22 December 2005

Christmas Not in Kansas

22 December 2005—This is the time of year when advertisers, store managers, neighbours, strangers, and any number of organisations and people start sending cards, communicating messages, and passing wishes that involve snow and snowmen, holly, mistletoe, Christmas trees, singing White Christmas and Let It Snow, visiting department stores to chat with overweight men dressed in wool and fur…but wait a minute! As I write, it is nearly 102 degrees outside. If I were in the city, rather than the country, I’d be at one of Perth’s beaches, slathered in sunscreen (because I’ve been burned in less than 30 minutes), and splashing in the Indian Ocean. It’s summer, snows only in the Stirling Ranges south of here on occasion, and any obese man in a big red suit would drop from heat stroke in no time.

The Northern Hemisphere traditions of the
Silly Season were carried here to Australia, along with meagre possessions, household goods, leg irons, or whatever transported prisoners and immigrants were carrying. They found nomadic natives that wore very little, if anything at all. They tried to have their Christmas ham, figgy pudding, roast turkey and hot drinks, but it wasn’t very pleasant. As the years passed, more and more Australians stopped pining for a white Christmas. They dubbed a local (Western Australian) tree that blooms brilliant gold around December a ‘Christmas tree’ (Nuytsia floribunda)—related to the mistletoe, oddly enough. Since it was too hot to run an oven all day, many Australians enjoyed a Christmas barbecue, having left Santa Claus a bottle of beer the night before. Yard games, swimming in the family pool, visiting the beach, picnicking, and enjoying the summer’s day became more common.

Last Friday night, I was driving home about 6.30 in the evening. Having just left Kalgoorlie’s CBD, I passed between the Kalgoorlie Bowling Club and the women’s bowling club across the street. That’s
lawn bowls. Both clubs had families and friends gathered on the greens, enjoying the balmy summer’s night. Just up the street, two local cricket teams were playing at the local sports oval. People were walking their dogs (or themselves); others were driving through the drive-through liquor stores to pick up a bottle of their favourite for the weekend. Some had stopped at the local market to pick up one or two items for evening tea—maybe some ice cream.

Having lived in Florida and Arkansas when I resided in the US, I’m used to Christmases without snow. I did
visit Iowa in January/February 2005, and experienced two or three heavy snows, which I volunteered to shovel for my dad. It was just nature’s way of reminding me that I don’t miss that stuff at all! But it is moments like last Friday, with the lawn bowls and the cricket on a warm December summer’s eve that remind me—I’m not in Kansas (or Arkansas) anymore.

So the next time you Northern Hemisphere types make up your Christmas card list—snail mail or email—remember, the thought of parkas, fireplaces, mittens, hot chocolate, and frosty window panes makes us laugh…if not a little perspired. Perhaps you’d consider tossing some
jumbo prawns on the barbie, opening a cold lager, and singing Rolf Harris’ Six White Boomers. (Boomers are big kangaroos). By the way, White Christmas is a candy-like sweet that is very yummy. Oh! And don’t forget the Pavlova!

01 December 2005

A Handful of the Obscure

Whilst I was trying to force an alert state this morning over my second cup of tea, I abandoned playing Zuma Deluxe (reflexes just not fast enough yet), and resorted to something a bit less stressful, my newest obsession, Firefox Stumbling, whereupon I came to the web page with lists for the top science fiction stories, books, movies and television shows, according to the website’s visitors’ votes. Perusing these lists reminded me of pleasures long past that stay with me even now, some of them so obscure as to be relatively unknown. Granted, some of these books / movies / TV shows / stories are obscure because they are bad; I will admit that. But some are obscure because they are too serious, too upsetting, or somehow outside that Hollywood ‘blockbuster’ mould of happily-ever-after, moralising, all-American wholesomeness that seems to do so well with the movie-viewing public. I began a list of books and movies that did not appear on these lists or that appeared so far down as to have garnered only two or three votes. Today, I would like to share with you my thoughts on six science fiction (or at least speculative fiction) movies that I would watch again. If you have not seen them, perhaps you will take a chance and give them a try. If you are currently residing in Australia and do not subscribe to Fox TV and therefore have turned off the telly because there is nothing anyone with the intellect of a learning disabled chimp (or better) would watch, you don’t have anything to lose by hiring a DVD. None of these are ‘new’ movies, so they’ll be cheap.

The first movie that came to mind was the Ken Russell-directed
Altered States (1980), based on the Paddy Cheyefsky novel of the same name, which was partly based on dolphin scientist John Lilly’s experiments with immersion tanks. Cheyefsky had serious disagreements with Russell about the screen-adaptation and eventually ‘disowned’ the film. But William Hurt, in his screen debut, does a fine job as does his co-star Blair Brown. It is also Drew Barrymore’s screen debut, but she has a small part. It is a frenetic movie, taking Lilly’s experiments and adding the twist of hallucinogenic drugs to the mix. Everyone talks very earnestly and all at once, and this with the special effects of Hurt’s character’s ‘trips’ in the immersion tank result in a film that Roger Ebert calls “superbly silly’. It is a difficult movie to pigeon-hole into a specific genre, but I still maintain it is worth a look in spite of Cheyefsky’s distaste for it.

Next up (these are in no apparent order – just the order in which I thought of them) is
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), starring David Bowie and directed by Nicolas Roeg. The screenplay is adapted from a Walter Tevis (The Hustler and The Color of Money) novel, and Bowie plays a humanoid alien who comes to earth to get water for his dying planet. But he is distracted by Earth’s excesses which keep him here far too long to be of any help to his planet. David Bowie, who in his many incarnations often seemed like an alien, portrays the character very well. Again, this is not a movie that everyone will like. It is not a movie one would pop popcorn for and invite a bunch of friends over. But if you want to have a think, consider this film, which Keith Phillips calls ‘a haunting mess’ that is ‘subplot rich’.

