Friday, February 26, 2010

Grammar, what big teeth you have

Image from

I think it's the second Mad Max film where the road warrior comes across a group of desert urchins desperately trying to maintain their scant intellectual heritage through something they call the learnin'. The world has descended into a hunter/gatherer place of non-literacy where these small scraps of knowledge are passed between the few humans left. No one can remember why the learnin' is important but it palpably represents something that has been squandered.

This is where it all starts. A leading authority on English grammar has found no fewer than 65 grammatical errors in a sixteen-page guide to English grammar produced by English teachers in Queensland. Emeritus Professor Rodney Huddlestone from my alma mater University of Queensland, wrote to the The English Teachers Association to helpfully inform them of the mistakes in their publication Grammar at the Coalface. Was his expert input appreciated? Not a bit of it. He was sent packing by the guide's author, Dr Lenore Ferguson who is apparently under the impression that the language is a good deal more fluid than most of us imagine.

What can you expect from an organisation that can't even name itself without making a grammatical gaff. I suppose one could take the view that 'English Teachers' is a set rather than a group of people possessing an organisation but that would be to misinterpret the meaning of the word 'association'. The lack of an apostrophe denoting the plural possessive is, I think more of a style decision. A lot of educators think apostrophes are old-fashioned and try to find ways of not using them. Other people are very happy to use them in all sorts of inappropriate places. I saw a picture in a magazine recently of a footballer who had this tattooed on his chest,

One brother bleeds, all brother's bleed.


As for the charmingly non-sequiturial title - wouldn't you have loved to have been part of the committee that came up with that one? Dr Ferguson's view that grammatical nomenclature can be reduced to a matter of opinion is a tad too post-modern for me. And her rebuff to Prof. Huddlestone that he had replaced her 'practical framing with a theoretical one and [evaluated her] articles from this superimposed perspective', must have had him scanning his office for hidden cameras. All he did was point out that 'Sam's' (as in Sam's folder) is not a pronoun but the possessive form of a proper noun and that 'set' (as in set of bowls) is not an adjective but a noun. By Dr Ferguson's logic, I might suddenly decide to make 22 a prime number.

I've recently experienced a year of learnin' with teachers who couldn't form a coherent sentence. I could mostly guess what they wanted from the assortment of jumbled phrases and mangled spellings they'd cobbled together the night before, but it wasn't much fun. It took me half a year to work out how to frame a question that would yield me a comprehensible answer. I ended up with a What's My Line approach of yes/no enquiry. It mostly worked but it was mightily tedious.

Although the erosion of our language offers us constant opportunities for mirth, the serious side is the damage it's doing to the future prospects of children educated in the public school system. I don't suppose they'll be too amused when they find their language skills are inadequate for higher level employment. English is the language of global business which means everyone is learning it. You can bet it's being taught properly in China and India. Perhaps Grammar at the Coalface is an apt title. In the future, mining may be the only occupation open to Australians.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Batt Man and Robbin'

Image from

Did the gargantuan
stimulus package speedily instigated by the Australian Government keep the recession wolf from the door as has been claimed? The jury is still sequestered on that one but the more open-and-shut case is the shambolic state of the AUS$2.5 billion environmental home improvements package overseen by rocker turned shocker, Peter Garrett.

Last week its beleagured home insulation programme was shut down following a two-week siege in which Garrett ran the gauntlet of simple questions aimed at clarifying whether or not he was aware of a report commissioned by his department warning that the programme was ripe for exploitation and could put lives at risk. After four deaths, nearly ninety housefires, hundreds of lost jobs and many millions of taxpayer dollars have been skimmed by operators keen to capitalise on a non-existent inspection regime, Garrett is still standing, mic aloft, believing he can win over the crowd with the same old chorus.

The ex-frontman of dodgy issue du jour pub rock outfit Midnight Oil is holding a dangerous cachet of failed projects in an election year. Also abandoned on the same day was a Green Loans Scheme with more snags than a Rotary barbeque. A solar energy initiative was cancelled with a day's notice a few months earlier. All of these enterprises are trailing a stream of grumpy householders and business owners.

Garrett should have resigned or, at the very least, shown little remorse. Some empathy with the bereaved families and those whose houses have burned down wouldn't go amiss at this point either. But as the crisis enters its third week, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has not only given his support to his minister, but assumed the responsibility for the fiasco himself. Suicide.

