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December 30, 2007:

Lizzy Lizard at Elizabeth Flats, photo by Roland Hemmert

Our blue-tongued lizard is back! Every home should have one. We knew there had been one around in the past due to the number of empty snail shells in the garden, but hadn't seem her (him?) until Roland heard a rustling in the shrubbery of his garden in front of Flat 2.  She's about 30-40 cm. long and an expert at slow-motion stalking.

- from the mixed-messages ministry of modern life, just as the heat of summer kicks in and the TV fills up with ads showing horrid skin cancers blooming on the backs of beach babes, medical officials have described Vitamin-D deficiencies as a major health issue for many Australians. Because they're so covered up they're not getting any full-spectrum sunshine on their skins and in their eyes. Another optimistic Happy New Year thought Aussies can take along on their summer hols.

December 26, 2007:

The centrepiece of a classic Australian Christmas lunch, at Caroline and Doug's: prawns and oysters, accompanied by salads, cold smoked salmon and a tiny bit of turkey fillet on the side .... Lunch is the meal of the day.


December 24, 2007 -we're fighting back against the flies with the latest addition to the household, a Venus Fly Trap. It's something of an unequal contest due to the numbers of them, as I wrote about earlier in the month.

-one of the first acts of the new Kevin Rudd government was to launch an attack on Japan's sham "scientific whaling" harvest in the southern ocean. Last week it announced it was sending an armed customs ship to monitor and film the Japanese as a prelude to an international lawsuit. Then, Japan backed down on its plan to kill 50 humpback whales, the ones that travel up the east coast of Australia every year, but will continue to hunt about 1000 smaller species. The newspapers have been full of stories about how "whale meat has been sold as dog food in Japan and there is a push to encourage children to consume it to help reduce stockpiles."

-as further evidence of Australians' love of marine creatures, people have been told to stay away from the area of the Sydney Fish Market near Darling Harbour unless they're on the annual quest to buy the freshest possible seafood. There are always huge line-ups, practically gridlock, on Christmas Eve, as Sydneysiders jostle to get the makings of Christmas lunch. Half or more Australians eat seafood for the main Christmas meal, a classic being prawns on the barbie, salad and chardonnay -- well, white wine at least. But according to an item on the radio, 41% will eat some kind of roast meat for the traditional Christmas lunch. Every Australian of a certain age, including Christine, tells horror stories of childhood Christmases in the blazing heat with meals of roast goose, baked ham, stuffing, pudding with hard sauce and every other conceivable trimming. 

-Bing's "White Christmas" just came on the radio ...  arghh. Last night we played the Phil Spector Christmas album from the early '60s -- even it didn't really work to rev up the seasonal spirit. Someone just said on the radio that in one of the big malls they'd only had one lost child so far but several lost husbands.

In fact, Christmas just seems to be a prelude to two of the big sporting events of the season on Boxing Day: the start at midday of the fabled Sydney-Hobart yacht race, and the Boxing Day Test (a cricket game). This year, the latter involves Australia against India. It will continue for as much as five days, several hours a day, being more a test of patience than anything else. Needless to say, I get a spirited defence of traditional test cricket from most of the rellies here; I never thought I'd be in the position of arguing that baseball is a comparatively exciting game.

-the handful of people who've known me for yonks will recall that I had a brief career as an editorial cartoonist for the Vancouver Province and Victoria Times back around 1979-80. I can remember, for example, drawing 2 cartoons on the eve of the 1980 US presidential election; in one, Reagan rode a horse into a sunset with a cinematic "The End" emblazoned above it, while in the other he rode on a horse out of a sunrise with "The Beginning" above. Guess which one they ran?

Anyway, I've always wished I had the combination of talents to be an A-list cartoonist and have admired and envied the handful who did. So I really enjoyed the article in the Weekend Australian by one of its cartoonists, Bill Leak, containing directions on how to draw the new prime minister.

