Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Not that I expected it.
I got the results of my recent CAT scan today. Lungs all clear. Normal. No action required.
Can't say I'm at all surprised. I'm not a smoker. The only risk I can think of would be possible brief exposure to old asbestos while carrying out urban spelunking missions at Uni of Qld back in the 80s and 90s. And besides, I would have figured lung cancer to do more than give me an annoying cough which has been fading away.
I do believe my doc is now planning to investigate me for reflux, on the theory that cryptic, low-level reflux may be irritating my airways and causing me to cough. I wouldn't know, I suppose. I'll co-operate, and be a good lad.
Heh. Nat and the boys are enjoying their newfound association with the Launceston Community Orchestra. They get to play actual music, and do it together, which makes for a happy house at times. I like that.
One of the pieces they play is "Norwegian Wood". Since someone asked at the dinner table what the song was supposed to be about, I sang it through for the kids. I like Norwegian Wood. It's a cool tune, and the low-key description of the encounter between the singer and the girl is reminiscent of more nights of my misspent youth than I can readily recall. Except I never slept in a bath, because I'm too damned tall for that.
Anyway, once I was done with the song, we went back to eating. Finally, the Mau-Mau looked up. She was clearly troubled.
"Why in the song didn't they brush their teeth?" she asked plaintively.
Good question. So, Mr Lennon: why didn't you include a line about brushing your teeth in your classic song, there? Inquiring five-year-old minds want to know!
The new Telstra account seems to be working well. It will be nice not to have this loud satellite modem on my desk any more. I can use the space, and it will be great to hear the rest of the house again.
I'm also in the process of changing over one of my oldest email accounts. It's a long, tedious process, but there's no point in paying for an inferior service when something better and more accessible is offered free of charge courtesy of Google. But I do wish there was a better way of shifting all my contacts across. That's what I get for using non-standard email client software, I guess.
I suppose this also marks a goodbye to Foxmail, which has been my preferred email software since somewhere around 1997. Ah well. Never mind. I didn't much like the most recent versions anyway...
Monday, March 28, 2011
Two and a half months. Nearly three, actually. Four separate trips into Launceston. A dozen or more phone calls to Telstra, the longest of which lasted more than an hour and a half -- and that was AFTER I got through their labyrinth of recorded bullshit.
Today I connected up the high-gain aerial I bought last week in Launceston. Bought, I should add, from the Telstra Business Office in Mowbray, and not from the almost-completely-useless Telstra store in mid-town. (By which I mean: I ordered the aerial through them in early January. I went back in mid-February and asked about it. They were very apologetic, and went about ordering it some MORE. Firmly, this time. In mid-March, I went back to talk to them again... but this time the woman at the counter hit me with her Rudeness Raygun, and I left. That hour-and-a-half phone call? It confirmed that the Telstra office in Launceston had never at any time placed an order for a high-gain aerial to my account. What had they actually done? Nobody could answer that.)
Yes, I connected that metre-long black whip antenna to the base station. And then the real fun began. Naturally, I couldn't get it to speak Internet. So I tried reinstalling the base station, but it wouldn't recognise the password that went with the username. So... gritting my teeth, I phoned Telstra.
The recorded messages were painfully useless. Particularly the one that wanted me to cite the account number. That particular bit of good cheer told me I had to say "continue" when I found the number -- but then it stumbled. And repeated itself. And stumbled again. And repeated. And I couldn't actually at any point tell it the number.
STUPID F___KING RECORDING!
Eventually I got a Telstra tech. Like almost all Telstra tech support I've ever dealt with, he had a strong accent that I was hard-pressed to follow, but we worked our way through for a bit. And then he told me that I couldn't update the password because I didn't have access to the user account.
Two and a half months of work. I mean - the home phone is in Natalie's name, but we're both on the books as "people who can authorise changes". And this new Bigpond account -- the only reason it EXISTS is because I packed up my three kids, drove into Launceston, then waited forty minutes to see a service johnny, and then spent a further forty minutes working through the specifications of the account.
Except, of course, that the account is linked to Natalie's mobile, isn't it? And despite the fact that I was allowed to set up the account, rearrange Natalie's mobile payment details, authorise the purchase of the base station and decide which mobile broadband plan we were going to use... well, it's Natalie's mobile, right? And, you know, there's nothing on the books authorising me to have anything to do with that, is there?
I kept my temper. I asked the idiot on the other end of the line if he seriously expected me to ring my GP wife at her surgery so she could phone BigPond and spend forty minutes with a recorded system in order to authorise my access to the account I'd created in the first place.
Strangely, the pillock actually did think that was the way to go. So I asked for his supervisor.
Somewhere into the second quarter-hour of hold music, I hung up on them.
I gave 'em a few minutes. I tried again - because the recorded voice kept seductively promising that it could help me change the password. Except, of course, that every time I tried to supply my account number, the F__KING thing would stumble and repeat itself. Again.
Eventually, I wound up with another heavily accented tech. But THIS tech was far, far less stupid. Once he ascertained I was trying to reinstall the system, he told me to quit messing around, and gave me the URL of the control page of the base station/router. And of course, once I was there, it was child's play to enter the proper username and the password... and it worked like a charm.
Unfortunately, the signal strength still varied between 'low' and 'non-existent', meaning that I could get maybe thirty seconds of access at very infrequent intervals. But perhaps that was because the aerial was still sitting in the house, leaning on the wall. I put it out the window, fetched a ladder, and wandered round to the outside.
With a little electrical tape, I temporarily attached the aerial to a long rod, and I taped that to the top of the ladder. The aerial was now well over the roof height. I went back inside.
Signal strength was still deeply forked. Bummer.
I thought about it for a bit. Particularly, I thought about the nasty, finicky little joiner which had been provided to allow me to connect the skinny co-ax cable from the aerial into the back of the base station. Typical piss-poor design: the connect-o socket for the co-ax on the back of the base station doesn't actually connect -- you have to put a double-ended adaptor onto it, and each end of the adaptor has to individually screw into place: one on the cable, one on the base station.
The adaptor is about three centimetres long. And naturally, they've located the connecto-socket in a place where there's a kind of shield in the way, so you really can't get your fingers in to do the job properly. I'd done the best I could... but had it been enough?