The joint portfolio of Environment and Arts which Garrett holds is not a strategic fit but a construct to accommodate his personal interests. What Rudd should have done is moved his Environment responsibilities over to Senate counterpart Penny Wong, who has responsibility for climate change and water conservation and left him with Arts. He hasn't managed to fuck that up yet.

With an election looming in a few months, Kevin Rudd has exposed himself to huge risk. The Damoclean sword is the 160,000 or so houses that might be in danger of catching on fire. Wouldn't it be just dandy if one of them burned down with a family of young children inside. A smart government remembers its loyalty is to its citizens rather than its colleagues. A disgraced colleague can always be quietly rehabilitated when the election is won, (cf Mandelson, P. of UK plc).

Australia is in very real danger of waking up to find itself lumbered with an accidental joke Prime Minister and we all know how that ends. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has been allowed to acquire implausible credibility for someone who is visibly crackers. Australians are easily frightened with threats to their financial or territorial security and will readily find comfort in someone who appeals to their vulnerability with mercifully few syllables.

Big mistake Kevin. Huge...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Alphabet soup

Illustration from Sesame Street

Children in Queensland schools are learning to read by catching bugs at a special Summer School - well it's more fun than phonics, innit? The Australian reports with refreshing displeasure on this peculiar initiative, which is something of a relief. It helps to know you are not alone. I quote at length for your amusement.

'The focus of the school is to teach them (the children) how to evaluate and make inferences from what they read and to analyse the way authors have expressed their points of view about a topic. The need for knowledge of letter-sound relationships and sounding out words to read them -- known as decoding -- is downgraded.'

Yes, and I suppose you could spend your time working out how to make an omelette without breaking eggs but why would you bother when eggs break so easily?

'The summer schools literacy emphasis is on discussing the meanings of texts and on making judgments about topic sentences and word choices rather than on coding and decoding,' information provided for teachers says. 'Teachers are encouraged to read texts aloud so that learners can concentrate on the higher-order thinking involved in making reliable inferences.'

And these teachers will presumably be on hand to read aloud to students as they attempt to make sense of officialdom in the future.

'Teachers are also able to annotate their students' work where necessary, so that encoding difficulties do not prevent students from showing what they understand and can do.'
In information provided to parents, the department says the literacy summer school will teach students "how to evaluate texts".'

Well, I have a degree in English and I can't work out what this means. How is this easier than ABCs exactly?

'It is important that students understand that authors (the creators of written text, documentaries, stories, films, advertisements, screenplays, video clips, chat shows etc.) all have a particular purpose and point of view," it says.'

Authors? - the originators of this bollocks are suddenly seized with the need to 'decode' the one unambiguous element in the whole foolish construct? How is it possible to intuit 'purpose' when one can't even understand what is actually written?

'One of the literacy activities outlined for teachers to do with their students is to build an insect catcher, or "pooter", after reading a magazine about invertebrates. The instructions for making the pooter are out of order and students must rearrange them before they can make the insect catcher.'

Let's be clear on this - the solution to confusion is not more confusion. The routine necessity to 'decode' instructions whose only clear duty is to be explicit is one of the more annoying facets of modern life. And this foolishness is costing roughly AUS5m, perhaps not a lot of money in the grand scheme of education but rather a lot to piss away.

A couple of leading experts state the obvious - that this stuff hasn't ever worked. An award-winning teacher of literacy, John Fleming politely skirts the real problem,

'Mr Fleming said the students' main problem was "instructional deficit" and that they had not been given the skills needed to develop as readers in the first years of school. "They've been immersed and gone through a school that said `When the kids are ready, they will pick it up'," he said. "Unfortunately, for these sorts of kids, that's not true."

'Instructional deficit'? That would be 'crap teaching' to you and me.

Government response to criticism is the usual exercise in pretzel logic. The Minister says it's just one of a number of initiatives to improve literacy and numeracy. And, yes the media does always pick on the batty programmes. The point is, why are there batty schemes to begin with? For some children, this will be it - their only shot at catching up with their peers.

Really, this is not that difficult. The English alphabet has twenty-six letters, all with distinctive shapes and sounds which, incidentally, children seem to be enjoy experimenting with. Children want to learn and are looking for shortcuts to understanding which means rules and common denominators. Their brains are wired to soak up sequences. They can't be doing with the pseudo intellectual clap-trap that adults are obsessed with.

