Saturday, 25 October 2014

There were no words for

what most of us would consider to be basic concepts, no words for "knowledge", "experience" and "institution". There were other words too but I was not keeping a list.
The Senior Cat and I were watching a short documentary about "shamans" in Sikkim - that tiny kingdom in the clouds of the Himalaya which was taken over by India for strategic reasons. I can remember reading about Sikkim as a child - in a book belonging to my paternal grandfather. It sounded strange and romantic but rather uncomfortable to me even then. Last night it still sounded that way.
The shamans of Sikkim are not charlatans. They are men of great medical knowledge. They use the herbs and other plants found in the surrounding rain forest to treat their patients and that treatment is often efficacious. Many people find that remarkable but we really should not. They have been gathering knowledge for thousands of years.  
Sikkim is a largely closed country. The last king of Sikkim ensured that. Tourists are almost unknown and it is almost impossible for an outsider to settle there. The documentary followed a young man who works for a government organisation. It is his job to try and learn as much as he can about the work of the shamans and record what he can - before it is lost. 
To say he has a difficult job would be an understatement. What makes shamanistic medicine work is perhaps a combination of sound medical practice and the belief that it is going to work.  It's complex. The shaman seem to have good reason for what they do mixed in with a belief system that Westerners would often find strange. If I were in Sikkim and not within reach of Western medicine I think I would feel quite safe allowing a respected shaman to treat me. "First do no harm" would seem to be their over-riding principle as well.
But what really fascinated me was listening to this young man. He was being interviewed in his own language but he is well educated in the Western sense as well. He knows English. His speech was scattered with English words. He was not showing off. I am sure he could have been interviewed in English. The reason for using English words however seemed to be quite different. The concepts do not exist in the language he was speaking - or at least they do not exist in the sense that we would understand them.
If I think about it that way it is an extraordinary reflection of their belief in where knowledge and experience come from. Yes, one shaman talked about watching his father, also a shaman but they seem to believe that their capacity to use herbs and to heal comes from the gods. That is an entirely different understanding of knowledge and experience. The belief in those things appears to be an important part of their ability to heal.
The linguistic psychology fascinates me. I would love to know more.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Does someone become

"self-radicalised" and, if so, how?
I am not sure about "self-radicalisation". I think it is much more complex than that. I doubt anyone sets out with the conscious aim of becoming a radical. Individuals have to be influenced by other things.
What happened in Canada yesterday was appalling - and yes, of course it could happen anywhere. I even heard someone say, "I wish he'd done it to our mob and succeeded." They probably weren't being serious but it made me, quite literally, shiver.
People say that sort of thing without meaning it at all. They also say things like "I could kill him" and "I could strangle her" when they are frustrated or annoyed with someone. It is not nice or polite but it seen as a way of "letting off steam".
The young Australian in the IS video sprouting hate and death is something entirely different. Is he sane? I doubt it. He has certainly been "brain-washed". His thinking has, somehow, been successfully changed. That is what worries me. How was that done?
Do we have to take some responsibility as a society for that? Do we actually isolate people - or allow them to become isolated?
I work from home. It would be easy to become isolated. I could go all day without seeing anyone but the Senior Cat. That almost never happens though. We might have neighbours come in or, more often than not, I have to visit the library or the Post Office or go to a meeting. There might be shopping to do. I see people I know - or people who know me even when I don't know them. We say hello. It isn't like visiting friends or doing something in a group but it is human contact of a sort. And then I belong to a knitting guild. Knitting is a hobby. I enjoy it.
But I also "lead" two knitting groups and teach knitting to a small group of teens with disabilities. It may sound like a lot but it really means a social activity about once a week. The first two groups are also what I consider to be "support" groups. There are people who attend both of them who need those groups for reasons quite unrelated to knitting. They need the company. They need support.
I wonder if some people have that sort of support. I suspect they don't. They are lonely.
The teens recognised that long ago. All but one of them are now in the last year of secondary school. The other has one year more to go. Will they go on meeting? It will be more difficult but they have been discussing ways of doing it - and I think the bonds are so strong that their friendships will be life-long. Social media helps even now.
A big city, where you are surrounded by people, can be the loneliest place in the world if you don't know anyone. Interaction via an electronic screen is not the same thing. I really enjoy my interactions with many people via social media. I have not met most of them and I know I probably never will. That doesn't matter we can still enjoy a form of friendship and company. But I also know that I need, for my own mental health, to see people in the flesh from time to time.  It's a different sort of relationship.
Social media can however make it easy for us to believe in friendships which don't really exist. If you are young and lonely and someone "friends" you on social media and then starts to tell you in a persuasive fashion that you are "important" and need to do something important then you might well come to believe it.
I know not everyone will agree but I don't really believe people become radicals in isolation. I think they may become radicals because they are isolated. 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

