Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thank You, Norway.

Commiserations, sympathy, best wishes and all the rest to Norway and the Norwegian people. They've been through -- are still going through -- a powerful, testing series of events. The bombing and the murders carried out by a right-wing anti-Islam freak (won't bother with his name; let history lose his identity utterly, says I. The Romans did that: erased people utterly from their records for certain crimes. I think we should consider bringing that back.) have rocked a historically peaceful and tolerant society, and brought the glaring light of world scrutiny to the most heart-rending and personal of tragedies.

And in response, what have the Norwegians done? Have they started piling on the extra security measures? Have they begun cracking down on personal expression? Have they put aside their tolerance and their freedom in the name of 'safety'?


Statements from the Prime Minister and from the Mayor of Oslo - not to mention many others - have reaffirmed a powerful commitment to tolerance and openness. The people themselves have spoken, again and again. A huge rally in Oslo, in support of the Norwegian way of life and society, drew more than 150,000 people. The funeral of an Islamic girl killed in the attack has been carried out with the greatest of honour and respect.

They're not backing off. Not one iota. The absolute worst they've done, so far, is to remove some video games from sale - because the idiot murderer apparently spent a lot of time playing shoot-em-up games. Okay, so the connection is tenuous... but I'll give 'em that one. Because they could have done so much worse.

And you know what I mean by 'worse', don't you? No-fly lists. Massive wiretapping programmes. Invasive searches in airports and in other public transport hubs. Laws, laws, and more laws designed to curb rights and freedoms, and empower the government with ever greater control. "Free Speech zones."

That's only the tip of the iceberg. I don't even want to think about the nauseating shift to fear-driven conservatism and jingoistic bigotry that's infected even my own country. The crap I read every day from contemptible imbeciles who lap up every word that Andrew Bolt defecates onto the pages of Uncle Rupert's press; the violent, flag-wrapped pinheads who use Australia Day as an excuse to terrorise anyone who doesn't drawl their words with a decently Strayan accent...

Sometimes you find yourself thinking there's no damned hope. Sometimes it's just impossible to believe the human race is worth the effort.

And then, Norway.

Thank you. What happened was an unforgiveable, unforgettable horror - but the response of the Norwegian people, their government and their society, is the first truly hopeful thing I've seen in a long time. I'll do my best to try and live up to the example.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

On Being An Instructor

They sent a bloke along today to assess my performance as an Active After Schools Community Coach. Which was fun.

The school gets me in a couple times a year to run mickey-mouse introductory courses on martial arts one afternoon a week. It's a hangover from a programme the Howard government put in place, aimed at getting lardyassed kids out from behind Nintendo screens, and back onto the sportsfields. I don't much care about the politics one way or the other, mind you. I like working with kids, and giving them a chance to try something different.

The thing is, these courses are maybe five to eight weeks long. They're not what you'd call deep immersion efforts. I plan them out so the kids get exposure to a nice range of martial skills: throwing, grappling, wrestling, joint-locks, strikes, kicks, blocks, break-falls, body-movement and evasion... then I tie it together with some self-defence work, and throw in a few fun bits (boffer-type swordfighting; flying kicks and funky martial stunts) and we all have a good time.

Some of the kids go on to the regular class, which is great. Some just keep coming back to the intro class, which is puzzling, but perfectly okay. And of course, there's always new faces, which is good as well.

The assessment... I understand why they need to do it. The Active After School Communities programme was designed to unearth skills possessed by people not usually involved with the schools - hobby players of sports, things like that. They probably don't see a whole lot of black-belt instructors who routinely teach classes for primary-age schoolkids. I don't mind the assessor turning up and checking out the show, in any case, and he's a cluey sort of bloke. He took maybe five minutes to look over what I was doing this afternoon, and then trotted off to check the football guys. He came back two or three times, but -- not unexpectedly -- he was quite happy, and signed off on the class after asking if there was any more equipment we could use.

All of which is nice. Good to know that somebody's prepared to look in, check it out, and give me credit for being able to wrangle a few kids.