In the late-1990s, screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin visited a US university where I worked as both a lecturer and an administrator, so I had the chance to meet with him for a brief chat. He seemed to me, at the time, more like a person who would write the screenplay
Jacob’s Ladder (1990) than the Demi Moore / Patrick Swayze flick Ghost (also 1990). Jacob’s Ladder was actually written in the 1970s, but it took Rubin about 15 years to convince anyone to take it on. Director Adrian Lyne finally did, and there might have been better directors for such a powerful story, but that’s Hollywood for you. And the resulting movie does not disappoint. Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam vet haunted by a traumatic event in the Mekong Delta and the death of his son (Macaulay Culkin’s uncredited screen debut). Elisabeth Peña plays his partner, and Danny Aiello plays his ‘angelic’ chiropractor very well – which makes you almost want to forgive him for his part in Hudson Hawk. All the special effects are live. Give it a try when you want to scare yourself.

My sons have always had very strange tastes in movies. Jeremy and I used to make it a point to go to ‘B’ movies – bad B-movies. We specialised in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. I won’t be recommending any of those here. John became enamoured of Ralph Bakshi’s
Lord of the Rings (1978), so much so that when the cat had kittens, he named all of them after Hobbits. So when they stumbled across Bakshi’s Wizards (1977) in the video store, we had to take it home to watch it. It feels a lot like his incomplete LOR attempt, but this is much more ‘homemade’, partly because several different artists worked on the animation. But it still remains an enchanting parable and ought to be seen by at least animation aficionados. The female characters, true to Bakshi form, all have large breasts, etc., so it is not children’s animation. Tasha Robinson at the Onion A.V. Club says Wizards is one of the most ‘appealingly subversive, cynical animated movies ever made’. I (and my sons) agree.

Just to show you that I am not opposed to ‘chick flicks’, if they are done well, let me recommend
Truly Madly Deeply (1991), which is an intellectual Ghost, starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman in a subdued role [compare his Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)]. Nina (Stevenson) and Jamie (Rickman) were madly in love until Jamie’s untimely and sudden death. Nina is so distraught that she seeks therapy, until Jamie unexpectedly reappears in her life. The dialogue is glib and funny (Nina (introducing herself): Parents, Gloucestershire, teachers. Him geography, her history. So holidays it would be "Dad, where are we? Mum, have we been here before?"), and the film is populated by ordinary, sometimes eccentric people you’d have a much better chance of meeting than the bank wanks and Whoopi Goldbergs of Ghost. It can be a bit silly and is a tearjerker. Supposedly when the film was shown in Mexico, tissues packets labelled ‘for women only’ were passed out to theatre patrons. One of the subtle ‘lessons’ of this movie might be some advice exchanged between Arnold and his domineering mother in Torch Song Trilogy (1988) – another favourite – that the dead are easy to love.

Finally,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990), written and directed by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love – 1998 – and many more), is about two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Played by Gary Oldman (Rosencrantz) and Tim Roth (Guildenstern), these Shakespearean characters wander with oblivion through Hamlet, blissfully unaware of their place in the universe, much less the play going on around them. Rosencrantz: I don't believe in it anyway. Guildenstern: What? Rosencrantz: England. Guildenstern: Just a conspiracy of cartographers, then? You do not have to be intimately familiar with Hamlet, but that helps. Finally, Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the head of a troop of players who entertain the court in Shakespeare’s play, is so delightfully over-the-top that the whole thing threatens to become a movie about a play about a minor character in a play within a play. But that’s just too confusing. Take a chance (if you can find it) and give the film a look. Reviews often said it lost something in its transition from play to film, and I have seen it performed on stage (where it seems to make more sense). But most of us don’t have that option. So see the film.

So if you are looking for a ‘different’ movie – notice I did not say ‘good’ – try one of these. There is certainly enough variety that you should be able to find at least one of the six that you will enjoy.

21 November 2005

Woolly Mammoth

What can one say about Woolly Mammoth? The Ratbag christened him thus because of his great amount of body hair. His real name is Jon, the son of a Greek father and a “Skip” (Australian) mother, as he used to explain. He looks Greek; in fact, he looks great. Jon is a very handsome man, tall, soft-spoken, if a bit obsessed about shiny boots. I often wondered how he managed his police duties, since he was so unassuming and mild-mannered.

It wasn’t just
Eucla folk (when he lived there) who taunted Woolly. Friends from Perth also rang up, often just to torment him. No one did it with such glee and dedication as Woolly’s friend, who would ring up and announce himself as a representative of Industrial Body Wax, or ask for Woolly as “the bloke with a koala nailed to his chest”. During a radio interview after a horrendous truck accident on the Eyre Highway near Madura when the weather had been rainy and bitterly cold, Woolly told the interviewer that he reckoned the temperature had been “minus zero”. He also once told a newspaper reporter that the Nullarbor “wasn’t the Mitchell Freeway” when asked about the chances of finding this bloke from Sydney who had gone bush and had been reported missing by his family.

One winter day, a group of police administrators had flown to Eucla to evaluate the proposed expansion plans for the nearly 25-year old police station. Of course, whenever one of the bosses visited, it was a good chance to have a burn — to destroy any drugs and fireworks that had been confiscated and no longer needed to be stored. These visits were always enjoyable (at least for me) because the roadhouse would put on a nice feed for the visitors, and often it meant that Nobby, the police pilot, would bring the visitors to Eucla, and it was always good to catch up with him. That night, however, Eucla had its once-a-year torrential rain. It came down in walls of water on the inside of the roadhouse dining room windows, caused mud slides on the escarpment and washed out parts of the dirt landing strip at the ‘Eucla International Airport’. On assessing the condition of the strip the next morning, Nobby determined that he could not possibly use the strip to take off. An alternative was to have the plane towed onto the beach road, a dirt track, up to a nearly level spot about a kilometre from the airstrip, where he could take off – but only if the plane had no passengers or baggage aboard. So the cops arranged to tow the plane with their Mazda truck and then block the
Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS)landing strip on the highway, so Nobby could land there and pick up his passengers and their baggage.

