Saturday, March 27, 2010

Conversations At The Checkout

I was at the Woolworth's checkout this morning, and somehow the conversation between me and the charming lasses behind the counter ticked over to Malcolm Fraser -- quondam Prime Minister of Australia -- and his best-known quote: "Life wasn't meant to be easy."

Once I mentioned that Fraser was famous for that line, we all started to wonder why he'd said it. Naturally, I decided it must have been a result of the infamous Memphis Trousers Incident.

Well, once you start down a line of speculation like that, it's hard to stop. In short order, we began to discuss what other Australian Prime Ministers might have said, found in the foyer of a seedy hotel in Memphis without either trousers or explanation.

Paul Keating: "When I find the *&@!!$ who @$8@&@ my *&@## trousers I'm %#&$ gonna pretend I'm f^&&#$ Julian O'Neill and his (#@#$ head is one of Schlossie's shoes!"

Kevin Rudd: "Oh no! Someone arrest me before I see my own dick!"

John Howard: "Terrorists threw my trousers overboard!"

Bob Hawke: "Strewth. Wish I could remember the rest of the night. Looks like I had a good time!"

Harold Holt: "No worries. I was just about to take a swim anyway."

....and for the Americans, one of the young ladies offered:

Bill Clinton: "...Monica?"

Friday, March 26, 2010


Tree-That-Was: a truly mighty blackwood, probably close to seventy years old. That's near the end of the lifespan of such trees, apparently. The photo shows the Mau-Mau playing what was one of her favourite games with the dog. She liked to climb onto the tree-swing, and the dog would then grab the tag-tail-end of rope that hung from the bottom of the swing. Then he'd drag her willy-nilly back and forth, shaking his head and growling while she giggled and swung and clung on for dear life.

There were a tremendous lot of games around and under that tree. It must have been 25m tall, at least, and it shaded an enormous area. Today, when I walked out that side of the house, I also realised what a windbreak it used to be. The westerly wind pours unimpeded down that slope now. It's cold. I know; I've said it before. But I miss that tree.

So here's what's left. A mulch heap of truly phenomenal proportions, and a pile of rounds. Some will be taken up to the woodshed to dry slowly. Eventually, I'll give them to people who like woodturning and so forth. Blackwood is a wonderful, beautiful timber. They make high-end guitars and violins out of it.

Unfortunately, it's a bitch to work with. Apparently the sawdust is peculiarly hooked. It gets into your airways, and there it stays, causing all kinds of hideous respiratory issues. The people who work with it use heavy-duty filter masks, and even respirators.

I don't have anything like that. And I'm not nearly enthusiastic enough about woodworking to go through that much fuss. So we let the tree-feller take those sections of the main trunk that he wanted for his own use, and those bits left behind -- well, like I said. Some will go to wood turners. Some will become firewood.

Taking the tree down was, by standards of economy and safety and logic, a good decision. This slice through the butt, about a metre above the ground level, shows several notable things. The most obvious is the big, rotting hole in the middle. But if you look, you can also see the big cracks that go from the hole in the middle to the very edge. And if you know much about trees, you'll realise that this isn't a single trunk. This is actually three or four trunks of one tree, grown so close together they couldn't be distinguished. But there was bark between the trunks: they weren't one, single, strongly-forked piece of wood. They were individual pieces, and each piece was holding its own chunk of that massive, spreading crown -- and it's something of a miracle we didn't see the thing fall to pieces ages ago. Possibly on top of one or more children, or cars, or the cubby house, or the power line, or a mixture of all the above.

Nevertheless. It was a beautiful tree.

And still it serves. Here's the Smaller Son, redoubtable atop Mount Mulch. He's planted his flag, as true explorers do, and he is delighted to scramble up and down, leap off, burrow into, and otherwise lay claim to the huge pile. It's Kid Heaven. The three of them spend hours charging around that mulch heap, playing and climbing... Smaller Son actually stands on top of the pile, and hurls himself headlong into a hands-free standing somersault that sprawls him down the side of the heap, mulch flying in all directions. Daft little bugger.

And there's more. The mulch has already gone into a much-needed soft fall at the bottom of the cubby-house quick-escape slide. I put the slide on the downhill side, and it gets up a fair bit of speed... and since the ground used to slope away at the base, the kids would come hurtling off the slide, plant their feet and then go arse-over in a heap. Scared hell out of 'em. But now, with old tyres around the bottom as a retaining wall to hold a mulch-pit in place, they love their groovy escape slide.

