanted. She would accept the lengthy church service because that was part of her tradition but she would not want a lengthy eulogy.
It was the strangest thing to be doing on Christmas Day and yet, somehow, it was quite fitting. Christmas is also about motherhood. Their mother was being remembered with respect, with laughter as they remembered funny incidents and foibles and small moments of silence as they remembered a particularly precious time.
And afterwards her husband, who had been almost silent throughout, beckoned to me and I went to hold his hand for a moment only to be enveloped in a hug of great strength.
"I think we have that about right Cat," my sister's sister-in-law told me. I hope we have.  I'll never be sure about this writing business but at least I can try to get it about right.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

No, no room at the inn....

My friend Judy wondered if there was a cat in the stable in Bethlehem - this is my (rather foolish) answer...

No, no room at the inn. Joseph had known there would not be. There was no room anywhere.  If the census people had been a bit more organised none of this travel would have been necessary. The rest of the town was crammed to capacity. There were people sleeping on the floor in the inn itself. The innkeeper had just shrugged and said,

“You can doss down in the old stable round the back if you want.”

Nothing Joseph had said could get him to change his mind and toss some of those healthy young louts out there instead.

“Perhaps the dog will show you,” the innkeeper told him with a smirk and went off to supervise the pouring of more wine.

The old stable? Perhaps it would be better than nothing at all. There was nowhere else to go and the weather was getting worse. They could not spend all night in the open. The baby was due any day now and Joseph was worried about Mary. She should not have been travelling at all. He dreaded giving her this news.

“The only available shelter is the stable,” he told her, “The innkeeper can’t even be bothered to show us where it is.”

Mary just nodded.  It was as if she was too exhausted even to speak.  Joseph looked at the dog. “Can you show us the way to the stable old chap?”

Joseph tried to make a joke out of it but he was feeling tired, cold and hungry and knew it must be much worse for Mary. The snow was beginning to sting their cheeks. Even their donkey, a sturdy little animal, looked exhausted.

Oddly, the dog seemed to know exactly what was expected of it. It rose from where it was shivering in the doorway and began to trot off down the narrow lane next to the inn. The lane was dark and none too clean but Joseph thought that was typical of the town. He was counting the days before they could return to Nazareth.  He hoped they did not get snowed in here.

The old stable was at the end of the lane. It was a rough wooden structure, not at all like the other buildings.  Joseph ran a carpenter’s eye over it. The place could fall down at any moment but there was a much sturdier looking building next to it.

The dog whined and then pawed at the door of the sturdier building.  Joseph looked at him and the dog whined again and then began to paw furiously at the door. Well, no harm in looking.

Joseph lifted the latch and pushed the door open. The leather hinges creaked but yes, here was a proper stable.  It was, as stables went, clean. It was dry and, after the cold outside, it seemed warm. Joseph turned to Mary who had slid from the back of the donkey and was looking as if she might slide still further any moment now. He led her gently inside with one hand and then led the donkey in with the other.  

Inside it was bigger than Joseph expected. It needed to be. It was already crowded. There were empty amphorae stored at one end and hay was stored at the other. There were several sheep, two cows, an ox and another donkey around the manger in the middle. At least the innkeeper seemed to feed and care for his animals decently. There were even hens scratching around in the hay on the floor.

All the animals stopped eating and looked at the newcomers.

Feeling rather foolish Joseph said, “Hello. There’s no room in the inn so we’ve come to join you if we may.”

The sheep looked at each other and then at the newcomers. The two cows looked at one another and then at the newcomers.  The donkey looked the ox and they both looked at the newcomers. The hens flew up to a rail and looked at each other and then at the newcomers. A mouse scuttling across the floor stopped to look at them. Yes, there would be mice. Joseph hoped Mary had not noticed. She was not silly about mice like some girls but she was not particularly fond of them.

The dog just sat there. All the animals seemed to be waiting for something. It took a moment for Joseph to realise what it was but then he felt something brush past him.

A cat. Yes, Joseph thought he might have been able to guess there would be a cat somewhere.  The cat was a handsome creature. Joseph knew instantly that the cat was from one of the royal houses in Egypt.

“Just visiting?” he asked the cat.

The cat looked him up and down. It looked Mary up and down. It sat in the middle of the floor and swished a very fine mud coloured tail. It raised a paw and wiped a whisker. Then it began to move slowly around the room.  It stopped at the sheep.

Joseph wondered if he was going mad because the cat and the sheep seemed to be talking to one another. The same thing happened with the cows and the ox and the donkeys.  Just a few seconds later he was convinced he was going mad because he thought he could see a soft blanket in the manger and another two folded on the rolls of hay. The cat seemed to be milking one of the cows. The dog seemed to be taking a pail of water from the stable donkey and pouring it into a pan while the oxen was breathing over some coals in a brazier and bringing them to life. The hens had laid some eggs and were rolling them towards him.

And Mary was standing there holding the Baby. How had that happened?

Mary smiled as if to say, “Just accept it. This is what is meant to happen.”

The Innkeeper’s wife hurried out and offered Joseph two newly baked loaves. She did not seem to notice anything unusual in the stable.

Mary fed the Baby and settled it in the manger. Joseph boiled the eggs and heated the milk. He offered some to the other animals but the sheep, the ox and then donkeys seemed to prefer hay. The hens went back to scratching for grains on the floor. The dog accepted bread and milk and then went to sleep.

The cat disappeared.   