But the whole instructor thing is a weird gig. I'm forty-five now, and among my older students, I've got a handful of young blokes who are my size, and have been at this martial arts stuff for a few years now. The good news is that I can still chase them 'round the floor in open sparring, or randori, or even on the ground in full-on groundfighting mode. That's kind of gratifying, I admit.

What annoys me is that I know perfectly well, the next morning those bastards are going to be more or less fine. They'll have some bruises, sure. And because they have to work harder than me (the loser always works harder in martial arts. That's the point, after all. You want the other guy to have a worse time than you do.) I expect they'll even have a few aches and strains.

But I'm forty-five. I still have those goddam twinges two days later... and I bloody hate that!

However it be, there's something extremely satisfying about seeing people gain skill and confidence under your guidance. I should stress that I don't imagine it's down to me: these are people who have made the decision to learn, and to train, and they could pick up these skills from anybody who cared to show them. There's no such thing as teaching; there's only learning.

Mind you, I'm not denying the existence of good versus bad teachers. Good teachers understand they need to find ways to engage the interest of their students, and to present the material in a fashion which the student will find easy to assimilate. Bad teachers believe they have an important body of knowledge which they have to drill into the students, whether they want it or not.

I try to stick to being a good teacher. And yeah, it's rewarding when a ten year old kid runs up to me at school, proud as hell, and explains that he '...fell off his skateboard but he did a forward roll the way he learned at the martial class, and he didn't even get a scrape!' But the credit goes to the kid, for listening and practicing and overcoming his fears to the point where he can relax during a high-speed fall. That's a shitload more difficult than demonstrating a forward roll on a crash mat for a bunch of students!

Truly, I have no idea how long I'll go on as an instructor. One of these days, I'll get around to doing my second dan. That calls for some weapons training, among other possibilities and by no very great coincidence, I've been working in Iai-do these last few years. Between that and the ongoing commitment to the dojo, I suspect I'm probably in line to do the grading sooner rather than later.

But I don't really care. I have two or three major reasons for doing this. The first is the students: my own kids, and other people in this community. As long as I see people getting something out of what I do with them, I think it's worth the effort. And helping country kids get a start - that's a good thing.

The second reason is more selfish. Ju-jitsu is interesting. It makes me think... around corners. I meet interesting people through the martial practice. It provides an ongoing challenge which I enjoy.

The third reason is probably even more selfish. Some of the people I've admired most have been elderly martial arts instructors. Gentle, friendly, good-humoured men with white hair and stooped frames - men who could very possibly kill you by raising an eyebrow. I may never wear a red-and-white striped belt, or carry a list of dan gradings as long as my arm... but I would very much like to have the alertness and the physical skill and confidence that those dangerous, wicked, kindly, hilarious old men possess when I too reach that kind of age.

And the only way I know to ensure that is to practice, the same as they did. So: I'm going to keep dragging my bones down to the dojo, keep wearing the bruises and nursing the strains and the sprains... and let's be honest, I expect to keep enjoying it.

As an aside, there was a discussion the other night on the mat about the difference between a black belt and a good student. One of the most important and underrated things, I think, is persistence. The really good student who picks up technique easily and learns everything beautifully is in a great situation. But the one who's likely to wind up with a black belt is the one who keeps coming back, week after week, session after session, time after time. No matter how cold it gets in winter, or how hot in summer; no matter how many repetitions it takes to get things right, he or she just keeps on coming.

That's half a black belt right there. And though you may think you possess this quality, you who read this... I assure you it's a damned sight more rare than you believe it to be.

Okay. That's enough of that.

In other news: I had a phone call from Natalie about an hour and a half ago. She and Jake are now on the ground in Dublin, desperately trying to stay awake long enough to bring their jetlagged brains into synch with the local timeframe...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sole Parent Duty


Natalie and Jake got away okay this morning. More accurately, we all got up a half hour or so earlier than usual, and shivered our way through an early breakfast. Then Genghis and the Mau-mau got dropped down with the Vikings, to catch the school bus with the Viking kids. Meanwhile, yours truly chauffeured the cheerful travellers to the airport, along with their baggage... then turned around, and drove home again.

