Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Zamia Palm - A-Z Blog Challenge

These are photos of some other plants from the local park. They are known as zamia palms although they are not a palm at all.

The zamia palm (Macrozamia riedlel) is a Western Australian plant although there are other members of the cycad family in other parts of the country. With its crown of upright, glossy, dark green fronds it's handsome, isn't it. Relatively small for a cycad (those in the park are only around 3 metres high) it makes an attractive garden plant.

Mainly found growing on laterite soils as part of the understorey of in the jarrah forest, the zamia fruit was a very important part of the diet of the local Noongar people but, because like other cycads it is toxic, it requires careful and lengthy preparation to make it fit to eat. Called jeeriji by the Noongar, the zamia produces its pineapple like fruit during the Noongar season of Bunuru (February - March) when the people moved to the coastal areas to fish for mullet and mulloway. Conveniently, this also gave them time to process the fruit so they could eat the rich, oily seeds later in the season of Djeran (April and May) and build up their strength for the cold weather to come. There's a lot of interesting information on how bush tucker aligned with the seasons here.

As a complete digression, talking about Noongar seasons makes me wonder why we have never used them instead of the completely inappropriate Northern hemisphere seasons which seem to have little relationship to the actual weather here.

Back to the zamia palm. Some early explorers (one was Willem de Vlamingh) who ate the unprocessed fruit became ill as did some the first European settlers. As well when they arrived with their sheep and cattle they experienced stock losses due to "zamia staggers", a form of poisoning when the animals grazed on the plants. Yet another piece of a steep learning process for all, I guess.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Yellow - Jaune, Gelb, Giallo, Amarillo - A-Z Blog Challenge

Okay, that exhausts my knowledge of the word yellow in any language and in Italian and Spanish in particular - apart from also being able to say please, thank you, excuse me, hello, goodbye and a few honourifics like Mr, Mrs and Miss - represents pretty much the sum total of my knowledge of those two. I'm not even sure why I know amarillo is Spanish for yellow. It seems an unlikely thing to have come across but there you go, I must have heard it somewhere. And now I have Neil Sedaka's song Is This the Way to Amarillo? stuck in my head for some reason.

Okay, back to the subject. The thing is I like yellow in all its permutations. I find it cheerful and uplifting and I'm not the only one. It's generally regarded as a warm colour signifying strength and apparently it has a similar effect no matter what the depth of the shade. I guess that's part of the reason why I always gravitate to the colour and why my walls are painted in a pale, buttery cream. They still retain the qualities of pure yellow.

This liking of yellow goes through my family too. Virgo chose sunflowers for her wedding flowers and stunning they looked too. I was more conservative, but my bridesmaids wore yellow and I opted for frangipani blossoms, their yellow throats fitting in with the colour theme. The florist was not impressed - apparently frangipani is not a common flower for a bridal bouquet and quite hard to manage - but she pulled it off and they were as lovely as I imagined they would be.

When I was much younger, I used to wear a lot of yellow too. It suited me and lifted my spirits. Sadly, though, my skin tone has changed with age and, of course, I no longer work on acquiring a tan. Living as I do in a country with some of the world's highest rates of skin cancer, although I don't burn easily - I can only think of it happening three times in my life, and there were other factors like strong wind that exacerbated it even then - I "Slip, slop, slap" and cover up much more.

But, while I love yellow, I was astonished to find out that for some people it's very different. There are folk out there who see it as depressing and say it increases anxiety and frustration. I was really shocked to hear this because to me it is anything but that. Maybe I was the odd one.

So I went looking for information. It seems that colour psychology is still very much in its infancy - see here and here - and, while some findings (like the success of blue street lights used in parts of Glasgow to reduce crime) are often quoted there doesn't seem to have been much rigorous analysis of such anecdotal data so I'll be treating any suggestions with some scepticism.

Not everyone has my reservations. In the world of advertising, colour is taken very seriously. Certain colours are used to reinforce messages and attract attention so the message stands out. I'd like to believe we're not all that gullible but, hey, most people now believe that pink is THE girl colour and it is rammed into us that this is the colour all girls - and women - love and gravitate to. Obviously this is nonsense. I, for one, loathe pink and always have, but even more telling is the fact that at least as late as   the mid nineteen thirties pink was THE colour for boys because it was regarded as stronger and so more suitable for the male child.

The thing is, apart from personal responses - yellow cheers me while it may depress you - there are also cultural biases. For example in the Western cultures black is generally regarded as a sign of mourning, but in Cambodia white is. Then there's the black cat - well, take your pick of these contradictory beliefs. As far as I can see there are simply no universal associations with colour. I may be wrong but I guess until - or unless - something more definite is proven I'll just enjoy the colours I like.

So should I buy yellow cushions for the sofa? Yes, I think so.

Monday, April 28, 2014

X is for … A-Z Blog Challenge

Well, lots of things really and it was a walk in my local park, in which, as you can see, the plantings are all Western Australia native plants, decided me.

The group of lower growing plants in the photo above are xanthorrhoeas or grass trees and they are unique to Australia. With their sweeping leaves and a trunk that is often burnt black by bush fires, which also clear away the dead leaf growth, it has a strong sculptural shape that is prized in gardens, to the point that when land is cleared for housing developments they are dug out and sold.

Because they are very slow growing - it can take up to twenty years for a trunk to form from a seedling - transplanting mature specimens is the best way to introduce one to the garden. They need a substantial amount of their roots in the original soil around them taken with them because it contains mycorrhiza, beneficial microbes vital to their survival. Those in the park have been there for thirty years but, because they were transplanted as mature plants, many are probably closer to a hundred years old.

That's not all that's different about grass trees. Their trunk has a very unusual structure. The centre is hollow and surrounded by flat leaf bases with aerial roots growing down inside. The leaves are long (between 2 and 3 metres in length), thin - and unlike most other leaves, which are flat, they have a square shape, which measures approximately 3 ½  mm on each side nearest the trunk end to 1 mm at the tip, and they are hard and brittle (you can snap them like a twig with little effort). When we were children we used to pull them out of the centre of the crown and chew the white, soft ends. They were moist and slightly sweet, with a texture something like fresh coconut.

  Grass trees can be tall and upright like this one which is around        
                                                              4 metres high or can have multiple trunks and crowns as the one
                                                              below once had. It has lost one of its trunks to fire.

Grass trees are particularly spectacular when they flower. A long, cream blossom spike up to two metres in length shoots from the centre of the crown and eventually turns brown with a scaly covering which is the stage these, with spikes from multiple crowns, are at.

Here in south western Australia the local indigenous people, the Noongars, call the grass tree balga and it was important for them in many ways. The flower spike was used as a fishing spear and its flowers were soaked in water to make a sweet drink while the oozing sap was used in spear making and as an adhesive.