I found a pair of electronics pliers. Then I tightened the two opposite-turning collars on the adaptor... and lo! All of a sudden, the signal strength indicator jumped to 'high'!
Instantly, I jumped online and tried a few YouTube videos. (Hayseed Dixie, if you must know. They're hilarious.) And by Odin's long and scraggly beard... IT WORKED!
Like magic it worked! I promptly tried three different broadband speed check sites, and discovered that this setup is about two to three times the speed of the crappy satellite link. About 1.3mbps, as a matter of fact. Whooo-HOO!
So. Next hurdle: I went upstairs, fired up Natalie's computer, and looked for the new wireless link.
Oh dear. Nothing.
At this point, a lesser mortal might have caved in and gone back to phone Telstra again. But not yours truly. Nope: I opened up that control-page URL again, and noodled around until I found a whole bunch of settings - including WiFi. Working with my little ASUS eeepc on my lap, I tweaked the settings until I could find a wireless signal, log on, and download. Then I trotted back upstairs, and had another crack at Natalie's computer.
Success! This time her computer not only found the new network, but logged straight on and happily took to reading the BBC news. Yes! Calloo, callay! O Frabjous Day! Genius = me!
But the job still wasn't done. Because, of course, the actual aerial was still taped to a paint-roller handle that was taped to the top of an aluminium ladder. And that configuration would almost certainly turn out to be sub-optimal in the event of inclement weather... or even me needing my goddam ladder back.
So I grabbed the coach bolts kindly provided with the aerial kit. And the hose clamps, yeah, them too. I loaded a decent drillbit into my cordless drill, found a socket spanner to fit the coach bolts, and trundled up to the top of the ladder with all my gear, plus the steel hockey-stick thing provided as an aerial mount. With balletic grace, I drilled a couple of pilot holes left-handed (since my right hand was involved in maintaining vertical integrity of myself, the ladder, and the hockey-stick thing). Then I coach-bolted the blasted thing into place on the eaves. Yay!
Up the ladder to the roof, going very carefully. I freed the aerial from the jury-rigging and duct tape, and placed it alongside the steel hockey-stick thing. Then I dropped the hose-clamps into place, and did them up nice and tight with the screwdriver I forgot to mention earlier. (Spanner. Socket. Screwdriver. Drill... yeah, lotta tools up there on the roof. Did I get them all down? Jeez, I hope so.)
And there it was. Solidly mounted. I gathered my tools and descended once more to earth. Then I put the whole lot away, and put the ladder back in the shed, and went back inside.
Miracle! The signal strength was still "high". I was still Net-enabled!
Ladeez and gennulmen, I have done it. After nearly three months, I have managed to activate and then render useful this Telstra 3G account.
And what do we get after all that effort? Well, there's our blinding new 1.3mpbs speeds. Yeeha. And there's 12 -- count them! -- TWELVE gigabytes a month available for a cost maybe twenty bucks down on the price we've been paying for 15gb a month from the satellite dudes. The thing to note, however, is that our new 12gb allowance is NOT restricted by time of day. No "peak time" bullshit, in other words.
Y'see, with the satellite people, only 3gb was available at what they called "broadband" speeds between the hours of midday and eleven pm. And if you used more than that 3gb during that period, you were 'shaped' back to 64kbps.
Can I just point out that most of the Internet -- even text-heavy pages like Wikipedia -- won't even load at 64k any more? It just sort of... hangs. And Cthulhu help you if you actually needed to access anything interactive. Ugh.
We never used our full 15gb in a month... but we frequently needed to buy expensive data blocks to avoid having our Internet access rendered useless for half of every day for the last week or so of the month. 12gb of broadband speed available 24/7 should hold us for a while.
What's that? Pathetic and expensive, you say?
Well... yeah. It is. I'm well aware of that. But it's an improvement of sorts. We'll keep the satellite maybe one more month to make sure this system doesn't have any hidden bugs - and then we'll switch over. And who knows? Maybe someday they'll connect us to that magic NBN which is only ten or twelve km down the road...
...ha. As if.
The worst thing about this situation? I'm back to dealing with Telstra again.
Fan. Fucking. Tastic.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
It started Friday morning, more or less. Or maybe it started Tuesday night. I'm not sure.
Natalie took the Younger Son to Queensland on Tuesday evening. She had a medical conference to attend, and she felt that it would do the boy some good to hang out with his grandad (Nat's father), who is a long-time rally-driver, dirt biker, and competitive sailor.
Younger Son, as you know, was born with Attitude. Thus, for the first few nights I got phone calls (via Natalie) from the kid, telling me all about his adventures riding a motorbike, learning to swim (finally!) and so forth. All good.
Mind you, that left me doing sole parent with two kids. Still, that's not such a big deal. The only real issue was Wednesday evening, when I had to teach the ju-jitsu class. The Mau-Mau is not yet an attendee... so she caught the bus home from school to her best friend's house while I took the classes. That worked okay.
However, a very dear friend of mine had the very poor manners to schedule his wedding for Saturday. (Yeah, I'm staring at you, John.) I mean - it's not even his first! He's done it before!
Nevertheless, I wanted to attend. Of course, it was happening in Briz.
So -- I teed up a couple of minders, and I packed bags for both kids on Friday morning. Elder Son Jake went to his best friend's house for the weekend, and the Mau-Mau went to hers. (And I am undyingly grateful to two different families for that one!)
Meanwhile, I rounded up things about the house, packed my gear, grabbed a fine bottle of Tasmanian bubbles for a wedding present, and hit the road.
I got into Briz on Friday evening, and immediately incurred another debt. Another beloved friend of many years standing -- the other half of the Barnesm team, as a matter of fact, whom we shall call 'Charlotte' in honour of her unnatural predilection for Victorian literature -- kindly picked me up at the airport, and drove me out to the wilds of Fig Tree Pocket, where my sister lurks. Seeing as how Charlotte was also on the invite list to the wedding in question, we organised a pickup time for the morning, knocked off a pizza, and then she headed back home. I had a couple beers with my brother-in-law who is one of the more relentlessly big-hearted, decent, kind and funny individuals I know, and then I did The Big Crash.
