Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Iceland's boss just married her female partner. And here?

Gillard's just shown the limits of her tolerance.

How do we get these politicians who are permanently stuck in the 1950s?

A Tip Of The Hat

It should be obvious to most by now that I do not like politicians. With very few exceptions, I find them to be lying, self-serving, fundamentally dishonest, manipulative, untrustworthy, contemptible little people, obsessed and consumed by the game of 'power'. (It is a sad but accurate truism, in my experience, that the people who most desire the power to rule are among those least fit to do so -- and anyone with the sense and integrity to potentially rule well also has the sense to stay the hell away from the job.)

Nevertheless, sometimes one of 'em will say or do something which hints at, perhaps, a touch of truth, or possibly even a degree of honesty. And since hope springs eternal and I believe in positive reinforcement, I will usually make the effort to acknowledge such things.

Our shiny new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has already disappointed me by not taking Stephen Conroy and making him Minister for Licking Public Toilet Floors in Kings Cross - a job for which he may not actually be qualified, I admit, but which he certainly deserves. I understand the Ms Gillard has a delicate line to walk for the moment. She's in power as a result of a nasty little coup, and no matter how much Kruddy-boy earned his newfound political obscurity (and he most certainly did earn it, yes) there will no doubt be people who look askance at her for taking power at his expense. Some of those people have to be placated. Conroy is part of the price.

I know this. But I remain disappointed, because Conroy is a poisonously stupid human being, whose ridiculously 19th century outlook bids fair to completely cripple our chance at 21st century communications and democracy. Still, there's an election coming up. Perhaps we can convince Conroy's constituents to wake up and smell the effluent.

In the meantime, I am honour-bound to acknowledge that today, Julia Gillard managed to earn a small degree of respect from me. Questioned by the media regarding her religious affiliations, she very clearly explained that she does not believe in a God.

Unmarried but living with a long-time partner, first female Prime Minister - she's already on tenuous territory, in theory. And now, here she is outing herself as an atheist. Yes, fine, she's claimed the moral high ground by professing her tolerance for the faith and beliefs of others -- but it doesn't change the fact that she has quietly but firmly broken away from an image and an idea that few world leaders can escape. (Gough Whitlam did say he wasn't Christian, of course. But he said he was a 'fellow traveller', whatever the hell that means.)

It could be argued that if she'd claimed to be Christian, she would have been found out. But these days, what difference would that make? All she'd have to do would be to claim the others were lying to 'smear her and her faith'. In fact, it would have been easy to turn it around and make faith an issue, what with Tony Dicktogs being something of a notorious fanatic.

She didn't do that. She just asserted her personal stance, and left it at that.

That's not going to earn her a lot of friends in the Jebus camp. But hopefully, the smarter ones will recognise her statement of truth for what it is. And the dumb-ass ones were probably all going to vote Conservative anyhow.

As for me -- well. I haven't changed my mind about politicians in general. I've known too many. And Julia Gillard is still a politician. But as of today, at least, I will give her credit for more courage and integrity than most of the politicians out there. That doesn't make her a decent human being yet, no. But it brings her closer than anyone we've had in government for a very long time.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Birthday Celebrations

Urgh. I'm very tired.

It was one of those things that just seems to happen. We planned a simple tenth birthday party for Elder Son, themed around 'Science Fiction', with a bit of a retro kick. And here's a shot that'll give you the idea:

From left to right: Younger Son is the Robot Sidekick. The Mau-Mau was utterly delighted to be painted green as the Small But Intensely Annoying Alien. (Yes. She loved that bit the most of all.) Elder Son, the star of the show as it's his party, is resplendent in the silver helmet and lightning-bolt T-shirt of Rick Steele, Space Hero. And on the end there is The Time Traveller, who has come forward from the Victorian era - or some equally moustachioed point in history.

It should have been simple. I had a couple of games sketched out. We had the snacks laid on. And we planned to finish up with a really retro SF film on TV so we could all point and laugh at the dopey 1950s stuff.

Well. First, my oldest friend in the world turned up with his wife. They came all the way down from Far North Queensland, where he and I grew up, and they stayed with us Friday and Saturday night. Which of course meant they were here Saturday afternoon and evening, yep.

Now, my old friend Kev is from a big family, and his various brothers and sisters have done themselves proud in the brood stakes, so he gets along well with kids. Very well, actually. That was handy, certainly, because it meant I could slough the Robot Sidekick suit onto him: he and Younger Son spent a couple of cheerful hours in the morning with spray paint and cardboard boxes and scissors and duct tape and sparkly pipecleaners - and Kev's wife Sue kicked in with glue and pictures cut out of various catalogues and magazines.

The real problem was more in the guest list. Y'see, it happens that most of Elder Son's invitees were part of multi-kid families. Families we get along with. Families whose kids play with our kids. And so, instead of inviting, say, TWO kids of roughly his own age from these families, it was only proper that Elder Son invite a total of seven. And then there were the singletons from elsewhere.

So: ten kids who know each other well and play together frequently. (The Mau-Mau's two bestest friends were included in that group. Just to enhance the potential for kid-based disaster.) Plus parents who also drop in on each other a lot. Plus a couple of old and dear friends whose sense of humour closely parallels my own.

