The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Our family farm in the 1950s (3)

I started off talking about the life of a dairy farm boy by mentioning a number of essential items of machinery, the diesel engine being the main one.

  But I hadn't answered Christian's question about what a normal day was like for me.

  My mother would wake me at 6 am with a cup of sweet tea and a piece of toast. Obviously, she'd been up long enough to have lit the Crown stove and it had burned down enough to make the toast over the coals. The stove wasn't designed to stay alight overnight as it was generally too warm in the house for that.

  She would have been up by 5 am. Dad was up and walking to the dairy soon after 4.30 am. As soon as he got there, he'd start the engine. Why do that, with no cows in the pens yet? I'll tell you later.

  Why such an early start? The same reason as a baker (in the old days at least) had to start round 3-4 am. If he didn't have his ovens up to the right temperature and the dough kneaded before baking by that time, he wouldn't have had fresh bread for his customers by 7.00 am when they expected it.

  Likewise, we had to have our sixty or so gallons of milk, in six to ten gallon cans, down at the depot for the milk truck to pick them up by 9.30 am.

10 gall milk can
  If it wasn't there by then, we'd miss out, and without a truck ourselves, that was it for the day. We'd lose a seventh of a week's income and possibly have our milk quota reduced as a penalty. Come hell, high water or engine breakdown, the milk had to be at the depot at the appointed time.

  So that's why a 4.30 am start was essential for Dad, and why I'd be trudging up to the cowshed at 6.15 am at the latest. Without starting by then, all the things that had to be done just could not have been fitted into the hours to 9.30 am.

  When I got to the dairy, Dad would already have been out on one of the horses to round up the cows and pen them next to the cowshed where they would be milked. It was more pleasant in summer, as there was more light and it wasn't chilly and dark as the day started in the winter.

  With dawn breaking, and all equipment sterilised and checked, it was time to start milking.

  Cows, let me tell you, are interesting creatures, though after milking them twice a day year after year, there's not much novelty left. But you do get to know them very well. There was a 'pecking order' in the holding pens every bit as rigid as for chooks in the henhouse - but let's keep the chickens out of it for now.

  Cows are very much creatures of habit. I've said that before. They like routine and order, and dislike it intensely when that changes, except when it was to their advantage (just like humans).

  Every cow had a name. This was nothing to do with sentiment, as you may think, but was very practical. It meant that if you needed a particular cow in a particular bail, you could call her in. Needless to say, each knew her name. If she were sitting down, as often she did, chewing her cud and waiting her turn, she'd get up quickly and come to the gate to be let in to the bail.

  Why would a cow want to be milked, and come when called? There could be a few reasons. Here's one. If she were a good milker, there would have been discomfort when the udder was full, and it wasn't unusual to see a cow sitting down before milking with a steady spray of milk coming from her teats, making little foaming puddles in the dust.

  Mothers with babies might well sympathise! 

  In these cases, the cow was called in as soon as possible. If she were young and down the pecking order, this would annoy the older matriarchs intensely. They expected to be first, and they'd be waiting for her at the gate. She'd have to run the gauntlet getting through. What looked like a guard of honour as she approached was nothing of the sort. She'd waste no time threading her way through and hoping for not too many bunts in the ribs.

  That was usually a forlorn hope, but as the cows were dehorned as calves, at least daggers weren't involved. It was just Liverpool kisses for the young ones with an overstretched udder making a dash for the safety of the bail.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The village idiot

'My shoe's eating my sock,' I said. 'I didn't lace it tight enough. Can you fix it for me?'

  We were at the highest point, topographically, of our 'daily' walk around the streets. The 'daily' is in inverted commas because the days have been so damp and grey it's a bit of a stretch of credibility to use the term for the past couple of weeks.

  We'd walked up the quiet little avenue that takes us out to Dangar Street - what used to be the old highway through town before they put in the city bypass. There are gum trees up that lane and we've noticed a few small dead branches on the ground as we pass. Tracey picks one or two up as we walk by, and they add to the 'morning wood' basket that will be useful when we light up the fire again.

  ...which won't be long away, by the way things are going with the seasons right now.

  Tracey bent down and loosened the laces, dragged the sock back up where it should be, and re-tied the lace.

  Just for the record, there's no way I could get down and do that for myself right now - not without taking ten minutes anyway.

  At that point, a car stopped beside us. A woman was driving, and an elderly guy wound down the window.

  'Can you tell us the way to the Racecourse?'

  'Sure,' I said. 'Just go till you get to the lights, turn left till the Pink Pub, turn right there and keep going. You'll run into it.'

  'Hang on,' said Tracey, waving the stick she'd collected, 'that's not right. You have to go straight down this street, turn right at the first roundabout, cross through the traffic light and go straight on, and the Racecourse is on the left.'

  The car's occupants looked at me as if I were a loony. Well, why wouldn't they? They'd just come across me having my shoelaces tied for me by a woman with a switchy stick (obviously to keep the idiot in order.) They looked at each other with that 'he's a bit simple, obviously' look in their eyes.

  A car towing a horse float went by.

  'Maybe we'll just follow that,' the woman said. But as the horse-trailer could be going anywhere and not necessarily to the racecourse, she did wait to hear Tracey's simple, clear and correct instructions repeated.

  Off they went.

  So did we.

  'There were just a few things wrong with your instructions,' Tracey said.

  'Firstly, you didn't tell them about turning right at the first roundabout.'

  'Second, you told them to go left at the lights, not straight through.'