Lots of cleaning up ensued. Natalie has spent the last three days packing and panicking, and the place looks like five bombs went off. It's horrible. I've been gathering up her bathrobes, slippers, undergarments, random clothes, papers, lists, etc. I've been rounding up dirty dishes from all over the house. And I'm not enjoying it, thanks.

Of course, the sole parent stuff doesn't mean I get a break from the regular crap. So tonight, I taught the usual two and a half hours of ju-jitsu. Except that Genghis had to stay with me through the later session. The Mau-mau took the bus home, and hung out with her Viking friend until I got back and collected her. Then I dashed home, fed the kids, did some more cleaning, got the kids showered, etc.

Since then, I've contacted my prof to arrange a talkfest about the Master's degree on Friday morning. And I've contacted Genghis' music teacher to ensure we're supposed to have a lesson on Saturday morning. So: tomorrow, I drop the kids at school and arrange the keyboard and the music, etc, for the Mau-mau's piano lesson. Then later, I go back to the school and teach a flute lesson. Later still, I go back and teach an introductory martial arts class. Then I get to do the shopping, go home, clean and cook until Genghis and the Mau-mau come back from their gymnastics class, as chauffeured by Anna the Viking.

Of course, the after-school martial class isn't as simple as that. Normally it's just an hour-and-a-half of light exercise aimed at giving the kids a glimpse of martial practice, and helping them pick up a few physical skills. But tomorrow, they're sending someone around to "assess" me. I guess they have to do that from time to time, but it means that I have to have a nice, shiny lesson plan for them to see, etc. So, yes. Paperwork tomorrow morning, between ferrying kids and teaching flute.

Meanwhile on Friday morning I'll have that talkfest with my prof. But come Friday afternoon, I'll be picking up the kids from school and zooming into Launceston so Genghis can attend his orchestra practice. While he's doing that, the Mau-mau and I will get the shopping done, and perhaps afterwards I'll save myself the grief of cooking, and drop in at a pizza pub I know. That could be nice.

Saving myself a bit of effort there is kind of desirable, because on Saturday morning, I'll be driving back into Launceston yet again, so Genghis can have his bass lesson. Yippee.

Sole parent stuff sucks. Nat and Jake don't get back for a couple weeks at least, so I've got plenty of this super-chauffeur bullshit to look forward to...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Joe Appears To Have Run Out Of Organs

Oddly, Natalie gets "Readers Digest" in her mail on a regular basis.

This has nothing to do with any money changing hands. They just send her the magazine. Our best guess is that Readers Digest probably do this to a lot of doctors (it's pretty easy to get a mailing list of registered doctors courtesy of the AMA, among others. After all, somebody's got to tell all those fraggin' drug companies where to send their advertising.) in the hopes that said doctors will then use RD to fill out their quota of ancient, decaying magazines in the surgery waiting room... and perhaps some desperate souls will stumble upon RD and decide that a subscription to said publication is precisely the prescription they require.

Or something.

Normally, Natalie does just that: throws the RD into the waiting room, and forgets it. Good thing too. But she brought the latest home by accident, and it's been a source of fascination to young Jake. He's read us all kinds of (excruciatingly dull) snippets of (utterly pointless) information. He's done the vocabulary quiz. He's checked out "Laughter, The Best Medicine", or whatever they're calling their humour column these days. And altogether, he seems to have enjoyed himself.

At first, I was appalled. But then I remembered that at age eleven, I didn't mind Readers Digest either. Some friends of my mothers had a colossal frockin' collection of the things - a vast double-shelf probably four metres long, spanning most of their lounge room, which had pretty much every issue from the late sixties up to the late seventies (which was the time I was reading 'em there.) I certainly wasn't riveted by the things, but there was stuff in them that I found interesting. Sometimes.

Anyway, in light of Jake's recent infatuation, I thought I'd glance over this modern-day RD, and see what kind of crap they were purveying. I do recall that by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I was reading RD in an almost Deconstructionist mode... sort of deriving a mental image of their target demographic from the nature of the stories and writing, and from the advertising. Even back then, it was painfully obvious that RD was attempting to address an astoundingly bourgeois, fundamentally conservative and naive population - and so I was quite curious to see who they thought they were reaching these days.

