Thursday, 26 February 2009


I’ve been thinking recently about dissatisfaction as an engine for progress. My trusty OED refers to discontent in describing dissatisfaction, that is, a lack of contentment. If you look up discontent in turn, the word restlessness is used. That I think is the key – if a person is not content with how things are and is restless, then change can occur. If we were all perfectly content with our world, then very little would get done.

Crankiness is a different matter. Crankiness is merely “ill-temper or crotchety” while grumpy is defined as “morosely irritable or surly.” There is a fine line between dissatisfaction and grumpiness and it can be difficult to stay in the camp of discontent. After all, that restlessness can chase you very quickly to the side of ill-temper and inaction.

And I have been grumpy, not just discontent for several weeks. So I have achieved very little other than perhaps a greater familiarity with my dictionary. It has been one of the few things that have wanted to spend time with me recently. I’m trying to inch slowly towards being merely discontent and using that to motivate myself to accomplish something, anything.

These are the things I have been thinking about as I drive around running errands although I did not use the dictionary while driving. For one thing, it is hard to shift gears when you are turning the pages of the OED (even the concise one) and for another, the infamous Click and Clack aka Tom and Ray Magliozzi would then have been on my case. Even from the other side of the world, a driving misdemeanour of such magnitude would tweak their finely tuned radars. And then I would have something to really worry about.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Expensive politics

It looks as if I will have more time to work on the book than anticipated. Anna Bligh has called a snap election for March 21 – the earliest possible date that she can call an election at this time. Anna is the premier of Queensland and clearly wants to get through an election before economic news becomes any worse. Queensland is heavily dependent on mining income, which is decreasing in tandem with world, specifically Chinese, manufacturing. The only people that are happy with the state of affairs are those driving diesel vehicles. With Chinese and Indian demand for diesel declining, so does the price at the pump. For the first time in years, diesel is cheaper than petrol.

The state public service goes into lockdown mode until after the election. This means no new contracts, no decision-making and plenty of making time. The contract on my two-day a week research project didn’t make it across the line in time. I’m not too unhappy about this although the uncertainty is unsettling. If Labor stays in government, it should only be a delay unless the reshuffling causes a major rethink of such things as research budgets. If a new government gets in office, all bets are off.

I think it is the first time though an election has directly had an impact on my life. I had rearranged my schedule, my family’s schedules, arranged care for Blithe Boy, bought myself a new lunchbox and some vaguely respectable clothes. Now I can go back to slouching around the house in old shorts and t-shirts, eating PB & J sandwiches, licking my fingers and burping. Doesn’t everyone at home? I still have my other research project (sadly the less interesting one) and have plenty to keep me busy. And who knows? I might actually get the book done.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The window lottery

Seen over the past week:

A hare the size and shape of a small terrier albeit one with long ears. It was grazing the thick grass next to my vegetable path. Apparently, like my children, it is not as fond of rocket (arugula) as I am. Rocket, parsley, mint, thyme, rosemary and lemon balm all flourish. Is there a spicy theme here and is it protecting my garden or is the lush grass simply too succulent to ignore?

An enormous bearded dragon lizard grazing in the same spot. It would look around, nibble grass then articulate itself to a new position. I say articulate because it is hard to describe how these lizard move. Spindly legs that seem to all move independently lift the large spiny body and it somehow progresses. Mr. Blithe nearly ran over this fellow when he was mowing. It pretended to be a stick that had somehow mysteriously leapt into the grass and wasn’t going to move. On seeing it eating grass, I had to google “What do bearded dragons eat?” and found out that they are omnivorous. Insects, mice, small birds and greenery. Apparently if you keep one as a pet, you should make it a nice salad regularly. The site didn’t say what kind of dressing they prefer.

A white bird of prey (kestrel, goshawk? Ed. note: a black-shouldered kite according to my neighbour) plummeting from the sky to snatch something tiny and formerly squeaking out of the grass.