Tuesday 24 December 2013

My sister's mother-in-law

died yesterday. It was not unexpected as she had been in hospital for some weeks after a series of heart attacks and a stroke.
She had not been well for a long time and she was also in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Her enjoyment of life had diminished.
It is particularly sad at this time of year but she was, I think, ready to leave even sooner.
I knew her for a long time. My sister has been married for a long time.
When I first knew Panayiota she was still an active dressmaker. My sister was a beneficiary as were her own daughters. Panayiota had been apprenticed to a dressmaker as a very young girl. She had just three years of schooling and could barely read and write Greek. She never mastered reading and writing English. Even speaking English was a challenge. As she grew older her capacity to speak English grew even less. It is why I made sure I knew some polite words and phrases in Greek.
She was also an excellent cook. My sister was taught to cook Greek-Cypriot dishes. She showed me how to make "dolmades" but I could never wrap the leaves as neatly as her. She also taught me to make "pastitsio" and "baklava". Why? I was my sister's sister and I might need to know these things. Fortunately she did not test her patience trying to teach me to sew.
When I first knew her she would cook meals for twenty people without hesitation. We had more than one Christmas celebration at their home - Easter too but "Greek Easter" with hard boiled eggs, dyed red.
Fiercely protective of her Cypriot heritage she saw to it that my sister did everything from getting married to having children (and having them baptised and taught Greek) in the traditional Cypriot way. My sister acquiesced but has also made sure she has raised two thoroughly modern young men. They are not yet married but neither of them would hesitate to change a nappy if called upon to do so. They may need more cooking skills but they would not starve and they can do their own washing and ironing. I think they will prove good and thoughtful partners when they choose one.
And yes, their grandmother had a part in all that.
She did not live to see any great-grandchildren and it is unlikely that her husband will but her great-grandchildren will be told about her. They will be able to see her on film and video taken by her children and grandchildren. That way she won't be forgotten - and she deserves to be remembered well.

Monday 23 December 2013

I think I am getting

more than a little fed up with this "politically correct" nonsense. Yes, it IS nonsense.
I got told off yesterday for wishing someone Merry Christmas. I happen to know the person and they were more than happy to be wished a Merry Christmas. It was a passer by, a complete stranger, who told me off.  He couldn't tell the other person off because they had walked on. I was still unlocking the trusty pedals and thus captive audience.
This officious individual presumed to tell me, "for (my) own good" that "those sort of greetings are not acceptable any more" and that I needed to be "much more careful because it could offend someone".
Well, I am sorry but I am offended, deeply offended. He had absolutely no business to say anything to me.
The vast majority of Australians will celebrate Christmas. Most of them will not attend church and may have only vague ideas about the story behind the holiday but they will celebrate anyway. Devout atheists will celebrate it. I know of Jewish friends who happily attend the pre-Christmas "drinks" party of their neighbours - after all they would be the only people in the street not to go if they did not. It doesn't mean they are celebrating Christmas. It's a social occasion. They did not feel insulted.
And friends in another state invited their Muslim neighbours to a similar event. They made it clear they were not being invited to celebrate a religious event but because, in our culture, it is traditional to invite friends and neighbours to such things. Their neighbours, fairly new to Australia, were reportedly bewildered but pleased to be included in the street community. They did not feel insulted. Come the end of Ramadan they reciprocated.
Surely that's the way it ought to be?
Instead of that there are rumours, hopefully not correct, that the local shopping centre may not be able to have Christmas decorations next year.
What comes next? The banning of Christmas carols. Hiding Christmas cards under the counter and allowing them only to be sold to registered members of local churches? Will Australia Post be told they can no longer offer to send cards for the slightly cheaper rate? Will shops be required to be open on Christmas Day and will it cease being a holiday altogether?
The minority who object to seasonal traditions and getting their way are not doing us any favours.
I told the stranger, "I find your attitude obnoxious."
It was not polite and probably just reinforced his opinion but I was insulted. It's time we stood up to such people.

Sunday 22 December 2013

I have just been reading a

description for a "residency" on the Isle of Eigg. This little island off the coast of Scotland clearly has a "can do" and "go ahead" sort of attitude.
They have a "bothy" (small hut for those of you who don't speak Scots) available for artists, writers or musicians who want to spend a week away from it all and get some work done. For £200 you get the bothy and a lift to and from it once you reach the island.
The bothy sounds basic but comfortable enough - exactly the sort of thing someone who wanted to get a week of serious work done might need. It would be free of the distractions of the internet and phone conversations and you don't want to spend too long under an outside shower - do you?
I think I would have to hope the mist descended so that I could not see the scenery. That would be a distraction.
The description made me wonder what many city dwelling writers, artists and musicians would think of living in such a location, even for a week? How would they cope with being so alone?
You can be lonely in a city. There are some very lonely people in cities. They are surrounded by people. They are not alone but they are lonely.
I think it may be harder to be lonely in the country. You may be alone at times but people are more likely to acknowledge you in passing. The description of Eigg actually says that if you do not want to walk the four miles into town you can go to the road and "put your thumb out" to get a lift into the village. Safe to do so? Yes, on an island that size it would be because the permanent residents would know each other and they would know who was visiting. Oh yes, they would keep a discreet eye on visitors arriving on the ferry.
Want some company? Then you head into the village and the harbour. I have no doubt someone will talk to you. The rest will be up to you.
We lived on an island for four years. The Senior Cat was the headmaster of the big school in the middle. It was larger than Eigg but it was still an island with a small population. There were about three thousand people living there at the time. We didn't know everyone but we knew many of them and, because my parents both taught at the school and my father was a lay preacher everyone knew us.
That wasn't always comfortable but it was safe.  I think a week on Eigg might be rather nice - but I am not sure how much work I would get done.

Saturday 21 December 2013

I saw the police car

as I was passing on Wednesday. It was in the driveway of the house opposite the one most people would have expected to find it. After all that house is rented out to a mob of boys who appear to have no regard for their neighbours.
But the other house? Oh, a quiet couple with two small girls. The little girls are nice children. They seemed pleasant enough. I knew them on an "acknowledge each other as we pass" basis after having been introduced by someone in that street I do know.
It's a very nice house. I knew the previous owner, an elderly woman. When she left it the house was "done up". A good deal of money was spent on it. There is a two car garage - and two nice cars.
You can't see through to the back - or over any of the fences and they never had visitors but then, some people just like to be private.
They were friendly enough and the neighbour who introduced me seemed to get on well enough with them.
There were raids across the city on Wednesday - nine houses and eight men arrested. The little - and not so little - green plants were uprooted and taken away as "evidence".
Such things have always bothered me but, this time, it bothers me more than most. I am worried for the children. The little girls are about four and six. They are old enough to understand that something is wrong but not old enough to understand all the implications.
The father is going to lose his job. He will probably be given a custodial sentence. He is going to find it almost impossible to get another job. His wife may also, because of the nature of her work, find herself out of a job.
It is going to have a major impact on the lives of those two small girls. They will have to change schools and, even then, people may find out who they are and refuse to let their children associate with them. As they grow older and want jobs of their own people are going to inquire into their backgrounds and hesitate - and yes, they will inquire and they will hesitate. It will prevent the girls from taking up employment in some fields because competition for jobs is going to be so tight that, unfairly, their father's behaviour is going to have negative consequences for them.
But, the more immediate impact is perhaps the saddest thing of all. There were Christmas decorations in the front yard - put there by two excited little girls.
Daddy won't be home for Christmas and it won't be an accident. He made a deliberate choice not to be.

