Monday, January 31, 2011

Flat Out Already

Uhhh, yeah. Where was I?

Okay. Trying to catch up on a few deadlines. Short stuff, mostly. Hard to get back into it when you've been writing longer work. And meanwhile, there's life.

Nat took off to collect Elder Son from the music camp on Friday night. Came back Saturday afternoon. Yeah, the boy had a good time. No surprise there. In fact, he couldn't stop talking about it.

My heart goes out to him at times like this. I remember all too well what it was like at his age. School was like - some kind of alien planet, populated by freakazoids from another dimension. I couldn't talk to most of 'em, because there was literally no common ground. And even the friends I had at school... I couldn't really unload on 'em. They weren't reading Moorcock and Robert Howard and Asimov and Heinlein and Tolkien. They were watching a lot of television, and occasionally playing sport.

So Jake -- when I took him to the WorldCon and he spent a few days surrounded by kids with similar interests (and adults who weren't immediately going to dismiss him because of his youth) it just lit up his fucking world. He talked about it for a month afterwards.

This music thing was similar. He was put in a little dorm with a half-dozen boys his age, all of whom have the kind of parents who have given their kids the chance to pursue music. It's rare to find kids who are given music and ONLY music, naturally. Unsurprisingly, he had a lot in common with them, and they ran riot.

I really feel for him. He's had that little window opened - a glimpse of a world where he can actually feel like he belongs, like he's got peers and equals and people with whom he can laugh and joke without the risk of spite and misunderstanding. And of course, he'll be back in school in a week or two.

I don't think I had that experience of 'fitting in' until I was at university. True, I had a good time in my last year or two with the Cairns Youth Orchestra, but when you're fourteen or fifteen and your 'peers' are seventeen and up... well, people change fast at that age. I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have met the people I did at university, and equally fortunate to discover the community that surrounds speculative fiction in Australia, and elsewhere.

Makes me wonder whether it's fair to the little guy, sometimes. Giving him glimpses like this -- knowing all the while that the real world is completely different. It doesn't matter what he does when he's an adult. He will never be able to surround himself with a community like that. If he's lucky, he'll have a few good years around college, hanging out with smart, creative (and dirt poor; that's more important than you might think!) people. The rest of it he'll have to get in dribs and drabs - a week here, a conference there, a festival next month.

It's the same for all of us, of course. And I suppose there's no way around it. He'll get over it, the way we all do.

Meanwhile. On Sunday, we got hauled into the local fund-raising concert at Bridport. It was a variety show: lots of people singing, playing instruments. Very community-oriented, and very nice. We were second on the bill. The Mau-Mau played 'Three Kings of Orient' on the piano. Then Younger Son took on 'Ode To Joy' on his double bass. He lost his way about halfway through, but kept sawing away until he recovered, found his place, and finished. I think I'm prouder of him for that than I would have been if he'd made it through spotlessly: that ability to keep going, find your place and come back is one of the most important skills in musicianship.

Jake played a 'mysterious piece' on his cello. It's still mysterious to me. Then Natalie and I played a reel on flute and fiddle, and she played a solo reel, and I played a slow air, and finally, we got together with the kids to play a version of 'Frere Jacque'... I arranged it a little bit. Younger Son played the first bar, and repeated it for the whole piece. Jake played once through on the melody with Nat and I, but then repeated the final bar (while Younger Son kept on with the first bar) while Nat and I did the melody again, with the Mau-Mau singing. (On key, miraculously!)

Sure. It's just a chestnut. But it actually sounded pretty good. Unfortunately, the kindly lady to whom I handed the video camera had a bit of a non-technical moment, and we didn't get a record. Ah well.

And here I am. Natalie's birthday is tomorrow. It's hot outside. I've got deadlines... but I'm having trouble concentrating because Nat is in conflict with the Mau-Mau and the Younger Son just outside my door. Think I'll go shopping, maybe take a kid or two with me to give her a break.

Whups. The Mau-Mau just upped the ante. Gotta go.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

School Holidays And Work

Only a few weeks left until school takes up again. And for the first time, all three of my kids will be at school five days a week.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

I got carried away last year, knowing the Mau-Mau would be out for two days a week. I tried taking on a whole bunch of extra shit. I shouldn't have done that.

This year I've been more careful. I've signed up for a Masters degree, yes. And I'll see if I can't work up to my 2nd Dan grading. I also want to put some of those hours to use on the grounds and property. Should be able to achieve a fair bit there.

But mostly, I want to try to work. I want to actually establish a work habit measured in thousands of words per day. I know I can do this. Four to six thousand words in a day isn't new to me.

The thing is, to produce that sort of output I can't be sitting in my study with one ear half-cocked for the sound of screaming children. I can't be glancing at my watch every ten minutes, calculating what I've got to do about making lunch for several. And I cannot be responsible for coming up with plans and routines to motivate and interest children when their own imaginations fail.

Writing takes time.

I try to pick it up at the end of the day, but there's no way I can stay in bed later than eight in the morning. Usually seven-thirty. And the family isn't safely abed until nine-thirty, maybe ten at night. And I'm not a person who can sit down and immediately pick up the the energy and the complex thread of what I was writing yesterday - I need to ease in by reading, editing, etc.

That does make writing a damned difficult proposition for me. And so I'm looking forward to this year. Which is probably bad, because something is bound to happen to screw it up.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hello? I Think There's Been Some Kind Of Mistake...