In the end, it was barely controlled chaos.

The kids rocketed around on their own for a while. When they showed signs of boredom, I broke out the padded lightsabre/swords, and introduced 'em to the game I called Use The Force, Luke.

In this game, you have two teams of two competing at a time. You could have more teams, but I only had two padded safety swords. One player is the Padawan, who wears a blindfold and carries a padded sword. The Padawan's job is to whomp five kinds of crap out of the opposing Padawan, who likewise has blindfold and padded sword. Each Padawan has their very own... uhh... fuck it, can't remember the Lucas-speak, so I just called 'em "Obi-wan". The job of an Obi-wan is to shout directions to his particular Padawan, so the Padawan can zero in on the opposition.

Of course, that implies that the 'Obi-wan' types are capable of thinking about left versus right for someone else... and that the Padawan players are prepared to listen. What really happened was that the two Padawans would stagger around, waving their padded swords until they hit something. Usually a bystander, but occasionally a tree, a dog, or even a house. At this point, the Padawan would flail away violently while everyone else laughed themselves stupid. Eventually, the two Padawans would finally (generally by accident) blunder into one another, and thwack away until one was declared dead.

Seriously: I nearly choked when a young Darth Maul-painted lad staggered too far sideways, and thwacked the Robot Sidekick. Because, of course, poor Younger Son in his Robot costume had bugger-all peripheral vision, and therefore no real idea of why he was suddenly being clobbered with a padded stick. Young Darth Maul was not to be put off by that, though: he just kept pounding away until somebody managed to drag him off and point him at the proper opposition...

The sun went over the mountain about then, and the temperature plummeted. Natalie started a small cookfire. Meanwhile, the boys decided that even if the game was officially over, they didn't want to play any other sissy party games. Not even with the official Frisbee UFOs I'd bought for the party. Nope. What they wanted to do was go on beating the snot out of each other with padded swords, but this time, without blindfolds.


That went on until Natalie's cookfire got going, whereupon everyone charged off to singe marshmallows and wieners. Of course, now that Elder Son is ten, he and some of his older friends are capable of making off-colour 'wiener' jokes that are actually kind of funny, so when you've got a dozen kids and half a dozen adults jostling for position around a small fire, trying to toast wieners...

Actually, the moment that nearly killed me came when I was headed back into the house. One of the younger kids who was quite innocent of all this 'wiener-joke' stuff bumped into me. And he had a complaint. You see, one of the other kids -- his older brother, actually -- had rather maltreated him during the cookfire. The quote went like this: "He whacked my wiener off, and it fell in the fire!"

That really didn't help me with the beer I was trying to drink. When I managed to breathe again, I consoled the youngster, pointing out that we'd have no more whacking of other people's wieners at this party, because that sort of thing is just weird...

The temperature just kept plunging, though. We ducked inside, and turned on "This Island Earth" for laughs. I made a lot of popcorn, and we watched an appropriately square-jawed and deep-voiced scientist get kidnapped by aliens who closely resembled older, taller Oompa-Loompas. These 'Metalunans' had the immaculately forced curls of the Gene Wilder Oompa-Loompas, except their hair was white, not green. But they were tanned to almost the same shade of orange. They also had dangerously epic foreheads.

The movie was satisfyingly crap, yes.

At the end, some youngsters left. But some remained, as did parents, and friends. So we decided to extend festivities to a dinner party. Very nice, yes. By this time, the remaining kids had worked out that Kev was a total sucker, so the four boys were continually jumping on him, trying to clobber him with whatever weapons they could grab. I offered him all the support he could expect from an old friend: I got him beer. Sometimes.

Finally, once we'd finished dinner and cake and stuff, Natalie dragged out the Wii and "Lego Rockstar". And oh, dear. Did I mention my friend Kev is one of the most thoroughly tone-deaf and rhythmically deprived people I have ever heard of?

Let's put it this way: when he got the microphone and began singing, pretty much everyone stopped to stare. Keep in mind that this is 'Lego Rockstar', which is kid-friendly and pretty noncompetitive. And that the difficulty was set on 'Easy'.

Given those pieces of information, you will understand my assessment of Kev's musical talents more thoroughly when I tell you that at the end of his session, he had scored a total of 3%.

Yep. Three percent.

Never seen the like of it before or since. I'm planning to make him a T-shirt that says "Mister Three Percent", just as a reminder.

Anyway. We drank and sang and thumped on drum-simulators and twanged toy guitar-analogues and had a damned good time for a whole lot longer than the kids should really have been awake.

Never mind. Elder Son had himself a fine tenth birthday party. Various parents had a damned good evening. Kev and Sue -- who have now gone on to Cradle Mountain, where they will be freezing their tropical little arses off right now -- seemed to enjoy their visit too... and once I get a solid night of sleep, I expect I'll feel a lot better as well!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Dear Make-A-Wish: For God's Sake, Stop This!

...because my children are now all camped out under the high-tension power lines, trying to catch leukaemia.


Make-a-Wish Foundation Gives Boy a Millennium Falcon

It's every little boy's (and computer nerd's) dream to fly the Millennium Falcon. For little Christian Bently, however, this dream actually became a reality.