Still more: I put in a small bamboo on the hillside above the site of the Tree-That-Was. The bamboo is a non-invasive kind, rejoicing in the unfortunate name of 'Indian Black-Butt'. It has edible shoots, and the individual stems grow up to 15cm thick and 25m tall. It's used in furniture-making -- and it's very beautiful. I bought two of them today, and they're both going up on that hillside. And to help them grow, I dug swales above them, and filled the swales with mulch. And the first of the two bamboo-babies got nicely mulched into position as well.

Still more: I'm going to put in a proper strawberry patch. Three metres by six metres, with netting and rabbit-proof fencing, and wire mesh to keep out field mice and even grasshoppers. And I'm going to need a lot of mulch, yep. You betcha.

So the Tree-That-Was keeps on giving. The bamboo will grow to frame the space where it lived, and I will put weeping cherry trees there, at the request of the kids, and there are already a dozen new blackwood trees just a few metres uphill, where Natalie and I planted them a few years back. We'll keep the space for play and enjoyment, and every now and again, I'll make sure to remind the kids of the old tree they used to play on.

And there is the first autumn leaf of the year on the little pin-oak I put in place upslope of the Tree-That-Was, Christmas 2006. It's a healthy, growing tree now, and very beautiful. I like to get live trees for our Christmases, and plant them out afterwards. This one is doing especially well.

I'm hoping for plenty more.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Dad Thing

They're outside my study right now, cutting down trees. Lots of 'em.

I'm very sad.

Some of them had to go, and I knew it. There were trees cropping up under and around the power lines. Trees planted so damned close together along the driveway that they were killing each other, and threatening to fall on the house. Whoever planted them never really gave much consideration as to what they would one day become.

But then there's the Mighty Blackwood, home of the Awesome Tree Swing. Turns out that this particular tree, gorgeous and elegant and aged and wonderful, provider of shade, home to birds, shelterer of my children... it's fatally flawed. And when it falls - which it will, one day - it's going to crush the Pirate Ship cubbyhouse, and take out the electricity line all in one go.

And no: since it's a blackwood, we can't just take out the crown. That will kill it.

I'm devastated, because it's a gorgeous tree and it's meant a lot to all of us. We'll plant something in its place, but you can't replace a tree that's near a century old. Just doesn't work that way.

Ah well.

This year is moving fast, and taking shape. Monday-Wednesday are turning a bit hardcore and feral. Yesterday afternoon, for example... my timetable went like this:

1430 leave house for Scottsdale. Stop at post office. Collect children at 1440. Home by 1515. Snacks for all children. Round up all martial arts gear and weapons. Get boys into scout uniforms. Leave house by 1600.

Collect two other kids from another house by 1610. Drop off the daughter there to play. Drive the four boys to scouts.

1630: commence a martial arts afternoon with scouts. Introduction, demonstrations, show off some weapons, warm 'em up, teach basic body movements, strikes, and break falls. Finish with iai-do demonstration: quick draw into flat, waist-level cut that splits a watermelon, which is then given to the scouts to finish off.

1845: drop off the two extra boys. Regather daughter.

1855: home. Coerce one boy into violin practice. Coerce the other into cello practice. At the same time, prepare Cantonese-style Chicken Long Soup for the family.

Meal on the table by 1920, as Natalie arrives. Feed family. Formal handover of kids. End 'Dad' responsibilities.

Zip into Launceston. Watch 'Franklyn' (damn' strange movie!) with Bruce and the others. Home by midnight...

So. You get the picture. Communcations are likely to be slightly more sporadic this year.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

They Convicted Peter Watts

Those of you who know who and what I'm talking about may be interested in reading further:

Let me add that transcripts and court records are public domain. Anyone who wants to can follow up to confirm. Essentially, Dr Watts has been found guilty of felony assault, in a court which found that at no point did he raise a hand, or offer any kind of threat in any fashion, or even attempt to impede the warrantless, unheralded search of his vehicle by the US border guards. The 'guilty' outcome is a result of the precise definition of the statute in question: very much a technicality. Given the range of things of which he was accused, and of which he was completely exonerated, this is a fucking travesty.

But it's a travesty that makes one point very, very clear. The USA is NOT the land of the free, nor the home of the brave. Not any more. And perhaps not for quite some time now.

If you live in the USA, I wish you the very best of luck, and I encourage you to do all that you reasonably can to help your country rediscover the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and in that remarkable and wholly admirable document, the US constitution. There was a damned good reason the USA was a beacon of hope for so long -- and that hope is sadly missed in these dark days.