Learning to read and write is a big undertaking but we typically get ten or twelve years to acquire the basics. It begins with C-A-T spells cat and proceeds calmly in a logical order to the point where one leaves school with the ability to decipher tax forms and loll about on the beach with Salman Rushdie or Jodi Picoult, according to taste.

Yes, there are a lot of words and some of them are quite tough to spell but, thankfully, we get an average of 80 years to refine our vocabulary and a nice man called Dr Johnson has helped enormously by writing them down in a big book should we forget one or two.

Toshie is dead but with any luck there will be a new Pantpooter in service sometime next week.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Aghast me hearties!

Being absent from Oz for the better part of three decades means that one has been largely spared the prattlings of tossers like Jesse Martin, juvenile Captain Queeg of the South Pacific.

Last week I watched the documentary Five Lost at Sea about his AUS$2m voyage around the world with his brother, a friend and 'two girls', whose presence appears to have been sponsor-driven.

The intrepid team gets as far as Darwin before 'the girls' mutiny. The lack of bonding appears to centre around their distaste for shooting things and their inability to read the mind of their brooding skipper. One of 'the girls', an articulate and formerly self-assured American accuses Martin of 'dehumanising' her. The expression on his face betrays a sense that he has never heard a female voice before.

They run aground on a coral reef, seemingly without much climactic provocation and respond by staging a group panic. No one seems to know where they are, either individually or nautically. The American gallantly strikes out in the dark to rescue an adrift dinghy and is lambasted for stupidity. One can't help thinking that if the friend or brother had done the same, he would have been hailed a hero.

After 'the girls' walk the plank in Darwin. A 'friendly' Scandinavian back-packer called Maria joins the crew. She appears to have been recruited in much the same spirit as any other part-time pirate, in a bar and presumably after having her gut filled with rum & diet cokes and her head with treasure maps and brandished scabbards.

They sail on to Bali where Maria adventure-hops again, something to do with meeting her brother. It's a bit difficult to tell what's going on at this stage as everyone is weeping uncontrollably over the Bali bombings which have just occurred. All that is except Jesse who seems more gripped with consternation that terrorism has encroached on his Gauguinian idyll.

On to Thailand where Martin mellows visibly at the arrival of his girlfriend Maya, for whom it now appears he has been pining. That explains a lot. All is fine for five minutes until he reveals his next port of call is to be Maya (no relation) Beach on Koh Phi Phi Leh Island, the location of the 2000 film adaptation of the Alex Garland book "The Beach". Hey Jesse, doesn't everyone get massacred in that one?

Life provides a poor imitation of art. No gun battles, no Tilda Swinton, just Martin's brother calling him a dickhead and heading for the airport. One of his items of checked baggage is a skateboard. No wonder it all went the way of the pear.

Jesse Martin first found fame as the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world. Earlier in the week I'd caught a little of his smug, whining interview on Talking Heads. Entirely unrepentant several years later, he assumes a politician's detachment. 'Things went wrong,' he insists. All he'd wanted was an adventure. Like the most naive of politicians, he had a goal but no plan. 'The girls' on this great adventure had been begging for the establishment of some routines and rules yet their pleadings for common sense had been perceived as a fun-sapping drag.

At the end of Five Lost at Sea, Martin is to be seen petulantly tossing all of his expensive toys out of his luxurious pram and defiantly refusing to honour any of the obligations that made his whim possible in the first place.

I can't help thinking he's a product of his age. Indulged and infantilised by endlessly met desires, he has become a physical titan but an emotional imbecile. On a sea voyage where he was not only the captain but the only experienced sailor, he was solely responsible for the safety of others. Yet he was completely unable to devise and issue 'orders', as I believe they're called in this situation.

As a 'young person' I too was involved in several enterprises that were adventurous and risky and didn't have anyone over thirty within sniffing distance. It's not new. What is new is the absurd preciousness that youth activity has acquired to compensate for its complete failure to impart life lessons. Oh and there wasn't any 'girl germ' adolescent sexism in my youthful jaunts either.