So, yeah. Next day saturday. And the world being what it is, by coincidence also the fourteenth birthday of my nephew. Seeing how he's fourteen, and I had no real idea of his interests (I knew he used to like archery... and that's about all I knew) I slipped him a decent-sized bill, and then did my best impression of a Bad Influence Uncle: I taught him how to sweep the cards on his deal so that he put an ace on the bottom of the deck. Then I taught him how to keep the ace on the bottom of the deck through the two most common forms of shuffle... and finally, I taught him how to deal a card from the bottom of the deck without being spotted.
I'm not sure he realises the value of these skills yet. But nevertheless, I'm quite proud of myself. I feel I've done my duty as Bad Influence Uncle. I also taught him to cut the deck when anyone else volunteers to deal, and gave him a few pointers on how to spot a rigged game, how to avoid the most basic forms of con and cheat, and when to get the hell out gracefully to save his hide.
The wedding invite said "dress for cocktails." I did. Rum cocktails, to quote my comrade Arian, who was also at the wedding. In fact, I was the only bloke there without a tie. I hate ties. I hate suits. I don't do them. So I had my best piratical shirt, my leather vest, a gaudy sash, my baggy black Thai fishing trousers, and my black, suede, kneehigh moccasins.
Before you ask: yes. That is absolutely what I would wear to some sort of goddam cocktail do. In any case, John invited me. He knew what to expect, and he didn't bat an eyelid.
The wedding went off very nicely. There was a smattering of folks there I'd not seen in many a year, which was entertaining, and it's always good to swap bullshit with Arian. (I also left him with a message for Girl Clumsy... which should be entertaining.) The new Missus John is a gorgeous, doe-eyed lass who goes by the name of Amy, and gets the Flinthart Stamp of Approval. We had a fine conversation about "The Journey To The West", by Wu Ch'en En, and I look forward to further discussions at some time in the future. But in the meantime, the couple is off to China to have a SECOND wedding in China, for the sake of Amy's family. (Her parents were there, and a few others, but I think she has a bit more in the way of family back in the Old Country.)
I did, in fact, get invited to the China do as well, and I was sorely, sorely tempted... but the timing is not at all good, and then there's the money, and... ah, hell. At least I made it to the Brisney do, eh?
John's dad was looking pretty good, despite being 80 not out. He was, at one point, a professor of mine at UQ, teaching a course on science fiction. He's had the odd stroke over the last few years, and speech isn't as easy for him as once it was, but he's still sharp as ever, and he knows how to get his point across when he wants to. Late in the evening, after I'd had a few ales and was shooting the breeze with John, said father came out with a copy of 'How To Be A Man' in his hand, and the most wonderfully accusatory expresssion on his face. Once I finished laughing, I pointed out that clearly, not all my hours in his tutelage had been wasted...
The bride and groom made a disappearing act at a very reasonable hour, in a car duly decorated in shaving foam, toilet paper and soft-drink tins. Mme Charlotte and I trundled off not too much later, and after another couple of brother-in-law accompanied ales, I crashed out again...
... because the next morning at 0900 Briz, Charlotte collected me and we went off to Chermside in pursuit of another very dear old friend. This gentleman I shall refer to as Major Disaster for his connections with the military, and for his frequent bouts of accident-induced hospitalisation. Seriously: this man is amazing. I have seen him cut his finger on a drinking straw. He's not clumsy or stupid - far from it! He's simply one of the physically unluckiest individuals I have ever seen, and it is occasionally downright scary. I can only hope the two endearingly cute kids he has managed to raise with the aid of his good wife, Madame Disaster, have not inherited this particular problem.
I'd not met the kids before at all, since Major Disaster and co have been hangin' in Wales for lo, these many years past. But now they are returned as prodigals to the fold, and all is right with the world, more or less. Or at least, he wasn't wearing any new bandages when I saw him.
We had about an hour and a half at Chateau Disaster, and then it was off to the airport. A farewell to the lovely Mme Barnesm, and then a stint with the Deathstar, and I was home...
... about an hour and a half later than I expected. So I had to race like hell to collect Jake and the Mau-Mau from their various minders, offer up heartfelt thanks, then get home, make 'em a nice cup of hot chocolate, and put 'em to bed.
Natalie and Younger Son are due in 'roundabout midnight, at last text notification. I'm guessing the Deathstar is treating 'em roughly the way I expected. And for those of you wondering why we actually succumbed to the Deathstar, it's simple: nobody else at all flies direct Launceston to Brisbane.
Which sucks. Because the Deathstar is no way to fly.
Good weekend. Nice to see so many much-loved faces, and very fine to be part of John and Amy's big day. But... it's good to be home!
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Thursday, March 17, 2011
It occurs to me that in posting successful and interesting recipes, I give a somewhat mistaken impression of my cooking. Not everything works.
Of course, I'm long past the early, foolish stage of throwing together something new and trying it out on people. Nope: when I want to try something different, I do it quietly, and consider the results for myself.
Case in point: I was just preparing some twice-cooked pork, and I really went the indulgent path, shallow-frying the already steamed, marinated, and seasoning-coated pork-belly pieces in vegetable oil. (Normally I'd stir fry them with veg. Or even grill them.)
There was a half-packet of Udon-style Japanese noodles on the countertop, left over from young barf-boy Jake's luncheon. (He had a tasty, easily digestible soup with a little thinly-slivered spiced beef and fresh vegetables as well as the noodles.) Seeing as how I still had a pot of hot oil after the pork came out, I figured I'd chuck in the Udon noodles and see what happened.
For those who may not know, Udon noodles are a relatively thick rice/wheat noodle which you can often find in Japanese soups and stews. They're a bit chewier than your usual rice stick, and actually, they're a big favourite around here. I wondered what would happen if I dropped 'em into oil hot enough to give 'em a crunchy outer surface.
The answer? Nothing good. By the time the outside goes crunchy, the middle has become very damned chewy indeed. I may consider trying this again with MUCH hotter oil, but for the meantime, the idea is: don't deepfry Udon noodles.
To which you might reply -- why the hell would I want to do that in the first place? And I'd have to say: I'm not sure. But you never know. Sometimes these odd experiments turn out very, very well indeed. Like making ice-cream with Mascarpone instead of cream, for example. That works brilliantly.
