Thursday, 30 December 2010

LOQUATS FOR THE NEW YEAR


“Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man.” - Benjamin Franklin

Loquats (Eryobotrya japonica) are in season now. These are delicate, beautiful and tasty fruits that you would rarely find at your greengrocer or the market. They bruise easily and they don’t have a long shelf-life. Therefore they are not particularly marketable and thus not planted in plantations for profit. The best way to enjoy them is to plant a tree in your garden, if you are lucky enough to have one. The tree is a beautiful, evergreen, specimen tree and its blossoms are wonderfully fragrant. The fruit is juicy, tart and sweet and have a subtle, delicate aroma that is quite unique.

We had a wonderful early dinner tonight with our house guests. The theme was seafood: Vol au vent with smoked oysters and taramosalata, caviar on blinis, smoked salmon with a lemon and dill sauce, prawns with mayonnaise and capers, crab meat and lobster salad. All washed down with champagne! A lovely dinner and quite filling – our guests were quite impressed! The perfect dessert was a delicate loquat and Kiwi fruit salad:

LOQUAT AND KIWI FRUIT SALAD
Ingredients
•    15 large loquats
•    2 Kiwi fruits
•    2 peaches
•    2 nectarines
•    1 lime, juiced
•    1 orange, juiced
•    2 tbs sugar (optional)
•    Cherries (pipped) if available

Method
Peel and slice the loquats into a bowl you have placed the citrus juice and sugar. Discard the loquat seeds. Peel the Kiwi fruit and cut them longwise into quarters. Slice each quarter and add to the salad. Peel the nectarines and peaches and slice into the salad. Add the cherries and mix well. Refrigerate and serve with double cream or ice cream.

Tonight we are staying in and greeting the New Year in with a night of card playing, music and the cutting of the traditional Greek St Basil’s cake, which we made earlier today.


Happy New Year to everyone!

CRYPTIC


“Be obscure clearly.” - E.B. White

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I enjoy solving cryptic crosswords and Julia asked what they were. A fair enough question from an American as cryptics are a particularly British type of crossword that is also popular in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, though not often seen in the USA. There, I believe, they are called “British Crosswords”. A cryptic crossword is widely considered to be the ultimate challenge for lovers of word-play, pun and word puzzles. They are entertaining, highly addictive and quite amusing if set well. They can be devilishly hard to solve (depending on the setter and assumed depth of knowledge of the solver), but so satisfying to crack!

Firstly let’s have our word of the day, this being Thesaurus Thursday:

cryptic |ˈkriptik| adjective
1 Having a meaning that is mysterious or obscure: He found his boss's utterances too cryptic.
• (Of a crossword) having difficult clues that indicate the solutions indirectly.
2 Zoology (of coloration or markings) serving to camouflage an animal in its natural environment.
DERIVATIVES
cryptically |-ik(ə)lē| adverb
ORIGIN early 17th century: From late Latin crypticus, from Greek kruptikos, from kruptos ‘hidden.’ Sense 2 dates from the late 19th century.

The clues in cryptic crossword puzzles are just like that: Mysterious, hidden, obscure and camouflaged! To understand what the clue asks for one has to read them in a very devious way. What the clue appears to be defining on the surface is designed as a distraction and is almost never what it really means – quite often in fact the clue appears extremely strange, funny or preposterous. However, the clue will always tell you what the answer is (usually more than once!), even if you have to wring your brain to read the clue in the way that it tells you to.

All cryptic clues have a definition and this definition is almost always at one end or another of the clue. Finding where it starts and finishes is part of the challenge. A cryptic clue usually has another part as well, called the subsidiary indication. This also leads you to the word but it does so using wordplay or some sort of puzzle, anagram or pun. When reading the subsidiary indication words may mean the letters that make them up, other words that mean the same thing or they may refer to an operation (word surgery!) that you do on the other words to spell out the answer.

Here are some examples of cryptic clues arranged in the various classes they fall in:

1. Anagram Clues
This is a fairly straightforward device where the subsidiary clue contains the letters of the answer and an indication that the letters should be rearranged or are not presently in the right order. A correct rearrangement gives the solution, for example:
Dress suiting a saint (8)

Answer: IGNATIUS. “Dress” (as a verb) indicates an anagram. Letters of “a suiting” provide IGNATIUS (a saint = the clue proper).

There are many possible anagram indicators: e.g. Change, confuse, arrange, disturb, crazy, unwell, mad, scrambled, unusual, designed, shaken, etc.

2. Straight Cryptic Clues
This is an unusual clue that doesn’t have a subsidiary indication and it’s compete in itself. Its strangeness comes from reading the definition in a peculiar way. For example:
Accommodation that’s barred for flappers (4-4)

The intended answer is BIRD-CAGE. Here “barred” doesn’t mean prohibited but having bars and flappers refers to things that flap i.e. birds with wings.

Look for unconventional ways of using words in this type of clue. For example the word “flower” in a cryptic clue can mean a “river” (that flows, hence a flower), as well as the more conventional meaning of a “bloom”.

A late bloomer? (7, 8)
Answer: EVENING PRIMROSE. The answer here is a pun with an obscure meaning for Bloom-er (one that blooms - a flower).

3. Double Definition Clues
In these, the subsidiary indication is replaced by a second definition. Often these clues are short, perhaps two or three words. Here is an example:
Horse pistol (4)

Answer: COLT

Another example:
Put up with a wild animal (4)

Answer: BEAR

4. Charade Clues
In charade clues, two or more words run together to form the solution. Indicators are often not necessary but joining words like “with”, “follows”, “behind”, “after” are likely. E.g.
The French shelter is hidden (6)

Answer: LATENT (= La, which “the” in French; and tent = shelter; Latent, being hidden)

Another example:
So motivated, 500 torn apart (6)

Answer: DRIVEN (= D is Roman numeral 500 + “riven” = torn apart, all forming “driven” = motivated)

5. Container Clues
In these clues the letters of one word are inserted into another. Letters or words are placed inside other words. Indicators: “within”, “in”, “around”, “about”, “contained”, “held”, “inside”, “retain”, “keeps”, “into”, “outside”, “around”, “without”, “crossing”, “sheltering”, “is eaten by”. For Example:
Shrink from phone in church (6)

Answer: CRINGE. (CE = Church [of England]. RING = phone. RING into CE gives CRINGE).

6. Hidden Word Clues
In these clues, the answer is staring at you, with correct spelling, directly within the clue. e.g.
Delia's pickle contains jelly (5)

Answer: ASPIC (DeliA’S PICkle = contains jelly!)

Occasionally the answer is hidden backwards in amongst the letters, with an indicator like “back” or “up” or “flipped” or “returned” or something similar. E.g.
Sketcher went up to get reward (6)
Answer: DRAWER. (“reward” went up [reversed] gives DRAWER; note that in this case a drawer is someone who sketches, not something that you keep your underwear in!).

7. Homophone Clues
Here the subsidiary indication tells you about a word that sounds the same as the answer. E.g.
Not even one sister heard (4)

Answer: NONE (“None” [not even one] is a homophone of NUN [“sister”])

Location of vision we hear (4)

Answer: SITE (“SITE” is a homophone of “SIGHT [vision]).

Homophone indicators include “say”, “it’s said”, “reportedly”, “one hears”, “on the radio” etc.

8. Reversals
The reverse of part of the clue provides the definition. Indicators for this are the words “back”, “reflected”, “turned”, “going up” or “uprising” (down clue), “west” or “left” (across clue). For example:
Show contempt perhaps - gratuities sent back (4)

Answer: SPIT (To SPIT may show contempt [hence, “perhaps”]; and TIPS backward spells the answer)

Mistake that puts school children back (4-2)

Answer: SLIP-UP. (Definition is “mistake” and when “PUPILS” is substituted for “school children” and the letters reversed get the answer).

9. Deletions
Here letters are removed from a longer word, to give the answer. E.g.
Swimmer in underwear abandoning the lake (4)

Answer is: LING (a type of fish defined by “swimmer”). To solve the subsidiary indication you need to substitute LINGERIE for “underwear” and remove (“abandon”) the letters ERIE, the name of one the great lakes.

Other forms of deletion include removing the first, last or middle letters. Indicators include words like “short”, “topless”, “headless”, “endless”, “hollow”, “heartless” etc.
Senior is more daring, losing head (5)

Answer: OLDER (BOLDER = more daring, losing head “B”).

10. Initial, Final, Alternating and other letter clues
First letter or letters provide the solution. Indicated by “first”, “prime”, “lead”, “head”, “top”. Note similiarly “last”, “ultimate”, “final” can refer to the last letter. For example:
A number flew in. Very entertaining, initially (4).

