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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Coloured prose with flowers and birds

Many months ago I included some of the writings of the charming and waspish Sei Shōnagon (清少納言) in my writings, and promised more. I gave some, but nowhere near as many as I would have liked. For reasons I won't attempt to explain, I thought I'd write a Pillow Book style of posting, composed of flower photos from my sister's garden (Jan's), and a few new bird photos from Maureen Watson, which Bruce sent me recently. (Butcher bird, parrots of our region - crimson {in the japonica bushes} and eastern rosellas, and black cockatoo.)

Just browse the flowers and birds, read these few lines from Sei Shōnagon and, as K D Lang once said, "Be pleased!"

All excerpts from Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book, Penguin Classics. (C. 11th Century CE.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"I don't know!" Asian history 1

pt 1 <<you are here | pt 2

When I was teaching first year Asian cultural history, I always felt that the first lecture was the most important for the year. It wasn't one that filled student heads with information. It set the tone.

  'This year, you're going to hear me repeat a sentence of three words; and probably more often than you might expect.'

  It was a good starter.

  I'd pause.

  'What do you think those words are?'

  Suddenly it was right back on them. I'd look around at faces.

  Silence inevitably ensued. Some shrank back in their seats. I'd choose one of the shrinkers.

  'What do you think?'

  I didn't ask it aggressively; just a casual inquiry. Alarm would show on the face of the one being picked out amongst a room full of people, most of whom didn't know each other.

  They'd smile nervously, and probably would say nothing; just shrink back a little more.

  'How about you?' I'd ask someone who looked less timid but clearly off-guard.

  One of the advantages of being a schoolteacher previously was that I learned to scan student faces and body language immediately and let them know this was going to be a two-way process. Some lecturers came into the lecture room, looked up at the far wall when they spoke, and barely had a clue who they'd been talking at for fifty minutes.

  So, very often I got the answer I wanted.

  'I don't know!' they'd blurt out.

  'Brilliant! You must be a mindreader! Those are the very three words I was talking about.'

  I don't know.
These can be the most liberating words in any language, in the right circumstances. A lot of problems in the world are caused by fear to admit ignorance of something - the courage to say, I don't know.

  'This subject covers civilisations that take in more than half the world's population. It covers a period in time of five thousand years or more. It includes the world's main religions. And none of this stays the same over that period.'

  'So, there'll be times when you're going to ask me a question about some facet of all this, and you shouldn't be surprised if I say, "I don't know."'

  'I'd rather do that than give you wrong information. But - there's something else I will say to you. Either I'll tell you that I'll find an answer, if there is one, or I'll show you how and where to look for it.'

  'Besides, there may not be a "right" or "wrong" answer - only opinions and interpretations. You might have had a textbook at school where all the "right" answers were. That's... history - in the sense that it's over. If you leave this course with that idea still in your brain, then we'll have failed. But that's not going to happen.'

  It's a terrible thing to do to kids at school to let them think there are "bibles" of history, where all the "answers" are. But sources do vary considerably in usefulness - as do the 'answers' on Wikipedia, currently the font of all knowledge. The democratic or consensus view of it at least.

  There are no 'bibles' of history. There are no 'bibles' of anything for that matter, except for those who accept without question the creed of one faith or another.

  There's always a place for 'I don't know'. There's rarely, if ever, a place for 'this is the right answer' when it comes to history.

  And yet... in my first few years as a tutor at Queensland University, a friend and I collaborated to produce a textbook that was (sadly, I believe now) the set text for the Queensland's Modern History Syllabus for more than five years - and the book went on selling well for another five years.

  This became rather embarrassing because it was exactly the sort of textbook I later came to criticise for the reasons I explained above, when I became a lecturer at the University of New England. Some of my university students here were brought up on a solid diet of it. But that's the way things were done in those days in secondary schools....

The books pictured above were all textbooks I collaborated in writing in the early 1970s. The last one shown was in five volumes and looked inside every bit as inspiring as the cover (I say no more on that!)

pt 1 <<you are here | pt 2

Friday, November 25, 2011

“Everything happens for a reason”

This was something a blogger whose writings I'm fond of was discussing in a recent posting.

  It's not the first time I've taken her name in vain, incidentally - or invoked, should I say. Her writings about and demonstrations of calligraphy prompted me to tell a childhood tale about pens and ink and copybooks.

  Right now, I'm more inclined to talk about the topic that's the title of this posting, as Alex wrote:
I collect quotes finding inspiration in the words of others. But there are some bits of wisdom I don't understand. “Everything happens for a reason” is one of them. Some things don't make sense and never will. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason.
The statement, "Everything happens for a reason", with which everyone will be familiar, is a misleading one. There's nothing more certain than that there is a reason why everything happens. If the quote were "Everything happens because there's a reason," it would make sense in terms of cause and effect.