Woolly was driving the Mazda that morning. I went along to take photos and movies. The plane was hooked to the Mazda’s tow bar, pulled onto the beach road, and with Nobby in the cockpit, it was slowly towed up the track toward the escarpment. I followed on foot a few metres behind with the video camera, filming what ended up being a boring length of video (which later was accidentally erased). We were about three-quarters of the way from the spot at which Nobby wanted to start his take off when everything stopped; so I stopped filming. The Mazda’s engine revved a bit and it slid sideways as the tow rope went slack. Woolly had bogged the Mazda, and the plane was going nowhere.

Nobby hopped down from the plane and everyone slogged through the mud to free the Mazda. The tow rope was
straightened out; Nobby resumed his place in the cockpit, and shortly after, he was ready to take off. I got into the Mazda with Woolly and one of the Kalgoorlie cops as we sat on the side track to the highway waiting for Nobby’s take-off. We joked about how much the plane was worth and if Nobby’s life insurance would cover what might happen. But the plane rose slowly from the muddy track, quickly gaining altitude, until Nobby banked south toward the sea so he could come around and make his approach to the highway.

Woolly put the Mazda in gear, and we headed up the track, then west onto the highway to prepare the landing strip. Marty was in a patrol car behind us, blocking traffic from the east. Woolly would stop eastbound traffic at the other end of the highway strip. The RFDS strips are identified for the traveller by large yellow signs and white stripes on the highway. For the two or three kilometres that comprise the landing strip, the white posts that define the end of the shoulder are sitting in metal cups to ease their removal (and replacement). In the back seat of the dual cab truck, I was fiddling with my video camera and 35mm still camera when an appropriately sized sign appeared at the edge of my peripheral vision and Woolly and Alan got out to remove the posts on either side of the highway. They hopped back in a moment later, brushing the dust from their hands, and we headed to the next pair of posts. Again, they hopped out, struggled a bit with their respective posts and re-entered the car.

“I thought those posts were supposed to be in metal boxes or something,” Alan ventured. Woolly agreed that his post had been rather difficult to remove, as well. But when we approached the next set, they hopped out and wiggled the posts from what appeared to be firm anchor. Before returning to the car, Woolly looked up briefly, scanning the highway. I did not pay him much attention. He opened the car door and partly shut it again, before opening it quickly and sliding quietly into the driver’s seat.

He chuckled softly and told Alan, “This isn’t the RFDS strip.” He pointed another few hundred metres down the highway where we saw the sign announcing the RFDS strip. “There it is.” We had stopped at a sign of similar size and colour, warning motorists of the presence of kangaroos, wombats and camels for the next few kilometres. We laughed — a lot. “Good one, Woolly!” I gasped between fits of laughter. He turned to me in the back seat and tried to threaten, “Don’t you tell the Sarge!” I assured him I would not...and I meant it, too.

We arrived at the appropriate place, Woolly and Alan pulled up the appropriate posts. Jon parked the Mazda at the west end of the strip, stopped traffic, and we waited for Nobby who made a perfect landing, picked up his passengers and cargo in the turn-around. He taxied back onto the highway and the plane lifted slowly into the air, dipping its wing to us before it headed toward Kalgoorlie. When we got back to the station, I reported that all went well and went back to the house to view the video. All day, I kept chuckling to myself about Woolly and his errant posts.

The next night, just as we were about to drop off to sleep, I told the Ratbag about Woolly and the highway posts. It was just too funny to keep to myself. The Ratbag laughed so hard, I thought he would fall out of bed. I confessed that I told Woolly that I would not tell, but I just had to share the joke on Woolly.

During our stay there, the Eucla cops had an incident book, apart from the official incident log, for stuff-ups and related matters — like the time one of the guys came to work with his uniform jumper on backwards, or Woolly’s “minus zero” comment — all for which they were fined. The fines went into the Eucla Police Social Club fund and helped subsidise dinners at the roadhouse for visitors, the Christmas party, and the like. When I visited the police station the next morning, Woolly greeted me sheepishly and the Ratbag came out of his office to inform me that Woolly had gone into ‘the book’ for his highway post incident. Not only that, but he’d admitted that when he realised what he’d been doing, at post #3, that he’d slammed his hand in the car door. “And you’re in the book, too, Brat”, the Ratbag revealed. “What for?” I asked indignantly. “For conspiring to conceal!” he replied. So I paid my two dollars. It was still worth the laugh.

We brought this incident up whenever we were regaling people with Woolly stuff-ups. And there are a lot more. While someone told the story for the umpteenth time, Woolly would just shake his head in resignation and mutter, “And the hits just keep on comin’”. The ‘hits’ included someone painting “Greek god’s car” on the rear window of his Suzuki, jokes about how very slowly he drove, and the fun we had convincing him that his turn as acting officer-in-charge of the police station coinciding with the anticipated re-entry of the Russian space station,
Mir, meant that it would probably land on the roadhouse.

Yet there were few people, if any, who were kinder, gentler or more well-liked than Woolly. Once, he and Gnat revealed to me that if the Ratbag extended his posting in Eucla, they had considered staying beyond their two-year posting. But it became clear that the Sarge was not staying much past the six-month extension he had agreed to, so they began looking for postings back in Perth. People came and went in Eucla regularly. And, after leaving my sons and family in the US when I moved to Australia, I could not imagine feeling too badly about anyone’s departure. But the day that Woolly and his partner, “Gnat the Rat” left Eucla was a sad day. They got in their car — kept spotlessly clean by Woolly — with their new dog, christened Bella Stupido (for “pretty stupid”) by the Ratbag, and I wondered what I’d do without the two of them in town.

Once, when Gnat was visiting relatives in South Australia, he accidentally ran over this hyperactive red heeler they had named Lokita. (The Ratbag christened her Bucket-Head after she returned from being spayed in Ceduna wearing a contraption to keep her from worrying her stitches.) Jon had taken Bucket-Head down to the beach for a run (for both of them), and upon departure, she refused to get back into the Eucla-famous Suzuki they used for their beach jaunts. Being a heeler, Lokita would herd anything, so off she took — after the car. It was then that she got too close to a wheel, probably trying to bite the “heels” of the Suzi, and was run over.