His accompanying article was extremely funny. "For cartoonists," he wrote, "a change of government marks the dawn of a whole new phase in their life, right up there with being expelled from school and the birth of their first child." He went on to say that he was extremely disappointed with "what Rudd and his cohorts have given us to work with," and how he's already becoming "misty-eyed and nostalgic whenever I think of the treasure-trove of grotesqueries that was the Howard government: the PM's caterpillar eyebrows and that wonderful bottom lip that looked as if some Ethiopian tribal beautician had inserted an ashtray into it; [Treasurer Peter] Costello's endearing nose, so reminiscent of a chimpanzee's bottom; [Foreign Minister] Alexander Downer's pneumatic face, so reminiscent of a slapped bottom..." and so on. He expressed thanks to Rudd for keeping former rock star Peter Garrett, who is huge and bald with an almost menacing, cadaverous face, in the cabinet, but the rest are too bland to be any use at all.

Perhaps if there's reincarnation I could develop that killer instinct in my next life?

 December 18, 2007: this is George, the latest member of our household. He's a "British short-hair" kitty we obtained from the local RSPCA. As you can see, he's having difficulty adjusting to the pace of our life here.

George by lamplight

December 17, 2007: although we're still in the cool and showery La Niña weather pattern that is also soaking the west coasts of North and South America, the weather cleared beautifully last week for the monthly hike of the Mount Wilson/Mount Irvine Bushwalking Group, followed by the Christmas barbie.

None of my photos of the caves and sandstone cliffs turned out very well, although Christine took some pictures of the flannel flowers growing in the bush that will make it onto her blog very soon. However, one of the naturalists on the walk pointed out how even the ants predict and are able to adapt to the wet weather. Below are photos of two anthills, the one on the left your standard, basic hill on a flat piece of ground. The one on the right is on a slope, down which the water flows during a cloudburst, so the ants build up its edges into a rim almost like a spout to keep their nest from being inundated. With such Darwinian skills, it's no wonder there are billions of them.


- and this week is the 25th anniversary of the introduction of "RBT" -- random breath testing -- in New South Wales. We were here then, having come down for Christmas in 1982, and I can remember clearly the slogan, "How will you go when you sit for the test? / Under '05' or under arrest?" The .05 alcohol limit seemed really low, and there were cases where people had kept their friends at their places overnight after boozy parties, then had gone out to the store in the morning to get more milk or whatever to feed them breakfast and had been nabbed by the booze buses as they were still technically inebriated. According to news reports, RBT has halved the annual number of road deaths.

December 16, 2007:

It's very difficult to find any place in Australia where Christmas is celebrated with the full-on enthusiasm typical of, say, suburban Langley near Vancouver. But this house on the rural outskirts of Lithgow, a town west of us on the edge of the Blue Mountains, demonstrates that the Yule spirit can thrive even in the middle of summer.  Note the multi-hemispherical dimension of its artistic presentation: the "six white boomahs" pulling the Santa on the left, while reindeer on the right pull another Santa on a collision course. Alas, I couldn't get back far enough to record the complete panorama of this world-class tableau.

- it's a bug's life here in Katoomba. This is a lace-wing, a pretty little harmless thing that doesn't appear to do anything other than stand on the window day after day.

- one of the pleasures of living in the Blue Mountains is the number of truly weird people who share the old mountain towns strung out along the rail line. Almost unequalled in strangeness is the Spooky Men's Chorale, who first came to my attention during the recent election campaign with their YouTube video entitled "Throw the Bastards Out." I hadn't realized they were local until an article appeared in the Blue Mountains paper. Inspired by great men's choirs from the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, the Spooky Men highlight "the pointless grandeur of the male experience" while singing of tool sheds and male bonding. Among the songs on their newly released 2nd CD, entitled "Stop Scratching It," is a version of ABBA's iconic "Dancing Queen," redone as a kind of Viking anthem. A straighter and quite haunting version of Joni's "The Fiddle and the Drum" is also done.