The first conclusion was that the Readers are now a fuckload older. So many adverts for adult diapers, mobility aids, wills, funerals... it's spooky. Makes me think that a lot of the people who were reading the RD seriously back in the seventies are still doing so. Only now, they're not reading about Joe's spleen any more. (That's the tie-in with the title of this post, by the way. There was a whole series of articles back in the seventies entitled "I Am Joe's {Insert Body Organ Here} ". These articles explained, in nice, simple terms and with discreet but colourful diagrams, the mysterious workings of Joe's kidneys, lungs, thyroid glands, pancreas, etc. Poor Joe. Must have been a hell of a series of interviews.)

The second thing I noticed: attention spans have shortened. The old RD used to carry a few long articles among the short stuff and the fillers, and often, the latter third or quarter of the thing would be a single piece of writing - sometimes an adapted piece of fiction, sometimes a biography, sometimes a lengthy exposition on some kind of real-life incident. ("Drama In Real Life", I believe they were called. And the fact I can remember that makes me want to go and drink slivovitz until those particular neurones are dead.) The modern RD has nothing similar. The "articles" and essays are all quite short, and there are many more little columns and quizzes and games.

The last thing I noticed: despite the reduction in size, and particularly in the depth of the writing, there's as much advertising as ever there was. Maybe even more. And it's all still wrapped around that fumblesome, bourgeois core of conservative naivete.

Ah well. It's probably harmless enough. And in another year or two, Jake will be ready to start deconstructing the magazine, and thinking about the reasons it is published, and why it is laid out as it is, and so forth. In the meantime, I suppose the damned things might as well languish here as in the surgery. In any case, I think they've got two or three other copies turning up down there every month...

Monday, July 18, 2011

What? Oh. Right. Bandwidth Cap. Thanks, Telstra.

Things are not slowing at all.

Weekends consist of a mass of kids: the Double-Troubles, the Vikings, and of course, the Flintharts. Anywhere up to eleven kids ranging in age from two to thirteen or so may be running about the place. Or about the Viking house. Or split randomly between them and us.

Happily, they're all pretty good kids, and likeable. Damned good thing, really, because cold, dark, damp wintry weather tends to keep 'em inside a lot more than in summer. Sure, they still swarm the trampoline and the playground-thing, but they don't last as long, and then they come in damp and shivery, and in need of hot chocolate or lunch or something.

It's nice for the kids, but all a bit chaotic. Mind you, it's going to stay like this for a while, maybe even get a bit more challenging. Shortly, Natalie and Jake are going to go to Ireland for a couple weeks. Y'see, as most of you know, Natalie is big on the diddly-dee fiddle music. Loves her some Irish Trad. And she plays pretty regularly with a bunch of people at a pub in Launceston.

Turns out one of those folks is a chap by the name of Brian Mooney. These days, Brian is a little on the far side of eighty years of age, and makes a crust as a rather good artist - but back in the day, in the sixties and early seventies when Irish folk music was making its comeback, Brian was a real player. Or singer, rather. Dig around in the history, you find him standing on stage next to folk like the Dubliners and the Fureys and a whole bunch of others.

Brian and his wife Phyllis are also two of the kindest, most generous, friendly, hospitable and interesting people you're ever likely to meet. And it turns out they're going back to Ireland for a look-around. Probably the last time they'll be able to go. And Brian in particular is looking forward to catching up with an army of famous and near-famous music friends... lots of singing and music and drinking, etc.

And they've invited Natalie to go along as well.

Oddly, she was a bit dubious at first. Couldn't quite figure out how to make it fit into the year. But I kind of put my foot firmly down, and told her that she was going to go one way or another. Seriously: Natalie longs to be a muso. But she started a bit late in life, and she's got doctoring and the family, so she plays for her own delight instead. Nevertheless, she's steeped in the stuff, and I know that she daydreams about playing with the big kids. So the chance to wander around Ireland in the company of a couple of folks who really did play with the big names, and who remain in contact with many of the legendary figures from that era (and later) in Irish music... yeah. She'd be insane to miss that. Moreso because it's not a chance that will come again, is it?