For anyone else: if you choose to travel to the USA, you need to be sharply aware of the sweeping extent of the powers of even the meanest and least significant of (particularly Federal) authorities -- and their extreme willingness to use those powers at your expense. Dr Watts treatment at the hands of the US border authorities most closely resembles, in my memory, the autocratic and authoritarian treatment meted out by Soviet border guards in the bad old days before The Wall came down. At least the USA still has show trials before visitors are found guilty of meaningless charges; I suppose Dr Watts could easily have been 'shot trying to escape'.

I left the USA a long time ago. I've been back a couple times to visit. The way things are now, though... well, I've spoken up publically against the US position on various recent wars, and I've questioned the legitimacy of the so-called 'PATRIOT Act', and I've queried the validity of the 'Free Speech Zones' created under President Bush II. All these things are public record, and I know that various US agencies routinely aggregate data from the Internet.

What does that mean? Well, I would have no qualms about making a visit to Cuba, if I'd gone on record in opposition to the policies of their government. Nor would I fear to visit modern Russia under similar circumstances. China, now... yes, I'd think twice about China.

And regrettably, I think I have to put the USA into the same category. When 'failure to comply' becomes 'felony assault'; when a peaceable foreign national of good public character, from a friendly nation can be beaten and maced for nothing more than asking 'why' -- that's not a country where I feel safe.

Adios, America. You were a nice dream when I was a kid, but I don't think I'll be going back.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

OMFG. I Think These People Are Actually Serious.

Go! Play! Be appalled!

What's Going On

*I put a reminder notice about the ju-jitsu classes in the primary school newsletter. Result: we're going to be training newbies for a while. That's okay. It does all the kids good to get back to basics.

* I'm setting up to do a Masters in Arts in second semester. Laying the groundwork now.

* Small, secret project which involves another participant, so I can't talk about it.

* Developing a webcomic for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine

* Chopping 100,000k of novel into shape for ROR in August. Must move quicker on that one.

* New project, wildly fun: I've been contacted by an old friend and asked to develop a libretto for a new opera. It's avant garde as all hell, and likely there's no money in it -- but fuck it, how often do you get the chance to write for opera? Besides, the storyline has already fallen into place and I'm fascinated by the possibilities.

* friend with anaphylaxis (ant sting induced) is home again, but she'll be carrying an Epipen full of adrenaline from now until they load her into a coffin. Simple as that.

* another friend, recently struck down (in a savage way) with a mysterious brain disorder has been positively diagonosed with Herpes Simplex Encephalitis. And anybody who thinks that herpes is a joke needs to consider this: without treatment, the mortality rate is about 50-60%. And 75% of the survivors carry lifetime neurological impairments. Fortunately, with an early course of acyclovir and the right steroid, most people survive it these days, and the prognosis is good. My friend is recovering. He even recognised me yesterday at the hospital, which is a really good sign.

* reviews -- I'm falling behind. Got to finish the discussion of Dune the book vs Dune the movie vs Dune the TV miniseries. Also, must read original Akira manga to compare with movie. And watch doco on the famous photo of Che Guevara... damn you Bruce for all your interesting media and ideas!

* window of gardening weather can't last much longer. It's not hot and dry any more. Today is actually overcast, and gently rainy: perfect for all the plants I've put in. But I need to get outside and plant all the bulbs. I want to surprise Natalie with a big spiral of daffodils in the yard come springtime.

* still haven't insulated the damned shed. Dammit.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Stupid Is Always Right Behind You

Had a bit of an incident last week. A friend who was visiting knocked on my study door to say she'd been stung by a jackjumper ant. (Fierce, nasty, stinging ants about an inch long in the old measure. They're aggressive, more painful than your typical wasp, and capable of multiple stings.) She said she wasn't feeling well, and was going to take herself down to the surgery.

I was deep in work mode. I acknowledged her with a half-wave, and went back to editing.

Sixty seconds later, I sat bolt upright, charged out of the study, and stuck my head out the back door. She was about to climb into her car.

"Do you want a driver?" I shouted.

"No," she said. "I'll be all right." And wheezed. Loudly enough I could hear her at twenty metres.

Y'see, I know this person has allergies. And fierce asthma. And I very nearly let her climb into her own car and drive after a jackjumper sting, purely because I was thinking about something else.

And that, my friends -- that was Stupid.

Luckily I don't usually stay stupid for too long. I overruled her wheezy protests, put her in my car, and drove her down to the surgery. Ten minutes after that, she was in the back of an ambulance with an oxy mask on.