  'Third, the Pink Pub hasn't been pink for at least five years.'

  'Fourthly, you were sending them to the Showgrounds, not the Racecourse!'

  She was being picky, I reckon. Everyone knows about the first roundabout, except for... well... strangers....

  Let's not dwell on these little details.  Anyone can make a minor mistake. About the colour of the pub, for instance. And the destination....

  We walked on.

  Tracey could see me deep in thought, but with a bit of a grin on my face.

  'I know what you're going to do,' she said, waving the stick at me again. 'You're going to write about this on your blog, aren't you?'

  'I mite of bin thinkin bout it.'

  'Might of' I can't bear not to add, is a running joke in our family that only lost its joke quality when we said it so often that Christian, as a kid, started believing that 'might of' was how it should be.

  We went on.

  'And you're going to embellish it, aren't you?' she added.

  'What's there to embellish? It's perfect as it is.'

  'If I were going to embellish it,' I added, 'then I'd substitute for the shoe-eating-my-sock incident what happened a fortnight ago when the lace of my tracksuit pants was too loose and they kept falling down, and I couldn't tie it with just one hand and all, and everyone was ogling at the sight of this tall blonde, bending over and interfering with this shambly old bloke in his groin area in broad daylight on the street....'

  'You've said more than enough,' she warned, waving the stick perilously close to my nose. 'Just stick to what really happened. Burn this into your poor little overworked brain, my Doctor. I control your medications!'

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Camels, Indians and Australians

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Image Source Indian & Aus flags
It's Australia Day, and, I've no doubt, will be celebrated in typical Australian style one way or the other, regardless of some dire weather forecasts for the day.

  What many in Oz may not realise is that it's also one of India's special days, a day which in many ways compares with Australia Day here.

  It's Indian Republic Day, though it's easy to get things confused, because Indian Independence Day is 15 August, the anniversary of independence for both India and Pakistan in 1947. But unlike the trauma of that event, Republic Day is a much more joyful occasion.

  So it was that on Friday, 26 January 1973, I was in New Delhi. I'd had a leisurely breakfast at Vishwa Yuvak Kendra, the International Youth Hostel in the suburb of Chanakyapuri.

  In those days, Delhi still retained some of the charms of a large village rather than the frantic urgency of a modern westernised city. In 1973, it still had the scent of the smoke at dusk from, and aroma of, countless domestic cooking fires outside the small dwellings scattered round the city.

  I noticed that there seemed more activity than usual that morning. A lot of people were headed in one direction, towards the centre of the city.

  'What's going on?' I asked the grey-haired gentlemanly waiter who always brought us breakfast.

  We always had a joke as he would rush fresh-cooked steaming chapatis to our table. Some mornings I would have a boiled egg for breakfast.

  'Ek egg?' he would ask, and we'd smile at the pun on the two words, because 'ek', meaning 'one' in Hindi, sounds almost identical with 'egg'.

  'Ache ache,' I'd respond, clutching my head.

  We'd laugh. It was a weak joke, but it was ours.

  He had a little hut just across the way from the hostel. I'd see him walking to it sometimes, after work, in his neat uniform; a tall, slim proud man, his back straight as a die. His wife and children would greet him, and he'd sometimes sit cross-legged on the charpoy beside the front door as a friend would drop by.

  'The parade,' he said. 'That's where all those people are going. They're walking to Janpath.'

  'Why not walk with the crowd?' I thought. Good exercise. It's a fair distance.

  It turned out to be an interesting walk at a smart pace, just tagging along with a group of men and women in traditional Punjabi dress. They were smiling, inclusive, happy.

  For one thing, we didn't necessarily go along roads; we went through wire fences, little alleys, private (in theory!) backyards, over low brick walls, down tiny lanes between dwellings... places you'd never go without people who had an idea where they wanted to end up.

  Janpath it was. People took up vantage points and the parade started.

  I wish I had pictures of it, but they are on slides, unscanned, and I don't have time or coordination to fiddle with them any more. You'll just have to take my word for the colour and spectacle, but I will mention just one thing.

  The Camel Corps. If you've never seen military or racing camels, then you won't truly appreciate what magnificent beasts they are, and the spectacle they added to the parade. Tall top-bred Dromedaries, they were as proud and fierce-looking as the men mounted on them. Clipped neatly and perfectly all over, they had the shape of sleek, elegant greyhounds with slightly pyramidal backs. They were trotting along at a perfectly uniform lively gait.

Source Camel Corps
  That was my enduring memory of the Republic Day parade of 1973, with all its pomp and splendour as it moved towards Rajgat.

  Expect the unexpected when you go to India. I've been reminded of that many times over the past forty years. Never imagine you've seen it all.

  We'll share our day, India. I won't even mention the cricket!

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Grammar School laundress

You know, when I think about it, it's no wonder that my mother lived to nearly ninety. After marrying my father and taking on the role of a dairy farmer's wife, she had a tough life. I mean, really tough - and I don't know the half of it, because I was a kid and, like any other kid, I just accepted that things were how they were.

  I was going to write today the next part of life in the dairy from my point of view, but I woke up thinking not about that as what it must have been like for Mum, and to the extent I know, for my sisters.

  There was a clear division of labour in the household, though some tasks carried over into a joint venture independent of gender. Some women's and girls' tasks were indeed women's business and men stayed out of them, while others were men's. Neither would have wanted it any other way, given the attitudes of the time. I won't go into that. You can easily work it out even if you don't belong to that generation.