Look, I know a lot of people must say this, but I'm really sure there's been a mistake. I don't belong here, you see. No. Really.

I mean, sure, obviously I share enough genetic material to interbreed with the dominant species on this planet, but there are plenty of species that can interbreed. Why should this particular one be different? Like I said: there's been a mistake.

I want to go home.

I'm not sure where home is, or who else is there, but honestly, it's got to be better than this.

There has to be a planet some place where they do things differently. I figure the intelligent forms there are similar enough to humanity - but there are fundamental differences. Important ones. And somehow, I got left here. By accident.

So - if you're monitoring this... I'm done now, okay? I've had enough.

I'd like to leave now, please.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Strange Milestones

Yesterday, I took Elder Son -- who has become 'Jake Flinthart' in these notes because of the identity he gleefully assumed at WorldCon in Melbourne last year -- off to a five-day music camp near Ulverstone. It was a long drive: forty-odd-minutes to Launceston, and then more than an hour across the top of the state to the site of the camp.

We had a decent time of it. Stopped in Launceston, got him a wallet so he'd be able to carry some cash for the week. Picked up a bunch of blank business-sized cards, put his name and his email address on them, filled the wallet's pockets. The theory is that he'll be meeting people, and making friends with whom he wants to stay in contact. It's probably an accurate theory; Jake has inherited a certain gregarious streak.

After lunch in Ulverstone, I took him to the camp proper, and spent a few minutes getting him settled in. Natalie had encouraged me to stick around for a while if it looked like it would help him find his feet, but it didn't seem like a good idea. They've bunked him in with five or so other lads the same age, and it took me only a few minutes to work out that they're smart, friendly kids. (Not really surprising. They are, obviously, all strongly involved in music, with all the parental care and attention that implies.) Within a few minutes, they were all talking about Doctor Who - and I knew that staying around longer would hinder Jake's progress, not boost it.

So I turned around and drove home again, stopping briefly at one of the various cherry orchards to pick up a few kilos of ripe Lapins. (Yeah. I'm actually becoming familiar with different cherry varieties. Lapins are big, dark, juicy cherries, very sweet.) A long drive, and only my memories for company.

I absolutely hated the school camps I got thrown into as a kid, and I would never choose to inflict anything similar on my youngsters. Big, drafty dormitories up the back of Lake Tinaroo, on the Atherton Tableland in Far North Queensland. Bunks rejected as unfit for WWII. 'Food' that deserved every lame joke ever made about institutional cuisine...

Worst was the enforced contact with a range of schoolkids I usually avoided like the plague. There was a big, big gulf between me and most of the kids around. I'm sure that if I'd had sophisticated social and emotional skills, I could have dealt with it better. But when you're ten or twelve or so and smart rather than physical, you're just not equipped for the raw primate pack politics of the schoolyard.

It was bad enough five days a week at school, but at least I could go home in between, and I could look forward to weekends. But school camps could last up to two weeks. Nowhere to go to get away. Nobody to talk with. No way to carry enough books...

School camps sucked shit.

Jake's music camp, on the other hand, is full of kids who play stringed instruments. It's within walking distance of a beach. It's got a couple of huge, in-ground trampolines, ropes courses, giant swings, and a bunch of other stuff. He's in with a lot of boys his own age in a small cabin, not sharing a gigantic dormitory with a pack of mouth-breathers of all ages. We tried to phone him last night at the prearranged time, but he was busy, and it sounded like he was having fun.


But his brother missed him. Younger Son - who has been fierce in his occasional demands for a Room Of His Own - was reluctant to sleep with the older brother, off in his bed at the other end of the room. And the place was altogether quieter without him.

So there it is. He's off now, spending his first length of time away from family and home. I'm sure he'll have a great time and everything. But it is only the first, isn't it?

I like my kid. I'm going to miss him.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

My Birthday Present From Jake

It's school holiday time. A while back, Natalie got cranky 'cos the kids didn't seem to be doing much besides lounging about the place, reading, playing games, and playing with video toys.

I listened to the back-and-forth for a while. Then I did what I do: fixed things. The boys got holiday projects.

Younger Son and I have been pulling apart an old lawnmower. We've got the motor completely free, and we're in the process of cleaning it and hopefully repairing it. (Or we were until Natalie lost the petrol tank. We're gonna need one of those, I think.) If we can get it running, the next step is to figure out how to make it push a go-cart. That'll be fun.

Jake, in the meantime, has been taught the basics of stop-motion animation. I've mentioned it before around here. These days, anybody with a digital camera, a tripod, and a bit of free software can do a pretty fair job of putting together basic animations.

This is Jake's second effort:

The plasticine bloke in the middle is, apparently, me. I'm dancing with the Doctor, and K-9, and a Dalek, with the TARDIS in the background.


Happy birthday? Well, yeah. It's kind of cool to see something you've taught to your kid work out like that. And, you know... dancing with the Doctor, and everything!

It's About The Attitude, Mostly.

We were watching some DVD or other last night -- 'Fringe' season 2, I think. Yeah, that was it. And there's this dying kid character. He's been learning to do that thing where you roll a coin across your knuckles. You've seen it a zillion times. Looks cool as the coin flip-crawls from one side of your hand to the other, yep.