Woolly raced her to town, knowing she was mortally injured, and after a couple opinions that affirmed his worst suspicions, asked Cooper to put her down. He admitted that he wept on the telephone while giving Gnat the news. You could tell the next morning that he had cried a good deal throughout the night. The dog was insane; there was nothing Jon could have done to avoid the accident. But he mourned that silly dog — because not only was he was distressed from being the cause of her death but also because he knew Gnat cared for Lokita a great deal.

Woolly was the perfect butt of any and every joke and jibe you could imagine. Few people in town did not enjoy teasing and badgering Woolly. And he knew that. Even the worst jokes he took meekly and quietly. After Gnat returned to town and the two of them had had a couple days to mourn their pet, Eucla residents began raking Woolly over the coals for having run over his dog. Not only that — Woolly came to Eucla from Tactical Weapons and was a firearms expert. Yet, he had to get the town’s crack shot to put Bucket-head down. So he was teased for that.

All of these stories are indications of who Woolly was...how organised he was, how efficient, how prepared. But the slightest departure from routine sometimes seemed to mean the worst of circumstances for him. Tourists often brought injured and orphaned wildlife to Eucla when they ran over kangaroos on the highway. Or they would find an echidna wandering about the caravan park. I even found a Little Corella one morning when hanging up the washing at the roadhouse. One of the orphaned joeys was named Rupert. His carer had to make a trip west at one point in little Rupert’s upbringing, so she asked Gnat, another animal lover, if she would look after Rupert the few days she would be away. Gnat was happy to do it, but Woolly had to substitute once while Gnat was on highway patrol, Rupert had finished his bottle, and while he was happily scampering around the lounge room, Woolly thought he would let him go nappy-less for a bit. Rupert hopped and sniffed and explored until he found a power strip and decided to squat over it and have a pee.

Woolly reported that sparks went everywhere, so he leaped up to rescue the little kangaroo, only to have the naughty joey squirt a bit more. More sparks flew. Woolly confessed he was worried that the animal would electrocute himself, but he was afraid to grab it, for fear he’d choose that moment to pee some more and shock the two of them. So the stand-off began — Rupert, peeing and sparking — Woolly grabbing and retreating, until he finally got a hold of the leaking kangaroo and took him outside. Gnat was happy to reveal this tale to any- and everyone upon her return. So I christened the kangaroo ‘Sparky’, and this had to be explained to his carer when she came back to town. Whenever we told this story about Woolly and Sparky, Woolly would curse quietly under his breath and shake his head.

And the hits just keep on comin’.

19 October 2005

Bugs

First, let me caution you: this is not a treatise on computer or software problems. This is my whinge about insects, critters, creepy-crawlies. It’s such a stereotype—a female who hates bugs. And I don’t know where it came from. But I can’t recall ever liking anything with more than four legs. As a child, I used to systematically engineer ways to stuff up anthills; I ran from bees and wasps; my mother cautioned me how filthy flies were. Finally, as an adult I declared that nothing with more than four legs could live under the same roof. A former husband cautioned me that crickets were good luck (but they kept me awake at night and eat clothes) or that spiders should be left alone because they eat other bugs (not fast enough). I’ll admit that I am biased against the critters, mostly because they’re ugly. I don’t feel quite the same revulsion for butterflies, dragonflies and bugs that have some attractiveness about them. But I still don’t want them crawling around my house.

Case in point: I once visited the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Park where there is a large butterfly aviary. It is into this wonderland that visitors can walk and view some of the rarest species of butterflies on earth. We had a brief speech by a docent, and there was a colourful poster at the entrance, both illustrating the rarest species of butterfly in residence there, a bright blue beauty called the Blue Morpho (Morpho menelaus). While I wandered about, looking at all the pretty things flying through the air and perched on flowers and leaves, one large Morpho Menelaus (I think) landed on my face. Ah yes, one of the rarest, most beautiful bugs in the world had taken up roost on my cheek and was sniffing about with its proboscis and creeping about with its tiny little, creepy feet. My insect-hating brain kept screaming signals to my hand, “Smack it! Smack it!” But I knew that would be looked upon unfavourably by my hosts, the San Diego Zoo. Greenpeace would surely come and get me. So I gritted my teeth and tried to smile for my companion who unadvisedly was trying to photograph the event. The endangered critter finally flew away to contribute to its limited gene pool some day, and I nearly fainted from having to exert my will over instinct for so long.

Another episode involved multiple insects during the early days of my residence in my first home. I had recently been transferred by the US Navy to Key West, Florida, and found a rental home—one half of an attached duplex, as there was no on-base accommodation for women at either the Naval Station in Key West or the Naval Air Station on Boca Chica, about 12 miles away, where I was assigned. I had never lived in a place that didn’t experience the killing cold of winter, so the numbers of most six- and eight-legged creatures that harass humankind were reduced in the cold. This meant that you had to really want an infestation or live in a building that was already seriously infested to experience vast numbers of cockroaches, fleas, ants, ticks, bedbugs, etc. Once I had moved my personal possessions into my newly acquired residence, I left to stock up on groceries and essentials like dishes, an iron and ironing board, and so on. I bought so many things that I had to leave my groceries on the kitchen counter to return to the car for another load.

When I re-entered the kitchen, my paper grocery sacks were literally crawling with cockroaches. Where I grew up, not only were flies disgusting disease carriers but so were cockroaches. The only thing that saved us from ‘roaches, according to my mother, is that one had to live in filth in order to attract cockroaches. I was horrified. I beat my groceries with my new broom, breaking eggs, smashing snacks, and probably not killing very many of the vermin. My tenure of only a few months there consisted of a duel between my neighbours and me. I would hear the hiss of an insecticide can one evening and expect to see refugee cockroaches before the morning. I would spray as soon as possible after that and enjoy a few critter-less days before I heard the whooshing spray of my neighbours’ retaliation. While living there, I also experienced my first swarm of termite alates (winged ones). I was advised that the only defence was essentially to retain the vast piles of wings that accumulated as the bugs lost them, to move underground and reproduce. After all, it wasn’t my house. One restrained the drifts of little wings by placing shallow containers of water under lights and near places where piles of wings had been seen. And to make your bed. And cover up anything you didn’t want to contain wings. Late at night, I would wonder about the next termite swarm or the hordes of cockroaches hiding in the walls, while I listened to carpenter ants eating my closet door from the inside out, ‘crunch, crunch, crunch!’ Ugh!