PS Toshie still in shop and the ladies at the library getting a little tetchy.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Nothing is real

As Valentine's Day approaches, here's some cheery news from The Greek Reporter. Just when you thought that there was no confectionery Everest left unconquered, Greek Australian pharmacist Paul Xinos brings new meaning to the term 'iconic'. Or perhaps I mean 'ironic'. The terms are more or less interchangeable these days.

The strawberry, symbol of romance and pleasure has been reinterpreted for an audience who likes its metaphors ambiguity-free. This horticultural Einstein has perfected the heart-shaped strawberry.

Apparently the variation is achieved with an innovative combination of methodologies. It involves a physical process not a million miles from an ancient Chinese foot-binding technique and Barry Manilow on continuous rotation.

There will be no strawberries at Seat of Pants this weekend as I'm afraid D.I.V.O.R.C.E. proceedings are underway. Not from Barney I hasten to assure, although his zeal to perfect the heart-shaped sardine has been not a little disruptive. It has been worth it as he will be unveiling his new cocktail, the vodka sardini, at his Goblet of Fire chain this weekend. Needless to say, it's not for the faint-shaped heart.

The rift is between me and my erstwhile team of mentors at the Larrikin's End School Fine Arts and Advanced Macrame. I'm afraid I have woven my last Swiss cheese plant basket.

The rules about what you do and do not have to pay for in the Australian education system vary from year to year and register slightly above string theory on the difficulty of grasp scale. The comfort of string theory is that there are at least some people in the world who are solid on the basic principles. A cornerstone of my fiscal prudence strategy is never to agree to buy something from anyone who cannot tell you how much it will cost, at least to the nearest thousand.

The bottom line, quite literally, is that continuing with the course may have culminated in financial ruin on my part. Believe me, you do not ever want to cede the moral high ground and your ongoing viability to a hypoallergenic owly-cat you bought from a dodgy internet site. I have vowed to at least maintain autonomy over my purse-strings, even if I don't seem to have control over anything else.

I have to admit to a certain amount of relief. Although I often did quite well, this served more to confirm that my head was being severely messed with. It felt like mental cruelty a lot of the time. More on this later as, for the moment, Toshie is still in surgery and the Larrikin's End Municipal Library strictly limits internet access for reasons that are not clear as demand is confined to me and the occasional German back-packer.

As discerning Australians celebrate their deep and profound adoration for each other this year through the medium of parfait, I will be once again engaged in the conundrum of what to do with the rest of my life while serving a very fishy concoction to a band of seedy undesirables...

Monday, February 08, 2010

Bring me the head of light entertainment

Keystone Cops

Computer problems have stopped the presses this week. The Toshiba has gone in for surgery after collapsing, (exhausted - Sorry Toshie), on Friday afternoon, (i.e. when no help is available for 72 hours). Larrikin's End Municipal Library to the rescue. I was sitting in here browsing the morning papers and came across the sort of wag that instantly restores humour on a dreary Monday morning where the unwanted devouring of non-existent income is imminent.

Even international readers will be familiar with Australia's Gold Coast, famed mecca of tinsel and tat whose epicentre is Surfers Paradise. Turns out it has a police force to match its unparalleled reputation for tawdriness.

As a salve to the anxiety generated by continuous investigation for internal corruption, uniformed police devised a jolly jape to play upon their detective brothers. They dressed up as 'bandits' and staged a 'robbery' on a pharmacy that their colleagues were staking out. To their great surprise, tensions accelerated apace and they found themselves in a guns-drawn face-off.

The detail of their costume has not yet been reported but one can only assume it was not too much of a stretch for Gold Coast police to Stanislavski themselves into the role of drug-crazed pharmacy burglars.

Hopefully, I will have Toshie back tomorrow.

Friday, February 05, 2010

PJ Probe

Martin Clunes in Tesco ad from Daily Mail

This story is a few days old now. I've had a harrowing week (more later). British readers bear with me, I will try to find a new angle. Adored ones in Addis Ababa, Bad Homburg, Zaragoza and Puke, Albania, I intuit that you are sitting comfortably so I will begin.

Once upon a time there was a hideous monster called Tesco who single-handedly ruined the experience of buying food. It would herd courgettes, cucumbers and carrots onto horrid polyurethane beds, cover them with plastic, transport them for thousands of miles in stifling conditions and then shamelessly parade them in a market. It was humiliating for the vegetables and harrowing for the vegetable lover, who would often buy more than they needed out of pity and because the produce was very, very cheap.