Anyway, the Younger Son pipes up. He says: "Can you do that, Dad?"

Without thinking, I answered truthfully: "I don't know. I haven't tried."

I didn't really give the exchange much consideration until later, when I was tucking the boys into bed. But it was relevant: young Jake is off to a sort of music camp next week for a few days, and he's come over all timorous, so he got into one of those stupid, non-productive arguments with his mum.

He does this crap. Always has. Faced with a new thing, he gets nervous, and retreats. Then Natalie tries to jolly him along, and he starts defending his own position, there in the corner. The more she talks up the positives, the more he starts envisioning the potential negatives, and building up his own fears.

It's a f__king stupid cycle, and I'm waaaay the f__k over it. It happens time and again: with learning to swim, learning to ride his bicycle, reading his first novel, wading around the rocks at Cataract Gorge, and a dozen other things. He gets nervous, and negative, and the talk goes round and round and round, and eventually someone (usually me, but occasionally Natalie) just loses their patience and throws him in the deep end.

And of course, every time his basic native abilities rise to the occasion, and in short order he's not only dealing with the new situation, but enjoying the hell out of it. And he's even willing to admit that he's enjoying himself, and to apologise for behaving like a ninnyhammer - but it doesn't change.

Natalie's a kinder, more patient person than myself at heart. She'll still have these arguments with the boy. I won't. Once he starts inventing reasons to dislike something new, I give him the Blank Stare of Doom, and say something like: "Tough tittie, kid. You're doing it anyway, so best you start figuring out how to get the most out of it."

Thing is, that attitude of his is the flipside to the one that's carried me through most of my life. My father - bless his anarchic little boots - provided me with considerable impetus at a young age, and also a hell of a role model. Father is smart, thoughtful, and fit. By and large, anything he ever chose to do, he did well. (Except maybe write. He's more a visual person.) And he did it by observing, thinking, planning, extrapolating, and most of all, by getting in and making the attempt.

I hardly ever think about it, to be honest. But when you put down a list of the stuff I have done/can do... eventually it gets a little embarrassing. The truth is, though, I'm pretty sure most people could keep up, if they really gave it a shot. It's interesting, what you can achieve with a modicum of thought, research, planning and discipline.

Of course, there's a difference between a hardcore professional and a thoughtful dilettante. I'm not going to be renovating a house from the ground up on my own any time soon, for example. And while I can take a decent photograph when I want, I'd have to work a lot harder to be a real pro. Likewise the cooking: I can put together a pretty damned good meal here in my little kitchen, but I'm not planning on opening a restaurant any time soon, y'know?

There is a difference. Yes. And it's a big one; no question about it. (Although having a full professional toolset and a proper, professional workspace also makes a hell of a difference!) Yet in the real world, high-end professional skills are not required for most jobs and situations. You think a pro photographer really sweats over family portraits and wedding shots? You reckon that Jamie Oliver goes for the Michelin star when he's turning out a decent dinner for a bunch of mates? Do you need to be Frank Lloyd Wright to put a decorative screen on your verandah?


Most stuff out there you can do yourself, if you're prepared to think, plan, ask for advice, and put in some effort. I swear: it's true. You can learn enough of a language to get along in a foreign country. Play a musical instrument well enough to sound good with a group of casual players. You can execute a hip throw, grow roses, take impressive photographs, turn out a creme brulee with a crackly crust, hang a door, fell a tree, do a handbrake turn, hit a head-size target at 50m with a small-caliber rifle... and so forth. You're a human being. You are the most adaptable, most dangerous animal on the planet because the thing inside your skull gives you an infinity of options, if you just take the time to pay attention to what it's telling you.

There's nothing to it, really. The trick is simply to forget the words "I can't," and replace them with "I don't know how... yet."

That's the one thing I really, truly want to pass on to my kids. More than anything else. If they take that attitude to heart, they can learn anything else they need for themselves. I don't know how to get that into them - not for sure, but I'm going to keep trying every way I possibly can for as long as it takes, because there is nothing I've seen in all my forty-odd years on the planet which compares to this single not-very-secret piece of knowledge.

And by the way: as of last night, I can roll a coin across my fingers. Slowly, yes. But I'll get faster. It's just a matter of a little practice.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

DIY Tolerance: A Heartfelt Plea

In every long-term couple, there are divisions of labour. It just falls out that way. One person cooks, the other one doesn't - because they really shouldn't. One person does more laundry than the other. One person gets more friendly with the vacuum cleaner than the other.

And one person handles the minor household patches, fixes, repairs and chores. The dreaded DIY stuff.

In this house, that's me. Natalie is a very good doctor, a fine fiddler, and a dab hand with sushi. But her cooking is limited. And while she probably sees more of the vacuum cleaner than I do, the laundry generally lands in my lap more often. No problems there. But when it comes to picking up tools and fixing something, that's my territory.

This is interesting, of course, because I've no particular natural inclination in that direction. Indeed, before shifting to the countryside and having three kids, I was inclined to ignore that shit altogether. (Mostly we lived in rented houses, after all.)

But now I'm a dad, and a home-owner. And so I have a garage full of tools, and I use them. But I do not always use them to the time-frame and effect that Natalie would desire.