  'Reasons' rather than 'reason' would be more accurate. There's always more than one reason why things happen, even if we don't understand what they are, whether it's that I've got this tumour in my brain or that vegetables are good for us.

  But when someone spouts "Everything happens for a reason," cause and effect is not usually what they're getting at. The intent of the statement is not reason at all, but to talk about purpose.

  If someone says, 'Everything happens for a purpose', this is a whole new ball game, and is the idea that Alex, quite rightly in my opinion, was challenging.

  What purpose could there be for my brain tumour? What purpose could there be for a child's agony with leukemia? Or the awful disease Alex was talking about, lupus? Do people get such things to show everyone else how lucky they are not to have them, and make them more grateful for what they have? Is the purpose of suffering to make them more compassionate human beings?

  Believe it or not, I have had a 'yes' answer put to me to such questions, including terminal disease even in children, and misfortunes of all sorts. 'It's for a reason (i.e., purpose)' so I'm lectured, 'only you don't know (yet) what it is.'

  Rubbish! This is an insult to human intelligence.

  Having a terrible misfortune may make someone a better, more compassionate person. It certainly changes your view of the world. Having a Down Syndrome child may make a parent more understanding of the condition when it happens elsewhere, but if that's its purpose, or the reason why it exists, then whoever created such a purpose has a weird way of doing things.

  It's easy to allow words to interfere with meaning in such a way as to intertwine cause and effect propositions with some other more mysterious idea.

  Not that this is a criticism of Alex's comments, as it's as clear to me as it would be to most where her challenge was coming from, but the saying itself is misleading. It mixes two very different propositions and leads to confusion.

  There's already too much of that in the world!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Guy Fawkes Night in Calliope 4

The Big Bang

'Have you seen these things?' I asked my cousin Beth.

   'That thing, you mean? No, what is it?'

   November 5, 1957. Not only had it been Melbourne Cup day, won by Straight Draw with a flashy finishing burst, but it was Guy Fawkes Night as well. Elvie's girls, our second cousins, had come over that evening to share the fun.

   The night had arrived at last.  It was clear, calm and tropical. We had been busy on the Sunday before, collecting wood for the bonfire.

   Collection of 'morning wood' (the small twigs that fell dead from the gums trees for the purpose of lighting the stove every day) was a job I never favoured much, but I had not the least trouble mounting enthusiasm for collecting timber for the bonfire on Cracker Night.

   Nor did my sisters, and even our cousins Beth and Gay chipped in and helped if they were coming over to 'our' bonfire that year. It was good if they did, because their collection of crackers would be added to ours, which meant the 'pretty ones' were value-added. All-girl families... that's what you get. Lots of Golden Rains, sparklers, some Tom Thumbs and a skyrocket, but no decent-sized bungers.

   Girls. Jeez.

   A guy had been fashioned from straw pinched from the hayshed and strung on a crucifix made of a couple of fair sized straightish dead branches. Poor old Guy Fawkes was going to get it for sure that night. Flames right up the armpits.

   Great excitement oozed from our very pores. The crackers had all been unstrung and there was a fair-sized box of them on the dining room table, all mixed together, as was the tradition.

   Back to the box of fireworks on the dining room table. We lovingly caressed these and smelt the wonderful aroma of gunpowder. 'Don't touch the wicks!' we were always told, with good reason. Sweaty little paws on a tropical night in Queensland November would dampen the fuses and the crackers wouldn't light.

   But back to the opening question.

   'No,' Beth said. 'What is that thing?'

   I opened it and revealed the matches inside.

   It may come as a surprise to you that a book of matches like this was new to our experience. Maybe they'd been around in other parts of the world before 1957, but Calliope hadn't been introduced to them until shortly before Cracker Night of that year.

   To us a match was made of pine, milled nicely and with a good splodge of red match-head stuff (OK, dialdehyde if you really want to know) on the top, not like the rubbish ones you buy these days imported from overseas. Exactly fifty to a box there were. Count them.

   'This is what you do,' I said, tearing off one of the matches from inside the cardboard case. These definitely had a good splodge of detonator on the top.

   I scritched (if that's a word; if not, you will still get the onomatopoeia) the bendy paper match along the ignition strip. The match exploded into life.

   What I didn't count on, not in a gazillion years, was that a tiny portion of the match head would fly a good metre in a perfect arc from the matchbook straight into the middle of the box of crackers. No sight is more vividly etched into my mind. It was as if the air, redolent of saltpetre emanating from the fireworks box, had provided the perfect conduit for the spark.