There are two other similar Australian plants, the kingia and dasypogons, which look very much like the grass tree but do not belong to the same genus.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Blog Subscribe to Comments Doesn't Work

Actually won't work seems to be more accurate. Ever I was kindly alerted - thanks Alison - I've been trying to fix it and so far I've had no success. I'm sorry for the inconvenience. I will get it fixed. I just don't know how long it's going to take. I'm going back to wrestle with it again now. Wish me luck.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Willy Wagtail - A-Z Blog Challenge

One of these delightful little birds claims our yard as part of his territory and I've been trying to get a photo but he's not easy to catch.                                      

Willy wagtails - Rhipidura leucophrys - are one of the fantails and they are sprightly, energetic little birds. With their black backs and white fronts they could be wearing tuxedos and they strut around, wagging their behinds, tails fanned upright. Since they are only between 19-21 centimetres (7 ½ - 8 ½ inches) in length you might expect them to be like so many other small birds, most of which are shy and retiring. Nope, not the willy wagtails. Apparently completely fearless, they'll take on anything. I've seen a pair of them dive bomb a raven (more than twice their size) and drive it off. They'll swoop any cat foolish enough to enter their territory too and apparently this noisy little bird is seriously intimidating because they - the cats that is - take off over the fence at speed. I've even watched willy wagtails stand in the middle of the road as a car bears down on them, facing it and chattering loudly until the last moment when they lift off only to keep on scolding from the side of the road.

If you're lucky enough to have one - or a pair - sharing your garden they'll supervise you when you're working, often darting down to grab an insect you disturb, which is pretty useful. Our little resident loves bathing in the bird bath and showering in the sprinkler, too.

Willy wagtails are very important in Aboriginal culture. The indigenous people from the south west area of Western Australia, the Noongar people (although you'll find many spelling variations), have many stories about the willy wagtail as do other Aboriginal  people. The Noongar name for it is djidi djidi or jitti jitti. It's very appropriate because it's a common sound they make although they also flute and sing. There's a comprehensive coverage of sounds here.

All in all they are engaging little birds and I for one find them fascinating.


Friday, April 25, 2014

The Valiant and the Brave - Lest We Forget - A-Z Blog Challenge

Today is Anzac Day in Australia, a public holiday that has echoes across time. Commemorating the landing by the Anzacs (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) at Gallipoli on 25 April, 1915, it's when we look back and remember all those have lost their lives in war. 

It's a solemn day with marches, dawn services and wreath laying ceremonies held across the nation and not only in Australia. Every year thousands of Australians go to Turkey where they gather at the Anzac Commemorative site and Lone Pine on the Gallipoli Peninsula for services on April 25 commemorating what turned out to be a disaster in terms of loss of life as a result largely of poor planning but a time of bravery for many of the troops pinned down for much of the time in what became known as Anzac Cove. The Gallipoli and the Anzacs website tells what happened in that grim period from the first landing until the withdrawal on 19 December, 1915. 

Anzac Day is no longer just about Gallipoli though. Services are held in France every year in memory of those who fought there too and now extends to remembrance of those who have fought and died in the wars since World War 1.

There has been quite a change in regard to Anzac Day since I was a young woman. In those days it was only veterans who attended the dawn services and who marched in the Parade. This meant the young were less engaged and less appreciative of what had happened and the enormous sacrifices made  by so many. That's changed now and I think that's a good thing. It shows in the crowds of young people going to Turkey and that leads to a growing awareness of what war really means. I doubt you'd find young men going to join up now as a bit of lark but in the early days of World War 1 that's what many thought. By all means fight to protect your country if it's unavoidable but don't go off thinking it's going to be the adventure of a life time. War is a dangerous and dirty business and anyone who goes to fight in one should know exactly what they're committing to and why and Anzac Day provides a chance to reflect on what war is truly like.

When I was in Canberra last year I visited the Australian War Memorial for the first time. It was a profoundly moving experience as I moved along the walls inscribed with so many names searching for those of my great uncle, Horace Chamberlain King MC, who died of wounds 1918 aged just 22, and my uncles, John and Robert Ellis, both of whom died as a result of their war service with the RAAF.

I took these photos there. 

 This is the central courtyard with the Pool of Reflection
                                                                     where the Eternal Flame (pictured below) almost seems to
                                                                     float in its dish on the water.

                                                   The Eternal Flame

The Roll of Honour
The red is from the multitude of red paper poppies which have been placed by visitors in niches in the bronze plaques bearing the names of the dead.

The experience was saddening and deeply moving as I looked at the plaques with so many young lives cut short.

 Lest we forget.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Unicorns and Rhinoceros - A-Z Blog Challenge

I've got a bit of a thing about unicorns, especially this kind.

The photo is of a silvery grey fridge magnet given me by a friend who knows my weakness for these mythical creatures. Lovely, isn't it. It raises my spirits every time I see it.

This is one of what we tend to view unicorns as today - all elegant with a sleek racehorse body, flowing mane and tail and a glorious twisted horn in the centre of its forehead - although, unlike this one, they were traditionally white. There were earlier versions, though,where the body was more like that of a goat and it had cloven hoofs.

The most interesting things about the unicorn to me, though, are its universality and its ancient roots.
For example, there's the Chinese quilin which, admittedly, apart from its horn, bears little resemblance to the European unicorn. Then there's the Japanese kirin which is more like the European version.

But if we look back the earliest known image of unicorns (which may, however, just be a side on representation of a bull showing only one horn) is from stone seals found in the Indus Valley and dating from 2500 BC. Moving forward in time the ancient Greeks certainly believed in the existence of one horned animals, recording two quite different creatures both of which they described as living in what to them was the mysterious and exotic country of India.

The European idea of the unicorn came in part from the Biblical descriptions of a fierce and untameable one horned animal, the re'em, and those ancient writings but was also influenced by the Germanic legends of the Einhorn. It changed into something different with the Middle Ages when it took on Christian symbolism on one hand, while also being linked with courtly love on the other.

From the Renaissance on images of the unicorn appeared all over the place. It showed up in heraldry, on royal and national coats of arms like that of the UK, in fakery - narwhale horns were sold as purporting to be from unicorns, in fiction and art and even in this children's nursery rhyme dating from around 1707 which Lewis Carroll used as part of Alice Through the Looking Glass :

"The lion and the unicorn
 Were fighting for the crown.
 The lion beat the unicorn
 All around the town.

 Some gave them white bread,
 And some gave them brown,
 Some gave them plum cake
 and drummed them out of town."

All this may make us forget that we do still have living unicorns that may well be what the original stories were based on if the extraordinarily inaccurate representations of other creatures during the Dark and Middle Ages are anything to go on. These are the rhinoceros of India and Java and, sadly, it seems that some people still harbour fantastical beliefs about the magical qualities of their horns because they - and their two horned relatives in Africa and Sumatra - are under threat. Poachers slaughter them to take their horns mainly for use in traditional medicine in Asia (something for which there is no scientific evidence that it works) but also for use as dagger handles in Yemen and Oman This has led to three of the five species being critically endangered.

Many ways are being tried like making trade in rhinoceros horn illegal, armed patrols of national parks and game preserves, anaesthetising the animals and removing their horns and captive breeding programs. Most interesting is a new method which comes from research into ways to apply a tick prevention treatment. The horns of live, wild rhinos are infused with an antiparasitic drug to kill ticks and further experiments are being carried out with adding an indelible dye (which is visible even in minute quantities under x-ray). The tick treatment is harmless to rhinos and other creatures in their environment but is toxic to humans, causing nausea, diarrhoea and possible convulsions to anyone who ingests it which, to me, seems only fair in the circumstances.