The Make-a-Wish Foundation granted this 9-year-old's request to have a Star Wars–themed fort in his backyard complete with a kick-ass construct of the fastest spaceship in the galaxy. It was delivered to Christian on Monday and serves as the topper to his illustrious fantasy fort.


Rest of the article is here. Who knew a simple cut-and-paste could transfer so much? Blogger has become sophisticated...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Decade Of Dadness

Elder Son turned ten years old today. Which gives me much pause to think.

We're a bit rushed this week. His official party is Saturday, so there's been little preparation for today. That's unusual for us, but as I said: we're rushed. Badly.

Still, I found him a really cool present. I managed to locate a very cheap ($50) DV camera a while back. It records to SD card, and creates AVI files, so it's super-easy to use and to edit. When I got it, I thought it would be good for him to take it to Borneo -- but in the last month, he's been getting really interested in making little 'movies', and since he's got some editing software on his 'puter... well, he was pretty pleased when he unwrapped the thing this morning.

Meanwhile, Natalie grabbed the other two kids and took off for Launceston, to find a few more presents. Naturally, when she came back she had two new pet rats (for the daughter and the Younger Son) plus a new rat-cage... sigh. We needed more rats. Yep.

Anyway. A decade of being Dad. That's hard to wrap my head around, you know?

In that ten years, I have:

- shifted my life and my family to Tasmania
- acquired a house
- assisted in renovating same
- learned how to handle a small rural property (big, big job)
- figured out how to handle babies (another big job)
- figured out how to handle small children (when the babies stopped being babies)
- written three novels (published none yet, though)
- written and published more short stories than I can easily remember
- finally taken my black belt
- taken responsibility for my own (small) ju-jitsu class
- taken up sword training
- acquired an array of new skills too long to list here
- become a father twice more
- kept my marriage together

None of these things has been easy. And I have learned things. I have learned:
- that I no longer have the time to do everything, if I ever did
- that my life is finite, and I have to prioritise
- that it doesn't matter how much you plan, children change everything
- that one's greatest strengths are also one's Achilles heel
- that I can't fix everything
- that there are people I would like to help that I simply cannot, and I have to deal with that
- that I can't be useful to anyone if I'm not healthy and grounded and prepared
- that most people don't notice when one changes habit, or opinion
- that most people actually can't change habit or opinion without major upheaval
- that the ability to change one's habits and beliefs is incredibly important and valuable

I've learned a great deal more, too, but the list tends to include things like 'don't leave home-made ginger beer out of the fridge too long' and 'baby poo turns greenish-black when the kid eats his own body-weight in blueberries at one sitting'. You know: simple, situational stuff like that which really isn't relevant to most people.

I'll finish this post soon enough. Then I'll wander around and gather up the gear I need for tonight's martial arts classes. I've already folded away five bags of laundry, done a bunch of work on the shed, arranged lunch for the kids and Natalie, and figured out how to put together an irritatingly badly designed rat-cage -- but the day is young yet. I've got a lot more to do before I get to rest.

And tomorrow will be even more complicated, judging from the calendar. First day of the new after-school Introductory Martial Arts classes. Oh, and I'm supposed to cook some kind of cake or slice for Elder Son's class excursion tomorrow. And he doesn't get back from that until nearly eight o'clock at night, which makes the evening quite difficult.

Never mind. That's how it works.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Dear Iceland

Dear Iceland:

Mostly, you are awesome. I love all your geysers and your glaciers, and I don’t mind that your volcanoes are occasionally irritating.

Historically, you’re amazing. Your democratic parliamantary arrangement is one of the very oldest in the whole world, going back to the times when you guys were better known for wearing cowhorns on your helmets and singing about Spam.

Your ancient myths and stories are fantastic, and continue to influence modern culture. (Can you believe they got Kenneth Branagh to direct the ‘Thor’ movie? That just has to rock!) Your contemporary musicians are creative, quirky and interesting, even if Bjork occasionally does sound like she learned to sing by hanging out at the dolphin pond at SeaWorld.

Lately, you’ve been really super-amazing. The bit where you decided years ago to use all that geothermal energy and transit to a hydrogen economy: that was inspired. Sure, it’s a bit of a no-brainer since you’ve got no oil, and you’ve got plenty of lava and water, and you’re a long way from everybody else... but you’d think it would be a no-brainer for a country like Australia too, wouldn’t you? And you’d be wrong. So you’re excellent, Iceland.

And I love the fact that you got fed up with your governance after last year’s banking debacle, so you simply elected a professional comedian as mayor of your capital city. That is totally cool. Here we just elect total dickheads and then laugh bitterly when they turn out to be both amateurish comedians, and deeply, stupidly amateurish political leaders. If we had the brains to elect comedians first up, we wouldn’t be looking at a choice between Tony Dicktogs and Mister Apologia right now. But we’re not as awesome as you, Iceland.