   Maybe it had.

   There was a solitary explosion of a Double Happy - like the crack of a .22 rifle cartridge.

   'What....??' came Dad's voice from the breakfast room, 'Who let off that ....'

   The end of the sentence didn't come, or if it did, I never heard it, because there was a second explosion, and as Dad was rushing into the room, a third, and a fourth in quick succession. At least one was a penny bunger.

   Then pandemonium reigned, as he grabbed the box of exploding crackers, rushed through the open front door, and hurled it down the stairs. It hit the bottom step on an angle, and scattered the contents on the grass, which was a very good thing.

Double bunger
   But inside the lounge room it was bedlam. Mum was being chased by a Jumping Jack, which must have been equipped with a motherfinding guidance system. Everywhere she went, it followed. A Catherine Wheel was whizzing merrily on the floor, doing its thing beautifully, entirely unconstrained by being pinned to any post. A Roman Candle was indulging in an orgy of fiery psychedelia and there were sundry bungers going off, including a precious double bunger that was intent on terrorising my sisters and girl cousins.

   There were no curtains in that room, which was A Good Thing, and miraculously, the one skyrocket sitting in the box had not fallen prey to a spark.

   That was an Even Better Thing, from several points of view.

   The guns, or rather the crackers, suddenly fell silent. An ominous hush ensued. The whole episode had taken probably less than a minute, but it seemed like forever. It was a very awkward silence for me, because in a room full of girls, there could be no doubt who the perpetrator was. The one who always got up to mischief.

   'Why?' roared my father. 'WHY?? Why would you do such a bloody fool thing?'

   'But I didn't.... I wasn't... it was the match...' I looked down, and it was still in my hand. 'It jus.... a spark just... I didn't know....'

   Tears were running down my cheeks. As any kid knows, tears are an excellent strategy for mollifying parents, but there was nothing even slightly feigned about these. Nothing makes a child cry like a sense of injustice, and I felt a rare claim to innocence. How could I possibly know that could happen?

   Already I thought of our bonfire, sitting there unlit as the darkness closed in, the guy atop it preparing to meet his maker(s) but now with an unexpected reprieve; and the box now devoid of crackers. Gone. All gone. Bonjour Tristesse.

   The anger on my father's face disappeared. There was the evidence - the match still in hand - and I hadn't moved from the spot a metre away from where the box had been. I couldn't have put the match to them, and Beth corroborated my version of events.

   'All right. Check that nothing's smouldering up here in any room. Then we'll go downstairs with the torch and see what crackers are still there.'

   We all went into the garden and searched under torchlight. Green Tom Thumbs are the very devil to find in a green 'lawn' - if you could call the patch of grass at the front of the steps a lawn. Each blade of grass looked like one, but, sadly from my point of view, wasn't.

   Quite a few fireworks were salvaged, and we still had those from the Brown's box. The house was not burned down, and though there had been serious attrition in our somewhat blackened and battered box of fireworks, we made the best of it.

   Best of all, I didn't really get into trouble. Images of the stockwhip had flashed briefly into my mind - not that it had ever been used on me. Once I accidentally whipped myself around the bare legs with our best one when trying to crack it rodeo fashion, and let me tell you, it stings like blazes. You don't ever want a whipping.

   I would live to light another double bunger, but not that night. The double bungers, it seems, were particularly vulnerable to premature explodation, for not one remained virgo intacta in the box.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Black cockies and blue skies of Ardea

This morning, as he is wont now and again to do, the good Dr Watson sent me a photograph taken somewhere on their selection.

   Occasionally he sends me an image of a painting he has done, or as in this case, one of Maureen's photographs. There's never been one of either the paintings or the photos that I haven't admired.

Yellow-tailed black cockatoos. Photo: Maureen Watson

   I find this a very pleasing image. Black cockatoos must be just about the largest birds in Australia you might see flying across the sky in sizable numbers. Often as they fly, they make a very evocative call, somewhat mournful but interspersed with wanton shrieks.  They seem mostly to be in pairs these days, rather than the larger groups that were common to see years ago.

   I don't want to get into the sort of description you can readily find online, or even bewail the loss of its breeding places and my fears for this spectacular bird's future. But as kids we used to hear them winging their way at deceptively high speed across the sky above our heads, and we would count them.

   'That's four! It's going to rain in four days then,' we'd claim. This makes as much sense as what we'd say when the kookaburras burst into song at some odd time of the day.

   'Somebody nearby is going to have a baby!' Snigger snigger, as only kids can do with anything involving reproduction.