Friday 20 December 2013

Exam results

for "year 12" - the final year of secondary school here - came out yesterday.
There was the usual photograph of a group of high achieving students in this morning's paper. I do not know any of them.
I do know other students who did year 12 this year. The Senior Cat gave some study skills assistance to three of them. I did some casual tutoring too . All of them have passed at about the level we expected and will probably get into the courses they have applied for.
It will be a relief for them and their families and no doubt they will now enjoy the seasonal festivities more than they have for the past few weeks.
But there are problems ahead too. One student I know was told he "must" do certain science subjects. He would like to do maths but his father wants him to "do something more practical". Another has been told that the course structure and content has been changed this coming year - cutting out the very thing he was particularly interested in. The father of another student has just accepted a promotion but that means moving the family interstate - away from the university of choice and her friends. So far her parents are refusing to allow her to remain here - even if it means not going to university. And yes, she may be legally an adult but the reality is that she does not have the financial means to leave home and her parents think she is "too young" to do so.
I don't envy these students. Those who have excelled are going to be expected to go on excelling. Those who are under pressure to do courses purely for employment purposes or because their course of choice is no longer available may grow to love the alternative but there will always be at least a faint memory of "what if...?" and what if you have the choice you worked for taken from you by other circumstances?
Year 12 is difficult enough without any of those things. Even the most able students at the Whirlwind's school are encouraged to complete, as you can, the Year 12 certificate over two years.
I am about to head off to the supermarket and the Post Office. There will be at least two more Year 12 students working in the supermarket when I get there. I have read essays for both of them all this year and I expect they will have done well. Both of them have needed their part-time jobs in order to even stay at school - one because his father lost his job and another because his father has been in hospital for months. It hasn't been any fun for them. They have had to grow up fast - too fast perhaps. They deserve to do well.
It's a reminder that not all teenagers are irresponsible or lazy or lacking in motivation or any of the other negatives they are sometimes accused of. These students are not perfect. They have made mistakes and bad choices and their "love lives" can be awkward but they also deserve a break. I hope they get one.

Thursday 19 December 2013

There was a rather special

Christmas card yesterday. It came from a friend in England and the front was drawn by her daughter, a young artist of considerable skill. Her school has had some printed as a fundraiser. It's a lovely idea.
Of course fundraising Christmas cards are not a new idea in themselves. We always get a variety of cards from friends who want to support animal welfare, child or cancer charities.
Our first "card" this year was a sheet of paper drawn by the youngest cousin. The Whirlwind often makes her own - at least for some people.
My mother used to keep a "Christmas card book". In it she would keep a record of the people she had sent cards to, along with their addresses and a tick if they had replied. She would sit down and write lengthy letters by hand to friends she did not usually see during the year. One year, after going to a craft class in her retirement, she made her own Christmas cards. It only happened once though, after that she bought the cards which supported "Anglicare" - a big welfare organisation run by the Church of England in Australia.
I meant to take that book out of the drawer where it is kept with the old phone book. I was going to look at it but then I thought I did not want to. Too many of the people in that book are no longer with us. It's a depressing thought even though many of them are people I did not know well, if I knew them at all. 
And, somehow, that made it especially nice to get a card from someone who is just starting out on the road to adulthood. I couldn't help wondering if Christmas cards will still be around when she is my age. I rather hope they are and that she gets one from someone much younger than herself.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

"Political correctness" has

struck again.
There are three "Nativity" scenes in the window of a local charity shop. They were placed there by the staff before the shop closed until the New Year. One of them is a particularly lovely hand carved wooden set, there is another old china set and a third more recent set.
None of them are for sale. The staff save them to put out each year. I hope that won't stop. Whether you believe the story or not there is good in it, lessons we need to learn about family and caring for each other.
But, as I was passing, I heard a woman saying to her three children, "Come on. You don't need to look at that rubbish. They shouldn't be allowed to put that sort of thing in the window."
Someone I know was coming towards me at the same time and also heard the woman's comments. We stopped for a moment to exchange seasonal greetings and I was told,
"She's the one who stopped them having Christmas at school - put in a complaint to the head and they had to cancel out all the Christmas bits."
"Again?" I asked.
"Yes - only she got more stroppy this time and insisted on even more being cut out. It's not fair on the other children."
There are children attending the school who belong to a strict religious sect which does not allow their children to join in a great many activities but their parents do not demand those activities do not take place. They simply remove their children while an activity is being held.
That solution is not good enough for this mother. She has very clear ideas about what she considers to be "politically correct". She does not want her children to experience some things. In order for that to happen she demands that nobody else be allowed to experience them either. She apparently sees nothing wrong with this at all. I have talked with one of the senior staff at the school and they are concerned by the situation but, unbelievably, the law comes down on the side of the mother.
We had Christmas parties and Nativity plays and carol singing when I was at school. There were one or two children who might have missed out but everyone else joined in with enthusiasm. Nobody thought it necessary for the sake of "political correctness" to stop these things.
But the interesting thing to me was that the mother sailed on ahead and all three children gave one last longing look at the Nativity scenes. I hope that, when they are old enough to make their own decisions about such things, they will decide that the lessons from the story matter more than their mother's ideas about "political correctness".