Crown oven
  When I was really little, we lived a life more akin to the nineteenth than to the twentieth century, and the brunt of this fell on my mother and older sisters. The kitchen had an old cast-iron Crown stove; not even a Rayburn slow combustion model owned by some of our relatives and friends, even in Calliope itself.

Rayburn stove
  All crockery and utensils were hand-washed and dried. There was no running water in the kitchen; just a tap from the rainwater tank in the corner near the stove. There were no cooking gadgets that came with the electrified life of the cities - just pots and pans blackened by the fire in the stove. There were mops and brooms; no such things in the house as vacuum cleaners! Those would have been regarded, especially by the men and even with electricity connected, as somewhat frivolous luxuries. After all, their own mothers did without them, didn't they?

  The best example of all this, and how well it shows up the sheer drudgery of housework for my mother, was washing the clothes. It wasn't even glorified by the term, doing the laundry.

Yes, this attractive!
  There were three basic implements; a copper boiler, the washtubs and the clothesline. The copper vessel had to have a fire set under it, filled with tank water and brought to the boil. That meant the water had to be bucketed into it, incidentally. And, if I remember rightly, there was no plumbing for the laundry tubs until we got the Simpson Wringer-Washer. The tubs were filled using a steel bucket and emptied the same way. The water used was usually put on the garden, often dying of thirst as it was in the Queensland heat.

The godsend
  Dirty clothes were sorted into piles according to types and colours and ones where the dye might - or would - run, men's clothes and unmentionables that didn't exist as far as I was allowed to know or would have understood. Each load was boiled. I can still remember them bubbling away gently like the Christmas ham cooked in the same copper at that time of the year.

  One thing's for certain; anything washed in that copper was sterilised, and maybe cleaner in that respect than clothes that come out of many automatic washers these days.

  Each steaming item was dragged out of the copper by a pole (usually an old broom or rake handle) into a laundry basket, woman-handled to the tubs to have the detergent (Rinso, in our case!) rinsed out of them. By hand. The item was then wrung - again by hand, preferably between two or more women or girls in the family. It would go into a rinsing tub, white items with Reckitt's Blue.

  I don't know what was in Reckitt's, but it whitened the clothes markedly. They'd have been a dull grey otherwise, after having the bleach boiled out of them to within an inch of their life.

Top: 'Normal' pegs. 'New' model below
  It was also a great curer of poison insect stings - ants and wasps and hornets. Many a kid walked around with an arm or foot stained blue by the Reckitt's. I don't know what it would have done for a Redback spider, because more by good luck than anything else, I never got bitten by one. Even Reckitt's has its limits.

  Anyway, the clothes went through that second rinse while another load was simmering in the copper, and wrung out again. They were then carried to the clothesline, quite a distance from the house, out where the breeze was best.

  You're going to think Hill's Clothes Hoist, right?

  Don't be silly now.... We didn't go in for that trendy stuff everyone downtown was having installed in their backyards. We had a real washing line, with the line being held up in the middle by a sturdy forked pole as in the background below.  (Ask Tracey; even now, we don't have one of them newfangled Hills Hoist gadgets....)

Wet washing, even wrung out with all strength mustered is damned heavy. Woe betide washing operations if the pole was dislodged and the washing came down in the dirt. That occasioned a good deal of grief, as it was back to the rinsing tub (at best) and the whole operation repeated.

  In short, nothing was simple and not much was made simpler that might have been until we got electricity. The washing machine, however primitive the wringer model would seem now, made things much easier even if it didn't save much time. Mum had washing to do for four young kids and I guess that would have been pretty much a daily operation at times. Plenty of stinky nappies too, I don't doubt.

  Often clothes were almost dry in the hot Queensland sunshine and a bit of an easterly breeze before the last ones were pegged up. As soon as possible, clothes were unpegged, folded and brought in. I won't dare go into ironing, but just think flat-irons on the stove and agonised howls from teenaged girls when they ironed a black mark from the stove on to their Saturday Night dance dresses.

  Washing was just one part of the operation, and Mum had no choice but to do it solo until we got big enough to help to make the manual load lighter. She also came to the dairy to do her part of the milking for hours on end.

  Such was a tiny slice of the early married life of the Grammar School educated teacher who could spout Latin and French in the dairy while shovelling cowshit. But she taught us all the Latin and Greek roots that have been invaluable ever more to me, from Grade 1 to a Ph D thesis.

  Now you know why scholarships have been created in my name to educate Bangladeshi girls, so that even if they are unable to do anything else, they can teach their kids to read and write.

  Much, much more could be said about my mother and her courage and joys and great sorrows, and the part my sisters played in farm life. They may tell those stories themselves, and make them part of the great historical archive of this country, along with those of the males, who think their contribution is so much more important.

  It isn't. And fellas, we're not tougher either. That's why my mother made it almost to ninety.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Visiting seriously ill people - dos and donts

"Do you agree with this?" wrote a friend yesterday who referred me to this site

It was about what to say and what not to say to seriously ill people you are visiting.

I read it, and then passed it on to Tracey, without offering an opinion on it myself.

"What do you think of this?" I asked her.

To put you in the picture, if you're not already aware of it, I am one of the people to whom the article applies. I have a malignant brain tumour; a deadly one, which by all medical histories, is not going to go away.

But I am fortunate to have quite a few friends and former colleagues who visit me.

When we compared notes verbally, it turns out Tracey's views are pretty much the same as mine, and neither of us agree with everything in the excerpts in green below. A lot of it is right according to our views, but some things I have quite strong reservations about.