But not fried Udon noodles. Nope. Yuck.
Turns out I'm not asthmatic.
At least, that's what the peak flow/spirometry test I did yesterday insists. As a matter of fact, the doc reading the results took one look and said my lungs were in remarkable shape. Apparently one one of the key indicators was at something like 120% of expected for my age and size, while the others were not far below 100%. And given that I've been rattling and coughing horribly for a month and a half, I guess being a little below 100% is kind of understood and assumed.
More to the point, there was no significant change after a dose of Ventolin.
So -- what's up with that? They treated me as an asthmatic as a kid, and it certainly seemed to work when I got wheezy. Then I did a lot of swimming in my teens, and I did some growing, and it went away.
I know I've got occasional allergies. I discovered just last spring that if I take something like Telfast once a day, suddenly all the night-time snot and sneezing goes away. That's pretty cool.
But this cough. Yeah.
You might remember that a few years ago, after a truly amazing bout of laryngitis, I lost the ability to produce that deep, chesty cough that is oh-so-necessary when you've got a good bout of lung lurgi. It just went away. I can cough, sure, but it's all up in the throat, not in the chest, which is annoying as all fuck.
I'm pretty healthy generally, despite the best efforts of my children, so I don't usually have chest problems when I get some kind of cold, and even here in Tas, I'm usually good for maybe one decent cold per year. Two in a bad year. But I admit it: I've been expecting to get something ugly, and hard to shift, purely because I can't cough like I should. Means all that crap rattling around down there doesn't really move the way you'd want it to, you see.
Right now, the Mau-Mau has a deep, rattly cough of which I am, frankly, quite jealous. Younger Son, meanwhile, has at least temporarily freed himself of any kind of cough at all, which is great since he's being treated as an asthmatic too. Elder Son Jake, who brought the whole goddam cough home with him from summer music camp, is over it completely, but is currently lying in his bed having barfed all over the place at school this morning.
And me? Comes and goes. I can exercise effectively again, which is good, but I'm definitely not up to par. And I tend to have wheezing fits at odd times -- wheezing fits which, despite the spirometric analysis, do seem to be somewhat improved with Ventolin.
Thus, on Monday, I shall be off to have my very first ever CAT scan. Wooowee! Technology! Yay!
It's going to be a busy day. I need to get my ID at the university, and grab a couple books from the library. I need to pick up a present for Jon Strugnell's upcoming wedding. I've also gotta get a Mantoux test to rule out Tuberculosis, of all things... gotta love this medical stuff, eh?
Meanwhile: looks like three extra kids staying over for the weekend. (Assuming Jake improves. Which he probably will. Wish I knew what was going on there, though... he never throws up.) Natalie's aiming for a bike ride on Saturday, and Younger Son is due to head into Launceston for another bass lesson.
It's all good, I guess. I've still got a little bit more time this year, even adding in the extra driving around for gymnastics, and the fact that I'm tutoring a youngster in the flute. Hopefully the writing will unroll in front of me nicely...
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
I believe I have mentioned from time to time that the Younger Son is... a little dangerous.
Nobody ever takes it seriously, though. He's the middle kid, after all. Jake is taller and much more talkative and gregarious. And of course, the Mau-Mau is terminally cute, and vivacious, and determined to be the centre of attention. Younger son is just a small-ish, slightly stocky blond boy with a mischievous grin.
Of course, if you look carefully, you discover stuff. For example: he's been helping me in the kitchen, slicing vegetables, since before he turned four years old. Seriously -- he really wanted to be involved, and he showed me that he had the necessary concentration and dexterity. He's not fast, no, but he handles a chef's knife better than most adults I know.
And for his fourth birthday he got a cordless electric drill. Okay - it's actually a cordless screwdriver, because his hands are small, but he loves taking things apart and trying to figure out how they work, and an electric drill was the great desire of his life at the time. He still has the device, with all its bits. And he still uses it.
Then there's that slight stockiness. He's going to basic gymnastics once a week now. Last week, he broke their local record for holding a reverse-grip chin-up. Watching him on the beam, you feel he might as well be trotting along open ground. They use an odd, lozenge-shaped cushion thing to force the kids to work their balance while doing deep knee bends: Younger Son doesn't wobble at all while he's doing his bit, and instead of doing a measured count of knee-bends, he just keeps going until they finally notice and tell him to stop.
He's not a talker, though. It would never occur to him to make much of these things. They're natural to him, and from time to time he expresses puzzlement that others can't do the same. But he is learning. And he has something else on his side: patience, and a devilish concentration.
They've only been back at school about four weeks. In his new classroom this year, Younger Son found that one among the various laptop computers didn't have a power supply. When he asked, he was told that the power supply had been misplaced because they'd lost the password for the computer, and they were waiting for the (harried and harassed!) IT guy to come and reset it.
Younger Son ferreted about the classroom until he found an appropriate power supply. Then he asked for permission to try and use the computer. His teacher, not knowing the little beast for what he is, apparently thought nothing of it.
The passwords for these 'puters are alphanumeric, and nine digits in length. There are some limits on the character range they use at the school, but I'm not going to detail them here. Likewise, they have some habitual patterns they use in their passwords, apparently, but again, no details needed.
It took him about two and a half weeks of brute-force password entry tests. And then one day he came home with a big grin. "All the other kids want to use my computer," he said. "But I won't tell them the password."
Of course, he'd not told me anything about the whole matter, so I had to tease the details out of him. But yes: he'd slowly, patiently, methodically worked his way through a range of potential passwords before he found it. And now he has essentially private access to the hitherto unusable computer...
He will be nine years old on his next birthday, on Christmas Eve. I have absolutely NO idea what to give him for his birthday this year...
Sunday, March 13, 2011
Frankly, I should just say "see it", and leave it at that. But to be fair, the film is pretty damned cool, and deserves more.
I wasn't expecting much. After all, 'Rango' is directed by Gore Verbinski - and even if I did enjoy his work on the first 'Pirates' film, there's that whole Hollywood-populist-director bullshit to overcome. And it was animated.