This kind of shit scares me. My wife takes it in her stride, probably because of her job. But... it's such a little fucking margin. I have three kids. Adventurous, inquisitive kids. Yes, they're smart enough not to play on the road, and they know how to react to snakes. But still: they depend on me to be grown-up, and not stupid.

And Stupid takes only a minute of distraction to close in for the kill.

My jackjumper-stung friend is going to be okay, though it's a good thing she didn't try to make the drive on her own. So, you know: this time Stupid didn't manage to score. The thing is, Stupid only has to win big once, and that's your whole fucking life trashed, right there. Just look the wrong way once. Just once, decide you're too tired to get out of your chair to check on that weird noise out by the trampoline. Pick up the ringing telephone instead of looking in on the silent kid just that one wrong time...

I can't begin to tell you how much this shit frightens me. I'm sure it scares every parent. And I expect mostly, we do the same thing: we patch together as much not-stupid as we can, and we try not to think about the other times. Because you can't be there all the time, for everything. You really can't check out every step of the way. They have to climb trees, and chase lizards, and hammer nails and play hide and seek. And you have to let them. All you can do is try to keep your tendency to be stupid at bay: watch, listen, and try to react when it's needed.

So far it's working out. So far.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Huh. That was busy.

So, I've been migrating my 'puter and software to a new machine. That always takes longer than you think, and there are all kinds of little quirks you have to iron out. Credit where it's due, though: the tip from the retailers about the usefulness of Windows 7 was on the money. It's sort of a stripped-back, low-bullshit version of Vista. Hasn't crashed on me yet, and it's running quite nicely, now I've stripped out most of the proprietary 'add-ons' from the hardware supplier, and shut down the usual range of totally farking unnecessary 'services' that Micro$oft jam into the startup.

Meanwhile: turns out the Big Big Blackwood in the back yard -- the kid swing tree, the big beautiful verdant beast that overlooks the cubbyhouse -- is terminal. And I'm completely distraught. I love that tree, and I have no idea where I'll find another one on this property which is anywhere near as good for rope-swings. But down it must come, or it will come down of its own accord, crushing the cubbyhouse and taking our electric cable with it.

Thus the tree-docs are due, sometime in the not-too-distant future. And there will be many trees felled (along the power line, mostly!) and much production of mulch. A few tonnes, I'm told.

I'm looking forward to the mulch. My efforts at above-ground strawberry growing didn't pan out, probably because the pvc-piping troughs I used were too shallow. But with the blackberries and raspberries producing more than we can eat, I'm more determined than ever to get strawberries in. And of course, that means I have to overcome wallabies, rabbits, slugs, grasshoppers, birds, field mice, and the dog.

Birds I can exclude with netting, but that makes the berries all the more slug and grasshopper vulnerable. But if I have many tonnes of sawdust mulch, I can make the ground very slug-unfriendly, and inhibit the growth of any greenery other than the berries, which will help discourage the 'hoppers. And if I use a bit of decent fencing to keep out the mammals, I can also put a layer of shadecloth to about 1m height all the way around, which will further discourage the hoppers. And if I put a reasonably fine wire mesh all the way around on the inside of the fence, to about 50cm - well, between that and the shadecloth, I should be able to keep the field mice at bay.

As you can see, this is no light undertaking.

Natalie succumbed to the threat of winter this week or so last, and we've finally installed a reverse-cycle AC system: what they call a 'Heat Pump' down here. The techies say it costs about the same as a refridgerator to run, and should render the old - rather inefficient - radiant heaters around the place redundant. More to the point, it should also make redundant the now 25-year-old cast-iron firebox in its inbuilt brick casing. Much as I like the old fire-box, I'd love to break it down, remove it, and replace it with a much smaller, much easier to maintain wood-fire heater. I'm concerned that the old one has some sprung joints. Last thing I want is a houseful of carbon monoxide courtesy of a decrepit fire-box.

The weekend was all over the place. Natalie was on call for much of it, seemingly from Thursday onward. And on Saturday, she phoned me and told me I should rescue one of the med students who was in town. The lass in question had turned up for her very first night of 'on-call' stuff, and walked right into a tragic, fatal, utterly depressing situation. Kind of overwhelming for somebody just 20 years old, first time off the rank.

And so it was we acquired a house guest for a couple days. I plied her with gin and decent food, and the kids played Wii-games with her, and the Mau-Mau adopted her and had tea parties with her in her room, so Miss Medical recovered in reasonable order. She was helpful, too -- I had to zip into Launceston on Sunday morning for some reason (can't recall why, now. That's weird. I know I came back with some timber to help insulate the shed, though. What else did I go there for? Must have been something. Oh, yes: to drop off the DVD player for repairs, and to return Natalie's little flatscreen TV to Dick Smith for exchange on warranty) and the boys were off Cleaning Up Australia with the Cubs. Another of the Cub Scout Parent Network collected 'em and took 'em to the cleanup site, but it was good to have Ma'amselle Medical here, awaiting their return, since I was off running errands. Besides, it gave her a chance to have a long, therapeutic soak in the tub.