So, this monster who devoured the gentle art of purchasing lovingly grown seasonal legumes for breathlessly anticipated dinner parties, hired a television star to impulse shop in his pyjamas. AND THEN turned the tables on ordinary folk seeking to emulate this star by refusing to serve them when they fronted up in their best winceyettes to stock up on Rottweiler mix and Embassy No. 1.  Come back Grendel, all is forgiven!

Incredibly, a decent hard-sleeping Mum has been shunned by the retail giant while attempting to buy cigarettes after dropping the kids off at school.  A more commendable mission is hard to imagine. Elaine Carmody of Cardiff, Wales explains following her expulsion from the sartorially exacting Tesco in St Mellons that she was just, "popping in for a pack of fags," but if she had been doing a full shop "then we obviously would have gone in clothed". She goes on to conjecture that there's not a lot of difference between full-length pyjama trousers and track suit pants. You'd have to concede that's a fair point. Although you might need to suspend a certain disbelief that one prepares oneself for the outside world with certain rituals, like putting on 'outside' clothes. 

There are times I think I was probably in Tesco really quite dishevelled, although I am reasonably sure I never appeared there in sleeping attire, which for me would have been 'the buff'. I once went to The Roebuck in Tottenham Court Road, I think for a Jesus and Mary Chain gig, in a pair of 1950s polished satin lounging pyjamas. I didn't get thrown out, although I did receive a gratuitous lager deposit courtesy of a fellow attendee.

There has only ever been one reason for Tesco to exist. It is cheaper than chips and opens even longer than a chip shop: 24 hours, six days a week. If you can turn a blind eye to animal, vegetable and possibly even mineral cruelty, you can bring yourself to admit that it is probably the best place to buy toilet paper and milk. I managed to do that for fully a quarter of a century because one does need toilet paper and milk and Tesco just happened to be the only supermarket within walking distance of my house. And it was open at the ridiculously odd hours I chose to run out of toilet paper and/or milk.

In the very recent past, milk was widely delivered throughout Britain to consumers' doorsteps. No one would have twitched a curtain should a neighbour appear in a full Carry On caricature negligee to claim that milk. Why then does the monster who controls the supply get to rule on the appearance of customers, given that they all pay the same price for their toilet paper, milk and mistreated vegetables in a democratic free-market economy? 


Thursday, February 04, 2010

Kookaburra gets free lunch

Kookaburra by Pants

Everyone's talking about the shock verdict in the Down Under copyright infringement case today. F Marshall Stacks covers the whole silly business very thoroughly here. As FMS points out, the 1932 song Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree, comprises an original lyric set to an old Welsh (anon)  folk tune and that tune is in the public domain, as it was in 1932. The judge, however, accepted Larrikin Music Publishing's ownership of the tune and was therefore able to find Men at Work had infringed copyright by quoting a few bars in a sub-melody. Not the main melody, mind, but a small section of an accompanying motif. 

There are a number of problems in this judgement for composers. Quoting from existing musical sources is an established tradition that goes back centuries. There was a time when composers where quite flattered by being imitated. It's right that individuals' ideas should have protection under law from the profiteering activities of others but this is a cynical case compounded by a spurious judgement which could have dangerous consequences.

Copyright rules are very clear. If you're intending to quote a recognisable section of music that is copyright protected, you must get permission and pay an agreed royalty for its use. Quoting is a form of shorthand. The suggestion of another piece of music brings with it its own musical references. It's only right that if you use someone else's work to add value to your own, there should be adequate compensation. 

But it's also possible to quote innocently, either by reaching into a subliminal memory or by accidentally stumbling upon the same sequence of notes as someone else has. Here the quote seems to fall into the first category. It's a tenuously small sample from a piece of music that is embedded into every Australian's subconscious. Perhaps the hint of Kookaburra does contribute to the song's Australian feel but you can't copyright a mood, surely. 

This case was brought retrospectively - thirty years after the Men at Work song was released and twenty years after Larrikin Music Publishing had acquired the copyright. In the interim, the song generated a lot of money. Larrikin is claiming 40-60% of royalty earnings. They're unlikely to get anything like that, but plenty of composers who are of the type that just wake up in the morning with a tune in their head have cause for worry. Do they have to start socking away 50% of their earnings in case someone matches up a few dots just as they're about to retire? It's an incredibly cynical application of a law that is designed to protect the rights of poor ditsy people who sit in their rooms all day eating peanut butter sandwiches and making up songs for our entertainment.