   Anyway, it's a beautiful picture. They look cheeky, as well they might, for they've just been ripping the banksia flowers apart. Maybe they flew over a Pink Floyd concert yesterday; they've got that tearaway look about them.

   Each of the pair is scanning its half of the surroundings, for anything that might be a threat.

   At this point, I should say that I now know something I didn't when I wrote the above. I was still waiting on a response from Maureen to my belated request to publish the image, and after my sleep this afternoon, I got the green light. Bruce tells me that there was a dozen of them, but by the time Maureen got her camera and into position, there were only two left in the tree. I'm delighted about the numbers, but in a way, just the two were perfect for this shot.

  And notice the blue of the Ardea sky on a late spring morning up here on the Tablelands.

   That perfect blue sky. Something to want forever. But nothing is forever in the world of time and material things. Carpe Diem.

   Hang on! You want to see a little watercolour by Watto, the illustrator of many of my childhood stories? OK.... but the small size doesn't quite do it justice. This is an afterthought by me and I haven't waited on his permission. He'll just have to forgive me for taking the liberty in this instance. It reflects perfectly the bucolic existence they lead at what they have made of Ardea.

Walcha landscape: watercolour by Watto

Friday, November 18, 2011

Guy Fawkes Night in Calliope 3

 Short and Sweet

'Let's make a vegetable patch in the garden,' some bright spark said at school one day when I must have been about nine.

   'OK,' we agreed. Our usual games seemed boring.

   But we had no gardening tools. Someone bravely went up to see Old Jim, who hadn't yet gone over to the school house for his lunch.

   Old Jim, as I've said, was both fierce but respected. He also had one characteristic that we kids were aware of. If we wanted to do something worthy without having been prompted, he was fully supportive. So before he had his lunch, he loaned us his own garden tools for the project.

   The 'garden' was a fenced off area between the school and the road and was at the time overgrown with weeds, and a bit unsightly. It's not surprising that Old Jim gave his blessing to our sudden burst of enthusiasm.

   We dug up a good patch of ground. I had a mattock and was breaking up the topsoil with surprising enthusiasm, when the mattock made a slight chinking sound. Something shiny had emerged from the clump of clayey soil.

   I picked it up quickly, rubbed most of the dirt off it, and was delighted to find it was a two-shilling piece. 1946 was the date on it; the year before I was born, with the familiar Australian crest on the back and King George VI's head on the front. He was the present Queen's father.

Florin (2 shilling piece)
   I gleefully took the coin to the school tank and washed it off under the tap. Having been in the ground that long, it was a bit yellowish in colour in spite of having a high silver content. The florin, as it was sometimes called, was replaced by the 20 cent coin when our currency was decimalised in 1966.

   That probably seems like a trifle these days, but then... what couldn't you do with two bob? It was a fortune. You could buy a whole MacRobertson Snack Block of chocolate with that. It was like a twenty-dollar note would be these days.

   Would I do that? Buy a Snack Block and have the unimaginable pleasure of scoffing it all myself? It was tempting, but no. Would I take it home, polish it and put it in my Commonwealth Bank money-box?

   No. Don't be silly now. With Guy Fawkes Night coming up in two days, I would do neither of those. I would do what any sensible nine-year old boy would do.

   After school, I'd go to Mylne's Store and I would buy fireworks. And if I got Rocket Armour to serve me, I'd get amazing value out of my two-shilling piece. Which I did:
   1 string of Tom Thumbs
   2 strings of Double Happys
   2 Penny Bungers
   1 Double Bunger
   1 Jumping Jack
   1 Flower Pot (to please my sisters, but also because of the very satisfactory rat-tat-tat explosions at the end.)
   1 LARGE bunger - the humungus sort I coveted and, thrown into the brown paper bag with a wink by Rocket Armour, living up to his name as well as his reputation, a new model of mini sky rocket I had never seen before.
   It was most satisfactory. Mum might have thought there were better things to do with a whole two-bob bit, but Dad was secretly pleased.

   I could tell.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Guy Fawkes Night in Calliope 2

Before I go on, I feel bound to say that I didn't want to give the impression that there was any great danger in the sorts of cracker nights we had out in the country, under the watchful eyes of our parents. We were more likely to contract an infection from the predecessor of Ross River virus from the mosquitoes than get hurt by crackers.  There were general rules we observed with all the fireworks and they served us well.

   This didn't mean there couldn't be accidents - indeed, I precipitated one myself that could easily have burned the house down - but no-one at our bonfires ever sustained what anyone could call an injury. The problems came only when kids - mainly teenagers - did really stupid things with fireworks, and so all of them except sparklers were banned from private sale and use.