Meanwhile, a friend of ours confessed she'd never had a birthday party. She also rather sheepishly asked me if I could maybe make one of those chocolate mousse-cake arrangements for her (the dessert recipe I built for Natalie this year.) Once Natalie overheard, there really was no way around it -- so Monday was party day. (It's a public holiday here in Tas. I think it commemorates the Eight Hour Day. No, really.)

The lady in question has simple, Old Australian tastes in food, so I produced a pumpkin soup, charcoal roasted lamb, roast new potatoes, corn, a green salad, and of course the chocolate mousse-cake. Cheers once more to Nigel, the King of Lamb -- I'm going to have to give him a buzz, and see if he's got any more of the little bleaters for sale. Best... goddam... lamb on the planet. I used a leg roast and a rolled roast; scored the surfaces, rubbed 'em down with salt and minced garlic, stuck sprigs of home-grown rosemary into every crevice I could find or make, and roasted 'em in the big kettle barbie, with a handful of good-quality sawdust to make for some fragrant, smoky flavours.

So - between the hats, the party favours, the presents, the roast dinner and the chocomoussecake birthday thing (complete with electric singing candle, courtesy of Natalie) the party went off just fine. Certainly, the guests left very late, in fine fettle.

Meanwhile: I've finally moved my little lime tree from its pot to a new position by the fence in the front yard. I dug it in well, with mushroom compost to keep it company, and the inevitable wallaby/rabbit proof fence. It's had a couple years on the deck in a big pot, hardening it to local conditions. I don't suppose it's ever likely to produce a tonne of fruit, but I think it's ready to handle actual dirt, and I want to get that pot off the deck. Besides, I need the pot for parsley, I reckon. I've stuck basil and mint into the half-barrel by the lemon tree. I've got rosemary, vietnamese mint, dill and sage in the fenced herb garden. But I'm greedy, and I like cooking with herbs, so I'm planning to add more.

Meanwhile: chainsaw's working nicely now. And I've just spent a half-day trimming back the Blackwoods we planted seven years back, so they don't grow up with the kind of disastrous problems that the Big Beautiful Doomed Tree has got. I'll have to wander around the property and check on the wild Blackwoods which have come up, too. They're a beautiful tree, and a native, so I'd like to give them the best possible options for survival.

Meanwhile: the water pump is working okay, but it's about time for a total service. I'll have to top up the water tank, and then go through the routine of disconnecting the pump and taking it off to the maintenance johnnies.

Meanwhile: caught up on my slushreading. Wrote a review. Wrote another review. Did an indepth analysis of a novel-length MS for my sister. Falling behind on my own writing at the moment, though. Every time I turn around, seems there's something else that demands my attention. Have to fix that situation, somehow.

Eh. It's autumn, isn't it? The first sou'westerlies came through yesterday, chill breath of the Antarctic. Little enough time left to be outdoors, planting and fencing and mulching. Best to do it while I can.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Fellow Fathers Take Note: I Have Found Something Of Purest Fucking Genius

One of the drawbacks of Growing Up: you forget the purity of play, the sheer anarchy of expression that goes with childhood. To put it bluntly, grownups need rules.

Kids need 'em too, of course. That's why so many kid games end in screaming arguments with hurt feelings all round. But the difference is that BEFORE those arguments, the kids are having the most brilliantly expressive and creative gameplay you could want. Whereas the adults -- well, they usually don't wind up in screaming matches, no. But that's because of The Rules. And those same rules generally prevent all that amazingly fun gameplay.

Thus it is, my fellow parents, I offer you Brikwars. Unbalanced, loony, fucked-up table-top miniatures gaming rules using Lego bricks, or the equivalent. Plus any other bits of toy crap that happen to be lying around.

Seriously. This stuff is pure goddam genius. Dads of all ilk, I urge you right now to go to the website, locate the rules, and prepare for mayhem with your offspring. Even the rules themselves are hilarious -- as I write this, I'm flicking over to the website in question and reading, and I'm giggling like a loon at the concept of 'Stumble Dice'.

Oh man. I have absolutely GOT to get myself a really, really big bag of secondhand Lego stuff. The boys are totally not going to know what hit them...