The truth is that if the current rate of poaching and human encroachment on their habitat continues, the rhinoceros may soon really be gone and forgotten as anything but a myth in only a few years. What a loss that will be.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tiddlywinks and Other Games - A-Z Blog Challenge

Heaven knows why I thought of tiddlywinks. I haven't played it since I was a child and even then it wasn't a game I really enjoyed. As far as I remember it was one of those games that was given to us when we were quite young, we tried a few matches and rapidly lost interest. I'm not even sure if we grasped the rules and the flipping of the "winks"  - small plastic discs - with "squidgers" - slightly larger discs - by pushing down on the edge of a wink so it flipped up and landed in the pot was probably too much of a challenge for small fingers.

In those pre-television years games of all sorts were very popular. On weeknights we'd have homework and early nights but Friday and Saturday were most often family nights when we would be allowed to stay up later. When I look back I don't recall my parents going out much although they must have. I do remember being tucked up in blankets on the back of Dad's truck on summer evenings when they went to square dancing held under the stars in the summer at the local school and occasionally going to visit neighbours or family. Apart from that Dad was always going to some sort of night class and Rostrum (a public speaking organisation while Mum belonged to the local church mothers' group and met up for lunch regularly with "the  girls" (some of them her cousins and others friends from her school days). For the rest most of their - and our - lives seemed to revolve around home and family. We'd go to the drive in "pictures", head out into the bush for picnics and there was a continual stream of people who dropped in for meals.

Other than that, at least until we were in our older teens, home was where we spent most of our time and that's when the games came out. They were many and varied. We loved card games like rummy, the children's version not gin rummy - gambling was always frowned on - and patience, better known now as solitaire due to the US influence that came with rise of computers. I particularly liked patience and, thanks to my grandmother and great aunts, knew a lot of games and played them often. You can imagine my delight when I got my first computer and discovered them on it. I play it now as often as I did as a child.

Then there were the board games - Chinese checkers was a favourite, as was draughts, the same game as the US checkers. I didn't discover chess until I was an adult, which is probably why it has never gripped me - apart from my inability to think strategically enough to win a game, of course.

As well there were the commercial board games, Monoply and Scrabble being our favourites - and I still play Scrabble on a daily basis but these days it's online.

While these old pleasures are still available and you can still buy board games, they are losing ground. In this computer age when even toddlers have access to tablets and computer games have become very sophisticated, Saturday evenings sitting around playing games as a family is disappearing and with it the human interaction that was such a big part of it. I may be showing my age but I think that is a great pity.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Steampunk - A-Z Blog Challenge

Never heard of it? Nor had I until a friend introduced me to a whole sub genre of speculative fiction  - punk fiction. Steampunk sits there with cyberpunk - usually set in a future world involving cyberspace and AIs (it stands for artificial intelligence), and a number of other "punk" writings like clockpunk - a world where technology is based on clockwork and biopunk - about genetically engineered people and many more. It's a sub genre that seems able to produce an infinite variety of alternative worlds.

Of them all, though, steampunk like this and this attracts me most. It's glamorous for a start. Dress is based - somewhat loosely - on Victorian fashion although I suspect the good Queen would be horrified at the sight of women, who, not infrequently, are wearing exposed corsets and may have plunging necklines and skirts that show leg - quite a bit of leg. She would probably have approved of the hats although I'm not so sure of the jewellery which often displays internal machinelike workings. But these corsets are not undergarments and most steampunk fashion is elegant as well as fun.

For men there are just as many inventive ways to outfit themselves. Goggles and helmets are popular as is gadgetry like this that looks as if it might have a purpose or magnifying glasses and often other tools (never yet invented or likely to be) hanging from a belt. Fantastical walking sticks and pocket watches are popular too.

The fashion aspect of steampunk has led to it being very popular for cosplayers (people who dress up  and attend conventions) and there are even groups who meet regularly dressed in their finery and act out living in their own steampunk world.

There's more to steampunk than fashion, of course. It posits an anachronistic world where steam powers everything and that can be from computers to machinery. Travel is by steam train, steam driven carriages, dirigibles and often other vehicles that only exist in the fertile mind of the author. The best steampunk builds a complete world that has a feeling of the Victorian era but goes off on its own tangent to include an alternative history that never happened.

I have to admit the alternative history was difficult for me to accept at first. My background is in history - I have a degree in it - so it was hard to keep myself in the story when I came across obvious anachronisms. Once I got past that, though, I started to enjoy the romp. The trick, I found, was to make myself remember this is fiction. It is not reality and as long as the story has integrity and the world building is meticulous I can let myself enjoy the ride.

If you're tempted to try it you might find Richard Harland's steampunk novels Worldshaker, Liberator and Song of the Slums a good way to start. While they are YA I thoroughly enjoyed them. He has an excellent summary of what steampunk is here too.

You can find a list of steampunk authors and their novels here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Royal Visitors - A-Z Blog Challenge

So our royal visitors - Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge and little Prince George - have been and visited - and a very lovely family they seem to be. It's good that they come to show the royal flag given Australia is a constitutional monarchy with the Queen at its head and while this is the case they should come here. Whether we should remain a constitutional monarchy is another question altogether which I won't talk about here.

What I want to talk about is the way the royal visitors were talked about in the press and other media. While I understand the fascination with the Duchess of Cambridge - she's a very beautiful young woman with a lovely manner, Prince William and their son - and who doesn't love a baby - it all seems so superficial.

The first article I read was in the newspaper. About the length of half a newspaper column it began with a detailed description of what the Duchess was wearing - five paragraphs in all down to what designer she had chosen - and with a gratuitous reference to Diana, Princess of Wales, having chosen to patronise the same designer - including her shoes, hat and jewellery and noting the skirt of her coat blew up exposing her legs. Wow! Who'd have thought a duchess could have a wardrobe malfunction, however trivial. Then we had a description of little George - not entirely accurate to judge by the photo but who cares about a few minor details. By now we have only one more paragraph to go. This briefly addresses the welcome ceremony by unnamed dignitaries and the next stop on their itinerary.

And that's it. Apart from his name in the first paragraph and again in the last Prince William doesn't rate a mention. I find this bizarre. This is the son of the Prince of Wales, he's representing the Queen and almost all a newspaper can report on is the clothes his wife is wearing. If this is what people want to read it's a sad indictment on us but I really don't believe it is all we want. I honestly believe - maybe that should be hope - that most of us are not that shallow. I certainly am not.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Quokka - A-Z Blog Challenge

I seem to be a bit fixated on wildlife lately, don't I, but all these amazing creatures that surround us are  so fascinating and none more than the quokka. Have look at this and this and you'll see what I mean. Sweet little creatures, aren't they.

The quokka is a small, brown furred marsupial, about the size of domestic cat. They are found mainly on Rottnest Island (just a few kilometres off the coast from Perth in Western Australia). There are a few more small colonies in the bush and on islands off the coast in the south west of the state but they, like so many of our small natives animals, are under threat from feral cats and dogs and foxes, not to mention natural predators like hawks and dingos. As a result their status is listed as vulnerable.

At least those on Rottnest don't have to contend with introduced enemies because, while it is a popular holiday destination, the island is also an A class reserve (and has been since 1917) and none of these introduced animals have been allowed to establish there. Rottnest was actually named for the quokka. In 1696, when Willem de Vlamingh was sent by the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) to find any survivors from their missing vessel, the Ridderschap van Holland, he and his crew landed on the island. He named it Rotte Nest after what he took to be large rats. Mind you, how he could have come to that conclusion I don't know. Anything less rat-like is hard to imagine. They actually look like small, stockily built kangaroos.