Anyway. That means in another week and a half or so, I'll be on sole parent duty for a couple weeks. Admittedly, the Kid Quota will be one down, because Jake gets to make the trip too (we couldn't afford the whole family, and Jake is old enough to travel with a degree of independence, so he got the brass ring.) but that still leaves two kids and all the usual excitement. Plus these multi-kid weekends, of course.

They come about because the Double-Trouble Dad is off in NSW for a few weeks on some sort of a permaculture training course. And more power to him: this corner of Tasmania could really use somebody to kick off intensive, boutique agriculture. But for the weeks he's gone... well, it's hard on Mum Double-Trouble 'cos she works weekends. Hence the addition of three kids to the Viking/Flinthart menagerie.

Mind you, it's nice to help out, and as I said: it's great for the kids. They run around like lunatics all weekend, stopping only to hoover up vast quantities of food. I remember a few weekends like that when I was a kid: mass family gatherings, gangs of us kids racing around, playing energetic games, reappearing for meals and then disappearing again. Very good times, and I'm glad my kids are getting the chance to experience something similar.

And the reason I've been offline so long? Simple. This month, I rehabilitated a computer to give away to some friends with kids - they could use a computer, and we had an old one that I knew worked fine; just needed to be formatted, reloaded, etc.

Lotta bandwidth there.

Meanwhile, Jake has been making animations and putting them on YouTube. More bandwidth, yep. Doesn't take long before 12gigabytes is gone. We've been throttled back to 64k connection for the last eight or nine days.

Don't blame me. That's the biggest 3G wireless account Telstra provides, and there's no provision whatsoever to top up the bandwidth if you go over. That's it. Flat: you go over 12gig in a month, they kick you down to 64k.

Yep. Gotta love rural Australia. Anyone out there who really opposes the NBN should just buy a fucking hardbound set of encyclopaedias and give up on being part of the 21st century in any form.

Okay. That's it for the moment. I should go into detail, for the sake of the kids reading this in the future, but I've got too much to do. I've got two or three stories to finish, further work on the novel... Swedish language lesson to prepare for tomorrow, etc.

No stopping. Forward!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Long, Long Week.

I kinda lost track of time to write this stuff over last weekend. It was Jake's eleventh birthday on the Thursday before the weekend, but Natalie couldn't get the time away from work. Therefore, he had a day off school on Tuesday. On Thursday he had a small family celebration, with presents and cake. And on Saturday?

Well, on Saturday we had a screaming dozen kids in the place, most of whom stayed quite late for a movie night. And those who didn't stay late for the movie night stayed overnight, sleepover fashion.

The three Double-Trouble kids were here. (So called in these missives because they have a hyphenated surname which I can never quite bring to the front of my tongue in time.) By the end of the movies, young Marley (the middle Double-Trouble) had fallen asleep on the foldaway up in the garage, where we do the moviehouse thing. It's a nice little couch, and when it's folded down, it's quite a credible bed, but I hadn't intended to leave Marley and his brother up there to sleep. Still, the night was only moderately cool, and they had plenty of bedding. Marley didn't really wake up when I unfolded the couch underneath him, so I just covered him up carefully, and made sure he and his brother were fine.

Meanwhile, down in the house, the Mau-Mau had two of her friends in her bedroom: Minor Viking Blonde, and Eden Double-Trouble. Natalie was having trouble getting them to sleep, so I had to go in and explain carefully that Minor Viking Blonde would be bundled into the car and driven home like her brothers (yes, they were some of the ones who didn't stay after the movies.) That worked quite nicely, much to Natalie's annoyance... apparently she'd tried the same tactic and the girls had ignored her.

It was a long day. Kids on the trampoline. Kids running around the house. We built a small backyard fire in our little firepit, and Many Marshmallows Were Carbonised. Also many wieners. And of course, Genghis got enthusiastic about the fire, and we also lost a pair of tongs and a plastic cutting board. Genghis loves him some fire. I can see where that's going to be a problem some day.