Answer: FIVE (which is “a number”, given by the initial letters of Flew In Very Entertaining)

In the next example, we take the odd letters to form the solution:
Observe odd characters in scene (3)

Answer: SEE (Odd letters of ScEnE)

11. Word Play and Literal Meaning clue
An unusual type of clue where the whole clue is both the definition and the word play. It is often indicated (but not always) by an exclamation mark. For example:
Field entered by sportsmen ultimately! (5)
Answer: ARENA (AREA = field. N = sportsmeN ultimately [last letter]. AREA “entered by” N = ARENA [definition is whole clue]).

12. Combinations of types
Cryptic crosswords would be fairly straightforward if setters made cryptic crosswords so simple that all clues correspond to one of the above types. More often than not, more than one of the above techniques are combined in a single clue to make the subsidiary indication even more challenging. The clue solver can deal with these just as easily with a bit of experience. E.g.
Laugh at round ends? It’s tough (4)

Answer: HARD (This is a combination of a charade and a deletion of the middle letters. HARD, is defined by ‘tough’. “Laugh” is substituted for HA, “ends” says one should take the end letters of “RounD”’ and throw the rest away and ‘at’ says the two should go together to spell HARD).
It’s indecent to let little Albert roam around inside (6)

Answer: AMORAL (This is a combination of an anagram and a container. AMORAL defined, as ‘indecent’) is a combination of AL and ROAM, anagrammed.


13. Miscellaneous Clues
There are numerous other rare things that setters sometimes do. In these cases extra imagination is needed to find the answer.
Rookie wears glasses to the toilet (3)

Answer: LOO. (L = rookie (Learner) with OO, which looks like glasses. L + OO = LOO = toilet).

Bird with the French name (5)
Answer: TITLE (TIT = bird with LE = “the” in French. TIT + LE = TITLE = “Name”).

Advance in either direction (3, 2)

Answer: PUT UP (A palindrome meaning “advance”).
Palindromes may be indicated by phases such as “either way”, “going side to side”, “up and down”, “both ways”.

kcul? (8,2,7)

Answer: REVERSAL OF FORTUNE (“kcul” is “LUCK” spelt backwards!).

tew? (6,4)

Answer: RISING DAMP (“tew” is “WET” spelt backwards!).

Here are some Cryptic Crosswords you can find online:

http://www.lovatts.com.au/news/puzzles-comps/daily-cryptic-crossword/

http://www.guardian.co.uk/crosswords/cryptic/25198

http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~wgh/crosspuz1.htm

Have fun solving these!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A SUMMER DAY


“I would not exchange my leisure hours for all the wealth in the world.” - Comte de Mirabeau

Another perfect Summer day again, with beautiful weather and the holiday mood firmly imprinted on everyone’s mind. After this long, long winter and cold, gray Spring, this Summer day today was a gift, given us just for the holidays. We had another lazy day, going out for a walk, this time to the Yarra River, past our local shopping strip and across the main road. The shops were mostly open, although it was gratifying to see some with a “closed” sign hanging on their door. I am all for limited shopping hours. A weekend is a weekend. Let the shopkeepers also enjoy it. Let the shop assistants enjoy it. Christmas is Christmas, holidays are holidays, let the shops remain closed.

We have been converted into a society of consumers, all of us blindly shopping till we drop at all hours of the day and night, weekdays and weekends, on working days and on holidays. We feel withdrawal symptoms as soon as we are unable to run into a shop and buy, buy, buy useless things that wreck our lives. We turn to the internet where we are assured of being able to consume, buy and spend 24 hours a day, 365 days a year… Enough is enough! The best things in life are free, they cannot be bought.

Free, like this perfect summer day today, a priceless gem of a day. A day of rest and relaxation, with sun and light breeze, with blooming flowers and buzzing of bees and the flitting by of dragonflies. Of a walk down to the riverside, where the water flowed slowly as if dancing a stately sarabande. Where the people laughed and shouted, ate and drank, spent time with friends and family, fed the ducks, kicked a ball, went out boating on the water. A day like the canvas of an impressionist, worthy of being taken and pressed between the pages of a memory book.

A Summer Day

At last, the warming rays have bleached the day
The skies are blue, with wisps of summer cloud;
The gentle breeze makes leaves dance and play,
While dragonflies dart about the blossoms proud.

The river slowly flows and water sparkles, shines
The crowds loll about the grassy shores, with laughter
Drinking, picnicking, toasting beneath the shady pines;
Relaxing, dozing, counting dreams for a long time after.

The day is perfect: Warm, lazy tender, balmy, sweet
Our time of rest inviting idleness, persiflage and banter.
Enjoy this gem of a day, take it as given, a rarest treat;
For summer’s over soon, as horses - gone in crazy canter.

Monday, 27 December 2010

A LEISURELY DAY


“He enjoys true leisure who has time to improve his soul’s estate.” - Henry David Thoreau

We had a wonderfully lazy day today, which was helped by the glorious weather. First thing in the morning a big breakfast with a couple of mugs of freshly made caffé latte and then we went out into the garden, sat down and I solved the cryptic crossword that I downloaded from the electronic copy of “The Age”. Cryptic crosswords are a great way to keep one’s mind sharp and alert. The crazy clues are fun and a well set cryptic can also be highly amusing. The ones in “The Age” are really good usually, with a more challenging crossword on Fridays.

We then decided to take advantage of the weather and walked to Darebin Parklands that are about a 10-minute walk from home. The Parklands are a wonderful urban park around the Darebin Creek, which wends its way through native bushland to empty into the Yarra River, which is about 1300 m away. The weather was perfect for a walk, and we started at about 10:30 in the morning and came back home at about 1:00 pm. There were quite a few people around, but certainly not crowded. Because of the recent rains, the vegetation was lush and the water in the creek was at a respectable level.

We came back home and had lunch and watched a movie. Then it was time to go away and read a little. Later, I played some music, checked the emails and worked on my computer for a while. Dinnertime soon came and we had a light vegetarian dinner made with our garden vegetables. After dinner, it’s time to watch a little TV, or listen to some music, or read…

Oh, I love the holidays!

Sunday, 26 December 2010

1-2-3-4-5-6! IT'S MOVIE TIME!


“Although for some people cinema means something superficial and glamorous, it is something else. I think it is the mirror of the world.” - Jeanne Moreau

With the holidays in full swing and the weather not exactly conducive to outdoor activities, we watched several movies and some TV over these last few days. I’ll do brief reviews of films we watched over the past two or so weeks. Some were excellent, some good and some not so good at all!

“The Informant!” (2009) Directed by Steven Soderbergh, with Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula, Tom Papa, Kirk Schmidt. 5/10
This was a boring, uninvolving movie that had no suspense, humour, action or surprises. The characters were uninspiring and failed to evoke sympathy on any level. The story (which was true, apparently), involved corporate America’s dirty deeds in international price fixing of food additives. Just reading the plot line and going over it in my mind, I don’t know what possessed me to get this movie to watch? Maybe Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon? What a waste of talent! Give this one a miss, unless the international lysine market and corn syrup industrial wars turn you on…

“Hot Fuzz” (2007) Directed by Edgar Wright, with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Timothy Dalton, Jim Broadbent, Paul Freeman. 8/10
This was an excellent British farce about he trials and tribulations of a high achieving London police officer who is too good and is showing up his peers as inadequate. For this reason he is transferred to a picturesque English village where no crime occurs, just terrible accidents! There are lots of laughs in this movie, a bit of gore and violence, but it is a send-up! Very enjoyable!

“The Kingdom” (2007) Directed by Peter Berg, with Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Ashraf Barhom, Ali Suliman, Jason Bateman, Kyle Chandler. 7/10
A terrorist attack in an American housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia results in scores of murdered families but also the demise of the spy, Francis Manner. An FBI agent, Ronald Fleury, blackmails the Saudi Arabian consul to get five days of investigation on location. He travels with agents Grant Sykes, Janet Mayes and Adam Leavitt to avenge their friend and try to find the parties responsible for the bombing. The agents face enormous difficulties in their investigation, but they are supported by Colonel Faris Al Ghazi that advises the team how to act in the unfamiliar environment. A good action movie with some graphic footage – not for the faint-hearted!