But your brilliance doesn’t end there. I was delighted and overjoyed by the bit where your government passed a law recognising gay marriage. Oh, sure — you’ve got an openly gay head of government (and how fucking awesome is that, anyway?) so some people might argue it was always going to happen... but you didn’t just pass that motherhumping law, did you? No: any two-bit cheap-ass tinpot pretender to democracy can pass a big-hearted, liberal-minded, intelligent law (sometimes, anyway. Maybe.) You actually passed it unanimously. Unanimously! As in: not only did none of your elected representatives vote against it, but they didn’t even do the pathetic limpdick cop-out routine of ‘abstaining’. Forty-nine to zero. That is just beyond awesome right there. You win, Iceland.

But that’s not enough for you, is it Iceland? Nope. You’ve gone ahead, forging a path into a mythically delicious 21st century of progress and enlightenment that we here in the rest of the world can only gape at, and envy. Your move to create a true, protected space for modern journalism, thus providing a haven for heroes like Julian Assange and Wikileaks is nothing short of brain-shatteringly tremendous. A country where open dialogue is supported and protected? A nation that stands up for the rights of its people to be informed and to undertake meaningful debate? A state which is prepared to welcome and protect whistleblowers and advocates of truth and openness?

I’m running out of superlatives here, Iceland. I stand — nay, I kneel — in awestruck supplication before your astonishing foresightedness. I would move to Iceland tomorrow if I could convince my wife and children it was warmer than Tasmania... or I would, except for one little thing.

Just one thing.

One question.

What the fuck do you have against whales, Iceland?

What did whales ever do to you? Did a whale kill both your parents in Crime Alley when you were just a little island? Did a giant radioactive whale destroy your home planet, so that your parents had to put you in a rocket-ship and send you to Earth? Did a whale steal your girlfriend, break your truck, take your job and kill your dog? Did a whale give you up, let you down, and run you 'round?

Whatever it was those whales did, it must have been truly terrible. Because I cannot for the life of me understand why else the single most progressive, thoughtful, open-minded and otherwise excellent nation that has ever existed would insist on hunting down a bunch of big, harmless, friendly, ecologically vital animals and blowing them up with exploding harpoons.

You are incredibly awesome, Iceland. But whales are pretty awesome too.

The world is big enough for both of you, I promise. Please stop killing whales. There are plenty of other things you can shoot exploding harpoons at. Why not start with our Prime Minister? That way, we can have a go at electing a comedian too!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Vampires Are Mostly Dead. And They Eat Blood.

You know what? I'm tired of 'sexy vampires'. Really. The whole goddam meme stems from Bram Stoker's Victorian-era morals; his obsession with sex, and his vision of vampirism as a metaphor for syphilis and similar STDs. And of course, as the 20th century faded into a miasma of recursive, self-cannibalising pop culture, death itself got sexualised and vampires became the symbol of sexy death.

And it is boring me shitless. Really.

'Twilight' is dreadful pap. And the Sookie Stackhouse stuff that's now become 'True Blood' on TV? Eh: I read one of the books, and I seriously wish I had that two hours of my life back. Abysmal. Cardboard. Crap.

This stuff was shite when Buffy was swooning about over unobtainable tall-dark-and-fangsome sorts, but at least it came with half-interesting dialogue. It was turgid, over-written tripe when Anne Rice first interviewed some tosser in an old suit down in New Orleans - and folks? That was published in nineteen fucking seventy-six. Get. Over. It.

It's a dumbing down, a simplification -- a stripping away of depth and dimensions leaving only surface. What started out as a literary metaphor with at least a half-measure of subtlety has become a flat, day-glow icon with all the interest and all the intrigue of a 'no smoking' sign. It's friggin' boring... and it's wayyyyy over-ripe for satire and parody.

So where's my "Not Another Sexy Vampire Movie?" How come nobody's done the Joke Vampire Film yet? I mean a real one, not the half-assed version with perpetual fake tan tragic George Hamilton zipped into Count Dracula's inevitable tuxedo. 'Love At First Bite' had moments of fun, but not enough of 'em. There's much more to be had.

Here's my concept:

Jack Black stars in "Fangs", a movie about a fat, angry, anti-social, sexually deprived smart-mouthed loser who courts attention from an uber-smoothie vampire so he can get 'turned' and finally, finally become the babe magnet he's always secretly known himself to be.

Naturally, since this is a Hollywood comedy, Count Jack will meet and woo the babe of his dreams, but not with his newfound vampiric abilities - no, she will (of course) be charmed by his wit and courage, and by the sensitive, caring man hidden beneath his unlovable exterior (which he gains the confidence to show because he knows he's now that most irresistable of sex machines, a vampire.) And of course, she's not aware he's become a vampire. In fact, she's probably a deadly vampire hunter, so he not only has to conceal his identity from her, but he has to figure out how to regain his humanity before she twigs and he becomes stake-fodder.

In the meantime, of course, we get all the right moments of fun: newly transformed Jack Black putting on his tux and cloak for the first time, trying to check himself out in the mirror... damn! Messing with his new vampire powers: using that hyper-lunatic Jack Black stare to 'hypnotise' the doorman at the trendy nightclub that always used to turn him away. Then plying his smoothie routine on the babes, except that he's only half-shaved, his hair is sticking out weirdly, and his bow tie is completely fucked up 'cause he couldn't see his own reflection.