My last illustration is a general observation about Australian bugs. They don’t like me. I imagine it’s not personal but the result of my not having been stung, bitten or impaled from childhood and therefore being bereft of any bodily defence against their toxins, poisons, venoms, juices. My experiences with March flies, ticks, bull ants and mosquitoes have all been the same: the site of the attack swells up to amazing proportions, often bruising (because I scratch them…because they itch beyond endurance), and taking weeks, sometimes months to heal. Additionally, there is a huge spider ominously named the Huntsman, which I am assured is harmless to people. But you can’t step on/squash something as large as a pin dish. What a mess that would make! We saw the occasional chocolate tarantula skittering across the road when I lived in Arkansas, but never saw one in my house, as you can with Huntsman spiders.

So, I have to make life choices and decide whether to poison my home with insecticides or allow the nasty critters to roam free. It’s not a difficult decision. I may regret it if a physician ever diagnoses me with some ailment related to bug spray, but in the meantime, bugs die horrible deaths in my home, one way or another. They don’t pay rent, so they can’t live here. Unlike housemates, they don’t help take out the rubbish, wash dishes or cook. Unlike pets, they aren’t cuddly, nor do they give what humans can pretend is affection. Eating other bugs is not redemption for having too many legs and being ugly. When I was a kid, America’s oldest insecticide, Black Flag (which contained DDT and Chlordane until 1973 and 1988, respectively) had an advertising campaign reminiscent of American anti-Communist propaganda, “The only good bug is a dead bug.” My sentiments exactly.

16 October 2005

Our Cabbage Who Art in Heaven

The Lord's Prayer is 66 words, [Abraham Lincoln’s] Gettysburg Address is 286 words, there are 1,322 words in the [US] Declaration of Independence, but [US] government regulations on the sale of cabbage total 26,911 words. – from the October 24, 1994 National Review

The Ratbag came home from work last night and revealed that he and his fellow Western Australian police officers had been notified of a change in procedure regarding throwing someone in jail. Oh, they are still going to put people in jail, but they will no longer call it ‘arrest’. It is now an ‘episode’. And if after the episode, the ‘person of interest’ (not ‘suspect’) tries to escape, or tries to harm himself or herself, or another officer, well, that is an ‘event’ that may result in another ‘charge’ or an investigation. All police must complete a self-paced skills upscaling on this new system. Then they must sit an assessment that will measure their understanding of the new system. They may not undertake the assessment before they have completed the course. I wonder: does this mean they can’t episode anyone before they complete the course?

Now that’s silly. One could easily pass the assessment as long as one selected the answers that were full of bureaucratese, doublespeak and jargon. Anyway, the government of Western Australia is also implementing Objective Based Education (OBE) in Years 11 and 12 next school year, so I don’t think the police (no longer the police ‘service’ or police ‘department’ – just ‘police’, thank you very much) can call the measure of individual achievement an ‘assessment’ any more. Or is it an assessment now because it is no longer an examination? Of course, when one attempts an assessment, no longer is a ‘grade’ earned, but one reaches a 'level of achievement'. And if one is unsuccessful in his or her attempt at the assessment of individual achievement, one must be given another chance at exhibiting an appropriate level of achievement…no matter how long it takes.

I read this past week in the West Australian that the new efforts in education have determined that an ‘A’ level of achievement in physics is equivalent to an ‘A’ level of achievement in physical education. This makes perfect sense, of course, because the names of both subjects start with ‘ph’. And everyone knows how difficult any ‘ph’ word is to spell.

I recently complained to the state premier, expressing my displeasure about this conversion to OBE, which has been junked in the US after struggling with it for ten years, and is viewed with a jaundiced eye in the eastern Australian states because it doesn’t work very well over there, either. I received a letter from the Western Australian Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier (how’s that for a title?) thanking me for my concerns ‘about the rollout of outcomes and standards education into Year 11 and 12’. I felt better immediately after reading that first sentence because at least they aren’t calling it OBE…it’s now ‘outcomes and standards education’. OSE. Let’s call it that from the start, because you know it’s destined to be an acronym. In fact, because it follows a stately progression of educational pedagogy, it is probably more accurately called Lineal Outcomes and Standards Education, or more succinctly, LOSE. At the end of the first school year, no doubt the Premier will require a report on how well we are LOSE-ing, upon which the Minister for Education will submit a Lineal Outcomes and Standards Education Report, or, LOSER.

Anyway, the Western Australian Parliamentary Secretary to the Premier reassures me that the WA Curriculum Framework, ‘itself does not mention standards, it states the outcomes that are expected of students across their 12 years of schooling. The outcomes in the Curriculum Framework are of similar nature to those described in the Singaporean education system.’

Can you imagine how relieved I was upon reading that? We are not adopting the unsuccessful US or Australian eastern states’ OBE system, but something very much like the Singaporean system. And everyone knows how successful that is…don’t they?

The letter takes up the better part of an A4 piece of paper, but it really doesn’t say anything, which is the hallmark of bureaucratese. It soothed me with its multi-syllabic obfuscation and circumlocution. It is this writing style, which gives us reassurances such as:

When all stakeholders have an input into the ongoing dialogue regarding the implementation of any new methodology or technology, all parties become partners in the agenda, change facilitators, if you will, and thereby enjoy ownership in any cadre event, whether it be a rollout, a production reduction, a reorganisation or retrenchment. The important thing is that no one feels disenfranchised by the alterations in standard operating procedure but can rest assured that all comments are taken under advisement by the administration.

…is now and ever shall be, for theirs is the kingdom, the power and glory forever and ever, in a one-horse open sleigh or forever hold their peace, and you’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me. Amen.

14 October 2005

On the Road Again


On the Road Again
Since this was written, we have moved from Eucla (four years ago) to Kalgoorlie and, sadly, Mr P has passed away. But I return to Eucla often for visits and have recently had a book published on the history of Eucla (since 1940). Mr P’s daughter, Rasa, now runs the roadhouse…and the West Coast Eagles had a wonderful season this year.