“Tremors” (1990) Directed by Ron Underwood, with Kevin Bacon, Earl Ward, Reba McEntire, Michael Gross, Finn Carter. 6.5/10
This was a comedy horror movie that did not take itself seriously for one minute. Hence its success. Underground giant wormy thingies terrorise an isolated township in the middle of nowhere and the handful of residents have to band together to overcome the terror. A bit of fun, with quite a few giggles…

“Con Air” (1997) Directed by Simon West, with Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Ving Rhames. 6.5/10
Cage plays Cameron Poe, a highly decorated US ranger, who is convicted of manslaughter after protecting his wife in a drunken brawl. After eight years, he is being paroled and is being sent home to his wife and daughter. Unfortunately, he to be a passenger on the Jailbird, which is a high security airplane that is also transporting some of society’s most vicious murderers to Feltham Penitentiary, Lousiana’s highest maximum security prison. A surprising escape is made on board the plane as the convicts seize control of the plane, and head it towards Las Vegas. The officials on the ground want to blow it out of the sky, but there is an alternative! Typical dick flick, well done, with quite a bit of action. Violent and bloody…

“Inkheart” (2008) Directed by Iain Softley, with Brendan Fraser, Andy Serkis, Eliza Bennett, Helen Mirren, Sienna Guillory. 7.5/10
A typical fantasy movie, which you should like if you also liked Harry Potter, the Narnia movies, The Lordfo the Rings, etc. I don’t particularly like Brenda Fraser, but he does a good job in this as Mortimer “Mo” Folchart who is raising his thirteen year old daughter Meggie alone after the disappearance of his wife Resa. He is an antique book restorer and travels with Meggie to find an old book called “Inkheart” in antique bookshops in Europe. When he is approached by a weird man called Dustfinger, she overhears him calling her father “Silvertongue”. Meggie discovers later that he has the ability of bringing characters out of the books to the real world. They escape from Dustfinger heading to Italy to Meggie’s aunt Elinor Loredan’s manor, where the men of the evil Capricorn abduct them with the intention of forcing Mo to bring the powerful Shadow to Earth. It’s a tale of good versus evil with special effects galore and a cute storyline.

ART SUNDAY - WOOSTER SCOTT


“I love everything that's old, - old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine” - Oliver Goldsmith

For Art Sunday today, a seasonal (well at least for the Northern Hemisphere!) painting by Jane Wooster Scott. It is a canvas named: “A Song for the Season”.

Wooster Scott is an American naïve artist who paints nostalgic scenes of turn-of-century, early 20th century America. She lives in Los Angeles and despite her modern surroundings and sophistication, she has chosen to turn back the hands of time in her paintings, because of her love for early Americana, but more importantly for the values inherent in society then.  She says that “…people were more honorable then. Their word was their bond. The pace was slower and more time was given to the appreciation of beauty. People loved their country and they were proud of the fact…”

Of course nostalgia paints everything with charming colours, however, one can agree that in those bygone times, people were friendlier, families were more united and tied together, it was safer and cleaner and there were less pressures and stress. One could walk safely at night, front doors were not locked and car keys were left in the ignition.

The artist travels widely in the USA, takes many photographs from which she is inspired to build composite scenes, taking great pains with composition, colour schemes and balance. Her own childhood memories and emotions, her thoughts and values are reflected in her canvases.

She has exhibited widely for nearly two decades now in Los Angeles and New York, and most of her shows have been completely sold out on opening night. Many politicians, actors, singers and industrialists collect her work. Paintings of hers hang in the American Embassy in Canberra, Australia, as well as being part of the permanent White House collection in Washington DC.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

MERRY CHRISTMAS!


“Love One Another, As I Have Loved You” John 13:34-35

A very peaceful, quiet day today at home with family. Good food and wine, music, fun and games. A lovely Christmas! Merry Christmas to all!

Here is the immortal music of Bach, especially apt as it is from his “Christmas Oratorium”. A wonderful aria sung by Bernarda Fink, Argentinian mezzo soprano. It is “Schlafe, meine Liebster”, a lovely lullaby, perfect for tonight!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

YULE'S APPROACHING!


“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” - Charles Dickens

The first day of the holidays began today with a very full day around the house and the shops, for all the last minute shopping, chores and preparations for Christmas. The crowds were milling in the shopping centres once again and the traffic was quite horrendous. Nevertheless, it was quite good to feel the Christmas buzz in the air, hear the carols, admire the decorations in the streets and shops and finally feel that Christmas is here! This evening, having a quiet Christmas Eve at home with family, with a simple festive meal.

The day before Christmas can also be used for some last minute preparations for the Christmas feast tomorrow. I must admit that we generally have a very modest meal at Christmas, with some seafood to begin with, then typically a roast with some vegetables, and a dessert which is light and cool (the temperature maximum expected tomorrow is 27˚C). This is a very easy recipe for a Yule Log, which is made the previous day.

QUICK AND EASY YULE LOG
Ingredients


1/2 cup icing sugar (with some additional for garnishing)
1/4 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoons instant coffee powder
2 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 250g package plain chocolate biscuits (e.g. Arnotts Choc Ripple)
Vanilla “mushroom” meringues (shop-bought) - optional for decoration
Chocolate shavings – optional for decoration
Glacé fruits – optional for decoration
Ground pistachio nuts – optional for decoration

Method

Sift the icing sugar, cocoa powder, and coffee powder into a small bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat cream and vanilla in large bowl until soft peaks form. Add cocoa mixture, mix in well and beat until stiff peaks form.
Spread one side of one chocolate biscuit with a rounded teaspoonful cream mixture; top with another biscuit. Continue layering biscuits and cream for stack of five. Place stack on its side on long platter. Repeat making stacks with remaining biscuits and some of the cream; form log on platter by attaching stacks with the cream. Using a spatula, spread remaining mocha cream over outside of log to coat. Cover; chill at least 2 hours (better to prepare the previous day and keep chilled).
Place platter with yule log on work surface. Using fork, gently pull tines of fork along length of frosting on log to create design resembling tree bark. You may also pipe the cream around the log and use glacé fruit to make flowers. Sift powdered sugar over log to resemble snow, if desired. Arrange meringue “mushrooms” along sides of log if desired. Cut log on diagonal into thick slices. Serve immediately.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

CAPRICORN, CORINTHIANS & ACANTHUS


“I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.” - Arthur C. Clarke

Well, today was my last day at work and it was a busy one too. Of course I didn’t finish half the things I intended to finish, so there is some homework I took with me… I was very grateful to receive quite a few emails and personal greetings from staff that thanked me for the year and for my support. It is good to do something and have that recognised. I think one of the gravest and commonest sins that we as humans can guilty of is that of ingratitude. It is so easy to thank people and quite often it means so much to them. I always do it (but it supports my argument that gratitude is all too common), but I often get a stunned look as I say “thank you”, or “I appreciate what you said, …or did, …or your support”.

I was thinking today, as the sun enters the zodiac sign of Capricorn, that Jesus Christ is a Capricorn! I looked up the traits of capricornians and lo and behold, there is something in thie astrology business! LOLLL

CAPRICORN THE GOAT: December 23rd - January 20th. Ruled by Saturn. A cardinal, feminine, negative, earth sign. Polar or opposite sign is Cancer. Fixed Star: Algiedi.

Aloof, Ambitious, Calculating, Careful, Competitive, Cool, Dependable, Dogged, Earnest, Goal-setting, Patient, Practical, Prudent, Quiet, Self-disciplined, Serious, Tough.

The Capricornian may be summarised with the verb: “I utilise”. A mountain top, a great father figure, the boss, the executive.  A Capricornian quote: “I will be lord over myself.”

The Capricornian character is marked by being practical and self-reliant. Patience and persistence, especially in achieving success through constant hard work are the person’s trademarks, as well as having faith in oneself and ability to handle all the difficulties of life. Although they are warm and friendly to close friends, they are somewhat aloof and closed to strangers. Being somewhat self-centred, Capricornians are eager to sacrifice themselves for others in order to receive sympathy and appreciation from those they respect or from those in authority.  They show a great respect for wisdom and age and generally they will work well within the limits set by their supervisors.  They value security and success much and they tend to work doggedly in order to progress upward in a steady and sure pace rather than a risky rapid rise.

In personal relationships the Capricornians rarely show their innermost feelings and this makes them difficult to approach.  They may be loners and may not form lasting relationships easily.  Once in a relationship, the Capricornian is usually very loving and caring, the persistent and understanding person who gets through their defences being rewarded with a fine and enduring partnership.

The Capricornians tend to be perfectionists and they are clever, determined, sensible, play fair and expect the same treatment.  They can devote much time to study in order to advance themselves and they have a talent for facts and figures, finance and also appreciate the arts.  They make good bankers, lawyers, statisticians, mathematicians, financiers and businessmen.  They appreciate the finer things in life and attach much importance to social status and prestige.  They can be very charming and can be good company.