The quokkas have been there right through Rottnest's chequered history since European settlement, from the beginning when it was used for farming and a holiday place for the Governor and his officials to later serving as a gaol for Aboriginal prisoners. Although the prison closed in 1904, this shameful part of the island's history still resonates today since many of the prisoners (a large number of whom came from the north of the state and suffered greatly from the cold) died of disease and were buried on there. It's hard to conceive of how hard it must have been for them.

Since then (except for the war years of 1940-1945 when it was it was used by the military) the island has been a popular place for recreation with its soft buff heritage buildings one of its trademarks - originally they were whitewashed but the strong Western Australian sun created too much glare.

Through all these changes the quokkas have remained. Because they are protected they are very tame. In fact one of the few problems of staying on the island is ensuring they don't hop in through open doors for a visit. The last time I stayed there one little mother with a joey at foot knew very well there was a drip from the hot water system in the back yard of the cottage we were staying in. She'd wait until someone left the gate open for a minute and then they'd hop quickly in, through the cottage and out to the drip. There they would have a drink and graze for a while then wait patiently until the doors were opened and they could leave. It's just as well the cleaners come around after the cottages are vacated or, especially in the off season, the quokkas could be there for some time, though with plenty of grass and water I doubt they'd be too worried.

Quokkas are macropods like kangaroos and are herbivores. They are described as mainly nocturnal but, on Rottnest at least, you will see them during the day as well. In protected habitats like Rottnest and Bald Island they have no fear of humans and will come very close to people. To protect them there are very strict laws. On Rottnest, for example, anyone handling them in any way can be fined anything from $300 - $2000.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Parsnips - A-Z Blog Challenge

I spent all my childhood and into middle age convinced I hated parsnips. Those long roots, something like a creamy coloured carrot (albeit not quite the same shape), were to my mind the same as the turnips which my mother would periodically serve up as a boiled vegetable. Now she was a good cook and they were not overcooked, and served with a buttery sauce I'm sure some folk would love them. I was not one of them. I'm still not.

The other way turnips were used was as a part of the vegetables for soup along with parsnips (as I now realise these were the big coarse ones that were past other uses), carrots (ditto), celery and onions and I think this is where I got confused. These soggy white lumps would be ladled into the bowl along with the other vegetables and to me they were both the same. In view of my vehement complaints, eventually Mum would cook the parsnips and turnips in large pieces and only give them to the rest of the family. Everyone was happy.

Then I was having lunch with a friend one day and she ordered parsnip and pear soup and, for some reason, I had a taste. Oh my goodness! It was delicious. I was entranced and came home determined to work out how to make it. Wow! I got creative, fiddled with the recipe and apple and parsnip soup was born. Then I found a recipe for parsnip mash. I decided they'd probably be just as yummy roasted. They were. Nothing could stop me then and now parsnips are an important part of our winter menu, often taking the place of the ubiquitous potato. Who'd have thought it.

Here is my recipe for:

Apple and Parsnip Soup

(makes approximately 2 1/2 litres because we like it thick but you can add more stock if you like)

1 1/2 litres of vegetable stock - I make it with one of better quality stock cubes
2-3 largish parsnips, peeled and cubed
1 large onion, sliced roughly
A little butter or margarine
700-800 grams of apples in natural juice (of course, you can cook your apples from scratch if you prefer)
Parsley, chopped, optional for garnish (it also provides a nice flavour hit)
Salt and pepper

Bring the stock to the boil and cook the parsnips until just tender. Soften the onion using as little butter or margarine as possible. Add the onions and apples to the parsnip and stock mixture and heat through. Process the mixture in a blender until smooth. Adjust the seasoning if necessary and add extra boiling water if necessary to get the consistency you like. Serve topped with chopped parsley if liked - and I sometimes add a swirl of natural Greek yoghurt.

Confession: if I'm pressed for time I microwave the parsnips in some of the stock along with some dried onion flakes, then add the apple and a heaped teaspoon of butter and heat through before blending. It's still pretty good.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Octopuses - A-Z Blog Challenge

And not just any octopus. These are exceptional and their colouration makes them even more spectacular. It is the blue ringed octopus and this video gives a good - if slightly over top - idea of how it looks and behaves.

It's fair to say that Australia is very light on as far as large land predators are concerned. Since the extinction of the thylacine in the 1930s - although there are still occasional reports of possible sightings none have been actually proven to exist since the death of what was apparently a female in Hobart Zoo - the only large apex predator in Australia is the dingo, our wild dog. There are marine predators, of course, but most of them are visitors like the great white sharks and orcas.

On the other hand, like anywhere else in the world, we do have other nasties that can cause much distress or even death. Many of these are very small - and this little critter is one of them.

In the octopus world the blue ringed octopus is tiny. Their bodies range from 5-7 centimetres - about the size of a golf ball - and their tentacles are approximately the same length, depending on  species. You can see just how small one is here where it's shown in comparison to a finger tip.

They occur all along Australia's southern and Pacific coast and through the tropics as far north as Japan, living on shallow reefs and in tidal rock pools. Beautifully camouflaged at rest with dark brown to black rings shapes on a  beige/ grey background they blend in among the rocks, hiding in crevices and mostly coming out in the evening to feed. To catch small crustaceans and the occasional fish they employ a neurotoxin - tetrodotoxin, the same as that found in puffer fish and some poison dart frogs. This is 1200 times more powerful than cyanide and could easily kill and adult, let alone a child. It induces motor paralysis, leaving the victim conscious but unable to move or speak, and leads to respiratory failure. Death results from lack of oxygen to the brain.

Fortunately for humans, the blue ringed octopus is docile and unless it is provoked or trodden on it's not  interested in attacking you. And this is just as well for me because, when I was a child, my family used to go to the south coast for our summer holidays. My brother and I would spend many happy hours roaming the rocky coastline armed with buckets which we filled with seaweed, water and any small creatures we could find in the tidal pools. Our parents ensured we returned them within a few hours but in the meantime we spent a few happy hours studying our catch.

Of it, our absolute favourites were the tiny octopuses that we found almost in every pool. Their ring markings would turn dark blue and pulse while the rest of their body changed colour according to what was around them. Pursued, they would speed across the pools, tentacles streaming behind them. We found them fascinating and tried to scoop them out with a tin can or beach spade. They were very quick so we weren't often successful and we were discouraged by our parents from touching because we might hurt them - fortunately because no-one had any idea then that they could be a danger.

I can vouch for the fact that they are docile, though, because I can't remember one of them going a stage further than their rings turning a rich blue and, despite the stress we undoubtedly put them under, they never showed the bright yellow body and iridescent blue rings that shows up in the myriad of photos on the internet. They were far more intent on hiding.

So, do we need to worry much about the blue ringed octopus? I don't think so. You are more likely to die out for a drive on the road. There have only ever been three reported deaths and, according to what I've discovered while reading up about them, urgent medical intervention with mouth to mouth resuscitation until a ventilator can be used is usually an effective treatment. This doesn't mean they're not dangerous but as long as you avoid handling them - and not going into tidal pools barefoot would probably be sensible - you should be safe enough.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Numbats - A-Z Blog Challenge

This beautiful creature is the faunal emblem of Western Australia. Also known as a banded anteater, marsupial anteater or walpurti, it used to be widespread across much of southern Australia. Now, sadly, it's endangered and is only found naturally in a few scattered colonies in the south west of Western Australia although, thanks to captive breeding programmes like this one at Perth Zoo, they have been reintroduced to a few other sanctuary areas in the south west, South Australia and New South Wales. Along with habitat destruction, feral cats and foxes have also contributed to its current parlous state and to counter them there has been intensive baiting (with 1080, a poison derived from native vegetation which doesn't affect native animals but is effective against feral animals) and efforts made to protect the existing colonies within the sanctuaries. As to whether this will be enough to save the species - well, I guess, we will just have to wait and see.