Case in point: quite some time ago, we paid to have some floor-length drapes installed in the boys' room, and in the Mau-Mau's room. There's a lot of glass in those rooms, and in winter, that means heat loss. Particularly for the Mau-mau: I designed (and the builder installed!) a big, lovely, bay-window type alcove that turned her bedroom from a pokey little box into a beautifully light and airy place for a little girl. But of course, the winter thing... that room could get seriously cold.

Hence the drapes.

Unfortunately, the folk who installed the drapes only anchored the supports into timber at either end. In the middle, they just stuck the screw into the plasterboard. This probably wouldn't have been an issue if the room wasn't owned and operated by a five-year-old. She decided that those big, salmon-pink curtains would make a good swing, you see... and naturally, that screw in the middle pulled loose, taking with it a chunk of plasterboard. And then the curtain-rod pulled apart in the centre, and the whole goddam thing came cascading down.

(It's really irritating. If they'd situated that curtain rod five centimetres lower, the central support would have been screwed straight into a chunk of hardwood that goes from one end of the bay window alcove to the other. Five goddam centimetres.)

Anyway. I drilled the two parts of the curtain rod and rejoined them with a dowel-peg and glue arrangement. But the actual remounting of the rod has languished for about three months now.


Well, let me take you through the job I did today. Step by step.

1) Cut a decent access hole in the plasterboard: to do this, I had to buy a reciprocating saw. (I wanted one anyway.) I also had to lug a ladder into the Mau-mau's room, and clear enough crap off her floor to set it in position.

2) After moving the insulation, I then had to measure the distance to the various chunks of support timber, and calculate the size of the piece of wood I needed to insert in order to provide adequate support for the curtain rod. Then I had to track down a bit of timber that might do the job, and trim it up to fit. (Bench saw, carpenter's square, measuring tape.)

3) Having cut the timber to fit, I then climbed back up and stuck it in place to ascertain it fit properly. (Not doing that would have ensured I had the wrong sized bit of wood, of course.) Once I was certain, I then drilled a couple peg-holes in the support beam behind the spot where my bit of timber would sit. I drilled a couple of corresponding holes in the back of my bit of wood. I applied PVA glue to the wooden surfaces, and to two dowel-pegs which I then inserted into my bit of wood. And then I banged my bit of wood into position, so the pegs fit into the pre-drilled holes, allowing the glue and the pegs to hold it all together. (Electric drill. Dowel/peg bit. Dowel-pegs. Wood glue. Mallet.)

4) For certainty's sake, I drove a long wood screw at an angle through the lower front of the new bit of support timber, so that the screw came through into the bit of timber underneath, anchoring the new bit of timber on a second axis. (Rechargeable drill; phillips-head driver; phillips-head screw.)

5) Next, I measured the hole I'd cut in the plasterboard, and then cut myself a similar-size and shape piece of plasterboard from a chunk I had spare after the renovations. (Pencil, measuring-tape, bench saw.)

6) Of course, the hole was a touch irregular, so I climbed the ladder, put my new chunk of plasterboard in place, checked where it didn't fit, and marked it. Then I went back down the ladder, out onto the deck, and trimmed the chunk of plasterboard down. (Pencil, reciprocating saw.)

7) Getting close now. I mixed some fast-setting two-part epoxy resin glue, and applied it both to the back of my plasterboard patch, and to the new piece of timber I'd set in place behind that hole. Then I put the new piece of plasterboard in place, and held it for a couple minutes until it dried enough to stay put of its own accord. (Two-part epoxy; disposable mixing surface; disposable mixing rod.)

8) Next, I checked my plastering gear. Okay - I had plaster-mix for making repairs, but I didn't have the tools to spread it with. A quick trip down to Scottsdale fixed that (and I picked up the groceries, too.)

9) I mixed a batch of plaster, and carefully spread it over the plasterboard patch, ensuring that it filled all the little holes around the edges, and smoothed it roughly level with the surface of the existing plasterboard. I also carefully marked the place where my installed bit of timber sits, because of course I shall have to put a mounting screw in there for the curtain rod support. Then, of course, I quickly washed up the tools I'd used before the plaster could set. (Steel bowl; measuring cup; plaster mix; plastering scrapers).

So, that's where we stand at the moment. When the plaster is properly dry, I'll get the tool that holds the fine sandpaper, and I'll spend half an hour sanding the plaster back until it's completely level and smooth with the wall. (Yes. That will be a dusty, shitty, messy job. On top of a ladder.)
After that, I will grab the cordless drill again, and put in a mounting screw. Of course, I'll have to carefully measure the location so that it provides proper positioning for the curtain rod support.

Once that's done, I can then put the curtain rings back on the rod, replace the pelmet on the end, and mount the rod back on its supports. And then I'll be able to hang the f__king drapes back up, and once more, the Mau-Mau will have curtains.

Of course, the plastered patch won't match the paint. Therefore at some point, I will again take down the curtains and the rod, remove the curtain rod supports, put down a bunch of dropcloths, acquire a clean paint roller and a new tray. I will check that the tin of wall-paint is still good, and if not, I will go to the hardware store and pick up another lot. Then I can climb that ladder and carefully reapply the 'Bohemia'-shaded paint to the wall. If I'm very careful and lucky, I won't smudge the white ceiling, and I'll be able to stop short of repainting the ceiling too.


I'd like to think you get the picture now. I'd like to believe you can understand why some apparently small jobs can languish for what seems an unexpectedly long time. But just to make sure, allow me to point out that I'm supposed to do all this while still keeping three kids underfoot, answering the phone, handling the home chores, doing the shopping, the laundry, and making dinner.