   That no doubt saved a few cases of lost eyesight, and nasty scars from burns, no doubt to the great relief of Casualty Departments of all hospitals on the night. But we were country kids, and there was no hospital close by, and we weren't as reckless as some of those dumb townies....


Apart from Tom Thumbs, crackers increased size and power. For me of course, the bigger the better, as for most boys - and their fathers. There were:

Double Happy
   Double Happys - which I've already mentioned. This movie of one exploding is the right colour but a third the size.

   Penny bungers - as big as a man's finger

   Double bungers - these had a central wick and there was some skill in tossing them. They were designed so if you were good enough with your timing, there would be one explosion and shower of sparks at the apogee of the throw, with the force of the first bang throwing the bunger even higher, whereupon the second of the bangs went off.

Penny bungers
   One or two big red bungers half the size of a stick of dynamite completed the collection of noisemakers and were truly awesome! We usually were lucky to have even one of them, as they cost more than a couple of strings of smaller ones. One or two were fun though, even if they scared the wits out of the horses in the next paddock.

   Then there were Jumping Jacks, which were great fun because they were unpredictable in where each consecutive explosion would hurl it. 

Jumping Jack
   If it landed amongst the spectators it could create quite a stir, but I never heard of anyone getting hurt with one. I expect if you dropped a lit one down someone's pants the story could end differently, but that sort of thing's how fireworks came to get banned. That and a few houses burning down.

   Pretty ones came in all shapes and sizes. These usually were placed on the ground on a level spot, or in some cases, speared into a soft patch of turf if they were designed that way.

Roman Candles - note name!
   We usually set them off one after another as a display, and suspended the lighting of crackers for that time, which is common sense for all sorts of reasons when you think about it.

   Our list included ones such as Roman Candles, Golden Rain and Flower Pots. Jan says there were also 'Flower Gardens' but I don't remember those. knowing her, she's probably right. I do remember though that I liked the Flower Pots because although they put on quite a spectacle of pretty pyrotechnics, they weren't as innocent as they looked. At the end, when it seemed all over for the Flower Pot, it would explode with a series of cracks like a machine-gun.

Catherine Wheels, etc.
   I wish I could find a picture of one but I can't. Guess who really thought that was a smashing bit of pyrotechnics from those wonderfully Inscrutable Orientals?!

   (I just had another look online and I did find one they called a Flower Pot but are more like what we called a Volcano. I'll bet it didn't annihilate itself completely like our Flower Pots did, though - which would have been a great ending for a Krakatoa-type firework, hey?)

   Others included pinwheel types - Catherine Wheels in our lingo. You pinned them to a post with a drawing pin (or in our case, a small panel pin nail, which gave it more freedom to spin and therefore was more spectacular in its fiery whirling.)

   No doubt other people remember later variations. For us, it might not have been Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Year's Eve, but from three metres away, it was every bit as good. Maybe better.

   Oh, sparklers, of course - magical because their sparks just prickled the skin and didn't burn - unless you encountered the very hot central bit. They're still available so there are no surprises with them. In the darkness in the bush, the fast circles we could whirl with them left circles of bright light on our retinas.

   Last and far from least, I must mention the Sky Rocket. No Guy Fawkes night would have been complete without one. Many times our finances eked out only to one single one, reserved for the end of the night. Usually they were placed in a beer bottle and then lit by a parent. Care was taken that the bottle was on level ground and that the skyrocket was placed properly in it. if a bottle tipped over just before launching, who knows where it might have aimed itself?

   But oh! The sight of our own skyrocket shooting magnificently to the very edge of space, then floating back down with a last gasp of flame....

   Guy Fawkes Night would be over then, for another year. But I haven't finished yet.... I need to tell you how I nearly burned our house down, and other amusing things.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Guy Fawkes Night in Calliope 1

In our fair township of Calliope round 1960, one of the highlights of the year was undoubtedly Guy Fawkes Night, also referred to more popularly as 'Cracker Night'. Cracker Night was celebrated at different times in different states of Australia, but for us it was 5 November each year, which coincided with Uncle Frank Ford's birthday.

  On or about that day in 1605, poor old Guy Fawkes was caught and came to a nasty end for trying to clear England of politicians, using lots of gunpowder under the House of Lords. Something like that anyway. He should have got a medal really; maybe he would have, except he failed, and ended up with a rope around his neck instead. The whole horrible drawing and quartering as well, I have to add.

WARNING - part of that story is historically inaccurate; as an historian I have to admit that, but - think dramatic license.

A couple of Wrights from the Catholic side of the family were involved in that right royal plot, it seems. That'd be right - anything with explosives, they'd be in it. It seems we Wrights inherited the love-of-bangs gene.