Between 35 and 45 centimetres (15-18 inches) in length the numbat ranges in colour from a soft grey to dark red with 4-11 white stripes across its back. They also all have a distinctive black stripe that runs from the tip of the muzzle across the eyes to the base of the ears. Because termites are their only food - and one thing we have a lot of in Australia is termites - unlike many marsupials the numbat is diurnal. This is because it isn't strong enough to dismantle termite nests, although it can dig out the shallow subterranean tunnels, so it it feeds at times of the day when the termites leave the nest which are daylight.

And just because I think if one numbat isn't enough have a look at these adorable babies being hand raised as part of the captive breeding programme at Perth Zoo. And then there are these little sweethearts at play.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Magpies - A-Z Blog Challenge

My friend and fellow writer, Laura E. Goodin, is posting what she is grateful for as daily Lenten exercise on Facebook and she put up this lovely clip of an Australian magpie singing as part of it. This is only a small sample of their wonderful song. It's even more spectacular on moonlit nights here when the magpies carol for hours in glorious cadences. Breathtakingly beautiful. They are also excellent mimics. This one is interspersing its song with barking, sirens and other birds' songs but many are better. One living in the park near us can spend a full thirty minutes without repeating itself using its extensive repertoire of sounds like people talking, dogs barking, cats miaowing, lawn mowers, the school siren and much, much more.

The Australian magpie's habitat is widespread and they are plentiful in towns where many become very tame, especially those in parks. Although it's frowned on - because the birds may become dependent on humans - many people feed them and the magpies become very friendly. We don't feed them but the local tribe is so tame that they'll come into the garden when I'm working and snaffle up any creature that's exposed. I'm always pleased to have them there because they do a great pest control job.

I'm a real fan of maggies because, at various times when I was growing up, we had them living with us. These birds had been injured and couldn't fly so weren't able fend for themselves and they were brought to live in our large backyard. Because they normally live in family groups they made us and our dogs their family. They were very affectionate, climbing onto our laps when we sat outside and caressing us or riding on our shoulders as we went about our business.

Playful and highly intelligent, they delighted in tricks. One would steal small items from the laundry basket when Mum was hanging out the washing, run a short distance then call out. When she looked around, it would scamper off under the house where it would sit talking away until she left off trying to entice it out. Then it was out to do the same again. There must be quite a heap of socks there still because they never came out. Another delighted in teasing my grandmother who lived with us. When she went to plant seedlings it would wander around chatting to her as she worked. She'd think how sweet, then it would drop back to just far enough to be out of her reach, warble loudly, grab one of the newly planted seedlings and race off with her in pursuit. She never caught it.

While they are all territorial birds one of our residents took it to a whole different level. She claimed our entire backyard as her territory and at certain times of the year, after making sure the dog was nearby, she'd stand in the middle of the lawn calling challenges. Naturally, the neighbouring flocks would take offence and fly in to attack. Then Maggie would squawk loudly, the dog would race to her rescue and drive them off and after a short break, it would all happen again. This wasn't surprising as both our magpies had close relationships with our dogs. They would play together for hours like the dog and magpie in this clip and one would ride on the dog's back with no sign that the dog disapproved.

Not everyone has such a friendly relationship with magpies though, because in nesting season they can be aggressive in protecting their nests. They are quite selective in whom they attack - although I've never been attacked my daughter was dive bombed repeatedly once as a child while wearing her pink bicycle helmet and never at any other time - and conventional wisdom is that at some time in the past they've been harmed by someone who looks like the person being attacked. They certainly have excellent memories so it's entirely possible. As they're largish birds - 34 - 44 centimetres ( 14 - 18 inches) in length - with long sharp beaks they can do some real damage if they connect but for the most part they are more intent on scaring the person off.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Looking For Daddy by Patty Jansen - AWWC 2014 (part of the A-Z Blog Challenge)

I saw the description of Looking for Daddy on Patty Jansen's website and couldn't resist the premise. Well, could you? Tom and his mother have been left alone taking care of their family farm for the last three weeks ever since Daddy and the other volunteer fire fighters left to fight the fires in the city. But these weren't any ordinary fires. Their purple smoke seems to have killed the trees and both the farm and the rest of the town have had no contact with the outside world since the smoke subsided. Then there are the reports of weird things happening. Inanimate objects are coming to life and behaving in frightening ways - like the hammer that smashed up a workshop, roads bubbling and demanding payment of tolls and nothing seems safe any more. When Tom befriends a strange creature and finds a crude map he realises he has to find his father in the city before anything else goes wrong and so begins a perilous journey.

I loved this novella. Patty Jansen says it's the strangest thing she has written. It is certainly very different from her other work (which I also love) but it gripped me. The implications of the upheavals are wide ranging, reaching beyond Tom's journey and into the community. Those left behind and isolated are inevitably deeply affected and order begins to break down as the strange happenings escalate, becoming more and more threatening. Bizarre as they are, I had no difficulty in accepting them and I was engrossed as Tom and his strange companion made their way to the city.

Despite the youth of Tom, the protagonist in Looking For Daddy, this is not a children's story. There are some very dark moments and I'd agree with the author that it's really not suitable for those under fifteen.

Looking For Daddy is available as a paperback and and e-book and the author's website gives links to where you can buy it.

Patty Jansen is a writer based in Sydney, Australia. She is a writer of adult, YA and middle grade children's fiction. She blogs at Must Use Bigger Elephants and is on Facebook.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Knights and Dames - A-Z Blog Challenge

So our Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, announced recently that there would be a change in the system of honours we've had in Australia since 1975 when the Order of Australia was instituted. The change is that the categories of Knight and Dame have been reinstated in the Order of Australia. This switch is seen by many of us as anachronistic. After all, what was wrong with the previous system?

Well nothing really. It's been in place for quite a while and apparently working well. Here's a brief history. It's necessary because some people have been saying that Knights and Dames were always part of the Order of Australia but this isn't really true. In its original 1975 form as proposed by the Prime Minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, and accepted by the Queen, there were only three levels of the Order of Australia - Companion (AC), Officer (AO) and Member (AM). When Malcom Fraser became Prime Minister the following year he advised the Queen to institute the categories of Knight (AK), Dame (AD) and Medal of Australia (OAM) and this was done.

Things stayed like that until 1986 when the Queen and then Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, co-signed letters patent abolishing the categories of AK and AD. So we no longer had Imperial honours. We had our own. We were and remain a constitutional monarchy - the Queen of England is also Queen of Australia - but we had begun to find our own place in the world and this seemed a sensible move.

So why the change now? Well, no-one seems sure. There certainly hasn't been any real agitation for it from the public. Apparently the decision to recommend the change was that of Tony Abbott, who is an avowed monarchist, and the selection will be made by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Council for the Order of Australia, which I presume means it will be the Prime Minister who makes the final decision.

We will just have to wait and see how it works out, I suppose, although for me it seems as if we are being dragged back into the past and while nostalgia can be pleasant I'm not sure it is necessarily a good thing.