Acanthus, Acanthus mollis is the birthday flower for today.  It signifies in the language of flowers “love of art” and that nothing will separate the giver and the receiver.  The astrologers say that acanthus is ruled by the moon.  Acanthus leaves served as the inspiration of the Corinthian order of Greek column capitals.

acanthus |əˈkanθəs| noun
1 A herbaceous plant or shrub with bold flower spikes and spiny decorative leaves, native to Mediterranean regions.
• Genus Acanthus, family Acanthaceae: many species. [ORIGIN: via Latin from Greek akanthos, from akantha ‘thorn,’ from akē ‘sharp point.’ ]
2 Architecture A conventionalised representation of an acanthus leaf, used esp. as a decoration for Corinthian column capitals.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

THE THREE DROVERS


“He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.” - Roy L. Smith

Despite the skeleton staff (including me!) around at work at the moment, the pace is still quick and there remain quite a few urgent things to finish off by the end of the week. I am still getting numerous emails every day and today was good because I was able to resolve two student issues that had escalated to me. Both issues required a little lateral thinking and a bit of common sense. Problems were solved and both students were more than happy with the outcome.

I went out at lunchtime today for some Christmas shopping and I could not believe the number of people in the shops. It was quite an effort to negotiate one’s way through the crowds and it was quite tiresome to wait in a queue to pay. I was glad to get back to work! The sun was out today and the modest increase in temperature was enough to make Melbournians sweat and become quite cranky. We were hankering after summer and now that the mercury rose to the mid-twenties we became rather short-tempered and cross!

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the lunchtime stroll and for the first time this year I became aware of the proximity of Christmas. The decorations and carols have been around fro a couple of months now, but it was only when I was shopping for Christmas gifts today that became conscious of the holiday atmosphere and of the festive mood. I guess having decorated the house last weekend also helped. Quite a few children were out with their mothers in the City today and their laughter and joyous cries as they looked at the Myer Christmas windows also drove home the message that on Saturday we celebrate Noël!

For Poetry Wednesday another Australian Carol by John Wheeler. I have also managed to find it on YouTube, so here it is, with wishes for a wonderful Christmas! It looks as though we may have hot weather for Chirstmas after all with temperatures expected to rise up to the high 20s or low 30s…

The Three Drovers


Across the plains one Christmas night,
Three drovers riding blythe and gay,
Looked up and saw a starry light,
More radiant than the Milky Way;
And on their hearts such wonder fell,
They sang with joy ‘Noel! Noel!’

The air was dry with Summer heat,
And smoke was on the yellow Moon;
But from the Heavens, faint and sweet,
Came floating down a wond’rous tune;
And, as they heard, they sang full well,
Those drovers three – ‘Noel! Noel!’

The black swans flew across the sky,
The wild dog called across the plain.
The starry lustre blazed on high,
Still echoed on the Heavenly strain;
And still they sang ‘Noel! Noel!’
Those drovers three. ‘Noel! Noel!’

John Wheeler

(Music by William G. James)

Monday, 20 December 2010

SUMMER SOLSTICE & LUNAR ECLIPSE


“No known roof is as beautiful as the skies above.” - Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh

Today is the Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Solstice is derived from two Latin words (sol and sistere) meaning “sun” and “to stand still”. As the days lengthen in summer, the sun rises higher and higher until it seems to stand still in the sky, explaining the origin of the term.

In astronomy, the solstice is either of the two times a year when the Sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator (that is, the great circle on the celestial sphere that is on the same plane as the earth’s equator). In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs either December 21 or 22, when the sun shines directly over the tropic of Capricorn; the summer solstice occurs either June 20 or 21, when the sun shines directly over the tropic of Cancer. In the Southern Hemisphere, the winter and summer solstices are reversed.

The reason for the different seasons at opposite times of the year in the two hemispheres is that while the earth rotates about the sun, it also spins on its axis, which is tilted some 23.5 degrees towards the plane of its rotation. Because of this tilt, the Northern Hemisphere receives less direct sunlight (creating winter) while the Southern Hemisphere receives more direct sunlight (creating summer). As the Earth continues its orbit the hemisphere that is angled closest to the sun changes and the seasons are reversed.

As a major celestial event, the Summer Solstice results in the longest day and the shortest night of the year. Civilisations from ancient times have been awed by the great power of the sun, and thus celebrated the first day of summer otherwise known as Midsummer (or the Wiccan Litha). The Celts & Slavs celebrated the first day of summer with dancing and bonfires to help increase the sun’s energy. The Chinese marked the day by honoring Li, the Chinese Goddess of Light.

Perhaps the most enduring modern ties with Summer Solstice were the Druids’ celebration of the day as the “wedding of Heaven and Earth”, resulting in the present day belief of a “lucky” wedding in June (I wonder if it holds true for December weddings in the Southern Hemisphere?). Pagan spirit gatherings or festivals are also common in June, when groups assemble to light a sacred fire, and stay up all night to welcome the dawn.

To add further to the astronomical goings-on today, a total eclipse of the moon will occur. This happens when the earth comes between the sun and the moon, so that the “shadow” of the earth falls on the full moon. The moon assumes a coppery red colour and the eclipse lasts much longer than solar eclipses. I just hope that we don’t get much cloud cover tonight. The sky has been overcast for most days in the past few weeks and even if it’s not raining, we are looking at a grey sky for most of the time…

THE BLIND SIDE - MOVIE MONDAY


“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” - Anne Frank

We watched a stock Hollywood movie at the weekend, which ended up being very good. I didn’t expect it to be much more than standard bilge, but it did have a bit of substance and being based on a true story, was reassuring in the values it highlighted. It was good to see that there are still some good people out there in the world and that they are busy “doing” things rather than “talking” about them. We very nearly didn’t see this film as it had a plot line involving American football, which we do not care at all about (actually we do not care about any kind of football!). However, the blurb on the package somehow struck a sympathetic chord and just as well, because the film was anything but about football…

It was the 2009 (co-written and directed by) John Lee Hancock film “The Blind Side”. The story is about Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy who take in a homeless teenage black boy, Michael “Big Mike” Oher. Michael’s father is dead and his mother is a drug addict. His education is rudimentary and because he chooses not to speak much, people consider him stupid. However, he is thirsty to learn and thirsty for the love and tenderness of the family he never had.  Leigh Anne who is a Christian woman in deed not only words, takes charge of Michael’s life and ensures that the young man has an opportunity to succeed. When he is involved in football, she helps him, including giving the coach a few tips on how best bring out Michael’s talents. Michael’s life turns around as the family not only help him but accept him as one of their own, even hiring a tutor to help him improve his marks to the point where he would qualify for an athletic scholarship.

“Corny”, you might say. “trite” and “formulaic”. Well, yes, I did say that this was a typical Hollywood film. However, it was a good film and as I said earlier, all the more commendable because it was based on a kernel of truth. There are still people out there who do good, people who live by their principles and who are prepared to their money where their mouth is. I have no time for the proselytising bible bashers, nor the TV evangelists, nor the armchair Christians. A Christian is the person who lives the bible in their life and does Christian deed silently, unobtrusively, without show or hope for recompense or recognition, nor through calculation of pecuniary interest. Or so I hope Michael’s reality was.

Sandra Bullock does an excellent job as Leigh Anne – this is Bullock’s movie really – but also good is Quinton Aaron as Michael. The supporting cast, including Kathy Bates as the (“I’ll tell you a deadly secret: I’m a Democrat”) tutor, Miss Sue, does a good job. Jae Head steals some scenes as the littlest member of the Tuohy clan. They manage to create a feel-good sense about the film, although I can certainly see why some people may find it offensive and racist – far be it from the intention of the film, I think. Condescending it may be occasionally, but racist I think not.

Overall, I would recommend this film as it is an uplifting film an one that tells a story about a person’s potential. It is about faith and love and hope. It is also a film about self-doubt and charity and perseverance. Some may question the motives behind the act of Christian goodwill shown, but I prefer to take it at face value.  Call me innocent.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

ART SUNDAY - VAN DYCK


“Flatterers look like friends, as wolves like dogs.” - George Chapman

For today’s Art Sunday, 
Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), one of the most famous Flemish painters of the 17th century. He was one of Rubens’s many well-known pupils and assistants and he soon acquired all the virtuosity of Rubens in rendering the texture and surface of things, whether it were silk or human flesh. Nevertheless, van Dyck differed much from his master in temperament and mood.

Van Dyck was not a healthy man, something apparent perhaps in his paintings where a languid and slightly melancholic mood often prevails. It may have been this quality that appealed to the austere noblemen of Genoa and to the cavaliers of Charles I’s entourage. In 1632 he had become the Court Painter of Charles I, and his name was Anglicised into Sir Anthony Vandyke.