I could have put that better, I suspect. Then again, p'raps not.

The Gunpowder Plot was an extraordinary event for all sorts of reasons, but I have to stick with our end of it, here in Australia, on warm summery nights amongst the mozzies. 

  Guy Fawkes Night was the third ranking of our annual celebratory events, those above it being Christmas and Easter, and below, but only slightly, were School Breaking Up picnic day and School Sports Carnival day. Birthdays, of course, were right up there, but they were different.

  My sisters may dispute this order or add others, but then they're not looking over my shoulder, so that's how it goes down on the blog.


The fireworks all came from China, beautifully hand-made by sweated labour no doubt, and were of two main types. There were the ones that went bang and the ones that were pretty.

String of Tom Thumbs tied with central fuse.
  Of the ones that went bang, size did indeed matter. Tom Thumbs were the smallest, with an explosive crack about that of a cap gun, or a really good clap. They came in neat parcels of a violent pinky-red and bluey-green colour, though we wouldn't have spent that much money on Tom Thumbs to buy full packets containing thousands; we just bought several strings of them.

  These strings had a fuse strung right through them, and in China were often set off as a cluster, making a sound of rapid rifle fire (a pea-rifle, that is!)

  We thought it a terrible waste to do this, as the fun for us was to set them off individually. One of the enjoyable tasks the night before was to unstring them and put them into the box as single crackers.

  Unstringing them was a fairly delicate operation and you had to be gentle doing it so as not to pull the wick clear out of the cracker. (If that happened, we saved the defused cracker, but I'll mention later what we did with them.)

  Everyone on Cracker Night had a go with Tom Thumbs, even the littlest of kids except for real scaredy-cats, and there weren't many of them. Usually the adults would draw out a few burning sticks from the bonfire so everyone with cracker in hand could set the wick on fire from one of those. I can't imagine how many boxes of Redheads matches would have been used otherwise and in any case, lighting them from a match was more dangerous and inefficient. A burning ember was the safest and most economical way.

  The adults would watch the little ones light a Tom Thumb with great amusement. The wick wasn't all that long and once you saw that bright but tiny flare of the fuse, you didn't have long to throw it. You didn't want it still in your hand when it went off, as there was a small risk of a minor burn or at least an unpleasant sensation of tingling in the fingers if you failed to launch the cracker at the right time.

 All of us knew exactly what that felt like with a Tom Thumb, but you wouldn't have wanted to do it with a penny bunger.

  That was part of the fun, of course. The element of danger. The reason why we do all sorts of things....

  Little kids would put the wick against the ember, and it might kick off straight away, or maybe take a second or two.

  Once the wick started fizzing, it was essential for the kid to stand up to throw it any distance, which for most was as far away from themselves as possible. But anxiety to do this could produce some unexpected results. A false alarm that the wick was lit would see the little one suddenly jump up from a squatting position and then realise it wasn't lit at all; so they would have to squat down and start again. But the second time, the wick might light immediately, catching the kid off-guard, so they'd have to jump up if they had time and throw, before the little cracker exploded in their fingers. So you'd see littlies bobbing up and down with their Tom Thumbs, lit and unlit, in delight and fear.

  This had some unpredictable results. The rush of blood as the wick was fizzing down meant that they didn't always calculate where they were throwing the cracker. Anywhere - as long as it was away!

  Lyn was notorious as the guilty party here. She often had one lit but she feared the fuse was burning down so fast she sometimes wouldn't even jump up, but tended to despatch it in any direction. Worse still, she occasionally failed to calculate the point at which she should release it and held on too long, and her underarm throw became a challenge to anyone behind her - usually our mother - because that's where the cracker would go - over Lyn's head. Mum would find herself with an exploding Tom Thumb in her slipper.

  That was highly amusing for everyone except perhaps for Mum, but she took it in good spirits and increased her vigilance when Lyn was about to engage with a cracker of any sort, especially a Double Happy.

  The Chinese invented wonderful names for their fireworks. Double Happy, I suspect, would have been much better suited to a condom. Yet I must say, the Double Happy was an excellent cracker, as you'll see.

  And so to other fireworks we would have in the box, but I promise not to go into such detail with them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Brain tumours: no research funds

Last Friday evening, on the NSW version of Statewide on ABC TV, there was an interview with Charlie Teo. He's the best known brain surgeon in Australia.

  He doesn't mince words, and has theories about brain tumours that some specialists don't like, but he wins my vote every time. He points to the massive increase in brain tumour diagnoses that are happening throughout the world - the western world in particular. In the last five to eight years the rise seems to have been exponential - practically doubling every year - and especially amongst the young.