You can find out more about the Order of Australia here.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Jolly Japes - A-Z Blog Challenge

Well, not really. It was my wander down Memory Lane with the Argonauts Club and the proximity to Anzac Day that started me thinking about that. The thing is I was grew up in a very different society from the one we live in now. Oh, the location was the same - apart from when I lived in London for a short time - I've always lived in Western Australia, most of the time within 15 minutes of where I do now - but the world had been scarred by war and society had been irrevocably been changed even if it took some time for all of what had changed to become apparent. Rebuilding a society is a lengthy business and, in the end, it turned out to be different from what many expected.

In the meantime we looked back to what seemed an idyllic pre-war world. In Australia, this, at least for children, tended to be a nostalgic view back to the post-depression but pre-war England of the thirties. If you were a reader like me, this meant a steady diet of Enid Blyton - The Famous Five and The Secret Seven mostly - and books about boarding school where girls had splendid adventures and didn't behave like"early Victorian milksops". As well - and this is where the "jolly japes" came from because it often used language that had long gone out of fashion - I was the weekly recipient of School Friend, a combination of comics and stories, again largely boarding school based. School Friend had its roots back in the twenties and thirties, had had a hiatus during the forties and resumed publication again, with no apparent connection to the real world of the time - England still had food rationing in place after all - in 1950. Hardly a preparation for the brave, new world we were to enter as we became adults now I think about it.

So let's look at post-war World War II Australia. The men came back slowly, many not finally demobbed until 1947, and many of them brought their demons with them. Just one example: I remember in about 1959 when we were visiting a family for the first time. I was sitting quietly listening to the adults, when the conversation turned to food and somehow the subject of rice came up. The conversation stopped abruptly.

"I won't have that stuff in the house," said one of the men. 

I may have been young but I was still able to realise there was something more to this than there seemed on the surface. One of the women whispered to my mother and the conversation moved away. I was puzzled so later I asked about it. It turned out he had been a prisoner of war in Burma and, for him, white rice - the only food they were given - was a trigger for horrific memories. Being young and knowing nothing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - who did in those days - I couldn't understand it.

Looking back, though, I realise how many others there were like him with deep psychological issues or physical disabilities because he was only one of the damaged men, lucky enough to survived the war only to suffer in peace time. Some turned to drink or became violent in their inability to cast off their experiences. Still more - the majority - got themselves together and soldiered on like two of my uncles who were stationed in Darwin while it was being bombed - and never talked about the horror of aircraft bombardment. According to them - when they talked about it at all - it was funny incidents, nothing to worry about. Then there were the war widows and their children and the terrible loss they endured. 

In immediate post-war Australia there were problems. So many men had perished and others were damaged, housing was in acutely short supply and, despite WW2 being over, no-one could feel completely at ease with the looming communist threat posed by the Soviet Union so it wasn't an entirely comfortable place. The British Empire still stretched across much of the world and it wasn't only our Anglophile Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, who still thought of England as the motherland.

I suppose it was hardly surprising then that people looked back to a world where everything was settled, everyone knew their place, folk lived in quaint villages and everyone knew and cared for everyone else - a nostalgic fantasy world that had, in fact, never existed. A world in which "jolly japes" was right at home.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Islands - A-Z Blog Challenge

I have a friend who keeps sending me advertisements about islands for sale or lease. I know why she does. We share similar feelings about city life, only living in one from necessity. We're not alone. The idea of slipping off to an island where no-one could interfere with you and you could live as you please must be one of the oldest dreams of mankind, at least since our lives got tied up with laws, regulation and red tape. A deserted island, somewhere with no-one breathing down your neck, watching you, making you conform. What could be better?

Actually, a lot of things. I'm a modern woman. I want good health care, schools, a chance to interact with others when I want, someone to take of me if I become unable to look after myself (well the last may be a tad optimistic given the way our current government is cutting things). So maybe not deserted. Maybe not even uninhabited. Perhaps I need something that gives me access to all these things and still allows me to feel free, somewhere I can have a lifestyle that doesn't involve living in a city, where I can feel that I could survive without civilisation if I wanted to or had to.

With that in mind I give you these.

Tanera Mor is a small inhabited island in the Inner Hebrides and apparently there's a tourist business as well. Might be a teensy bit chilly in winter but I'm sure we could get around that.

Then there's this unnamed island in Khora in the Aegean Sea, only 30 minutes by speed boat from Athens. A hefty price tag and possibly no water source but, hey, if I could afford to buy it I'm pretty sure I could afford to put in tanks. I saw an an amazing documentary on how the Romans made Capri habitable with gigantic underground cisterns. If they could do it so can we. Right?

And here's a whole bundle of them. This is from a couple of years ago so some might be off the market but who knows. You may be lucky.

They all sound great, don't they. When I win the Lotto I'll buy one. You can come and visit if you like.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

H.E.M.P. - A-Z Blog Challenge

It stands for Help End Marijuana Prohibition and is the name of a political party. Yes, really. And with the Senate election re-run in Western Australia they have assumed an importance they would not have otherwise had. Given when they were registered as a political party in 2006 ( they had been registered before but were deregistered because they had a membership of less than 500) they had only had 508 members it's not surprising I hadn't heard of them before. Maybe that should be I hadn't been aware of them before because it turns out they have been in existence since 2000. I'm guessing that if they had put up candidates I would have relegated them to the bottom of my voting list along with the other one issue parties and forgotten about them.

But here they are turning up in the WA Senate re-run election. You'll find a summary about this debacle here but basically what happened was that during the election count for the Senate in 2013 approximately 1400 votes went missing and have not been found despite a massive search and an enquiry. As a result the Court of Disputed Returns has ordered WA voters back to the polls to re-run the Senate election and we had to vote on April 5. I must say too that this is quite an extraordinary event. The AEC is usually very efficient and the presence of party scrutineers ensures that things like this rarely happen. Mind you, the AEC did manage a bungle in the early voters at a retirement village this time too (If you can't get to a polling place on the day you can either send in a postal vote, go to one of the designated early polling stations or vote at a mobile polling station which goes to hospitals, nursing homes and so on). Fortunately the error was caught early but it still resulted in all 75 resident voters having to vote again. I'm guessing they weren't really happy given the complexity of the vote this time but it's good to know they weren't disenfranchised.

Because Australia has a two house legislature this election won't affect which party holds power in government federally which convention decrees is always the majority party (or coalition of parties) in the House of Representatives where members are elected to represent individual electorates. The Senate has a different function being intended to act as a house of review and represent the States. If the same party as that in government dominates the Senate then there will be much less possibility of them finding their policies blocked but if there is a hostile Senate - and with this re-run there is a considerable chance of that happening - the government of the day can find themselves stymied. If this happens to certain triggers then the government can dissolve Parliament and call another election. Complex, isn't it.

While voting is always something of a chore - we have compulsory voting here and you are fined if you don't cast a vote - this election was a much more complicated affair because of the proliferation of  one issue parties like the H.E.M.P. party. As a result we had 77 candidates with the majority representing obscure single issue groups like H.E.M.P., the Australian Sports Party and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party (There was even a Pirate Party. I have no idea what they think.) with no real policies on any other matter (and in the case of H.E.M.P. their candidates don't even live in WA).