"Can you come and

have a look at this?" the Senior Cat asked me.
He doesn't often interrupt me if I am at the computer so I assumed it was important.
He had begun work on what will be a bigger project than he expected. A neighbour had asked him whether he could "fix" a sideboard she had bought. The Senior Cat hates to say "no" so he agreed but, as is often the case, this is full of unexpected problems.
The object in question probably dates from the 1930's. (I did some on line research and found some of very similar design dating from that era.) It is, to put it mildly, not well made.
The Senior Cat showed me what was bothering him. Was he right? I got right down to look at it in a way he could not. Unfortunately he was right, indeed it looked worse from where I could see it. I could see the same long split in the timber at a crucial point. It will need urgent attention.
And then I looked at the drawers. There are three. The Senior Cat had taken them out and put them to one side.
"The drawers are pretty awful too," I told him.
He had not actually looked at them. I showed him. The runners are so worn that they actually cave in. The backs are coming away. He groaned.
We spent more time going over the object. I am not by any means a woodworker although living with the Senior Cat has taught me something. The timber which was used has shrunk. There are gaps where there should not be gaps. The back is a piece of cheap, cracked plywood which is breaking off at the edges. Inside someone has covered two shelves with cheap brown plastic which is intended to look like timber but looks like - well cheap brown plastic.
The neighbour did not buy it as a piece of antique furniture but she still paid a hefty price for it in a second hand furniture store. She liked the look of it. If you like that sort of thing then yes, it is pleasing to look at from a distance and it would make a nice addition to a room decorated in that style.
The Senior Cat asked me if she could return it and get her money back. Unfortunately the answer is no. A smart dealer might give her a few dollars for it but the second hand dealer must have heaved a sigh of relief when it went out the door.
Last night the Senior Cat explained all this. Did she still want him to do anything with it.
Yes, she is in love with it. Please would he do whatever he could with it.
It's the sort of challenge he still loves. I'll leave him to his wood dust and glue and slivers of timber to repair the cracks - and hope she lovingly dusts it when it is done.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

So our former Prime Minister

Gough Whitlam has died. He was 98.
I met him on a number of occasions. No, I do not normally hob-nob with Prime Ministers - although I have met some. I met Mr Whitlam because of Mrs Whitlam or, as she told me "Margaret, because that is who I am".
I quite liked Margaret. I met her first at a Writers' Week. We also had other interests, largely literary, in common. She was immensely supportive of International Literacy Year. It was her efforts behind the scenes that saw the Whitlam era spending on school libraries. Whitlam was not nearly as keen or interested in spending money on libraries. I doubt many Prime Ministers are.
Margaret was very forthright. If she didn't like something then you knew about it. Other people told me I was fortunate that she had "decided to like me". We never talked politics but I suspect she knew that my approach to politics was not hers - or indeed anybody else's approach. 
Whitlam could be equally forthright and he was liable to ask questions. The questions would not require an answer but rather a confirmation that the person being questioned shared the same view as Whitlam himself. If you didn't that tended to be an end to the conversation - unless Margaret was around. Yes, Whitlam was arrogant. I did not like him.
The media is currently full of what a wonderful Prime Minister he was. He wasn't.
Oh yes, he withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam - but he would have done what the previous government had done and sent them there in the first place.
He is also said to have set up the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and started indigenous Australians on the road to "land rights". The reality is that, while these things happened under his watch, the previous government was already moving in the same direction. It was the previous government which had called the 1967 referendum - the one in which Australians voted overwhelmingly to include indigenous Australians in the census. (Contrary to popular belief they already had the right to vote but were not required to attend the ballot box.)
It is said that Whitlam dismantled the White Australia Policy - the policy which restricted but did not completely forbid the migration of other ethnic groups to Australia. Again, this is incorrect. It was the previous government which brought in the Migration Act of 1966 which effectively ended the policy. 
Whitlam is also said to have begun diplomatic relations with Asia, particularly China. He was one of the first high-level Australians to visit the country and relations were formalised under him but again the reality is that moves had been made in that direction. There was already a great deal of activity going on but it was low key because of a general concern in the community about "Communism".  Whitlam did it with an arrogance that nearly wrecked the careful diplomacy.
His government introduced Medibank, our national health system and cut out university fees. Both those things, seemingly sound and fair in principle, have proved unsustainable. It was his own side of politics which reintroduced university fees and increased the now Medicare levy.
Whitlam was said to be a supporter of the arts. His wife did far more. She supported the purchase of Jackson Pollock's "Blue Poles" - a controversial addition to the Australian National Gallery. Perhaps it helped in that it got people talking about the arts - but the purchase was not well received by many in the arts community. 
Whitlam was said to be a supporter of women's rights. It was Margaret who pushed this from behind the scenes. She demanded equal treatment for herself and expected it to be given to other women. Whitlam himself was less than enthusiastic in private.
And Whitlam reduced the voting age to eighteen. It was a cynical move. He believed that the overwhelming majority of 18-21 year old citizens now able to vote would vote Labor and thus ensure that Labor remained in power.
His government was filled with scandal but it was his secret attempt to raise $8 billion through an outside agent, one Mr Khemlani, that eventually brought about the circumstances for his dismissal. The Senate blocked supply because the country was facing bankruptcy. Whitlam and his government had simply been introducing "reforms" without the money to pay for them.
If, instead of being dismissed on November 11 1975, Whitlam had gone to an election he would have lost. His dismissal allowed him to be seen as a martyr. It allowed him, and Labor, to "maintain the rage". The reality is that it was an incompetent government that put in place populist ideas without the means to pay for them.
"Gough doesn't understand money," Margaret once told me when he came looking for money to buy something to drink. He had, apparently, come out without his wallet. She was right.
It made me wonder what their conversational life was like. I suspect it was "robust".