First clue that it's a lot better than you'd expect? It's not in 3D. Coulda been. Wasn't. And the animation is farking beautiful. Much, much more beautiful than with stupid glasses balanced on my nose, giving me a headache.
Second clue? Well... there's that cast. Johnny Depp as the out-of-place chameleon who calls himself Rango. Ned Beatty as the mayor of the town Dirt, doing a vocal James Coburn so damned good I found myself trying to remember whether or not Coburn is still alive. (I don't think he is.) A whole bunch of others with some decent acting chops. Yeah.
Then there's Hans Zimmer's score. I am really starting to like Zimmer's cinematic work. Loved the 'Pirates' score. Really enjoyed the 'Sherlock Holmes' score. And this one? Well, let's just say the blue-grass version of 'Ride Of The Valkyries' done on banjo is about as special as it gets.
The storyline is nothing too outrageous. Rango is a chameleon who lives in a tank. During a move, he falls out of the car and into the desert somewhere near Las Vegas (and there is a fucking hilarious cameo from an animated Hunter S Thompson which will send anyone who remembers 'Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas' into fits of laughter. Damn near killed me.)
Abandoned in the burning sun, Rango-to-be finds a shaman in the form of an armadillo flattened on the road who gives him the usual sage, cryptic advice. Then he wanders off and is found by a female lizard named 'Beans' who takes him to the local dead-end town, Dirt.
Dirt - and the rest of the movie - is populated by animals who stand in for the usual Wild West characters. And frankly, it's here that the movie begins to become truly outstanding. There's been a lot of good animation in the last few years, but the visualisation of the animal characters in 'Rango' is truly brilliant. The creatures are utterly believable, wholly convincing to the eye - and yet they still suggest the classic Western stereotypes from which they are drawn.
The film is doubly plotted. The town is running out of water, courtesy of the villainous machinations of a character who shall not be announced in this review, not that it would really spoil anything, and it's up to Rango to save it. And of course, Rango himself is nothing more than a creation: a lie, invented on the spot to keep himself out of trouble. (He's a chameleon, remember? Blending in is what he does.) Therefore he has to undergo the inevitable quest to discover his own true nature, and be the hero of his own story.
Neither of these is particularly new, of course. But they are played out with subtlety and just enough irony against a backdrop composed of a loving homage to all the great Western films -- and the animators are allowed to join the game, which makes the entire 'feel' of the film truly wonderful. For example, the scene of the animal posse riding out on roadrunners, silhouetted in distorting heat-haze against a setting sun, is done so very beautifully that were it shot in a 'real' film, somebody would be up for cinematographical awards. Here, in an animated film, it's entirely gratuitous, and therefore hilarious in its self-aware irony - but it's also still very beautifully done, enjoyable on several levels simultaneously.
The film is full of clever, subtle pop culture references, and some which are less subtle but still clever. It's beautifully realised. The dialogue is marvellous. The characters are charming, and deeply individual while recalling their western-film origins. There's plenty of action, remarkable visuals, tonnes of invention, and an altogether satisfying conclusion to both levels of storytelling.
I'm very glad I saw 'Rango' on the big screen with the kids. I'd see it again, if it wasn't such a fuss, and I'm sure I'd get new things from it. As it is, I'm going to buy it on DVD and chances are it'll become a favourite for family film festival nights.
Rango is hot. Go and see it. Now.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
I was chatting with a friend a while back. Not what you'd call deep stuff. But - we've made different life choices, she and I. And we were kinda comparing notes a little, and thinking, and she allowed as just maybe, you know, the family-and-kids thing has something going for it.
And she's right, yep. But that doesn't mean the choices she's made don't work. And I'm never really going to know, am I? Because I made my choice and here I am, and I'd be five kinds of an idiot if I bothered to regret it, or wish for something else. Life is what it is. One finds a way to live it, and appreciate the living of it.
But as a result of that particular conversation, I did do a little thinking, and honestly - yeah. There's some shit I miss from the no-kids side of the equation. I could make a few quips about money, and sleeping late, and being able to find my books and tools wherever I leave them, but they've all been done a thousand times before. And besides, they all actually relate to one common thread.
What I miss: I miss being able to make simple, tiny choices without the possibility of weighing down somebody else's life, maybe for good.
I'm going to have to explain this by example, because if you aren't a parent, then I truly don't believe you can really wrap your head around what I'm saying. Because it's just not intuitive. It's too big. It's too pervasive. Ten years now, I've been a parent, and I'm still just beginning to understand.
Let's consider something simple. You're cooking a hardboiled egg. The phone rings. Do you duck over and pick it up?
Of course you do. Unless you have a small kid. Because if you have a small kid, the first thing you do is turn the handle of the pot to the back of the stove, and turn off the heat. (You were already using the burner at the back. You use those burners for pretty much everything, even though the big one at the front delivers more heat.)
And once you've secured that pot of boiling water you take a look around and assure yourself of the kid's whereabouts. Then you grab the phone. And because you're a parent, it's a walkaround phone, so you can go back into the kitchen to keep an eye on that dangerous pot of water while you talk to whomever.
What time do you get up in the morning? Any morning? Every morning? When do you go to bed? How much do you choose to drink, in terms of alcohol? Or even soda - because what their parents do is, for small children, the very literal definition of true and right and proper.
Driving. How many of you curse at the fucknuckles on the road who brake and turn without indicating, pass on blind corners, swerve gormlessly around at 60kph on roads designated for almost twice that speed?
Yeah, the kids are listening. What I do these days: I point out the vehicle in question, and I show my older kids the reason why what they're seeing is dangerous as hell, and stupid. (Like the tailgater on Thursday afternoon who followed me out of Launceston all the way to Nunamara so close behind I couldn't read her license plate in the rear view.) But I don't curse, and I don't run down the drivers of those vehicles: I just point out that their driving is dangerous and stupid, and that hopefully, when the kids grow up they'll remember not to do that.
What do you read? What do you watch? Do you get your exercise in? Do you clean up after yourself? Your speech -- is it articulate and thoughtful, or do you toss poor English after half-considered slang?