Frogs of every size and shape from shiny green monsters blinking solemnly at me to tiny thumbnail size grey leapers to a medium sized grey frog strolling through the bathroom trailing a dust bunny. Our new carpet is exactly the shade of grey-green of the tiniest frogs and you can only track them by their leaps.

A gloriously patterned python of some kind sliding across the top of our water tanks. I was preparing vegetables and heard something just outside the window. The snake slid across the tanks, investigated the downpipe and disappeared “up roof.” I have no idea where it is, but I suspect it was using our house as a highway to somewhere else (I hope).

Wasps and weird flying things of all descriptions. The continuing humidity (what the weather service describes in today’s forecast as “sultry”) is a bonanza to everything creepy-crawly. The latest invasion has been of black crickets dive-bombing through the living room in the evenings. Not the best accompaniment to a Dr. Who rerun about winged bat-like creatures taking over the world. I’m not sure why the world was complaining – they made the schoolkids docile and smart and everyone got to eat lots of chips. I, on the other hand, had no chips and had to stalk the room swatting at the creatures and removing them.

One tiny gecko in a pot plant and one large gecko somewhere else calling to “baby.” Given that Blithe Boy when younger could not distinguish between a gecko and a kookaburra, you get an idea of the volume of sound a gecko can produce usually just when you are drifting off.

A wallaby paused on the dam wall out the back of the house looking at us then quietly resuming its grazing. Somehow it seemed to sense that we meant no harm or perhaps it just knew that it could disappear into the maze of gullies and escape.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Pig sales and religion

Some days I seem to spend a lot of time driving around. Often it’s good thinking time. I sometimes think about a story told to me many years ago by a friend about a product suggested to a noted maker of sticky notes and suchlike, that they market a pad of paper and pen that could be stuck on the steering wheel of a car. The idea was not pursued as the company did not want its logo to be the last thing people in car crashes saw as their airbag decorated with the notepad sped towards their faces. So I have to try to remember things myself.

I’m working on a part of the book where the Jaeckels senior are trying to make sure that their kids are not too isolated in the new country. They want them to be able to meet other young people, make friends and meet potential mates. One traditional way to do this was by attending church.

In some circles today it is common to bemoan the “deChristianisation” of Australia. It is said that many more people used to attend church. I’m not sure of the percentages, but as I drove along this week I was wondering if there are less Christians or simply less people who attend church because there are other avenues for social contact. It could well be that the number of people who actually believe has remained constant while those who attended church for social reasons have dropped off. Instead they hang out at pubs, clubs, shopping malls, sporting groups etc.

If you lived in a town like Marburg in the 1800s and well into the 1900s, the main social options were the pubs, the weekly dance held by the Show Society, one of many churches or the various sale days such as the 1930s pig sale day pictured below. Church social occasions included picnics that were immensely popular and probably only required one not to actively poke fun at the church’s religious convictions.

Courtesy of Picture Queensland

Of course, there had to be many churches to allow for the various “takes” on religious beliefs. Membership was probably as much regional and ethnic as spiritual. If you were from a certain area in Prussia, you stuck with a familiar church. If you were English, you probably attended the Anglican church. Tiny Marburg had Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, Church of Christ and several varieties of Lutheran churches (according to stories the Lutherans were very argumentative and the churches split several times). There was also the Apostolic church out at Plainlands if the menu wasn’t extensive enough. I think that you would have had to stay in Brisbane to worship in any other religious tradition though.

Whatever your faith or lack thereof, the church was certainly a social hub. Every tiny settlement covered most of the bases of society: commerce with at least a small store, overt entertainment with one or more pubs and social/religious with churches. So I don’t think the Jaeckels had too much to worry about.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Inconveniently migrating thoughts

I’ve had lots of thoughts about migration and settling in Australia swirling around in my head, but never a moment either to sit quietly and think about them, or to write them down. It’s been a crazy few weeks between school activities, work, family “things” and visitors. A few weekends ago we headed towards the Gold Coast hinterland, specifically, Canungra for a family occasion. I noticed that the area had been settled in 1867 and was busy looking for evidence of different patterns of settlement. Perhaps because the terrain is steeper and more mountainous, settlement seemed contained to the valleys. Manicured fields and expensive “lifestyle acreage” follow along the creek beds while the hillsides are clothed in dense rainforest. You get the sense of the valleys having had many expensive haircuts while the forest grew quiet and wild as it brooded over these invaders.