We owe him the artistic record of this society with its aristocratic bearing and its cult of courtly refinement. His portrait of Charles I, just dismounted from his horse on a hunting expedition, showed the Stuart monarch as he would have wished to live in history: A figure of matchless elegance, of unquestioned authority and high culture, the patron of the arts, and the upholder of the divine right of kings, a man who needed no outward trappings of power to enhance his natural dignity. No wonder that a painter who could bring out these qualities in his portraits with such perfection was so eagerly sought after by society.

Van Dyck was so overburdened with commissions for portraits that he, like his master Rubens, was unable to cope with them all himself. He had a number of assistants, who painted the costumes of his sitters arranged on dummies, and he did not always paint even the whole of the head. Some of these portraits are uncomfortably near the flattering fashion-dummies of later periods, and it seems that van Dyck established a dangerous precedent, which did much harm to portrait painting. But all this cannot detract from the greatness of his best portraits. Nor should it make us forget that it was he, more than anyone else, who helped to crystallise the ideals of blue-blooded nobility and gentlemanly ease which enrich our vision of man no less than do Rubens’s robust and sturdy figures of over-brimming life.

His “Self-Portrait” (1633; 58.4 x 73 cm) here shows us the artist holding a glorious sunflower. When he painted this, Van Dyck was the court artist to King Charles I. In 1633 Charles gave him a gold chain and a medal to honour the artist’s role as His Majesty’s “Principal Painter”. The significance of the gold chain cannot be overlooked as Van Dyck lifts it towards the viewer. He also draws our attention towards the sunflower by pointing to it. The sunflower was often used to symbolise the relationship between the king and his subject - just as the flowerhead turns towards the sun for life and light so the subject should turn to the monarch.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

ST AGNES AND THE BURNING TRAIN


“There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke.” - Vincent van Gogh

A busy morning today putting up Christmas decorations in the house, going out to do some shopping and then back home again for some chores. This evening, however, we went to a friend’s house to dinner. He and his partner live in an apartment on the riverside in the City. She is very nice and cooked a delicious dinner. Another couple was there and we all had a wonderful evening. We heard some lovely music during dinner and a favourite of mine from Sting’s pen brought back some memories.

“St Agnes and the Burning Train”… It is a curious and mysterious title. St Agnes is a virgin martyr of the Catholic calendar. She is the patron saint of virgins, chastity, young girls, engaged couples, rape victims and gardeners. Agnes is also the name of Sting’s grandmother. The piece is instrumental and is found on Sting’s Album “The Soul Cages” dedicated to the death of his father. Most of the songs on it somehow relate to sailing and sea, as his father was a sailor. Newcastle is mentioned a couple of times as this is where Sting grew up.

The burning train refers to a fire on a train his grandmother was on, on an occasion near Christmas when she was coming to visit him. As Agnes was very independent she always insisted on taking the train when visiting. The fire on the train perhaps was a reminder that life is precarious and death is waiting around every corner. Here is something attributed to St Agnes:

“When Death Is Near

I bless you, O Father, worthy as you are of higher praise, who renders me fearless even in the midst of the flames and who fills me with longing to go to you. Lo! I already behold Him whom I have trusted, I am about to grasp what I have hoped to embrace Him whom I have so ardently desired.”


The insistent “chug-chug” of the bass rhythm reminds me of the train, while the flickering melody could well be the flames, as for the lovely harmony, well that’s St Agnes…

Thursday, 16 December 2010

DINING AT THE CHILI CHURCH


“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” – Voltaire

Today was another of hectic activity and a mad rush to get all sorts of matters finalised. I had quite a few meetings, saw several members of staff, dealt with and resolved a couple of students’ appeals and managed a vexing clinic timetabling issue. As well as that, I snuck away to the post office (quite full today for obvious reasons!) and we also had our pre-Christmas Kris Kringle get-together in the late afternoon. Many staff are finishing up today and beginning their Christmas/New Year break, some (including me) are also working next week right up to Christmas.

As it’s food Friday today, I’ll review a restaurant that we went to last Saturday evening. It was the Spice Temple at Southbank, in the Crown Casino Complex. This restaurant is fairly new in Melbourne and has become rapidly very “in” and has received some glowing reviews. It is a styled as a Chinese restaurant, and I quote from their menu:

“Spice Temple is a modern Chinese restaurant, driven by a philosophy that incorporates the traditional values of the best possible service with a deep respect for the highest quality produce as well as a commitment to being at the forefront of visionary restaurant design. The solid foundation of respect for the history and authenticity of our dishes was further developed on recent travels through China. Our menu pays homage to and draws inspiration from the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi and Xinjiang.”

Wow! Stirring stuff! Could have been written by a Hollywood screenwriter for the Saturday afternoon epic movie. However, although the dishes we had were “Asian-inspired” they were not particularly authentic, nor could they be described as improvements on the originals. Inspiration was definitely lacking…

Firstly on entering the place I felt oppressed. It was dark, brooding and the music blared 50s and 60s cocktail/lounge-lizard music. Just the thing for a Chinese restaurant (but I guess that was the “modern” part (certainly not for the garish carpet!). The staff (who were mostly young whippersnappers with an affected accent) were uppity and patronising. This did not bode well with me. However, I gave the place the benefit of the doubt and rebuked myself silently for being over critical. We were led to our table which was way too close to the others besides us – no chance of an intimate conversation here unless you planned to wife-swap with the couple next to you. The windows were obscured by vertical wooden slats and they had stripes painted on the glass, which further increased my claustrophobia (as well as effectively hiding the exceptionally good view of the river bank and the Yarra).

The drinks waiter came and he was pushy. He continued to be pushy throughout the evening. I do not drink much – a glass or two of wine with my meal is enough. Otherwise I like to have a plentiful supply of sparkling mineral water with ice. The ice was forgotten and I had to ask for it again and it arrived in water tumbler with a spoon to fish it out in order to place into my water. The smells in the atmosphere were overpowering and reeked of oil and chili. This was a premonition of the tastes that would overwhelm all of the food that night.

We received a spiel from the waitress regarding the way that we would order and eat our food. “You order and we place in the middle of the table for everyone to share…” Not “we suggest…” or “we recommend…” or “it is a good idea to…” I hate being dictated to (especially in a restaurant) and just to be contrary I said to her: “And I will have this and I will have that…” We ended up sharing as we do in other Chinese restaurants – this is the norm, I don’t see why they made such a big song and dance out of it.

These are the dishes we partook of:

Entrées
Cucumbers with smashed garlic and ginger       $8
Aromatic duck salad with tea eggs and coriander     $18
Lamb and cumin pancakes    $14
Main courses
Guangxi style roast pork belly with coriander, peanuts, red onion and sesame seeds    $30
Stir fried grass fed beef fillet with wok blistered peppers and black bean     $42
On the side

Stir fried greens with garlic    $12
Boiled rice    $3 x 2
Desserts

Orange jelly cake with orange blossom fairy floss     $6 x 2
To drink
2006 Shiraz, Olivers Taranga ‘HJ Reserve’ McLaren Vale     $113

Total for two people:    $255


The meals were very hot, not necessarily fragrantly spicy. Even the “mild” dishes I found unpleasantly spicy and hot, so I can only imagine what the “very hot” dishes would be like. And everything was floating in oil. Lots of oil. Dripping with oil… The servings were rather small, but because of the oiliness the dishes were heavy and caused us to bloat. The dessert was insignificant and more suited to a féte than a gourmet restaurant. However, to expect a spectacular dessert in a Chinese restaurant is unrealistic.

I could not get over the pretentiousness of the place. It should do well with the nouveau riche and the young, moneyed scions of distinguished families who have more wealth than experience.

The meal was expensive by most people’s standards, but apparently it is “quite reasonable” for a “Neil Perry Empire restaurant”… I do not mind paying top dollar for an exceptional meal in exceptional surrounds, served by exceptional staff. Unfortunately, the meal was not exceptional, the surrounds were dark and dingy and the staff condescending and up themselves. Three strikes and this restaurant is OUT for us. We went once and we shall not return. For a very good meal, friendly and careful service, authentic tastes and genuine Chinese cuisine one cannot go past the Red Emperor restaurant in Southgate - they even have a web site that works!

Overall a disappointing experience! Our rating 5/10.