Their website is, naturally, So turn up the speakers ....

December 16, 2007:

-an indication of how advanced Australia has become, or perhaps of how many Australians have travelled in Europe and Asia, is the National Public Toilet Map. It is funded by the National Continence Management Strategy. A brilliant initiative in a country where cafes often don't have any facilities at all ....

-the morning radio show is running a contest to find the oldest person still living at home. A 52-year-old was the best one today.

- the Santa Wars have begun. Apparently a Santa was sacked from a department store in Cairns for saying "ho ho ho" to a woman, which is offensive to people au courant with gangsta rap. And, parents in a Sydney suburb were irate when the daycare centre their children attend decided to cancel the annual Christmas party and visit from Santa due to its non-inclusivity and cultural insensitivity.

-the fecundity of Australian women has been on my mind, in a manner of speaking. The birth rate has increased to 1.85 per woman in the past year, the highest in 14 years, which is considered to be an indication of confidence in the future rather than frequency of blackouts or availability of sexy men or whatever. Apparently, the number of babies born has finally climbed back to the level it reached in the early 1970s, when the population of the country was only 12 million, 7 million less than now.

-a newspaper article said that I was one of 177,600 migrants to Australia this year. To be honest, it didn't mention me personally, but it noted that there had been a "record migrant intake," prompted by businesses seeking staff overseas. Australia's population growth is 1.5 % compared with a global average of 1.2 %. There were no statistics on the number of aging artists who had been accepted.

December 6, 2007:

This is the Aussie wave ...

The combination of wet weather and summer heat have created the perfect storm, to use that overused expression, for bush flies. They're the little suckers that hang onto your clothes and buzz right into your face, no matter how many times you wave them off, but (Ontarians please note) they don't bite! You're outside, wandering around, doing the Aussie wave, when you head for your front door. As you open the door, all the bush flies jump off as they don't want to go inside, but several big "blowies," the grossely large blow flies which also don't bite, zoom by you into the house and, if they can't find any food to lay their eggs in, head for the windows where they buzz and defecate until you smash them to a maggoty pulp which then you clean up with Windex.

A classic Aussie expression is "no flies on me, mate!" which evidently means that you're getting on with things.

Such are the pleasures of life in the southern hemisphere. Our old friend Ian Sacré, who is visiting us for a few days, walked with me down to the lookouts over the park today (where I photographed the young woman here). The Jamison Valley was a pool of swirling cloud below the Three Sisters.

Ian, taking in the sights with his vintage (non-digital) camera

 First anniversary of blogging -- who says I have the attention span of a gnat and don't keep at things?

- The recent election and overthrow of the government in the midst of a booming economy has prompted all sorts of navel gazing. The best description I read of the nation's mood was "prosperous pessimism" -- people are doing well but have a nagging feeling that hard times are ahead, a variation on the "seeing the light at the end of the tunnel" cliché. Is it daylight or an oncoming train?

The perceived hard times seem to be a mixture of concern about climate change and "work choices" -- the former government's attempt to deregulate the workplace and eliminate the entrenched Aussie system of the "fair go," where every employee has rights that include decent wages and protection from unfair dismissal and poor working conditions. This is still a society very different from the (North) American one. Trades apprentices, shop assistants and waitresses all expect to make a living wage and receive holidays and benefits, unlike the stereotypical American example of the "working poor" who need multiple jobs just to keep a roof over their heads. But the rise in prices, especially for housing, is fraying the system at its edges. Former PM Howard's brassy statement that "Australian families have never had it so good" just showed how out of touch he'd become.

And of course Christmas is on the horizon, the snowflake decorations going up in stores and the mailbox jammed with flyers. This will be about my 6th Christmas in the southern hemisphere and it still seems weird. Meanwhile, interest rates have gone up several times, taking mortgage rates with them, and the newspapers fill the spaces around the Christmas ads with articles talking about the number of people in debt stress with overloaded credit cards.


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