Nowadays the invaders are horse breeders, tourists, antique stores, cafes, the army (with its huge munitions training ground) and oddly enough, their neighbours, the Pauline Brothers’ Marion Valley.

Having survived the family occasion, I was thinking about how the most recent ABS census figures were reported as showing that 25% (4.4 million) of Australia’s population in 2006 were born overseas. In addition, 20% of Australians had one parent who was not born in Australia, that is, were second generation Australians. This means 45% of Australians today are first or second generation Australians. No wonder we still have debates about what it means to be an Australian. Is there any way of condensing our experiences to a single ideal or stereotype?

On the subject of stereotypes, the most common country of origin for migrants continues to be the United Kingdom (24%) followed by New Zealand (9%) then China and Italy each at 5%. Oddly enough, this fairly closely illustrates our family. My father is a New Zealander and my great-grandparents migrated from Ireland. My mother’s side of the family are all Anglo-Celt although they have been in Australia for several generations. Mr Blithe was born in Italy and myself in Taiwan so we tie for the third-most common place of origin. We like to joke that we are a typical Australian family and it seems that we are.

I’m curious though, and not quite sure where to start looking, what the proportions were in the 1870s? Clearly almost everyone was a first generation immigrant if they were not aborigine. And most of the population would have been from the United Kingdom. But in some areas, other European migrants dominated and there were already significant numbers of Asian, specifically Chinese migrants. Some of my parent’s friends who are readily labelled as “Chinese” by other people have histories in Australia longer than many white Australians. This is one reason I love history – it’s so messy and inconvenient and fascinating.

Monday, 9 February 2009


I woke up this morning to the news that 108 people are now dead in the Victorian bushfires. The figure is staggering and frightening. These are not people living in splendid isolation in the bush, accepting the risk of fire. Several entire towns have been burnt out. 500 homes in Kinglake, most of Marysville. These are places where fire has gone through towns and houses like a ravening dragon, so fast and hot that one can’t even imagine the power. 700 homes have been destroyed. Places that are burning are places that I have walked and camped with my family as a teenager.

On Friday the authorities were asking people to refrain from unnecessary travel in rural Victoria and South Australia. Temperatures were set to rise into the 40s degrees celcius, humidity was low at 10% and winds would be brisk. Perfect fire weather. Residents in those states were being asked to decide and plan for what they would do in the case of emergency. Would they stay and fight the fires? If so, they needed equipment and plans and to prepare their houses as best they could. If they were going to leave, they needed to do so then and know exactly where they were going and what they were taking. At the time I thought “How can you tell entire states to be prepared? Will people just assume that it is not going to happen to them? Will people just go about lives as usual?”

It’s hard to even imagine the scale of these fires. One of the fires burning this morning is 93,000 hectares. Last night there were 26 active fires in Victoria and more than 200 fires listed on the Country Fire Service website. A schoolteacher on the news last night said that he had walked out of his house to check on the school. According to the radio, there was no immediate fire danger. By the time he returned home, ten minutes later his home was gone.

Across Australia, flags are officially at half mast. As the day goes by news of more deaths and more destruction trickle in. The current death toll is 131 and 700 houses burnt.

This was going to be a light-hearted piece to commemorate my 300th post. Instead I have spent the day checking the latest news with heavy heart. Think of the families who have lost everything and be grateful for what you have.