Of course when he finally does pull his first vamp-whore, he discovers she's all "no sex until the biting happens", and he's not really sure about that biting thing. Montage: multiple attempts to chomp her neck, with different versions of Fail every time... until he finally manages to bite down, and she screams in pain and tells him angrily that he's got to extrude his goddam fangs first, jackass...

So he drinks her blood, which upsets his stomach, but at last, when he gets back from the bathroom, there she is: all dazed from blood-loss, in fetching deshabille, bleeding gently on the satin sheets of his carefully prepared vamp love-nest... and of course, Count Jack discovers that vampires can't actually get a goddam erection because they're mostly fucking dead, and they don't have a heartbeat with which to pump blood into their dicks.

And it's all downhill from there. You can see where it goes: Black realises that if he can kill his mentor-vamp before the legendary three days post-bite have expired, he can go back to being human. So he contacts the vampire killers, and meets the uber-babe, and has to go the Big Lie, explaining that he really wants this vampire dead because it killed his whole family. Including his dog.

Meanwhile, to keep up appearances he uses fake tan (turns violent orange) and wears lots of sunscreen. He takes all kinds of increasingly complicated measures to try and shave -- think multiple webcams and computer screens... he discover's he's too damned fat to sleep in the coffin he bought... the blood craving gets to be too much and he finally snacks on a derelict, and winds up hilariously drunk as a result... more hilarity when he goes to the toilet and pisses blood for the first time... taking the advice of another vampire and updating his wardrobe...

...actually, that last one is worth a few scenes in its own right. The tux simply isn't his 'vampire look', so he tries to go shopping for clothes, but can't cross doorways until he's invited. Eventually he gets turned onto a specialist vamp boutique, but since he's not a 'smoothie', the staff take the piss out of him and he winds up dressed like some kind of vampire pimp...

... a moment in which he gets exposed to the sun, burns and smokes, and screams "Jesus, shit, when does the sparkling thing happen?"

... a moment when an entire cluster of smoothie vamps are revealed to be the gayest of gay, stereotypical fag-types who talk about hair product and clothes and interior design, and do each other's shaving... maybe one of them shaves Count Jack in an incredibly, uncomfortably home-erotic bondage routine?

And of course, through the whole film we get Jack Black doing his finest 'Bela Lugosi As Ladykiller' impression. Complete with bad Transylvanian accent every time he exerts his vampiric powers. (He can't help it. He's seen the movie too many times.)

The end? In the inevitable showdown with his mentor, Count Jack is forced into a decision when the mentor-vamp takes the love interest hostage. Count Jack can save her, but it means he'll miss the deadline and he'll lose his humanity permanently. Of course he chooses to save the girl, and of course she recovers at the vital instant, and between the two of them they manage to kill the Big Bad Vampire, restore Count Jack to mere Jack... and then all we have is the coda in which newly-rehumanized Jack thinks he doesn't stand a chance with the uber-babe now that he no longer has his supervampire sexiness - but of course she shows him what the audience already knows: that it's his inner man she's in love with, blah blah blah...

Ugh. Why do I do this to myself?

Because it's so horribly obvious. And because somebody ought to do it. And I suppose that now, if somebody actually does, I can point to this blog post and jump up and down until they cut me in on the profits. Or something.

But mostly because all of you, now -- each and every one of you -- is permanently stuck with a vision of Jack Black, half-shaved, in a tuxedo and cloak, trying to put the vampire moves on a series of uninterested babes. And if I have to have that kind of image in my head, so do you!

Anyway. It's better than still more goddam sparkly Twilight bullshit.


Is there a job worse than fencing? In the entire panoply of peculiarly rural time-sinks, is there another task so flat-out irritating and painful as putting up a fence?

I don't imagine so. Putting up even the crappiest sort of fence calls for a truly stupid array of tools and gear. And rather a lot of that gear is cantankerous beyond belief. Fencing wire, for example: I swear that shit is sentient, and stone cold vicious. You clip off a couple metres of the stuff, you absolutely better be dead-cert prepared for two things. First, the piece you clip off is going to recoil suddenly and dramatically, and the now-sharp end is going to lunge for the softest, most vulnerable part of your anatomy it can find. Second, the remaining coil of wire is also going to adjust itself drastically, and either take its own shot at your eyes (groin, shin, hand, lip, ear... whatever it can see) or just hurl itself to the ground in a tangle of truly Gordian complexity.

And that's just the wire. Don't forget all the other shit: pickets and droppers and anchors and clips and strainers and staples and cutters and drivers and hammers and spades and fence-post diggers and... hell with it. Sure, you usually don't need the whole goddam shebang for one fence, but even the simplest piece of fencing requires a disturbingly large list of crap.

Why am I whining about fencing right now? Because my goddam head still hurts, is why. Yesterday I went out to sink the last couple of star pickets for the strawberry patch -- having already put in the six by three-metre upright treated pine posts which will hold the overhead netting, of course.

D'you know how you sink a star picket? (If you haven't got a you-beaut multi-thousand-dollar hi-tech usually-goddam-broken attachment for your megatractor, that is. Which I don't.) You use a bit of very heavy steel piping. One end is open. The other is capped with a heavy plate welded in place. Two heavy, welded handles grace the sides of the thing. You stick your star picket pointy-end into the ground. Then you slide your picket-driver over the top until the welded plate hits the flat end of the star picket.