And finally, there's the vexed question of whether copyright can apply to material that has been in the public domain but then rebundled into a new work that qualifies as original. As FMS points out, the original content of Kookaburra was the lyric, none of which was used by Men at Work. The tune itself should not be eligible for protection. Has the judge inadvertently created a mechanism for locking common material into new ownership arrangements? If I decide to make a recording of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, do I then have to pay a share of the royalties to Alicia Keys? 

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The re-imagined wheel

Loligo Marypoppinus by Pants

Ralph Waldo Emerson supposedly said, 'if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a pathway to your door.' It isn't in any of his written papers. Apparently he ad-libbed it at a lecture and it was noted down by a journalist. The phrase is firmly cemented into our collective consciousness now. Should we thank this anonymous scribe? Probably not. The context of this proclamation is lost in the intellectual ether. For all we know, Emerson might have prefaced that remark with, 'wouldn't the world be a terrible place if everyone thought...'

All human ingenuity now seems directed to mousetrap improvement programmes, whether it's warranted or not. Anyone who has ever been tempted to try a new-fangled tin opener or jaunty vegetable peeler will know that some things are perfect just as they are. Ma Pants still uses the olive green vegetable peeler and wooden handled egg beater we grew up with and one or two kitchen items she inherited from her own mother. Of course she still has the canteen of cutlery she received as a wedding present. Even a drifter like Pants has a 70s Bamix and a collection of jumble find Le Creuset. I'll be buried with those.

At one time, the word 'durable' was applied to any product that wasn't a 'perishable'. Kitchen utensils were expected to last the length of an adult life. Perhaps now they're being manufactured to last the length of the average marriage, or possibly the duration of a kitchen refurb. I'm guessing you'd want your mouli julienne to match your benchtops if you were the type of person who walked into your kitchen in the morning and thought, 'I'm just not happy with the way this room looks.' 

There are so many household items whose basic design hasn't changed since antiquity. The shape of combs, hair fasteners, hand tools and most feasting paraphernalia is unaltered and often the materials are the same. Combs and buttons are no longer made from animal bones but glasses are still made of glass and crockery of clay. Every so often a renegade designer decides that a square bowl or cup seems like a good idea but people soon work out that hot liquids doing a Niagara down their chin and unextractable chunks of gooseberry fool are not the ideal finale for a dinner party and to the back of the cupboard they go.

I once had lunch at The Grosvenor and they had leaning tumblers that looked like miniature towers of Pisa. They were difficult to pick up, impossible to fill, uncomfortable to hold and, unless you concentrated much harder than a diner ought to be expected to, they fell over when you tried to put them down. It was like lunching on the set of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Hard to imagine the artistic motivation behind this miserable misère and it certainly reaped a string of unintended consequences. Everyone complained about the tumblers and asked that they be taken away and replaced with glasses that could stand up straight. It's the only thing I can recall about The Grosvenor. A negative impact like that can last a long time. 

The Museum of London was one of my favourite rainy afternoon places. It has a huge collection of Roman household items. When you realise that a device like the bathroom tweezer is thousands of years old - the Egyptians had them - you wonder how it's possible to make tweezers than don't actually work. Yet, in my experience, you need to buy fairly good tweezers if you expect them to triumph over your monobrow. How is it possible to make dysfunctional tweezers? 

Never mind building a better mousetrap, our combined intelligence would be better spent on streamlining ways to guarantee mousetrap quality. Enterprise is all very well but how much customer time and goodwill is lost to the pettiness of faulty products? Every time you buy a simple device, like a vegetable peeler, that you know should strip potatoes beautifully and last a goodly long while into the bargain and it falls apart the first time it comes up against a King Edward, you get cross and you express your crossness to a quivering, self-harming fifteen-year-old in a supermarket because there is no one else to vent to.

Recently I bought a lawnmower. It was cheap and I didn't expect it to John Deere its way into the middle of the century but neither was I expecting its plastic blade guard to explode spectacularly hitting me in the leg the third time I used it. When I took the shattered piece of plastic back to the shop, the salesperson casually remarked that he'd had lots back like this but unfortunately he couldn't get me a replacement because the company had gone bust and the mower was sold without a warranty. What! Is this legal? Well, apparently. After some mutual grumpiness was expressed on both sides, I agreed to pay a nominal amount for a custom metal guard to be made. It was a fair enough solution but I won't go to that shop again and every time I look at that mower, I stick a pin into a mental picture of that man. That's red ink on the karmic bottom line.