The Australian Red Cross and Salvation Army are accepting donations. They ask for money rather than goods so that funds can be spent through local businesses.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Finding motivation

It may surprise you to hear that I am a very task oriented person. I like to have a list of things that I work through organised in nice discrete segments. My perfect working scenario has specific defined tasks that I make progress through from beginning to end. When I had children I feared that I would never again get anything done. The notion of being able to move steadily through a task was thrown out the window. Instead I had intermittent, inconsistent moments to try to get something, anything done. It drove and drives me mad. I think that I would be a better person and a nicer human being if I could multi-task more efficiently and with better grace.

One thing that has always motivated me though has been deadlines. Give me a deadline and 99% of the time I manage to slide in under the rope. Sometimes I am cursing and wiping off sweat (and tears), but I make it to the end.

Well I now have a deadline – self-imposed but a deadline nonetheless. From the beginning of March through to the end of June I’ll be working two days a week. I want to finish the book before I begin the madness of juggling children, timetables and work deadlines. It’s a really exciting project full of challenges that fill me with both trepidation and anticipation. Although it is only a part-time position I suspect it will consume much of my available emotional energy. And I want to tackle it with my book under my belt.

An aside here: when I was in grad school, my academic discipline was struggling to define itself as a social science. Anyone who didn’t want to do numbers, even pseudo-numbers, was given a lot of grief, both professional and personal. How often I had to insist that I wasn’t interested in political psychology or the “science of persuasion” even if that was where the jobs were. And that withheld grade that took me a year to finagle out of someone who would not concede anything even after my paper was published. Stubbornly, I insisted on doing the type of research in which I was interested. After all, what was the point of even being in grad school if I didn’t find what I was doing interesting and worthwhile? When I ended up outside academia, wiping snotty noses and playing trains, I was glad that I had pursued my interests. Now, work is being offered to me on the basis of my qualitative research skills, because such skills are rare in science/health areas. Ironic, huh? I would poke someone with this point except that well, it’s really only important to me.

I’ll let you know how I go with the deadline. Of course, I will edit the cursing, sweating and tears. After all, I have an image to maintain.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009


Until I wrote the title for today, I never realised how much I have wanted to write that word. I even had to chase a spider off the top of my dictionary to make sure that I had the correct nomenclature for a 150th anniversary. Two weeks of intermittent rain and dampness have resulted in a burgeoning of wildlife (as if Queensland wildlife needed any encouragement). Spiders hang everywhere, frogs attach themselves to walls like emerald green spelunkers, snakes slither along tree branches, mosquitoes and flies and freaky insects with odd appendages kamikaze the windows and any exposed flesh. Even the walls are buzzing with hidden inhabitants. The wall behind the computer seems to have some kind of resident – I’ve sprayed behind the desk and checked the computer and it seems clearly to be in the wall.

Somehow, in spite of all this, Queensland has managed to survive as a state for 150 years. I did my occasional duty at the historical society’s open house on Sunday and the place was humming with visitors. Interest in local history seems alive and well. There was my least favourite type of visitor – “my great grandfather lived somewhere near here, I don’t know where or any details of his life but can you tell me everything about him?” And there was my favourite type – a family thrilled to have discovered continuing evidence of their family in the area and delighted with any shred of information that we could tell them.

There are all kinds of events planned for the sesquicentenary and much funding available. I wonder if such generosity would have been forthcoming if the slowing (we try not to use the phrase “collapse” here) of the mining industry and the global financial crisis had been foreseen. Locally there is a competition for school children to write a fictional account of a “day in the life of a settler.” I’m wondering if it would be cheating to let my children loose on my research notes. Or if there is a corresponding competition for adults.

Unrelated to the sesquicentenary (see how I’m trying to use that word as often as possible?) but related to local history, the historical society has agreed to sponsor a grant application to research the history of local small-scale mining. Somehow or rather, obviously through some kind of feeble-mindedness, I have agreed to work on the application and also the project, if the application is successful. Apparently, it’s not just the wildlife that is burgeoning. Insanity is in the air too.