Everything you are, everything you do is up for evaluation. Your kids -- they want to be proud of you. They want to have reasons to believe in you. Do something clever, or accomplished, and they think it's wonderful. Problem is, do something half-assed or stupid or foolish and they'll find excuses for you, and they'll take away the lesson that half-assed and stupid and foolish are okay.
It's a bitch. Stone-cold. If you've ever worked in a job where the boss was watching you every second, you've almost got a hint of it. Except you get to go home from a job. And you can quit. And fuck it, no matter what else, it's just a goddam job. It's not you. But there's almost no time-out from the parent gig. And home is where it happens. And if you quit, you're not done: you've just become a bad parent, a fuckup - and chances are, your kids will love you anyway and take it all on board, maybe even blame themselves.
It's not a job. You even try thinking of it that way, and you're lost.
I'm sure the day will come when I'm not carrying this any more. I'm sure of this because somewhere along the line, I figured out that both my parents were adult human beings whose choices were entirely theirs, and didn't necessarily have to have any effect on mine. My mother's dead now, but I think she finally got used to the idea, in the last few years of her life. And I know my father has worked it out now, even though he still occasionally lapses into trying to set an example for me... but that's cool, because he does it for 'most everyone he believes might be smart enough to learn from him.
I'm not sure how I will feel about it when that day comes. The unrelenting, ubiquitous nature of this responsibility is such that it can very easily feel like it's your reason for living. You can become a parent first and foremost, and forget the other parts of your life. People who do that - you see them once the kids leave, and they look around like they can't quite figure out what the hell just happened, or where they should be, or what they should be doing.
I don't want to be that way. I need to keep hold of the other stuff. Writing. Martial arts. Drinking good wine. Languages, art, travel. Making music purely because I enjoy it.
But oh, hell, it's hard.
Monday, March 7, 2011
Long-time readers of this blog will know that from time to time I will reference the broader media -- usually with regard to some issue I consider to be important, but frequently to highlight some piece of utter nonsense that makes me giggle.
In the latter department, the Northern Territory News seems to crop up with disturbing regularity. And once again, that august body has not disappointed:
You can click the headline above to find the full text of the article. It is a piece of journalistic glory from yesteryear, replete with innuendo, alliteration, and piss-poor punning. Most importantly, it brings to light a serious issue of OH&S that lesser mainstream outlets are simply too fearful, too cowardly to cover.
All crap aside, I love the NT stuff because it's a window onto an Australia that seems now gone. The complete lack of propriety, the broad humour, the willingness to believe that we're all in on the joke together -- I miss that, in these buttoned-down, uber-sensitive PC modern days.
Yeah, I know. It's crass. And not infrequently offensive, if you choose to take it that way. So sue me: I grew up in Far North Queensland, where people rode liloes down flooded rivers and hurled empty beer bottles at the saltwater crocs to make 'em keep their distance.
It's a complex world. I miss the kind of place and time when you really could hope to solve most problems by sitting down with the opposition and cracking a slab.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
Okay, yeah. Things are working out so far.
I'm learning. Every year, I stop taking on new responsibilities roundabout mid-October, and I don't start again until March or so. Why? Because the end of year carousel is an enormous pile of overload, and agreeing to extras during that time is just pointless. You can't say "yes" to anything in a meaningful way, because you may rest assured that any loose time you THOUGHT you had will be taken up by kids, end-of-school-year stuff, Christmas stuff, visitors, medical students, etc. It's imperative to leave as much time as possible open just to have a margin of safety for the inevitable stuff -- car problems, health issues, random events, etc.
By the first or second week of March, though, the new school year is in train. All the changes are more-or-less rung. I know, for example, that Monday is My Day. No kids, no wife, no significant obligations until dinner must be cooked, and then sword training. Tuesdays Natalie is home too. That doesn't bode well for work. Wednesdays Nat is home as well, and there's ju-jitsu in the afternoon. Thursdays are chopped to the shithouse by relentless to-ing and fro-ing to the school with musical instruments and language-study stuff. Fridays should, in theory, also be useful... but by Friday, you can count on a fistful of imperative errands, plus a bunch of stuff postponed from earlier in the week.
And the weekends are full of kids. Which is fine, yes, but don't expect to get a whole lot done.
So today I did some one-on-one ju-jitsu training with Jake, up in the tricked-out dojo/shed. I ran the pump. I pruned the biggest cherry tree back, rather brutally. Did a few loads of laundry, cooked a mushroom soup with autumn mushrooms that have cropped up in the garden. Got some grocery shopping done, of course. Did some reading on a novel MS that I'm assessing for somebody, took a lot of notes. Yep.
Not a really big day by any means. But through it all, I managed to find time to be around the kids, do a few things here and there. I helped Younger Son figure out how to pull the ink cartridges out of an old bubblejet printer somebody gave him. Younger Son loves pulling complicated shit to pieces, and this was a real bonus: it was a 'Brother' brand printer, so the colour cartridges were all separate. He took 'em all out: red, yellow, blue, and black, smashed 'em open, and gave himself the wildest set of body-paint tattoos you're ever likely to see. Good fun, if you're eight years old, yep.
Younger Son is a hoot. I just wish he and his mother wouldn't argue so much. I don't think Natalie has realised how much alike they are - so when his temper flares and he gets stubborn and bolshy, it rubs her completely the wrong way, and then she kind of reflects it back and it gets even worse. What do you do with an angry eight-year-old and an otherwise sane woman who loses her perspective when she gets caught in an argument with the eight-year-old?
Bad enough that Younger Son and his sister are perpetually trying to one-up each other. It's annoying, yes. But when mum gets involved too, the whole bloody house becomes practically unlivable... and I'm left wondering which one I should be telling to 'grow up'.
Ah, sibling arguments. I suppose I should be entertained. For sure I did enough arguing with my sister as I grew up. But I did grow up. And you wouldn't find me getting involved in that shit any more. There's no bloody percentage in it, is there?
Ate a Blood Plum off my tree today. I put it in about three years ago. This year there's a dozen or so plums on board, and they're delicious. I've had to pick them a little early, for fear of evil possums and parrots, but they'll be fine in a day or two. Got some nice apples on one of my little trees too, and on still another, a couple-dozen almonds. It's nice when all the work of keeping the bastard wallabies and rabbits at bay pays off, even if only in a small way. I can only hope that those of you reading this have had the privilege of eating a ripe plum straight off the tree, sun-warmed... or a decent apple (Cox's Orange Pippins, as a matter of fact) fresh as they get.