Today, Nat was home to handle the kids. Today I'd caught up most of my deadlines. Today, Natalie agreed to make sushi for dinner.

Today, there is no longer a hole in the wall where the Mau-Mau chose to swing from her curtains.

Those of you who do NOT have the job of slinging the tools around the household - please... a little patience, if you could. It helps.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I'd Love To Believe This Pair Were Tourists

...but they sound far too Australian to me. Sigh.

Click the headline for the (very short) news story.

Pair rescued after sex doll river ride

I dunno. When I was a kid in Far North Queensland, the wet season was a time for some serious fun. Gullies became creeks, and big, open culverts became water races. You'd climb into your swimmers, grab a beat-up polystyrene surfboard or a vinyl air-mattress, and go flood surfing.

In all the years I was up there, I don't recall any kid getting killed playing in the monsoon flows. I know it's verboten these days, of course. And I know that Sydneysiders are routinely sucked down drains during flash floods.

But we lived there, and the rains came every year. The roads were quite reliably cut for maybe two weeks a year (not all at once, usually.) The power would get knocked out, and you'd have to rely on your stocks of non-perishable food, plus candles and Tilly lamps, and you'd boil your drinking water.

I'm not saying that we're not better off these days. But there's something to be said for being prepared, and for knowing the enemy. Almost nobody had to rush off to buy kerosene and lamps and candles and matches and tins of food, because everybody had a cupboard or a box full of essentials for the cyclone season.

And as for stormwater surfing... again, I don't think kids then were smarter than kids now. But I do think they were allowed to take more risks, and as a result, developed a better sense of their own physical abilities.

We didn't get sucked into stormwater drains because we didn't play in the places that might have been too dangerous for us. And we knew how to judge that because we'd been given the chance to have a few falls, take a few risks, and acquire an understanding of the need to look after ourselves.

Ah well. There's progress for you, eh?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Anyone Got Designs For An Ark?

The image above isn't mine. It was taken by my brother-in-law. It's the interior of the business that he and my sister run in Toowoomba, on the day of the now-infamous flash flood. My young nephew was in there too.

They survived, though they had to climb on top of the counters to avoid the rapid rise of the waters. My sister is fine too, though it will be quite a while before things are straightened out down where they live in Brisbane.

The picture is up here -- with permission -- as a reminder. That wall of water rose in nothing flat, and caught people completely by surprise. Toowoomba is a wreck, large chunks of the Lockyer valley are in trouble, and there's a hell of a clean-up to come in Brisbane.

If you haven't already found a way to offer a bit of help to Queensland, now's a good time to think about it. The kids and I did a big gather-up here in the house -- six big, sturdy bags full of clothes, toys, books, and house-hold items: serviceable things which can be sold on by the Salvation Army, or even directly contributed to people who are looking to rebuild lives.

There are many ways to donate. The Queensland Premier's Flood Appeal can accept donations directly from this website, for example. But don't forget that in such a sweeping disaster, it's more than just money. A register of volunteers for the cleanup is already in place - but even simple things like donations of non-perishable foodstuffs and basic household materials can be useful.

Meanwhile: if you've read about floods in Tasmania, don't worry about us. We're well set, and well stocked, and floods down here never last more than a few hours. Besides, the worst was over on the East Coast, where a couple roads have been cut.

Of course it never rains but it pours, as the saying goes. So it's raining here - not too hard, but with a maniacal, relentless quality. I won't be too surprised if it turns out that by tomorrow we've seen 200mm or more here. And that's a bit problematic, what with Natalie still on the mainland, planning to fly home this afternoon.

And naturally, it's been pissing down over where she is, near Kyneton in Victoria, on the music camp. I found out today they've been sandbagging in anticipation of rising rivers... she says the roads are clear and she can get to the airport. I hope so. The kids are looking forward to seeing her, and I'll be glad to stop doing the sole parent thing after the better part of a week.

That last, of course, would be why you've not heard a lot from me. Trapped indoors with three small kids for the last five days or so. We played a six hour game of Arkham Horror yesterday, defeating Yig the dreaded Serpent God with style. Today I've sent 'em up to the shed to play Wii games. Hopefully that'll keep 'em entertained until we have to go to the airport...

...wherever you are, whoever you may be: stay safe, and consider how good your life has been to you. Things could be a lot worse.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Melbourne Weekend

Natalie's yearly celtic music extravaganza is upon us. Every year, she takes a week and goes to Kyneton to practice folky music on her fiddle with a bunch of like-minded musos. I was supposed to go along this year and do some singing -- the people running the sing-sessions are old, old friends of mind from the Bad Old Brisbane days -- but things didn't work out that way, what with the difficulty of placing three kids for a full week, etc. So in the end, all five of us zipped over to Melbourne for a weekend of food and tourism, while Natalie will be staying until Friday.

Naturally, we had a late flight Friday night. Of course. But I'd organised a car rental, and good Meister Barnes had agreed to put up our clan at his (nigh empty for the moment, saving only himself) residence, so we had a bit of leeway. Good thing, really. I'm not altogether happy with the signage on Melbourne's freeways. There was a certain amount of ... navigating which had to occur, and even then, we wound up taking the M80 instead of the M43 to the M40 and thence to the M1. Yeah.