We were driving on the Eyre Highway, somewhere on the Straight (90 miles of it, says the sign, even though they measure distance in kilometres now), and I had all sorts of mixed feelings. I wasn’t past the amazement of having just sold, given away, thrown out or abandoned most of my worldly goods and moved to the other side of the planet. I was thrilled, but I couldn’t grasp that it had actually happened.

I find myself walking down the Southern Ocean’s shore or slogging up a sand dune, watching whales basking in the Bight, or a mob of kangaroos hopping across the scrub, or a flock of emus curiously eyeing my camera in the relentless wind out here, and this little voice in my head exclaims, “I live in Australia!”

But I’m in fast forward. Let me rewind and get back to where I was, riding down the Eyre Highway in The Ratbag’s little blue Toyota Starlet (riding because I was too afraid to drive and he was too smart to let me). We spent a week in Perth, where he’d driven to meet me when I flew—moved—here. Little Rock to Dallas to Los Angeles to Auckland to Melbourne to Perth, and only nine hours late. But that’s another story. We stayed with his mother, in her house up in Gooseberry Hill, and I enjoyed that view as much as I could. I looked upon our move to Eucla with trepidation. How well would we get along? How would working at the roadhouse go? How well would I fit in?

Not long before I left the US, I read Janette Turner Hospital’s novel, Oyster. It takes place in this little bitty dusty spot in the road, somewhere up in Queensland if I recall correctly, and the powers that be (such as they are) prevent anyone or anything from leaving, including the mail (because they’re keeping secret a rather prosperous opal mining concern). I wondered how that was possible, as I was reading the novel. I mean, the mail. They were also very suspicious of strangers, and strangers (one of whom is a father come looking for his missing son) feel their suspicion. Was this what awaited me in Eucla? I didn’t think so. I was there for a few days, just seven months before, and everyone seemed friendly. Of course, I was just passing through, The Ratbag's guest, and probably something of a novelty. This time, I was moving there, semi-permanently, as a resident, neighbour and co-worker.

While Eucla is smaller than that fictional town in Queensland, I see now how a few could manipulate almost anything in a small bush settlement, particularly when there aren’t any police (as was the case in Hospital’s book). It would be a bit more difficult to get away with here in Eucla, with seven police officers. But the mail comes and goes in mailbags. Greyhound buses pick them up and drop them off in the dark of night. The closest post office is more than 500 kilometres away, in Ceduna, South Australia. In Western Australia, it’s Norseman, more than 700 kilometres away. The mailbags that come and go at the police station (provided you have seven honest cops, of course) are safe. But the mailbags at the roadhouse are another story.

Long-time roadhouse owner, “Mr P,” a septuagenarian Lithuanian, closes the bags up at night. Any mail that tourists or locals want posted is placed on a shelf in the kitchen. Sometime before he retires upstairs (to the Eagle’s Nest), he places all the mail in the mailbags. There are two, and mail is put in its respective bag, depending if it’s going east or west. He places a padlock on each bag, and the bartender puts the bags in the mail barrels in front of the police station after he or she closes up at 22:00.

The next morning, the guy who’s rostered on for the service station (unless it’s Stewy, who. Mr P probably doesn’t trust to pick up the mail bags, and who usually can’t get up early enough to both pick up the mail bags and open the service station on time) picks up the roadhouse mailbags (if the bus has left any; sometimes they forget, or the bus is cancelled, and mail is delivered only five days a week when there are no federal holidays) at the police station barrels and puts them in the staff room for Mr P to open. When I first arrived, only Mr P could open the bags. Once, Yvonne got ‘special permission’ to open a bag because Mr. P was out of town. However, lately ‘Buddha’—sometimes called ‘Big Daddy’ (mostly by Mr P), has been opening the bags because Mr P gets up around 3:00 or 4:00, does his tills and books, gives the servo guy and the 6 o’clock girl any messages or duties, and he goes back to bed for a couple hours. Anyway, you see how he could control the mail, if he wanted to.

But I keep leaving the highway to reveal things I didn’t even know enough about to worry over. As The Ratbag drove down the road at a speed intended to cover the 1400 kilometres to Eucla in the shortest possible time, I was sorry to be leaving Perth. Perth is a great city. At least that’s my brief impression of it, given my two Oz holidays (Ozventure 1 and 2) and the week’s post-immigration breather. I love King’s Park, and the Swan Valley, the wineries and the birds...the Swan River and the colour of the sky, the smell of the eucalypts at The Ratbag’s mother’s, particularly after a rain...the old, colonial buildings sitting side-by-side with the modern skyscrapers in the CBD...the zoo and Northbridge, the restaurants and the bars, the music on the radio and the West Coast Eagles (even though their 2000 and 2001 seasons sucked out loud), the look of the Burswood Casino and resort (even though I ‘d never been there), our favourite Chinese restaurant in Morley, Xanthorrhea Nursery, never having to go to the airport to say goodbye again, if I didn’t want to.

I’d been to Eucla. I knew where I was going. No shops. No theatres. No restaurants, except for the roadhouse dining room and another roadhouse 12 kilometres to the east. No Hungry Jacks (aka Burger King), no McDonalds, no pizza, no grocery stores, no banks, no doctors or dentists or pharmacies. Nada. Just the roadhouse, with its swimming pool, service station, caravan park and motel, the Meteorological Station, the Silver Chain Nursing Clinic, the Eucla Combined Emergency Services shed (with their very own ambulance, fire truck and State Emergency Services truck), the Quarantine Checkpoint (really 12 kilometres to the east, across from the Border Village, another roadhouse not quite as nice as the Eucla Motor Hotel), the constant hum of a generator (for electricity), the two desalinisation plants (one for the town and one for the roadhouse) and a few houses. Oh yeah, and the Eucla International Airport, with its dirt runways. That’s it. Well, there’s the old townsite’s ruins, the old telegraph station (which isn’t really the telegraph station but the postmaster’s house) being all that one can usually see, the scenery, the jetty ruins, and the Eucla Golf Course, Shooting Club and nearby rubbish tip.