AN AUSTRALIAN TRAGEDY


“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” - Kenji Miyazawa

The bad news around the sinking of an illegal boat carrying people to Christmas Island has dampened the festive mood of the country somewhat. This tragedy occurred yesterday as a boatload of asylum seekers, many of them from Iran and Iraq, crashed on the rocky shores of Christmas Island off the West Australian Coast. The cliffs of the Christmas Island shoreline are treacherous and they have claimed many a sailor’s life in the past. Locals know that when the wind is blowing onshore none can land in Flying Fish Cove (sometimes for weeks at a time).

Christmas Island is volcanic and is the top of a submarine mountain sticking out of the Indian Ocean. It is a territory of Australia and has a permanent population of about 1,400 people.  Navy and Customs are everywhere in the heavily patrolled seas around it. For a boat to reach the cove undetected is very unusual. Some of these boats full of asylum seekers are allowed to make their own way to port under escort, but normally, they are intercepted far out at sea and their passengers are taken on board the navy vessel, to be taken to the island. This didn’t happen this time, with the mystery of this tragedy being how that boat was allowed so near the cliffs of the shore in such terrible weather conditions. The navy explained that extraordinarily bad weather had led to very low visibility, and a wooden vessel made radar detection almost impossible.

The boat had between 70 and 100 asylum seekers on board. The 28 dead included 12 men, nine women, two boys, one girl, and four infants (of whom three were girls). It is still unclear how many people were on board the boat when it crashed and it is expected that the death toll could rise. Forty-two survivors have been accounted for. Of these, 25 men, eight women and nine children have been rescued. Two women were flown to Perth in serious condition. This recent incident is part of a record-setting year in migrant boat arrivals into Australia. Some 6,300 asylum seekers reached Australia on 130 boats in 2010. In 2009 Australia admitted a total of 11,100 refugees.

The immediate reaction after the horror that the images of the tragedy engendered was one of guilt and self-examination. There has always been debate over how the Australian Government should process asylum seekers (whilst ensuring their safety). However, there is also the other side of the coin concerning respecting citizens’ concerns over the economic burden of mass migration. Australia has been built on migration and there are still large numbers of foreign-born residents and citizens forming an integral part of its multicultural society. However, in these critical times we live in, with an insecure future, dwindling natural resources and in the wake of the global financial crisis, mass migration into Australia is a political hot potato.

Australia is a generous and compassionate country, ready to accept genuine refugees and asylum seekers, but is now wary of the exploits of people smugglers and economic refugees who may not have the best interests of Australia in mind when they seek to settle here for a short time. In the wake of this most recent incident, calls came for a change in the current government policy designating Christmas Island as the principal refugee processing center. In Australia, similar incidents have in the past sparked the government to rethink its policy on asylum seekers.

And yet, Australia is not alone in its thinking or its political stance against mass immigration. In many developed countries around the world, border control is becoming more stringent and unfortunately even genuine refugees who seek asylum on humanitarian or political grounds are refused entry. In some cases even internal migration is discouraged, with rural “immigrants” being refused inclusion into the urban societies where they wish to move to.

The question is a vexed one and a fine balance must be struck. Australia sorely needs to increase its population and especially so where young, skilled workers and professionals are involved. We have an increasingly ageing population and unless we maintain high levels of our tax-paying workforce, then we shall be in trouble by 2020.We need an influx of migrants that will integrate into our society, into our workforce, into our tax system, into our economic equations. At the same time, we must invest into our infrastructure and resources in order to cope with an increased population.

The answer lies with our politicians, our policies and with our longer-term economic planning. Will we be able to solve the equation? Will we be assured of a future where our lives and our standard of living are of the requisite high level that we have all become accustomed to? Will we be able to show compassion on the one hand but also good long-term planning for our financial stability and survival in the even tougher times ahead?

tragedy |ˈtrajidē| noun ( pl. -dies)
1 An event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe: A tragedy that killed 95 people | His life had been plagued by tragedy.
2 A play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, esp. one concerning the downfall of the main character.
• The dramatic genre represented by such plays: Greek tragedy. Compare with comedy .
ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French tragedie, via Latin from Greek tragōidia, apparently from tragos ‘goat’ (from the bucolic plays in honour of Dionysus) + ōidē ‘song, ode.’ Compare with tragic.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

AN AUSTRALIAN CAROL


“Five great enemies to peace inhabit with us: Avarice, ambition, envy, anger, and pride. If those enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace.” - Francesco Petrarca

As Christmas approaches, the pace is increasing and things at work seem to get more hectic as we try to tie up loose ends but also deal with the last demands of this year’s business. Nevertheless, the spirit of the season has started to invade the workplace and Christmas decorations adorn the front desk and a Christmas tree greets visitors at reception. People’s desks are showing signs of the Festive Season ahead, draped with tinsel or bearing miniature Christmas trees. Not only the local students, but even our international students (who are Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist) enjoy the decorations and seem to get into the joyous spirit of the season, which after all carries a universal message of peace, love and brotherhood of all human beings.

Gifts have started to be exchanged as some staff leave early for their holiday break and this Friday we have a special gathering to give out our Kris Kringle gifts. This afternoon I joined some colleagues at the Alfred Hospital, with which we are collaborating on a research project and we all had Christmas drinks and exchanged good wishes for the festive season.s

Yesterday while going to the train station, my ear caught the familiar strains of an Australian carol that we sang in school. I shall offer this as the poem for Poetry Wednesday:

COUNTRY CAROL
(The Oxen)


As you sit by your wide open window
On that most blessed night of the year,
And you look at your slumbering oxen
In the paddock the wind has burned sere;
And you think of that old Christmas story,
Of the beast and the Heavenly glory
You’ll remember it tells how at midnight,
When the bells are beginning to ring
All the oxen kneel down in their paddocks
As they worship the Heavenly King.

All the oxen so patient and lowing
Bowing down to the infant most Holy,
While you gaze through the bright summer moonlight
All the pasture will glimmer like gold;
And you’ll wait by the wide open window
Just to see if such wonders unfold
Just to see if the oxen are kneeling
When the Christmas bells all begin pealing.

John Wheeler
The first set of carols by William G. James (1895-1977) was published in 1948, the second in 1954 and the third in 1961. The first five carols (Set I) are probably still the most popular of them all. They have become something of an icon in Australian Christmas celebrations. What is it that makes them so popular? To begin with, Wheeler’s words transport Christmas from a chilly Northern Winter to a humid Southern Summer. They are populated with local flora and fauna. Oriental wise men are transmuted into hardy Australian drovers. As for the music, it is simple and accessible, with memorable, “hummable” tunes, which are always enjoyable were enjoyable. James wrote in this vein ‘for the people’, and judging by the popularity of his carols, he succeeded…

The painting above is "Sommerlandskap med Kuer" by Anders Askevold.

HALCYON DAYS


“Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other ‘sins’ are invented nonsense.  (Hurting yourself is not a sin - just stupid.)” Robert A. Heinlein

I had a dinner related to work, to attend tonight and this came after a very busy day. Consequently it was another day of non-stop activity with something happening concurrently. There is a lot to be said about multi-tasking and generally this is what saves me (and the day, in general!).

The yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, is the birthday plant for this day.  It symbolises singularity.  It is a lunar plant according to the astrologers.  The church has dedicated the plant to St Peter.

The Halcyon Days are meant to be a few weeks respite from the wintry and typically blustery weather that is seen in this time of the year. The ancient Greeks named these days after Halcyon, a seabird who once was a woman. She was changed into a bird for a transgression but Zeus took pity on the bird when he heard her sad song as she tried to protect her fledglings in a sea storm. He decreed that these weeks before and after the winter solstice should be kind and mild, thus allowing Halcyon preserve her brood from the severity of the winter weather.

There are several Greek myths regarding these days and the birds that traditionally nest and brood during the winter.

Alcyone was daughter of Aeolus and Aegiale. Her husband was king Ceynx, who was very content with his wife and life, and decided this happiness was reason enough for him to call his wife Hera after the Queen of the gods. He also made Alcyone call him Zeus (King of the gods). This of course, angered the gods, and they changed the couple guilty of hubris into birds as a punishment. Alcyone was turned into a kingfisher, or Halcyon, and Ceynx into a Gannet, or Ceyx.

According to another myth Ceynx drowned in a shipwreck during a trip to consult an oracle. This made Alcyone follow him by jumping into the sea. The gods took pity on them, and transformed them into sea birds.  The Kingfisher has its nesting period during the winter solstice, and during the winter months when the weather is calm for a few days, the Greeks say we have “Halcyon days”. The term has become extended to denote any peaceful time or respite in troubled times.