Doesn't make up for the dodgy crop of berries this year, mind you. But that's okay. I'll cut back the canes in a month or so, when they've gone dormant, and I'll clean 'em up, and then I'll supply a serious load of blood and bone, and next summer we'll be swamped with 'em.
Meanwhile... I'm thawing a big chunk of lamb. And I've got ripe pepperberries. I shall smash them up with fresh garlic and sea salt in the mortar and pestle, and make a paste that I shall apply liberally to the beastie. Then it will be roast in the charcoal barbecue until it is terrifyingly delicious, and it shall be eaten with crispy potatoes, green salad, and a fine, swaggering brute of a red wine. Hooray!
To finish: a new recipe.
Mr Flinthart's Rather Good Mushroom, Bacon and Sweet Potato Soup.
One medium-sized sweet potato
300 gm bacon, rind removed
400 to 500gm nice, big field mushrooms or portobello mushrooms
two garlic cloves
two white onions
cream, milk - or both. Plus a very little cornflour.
Chop up the sweet potato, put it in a small pot with just enough water to cover, and simmer until the potato is cooked. Add a couple tablespoons of fish sauce and allow to cool.
Dice the bacon, the onion and the garlic. Add fresh ground pepper to taste. Cook with a little olive oil in a large pot, over a low heat, until the mixture is much reduced, the onion has become clear, and there is a significant amount of 'pot liquor' at the bottom. Now slice up those mushrooms and throw them in as well. Put the lid on and 'sweat' the mixture for a while. When the mushrooms have darkened and softened, stir the whole mass thoroughly.
Now, with a hand-held blender, puree the sweet potato in the cooking liquid (with the added fish sauce.) Pour the lot in with the mushrooms, and stir.
By now, if you take a spoonful of the mushroom mix, you'll find the flavours are strong and bold. To improve the texture, and to bring the flavours together and soften them a little, whisk maybe a tablespoon of cornflour into two cups of milk. (You may choose to add a half-cup of cream or so for extra richness. Not sure how necessary that is, with all that bacon.)
Add the milk and cornflour to the mushroom soup, and stir thoroughly. Adjust pepper to suit yourself. Add more milk if you want to soften the flavours and increase the volume a little; otherwise, simply serve with a little sour cream, fresh parsley, and crusty bread.
Goes well with a chardonnay.
Dice the bacon. Slice
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
I've been quiet here 'cause I've been hard at work. Got that libretto off to the opera people, for example. Yay! Mind you, it seems (rather unsurprisingly) that the opera itself may be a teeny-weeny bit delayed, what with half of Queensland and specifically, large chunks of Brisbane going inconveniently under water and requiring all kinds of money and resources for patching up. Seems the Queensland government doesn't necessarily see opera as its first priority at the moment. Philistines!
Back in the harness at the ju-jitsu classes as well. There are quite a number of new youngsters along, and a few extras in the somewhat-more-senior class too. It's nice to see, and all grumbling aside, it's nice to feel like I'm able to provide something valuable to the parents and kids around here. I'm desperately trying to get all my paperwork in order now. Oh, for the good old days when you just hit students with a stick every now and again, and gave them a scroll once they'd learned enough to take the stick away from you and beat you senseless with it.
The weather continues most peculiar-wise. On the first day of Autumn, it was -- distinctly autumnal. Like somebody threw a switch. It went from being relatively warm and pleasant to being distinctly chilly. And today, I swear, we had an honest-to-god south-westerly wind. Cold, dry, and hinting rather boldly at wintriness to come. Natalie will be pissed off. She hates the cold.
The new regime is working out. Monday evenings: sword. Tuesday evenings: films with Cool Shite. Wednesday evenings: I teach ju-jitsu. Thursday evenings: the kids go to gymnastics after school, in Launceston - but I'm sharing the drive duties with Viking Neighbour Anna, who also has a couple of spawn in the affray. Friday evenings, the two boys go into Launceston to play in a community orchestra - but that's Nat's problem, 'cause she plays in the same group. Every second Saturday, the Younger Son goes into Launceston to have a bass lesson, and the Mau-mau had her first dance classes last Saturday, which may wind up being an ongoing thing.
Thursdays are the joker in the deck, I think. I'm up by 0730 handling breakfasts, kids out the door stuff. But I can't put them on the bus, 'cause the Mau-mau has her piano lesson on Thursday, at 0900. So I have to drive down with her electronic keyboard (it's weighted. The school doesn't have a weighted keyboard. So the one we have at home has to travel) in the car, and set it up in whichever area has been allotted this week for the lesson.
A couple hours later, I have to bring Jake's cello to school so he can have HIS music lesson. But before that, I pick up Jake and Younger Son, and we go off to study Swedish for a while. (Yep. It was Spanish. But there's nobody much around to have a Spanish conversation with... whereas Viking Neighbour Anna and her savage brood of junior coast-raiders are fluent in the Swedish lingo. Which is a heap of fun.)
After the language lesson, obviously, I need to come back to the school at some later point to collect the cello and the keyboardy thing, and every second week to collect a gaggle of kids and take 'em into Launceston for gymnastics.
Parenting is kind of tiring.
Meanwhile, the paperwork for my Masters degree has pretty much all been done. I think. I keep getting notes and forms, and dutifully filling them in and sending them away. I know what I'm supposed to do. I know how long I've got in which to do it. Next I have to have some kind of a meeting with my Prof... but he's a very decent chap (I know him from U of Q. He directed a student comedy review in which I took part, among other things. Odd to find him no longer a drama student but a full prof of lit, with a family and kids and so forth. On the other hand, he probably finds me just as damned unlikely.)