Tuesday 17 December 2013

I had to make an extra trip to

greengrocer yesterday - along with the inevitable trip to the Post Office.
We needed lettuce and more tomatoes. The Senior Cat had finally admitted defeat and pulled out the last of the fancy lettuce he had been growing. The lettuce has been nice but it is now bitter. The tomato plants have, as yet, not produced much. Hopefully they will if we can keep them alive in the expected heat.
I know the greengrocery shop well. I know the staff and they know me. I like the way the owner insists on using local sources wherever he can.  He expects his employees to know about the stock and to be able to advise customers. I once sent the Senior Cat to do some shopping (a dangerous exercise as he has little idea about such things) and they took over and did it for him.
Needless to say I go back again and again - and they get a large  bag of shortbread for Christmas.
The Senior Cat and I eat a great many vegetables - and a wide variety of them.  Potato, pumpkin, parsnip, carrot, beans, peas, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, courgette and more all make their way onto our plates in winter. In summer we add salad vegetables. I can deal with all these things in a variety of ways and I can do it fairly quickly but I don't think I spend an excessive amount of time preparing meals.
But it seems that only one in seven Downunderites eat more than one or two vegetables a day. I find this almost incomprehensible.
What are people eating if they are not eating vegetables?
It seems they are not eating fruit either. That is something else we eat. I rarely bother with a second course apart from cutting up some fruit. Thankfully the Senior Cat does not particularly care for steamed puddings or jam tarts or any of the other baked delights that some people seem to revel in.  He is even less impressed with the sort you can buy from the supermarket and reheat.
I also bought cake yesterday. It is something I have not done for a year. I bought it for the same reason last year. It is the birthday of an elderly friend. She happens to like this cake. It is, as bought cakes go, very plain but it reminds her of the cake her mother always made her for her birthday. Her mother was the daughter of a baker and I suspect knew things I will never know about baking. I will take the cake when I visit her in the nursing home today.
The Senior Cat investigated the label on the packet yesterday.
"Do you want me to save you a slice?" I asked.
He shook his head and then asked, "Did you get some more cherries?"
I did, just a few. He took a handful, washed them at the sink and went outside to eat them.
I am thankful he is in the one in seven who likes his fruit and vegetables because I prefer them too.

Monday 16 December 2013

I spent yesterfay aftrnoon making

mince pies. The Senior Cat likes mince pies. He has firm views on what they should be like...not too large, not too much pasty and a good quantity of filling. I do the best I can but I do not claim to have the same success with them as his mother.
His mother made her own "mincemeat" of course. I can remember it was a rather long process - but the end result was worth the effort.  I confess I use "Robertson's" - probably along with a good portion of those who endeavour to make their own - and I have twice resorted to buying them from a nearby bakery where there is not too much pasty and a good quantity of filling. The only problem is that their pies are rather large - the Senior Cat and I can happily share one between us.
Of course I should have been writing the Christmas cards but the weather forecast for the rest of the week suggests "very hot" and it is easier to write cards in the heat than it is to make mince pies.
All that made me wonder how my grandmothers coped with Christmas. Most of it did fall on them. We were living in remote areas. When school was finished for the year we would pack the car and return to the city. By the time we arrived most of the Christmas preparations would be done. Perhaps that is why things like tree decoration have never loomed large in my life.
My maternal grandmother never had to handle large crowds. There would be the six of us, my mother's brother (then unmarried) and my grandparents. Nine was a small number - although I don't suppose it felt like that.
My paternal grandmother on the other hand would cope with as many as twenty for a sit down traditional Christmas dinner in the heat. How she managed is still a mystery to me. The dining room table was huge. I can remember my brother and I putting the extension in the middle. You wound the table out and fitted the piece in. It was then our job to set the table - later checked by Grandma. We did this from the time I as about eight and my brother six. We were also expected to help with the washing up. We actually did not mind doing that because my grandfather would usually help as well and tell us stories about Christmas when he was a boy - which sometimes meant more than thirty people being fed by his mother.
My two sisters and my cousins were considered too young to participate in giving this help. They were allowed to play with their Christmas presents.
Looking back now though and realising we just accepted that food appeared in front of us I cannot help wondering if my paternal grandmother in particular was just thankful when Christmas was over. I think I would have been.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Do we really need Christmas?

I have to write the overseas Christmas cards today. I must. I hope they will get there in time. I know, I have been putting it off. I am not sure why. Nobody else is going to do it. The Senior Cat hates writing cards. He hates writing anything these days.
I was going to write the cards yesterday but something more than delaying tactics made me prowl off to do some visiting in the afternoon. I took Christmas shortbread and cards to people who needed them.
I was greeted by the daughter of the first person with a hug and a kiss, "Cat, Mum will be so pleased to see you."
And yes, she was. Their house has a tree and tinsel and lights and the cards properly hung up.
We sat and chatted for a bit. The daughter is an only child and, while married, has no children of her own. Their Christmas will be small but they plan on all the "proper" things. "It's the way we have always done it."
I eventually left and pedalled on much further to my second destination. The person I went to see is one of my oldest friends and I worry about her. She lives alone in a small unit and, although her sister lives in the next door unit, I know that she is lonely. She moved from another state to be closer to her sister - her only close relative. 
Once she would have been out and about and doing things but arthritis means that she has trouble even breathing now. The front door was locked. She had to get up and, somehow, walk about two metres to unlock it. I let myself in after that. She had sunk back onto the chair exhausted by the effort of letting me in.
I know she should not be there on her own but efforts to get her into a nursing home have failed. She has tried but, at a mere 71, she is considered "too young".  The Senior Cat is 91 and is much more able than she is. 
She is depressed, although she tries not to show it. She has tried not to be bored but her physical limitations are now such that she has to put all her energies into doing simple daily things like brushing her teeth.
Pleased to see me? Yes. Card? Pretty. Shortbread? Lovely because she does not do any baking like that.
Is there anything I can do for her while I am there I ask. At her request I pull the blind down against the glare of the afternoon sun
and let her go on talking. Talking these days involves effort too. I can see that but there are things she wants to tell me. Distant cousins came to visit and, as I suspected, the recent death of her only first cousin was due to a brain tumour.
I eventually left her and pedalled off along the quiet back route. Visiting her depresses me. I was glad to get away. There were no other cards in sight, no Christmas decorations. I wonder if she will even exchange presents with her sister this year. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
When I get home the Senior Cat has just put the kettle on for his afternoon cup of tea. He is standing there with the Christmas cards we have received.
"I suppose," he says, "We should put these up somewhere...try and make the place look a bit Christmassy?"
I told him I will do it today. I think I know where to find the coloured pegs which usually hold them. And the Whirlwind is coming in this afternoon to ice the Christmas cakes... mmm... perhaps we do need at least a little bit of Christmas.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Was I doing the right thing?