But on the good side, the rental folks had lost the keys to the Skoda they were going to rent us, so we wound up with a farnarkling huge electric-blue Commodore with less than 9000km on the clock. Ridiculous bloody car. Piss poor rear vision, huge blind spots - so they accommodate with a built-in reversing-radar sort of system. Bleah.

Still. It did take off nicely when I needed it to do so.

Mr Barnes was wonderfully accommodating. He had an entire sleeping plan laid out, and by the time we got there, we were in no mood to rearrange things. Except for the Mau-Mau, of course. She couldn't possibly sleep on the perfectly good guest bed in the study. Oh dear no. Because she heard things, you know?

You know how it goes. Mau-Mau and Natalie inhabited the larger bed. I took the guest bed in the study. The boys infiltrated Young Master Barnes' presently unoccupied bed. And other than the cloying heat (curse that mainland weather!) it was fine.

We had cunning plans for Saturday, and they worked out okay. We took in the museum, and met with Mr Barnes to see a nifty NASA flick at the IMAX theatre there. Then we traipsed all to hell all over central Melbourne - but most importantly, to Minotaur Books and to Mind Games - and wound up just in time for an early dinner at a restaurant which Mr Barnes swears was once known as "The Dainty Sichuan".

Dainty. Yeah. Like a psychopathic bull moose on PCP. The restaurant has changed its name, I note, to the "Sichuan House". After eating there, I want the government to intervene. That goddam place should be known as something like the "Sichuan Citadel."

The food was great, yeah. Wonderfully cooked, and incredibly tasty. But the servings are beyond copious.

The Younger Son, for example - we ordered some salt-and-pepper quail for him. The menu showed one goddam quail. One! But when his plate arrived, there was a veritable goddam Jenga tower of deep-fried salt-and-pepper quail wobbling precariously back and forth. And my chicken baked with dry chili... the platter was the size of a semitrailer hubcap, with at least three full chickens chopped in bitesized pieces and then concealed cunningly within a mountain of chopped dried chilies. I had to go fossicking to find them!

We took a lot of food back to Chez Barnes. Including a significant portion of the rather magnificent chili-cumin pork ribs which Mr Barnes ordered. Actually, that's the only thing he ever orders there because he loves 'em, and why not? But on the good side: once he tried Natalie's order of Chicken and mushroom (which was absolutely delicious) he allowed that maybe once in a while he ought to extend his order a little.

Obviously, once we got back to Chez Barnes, we were a little tired. There was a whole lot of walking involved in the day, and with the flight of the night before, the kids were fractious. We took in a Studio Ghibli flick (courtesy of Minotaur... I wasn't as impressed with 'Tales of Earthsea' as I'd hoped I might be) and crashed.

The next day was supposed to be easier. We were going to ride a tram for Younger Son's sake, and have a bite at the marvellous Hutong Dumpling Bar to catch up with Large Bob and with Struggers. Of course, things got complicated.

We arrived early, and did some more walking, yep. Then over the meal, we discovered that Struggers is due to marry his beloved sometime in March, in Brisbane (if there's anything left of it after these floods) and then again in China, her homeland, a bit later. And so there was much of congratulations and eating and drinking.

Then Large Bob convinced us to check out the State Library, where he works. He's been trying to get us in there for years, so it was about time... plus there was an exhibition for kids. But being the man he is, enthusiasm got the better of us all and we got led willy=nilly throughout the entire labyrinthine edifice, up several floors, round and round, and back down again.

Jeez, there's some cool shit in that building. Really. Make the bastard take you through it sometime. But do it without kids...

Anyway, once that was done we walked out, grabbed an ice-cream, and duly rode an overcrowded tram - back to Minotaur, so Jake could pick out a reward for his very good behaviour of the two days. And then, finally, we made it back to Barnesland - whereupon I promptly collected Natalie and drove her out to Kyneton.

The original plan was to take the kids, and visit Sam, who lives out there. But that didn't happen because we thought Nat could get a lift with Struggers and his partner, who were going that way. Only the timing didn't work, so I had to drive Nat anyway. But it was good to leave the kids... they were flat worn out, and another drive of an hour-plus in either direction would have made the flight next morning a real bastard.

It was a bastard anyway, of course. Some prick checked a bag onto our flight, and then didn't pick up their own ticket and get aboard. Therefore we waited, in the aircraft, on the ground, for a full hour while they searched the airport for the thick-headed clot in question, and retrieved the bag from the hold of the aeroplane. Can't have a bag fly unattended these days!


That was my weekend. I got the kids home. We watched some Star Trek, and ate antipasto. And then we slept. They slept so solidly that none of 'em awoke unto 0830 this morning... which is unheard-of.

Today I took 'em into Launceston so I could wrestle with Telstra. This satellite internet shit is really crapulent, and Telstra have finally launched some 3G plans at rates competitive with what we get from the satellite mob. Of course, the 3G signal here generally degrades upload and download to 256kbps, which is even shittier than the 512kbps the satellite gives us, but the Telstra johnnies assure me that if I install a Yagi (high gain) aerial, we'll bring the speeds up to an acceptable level. And with Natalie's mobile phone tied into the deal, we can actually reduce our monthly 'Net bill by $20 or so.