This wouldn't matter so much if we didn't also have a system of preferential voting. This means you have two options when voting. You can vote according to party preferences. This is because all candidates try to do deals with others to have their supporters preference each other and these preferences are registered. If you vote above the line your preferences will go according to which party you have voted for. This is how at the last election a candidate from the Australian Sports Party got elected while having only around 0.2% of the votes. His vote flowed from preference deals.

Alternatively, you can vote below the line. This means you have to list your preferences in order for all candidates and with 77 candidates this is a daunting prospect. Still this is what I always do. It's my vote and I want it to reflect my preferences, not that of anyone else.

And now, having voted, we're waiting to see what will happen with the sixth and final seat, the only one where the vote is still to be decided. It will be interesting to see just how much things change or whether they stay the same.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Gender Bias - A-Z Blog Challenge

So I was reading some blogs about the perceptions and stereotypes as applied to women and made the mistake of reading some of the comments. Many were beyond offensive and really I'm so tired of all this.

All my adult life I've been aware of the gender imbalance in the way women and girls are perceived. I grew up in a time when, as a woman, I had to have a male guarantor if I wanted to borrow money. It didn't matter how low his income, as long as he was male he could act as a guarantor. When I bought my first car I was working as a secondary school teacher but that meant nothing. I wasn't able to borrow money to make the purchase without a male guarantor.

At the time I was on the permanent staff of the State Education Department and earning what by most standards was a good wage although, of course, it wasn't the same wage as my similarly qualified, single male peers. I only received 70% of what they receive because… Well, for no reason except that I was a woman. When my male peers married they kept on working as permanent employees. If I had married I would have immediately been transferred from permanent staff to temporary staff and would have had to reapply for my position every year. I would not get paid during the summer school holidays because technically my employment would cease on the last day of school and resume - if I was re-employed and that was never guaranteed - on the first day of school.

Although men and women teachers in the secondary school did the same work there was a limit to how far women could advance their careers. Men could become principals and be in charge of the school. Women could never go higher than deputy principal of whom there were two, one male and one female. In most schools apart from general administration, the men would be in charge of disciplining boys and the women would be in charge of girls with timetabling being the man's job. If the male deputy was less than competent (which was certainly the case in some schools I worked in) the woman would take up the slack only to watch as he moved up the ladder and she remained a deputy.

We have made great strides since then. Women can and do take on all sorts of roles that were once regarded solely as the prerogative of men. Young women can now be almost anything they want to - in theory at least. In fact many will never rise to the heights of their profession and why? There are a number of reasons but they all come down to perceptions. Apart from anything else we are all more comfortable with someone we feel are similar to ourselves. So men are more likely to favour other men without any deliberate bias and while you might expect women would favour women this is not necessarily the case as stereotypical perceptions, like this, for instance, and this and this, show. To me the most alarming thing about these is that the bias is not only by men. Women were also judgemental so it seems that perceptions like these are reinforced by society.

There are many other factors that affect women in the workplace, of course. Australian women in general are still paid less than men and there is no valid reason for this any more than there was when I was told told the reason why I wasn't entitled to receive equal pay as a teacher was because I couldn't do the same job as the men. What if something heavy had to be lifted? And that was said with a straight face. It comes back to perception again, in this case that men are the providers so need more income, and it's total nonsense, of course. For many couples the wife's income is the critical one for the family, even more in these days when fathers are taking a more active role in child care.

Then there's child-bearing which means for many women a serious disruption in upward progression in their workplace. Maternity leave may be a legal right but time away from work to have a baby is still regarded as a break in employment history by many when it comes to promotion. It's also a very shortsighted waste of talents to push a woman to the sidelines just because she takes some time off to have a child.

So we have come a long way but we have a long way to go. I'd like to think that by the time my granddaughters are entering the workforce they'll be judged on their abilities and achievements, receive equal pay for equal work and will be able to take maternity leave without it affecting their careers and one final thing, that they and their partners will be able to decide between themselves who should take time off to care for their children and whichever one stays home with them will not damage their career.

Am I dreaming? I hope not.


Monday, April 07, 2014

French? German? English? Duolingo. - A-Z Blog Challenge

I discovered Duolingo - a free language learning website - nearly two years ago when a friend signed up for the beta French version. It was years since I'd studied languages at any level but I wanted something to stretch my mind - and, boy, did it need stretching. I hadn't done any serious study for mutter, mutter years. Yes, I'm a writer but that mostly involves wandering around in my own imagination and then getting words on the page that tell a story that engages and is grammatically correct. Learning a language, especially since we were intending to travel to Europe at the time, seemed a good way to start.

So I had a look, liked its gamified way of teaching and signed up along with several friends. I was having so much fun I added German which I had learned many, many years ago and most of which was long forgotten - and, working on the assumption that it's better to take things slowly, I'm still going and doing at least one lesson a day in both languages although all my friends have long since dropped out and the travel never eventuated.

It's not the perfect language learning system but it does what it sets out to. Since it uses the immersion technique there is minimal grammar teaching. The idea is that you pick it up as you practise and to a degree that does happen. There's also the option to comment where questions can be asked and are answered by other students and the moderators. Even so I find I need to refer to other sources and there are many on the internet. I know! Who'd have thought it!

Because when you answer a query you are expected to provide a reference link or explanation, there's been an interesting and unexpected side effect. My knowledge of English grammar has improved enormously. All those things that I just knew have to be justified and while my grammar has always been pretty good I now have a much better idea of why something is said or used in a particular way. It's been very informative and, most surprising of all, is that the best sources of grammar information are websites where English is taught as a second language.

Am I fluent in either language? No. Will I be just using Duolingo to become fluent? Probably not because you need to speak a language to become fluent and that means interacting in conversations, not just parroting back what you hear. Does that mean it's a waste of time? No. I already have a reasonable vocabulary - enough to read quite a lot - and if I keep on - and find myself a conversation group (the next important step I think) I should soon be able to hold at least a basic conversation.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Employment and Retirement Blues - A-Z Blog Challenge

I've just realised it's nearly Easter. Nearly Easter! This year has been galloping along and I seem to have achieved nothing. There have been reasons - some more important and/or valid than others. I have had a lot of sickness and that always slows things down. Added to that Pisces has also had health problems. Being forced to leave from a part-time job he really enjoyed and accept full retirement has not been easy for him - and nor has coping with the fact that, in his eyes at least, this makes him "old".

This has all made me think about ageing and the personal and societal impact of getting older.

There has been a drive here, led mainly but not entirely by the right wing conservatives, to lift the retirement age - that is the age at which you can draw an aged pension. It's been slowly creeping up for the past decade or so. Until a few years ago the retirement age for women was sixty and men, sixty five. Then the age for women was gradually raises to be the same as men which made sense.

What doesn't make sense is continuing to raise the age at which people are eligible without factoring in that many older people are starting to physically find work harder and finding it harder to find employment. Employers are legally barred from discriminating on the basis of age but that is easily got around.

Then there are the health issues. As an example, until recently Pisces had been able to do a full day of work - some of it quite heavy lifting - with no problems and he swam and walked regularly. Then in the space of three weeks his back, which had apparently been fine, was no longer fine and he could barely walk, let alone lift anything. Turns out that a working lifetime of having to lift heavy things had been wearing away at joints in his spine and now they were, to put it bluntly, shot. According to the doctors there's nothing to been done about it, no cure or operation available. All he can do is exercises to try to build up his core muscles and avoid putting any stress on the joints. At the same time, because he was still trying to work, he managed to damage both shoulders. Work is no longer an option and he isn't even seventy - the retirement age being touted by lots of - fortunately for them healthy - politicians.