Monday, 13 December 2010

"UNLEASHED" - MOVIE MONDAY


“Force is all-conquering, but its victories are short-lived.” - Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday we went out briefly in the morning, but we decided to come back as the weather was turning for the worse with some rain on the way and besides which, we were exhausted. It is quite tiring going to shopping centres at this time of the year as they are overcrowded, noisy, hard to park in and so bothersome! I must be getting old…

In the afternoon we watched a movie. It was quite a violent film, but at the same time it had a message. It is amazing how much violence there is in movies nowadays and even though We do not like violent films, but one’s choice is narrowed if one avoids them religiously. Also, one may miss out on quite a good film, whose violent content has a point. We watched “Unleashed” the 2005 Louis Letterier film written by Luc Besson, with Jet Li, Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0342258/). Jet Li is a martial arts movie star (usually acting in fightfest-type movies) and immediately I saw his name on the cover of the DVD I was skeptical, however, the saleswoman at the video store spoke quite highly of the movie, and after reading the plot, I was convinced to get the movie to watch.

It was a good choice, as there was drama, action (and violence, as I said), poignancy, emotion and tension. This is a departure from what Jet Li movies are like, where mostly he is the fighting machine à la Bruce Lee, and where acting is secondary (or tertiary?) to the martial arts displays. “Untouched” is primarily a human story, with the action and violence displayed an integral part of it, and grimly necessary for the story to make its point.

Danny (Jet Li) is a fighting machine who has been brought up to live and breathe martial arts and to never lose. The man responsible for making Danny the perfect fighting animal is Bart (Bob Hoskins), a Glasgow loans shark who has trained Danny from a young boy to live like a dog (hence the alternative name of the film “Danny the Dog”) and wear a heavy metal collar. When the collar is removed, Danny has been trained to attack on Bart’s order and fight, maim, kill until Bart tells him to stop. Danny knows of no other life and despite some tender memories he retains in the deep recesses of his mind, he crouches in his cage until released to do Bart’s evil work.

A “settling of affairs” goes wrong and Danny ends up with Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano tuner and his adopted daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). Sam and Victoria manage to get Danny to behave like a human again. The power of music and Danny’s inherent musical talent help in this transformation, but unfortunately just as Danny begins to enjoy his new existence, Bart and his cronies reappear to reclaim Danny and to make some shocking revelations about his past.

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie, especially by the excellent job of acting that Jet Li did. He was able to prove himself as a dramatic actor, not only a martial arts expert. Bob Hoskins was excellent as the villain Bart, while Morgan Freeman, true-to-type, did another fine job as a supporting actor and “good guy”. Young Kerry Condon plays with enthusiasm and verve, but still has to earn some acting stripes (I was not convinced by her portrayal of a musical genius!).

The film is worth watching despite the violence – which in this case has a place. It is actually gratifying in some scenes to see the bad guys really get a good hiding (what am I saying?!). I am sure that this film will touch you and Jet Li’s performance was quite an eye-opener for me.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

ART SUNDAY - MUNCH


“Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need to know of hell.” - Emily Dickinson

Edvard Munch, born on December 12th, 1863 in Löten, Norway and died January 23rd, 1944, was a Norwegian artist whose highly evocative treatment of psychological themes was built on late 19th-century Symbolism. His work greatly influenced German Expressionism in the early 20th century. His most famous painting, “The Scream” (or sometimes called “The Cry” of 1893), can be seen as a symbol of modern spiritual anguish.

Munch was born into a middle-class family that was plagued with sickness and death. His mother died when he was five, his eldest sister when he was 14, both of tuberculosis; Munch eventually depicted the death of his sister in his first masterpiece, “The Sick Child” (1885–86). Munch’s father and brother also died when he was still young, and another sister developed mental illness. “Illness, insanity, and death,” as he said, “were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.”

Munch assimilated French Impressionism after a trip to Paris in 1889 and his contact from about 1890 with the work of the Post-Impressionist painters Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In some of his paintings from this period he adopted the Impressionists’ open brushstrokes, but Gauguin’s use of the bounding line was to prove more congenial to him, as was the Synthetist artists’ ambition to go beyond the depiction of external nature and give form to an inner vision.

The artist’s own style fully developed about 1892. The flowing use of line in his new paintings was similar to that of contemporary Art Nouveau but Munch used line not as decoration but as a vehicle for psychological expression. This outraged Norwegian critics and was echoed by their counterparts in Berlin when Munch exhibited a large number of his paintings there in 1892. The violent emotion of his paintings, their frank representations of sexuality, and his innovative technique (with paintings which most people found looking unfinished) created a scandal, which helped make his name known throughout Germany, and from there his reputation spread farther. Munch lived mainly in Berlin in 1892–95 and then in Paris in 1896–97, and he continued to move around extensively until he settled in Norway in 1910.

Munch joined the revolt against naturalistic 19th-century academic painting and also went beyond the naturalism still inherent in Impressionism. His concentration on emotional essentials sometimes led to radical simplifications of form and an expressive use of colour. A number of younger artists, followed his lead and created the school of German Expressionism. His work continues to be relevant as it highlights the typically modern situation of the individual facing the uncertainty of a rapidly changing contemporary world.

Above is his “Separation” of 1900 (Oil on canvas 125.5 x 190.5 cm).  I find this an extremely evocative and expressive painting of a situation most of us have faced and had emotional experiences of. A lover clutches his heart with a red hand, as though it is alight with the flames that consume his breast. His eyes are closed and we see through their blind vision, his beloved fleeing away, like a shade departing for the other life. The painting could have just as well have been called “Orpheus and Euridice” or “Romeo and Juliet”, or “Tristan and Isolde”. The use of colour is particularly striking, with the deathly green of the lover and the distant sunny yellow of remembered happinesses colouring the beloved’s shade. In the foreground a reddish orange vegetative form is like an ever-burning fire of love that mirrors the fires in the heart of the lover. The greys, blues, olives and black of the background set the mournful tones of the scene. It is separation, indeed!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

IF LOVE'S A SWEET PASSION...


“For you see, each day I love you more; Today more than yesterday and less than tomorrow.” - Rosemonde Gérard


A busy day again today, only this time at home and in the garden. Then shopping and finally in the evening the sweet delights of love…

A delicious moment from Henry Purcell’s opera “The Faerie Queen” – If Love’s A Sweet Passion:



If love's a sweet passion why does it torment?
If a bitter, oh tell me, whence comes my content?
Since I suffer with pleasure, why should I complain,
or grieve at my fate, when I know it’s in vain?
Yet so pleasing the pain is so soft as the dart,
That at once it both wounds me and tickles my heart.

Friday, 10 December 2010

A CHRISTMAS DO IN ST KILDA


“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” - Ovid

We had our work Christmas function this evening. It was initially thought by all that the choice of venue was not ideal as it was in St Kilda, whereas our campus is in the City Centre. We usually have our Christmas do’s in the City, where it is central and people are familiar with the public transport and how to get home. It was a 40 minute drive from the City to St Kilda, and as much on the trams. Peak hour traffic close to Christmas on a Friday night was the reason for that, even though St Kilda is only about 6 km south of the City Centre.

Nevertheless, once everyone got there, it was good and we were able to have drink, relax, nibble on some food and generally relax and have a good time. The function was at “La Kitchen”, a bar/bistro and Breakfast Restaurant associated with the Cosmopolitan Hotel at 2-8 Carlisle St in St Kilda. These were my old haunts as we had lived around that neighbourhood, in Elwood during my secondary school years. The place ha changed quite a lot, obviously, but there was still the same feeling of familiarity, while nostalgia for days long gone overtook me. Several familiar landmarks are still there of course, like the Luna Park, The Esplanade, the Palais Theatre and the familiar streetscapes of Acland St, Fitzroy St, the parks and the hustle and bustle of this most cosmopolitan of Melbourne suburbs (until not too long ago, the red light suburb!).

“La Kitchen” is a centrally situated breakfast-only restaurant that mixes chic and homely stylings with its white-brown-red colour scheme wooden tables and chairs with a red retro ottoman, on polished tiled floors. An outdoor patio looking over Carlisle Street is an extra attraction special to La Kitchen. We were the only ones present as the venue was booked out for us. It ended up being quite nice affair, with an open bar, canapés and finger food, friendly staff and a chatty, sociable group of work colleagues, some family and friends.

I certainly did not stay until the end of the night as it was a late night last night and a very busy day again today. However, it was good to see everyone having a good time and as far as work Christmas are concerned, this was quite a nice quiet affair. I forgot to mention that we had an entertainer booked who amused the crowd with magic card tricks. Cute idea…

Another year nearly over, another year that has flown by!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A DAY TRIP TO ADELAIDE


“Plough deep while sluggards sleep.” Benjamin Franklin

I’ve had a day in Adelaide today for work. Much of my job relates to maintaining our organisational compliance with regulating bodies, legislators and professional bodies. Today’s trip was very much in relation to this aspect of my work. I also took the opportunity to have a staff meeting and do some staff training. I checked out the library on our Adelaide campus and had a nice chat with our librarian. He is very technology-savvy and has a keen interest in online learning. He is in fact the “Virtual Librarian” of our Perth campus (which he also visits regularly!).