Yeah, I know. I don't expect it to work out either. There's a ten-day window of opportunity to return the gear and tell Telstra to bite their own arses if the system doesn't work, though. I'm gambling that I can set up the aerial and the base station and establish functional connections to Nat's computer and mine, and test the speeds within that ten-day period.

Can't be that difficult, can it?

Meanwhile, Brisbane is by way of being swept off the map. Hey, all my homies from back that way... you know that Wivenhoe Dam which is keeping the worst of the water at bay? You know? The one they built after the floods of '74?

Yeah, that one. Did it ever occur to you it was built under the Bjelke-Petersen government? The same government infamous for allowing sub-tidal land to be sold on Russell Island? And for high-rises built on foundations of sand on the Gold Coast?

I know I wouldn't like to be gambling my life on the quality of workmanship in that dam...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dear Gerry Harvey

Dear Gerry Harvey

It's really quite simple.

During the Keating era, and then at length through the pain of the Howard governments, we came to accept that the Australian manufacturing industry was going to be restructured. That with our rates of pay, we really weren't competitive with China, Taiwan, Thailand, and other countries where people are prepared to work a 12 hour day for two cups of rice and a handful of bean shoots.

We didn't like it, but we have learned to live with it.

We fell back on mining, and on agri-business. The latter is a bit of a bummer, by the way. Big corporate farms that sell to bigger processing corporations which deal with truly enormous distribution firms leave no room for the family-owned farms that are indelibly part of the Australian cultural image. And frankly, mining has always been a hard, hard business for the people who actually dig stuff up and process it.

But we did it. And we accepted it. We accepted it because we were told again and again and again that we were part of a global market, that we had to reduce protectionism, that we had to compete with other producers around the world.

Of course, the other side of that painful coin is the pay-off: the reasonably priced merchandise sourced from all those countries around the world which have a surplus of skilled labor. Cheap-ass televisions and DVDs and phones and computers from China, and Thailand, and Taiwan and so forth. That's the quid pro quo. That's the payback. As consumers, we get access to those goodies because we accepted the pain, and allowed our manufacturing industries to outsource the living hell out of everyone and everything.

So... near as I can tell, Gerry, you and your rich-ass corporate vendor buddies are trying to say something like: "Dear me, no. Of course you can't buy things cheaply! That would undercut our traditional Australin retail model, and deny me and my fat-bastard friends our traditional corporate retail profits!"

Please do feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, Gerry. But from what I can see, a whole lot of people I know and value had to change their lives drastically so this country could 'compete' in the 'global marketplace'. And the 'reward' for that lies, in theory, in our capacity to access cheaply made and moderately priced goods from this selfsame 'global marketplace'.

Only you want us to suck it up, keep paying you and your rich-prick buddies a superpremium because... uhh... because... uhh... well, just because you deserve it!

You know what, Gerry? I live out in the country. If I stick to local vendors, I can't get interesting DVDs. Or interesting music. Or interesting books. If I want to buy furniture or electrical shit from your nearest store, I've got over an hour's driving to do first. And then, of course, I have to pay your people a delivery fee to ship it here.

Even then, you never carry the things I want. Computer with Linux pre-installed? From Harvey Norman? You're joking, right? The staff at HN can't even spell Linux, because they're NOT ALLOWED.

So, to sum up: you want me to go on living out here in the boonies, contributing materially to the support and ongoing welfare of this nation in the various ways that I do. You want me to live in this town where globalisation has killed the vegetable processing plant and both goddam sawmills. You want me to watch people pack up and leave homes their families have held for generations because the global market forces have taken their jobs away... but at the same time, you expect me to keep paying anywhere up to five times the going market value for the kind of stuff that you sell -- and you expect me to purchase only the limited range of crap that you have for sale?

(And meanwhile, you don't give to charities because they only encourage the no-hopers, right? Yeah, Gerry, I read that one too.)

I have some words for you, Gerry Harvey. They're not nice ones at all, and I'll reserve them for now. But if you and I should ever encounter one another in person, I promise to deliver those words to you in clear and painstaking detail.

Count on it, you miserable, tight-fisted, un-Australian piece of crap.

I Shot The Sherriff... But I Will Not Shoot The Deputy

It wasn't really the sherriff. It was the goddam rooster.

You remember quite some time ago, when Natalie thought it would be a good idea for the kids to get some eggs to hatch? Yeah? The fuss? The eggs that got roasted by a close encounter with a heat-light? The late-night run to someone else's house (carried out, naturally, by yours truly) to grab three more eggs just when they were hatching? The horrible 24 hour hatching process, kids not sleeping, stupid chicks slow emerging, wet, fugly little buggers?

Yeah. And of course, they were all goddam silky bantams, weren't they?

There were two hens and a rooster. One hen croaked for reasons which may involve over-loving from the Mau-Mau. Possibly. The other has been motoring along just fine. But the rooster decided he should take over rooster duties, and round up the Three Fat Ladies - our black Australorp laying hens.

Well, that was okay. I mean, I could put up with the little bastard crowing. He was well away from the house, down in the chook pen. That was all right.

Except Natalie thinks 'free-range' really truly means 'free-range'. So every now and again, she decides that our spacious, well-grassed, shaded chook pen with its long-term water supply and the feeding stations and all that -- she decides they need to 'really get out and scratch around'.



So they get out. They wander around. Natalie forgets to put them back in. And for about a week, they lurk around the place, scratching, shitting on the deck, etc. Eventually they stop going back to the nesting box to lay, and Natalie decides that yes, finally, we need to round them up.