I asked myself this yesterday - and the day before.
One of our neighbours is a devout person, a regular attender at her church and actively involved in its community. It is attached to the convent community that our friend Polly lives in. They seem to do things there - and, while not my sort of thing, I admire them for it.
The neighbour talked to me at length about how she and some of her friends there might become more practically involved in assisting refugees and, as she put it, "use their talents". They were not looking to give money or raise money but to try and help in other ways. Tutoring in English is one obvious way but, she thought, there might be others as well.
We discussed it. As she had asked for suggestions I made some.
There was one thing I did not think of however. Her talent for dressmaking. I should have thought of this. Her two small granddaughters have a wonderful collection of clothes made by her - colourful, practical and up-to-date.
And then I mentioned my discussion with her to some other people I know. Some of them have different views on the topic and there was another lively discussion about how people could be best helped.
One of the women from the second discussion works in a local charity shop. She claims doing this helps her more than it helps them. Yes, she does need to get out of the house. She lost her husband a few weeks after he retired. Their plans to travel, redesign their garden together and other things came to nothing. Instead she kept the garden much as it had always been and spent more time helping her daughter and her grandchildren. There was another baby on the way.
The baby was born with serious health problems. For ten months the family almost lived at the hospital but they still lost the baby. It was then this woman turned to the charity shop "for my own comfort and sanity".
Two days ago she was there and she asked me quietly, "Can you come out the back for a moment?"
I wondered what was wrong but she brought out a small bag and said,
"I could just put this in the shop but it seems wrong. I have sewed for the others since L... left us but I can't do this. I keep taking it out thinking I will do it for someone else's child but I can't make myself do it. Do you know someone who could make something and pass it on to someone who needs it."
She gave me three pieces of "little girl" fabric and a simple, practical pattern. I took it and told her I would pass it on.
Pedalling home I thought about the people I know who still sew but the answer was obvious - our neighbour. I know she was thinking in terms of perhaps tutoring someone in English - something she could most certainly - but here was something else she could do too.
I still hesitated because they lost her brother-in-law to suicide earlier in the year. This is the time of year when things like that will hit hard all over again.
But, I decided to do it. Our neighbour was not home then. She was when I went over yesterday morning. She invited me in and I explained why I was there and showed her what I had. She reached for a tissue and then said,
"Tell her, I'll make something very special from these and see someone who needs them gets them."
It wasn't what she planned but who knows where it will lead?

Friday 13 December 2013

There is an extraordinary list

of demands in this morning's paper. Our state Premier is still trying to blame the Prime Minister for the demise of Holden and demanding well over a billion dollars be poured into the state's economy "immediately". It isn't going to happen, nor should it happen.
The demands being made are simply quite ridiculous. The Premier wants the Federal Government to commit to building more submarines and warships in this state. I don't know whether we "need" them or not. Even if we did however such projects are, at best, a short term fix. They might buy time but they will not buy investment in the state.
The last lot of submarines cost far more than they should have. Yes, there were some problems with the design but the biggest problem was the wages and conditions demanded by the union movement. "Security" meant they had the government over a barrel and they knew it. The same issue will prevent them from employing just anyone who puts their hand up for a job there.
Then there are the "transport corridors" - north and south. Oh yes, they will get people to work - in cars.  The question has to be "what work?" Another question has to be, "why cars?" Oh yes, I forgot we are also supposed to be sending heavy goods vehicles along those roads. I wonder what they will be transporting? (And I still refuse to believe that "double handling" of containers on and off a train is more expensive than employing someone to drive a container half way across the country. If it is then it shouldn't be. )
In transport terms we would be better off looking at our rail network and going south, east and north. (Go west and you would go into the sea.)
But, what we need is new business in the state - and that will be hard to find. Setting up a new business anywhere is hard enough but it is often said it is more difficult here than in most places. We have, like any other place, our share of corrupt officials of course. They make life difficult but they are not the only problem. There are three layers of government to deal with - local, state and federal. There are rules and regulations for all of them.
That would be hard enough but there is also another layer, the "activist" layer. These are the groups who demand additional "environmental impact" statements and who appeal against decisions which would allow development to go ahead. They can add months and even years to the delays already caused by other layers of red tape.
It does not stop there either because the unions add yet another layer. Union numbers may have fallen but unions still wield power, especially in some areas.
I would not want to try and set up a business here - or not in the current climate. It is just too difficult. There are simply too many hurdles. They are not, as is often claimed, safeguards but restrictions designed to benefit some and not others. They provide opportunities for petty officialdom to wield power at their pleasure and leisure.
I am sure other people will say "it's just the same here" but how many places have to deal with all those layers, all those different rules and regulations and all those demands?
If the Premier had said, "I want the Federal government to sit down with us and work out how to make it easier to invest in the state" then I might have been prepared to believe he really wanted to help. Right now he is still thinking in the past and refuses to take any responsibility. Would someone care to remind me why we elected him?

Thursday 12 December 2013

Well the inevitable has

happened and the big boss in Detroit has informed the minnow in Adelaide that Holden will close the doors in 2017. It means that a lot of people are going to be out of a job.
Everyone expected this to happen. Yes, they did expect it to happen. All that money they kept pouring in was just trying to delay the inevitable.
Most of that money was wasted. I do not mean for a moment that it was wasted by the workers themselves. They have families to feed, mortgages to pay and all the other expenses of every day life. No doubt some of them will wish they had not spent quite so much on unnecessary things and more on paying off the mortgage and saving for the future but that is true of all of us I suspect.
No, the money was wasted by successive governments who kept bowing to union demands for ever rising wages and conditions. (Where else in the world does the car industry actually close for three weeks over Christmas and New Year like Toyota still will because the union says it must?)
Money spent on trying to save the car industry should have been spent on diversifying and retraining and developing for a future without a car industry. The dollar was too high, our population was too small, we manufactured the wrong sort of cars and the industry was set up to be as inefficient as possible by unions which refused to recognise the need to be flexible.
Our state Premier is of course now blaming the Prime Minister for Holden's demise. There is a picture of the Premier in this morning's paper. He is looking furious. He reportedly is furious. Why? He is claiming that all it would have taken his more taxpayer funds and better negotiation to save the car industry.
He's wrong. He knows he is wrong and furious embarrassment is not going to get him anywhere. I have no doubt he believes that his stance will cause people to believe that yes the Prime Minister is directly responsible. Certainly there is more than a hint of sympathy for the Premier in the way it has been reported.
I suspect the decision was made long ago. It was probably made  well before the Federal election. Detroit would have been waiting to see how much they were going to get before making the decision of when - not if. The two previous Prime Ministers knew that nothing was going to save Holden. Putting money in was a way of shoring up votes.
But politics are politics and the present Prime Minister will no doubt be held responsible.
I pondered all of this while trying to by sheets yesterday. The untidiest shop had sheets for sale at half price. They were good quality and, at half price, about the amount I could afford to pay.
We needed them. I had bought some for the Senior Cat earlier but gone on using the threadbare ones myself. Those have also reached their use-by date (and then some). Another woman was also looking in the disaster zone for similar sheets. We helped one another - and came away with what we needed.
I had to wait while a young girl bought fabric and a pattern. We chatted too because she had a question about where to find something.
She is making herself some clothes to wear to university next year. She will do it while watching out for a neighbour's children...who are old enough to entertain themselves apparently but not old enough to be left.
She was wearing something she had made for herself too. "Not the jeans but I made the top. Mum taught me to sew. It saves a heap."
The top was as good - perhaps better - than anything she could have bought. The fabric was a remnant and, she told me, had cost her six dollars.
I felt like suggesting she go and teach our Premier the value of learning old skills to make something new, of putting the effort in and getting the satisfaction of creating something you not only want but need.  The problem is I don't think he would listen. It is easier to blame someone else.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