Then, using a hell of a lot of strength and force, you lift the picket driver so it slides back up the picket, and you slam it back down again. A lot. Repeatedly. Until by main force, you drive the bastard into the ground to the depth you desire.

Those of you thinking 'why doesn't he just use a sledge?' are desperately inexperienced in the ways of Star Picket Evil. Suffice it to say that if you are foolish enough to attempt the Sledge Hammer approach, you're likely to kill yourself, the hammer, or the picket -- or even all three at once, plus a couple of bystanders, if you get enough English on the picket when it springs out of the ground under the combined influence of a misaligned hammerblow and an unexpected rock buried in the earth...

Anyway, it wasn't a particularly big job. This is a six by three enclosure. I'm using six treated pine poles as mentioned before to lift the netting, and I put a star picket into the gap between each of the two poles, ensuring that the fence will be supported every one and a half metres. Sturdy, and easy to maintain.

It was late afternoon. I was tired. My attention wandered. I mean... for fuck's sake, how much concentration can one bring to bear when banging one stupid chunk of metal down on another? Duh. Duh. Duh. Dang dang dang dang dang... the noise is goddam deafening, yeah. Jeez, I wonder if I've got enough wonton wrappers? I got a bit of extra pork mince so I could --


And that, my friends, was my response when the picket-driver rebounded just a little bit high, and instead of coming straight down on the picket, the bottom edge of the driver hung up on the top of the picket... and that heavy chunk of steel pipe promptly fell straight forward and cracked itself onto the top of my forehead.

I must have come very close to splitting my scalp outright. Certainly the top layer of skin got bashed and stripped away, but I didn't bleed much at all, which is a wonder. Scalp wounds are major bleeders. But oh, my, the pain of it. The sudden, blinding impact. The instant of christ what the fuck ow ow ow ow my head really hurts!

No real harm done. That particular part of the skull is one of the densest, hardest bones in the body, and an impact barely sufficient to macerate the skin is hardly enough to cause real injury.

Pain, though. Lots of pain. And outrage.

I finished driving the last couple of pickets, and put away all the gear. I even made a point of not being crabby for the rest of the evening, despite the headache -- though I admit I was less than sympathetic about Elder Son's mouth ulcer crisis.

I will finish that goddam fence, of course. I just have to keep reminding myself how very good home-grown Tasmanian strawberries taste.

Meanwhile, I had a nice email from the opera libretto people. Apparently the words I've sent them are in the right sort of ballpark, which is nice. The task is reasonably challenging: part of the story develops in near-Elizabethan English, while another part unfolds in the kind of late 18th-century language you'd know from Byron and Shelley and their ilk. I have to move back and forth between the two without losing the thread or my own focus.

What I'm doing is writing the stuff, then correcting for Elizabethan/Byronic, then working to enhance the imagery. After that, there's another editing pass to get the Elizabethan/Byronic flavour right. And then there's another pass in which I read the stuff aloud.

Why? Well... somebody's gotta sing this stuff, or at least sing lines derived from it. I don't want the poor fockers looking at the lyrics/words and being overcome with an immediate desire to assassinate the writer. I want the words to come at least reasonably easily and rhythmically off the tongue - and the only way I can make that work is by reciting it myself.

Of course, there's inevitably some adjustment. Unless you've done this kind of thing, you won't realise how different the written word is from spoken language -- or even operatically sung stuff. Without going into too much detail, there's a certain natural rhythm to spoken language, and you have to work with it, or you make your dialogue nigh useless. (Shakespeare was a complete God at this stuff. Go look up 'iambic pentameter' sometime.)

So. Once the words are adjusted for speakasingability, then there's yet another pass to ensure the Elizabethan/Byronic thing hasn't gone fubar. After all, there's no point in adjusting your hi-falutin' lyrical content for vocalisation if you're just going to jam it full of contemporary stuff. Nope: gotta stay in the appropriate idiom.

Thus the positive feedback was much appreciated, and I am inspired to stay home tonight and crank out a few more scenes.

Of course, part of the staying-at-home is the kids. The daughter has an increasingly wet and chunky cough that messes with her sleep. And the Elder Son, who is almost never ill, has come down with a headache and vomiting. Ergo this is not a one-parent night, and so I'll stay here, keep an eye on the little buggers so Nat can sleep, and meanwhile put in a few extra yards on this opera stuff. Got me a bottle of red to deal with the lingering headache from the picket-driver; the fire is going nice and warm, and I've a few good hours before morning...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Gaming Interlude

I don’t suppose it will surprise anyone if I mention that for many years, I was a player of table-top role-playing games. Not the painted-miniature sort of things, but the complicated dice-rolling games. Like Dungeons and Dragons, yeah.

And it was a total fuckload of fun. (Why else would I bother?)