Is anyone measuring the cost to society of the broken trust and expended anxiety that accompanies almost every human transaction? I hardly ever believe anything anyone says to me unless I know them well. I obsessively grill people who presume to give me information and then usually seek a second source for verification. Every administrative task is like a Woodward & Bernstein investigation. I just can't afford to get caught out by small print, bodylined by a selling agent's ignorance, complacency or contempt. I buy as little as possible. I don't want to spend my time arguing with people about objects whose job it is to assist in food preparation or home maintenance, or protect my feet from shattered beer bottles.

What if the journalist who stenographed Emerson's soundbite missed the next sentence. Maybe Emerson qualified his appealing trope with a disclaimer like this, 'and that would just show how foolish the world is because everyone knows there are more important things in life than concerning ourselves with mousetraps.' 

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Toil and Trouble

Scene from Metropolis by Pants

I'm thinking of getting a little gold disc for around my neck with the words 'do not resuscitate' etched on it in sweet little curlicue script. One minute Matron is telling us 'mature' Australians we must run ourselves ragged to stay fit and healthy and the next Master is berating us for the future crime of living so long we'll be a drain on the state if we can't manage to navigate the complex work/life balance into extreme dotage to the benefit of GDP.

Dear Kevin, I do not intend to live to be 90, even if it is the new 80. In fact if intellectual life in this country gets any worse, I may be on a plane to Mexico before winter. I really don't think I can relive this Blair/Brown model of idiocy all over again. Yes, I have heard it all before, this hysterical, baseless earnestness to build a better world. The one we have is quite adequate provided it's kept regularly serviced.

They want us to work until we're 67 even though no one will employ us if we're over 50. They want us to live statistically longer but only if we're in perfect health and our retirement is self-funding. 

The Australian Government frets over everything, especially those things that might never happen. The population of this country is currently 22 million and is projected to rise to about 35 million by 2050, a situation which it claims is 'unsustainable'. You can see right away why this does not seem like much of a problem to me, but, putting aside my self-interest, I still think it's daft.

People are always telling me that England fits into the State of Victoria eight times. The population of Victoria is around 5 million and the population of England is more than 50 million. I have been over most of Victoria and quite a lot of it appears to be habitable. Even with 50 million people and a great many roads - the Romans were into infrastructure in a big way - there are still quite a lot of forests and meadows and dales and rivers left in England to frolic in, on and by and one or two cash crops as well. 

Dear Kevin - if you do run out of space some more people can come and live at my house. I could do with a few extra tomato eaters right now. It would help if one of them didn't mind a spot of mowing.

Another big money-draining fret is 'preventing' illness. It seems to me that if you are well then you are successfully preventing illness. But this is not good enough. Health professionals, and presumably the drugs companies who ensure their symptom 'awareness' levels are operating at peak efficiency, constantly campaign to get people to visit their doctor just in case one day there will be something wrong with them. The Americans are already trying to market lack of ill-health as medical denial.

'Fatigue' is an indicator for every possible disease. Consequently, it is frequently mistaken for notice of termination. I always think it's a good idea if I'm feeling tired to try to remember if I stayed up a bit late and/or had an inadvisable third glass of wine before racing off to the clinic. 

Dear Kevin - I'm unlikely to be a 'heavy user' of health services, no matter how long I live. I've been to a doctor twice in the last twenty years and one of those times was to get shots for India. You have permission to shoot me if my productivity quotient falls below acceptable levels.

I went for a job once in Britain for an older people's health project called 'Live Long and Prosper'. I didn't get it, even though I could do the Vulcan greeting with either hand.

There's an 'initiative' announced today from Government called the Productive Ageing Package which will apparently 'harness the tremendous skills and experience of older Australians'. According to Treasurer Wayne Swan, 

“This package provides practical support to older Australians who want to stay in the workforce by investing in quality job training for mature job seekers and supporting mature workers mentoring young Australians. We all benefit from the immense value that older Australians add to our workplaces and our economy, not just in terms of skills and work experience, but also life experience.”