Here's what was said (and I thank Mia Freedman wholeheartedly for bringing this matter up):

Bruce Feiler author of “The Council of Dads: A Story of Family, Friendship and Learning How to Live”, recently shared an excerpt of his book in The New York Times. Bruce had bone cancer; he also had 3-year-old twins, a working wife, nine months of chemotherapy and 15 hours of reconstructive surgery to deal with. When someone asked his advice on how to handle a mutual friend's brain tumour, he came up with a list of things not to say to someone battling a dire health situation:

1. “What can I do to help?” (Don't ask, be proactive).
My response: I don't agree. It is not necessary to be proactive unless you are certain what it is that they need or want. For me to expect proactivity is often asking too much of the friend, who is probably already aware of their own limited knowledge of the circumstances. If they think I expect proactivity, it may even keep them away.

Asking sincerely what you can do to help is fine, when you don't know what you can do that will help. It could be that your 'proactive' help creates more problems than it solves, however well meaning it may be.

2. “My thoughts and prayers are with you” (A tired cliché)
My response: I don't agree. These words, sincerely meant, are perfectly valid and appreciated by me, regardless of my personal views on religion or particular religions. I find this being referred to as a "tired cliché" quite offensive to the sincere views of the well-wisher.

I have had Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists AND a Wiccan all tell me that I am in their prayers. I am grateful for those, fully accepting of them and absolutely respect their intention.

Likewise - and often it comes from people who are not religious - to be told I am in someone's thoughts is an uplifting experience and one I value greatly.

3. “Did you try that mango colonic I recommended?” (Leave treatment advice to the doctors)
I'm fairly much in agreement with this one, although I don't mind in the least someone referring me to possible treatments and giving me the opportunity to consider their merits. But suggesting I should be 'trying' something they've chanced across which could totally stuff up my current treatment.... no, don't do that. Do it only if it's cured you personally of my terminal condition, and you can provide all the evidence!

4. “Everything will be OK.” (You don't know that)
Agreed. That is a totally pointless, meaningless and even insulting thing to say. BUT... sometimes people say things like that when they really mean, "I wish that things would be OK" - and a seriously ill person should always be prepared to accept such well-meant slip-ups with good grace. Hell, before I got this thing I wouldn't be surprised if I had blurted out something inappropriate myself to others with serious illness, especially if caught on the hop by it, so one has to allow some leeway.

5. “How are we today?” (Sick people aren't mentally diminished infants)
Well, true enough, put in that patronising way, but being asked how I am feeling when a friend meets me after some time seems pretty normal to me. They better be prepared for comments about how I really am feeling though, if the question is sincere.... 

From my own experience, and what I've seen and read, people in my category are happy to be very frank about their illness, so don't shy away from asking anything if you want sincerely to know. Naturally, I reserve the right to answer it or not, but you can be fairly sure you'll get a straight answer. Not that the ill person always has an answer.

6. “You look great.” (Don't focus on externals).
Again, it all depends on the sincerity of the compliment. It is a great irony in my case that my face does look better than it did three years ago, and I'll tell you why.

I was living then on about five/six hours sleep a night, which I'd done for many years. I was rather proud of that in a dumb way, but one time I fixed a videocam in place for an event we were filming and crossed in front of it and looked back at the lens, so it recorded my face looking into the camera.

After I was diagnosed with a brain tumour and began treatment, I was sleeping much more. People visiting me subsequently would often tell me how much better my face looked (always a back-handed compliment, but never mind....)

By accident one day after months of treatment for my illness, I came across this tiny clip of before-diagnosis video that had caught my face staring into the camera, and I was shocked at how weary, strained and lined my face looked. Before I got sick!

I too had got used to my 'new' unlined face with much less prominent frown and bags under my eyes.

So it just might be that you DO look better, even though you might not be feeling that way. Why should one assume insincerity?

Still, the author is right to suggest not to focus on externals.

On this last point, one of my friends had stomach cancer when she was younger and lost a lot of weight during treatment. She works in fashion and I vividly recall how colleagues would say, “You look fantastic”. Even when they knew why she was so thin. Maybe they thought it would cheer her up. It simply made her upset.
I guess it could, but that's because her perspective was quite different, and it's sad that she didn't realise they were probably telling it exactly as it was from theirs, unless she knew they were not being sincere. 

But OK, I can see where she's coming from, especially in that industry.

Meanwhile, Bruce Feiler's list of things you should say includes:

1. “No need to write back” (Keeping up with correspondence can be overwhelming)
I very much agree with this one. People often write, and ask a long series of questions. They are doing it out of genuine interest, I'm sure. I really don't mind the questions, but I do reserve the right to decide how, what and when I'll reply to them. 

To be told there's no need to write back is comforting, as long as I can believe it's sincere. Given I have only one typing hand, some friends can have no idea what they are asking of me if they expect full answers - much as I would like to give them. 

That tension between answering and not answering can be very frustrating for me, because it looks like I don't value their friendship and concern, and nothing could be further from the truth.

The irony here is that most of the answers to "how are things going?" questions can be found right here on my blog in the WHAT'S NEW! section. I know a blog is impersonal but corners have to be cut. If you've read that section and still have questions, that's fine. Ask away. I really appreciate knowing that the person has checked with the blog first.

2. “I should be going now” (Short visits are best)
Very, very true. I love visits by friends but become very animated because it's so enjoyable, but they can take a lot out of me. The best friends are those who keep their visits shortish - but, do believe me if I tell you to stay a little longer. If it is time to go, I won't say that, and don't be offended if I readily agree with you that the timing is right. Tiredness can hit very quickly, no matter how close a friend you are.