I did not see the

ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation for overseas readers) programme which has apparently caused people to cease taking their cholesterol medication. I also have my own views - and this would not be the proper place to air them.
I do think that the ABC was out of order, completely out of order, if the reports I received from people I trust were correct. The programme, according to them - as well as reports in the other media, failed to present a balanced range of views on the topic.
It does not surprise me. It is a topic with a wide range of opinions but the ABC is not given to airing a wide range of opinions. It prefers opinions of convenience.
But it also raised another issue of concern in this Downunder household. The Senior Cat and I discussed it yet again over the meal table.
It is the issue of the "extras" provided by private health insurance.
Yesterday friends reminded us that private health insurance does not cover the "emergency fee" at a private hospital - although several private hospitals have emergency departments. There is a hefty up-front fee before someone will even be treated. The thing to do is demand the ambulance heads for a public hospital - if you are in a fit state to demand anything. Your "extras" cover does not cover you unless you are heading for a public hospital.
We have "extras" cover because it supposedly does cover ambulance  - and yes, it covers ambulance transport between one hospital and another - and dentistry. We might need an ambulance and we do need the dentistry cover. The Senior Cat has used the Optical cover and that has definitely been a good thing because it picked up signs of glaucoma which have been successfully treated.
But I just looked at the long list of other things that "extras" covers and I know we will never use most of them. We won't use Pilates, Naturopathy or Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Chiropractic or Osteopathic - to name just a few.
Like cholesterol medication these things have their supporters and detractors but, unlike cholesterol medication, other members of the health fund are paying to subsidise these for those who wish to use them.  It is possible to argue that this is what health funds are all about. But, these are labelled "extras".
I feel we should be able to decide which extras we want to have. I'd go for dentistry, optical, ambulance and perhaps one or two others but I know I will never use Pilates or some of the other things they list and neither will the Senior Cat.
My own view (and yes it is a personal view) is that some of the things covered by "extras" are nonsense. They may do no harm but they also do no good - and some of them may do more harm than good.
We need some balance here. We need balanced information and the right to choose but I know that "extras" are really a means of making money for the health fund. We will need to go on paying for what we don't need in order to get what we do need.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

I am not eating

breakfast this morning. Instead I am heading out shortly for the annual visit to the vampire - otherwise known as the annual "blood test".
I don't think there is anything wrong with my blood. I certainly hope not but I know that the "blood test" can be an indicator for all sorts of other things as well so I will dutifully head off and allow a vampire to take some. I have no doubt that there will be others there waiting with me.
Now, you are supposed to fast for twelve hours before these tests...drinking water is fine but no, you are not supposed to eat anything. The vampire I have seen for the last few years (she has worked there rather a long time) has always greeted me with a sigh of relief. She knows I will not have "just had a couple of biscuits and a cup of tea at 11pm" - it is just after 8am when she is told this by a business man who should know better. She knows I am not going to have "just eaten breakfast because it can't make any difference now can it?" by a young mother. She knows I am not going to have drunk the energy drink I saw the other cyclist taking "because I was thirsty and that is all I had".
I will do the right thing because I do not like going without breakfast and I do not want to put myself through this procedure more than once. I know enough to know that those things do make a difference.
The vampire is kind to the elderly who get confused about these things or tell her that they had to eat something to take their medication. I know that. I have seen her be kind. I don't know how she handles the others - I suspect she wants to tell them off but I also suspect that she knows that sometimes their doctors don't remind them. Perhaps some of them think their patients know these things and that they don't need to be reminded. Perhaps they forget to tell them under the stress of their jobs.

Mine did not remind me. I just happen to know the rules. And my rules say, "Take a banana with you and eat it as soon as you can."

Monday 9 December 2013

I would not want to be working

in the car industry right now...well, I never wanted to work in the car industry but I would want to do it even less now. I think I would know that I would almost certainly not have a job for much longer.
Our car industry is dying. It is dying a slow, painful death and it is refusing to go quietly. It is still demanding regular transfusions of money to postpone the inevitable.
And there are still no plans being made to employ the thousands of people who will be without a job when the big men in Detroit finally turn off the machines because the power supply here (taxpayer money) has ceased.
I am angry about this. Successive governments have wasted billions of dollars keeping "our" car industry going. It was done under pressure from both the industry and the union movement. I blame all three, government, industry and unions, for the failure of the industry itself and the failure to plan for a future without it.
The car industry failed because the wrong sort of cars were being produced and it was too expensive to produce them - or indeed any - car here.
Like most other manufacturing which has gone off-shore people found it was cheaper to employ workers elsewhere. I don't approve of people being paid pittances elsewhere but the reality is that ours are paid more than we can afford. Our standard of living is simply higher than we can afford to maintain.
The problem however is what we now do. How do we employ thousands of people who simply have no other skills. One man has a job fitting car tyres to rims. It is a specific skill which is not likely to be needed in another industry. The same will be true of a man who sprays car doors or puts the seats in.
The area in this state which employs the bulk of people working in the car industry already has problems. Unemployment is very high there. The social welfare system already pours more resources in. The uncertainty as to the future is already causing family and community tensions, break ups and more. Other business is already suffering because of the uncertainties.
We need to diversify. We need to grow more trees and use them wisely. We need to manufacture the things that the 21st C needs - solar panels, electronic equipment and anything that is small scale and skilled. We also need to re-invent our wool industry. Instead of sending it almost all off shore to be processed (and then importing it again) we need to deal with it here. (We have one working wool scourer and there is a fight to keep it working.)
The Whirlwind wanted to know why people don't do those things. It is partly a lack of vision but it also has to do with "red tape" - the very real difficulties of trying to set up anything new and make it work. It has to do with an uncooperative union movement which has, until now, believed that all it would take to save the car industry is more taxpayer funds - and that they deserve that support.  
It also has to do with a lack of education and training. All students are being encouraged to believe that only some sorts of jobs are worth having. 
What we need is imagination and flexibility and a belief that all positive work contributes to a better society.
Right - rant ended. I am going to prowl off and do something useful.