RPGs got a bad rap for a while there, associated heavily with the geekiest of nerddom. (Like I ever gave a flying fart.) But then, I was never one for memorising rules and arguing over which specialist combat table to use: I liked the storytelling aspect of the games, and I made the most of it. Made a lot of friends, spent a lot of time in imaginary worlds doing wild shit. List the games I’ve been part of... yeah, that would go on for a while. I’ve been superheroes and space travellers. I've played wizards and warriors and thieves and spies. I’ve been a half-mad monster-hunter with his trench-coat pockets full of dynamite. I’ve been a master of super-science, battling fiendish villains from the worst of the pulp fiction era. I’ve been good guys and bad guys, monsters and men of all kinds, and I completely goddam enjoyed myself.

When I shifted here to Tasmania, the gaming was something I knew I’d really miss. I figured I could stay in touch with friends; I was already used to living three hundred kilometres from them. But we still used to get together every month or so, break out the dice and lose a weekend to junk food and booze and wild storytelling. Down here? Well, I didn’t know anybody who might play, for starters. (Except Tansy. In Hobart. And that’s a long way when you’ve got kids.) And of course, it’s hard to explain to people who don’t understand why a man of forty-odd might want to play nerdy table-top games like that... so I quietly let that side of my life go, and got on with being a dad, and a writer, and a martial arts instructor, and all that other stuff.

Still. I really missed it. At its best, a good role-playing game is like fast-moving, plot-driven improv theatre. Everybody’s got a job, something to be or do to keep the story rolling along, and the game master has to be on top of things at all times. Keeping a tale unfolding while five or six different wannabe heroes are all trying to go in different directions and screw things up in their own unique fashion — that’s damned difficult. Holding their interest while you do it is even harder. And subtly guiding the whole show so that the story unrolls beautifully and the players think it’s all their own doing, and keeping it up for four or five hours at a stretch: that’s one hell of a challenge. Seriously: writing a novel is goddam difficult, but keeping a game campaign happening is one hell of a good way to practice.

So why am I mentioning this? Well... because I sorta figured that these games also do a lot more than entertain.

In a proper Role-Playing Game, the players must literally take on the problems and the personalities of their characters. They need to think ahead and plan carefully. They need to consider each other’s part in any action. They need to negotiate, often quite intensely. They need to be able to react quickly and improvise when needed. In short, a really good player has to show a range of complex thinking skills.

Then there’s the matter of imagination. There’s no screen here. Sure, some people play with miniatures and little wipe-clean map-boards to display terrain — but you don’t have to. In fact, that kind of thing just slows it down. All that business of measuring distances on a simulation surface... dull. Much better if the player asks ‘Am I close enough to jump over the table and punch out the drunken barbarian?', leaving it up to the Game Master to say ‘yes’, or ‘no’, or add something else to it, such as ‘sure, but don’t forget there’s a big puddle of ale on the floor. Step in that and you’ll probably slip and fall instead of making the jump.’

The best games are a fluid, ever-changing narration negotiated between the Game Master and the players, with the dice providing (apparently) neutral moderation. They’re feats of concentration and vivid imagination, and they’re near as entertaining to listen in on as they are to be part of. The mental challenge they provide to the Game Master is a real kick; I always enjoyed that job. But more importantly, the wide range of mental challenges that a good RPG puts to the players is potentially very valuable.

Imagine you have a smart kid, hooked on imaginative narrative in a big way. Now imagine he lives in a small town where most of his contemporaries are far more interested in footy and whatever cartoon show is currently providing a crop of spin-off toys to K-mart. A smart kid, naturally talented in communication, can really be a handful. He can be highly manipulative, for example: not because he’s so very smart (if he was really smart, he’d soon learn that manipulation is a fool’s game) but because he can naturally and easily talk his way around most of the kids he knows. He can be moody, and sullen, and bored if he doesn’t get enough input. He can be temperamental. And while one day he will need adult levels of sophistication, right now most of the adults around him are more than impressed enough by his vocabulary and his eclectic general knowledge that he can get away with far too much.

That was me, age 10. Yep. And yes, that’s the Elder Son now, more or less.

By inclination he’s a decent kid. There’s no malice in him. But like any kid, he’s fundamentally self-focused, and since he can communicate quickly and think quickly, he very naturally uses his talents to manipulate situations and people to suit himself. Of course, that’s not super-easy at home. I remember this time of life, how it felt, what I wanted, and how I went about trying to achieve it. I have, in fact, a very unfair advantage in this game, and I’m sure it pisses Elder Son off no end. But at school? And elsewhere?

Imagine you took that kid, and in the guise of a game — a game that involved all his favourite kinds of magic and monsters, treasure and rescues, villains and heroes and exploration and all the wonderful stuff that goes with that kind of story-telling — you made it necessary for him to take on the role of an adult. A member of a team, or an interdependent group. Imagine now that the other players in that group need his skills and abilities to help them survive the story; and that he needs them just as much.

Now you know what I’m doing.

Today, I ran my first fantasy RPG session in maybe a decade. It involved Elder Son and Younger Son, and a couple of the very bright lads from down the hill, who are just a couple years older than my two. I’ve sketched up the basics of a useful set of rules, and I laid out the very simplest of plots and settings, and I expected it might go for two, maybe three hours.