  If that doesn't scare any parent into wanting more research into brain tumours then I can't imagine what will. Yet practically none is being done - not in proportion to the problem anyway.

  He was talking particularly about Glioblastomas - the form of brain tumour I have. The one thing he says that strikes a chill in the heart of every brain tumour patient is this: 100% death rate. No-one escapes. Life may be extended, but no-one has ever been cured of a GBM.


  To recap what I've said before, on average, here's the life expectancy once a GBM is diagnosed at Stage 4.
  No treatment: 3 months.

  Life extending treatments: up to and possibly a little beyond 2 years, depending on treatment.
  I am just about up to the two-year period. It's been hard work on me, and our family. Very hard work all round.

  I think I can do a bit better than two years, but there are no guarantees. The risks posed by the treatment increase daily. 

  They are not static risks. Blood clots travelling to the brain or heart seem to me to present the deadliest direct risk while the tumour itself is contained.

  Organ failure e.g., that of kidney and liver is also a serious consideration. They get put under enormous strain by the medications and my inability to lead as active a life as I'd wish.

  The oncologists and neuro-surgeons working in this area are flat out daily treating patients. The number is endless. I simply can't imagine how they could find time to contribute their knowledge to the research, let alone keep up with it. They must be learning on the job. It's basically trial and error. But their experience is precious.

  Charlie Teo says his work is essentially useless without new research. I have a considerable store of data that could be useful for researchers, but a lot of it is in my head, along with Brian, my Unwelcome Stranger. I don't know all the questions to ask of that experience, but a researcher would.

  But there are no researchers coming looking. Sure, my oncologist's notes will be valuable, but there's a lot more he doesn't know. I feed him as much as I can to include with his notes, such as this. There may be something amongst these things that helps a researcher - not for me, let me add, but those who are being diagnosed daily and told what their chances are.

   There are way too many young people among them; young mothers and fathers and kids.

  Charlie Teo was organising a charity walk for money to increase funding for brain cancer research. He shouldn't have to! I'd rather see him in the sun, just having a break for a while. We desperately need him and others in the field to be fit and well for a very long time.

  Priorities are all wrong.

  Teo still puts up the theory that heavy mobile phone use, especially by young people, may be contributing to the massive increase in brain tumour diagnoses. Some recent studies have cleared mobile phone of any obvious links with brain cancer, but he points to where a great number of tumours are located - close to and just above the ear.

  That's where mine is, so I don't know. I have never been a heavy cell phone user. I say the jury is still out, but take no chances.

  Added Tuesday, 15 November 2011 The site for donations is

  Here's 2 minutes of audio of what Dr Teo said in the 10-minute TV interview. I heavily edited it and I hope he and the ABC don't mind, but it is worth that much of your time.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Kardashan Devi: leather goddess

Darśana or Darshan (Sanskrit: दर्शन) is a Sanskrit term meaning "sight" (in the sense of an instance of seeing or beholding; from a root dṛś "to see"), vision, apparition, or glimpse. It is most commonly used for "visions of the divine" in Hindu worship, e.g. of a deity (especially in image form), or a very holy person or artifact. One could "receive" darshana or blessing of the deity in the temple, or from a great saintly person....

Now I know Kim Kardashian is in leather I can tell you something that may bring hate mail to my blog.

 But the story must be told. I'll explain.

 From the ABC program, the Hamster Wheel, I finally discovered last night what it is that Kim Kardashian does to make a buck or two (and boy, she surely does).

  My spellcheck program suggests 'Cartesian' or 'Carpathian' instead of Kardashian. That's irrelevant but it may explain odd Autocorrects for her name in text messages. I'd have suggested 'Hardcashian'.

  I hasten to add that until a few days ago I didn't even know or care who or what she is, but assumed she was a kind of Paris Hilton/Lindsay Lohan sort of person insofar as trash mags write heaps about her. This means she is quite photogenic or does silly things. Or both; that's the quinella. That's trash mag heaven.

  This madness spilled over into the Australian idiot portion of the media when she turned up in Botany Bay (otherwise known as Sydney, for non-Oz readers). The idiot portion is increasing, and we can safely say it's most of the media these days. I assumed she must have been on the run from something in America, and there is apparently a case for that view.

  But that's not my interest. All I know is that young girls of what seems to me to be teenie-bopper age - a term that reveals mine -  were as emotional at getting a glimpse of her as they were in the 1960s when the Beatles visited. They wept and fainted and orgasmatised.

  Something like that. (Spellcheck suggests 'dramatised' for the last word of that paragraph. It has a point.)

  At least we knew why the Beatles were here. I had no idea why she was till last night.