As is usual with these day trips away from Melbourne, I leave at the crack of dawn and end up returning home late at night. Thus I manage and squeeze as much as possible into the trip, which leaves me with hardly any time to do anything else except work, work, work! Makes for a very long day, but the benefit is that I can sleep in my own bed, rather than staying overnight in a hotel room. Once one has travelled for work for a while, travel loses its mystique and it becomes just another commuting trip.

I am glad the weekend is looming ahead as this week has been very busy and very tiring. It will be a lazy weekend of relaxation if I can help it, but with Christmas looming ahead, I think Saturday at least will be just as hectic as the week has been. Friday night we have our Christmas work function and it could not have come at a worse time. I know that many people will not be attending as the venue is inconveniently located for most and this week has been very full for everyone. However, as befits my position I have to be there and press the flesh…

One of the places I do try to visit if I stay in Adelaide for more than one day is Glenelg. This is located about 10 km from the Adelaide city centre and it is a seaside suburb that has the air of a cosmopolitan resort. It faces the ocean, built on the shores of Holdfast Bay, and has many sandy white beaches, as well as a modern marina. One may catch glimpses of dolphins and seals sporting in the pristine ocean waters and the sunsets are quite magnificent. There are many shops, galleries and museums, restaurants, bars and cafés, as well as an abundance of hotels and motels.

The climate is Mediterranean with temperature maxima around 30˚C during the dry summer months and around 15˚C in winter. This lends itself to many sporting activities and water-based leisure. One may take the tram from the city centre and 25 minutes later be in a cosmopolitan resort with vibrant nightlife and sun-filled relaxing days.

Glenelg is the site of South Australia’s original mainland settlement in 1836. In 1836 between July and December eight ships came across to Kangaroo Island and aboard two of those boats were Colonel William Light, aboard the HMS Rapid and George Strickland Kingston aboard the HMS Cygnet. Light and Kingston both set off to survey the coastline and find a bigger land mass for the colonists to settle on. This is when they came across what is now known as Glenelg. Glenelg was named after Lord Glenelg the Secretary of State for the Colonists. In December 28th 1836 Captain Hindmarsh arrived aboard the HMS Buffalo. There was a replica of this ship made and is running as a restaurant in Wigly Reserve today.

The 381 metre Jetty Glenelg Jetty (“The Pier”) was built in 1859. In 1873 the lighthouse that was situated at the end of the jetty caught on fire, completely destroying it. Then in April 1948 Glenelg was hit by a hurricane and the jetty was washed away. This only left the kiosk and aquarium, which was unsafe and therefore had to be demolished. In 1969 the jetty was rebuilt, but this time only being 215 metres long.

The Pier Hotel (Stamford Grand) was the first building to be built in 1856 and was a lot smaller than the Stamford Grand is today. It was then removed and replaced by a 3 storey building in 1912. The building was demolished again in 1990 and replaced with a more modern and stylish Stamford Grand.

The HMS Buffalo is located in Wiggly Reserve and is a replica of the ship that came out in 1836, with the first Governor (Hindmarsh) from England. The replica of the Buffalo is today used as a restaurant, but there are many artifacts from the actual Buffalo in the restaurant for the visitor to look at.

The town hall was built in 1875 and was designed by Edmund Wright, but without the clock and the clock tower, its purpose originally being to be used as the Institute building. In 1887 the Glenelg Council bought the building and was thereafter used as the Town Hall. In 1997 the Glenelg and Brighton council formed the Holdfast Bay Council and the town hall was no longer being used, this is when it turned into the historical museum.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A RAINY DAY


“Healing rain is a real touch from God. It could be physical healing or emotional or whatever.” Michael W. Smith

Another busy at work today, interrupted only by a stroll to the shops at lunchtime as I wanted to busy some stationery. The Christmas shopping fever has started and the carols are to be heard everywhere, while the garish decorations are up and tinsel has spread like a lurid fungus over every available support. People are rushing everywhere buying every sort of shlocky merchandise, gimcrack gewgaws and kitschy contraptions. Christmas, bah – humbug! Well, at least as far as Christmas in the shopping centre is concerned. Passing by a church, a modest sign was declaring: “Peace, joy, love, good tidings – Christmas!” Now, that is more like the sort of Christmas message that I want to see…

It was a warm and rainy day again in Melbourne today and I avoided getting wet as I took my umbrella with me. Not that I had occasion to use it, but it is a well known fact that if you take your umbrella with you, it will not rain while you are out. Forget it and it is bound to pour! Nevertheless, once I was safely back in the office (and yes I had my umbrella with me, I did not forget anywhere), the heavens opened up and I was reminded of subtropical summer rains and tropical monsoons.

It is Poetry Wednesday today and I inspired by the falling rain and the train trip home in a packed commuter carriage:

Summer Rain


A leaden sky,
The heat oppressive.
The sweaty body next to me
Reeks of rue-scented sweat.
Sighs of discomfort in the crowd –
Short tempers and eyes so hard
They’ll even scratch a diamond.

Electric sparks
Seem to connect the floppy bodies
Of the commuters,
And if they touch perchance,
There is communicated tension
That erupts into disquietude,
Perturbation, conflict, quarrel.

A raindrop falls,
And then another, and another.
Big, fat, splashy drops
That coalesce and run in rivulets,
Soaking earth, wetting the concrete;
The asphalt steams and shines,
Catalysis occurs.

The atmosphere is cleaned,
The current stopped,
The static discharged,
The circuits shorted.

As blessed rain falls in sheets
I’m soaked and forget the fusty
Closeness of confinement
In packed commuter train carriage.

A RETIRING TEAM MEMBER


“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”  Henry Ford

After a very busy day at work today, I had to attend a retirement dinner given in honour of a former colleague of mine at my last place of employment. It was something that I was looking forward to, as I had not seen many of my former colleagues for several months, some of them for longer than that. I have always been lucky in my work environment as in the several jobs I have had over the years I have worked with (for the most part) very agreeable people and there has mostly been a very good climate of teamwork and collegiality. I could not but feel a little nostalgic. Not because I am not enjoying my new job, nor because I don’t have good colleagues presently; but rather because I had spent many, many years in my previous job and had a very good relationship with my colleagues.

There were 24 of us present and I knew 19 of these people, the remaining five being new, having joined the University after I left it. The function was held in an Italian restaurant in one of the Eastern outer suburbs of Melbourne and the food was fine. After all it was the company and the function that we were all there for. It was great to have a chat with everyone and catch up on all the news and the latest happenings in people’s lives.

After the dinner, there was the customary speech of farewell and response by the retiree. The latter was an excellent speech and it got me thinking as it concentrated on the things that make us enjoy our job. The main thrust of this talk was around three important desiderata for a good workplace: Camaraderie, teamwork and inspiration. It was gratifying to hear that our retiring colleague had found all of those in ample amounts in her workplace. She singled out three people that represented those qualities to her. Her closest work colleague she identified with teamwork, a lecturer in the department she had representing camaraderie and me, as her supervisor she had chosen to embody the notion of inspiration for her.

I was very much touched and flattered by this choice. I was very pleased during my time at the former University I worked, that my Unit was the most efficient, the most united, the best performing in the whole Department. I think that the teamwork, camaraderie and inspiration were qualities shared by all unit members and we all felt part of the team, worked together as “comrades-in-arms” and we managed to inspire one another on a daily basis.

We dealt with problems as they arose and put in place strategies to pre-empt disasters. We supported each other, forgave each other’s foibles, applauded the successes of each individual and celebrated the achievements of the team. We were sensitive to each other’s needs and whenever possible we helped one another to do the job better. I think leaving this team was the most difficult decision I had to make when assessing whether or not to move on and accept another offer of a job.

Now in my new place of employment, I have set about the task of creating once again the same environment. People working together as teams with integrity, ever mindful of the quality of their work and devising ways of improving it. Working in a team-empowered manner so as to accomplish all that each person is capable of in an environment of trust and respect for each other. Sounds simple, but in practice there are many obstacles to overcome, as there are always some “difficult” people that try to subvert the process. Persistence and goodwill wins over some, while some others unfortunately have to leave the team, just like a rotten apple has to be removed from the barrel to prevent spoilage of the rest…