Sunday 8 December 2013

I have been making

lists. You know the sort of thing I mean? There is a list of things that "must" be done today, this week, before Christmas, next year and a list of presents for the family (all books but...) and a list of what has to go into the parcel for my godchildren, a list of cards that must be sent (all cards that go abroad that is), a list of books and papers I must read within the next few weeks (ready for teaming up with some other research people), a list of people who need Christmas shortbread (mostly elderly and on their own) and yet more lists of other things I need to remember or do - or forget.
I do not write most of these lists down. They just sit inside my mind. I suspect they clutter my thinking but I don't write things down unless I have to.
The Senior Cat makes lists too. He writes his down. I find them on scrappy bits of paper with things like "Monday" and then "t 4 ps" and "h/s 2 spray c/l".  I suppose he remembers what these mean.
My brother-in-law puts long lists into Excel and then prints them off and marks them off as he does them. He is much more organised than my sister who should write lists - and then stick to them.
I don't know what my other two siblings do. They do not live close enough for me to observe them. I suspect my brother writes lists and that my other sister does not. My brother's life would require it at work and his home life is busy enough to need it as well. My other sister has only herself to worry about so I doubt lists loom large in her life.
My mother wrote ruthless lists, not just for herself but for everyone else. The family lists would go up on the fridge, under magnets. There would be different lists for different people and for different events. Things would be marked off as they were done. When the list was complete it would be discarded and a new one would appear. There were always lists - along with the roster of chores.
I know other people who make lists too. My doctoral supervisor was (almost) famous for them. He would walk briskly into his office each morning, sit down at his desk and write a list. There were always the same two words at the top of the page - "make list". When he reached the bottom of his list for the day he would cross the first two words off. "If, I don't do anything else on the list during the day then I will have done that." Right.
But, right now, I have multiple lists of things that need to be done. There seem to be more lists than usual.
Is it time to make a list of lists?

Saturday 7 December 2013

I suppose I have been fortunate

because I have grown up in an extended family where it simply does not matter what the colour of your skin is.

My paternal grandfather knew all sorts of people. He lived and worked in an area which was a busy port. Ships came and went all the time. There were always sailors and officers in the streets. They came from all over the world.
He had grown up in the same area. His mother, a crofter's daughter, was one of those women who performed the role of an unofficial social worker in the days before it became a "profession" which required a university education rather than common sense. She would see people in need and do something about it. She expected her children to do the same thing - and they did. They went on doing it after her death and they expected their children to carry on the tradition and their children have expected the next generation(s) to carry on the same tradition.
When my grandparents moved to the dairy farm (their "retirement" place) they transferred their help to those in need in their new local community. My father can remember people from the local aboriginal "camp" coming to the house and being given what my grandmother could spare. He was not there often enough to make friends with the children but some of his cousins who lived at the Post Office up the road spent hours out with the local aboriginal boys. That some people did not approve of this was even more reason to do it. The three boys came to no harm and managed to learn a good many useful skills in the process.
One of my earliest memories is being swung high into the air by David Mone, a Tongan missionary my grandparents had invited home for a meal. His friendship with them continued until his death.
Other people came and went too. There was a Jewish doctor who had fled South Africa, three boys from what was then Tanganyika, an Indian who had been injured at sea - and many others as well as local people.
My grandparents never knew of Nelson Mandela but they knew about apartheid. My grandfather was an extraordinarily tolerant man but apartheid made him angry, very angry. He passed that view on to his children and his grandchildren and we have, I hope, passed it on to the next generation.
I was criticised in this morning's paper for saying I think teaching this sort of thing begins at home and by the example of your parents. The writer said the world had changed and it was now the role of schools to teach such things.
I disagree. School is only one place of learning. Real learning about such things comes from the example set by your family and what they expect you to do about it.

Friday 6 December 2013

Children's author, Lucy Coats organised a

letter to The Times to protest the sacking/dismissal of Amanda Craig. For those of you who don't know Amanda Craig she is the very knowledgeable and very able person who reviewed children's books in The Times. A positive review by her could make an otherwise unknown writer become well known.
Amanda Craig was not paid a lot - after all, she is "only reviewing children's books". Er, hmmm... cough and splutter.
I admire Lucy Coats for trying and so apparently did more than 420 other people. Among them was Nicola Morgan and if you care to prowl over here http://helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com/ you will find Lucy's letter and some more words of wisdom by Nicola. I agree with what they have to say.
I then suggested to Nicola on Twitter that people should write individual letters to The Times. She disagreed and said that it was better to shout out loud about children's literature.
Now, I agree we should shout out loud about children's literature but I also think that 420 plus individual letters to The Times asking them to reconsider would have resulted in at least one of them (probably one by Malorie Blackman the current Children's Laureate) being published. Then a lot more people would have read about the fact that children's books were losing their voice.
In saying this I am going on my own experience of how newspapers work - and how activism works. If you want to get something done there is not a lot of point in writing a letter and getting a lot of people to sign it and then hoping that they will publish it. Usually a newspaper won't. If you can pay for it to be published (in the form of an advertisement) you might get it in but a newspaper is not normally bound to accept an advertisement. But, if a newspapers gets hundreds (as it would have in this case) letters about one topic then they will print at least one. They realise it is news and that it is something people care about - and that if they fail to do it then someone else who matters them (usually a rival) will find out.
I think I might have approached the problem differently. I would have asked people to write individual letters to The Times and to people who could influence the decision makers at The Times  - with the goal of getting the decision reversed on the grounds that children's literature IS important because young readers grow up to be adult readers. But, Lucy and Nicola have approached it in their way - which is also valid.
Please go and read what they said. It's important.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Just how badly do you want