Naturally there was also birthday cake (again), and singing, and presents from people other than the family. All up, I think Jake did quite well. I have to say, I like the Internet when it comes to kids' birthdays. I know he likes Silly Putty, so when I saw an article on magnetic Silly Putty - well, I also know he likes magnets. So I ordered some of the magnetic putty via the 'Net, and I also ordered a few small, inexpensive neodymium magnets... and he thought I was the coolest Dad in history.

It would be damned hard to find anything interesting for the kids without the Internet, living out here. The Mau-Mau's birthday is coming up. I've found a plush, penguin-shaped hot water bottle for her (she likes a hot-water bottle in the winter weather), and also a nifty paintbrush which 'reads' coloured paint as an electrical signal and makes a musical tone. That came via the USA, courtesy of my boon friend and mentor Ginny... and of course, the Internet. The Mau-Mau adores both music and painting, and when she gets hold of this, she's going to flip. And it cost less than $20.

That's the cool thing. With all this access to a world of innovation, kid presents can be cheap without sacrificing 'interesting', 'fun', and 'appropriate'. Earns you lots of Parent Cred.

Meanwhile, the rest of the week unfolded like a train crash in slow motion. Every day, a stack of stuff to do. I gave myself a morning off on Monday because I needed a little down time, but then it was back into it, without stopping. I've been writing, and emailing, and assessing manuscripts. I've been studying Swedish and preparing Swedish lessons and reading. I've taught three classes of martial arts -- two regular, one on Thursday afternoon for the school. I've had the car serviced, collected passports, paid bills, fed visiting medical persons, dealt with unexpected guests, repaired the chainsaw, planted herbs (catnip in the garden, with specially erected anti-cat mesh. Once the little plants are big enough to grow through the mesh, THEN the cats can get high. They're NOT gonna roll all over the plants and dig them up like they did last time). I've done dump runs, refurbished computers, pulled apart electronic bits and pieces, practiced sword, practiced ju-jitsu, practiced flute and taught a flute lesson. I've downloaded 'The Lion Sleeps' as a MIDI file, dropped it into a notation programme so I could see the actual score, and then re-arranged that score for Bass, Cello and Flute so that my flute student (Dylan Double-Trouble) will be able to play it along with Genghis and Jake. I've been to Launceston twice, and Scottsdale every day, often multiple times because it's been impossible to co-ordinate all the errands into one trip.

I've gone through a vast mountain of laundry. Made foam swords for the ju-jitsu class. Researched a couple interesting pencak silat techniques, and taught them to my two most senior students because they needed a bit of a challenge -- and of course, in the process I had to learn the techniques myself. Silly stuff, but athletic and fun, and operating out of a slightly different martial mindset than usual.

And so here I am, at the other end of the week. It's the weekend again. This weekend, the Double-Trouble kids are staying with Viking Neighbour Anna. Their dad is on a training seminar, and their mum has some heavy working hours this weekend, so they're out visiting. Which is cool, 'cause they're good kids. But Viking Neighbour Anna has her own tribe of five, and since my lot really enjoy the company of both the Viking Clan and the Double-Trouble kids... well, I'll be heading down there this afternoon to take some of the load off. I'll run a gaming session for them, so there will be action and adventure and shouting and dice and popcorn and soda. And eventually, I'll have to come home and cook dinner too, because someone has to. (Although possibly I can set up a pot roast before I go down. That might work out well.)

So. I'm not really writing here, am I? I'm procrastinating, most likely. I still have to finish writing up the manuscript assessment I'm working on, too. I'll post it out on Monday. It's a nice change, actually - this MS is a raft of short stories, and the writer has a real touch. Not only can he write cleanly and effectively, but he's actually got something interesting and potentially valuable to say. The assessment is going to be fairly lean on criticism; it'll wind up looking a lot more like a scholarly introduction to the collection, I suspect. Anyway, it's very nice to be reading something of a genuinely professional level, and I hope this writer gets the kudos and the publication in the end.

Gotta go. Time is wasting, and I can hear the Mau-Mau doing something dubious in the kitchen...