If you feel visiting is your duty or a task, and not a pleasure, then please stay away. We'll both be happier if you do.

3. “Would you like some gossip?” (Distraction is helpful)
Yes!! Nothing like hearing some good gossip (or common-interest discussion)! Housebound as I am, it's amazing what things I don't get to see and hear, especially on the local scene.

Gossip is great - though remember it's a two-way process. There's no need to fill momentary silences. Occasionally friends have left and I haven't had a chance to say or ask what I would like to!

4. “I love you” or “I'm sorry you have to go through this” (Honest expression of emotions are a powerful gift).
Yes. Well said. No need for me to embellish that.

I sent his article to several girlfriends at various stages of their health battles - some in the middle, others out the other side - and they agreed with every point.
As you see, I don't agree with some of what's said, and it would be wrong to assume agreeing with "every point" is how every seriously ill person feels.

You will note there's one word that runs through this whole thing. Sincerity. You know what? That's all I ask, really. I know that it can be terribly hard to know what to say, and every person (patient or visitor) is different. What may be a negative trigger for some has the opposite effect on others.

So if you're visiting someone - or being visited - do think about these things, and don't expect to get it perfectly right. No-one should be expected to be. If you're the ill person, visitors have as much right to courtesy in what can be very difficult circumstances for them as do those being visited.

Just be sincere.

Disclaimer: I've not read Feiler's book so it may be that what's above is out of context or covered differently in some other part of the book, but I've been exposed to just what the readers of the article have been.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Our family farm in the 1950s (2)

I have to say that we were quite poverty-stricken when we produced nothing for sale but cream; the subject of my previous story.  This changed when the Butter Factory (the Port Curtis Dairy Cooperative, aka the PCD) offered to buy whole milk from us.

  There was a decent living to be made from this in good seasons, but it meant many changes. The herd had to be improved and new equipment bought, as there was no way we could fill our milk quota consistently without it. If you failed to make your quota, you'd be given a lower one, and it was a lot harder to get your quota increased than to have it reduced.

  That demanded investment in new machinery, and my father, who had always been thrifty, had managed over the years to put some money aside to do this. I should add that any chance to save a shilling or two was also due to our mother's ability to think ahead, and also to make things out of nothing, but that's another story.

  We didn't have electricity at this time, and even when we did get it, it could not have been connected to the dairy (about half a kilometre away from the house as the crow flies) without prohibitive cost. So the first priority was to buy a milking machine.

  The milking setup you might see these days is totally different from what it was in the 1950s. If it were then as it is now, we'd have done the milking better and in less than half the time.

  So, we needed to build a new dairy designed for milking machines 1950s style, to install them and a number of other critical items of equipment to make us competitive in the whole-milk selling market.

  At the very heart of all this was one magnificent piece of machinery which ran everything else. This was the diesel engine. Rolls Royce could not have done a better job of its design (so say I!) In our neck of the woods, American-made Lister farm machinery was generally favoured, and theirs was well-made. 

  Ours was a Southern Cross engine, a model first released the year I was born (1947). It rarely failed us in all its years of service, and was never replaced by a new one. Bolted to its mounting block, it stood as tall as I was.

  The extraordinary thing about these diesel engines was that they were so efficient they could almost run on the proverbial 'smell of an oily rag'. Our engine had to be going for a minimum of ten hours per day, seven days a week. We had a 44 gallon drum of diesel fuel behind the dairy that lasted a very long time. 44 gallons is approximately 166.55811832 litres. (I just worked that out in my head....ho ho.)

  Here's why the diesel was so critical. These are the four essential items of equipment it ran simultaneously:
  • The milking machine for three bails, including the cam to provide reciprocation, the pumps and the suction chambers.
  • A powerful compressor and pump for the farm fridge, holding up to 100 gallons of milk. (378.541178 litres. Again, a rough calculation.)
  • The new model belt-driven cream separator.
  • The milk shock-cooler compressor and pump.

  My father had been raised with a lifestyle practically devoid of heavy farm machinery except for horse-drawn plough, which we still used at the time; the windmill and manual chaff-cutter. All of these, like our first cream separator, were manually (or horse-ually!) operated. We did not have a car, a tractor, a hammermill or any other devices like this - not even a motor-mower. Dad could wield with great skill a scythe of the type reminiscent of that in the arms of the Apocalyptic Grim Reaper; but fuel-driven engines were alien to him.

  Good maintenance of the diesel was essential, so what he did do was to learn how to strip down thoroughly and service that one particular device. He knew its vagaries in cold and hot weather or when something was amiss, and kept it in excellent condition for all those years. Including the colour, it looked almost exactly like the one pictured above (which, let me say, I'm rather proud to have manufactured with a lot of Photoshop time).

  Below is a link to a fairly similar model diesel to ours, and it's useful to show the handling of the engine. Ours was mounted very firmly on a large concrete block, so it was far more stable than the one in the video.

  1947 Southern Cross diesel engine startup

  It's worth a look just to see how slowly and solidly it runs, even on this unstable mobile platform. Dad would have been offended by the poor appearance of this one! (By the way, when you hear it slow down it's not stopping; it is just climbing down to its normal running speed.)

  The exhaust pipe didn't stick up in the air like that on a diesel truck. When it was installed, a long galvanised steel pipe took the exhaust gases out a few metres away from the back of the dairy. I suspect we would have been poisoned by carbon monoxide if that wasn't part of the design. We had to be very careful stepping over the exhaust pipe that our bare legs didn't touch it, though.