to get a job or keep a job these days? I know there are a lot of people out there working ridiculous hours, bringing work home at night, putting in extra unpaid time and not taking some - or even all - of their annual leave entitlement because they fear losing their jobs. There are other people taking advantage of this too.
It will always happen, especially when so many people are now in "part-time", "casual", "permanent-casual" and "share" positions. (I am still not sure how you can be a "permanent-casual" worker.)
I know teachers who are, supposedly, "part-time". They are working three days a week but if they don't turn up on the other two days a week then their commitment is questioned.  I know other people employed part-time or on a casual basis who also put in many more hours than they are actually paid for.
There is also the iniquitous business of "employing" young graduates, "giving them work experience", having them "volunteer" for a specific project so that the employer gets another pair of hands for nothing. "If you really want a job with us then you will work for free on this project."
One of the worst offenders is the public service. It is now almost mandatory for a young graduate to put in the "volunteer" hours. It has been going on for years because I was told the same thing and was foolish enough to do it until I realised they had no intention of employing me, just using me. Other people discovered the same thing. Oddly they were often the people who were the most able. Perhaps they were seen as a greater threat to those already there? I don't know.
But last week it seems one "employer" did go too far - or rather someone responsible for taking a young man on went too far. This young man has just completed his degree. He was anxious to get some work experience in over the summer before he starts a postgraduate course. He was prepared to work for a minimum wage just to get some experience.
He had done a fortnight at the workplace and worked both days of the previous weekend...a twelve day stretch without a break. He was expecting that it would be fine to take next Saturday off. There's an excellent reason for taking next Saturday off. His sister is getting married and, because their father is deceased, he is "giving her away".  It is a double reason to be there.
The rosters came out. He was there to work on the Saturday. He went and explained. The response, unbelievably, was "Well if you aren't prepared to work at least on Saturday morning then you don't really want a job with us do you?"
His response was, "I've enjoyed what I was doing but if that is how you treat your workers I don't want to work here."
I heard all this not from the young man himself. I have never met him. I heard it all from the man who actually owns the company in question. Word got back to him and he was, rightly, appalled. He has also done the right thing. He offered the young man a (paid) position in another area for the summer - one where he is not expected to work at weekends. He knows his own boys wanted to go out with their mates at that age, something this boy has not had much chance to do. He's a decent man and, having once talked to his employees as a group, I know he is highly regarded and that he is not at all happy with the employee responsible for the rosters.
Yes, it all worked out in the end but it might easily not have done. It made me wonder how many people are being bullied into working long hours for less than they should be paid, if they are being paid at all. And it also made me wonder who is really benefitting? Is it always "the big boss" or is it sometimes people in the middle who, sometimes under pressure but sometimes sheer bullies, make the most of their position?
I wonder if it is time to assess workplace relations in ways that, out of fear and apparent inability to do anything about the situation,  don't get mentioned often enough?

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Back of the class

but apparently not quite bottom? The "education ranking" tables came out yesterday and this morning much is being made in the media about Australia's poor performance.
In the state I live in it is claimed that a third of teenagers are not sufficiently literate to handle the basics of the everyday world and that almost half of them "failed to reach the baseline" in mathematics.
I have no idea what the "baseline" in mathematics is or just what they expect in the way of literacy skills. The media is not interested in such details and the teachers I have consulted don't seem to know either.
I know that schools are not going to revert to being the sort of places I attended or worked in but I do think they need to go back to being places of learning.
Just putting more money into education is not the answer to what is (not) going on in schools. They need to cease being childcare facilities for working parents and become the places where children go to work. School should be boring sometimes. It should not be a place of constant entertainment. Work should be the primary requirement of those who go there. School is not the place for teaching "political correctness" or a particular political view. Teachers should not be seen as substitute parents with respect to the teaching social and moral values.
We also need to teach children to read, really read. They must learn to read with comprehension and We also need to acknowledge that there are many ways of learning to read and that children need many reading resources. Forget the computer screen as the primary source too. Children need real books and a lot of them. All schools need libraries.
Children need a wide range of high quality fiction and non-fiction and teachers who will enthuse and encourage them to read those books. They need to move on from vampires, killing "games" and inaccurate "activity" sheets.
I suspect none of this will happen. There are too many educators out there who think quite differently even while paying lip service to the need to "raise standards". They want more money. They want smaller classes. They want to do less with more rather than more with less.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

My godson has just sent

their family Christmas e-mail. He has assured recipients that this is the "LAST TIME". He has, he informs us, compositions to write in English and Chinese and his own blog - as well as all the other things he has to do, such as care for his garden and pets, go swimming, take photographs and... the list runs on. He is now nine and a busy child.
My mother used to write one of those Christmas letters too. She would get me to type it up and print off multiple copies and then add more for each recipient.
The Senior Cat refuses to write one. He refuses to write Christmas cards. That, according to him, is my job. He sees no point in sending cards to people he sees.
I send cards to people I don't see - or don't see on a regular basis. It used to be fun but I have just been through the list and realised that I need to cross yet more names off this year. Oh yes, they would still be friends but they are no longer with us. Cancer has taken two of them, heart disease has taken another. I know. It happens.
I wish I could find the first serious address book I had. It was an ordinary school memo book, the smallest sort. We did "mental" in them - "mental arithmetic". How I still came to have it I am not sure but I remember tearing out the two used pages and using the rest of it because I could not find one of those indexed books.
I had it when I went off to university in England. Most of the addresses in it then would have been for people Downunder. I doubt I contacted many of them. People I worked with offered me their addresses and I politely accepted them. The reality was that I did not socialise with them outside work and I was unlikely to remain in touch. I suppose we both knew that.
There were other people too of course. We did correspond a little but there was no e-mail. Corresponding meant getting one of those flimsy blue air letters from the post office and typing it on a typewriter. The only people who were regular recipients of these missives were my parents. My mother had warned me that, if a letter did not arrive every week one of them would come and forcibly return me home. I might have been over twenty one but that was not an empty threat. It was easier not to argue but that did not mean I told my parents precisely what I was doing!
But, the other people in the address book? I know some of them are no longer here and I still miss them. Some of us have just grown apart and moved on. That is inevitable. There are some I am still in touch with. That is good.
But, I wonder about some of the other names that would be there. Who were they?