What if I fell incredibly ill? What if I were bitten by a dugite or a death adder? Or fell tramping over the dunes or the escarpment? What if I was burned at work? What about my chronic cough?

Still, my thoughts were remarkably calm. All I was thinking was, somewhat selfishly, that when neither of us was working, I’d have The Ratbag virtually all to myself. He’d not be dividing himself among his daughter, Munchkin, his friends, me, ignoring his mother when she decided he needed to lose weight or drink less, the errands that had to be run before his return to Eucla, the ‘Happy Families’ get-togethers his mother might be planning, etc., etc. Aside from work, his missing Munchkin, which he does acutely, Eyre Highway Community business, the desal plant, and the minutiae of daily life, I’d have a chance to get to know him. I was looking forward to that. We could see if we really were best mates or not. It was difficult to be happy about leaving Perth (because I wasn’t) and be anxious about moving to Eucla (which I definitely was) and still look forward to the coming weeks and months.

The highway, stretching out before us, seemed appropriate for the moment. It went on and on, and I couldn’t see our destination. No matter how much progress we made, it continued straight ahead. And I knew there were curves up ahead, but they couldn’t be anticipated, having never travelled this way (at least eastward) before. The road became narrower and narrower, until it seemed unpassable, but as we moved on, it opened up for us, the narrow bit continually moving on, too. And the curves were put there on purpose, so drivers wouldn’t become too bored or complacent about their trip.

I was, by the grace of the Australian immigration department and an unwillingness to be a coward, a new resident of a country I loved, travelling somewhere unknown with my best friend. It was the best place I’d been in for many, many years.

12 October 2005

Gender Names for Pets

There was a time when I had trouble with the gender of my pets. People often wondered why we had chosen the particular names my pets had. Every instance has a perfectly logical explanation. It was the quantity of the misnomers, I think, rather than just one little misnaming. Let me explain.

First, I worked with a friend of the family, named Tom, oddly enough, who had a farm cat that, as farm cats often do, had produced a litter of kittens. The hobby farm now had more felines than mice, so he was giving the litter away. He offered me one, and after consultation with my other half, and in spite of the fact that we had a slightly deranged golden retriever, we decided to adopt one of the kittens. We told Tom that we wanted a tom cat, however, as getting a tom fixed—or broken, as the case may be—was generally less expensive than breaking a female cat.

Tom brought this little ginger cat to work one day. I don’t think he was old enough to leave his mother, or if he was the constant attention of my two young sons was more than the kitten could manage, and he immediately came down with some sort of malady for which the vet prescribed amoxicillin. Anyone who has had a child with a bacterial infection knows about the thick, pink stuff called amoxicillin. And it looks the same for a pet.

Now, when cats don’t like the taste of something, they had a curious reaction. They appear to foam at the mouth and smack their lips together, trying to rid their taste buds of the foul substance. With amoxicillin, then, our kitten foamed pink, which drooled to the floorboards. He tried to wash himself, which moistened his head. Alex, the deranged golden retriever, decided to lend a hand and lick the cat about the head until he was soaked. Alex was happy to provide this service even when the kitten was not drooling pink foam.

This all took place in the 80s, at the height of Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County comic strip. One of the most memorable characters that inhabited Bloom County was Bill the Cat, who was dead, and looked every bit of it. We got a good look at our new kitten after an amoxicillin dose, with his sodden head, pink, foamy drool and overall less-than-vigorous appearance and decided ‘Bill’ would be the perfect name for him.

Bill recovered from his infection, survived Alex’s moist attentions, and grew into a healthy moggy. A couple months after his recovery, he was having a nap on the sofa, relaxing belly-up, as only contented dogs and cats can do. The family was having soft drinks on the front porch, and I was returning from the kitchen where I had secured refills for everyone. I looked fondly at our contented cat, snoozing away in blissful surrender, when something caught my eye…or failed to catch my eye, really. I delivered the drinks and returned to our slumbering puss for a closer look. Yes, it did appear that our tom, Bill the Cat, seemed to be missing a couple of vital body parts, requisite in all healthy males. Bill had no balls. ‘Larry,’ I called to my husband, ‘this cat seems to be missing a couple testicles.’ Larry wandered into the living room, certain that as a woman, I probably didn’t appreciate that not all gonads were large and obvious. But once he got a good look, he had to agree that our tomcat was definitely a tomasina cat.

There was the problem now with the name. Larry suggested that we had to change her name. But she had already learned to come running to the name she had, we were used to it, and I rather liked it. So she remained ‘Bill.’ We decided her real name was Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, and she was travelling incognito. Then the boys asked, ‘Are we going to let her have kittens?’ ‘No!’ Larry and I responded in stereo. ‘We weren’t going to let her have kittens when we thought she was a boy, so why should we let her have kittens now?’ We gave Tom some remedial lessons in gender identity amongst kittens and started to save to have Bill spayed.

Before we could save up all that was required—we were poor university students with a mortgage and two children—a neighbourhood cat that was allowed to wander about at will became obviously pregnant. Sometime, perhaps in a previous life, this cat had seen better days. She bore possibly the ugliest calico pattern I have ever seen in a cat and was the veteran of many fights, with a bit of both ears missing. She had been pregnant so many times, that her belly was stretched to within a few centimetres of the ground. Considering all this, the boys decided to call her ‘Uggo Mother’. Who can understand the workings of young boys’ minds? So Uggo Mother became pregnant, and then disappeared. A couple weeks later, it became obvious that her nursery for this birth was under our house. In a week or two more, one fluffy grey and white kitten began to venture forth. This kitten was as beautiful as his mother was ugly, but he was terrified of humans, and if we attempted to approach, he would scoot back under the house. Thinking he looked about weaning age, we started to bribe him out with diluted evaporated milk, then bits of tinned tuna. He still didn’t want to have anything to do with us, but would stay out of his hidey-hole long enough to devour our offerings. Uggo Mother must have determined that he was able to look after himself, or that we would take over that job because she disappeared again—perhaps to love and fight some more.