I used to watch one of our strutting Prime Ministers - a man obviously blessed with excellent health - out for his morning power walk and then hear him pontificate on how his peers should do the same. Well, no. We're not all fortunate enough to have good health and, when I look around at my circle of acquaintances, many of whom are in their sixties, I can see how they are no longer as fit as they were.

For example, we meet up regularly with a group whose ages range from low sixties to around seventy with most in their mid sixties. The group is mixed, consisting of twenty men and women. Of these currently one is in hospital with a long term illness, one has had a stroke and has residual problems from it, one has had two knee replacements and recently survived a heart attack, another no longer drives because of health issues, three are severely crippled by arthritis, one has an ongoing battle with complications from surgery twenty years ago and one has severe back problems. None of them are capable of working full  or part time. That is nine out of twenty from a fairly typical group of people with an even gender division and varied educational background. Of the remaining eleven, four are in paid employment and three are acting as unpaid baby sitters for grandchildren. Because, even if you are well as you get older, you start to get tired and an accumulation of health niggles make full time work difficult, another three (lucky enough to have substantial superannuation) are fully retired and one works part time. A number are also heavily involved in voluntary work and/or caring for ageing parents.

This group is fairly typical of their age group too, inasmuch as most don't have substantial superannuation. This is because they entered the workforce with the expectation - encouraged by the governments of the time - that they would be eligible for an aged pension. You paid your taxes all your working life and in return you would have a pension if you hadn't been able to save enough to live on. If you had superannuation you thought of it as a supplement, not the main source of income. Then they shifted the goal posts but for most it was too late. They didn't have time to accumulate a substantial stake in superannuation and anyone with a broken employment history - women were particularly vulnerable (having children has a big effect) - still relies on government assistance now they are unable to work.

Add in the many grandparents who are the free childcare option for their grandchildren while their adult children go out to work and we have another major problem bubbling away. What happens if this childcare dries up because older people are forced back into the workforce? There aren't enough childcare centres available now and it's very expensive. It seems to me there'll be another serious issue arising. Then, of course, there's the reluctance for employers to take on older workers. The whole situation is a mess that simply raising the retirement age is not going to resolve.

Okay, the rant is over but if you want to find out more about it this article is very informative.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Dragons - A-Z Blog Challenge

No, not the fire-breathing kind.

This little beauty is a leafy sea dragon and I got interested in them when I saw a documentary about them a few weeks ago. They are found around the southern coast of Australia from Jurien Bay in Western Australia to Wilson's Promontory in Victoria. South Australia has even named it as its official marine emblem.

Related to the seahorse, leafy seadragons grows to 20-24 centimetres in length while their cousins, the weedy sea dragons, can reach 46 centimetres. Their graceful "fronds" are for camouflage so it appears as part of the seaweed it lives among.

Like seahorses the male broods the eggs. The female deposits the eggs on the brood patch on his belly. He then carries them until they hatch up to nine weeks later. When they start to emerge it takes 24-48 hours of the male shaking his tail and rubbing against rocks and seaweed to help the babies out. Now that's what I call equal opportunity reproduction.

Leafy sea dragons are listed as near threatened because of pollution and habitat damage. They are also collected by divers for aquariums and is apparently used as an ingredient in alternative medicine. Now that last is a horrible thought. That anyone could destroy such a beautiful creature for what is likely to be a useless purpose appalls me.

You can see more photos of these amazing fish here.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Cadillac - A-Z Blog Challenge

I've shared pretty much all of my life with at least one cat at any given time. They have brought me great joy and, at times, equally great sorrow.

This handsome boy is Cadillac dressed unhappily in his Christmas finery. Technically he belonged to Virgo but in fact, as all cat lovers know, cats choose the person they lavish their affection on and while he was quite fond of Virgo it was me he chose to spend most of his time with. When she left the nest she couldn't take him with her - most rentals won't allow pets and I suspect he would have fretted for me in any case - so he stayed with Pisces and me. 

He was a rescue cat. All black except for two white hairs on one shoulder, he was found walking along a busy road when he was about eight weeks old and taken to a nearby vet. One of Virgo's friends was doing work experience there and was given the task of bathing and defleaing him. We had only recently lost our sweet Soxy to feline AIDS and I wasn't really ready for another but when K told us they were looking to rehome him I couldn't resist Virgo's pleas. When we went meet him he strolled out into the waiting room and climbed straight on to my lap and into my heart. He came home with us, already named Cadillac by the vet nurses who said he was so classy he deserved a classy name.

He stayed with us for the next eleven years and he was a delight. Affectionate, friendly and very tolerant, he accepted being dressed up for Christmas photos and other humiliations with good grace and even learned to walk on a leash. He accepted no nonsense from our two dogs and wasn't above giving a quick slap to the nose if he thought they were out of line but when the last of the two died he seemed quite lonely. While I had no intention of getting another dog then I only lasted about eight months before I found myself bringing home a puppy. Although he was a bit beyond games Caddy put up with her puppy nonsense and when Virgo prevailed on me to take in Angus - a rescue kitten from the vet she was working at - Cadillac accepted him quite happily too.

It seemed as if we would have many more years together but then he started to look ill. His fur lost its gloss and he spent all his time on my bed sleeping. We took him to the vet but there was nothing to be done. He had developed a kidney disease and all we could do was make him comfortable until the inevitable end came.

I still miss him deeply. These furry friends twine their way into our lives and without them my life at least would be less complete.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Blue Hills - A-Z Blog Challenge

This will be my last visit into nostalgia for a while but while I was thinking about the Argonauts Club  yesterday and how important radio serials were as entertainment I remembered Blue Hills.

Because the ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) had the only radio station that could be heard nationally whatever aired there was of great interest everywhere. In country areas it was often the only station but it was also very popular in the city and its most iconic serial was Blue Hills. Written in fifteen minute episodes by Gwen Meredith this was the long running and often convoluted story of country families in the fictional town of Tanimbla. It was broadcast at 1:00 PM every week day and repeated in the evening at 6:45 PM. It started in 1949 and ran until 1976.

I hadn't realised until I was researching this that it been preceded by The Lawsons or that it had been started as part of a way to encourage farmers to grow soy beans as part of the war effort, the idea being that a popular serial would be more effective than straight propaganda. I don't know whether it worked as far as propaganda but it certainly was popular as was Blue Hills when it succeeded it.

I've been wondering why it was so popular and I think it was a combination of factors. First Gwen Meredith had a talent for writing believable, natural dialogue and, unlike many of the radio serials of the day, the actors didn't use an artificial "wireless" voice. They spoke naturally and as a result the characters came to life. The list of actors who acted in Blue Hills reads like a who's who of Australian talent and most of them made the transition into television. As well the story lines were about things that people could identify with. They may have been a little "soapy" but they felt real and they engaged the audience.

Blue Hills survived much longer than most of the radio serials because it was on the ABC. While television had come to most of Australia by the sixties there were still a number of areas in the country which had no access and they relied on the "wireless" for news and entertainment. By the mid seventies though television had infiltrated most areas and radio was beginning its change to mostly music and talk back though the ABC still caters for a more diverse audience through its Radio National programmes.