  Touching the exhaust pipe when the engine was running was something you did only once. That was the OH&S method back then. Experience.

  What that meant was that there was no muffler, but the noise was pretty much restricted to outside the part of the shed we rarely went. Otherwise, the gentle pop-pop-pop of the engine exhaust out the back was part of the rhythm of milking life.

  There were rare occasions when the engine did break down beyond Dad's ability to fix it. It was then all-hands-on-deck to milk manually till normal service was resumed. The cows, being very much creatures of habit, were nervous and unsettled, and likely to play up if the doof-doof beat of the diesel was missing. They hated the eerie silence, or the noise of the sharp clatter of steel buckets, and any talking usually masked by the sound of the engine.

  We whispered. If you were going to get kicked, that was the most likely time for it. The cows thought it was their noise-maker and were just as likely not to let down their milk under the stress of abnormal conditions. As in the classic Australian movie, the Castle, when the familiar noise of an engine came back, the cows would smile and say, "Aaahhh - the serenity!"

  Well, not quite, but you get what I mean. Once that engine started up again, the cows relaxed, and chewed their cuds while lying down waiting to be called by name for their turn to be milked.

  Don't laugh. I can tell you, a breakdown of the engine was a production crisis greater than all others. You can crank the bloody thing all you like, but if a piston ring fractures, you're done for until it's fixed. 

  Such a crisis would lead immediately to an explosion of language from Dad that would be quelled only by the fear of upsetting the cows too much, unprotected by the doof-doof ambiance. Some of the words would have been too... robust... for your shell-like ears.
    And now I can get on and tell the story! (continued)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sonnets of an Office Boy

One of the new offerings through Gutenberg is a very short sequence of poems by Samuel E. Kiser. I confess right now that I'd never heard of him before, but he seems to have been around Chicago in the 1920s and 30s.

  When I started reading the anthology (there may be a better word for it; I'm not sure), I immediately thought of the great populist poet of Australia, C J Dennis, with The Sentimental Bloke.

  They seem to me to be on the same wavelength, but for their respective cultures. I'm really not sure if the latter is exportable, especially to North America, because of the street slang (almost a dialect!), but there's no problem with Kiser coming back this way. I'd say that Kiser predates Dennis, but not by all that much.

  It's downloadable from Gutenberg and readable on any computer with the programs Kindle and/or Calibre. There's a plain text version, but you'd be crazy not to get the illustrated one. The cartoonist is the Pulitzer Prize winner John Tinney McCutcheon, so Kiser isn't a nobody.

  Here's how it starts, just to whet your appetite. If you're a C J Dennis fan, you'll enjoy it. By the way, you can download The Sentimental Bloke, or read it online here. Sadly, the great illustrations in the hard copy versions of it are not in the Gutenberg edition. They ought to be. Happily, that's no problem with Kiser's poems.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Our family farm in the 1950s (1)

A few days ago, we were sitting at the dinner table, as we do every night.

  "What was it like each day, working on a dairy farm?" Christian asked. "I mean, how did it work? What did you do?"

  What could be a more irresistible opportunity for reminiscing about life on a dairy farm in the 1950s? It occurred to me only then that in all the years Tracey and he and I had been together, ever since he was six, I'd never explained how a dairy farm worked.

  Of course, things have their time. Five years ago, he may not have cared less. Now he was asking. That's different.

  I'd never told him the most basic things about milking a herd of sixty or so cows twice daily. Neither Tracey nor he had much idea of how the dairy itself worked, why the yards and sheds were laid out as they were, or what happened when the cow went into a bail. ("Bail" or "bale"? I'm not sure. If you bail something up, you restrict its movement, so that's probably it.)

  Well, if Christian was interested, then I was delighted to trawl back over those things, and revisit them through the eyes of an adult.

  If I start at the very beginning and try to tell it all, there's a fair chance that I'll never get finished, and you'll get bored, and we'll all be disappointed.

  I'll just tell you first about a vital piece of equipment that we couldn't do without in the days when we didn't even sell whole milk. We sold only cream to the Butter Factory. That was it. Any other income came from wherever we could make it. That's another story - it's too early to get side-tracked with such details.

  That piece of mechanical marvel - and indeed it is - was the cream separator. Creamy milk went in, pure cream came out one spout, and skim milk out of the other.

Full-sized cream separator
  I tried hard to find a picture of one that was identical to ours, and I couldn't, but this isn't so different. To be truthful, I'm quite pleased with something that looks fairly similar - my sisters will agree, I think.

  In those early days, we milked by hand. We didn't have the money for milking machines.

  When I say "we", I mean my parents, as I was too young to help at all then. They milked our jersey cows, jerseys being famous for rich cream production.

  The milk went into that large top bowl, and was steadily poured via the tap into the separator, after the centrifuge hidden inside was cranked up manually to the right speed. Magically, it seemed to me, out of one spout poured a small stream of cream, and a larger one of skim milk came out of the other.

  The principle for a modern cream separator in this video is identical. The video presentation you see here is lousy, but it shows what happens. And I'll bet my pants that's Friesian cow's milk, not Jersey's. It's too thin.

  OK, your pants then. I'll bet them.

  The other piece of equipment is a truly beautiful piece of mechanical engineering. This machine is the heart of the dairy, no kidding. But that's for next time.