This package is worth $43m. You can dick people about quite a bit with that sort of money and this is what will happen. Half of it will be spent on computers for the gormless third sector organisations that administer 'job services' for the Government. These people advise you to 'look in the local paper' and 'ask at all the shops' for stimulating employment. All very hi-tech. The computers are used to 'log on' to the same useless private sector recruitment agencies you can access at home. The other half of the money will go on 'assessment' (handing over your CV) and 'job training' (a choice between First Aid and Computing for Beginners).

Dear Kevin - if you appreciate our skills and experience so much, why are you always trying to get us to take up a different line of work? 

And life experience? Yes, young people will line up to hear all about your trip to Kuta in the 1970s before it went all hideously commercial and your recent bout with haemorrhoids, I can assure you my fellow maturies. Perhaps you could become a Golden Guru. This is a wonderful idea dreamt up by Cate Blanchett and her newborn baby Ignatius at a hugely expensive but very worthwhile conference in which notables who know nothing about anything were asked their views about absolutely everything. Basically, you get to work for nothing and be called a silly name.

Dear Kevin - wealthy people always like the idea of everyone else working for nothing. You don't really need to shell out for canapés to learn this.

It's impossible to take this stuff seriously. If the Government really wanted to create flexible employment opportunities for older people, it would put the money towards developing a system to distribute and manage online work. I'd be very happy if someone sent me out online editing to do for e.g. Plenty of organisations need it judging by the quality of the printed material that circulates these days. You try finding that sort of work. Impossible.

Dear Kevin - Why don't you give up trying to fix the future and get the tools to what's broken now. A stitch in time and all that. I would rather have my quality of life now rather than when I'm too ga-ga to enjoy it. 

I think I will get that little gold disc. I've always said if some disease wants me that badly, it can have me.  

Monday, February 01, 2010

Grey Matter

Boogie Wrinkly by Pants

Yesterday I was at the beach. Even though there are always quite a few other people around at this time of year, I like to think of myself as invisible. I've always thought it unseemly for a woman of a certain age to deport herself otherwise. This view has been confirmed by the macular-degenerating sight of the mutton-dressed-as-dolly-mixture teachers at the Larrikin's End Institute of Fine Arts and Advanced Macramé. Funky shoes, day-glo hair and Baby Jane make-up does little for my visual taste buds.

Picture me, modestly attired, out in the foamy sea on my boogie board trying not to lose my contact lenses. The waves are not big, but they're mean. They're receding faster than Prince William's hairline.

There's a steep trough on the shore. This means that the hastily departing wave leaves you suspended in the air like Wile E. Coyote for a second before depositing you, splat, on the hard sand. The trick is not to go in head first, like the boy next to me.

He gets up spluttering and cussing. His friend is laughing like a drain fish. The friend says,

'You need a proper boogie board like that old lady's got.'

How do I explain the cascade of emotions? Well, of course a thirteen-year-old boy is going to think of me as old. Thirty is probably old to this guppy. I console myself by recalling how Niece Pants thought I was a fully paid-up member of GenX. Thirteen year-olds simply do not have a true sense of the expanse of life. I'm not trying to look not old, after all. I'm just minding my delusion-free business. 

And what his friend says is absolutely true. Unless you can successfully audition for the part of Tinkerbell, you need a proper boogie board from a sports shop and not one from a pile near the checkout at K-Mart. I like to think there is some skill involved, otherwise I would find it hard to justify the years of making like a sea ostrich, but the unimpeachable truth is the better the boogie board, the better the ride. A decent boogie board is expensive but less than the price of a replacement contact lens.

Having shed my cloak of invisibility, I retreat to a place of safety beyond frisbee range to read. The beach is the reason the Kindle (stupid word) and the iPad (why did they name it after a sanitary product, pray?), will never replace the paperback. You can shake sand out of a book. 

I've started reading Unended Quest, Karl Popper's autobiography. I got it for $1.50 at a charity shop. It was marked $3 but when I got to the counter, the lady told me that the 'novels' were all half-price. I didn't argue. It does actually say 'autobiography' on the cover but perhaps she'd read it already and found it didn't square with her own recollections of young Karl. I think it was Tolstoy who said, 'if you want the truth, read fiction'. I guess life is pretty much all fiction now anyway.