And in other news: huugge congratulations to Shaun Tan for taking the short-animation Oscar! His film "The Lost Thing" is a wonderful little work of gentle, ambiguous sadness. It's based on his book of the same name, and you could do a lot worse for yourself than picking up a copy on DVD. Shaun is one of Australian speculative fiction's real gems. I've only met him peripherally, here and there, but the way he treated the kids in his group at the WorldCon last year suggests to me that the rumours about him being a really nice, really decent human being are entirely true. He's already picked up a swag of awards for 'The Lost Thing' and earlier works such as 'The Arrival' (which is a hell of a thing; a very thought-provoking book in the form of a hardbound comic, without a single word of text... really amazing work) and of course, 'The Rabbits', which he did with John Marsden -- so while an Oscar was probably unexpected (sure caught Pixar by surprise, I hear!) in my opinion, it's well-deserved.
I managed to get some reading in, here and there. I'm still compulsive on that count. Input, input, input. Not as many novels as I'd like, but that's only to be expected this far from a bookstore.
One that did intrigue and perplex me, however, was Isabel Allende's 'Zorro'.
I've always liked the Zorro character. I enjoyed the breezy fun of the first of the recent flicks, with Catherine Z-J and Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas. I appreciate the qualities of the older versions - the famous Tyrone Power film, and so forth. I've even read some of the way-back-when novels that made the character famous.
Zorro was devised as a pulp character, during the first boom of the pulp era in 1919. Those early pulps didn't aspire to greatness. They aimed to be cheap, and fun to read. With time, some very skilled and powerful writers rose out of the pulp tradition, keeping the strengths of the pulp stories and adding truly literary qualities to create works that persist in the public mind today. I'm thinking of Raymond Chandler, naturally enough, but there were plenty of others. And indeed, even though the writing in those old novels was often slipshod (actually... damned crappy in many cases) nevertheless, there was something about the larger-than-life characters they created which caught people's attention. Who hasn't heard of The Shadow, or Doc Savage, to name just two?
Zorro wasn't high literature, though. And that's why I thought it might be interesting to see Isabel Allende's take.
I will admit here that prior to this, I've never actually managed to finish one of her books. Allende has fine, measured prose, and an eye for creating characters with texture... but in the three or four of her better-known novels I had previously attempted, I'd never actually noticed much by way of plot, action, or suspense. To be more clear: as a storyteller, Isabel Allende couldn't keep me interested in a moderate-length novel. Elegantly depicted settings with lovely characters circling aimlessly about one another for a couple-hundred pages simply aren't enough for me.
Call me a philistine. (But if you do, take care. If we start pissing in each others pockets about how much classic reading we've done, you're going to need a very, very deep pocket.) Or simply acknowledge that Allende has her strengths - but active storytelling isn't one.
And indeed, I'm afraid her version of Zorro was rather bland and bloodless. Oh, the ideas are all there. Her Zorro is half-Amerindian, raised with all kinds of cunning Native American knowledge and skill. She offers up a villain, a romantic interest, a secret society of swashbuckling do-gooders... but she does it all from a lukewarm, dispassionate distance. All her action sequences are narrated from afar, without any feeling of real peril or suspense. All her seductions are depicted rather clinically off-screen, with an almost old-maidish sense of distaste.
I finished the book. I promised myself I'd do that. But I'm afraid that as a Zorro novel, it was just another Isabel Allende watercolour.
I guess she's playing to her strengths. I guess it's too much to ask for vigour and pace from someone whose writing style doesn't lean in that direction. And it's clear she's trying something different with a classic character anyhow. Credit where it's due: this isn't some hamfisted attempt to shove a polemic into a piece of genre fiction after the manner of Richard Flanagan's 'Accidental Terrorist' (which was an appalling insult to the intelligence of people who enjoy crime fiction and thrillers). This is Isabel Allende creating an 'origin story' for a historic character; an effort to give depth and texture and psychological rationale to a creation mostly known for his accessories: cape, mask, whip, and sword.
On the other hand, if I really wanted I could kickstart something of an argument on this book. Allende says in the afterword that she grew up with Zorro stories, and loves the character. That doesn't show, I'm afraid. Her version of 'love' appears to be a classic emasculation of everything best-known and most widely remembered about the character.
How so? Well, the story is told by a female narrator who repeatedly demonstrates her greater intelligence and insight than the central character. Diego de la Vega gets a raft of new characteristics... few of which are particularly admirable or desirable. His bandito mask, for example, arises from vanity: his ears stick out without it. He retains his strong sense of justice, but invariably his 'adventures' arise from wounded pride, or thwarted romance: he is portrayed as fundamentally, permanently immature, a 'man-child' forever at play, incapable of real adulthood. He is incapable of forming effective romantic relationships at an adult level; always drawn to women who don't want him, doing little more than dallying with women who do -- and completely incapable of facing up to women who might be a real match for him. Oh - and the narration simply walks away from him when he reaches full adulthood, and finishes by summarising his career as a hero in the briefest and most disparaging terms.
From a swashbuckling folk hero to a petty, vain, self-deceiving womaniser who does good, yes, but frequently causes as much harm in the process, and creates as much trouble as ever he manages to quell. Quite a reconstruction, coming from someone who 'loves the character'.
Is this interpretation in keeping with the original character? Yes, most likely. I think it's quite reasonable to place this slant on Zorro. If you want to. Or if you really feel the need. But is it necessary or enjoyable? Does it actually enrich the legacy of a widely-loved character?
Personally, I don't think so. And if there were a 'masculinist' movement as widespread and effective as its distaff alternative, I might waste a bit of time carping and complaining and playing the victim. But really, who gives a damn? If Allende wants to reinterpret this character from a deeply matronising (yeah, I have to use the term. Because it describes perfectly the approach she's taken. Think 'patronising', but apply it to the dismissive fashion in which women like to belittle "boy stuff") viewpoint, that's her gig. She's got plenty of readers, and she showcases her usual strengths in her prose, so hopefully it will be well received by her usual demographic.
Still. If a male writer, just for argument's sake, were to take a beloved female character from literature and reinterpret her in a similar fashion... eh. Can't have that argument anyway. Where the hell would he get such a book published? I doubt even an Ernest Hemingway or a Norman Mailer could get away with it these days.
Right. That's enough for the moment. Gotta go pack some lunches for tomorrow. I've just used some leftover puff pastry and some fresh-grated parmesan cheese to make simple cheese twists. They'll make good snacks for the munchkins - and right now, the whole house smells pleasantly of toasted cheese. Yum!