 Stick with me. This will all come together, you'll see. (continued)

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Great Illusion: a prophecy for a century

Yesterday a new book came up on Gutenberg; one that I bypassed first time around. 

  There's nothing on the site to indicate what the book they've just released is going to be about. I saw it there once more as I looked through today's offerings, and curiosity got the better of me. After all, the author was a great political figure in the early Twentieth Century, and a Nobel Laureate. What was this great illusion?

Norman Angell
  I skimmed through the first few pages quickly, and confess I haven't yet read much of it, but what I saw as the opening thesis grabbed my attention. The reason for this is that it could have been written as a proposition for the present, yet it was penned a century ago.

  The publication date is 1910. It was startling in its accuracy for 2012.

  Bear in mind that it was composed before two catastrophic world wars, financial and social upheavals the like of which the world had never experienced before. It was a time of unshakeable optimism that the world was in a great period of industrial progress and a wonderful period of human history was beginning. 

 Titanic was about to be launched just months later; in May 1911 - the greatest moving object ever created by human beings. The magnificent ship was a triumph of its age. A vision of Manifest Destiny enveloped the world of Europe and America, yet world war - the world of Europe at least, was just four years away.

  No-one, you would think, could have prophesied what was to come, yet look at the timeless words below. Would that they had been able to drive the European and American vision in the past one hundred years....

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Another new life opportunity

My co-Board-Member and President of BODHI Australia wrote to me yesterday:

The second recipient of the Denis Wright Scholarship for Underprivileged Girls through UCEP (in Bangladesh). Like the first recipient, she also wants to be a nurses' aide. She is the youngest of 8 children and lives with her sister in a tin shed. Her parents are dead. She works the longest hours of all the girls presented and seems to have it the roughest....
Her income is presently 1600 taka ($18.50) per month - about 60c per day, or less than $5 per week - and out of that has to pay her share of all household expenses as well as food, travel and personal items.

This scholarship with put her on the first leg of her journey to fulfillment, security and, as a corollary, nation-building for Bangladesh.

If you want to know more about this scheme view here and here.

Other site and contact addresses: @BODHIgroup

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Heian lady's view of men

When I first published this piece, I simply said:
Sometimes it's wise just to include something entirely without comment. Make of it what you will!
I now look at this and wonder if I was giving the impression that I was mocking, or jeering at this period of Japanese society and history or at Sei Shonagon.

 Nothing could be further from the truth. This is just a window into a remarkable courtly period in Japan where 'the rule of taste' prevailed above all others, and is probably not all that much different in some respects from its parallel in Eighteenth Century Europe.

 Perhaps I didn't need to preempt such a criticism, but decades of teaching Japanese cultural history I wouldn't want misunderstood.

From Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book (Penguin Classics) More information on this Eleventh Century Japanese court lady.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Do we complain too much?

Some of us are old enough to remember Donald Horne and his 1964 book on Australia called The Lucky Country. This isn't about that book or those like Frank Hardy who subsequently wrote critically about this view of Australia.

 Recently, there have been a spate of criticisms that we Australians now whinge too much. How much right do we have to complain, really? In the light of the episode below, I'm inclined to agree that we do - or maybe the wrong people do, or about the wrong things.

Part of the front hedge
Tracey was hedge clipping last weekend, which, if you know our hedge, is a serious task. What you can see here is about one-eighth of the job. For several days, she has been quietly putting up with pain down the left arm, together with some other discomforts, hoping that it was nothing more than a muscular reaction from the effort of clipping and raking.

I want to add, if you are new to this blog, that it is frustrating for me, the hedge clipping master of this household since we moved in, not to be able to do this job any longer. You do need two fully functioning arms to clip a hedge, I'm afraid, and any vain attempts of mine to help are met with a response bordering on the impolite. Tracey knows that the time I did insist, I was having a seizure in five minutes, so I was packed off up the stairs quick smart, and ordered not even to look out the window.

 But, to return to the point: when the pain in Tracey's arm was getting worse rather than better, she decided to take action on it yesterday, knowing this sort of pain can indicate the onset of a heart attack or some other serious condition. Ignore continuous pain down your arm at your peril.

 I knew nothing about it at all till she said to me quietly yesterday morning, "I might go to Casualty and have a talk with them." Not complaining about such things is her usual way of protecting me from stress, but she couldn't put off telling me any longer. ("Casualty" is the term we use here for "Accident and Emergency" at the local Public Hospital.)

 It was Saturday - not the best day for getting medical attention from the GP. These things always reach the 'action' phase at weekends, don't they? It's a variation on Murphy's Law. She then drove to Casualty to see if she could get some action there. (It's also the day when all the Saturday sporting injuries come in to Casualty - not the best time from that point of view either - plenty of competition!)

 The Emergency team was terrific in its handling of her case, though it's not surprising that they jump to attention when someone presents with these symptoms. They know what such symptoms can predict.

 The short story is that they did a battery of tests, procedures and specialist consultations which indicated that there was no detectable problem with her heart. But one blood test gave a very abnormal count, suggesting she may have had a clot, possibly on the lung. This of course resulted in more tests.

 The investigations indicate none of the immediate frightening possibilities that we think of in these circumstances, but there's still a question mark over the abnormally high reading for that blood test. It could indicate a clot elsewhere.

 Tracey returned home after about four hours from when she left. She'll consult our GP at the first opportunity, and discuss things with him.

 The pain hasn't diminished but at least there's been a lowering of stress levels building over the week about the cause of the pain. Some of the worst possibilities have been eliminated through the long series of tests that have been done.