  So, back to the Hamster Wheel revelation.

  It turns out that practically her sole interest in life is to flog the Kardashian brand, which I now know is heavily handbag-orientated.

Kardashan Devi, Goddess of Handbags
  Handbags are often made of leather, a fact that will shock you (but only if you come from Mars).

  According to traditional caste in India, if you are a leather worker, your social status is on a par with that of sweepers, toilet cleaners, and the lowest of the unclean trades. You are what's popularly known as an Untouchable, whose social position Gandhi tried hard to raise by calling them Harijan, Children of God.

  (No, spellcheck, not 'Harridan! Stay out of this! )

  Gandhi had only limited success. Being Children of God is a two-edged sword, as it implies the Outcastes are not only beyond caste but are children in the sense that they aren't really responsible for anything they do.

  That leaves quite a bit of leeway for people to do outrageous things to them. It does have a few advantages, but you wouldn't go for being Harijan if you had other choices. I surely wouldn't, having witnessed in my many visits to India what can happen to them every day. But I wonder how Kim Carpathian would go in village India when they learned what she was flogging?

  OK, I know Kim Cartesian doesn't skin the dead cows, or tan the hides, cut up the leather and stitch the handbags. God forbid that I should suggest such a thing. The poor sods paid next to nothing and get poisoned by the chemicals they use do that, as they always have.

  She only deals with the final product, well-sanitised after leaving the stained and impure hands of those who made it. Oh, and with a price about 10,000% on the cost of the real labour.

  I also know, Indian friends, how urban India has changed. But it's true. She really is an Untouchable. Judging by the clips I saw on the Hamster Wheel, she has to be. Just you try touching her. With minders like those, you don't have a bloody chance....

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How do we make sense of the Tao te Ching?

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | pt 6 | pt | pt 8 <<you are here

(This will make more sense if you read earlier parts first - see above!)

The Tao te Ching as we have it was written probably over centuries and well before the Christian era. Its written form has come to us in ancient Chinese script, in the idiom of its era. Can it really be relevant to a world so changed?

Obviously it can. After all, if the Semitic texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or the ancient Hindu texts or Confucius are relevant to billions on the planet Earth today, there's no reason why the Tao te Ching can't be.

It's the most translated ancient text from Chinese to other languages. It seems that everyone who fancies themselves a bit in Chinese language, literature and philosophy wants to have a go at a translation. But it's no simple matter.

Translating ideograms to linear forms like English changes everything. An ideogram is more than a word; it's multi-layered. It's culturally specific. 

It's an idea in a picture, and sometimes a very complicated idea.

Let's think about it on the assumption (which may be quite wrong) that
•    we are people who can't even read modern Chinese script
•    we aren't Chinese
•    we don't think like the Chinese do in many ways
•    we have a very different outlook culturally
•    we have to rely purely on translations into English.
Lao Tzu, we have a problem - but least there are only ninety verses. It may seem a pity they're so cryptic, and use archaisms like 'the ten thousand things' to represent all life forms. But that's also part of the attraction. It can counter the dogma and allow it to be imagined in our own terms.

These translations may be either by modern Chinese scholars or by non-Chinese. How do we hope to really get to what Lao Tzu (whoever he is) was talking about?

In the comment you can see in another window or tab, it indicates exactly the approach to take - to use multiple translations. We're blessed (or cursed) by having many attempts at translation online. They range from the very formal to the trippy. Some look like they're made for rap. Others are even recreated in formal rhyming English verse.

In my view, this variety is just what's needed. Any one verse can be compared amongst a series of translations. Don't get attached to one - use each translation of a verse as if looking through a window on some unfamiliar object.

Insect eye
As you go round the windows, you build the picture like an insect's eye creates one, in 3D as it were. It becomes a composite image of what's visible through the window. You might reject the parts of individual translations that don't fit. After all, not one of these insect-eye lenses contains a perfect or complete image of the subject.

We become part of the translation process. We adapt it to our time and place.

What you read in Tao te Ching verses is not dogma; it's a pointer to a truth. It's amazing how what seems to be one unsatisfactory translation can come up with one gem or, if you like a different analogy, can provide the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle of comprehension.

No matter who you are or your religious beliefs, if you profess any, the messages in the Tao te Ching are adaptable to real life, whether you're in the twentieth floor of an office block looking at a computer screen, ironing at home, or fishing for whiting at the beach.

Let's try to learn to understand the nature of the things in life that matter to us, but don't ever be too sure we know all there is to know about it. We almost certainly don't.

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | pt 6 | pt | pt 8 <<you are here

(This will make more sense if you read earlier parts first - see above!)