The only real problem here - aside from the chookshit on the deck - was the stroppy, nasty little bantam rooster. Not only did he take to crowing under the bedroom window at dawn (about 0350 here in temperate Tas) but he decided to have a go at the kids when he could.

Roosters are nasty. Even Jake was frightened of him. And he kept going for faces and eyes.

Eventually, one day while Natalie was away -- but with her permission, I shall add; Mr Rooster having been a very bad boy that day and the Mau-Mau bleeding from an ugly scratch -- I arranged for an accident to befall the rooster. A twenty-two calibre accident.

Too bad. So sad. Goodbye, you vicious little shit.

That leaves only the Three Fat Ladies and the animated mop-head, the last of the silkies, trundling sadly along in their wake.

But damn me if one of the Three Fat Ladies hasn't started trying to crow. Dead serious here, folks. It's not a very good sort of crow, but it is unmistakeable. Not a cluck. Not even a squawk, but a sad, wheezy, tragic little crow, like a rooster with a five year three-pack-a-day habit.

Most pathetic thing I've ever seen.

Natalie says the thing has some kind of gender issues. I don't give a shit. She doesn't go for the kids' faces, and she still lays an egg a day.

Now, all I have to do is round 'em up and get them back in the pen again...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

First Visitations Of The New Year

Yesterday it was the New Doc and his family.

Natalie's been rumbling on for a year or so about a 'new doctor' coming out from the USA. He's been "due to arrive" for so long I'd pretty much forgotten he existed. Apparently there were a truckload of paperwork issues. That's always the case, bringing an overseas doc into Tas, though.

The thing I didn't know was that the New Doc was actually jumping ship. I thought he was just another locum, passing through -- but he and his have sold up, packed up, waved goodbye to the Stars and Stripes and declared their intent to dwell under the Southern Cross.

Anyway, Nat phoned me at about two in the afternoon to ask if I could handle another four guests for dinner. I thought about it for a couple of seconds, and asked her to pick up another half-kilo of pork mince, and maybe some nice cheeses and dips and stuff.

So they all turned up -- the doc, his wife, their 19-year-old son who's off to UTas this year, and their 13 or 14-year old daughter. And I made a decent won-ton soup with plenty of pork dumplings, and a great big batch of fresh yeast doughnuts (the doughnut cutter worked a treat, Murasaki!) that I filled with a raspberry-mango jam and topped with whipped cream.

It was a really nice night. Once the sun went down, I took the kids out with a torch, and we spotted wallabies. It's funny walking around with people for whom wallabies are still a novelty. We saw a half-dozen or so, and that was impressive enough that I had to do a second tour for their mother's sake. Not that it's much effort... I think we walked all of twenty metres outside the house.

My kids were delighted with the visitors. I swear, the little bastards are turning into performance artists. They brought out their cellos and double basses and the Mau-Mau did her turn on the piano, and there was trampolinage, and then Jake and the Doc's daughter went down to the raspberry patch and came back with a bowlful of raspberries and blackberries, and the Mau-Mau danced frantically to music only she could hear, and by the end of the evening, I reckon maybe they felt a little more at home.

Heh. I know they're a little more comfortable with Australian food now. When I mentioned 'whipped cream' on the doughnuts, the Doc looked a little puzzled, and explained that it wasn't something they saw much of in the US of A. Mostly they just use this stuff from a can. You can spray it on, see? "Cool Whip", or something.

I shrugged, and said - yeah, okay. I haven't got any. I'll just whip some cream.

So when the time came, I tapped the Doc's daughter on the shoulder and invited her to the kitchen to learn how to make whipped cream. (Her mum said she liked to learn how to cook, you see.)

The lass gave me a doubtful look, and said she didn't like whipped cream much.

I nodded, and asked if she meant whipped cream, or the stuff that comes in a spraycan.

She said, well, I don't really like 'cool whip'.

That's okay, I said. Neither do I.

And then I put the cream in a bowl, and added some brown sugar and a little vanilla, and handed her the beaters. A few minutes later I made sure she didn't turn it to butter, and we were done.

She ate at least three of those doughnuts, each with a couple tablespoons of whipped cream, and announced that they were utterly delish. I guess 'Cool Whip' has its drawbacks, eh?

Today was another matter, however. Today was Beeso Day. The estimable Mr Beeso and his lovely lady rocked up here just on six in the evening. Beeso was promptly set upon by the children, who dragged him out to the trampoline, then wrestled him up and down the property. Meantime, we set out a bunch of nibbles including an amazing prosciutto-wrapped cheese they'd picked up on Bruny Island.

After that, I loaded them up with: steamed prawn dumplings with lemon verbena and vietnamese mint; smoke-grilled vegetable salad with sea-salt and balsamic vinegar; char-grilled salmon fillets, and finally the inevitable leatherwood honey/ mascarpone ice cream. Somewhere in the middle there was a palatable Bay of Fires bubbly, a few beers, a bit of cider, and a whole lot of conversation.

Good people. Really lovely to put faces to names, and make contact in a way not mediated by electrons. Tomorrow morning I'll fill 'em up with bacon from the local butchery, free-range eggs, whole milk and some espresso coffee. Then we'll go for a walk and see if the platypus is willing to show off for us...