 This is why I posed the question at the start. Look at some of the procedures and consultations she had in those four hours.
  • An ECG
  • A spiral (3D) CT angiogram
  • Upper body x-ray
  • Extensive phone consultations with remote renal specialists based on data transmitted electronically, on whether contrast-testing could be performed (given that Tracey has only one kidney, the other having been donated several years ago to save a life.)
  • Several blood and urine tests, saline and dye infusion
  • Organ function testing
  • Detailed written report on the CT scan by the remote specialist
  • Continuous monitoring by nursing staff together with constant visits by an experienced doctor
This is a country public hospital in NSW, Australia. She was self-admitted to Casualty and not at any stage needing admission to ICU, so there was not that level of intensive observation demanded. This was standard outpatient care. Any person with similar symptoms would have received an identical level of treatment.


If you lived in the USA, I wonder what sort of a bill you or your Medical Insurance fund would get for the above services, all delivered within the space of four hours? Perhaps my American readers might hazard a guess.

 The cost in this case was $0.00.  Zero.

 Well... I suppose it cost 50 cents for petrol to drive the one kilometre there and back. We can cope with that one.

 I know there are plenty of horror stories about bad diagnoses and long waiting times for public patients in Australian hospitals, but this level of care in a small hospital as short on funds and facing as many costs as any other in the state is remarkable; a tribute to the dedication of everyone involved now and over the many decades it takes to create and maintain such a service.

 I do invite you though, to ask where the money comes from..... I'll bet there'll be some mixed views on that, but let me get in first. I spent my entire working life paying my taxes! And a great many people have contributed productively to make it possible as well.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The joys of Gutenberg

Why this illustration? Read on.

One of the most pleasurable things for me to do on a daily basis is to go to my RSS feed for Project Gutenberg. It shows me the new additions to its vast resources that have become available for today.

Project Gutenberg is a wonderful organisation. It has been putting books free of copyright online for many years - at least 36,000 of them. Books, that is, not years....

  Before I go any further, let me clear one thing up here and now. I am, probably like you, a bibliophile. I love the books in my bookcases. They are my friends, some more than fifty years old. I love that they have different looks, formats, colours, and smells. I can tell you a book that comes from the subcontinent, Europe or North America just by its smell. I love different typefaces and fonts and the sheer feel of a book in my hands.

  Hand. Not hands. That's my problem, you see. Only one of my hands now works with the dexterity needed for reading a book, and manipulating a book in order to read it is very much a two-handed operation. Turning pages. Holding a fat paperback open. Reading in towards the too-narrow gutter between pages. It can't be done. And even worse, the font size is usually about six-point seraph and practically unreadable in poor light.

  So there's my problem, but I've adapted. Using Calibre or Kindle (free book-reading programs) on my computer, I can read anything, with my choice of how it looks on the page. That's often a damn sight better than the publishers of hard copy books trying to save money on the cost of paper. I can download practically any book on the market, or free of charge, if from somewhere like Gutenberg. I can do it on the cheapest Kindle reader on the market, and be able to hold it one-handed if necessary. It may be when I'm in bed, or when the ads are on TV.

  It works for me.

  But, as usual, I've made a long intro to what I really wanted to say, which was that there are some truly fascinating free books available. All the ones you said you were going to read but never did, and many on the Gutenberg site. You never know what's coming up.

  Take just the last two weeks' worth of new offerings, e.g. What a smorgasbord! There's something for everyone there, and some surprises. Novels, classics, scientific studies, political discourses, journals and reference books - in a variety of languages.

  The thing is, something that looks absolutely boring can turn out to be quite the opposite when you view it. Something as wonderful a piece of literature as Madame Bovary doesn't need any justification, but what about The Corner House Girls Snowbound by Grace Brooks Hill? Or And So They Were Married by Florence Morse Kingsley? Would you go for The Adventure of the Devil's Foot by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

  Or in other categories, Why Lincoln Laughed by Russell Herman Conwell or An essay on the American contribution and the democratic idea by Winston Churchill. Maybe Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 15, August, 1851. Eighteenth Century lectures on elocution by Thomas Sheridan turned out to be more intriguing than I expected.

  Given my lifetime study of Bengali culture, I was delighted to come across the folktales of Bengal, beautifully illustrated in colour, and couldn't resist looking at (from the days of the Raj, obviously) Tempting Curry Dishes by Thomas J. Murrey. The only trouble with it was that for each dish, a bottle of J. P. Smith's Curry Powder was an essential ingredient!

  I was shocked at the novelty of seeing three recent items that seem rather strange in the middle of the antiquarianism of other books available; a book on email, surfing the net and a novel on computer terrorism. It was like a timewarp. They didn't quite seem to belong there.

  There were a few that I'll leave to the enquiring minds of others. Although I don't doubt in the slightest their contribution to scholarship and learning, Calculus Made Easy by Silvanus P. Thompson, Geographic Variation in the North American Cyprinid Fish, Hybopsis gracilis by Cross and Olund, and Remarks on the practice and policy of lending Bodleian printed books and manuscripts by Chandler are titles I won't be downloading to the Kindle.

  Oh - nor will The Water-Works and Sewerage of Monterrey, N. L., Mexico be high on the list.

  Here's the selection of books mentioned above available from Gutenberg in the past two weeks. Flaubert is in French, but there is an English edition available.

Email 101 by John Goodwin
Language: English
Had Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier been read widely in modern times, I suspect Afghanistan would have been left alone (as it should have been, always!)