Meanwhile, Deranged Alex, who hated all male persons who were not family members—mail deliverers, the guys who collected the rubbish, UPS delivery men, the gas metre reader, you name it—was still with us. Should any of these service people be female, he was perfectly happy. But let one of them be male and approach the house, he would bark, run about the house madly and try to chew his way through the fly screen on any open window or door. We ultimately had to get Phenobarbital from the vet to administer on garbage pick-up day so he wouldn’t explode. But that didn’t solve the problem for surprise visits. One of the results of one of these surprise visits was a large hole in the fly screen door to the back porch.

It was through this hole that our under-the-house guest decided to venture, taking up residence under the hide-a-bed there. Bill made friends with the kitten, perhaps having some feline presentiment that her days as a potential mother were numbered. In fact, although she had never been a mother, she permitted the kitten to nurse, so they were both quite content, spending much time, basking in the sun on the back porch.

If the kitten were going to become a permanent member of the menagerie, I thought we should know a bit more about it, and of course, it should have a name. It was growing into a beautiful little cat with grey tabby-like markings and medium length hair. It had beautiful green eyes and a long, fluffy tail. However, in order to assign a proper name, one needs to know the unnamed’s gender. The kitten was still the better part of wild, permitting only Bill any contact or grooming. But I caught it just as it was racing for its refuge under the hide-a-bed, whereupon I attempted to detect its gender. The kitten, though, proved to be quite upset about its capture, demonstrating its feelings by attempting to lacerate my forearms. I was determined not to make the same mistake we’d made with Bill, so I endured the attack and had a close look.

The newest member of our family appeared to be female, so I let her go, and she raced for the hide-a-bed. So what to name her? The boys offered the obvious choices: Kitty, Fluffy, and the like. Their father suggested ‘Little Kitty’, which I considered out of the question. But it seemed a good compromise with the boys’ suggestion of ‘Kitty’. So I gave up my more exotic ideas that incorporated foreign words that reflected his origins under the house, and thought we should settle for ‘Kitty’. But I offered one more compromise. If her real name were to be ‘Little Kitty’, why not call her ‘Li’l’ for short—it could even be ‘Lilly’—instead of ‘Kitty’. That was acceptable to all.

Not long after Lilly’s christening, I injured my back and was forced to miss several days of work. Doctor’s orders were to stay flat on my back, so I made a nest on the living room sofa, wrapped myself in my favourite chenille robe, and intended to catch up on my reading. About mid-morning, the first day of my recovery period, Lilly ventured out of the back porch and crept up on the arm of the sofa where she sat quietly near my feet. Thinking I might persuade her to come closer, I threw the end of my robe’s sash-belt near her and slowly drew it towards me. As any cat would respond to a moving object, Lilly leaped to the end of the belt and pounced on it repeatedly as I drew nearer. However, once she realised she was getting too close to me, she would race for the other end of the sofa. I was home for three days, during which we played this game frequently. Gradually, Lilly delayed her retreat more and more until she was close enough for me briefly to stroke her head. Then I was permitted to stroke her body.

After my return to work, we still played the game in the evening until the kitten spent time allowing me to scratch behind her ears, even settling on my lap for several moments—as long as I was wearing the robe. One evening, whilst Lilly was spending an extended time on my lap, my mind flashed on the fiasco of Bill’s gender identification, and I thought I would have another look at Lilly’s nether regions. She was quite relaxed, so I lifted a hind leg, and saw, to my horror, testicles. The boys and their father were gathered in the living room, watching television. I announced my findings that Lilly was in fact a male, but after the drama of finding out that Bill was a girl, no one was too concerned that now we had a male cat named Lilly. The boys’ father was still a graduate student, so we saved up more money for a feline vasectomy for Lilly.

The third cat that joined our family did so under some disagreement. The boys ‘found’ a black and white kitten with little white feet and encouraged her to ‘follow’ them home. However, the boys’ father insisted we had enough pets, and the little black and white kitten would not be permitted to join the family. This did not stop the boys and I from feeding her kitten kibble, ensuring she had water, and letting her spend the night in the house when their dad was away on business trips. The boys had learned their lesson in gender identification, too, and decided not to let their parents participate in any way. They christened the kitten ‘Socks’, for her little white feet, which in the end was an excellent choice. This, by the way, was some time before the presidential Clintons acquired a Socks for the White House. It was confirmed that Socks was a female, the boys’ father relented and allowed her to join the menagerie. Now that we were out of school, we had a modest disposable income, and when Socks reached the appropriate age, she was taken to the veterinarian’s for the appropriate sterilisation.

The animal population of our household stabilised its numbers after Alex proved to be too deranged to live in the city, and he moved to a friend’s in the country. Then we moved into a newly built home and the boys discovered the world of aquariums at a neighbour’s. The neighbour even gave them each a small tank with a few of his fish for Christmas. The cats weren’t interested in the fish, and I became quite interested in the keeping of tropical fish. So the family gave me a 25-gallon tank for my birthday, and I proceeded to collect exotic fish like elephant fish and cichlids. I acquired a gold severum (Heros severus) that was quite beautiful and named it Wanda, after the movie. Now, severum are sexed by noting the shape of the dorsal fin of mature fish, so I recognised that Wanda might one day turn out to be male (which indeed he did).

But about this time, friends began to take note of our girl-cat named Bill, our boy-cat named Lilly and our gold severum male named Wanda. I had a perfectly good explanation. When our youngest son was about six weeks old, his father had a vasectomy. So, I explained to those who wondered about my ability to discern gender that I would permit no mature creature to live in my house with working gonads. This had the added benefit of fixing early in our sons’ minds not to live at home too long.

None of these problems would have occurred, I suppose, if I had adopted my father’s belief that naming animals with human names is repugnant (although he did allow us to have a Chihuahua/Fox Terrier mix we named ‘Tina’).The boys are now grown, and our pets have gone to domestic animal heaven. Bill and Lilly lived into their early teens, and Socks lived to the ripe old age of 18. Our eldest has a Rottweiler named Duchess, but she had that name when he adopted her. My youngest works long hours, so doesn’t have a pet. They have yet to give me grandchildren, but I am relatively confident that those children’s names will be appropriate.