It lasted four, and could easily have gone longer. The boys had a marvellous time. First they uncovered a changeling baby in a little coastal village. Then, realising that meant there must be a nest of vile gobliny evilness somewhere around, they teamed up with a local ranger-type, and tracked the goblins to an old, ruined Roman-era villa in the deep forest. By the time Natalie came home, Younger Son had sneaked in and recovered the baby while the others kept up a satisfyingly violent distraction...

The upshot? Very happy boys with lots of stories to tell. All kinds of odd bits of subtle history. (For example: did you know that a hypocaust is an ancient Roman system of central heating? The boys know that now: that was how Younger Son sneaked into the ruined villa.) Heaps of discussion and negotiation and turn-taking — nobody dominating the storyline, everybody taking part where they could. Planning ahead. Improvisation. Truckloads of imagination.

And then there’s me. Yeah, sure: I’m telling stories on the fly with a bunch of young kids. But you know what? They’re at least as challenging and imaginative as grown-up players would be. Maybe even more.

That was fun, and I’d earned it. I’ve worked damned hard these last two weeks of holidays, and hardly taken much time at all to be with the boys. It was great to spend an afternoon that way — and even better to see them learning to enjoy something I’ve had so much fun from down the years. We’ll do this again — or so I was told, with great vigour and enthusiasm — and I’m already looking forward to it.

Just for the hell of it, I’ll put the rules and the background information for the game here. I don’t think anybody needs ‘em. RPG systems are a dime a dozen, and then some. But who knows? Maybe someone else will see an opportunity to have some fun too.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What Is It With Cats And Vomit?

Goddam animal.

I hate that noise they make. You know the one: like someone quietly saying 'Ork! Ork! Ork' into a paper bag. You hear it from a room or two away, you know it's already too late. But you're gonna try. You've got to try. You dash in, jump over a piece of furniture, and there's the fucking cat. Hunched. Head down. Tail flat. And that goddam 'Ork! Ork! Ork!' shit keeps going on, and every time the cat says 'Ork' it's whole body jerks.

So you grab the cat around the middle, heave it up and sprint for the Great Outdoors, just in time for the Arrival Of The Grotesque. Cat gives a squirm, says 'Ork' a little louder, and suddenly you're holding not a cat, but a vaguely warm and furry sort of gun designed to project hideous and disgusting blobs of... stuff... at random around the room. Brown stuff. Cat-food scented stuff. Wet, sticky, fucking horrible stuff.

So you put the cat down somewhere relatively harmless, and you fetch the paper towels and the cleaning solution and the eucalyptus oil to kill the stink. You work at it for a minute or two, gathering all the gloppy lumps into a paper bundle that you can stuff into the garbage. Then you clean up the residue, and de-stench the place.

And when you look around, where's the cat? Oh, he's back at the food bowl, stuffing yet more pre-vomit mix into his furry fucking face. Mmmmm-yeah, love that crunchy kitty treat! Gotta get it in me, else what can I vomit all over the rug?

Crapulent animal.

Sunny winter's day today. Nat took the kids for a bike ride. More accurately, she rode to the neighbour's place, recruited STILL MORE kids, and went riding farther. I wanted to work in peace, but the moment Natalie and the kids looked like leaving, a couple visitors arrived. Oh, and the goddam dog broke his chain, and went chasing after Nat and the kids. I had to call him back, fix his chain, and tie him up. No way he can be allowed to go with them: he's completely bloody unreliable in the company of bicycles. They act on his tiny, doggy brain much as trampolines do: a total, intelligence-annihilating provocation of chaos. He simply cannot see a bicycle with a kid on it without trying to chew on the front tyre. Which is hard on the kid, hard on the bike, and even hard on the stupid dog (I've seen Elder Son run over the dog's face at least once), but it doesn't stop him. Dumbass dog.

Anyway, I wished the visitors good day, and zipped down the hill to Scottsdale. Got a new, stronger chain from the hardware store. Picked up dinner supplies in Woolworths. (We're having curried lamb and sweet potato tonight, with home-made pita bread and salad. The boys will love it. The daughter will spit chips, and be sent to bed early because her mother is not here.)

Halfway through the shopping, I got a phone call from Nat. She and the kids, having ridden a long way downhill, didn't want to make the ride back uphill -- and could I collect them on the way home?

Well, yeah. Naturally.

So I collected Nat, and my three, and two of the neighbours kids. Dropped off kids with neighbours. Headed home, ran the pump, did some gardening, set up the curry. Wrote for a bit. Washed laundry. Washed dishes. Put the trailer away properly once Natalie got back. (Yeah, I refused to go back down the hill and fetch the bikes from where they were left. Figured I didn't have to own that job.)

Now Natalie is off to the Launceston General. Or more accurately, she's off to Sunday Night music at the Royal Oak, but later she's going to do an all-nighter at the LGH, keeping up her skills in Obs/Gyn. So it's just me and the kids for the evening. Curry and Dr Who, and then when they finally go to bed, I get another couple thousand words in.

I hope.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In Space, No-One Can Hear You Fart

Presumably, anyway. Unless you leave your intercom open, I suppose.
I know. That isn't a spacesuit. But... I have no idea what the hell it really is. And the hideous turgor of the thing! Whatever that suit is, if she DID fart, the whole thing would probably just pop.