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Rolling Stones are in town

and a great deal of fuss is being made about their presence.
They were, I believe, supposed to be here earlier in the year - something to do with the re-opening of the city's central oval. I was not interested in the re-opening of the oval. I have never been to a football or cricket match there. (Yes, I know - I am a sports' heathen!)
I am not terribly interested in the Rolling Stones either. I know who they are - something which had to be explained to a friend of the Senior Cat. (The Senior Cat - who detests "pop" music - actually managed to explain that himself. I won't say the description was particularly accurate but it did give his friend the general idea. I was proud of the Senior Cat.)
Would I recognise a song by the Rolling Stones? Um... I think "Ruby Tuesday" was one of theirs. And that is about it. I know. Appalling. Dreadful. Disgraceful.
Now, ask me about the Beatles? I can, I think, name "the Fab Four" and perhaps a half a dozen of their songs...I might even recognise more.
That has nothing to do with being wildly fond of the Beatles. I wasn't. I grew up in a family where my parents did not allow that sort of music to be played. We grew up with Gilbert & Sullivan (whistled out of tune by the Senior Cat), Mozart and Bach, English folk songs and Wesleyan hymns. I just had more to do with people who liked the Beatles and they tried to "educate" me.
But people are currently hanging around the establishment the Rolling Stones are apparently staying in and trying to catch a glimpse. Why?
I remember the year the Beatles came to Adelaide and it seemed "everyone" (except me) was trying to catch a glimpse of them too. (The alarm clock went off in Latin lesson at the presumed moment of their touch down on the tarmac. We knew better than to be absent at the great moment.) I couldn't understand the fuss. I still don't understand.
I once shared a lift with a very, very VIP. He came in on the floor after me. There were just the two of us. He looked at me in a resigned sort of way as if to say, "Here we go again. I suppose I'll have to...."
He has a reputation for being very polite and pleasant to everyone - including his staff.  I took a risk. With a smile I said, "It's all right. I don't know who you are if you don't want me to."
He actually laughed and we had a brief and perfectly pleasant conversation about something entirely different - but not the weather.
I met him again later, in another context altogether. Someone was about to formally introduce me but he stopped them and said, "Thank you. We've already met."
He didn't explain where and neither did I. Out of all the thousands of people he had met in his lifetime he remembered a brief and very ordinary conversation in a lift.
I suspect that this is what celebrities sometimes crave - a little bit of "ordinary". It seems "ordinary" can sometimes be "extraordinary" - and I won't be hanging around for a glimpse of Mick Jagger.

Monday, 20 October 2014

There has been an interesting contribution

posted to another blog site over the weekend. It raised the question of whether it is possible to feel "ashamed" as a nation.
It brought back memories of one of the actions that angered me most about one of our former Prime Ministers. Kevin Rudd presumed to give an apology on behalf of others to indigenous Australians for the treatment they had received. It was seen as a great moment in the history of Australia.
For me it was anything but a great moment. I cringed. The way many, indeed most, indigenous Australians were treated (and often are still treated) was wrong. I don't deny that but Mr Rudd had no business apologising for it. He should not have said "sorry". Some indigenous friends found it insulting. They felt Mr Rudd should simply acknowledged that the past was, by our current standards, wrong and then said every effort would be made to do better. Yes, as the saying goes, the past is another country and things were done differently there. We can acknowledge that and, if we were wise, we would learn from the experience of others.
As adults we are presumed to know the likely consequences of our actions and we have to take responsibility for them. We cannot take responsibility for a past over which we had no control. We can disagree but we cannot feel an emotion on their behalf or on a nation's behalf. Emotions are personal things. I believe they are what we feel. We can empathise with others and sympathise with others of course but I also don't believe we can apologise for others over whom we have no control.
So can a "nation" feel "ashamed"?  No. People within it can but a nation is an idea not a person and people differ on every subject under the sun.
I might be wrong of course. I am undoubtedly wrong about a lot of things.


Sunday, 19 October 2014

I succumbed to more

book buying yesterday...but this time I promise you that the books are presents for small humans. Small humans need books.
The day before yesterday I had the totally delicious experience of snuggling up with the youngest granddaughter of the neighbour who acted as Florence Nightingale when I sliced my thumb. We read a picture book together. "three and more than a half" and already passionate about books and words. On the days that her grandparents care for her she gets at least a half a dozen books read to her but, given half a chance, she will come over to me and ask me to read with her.
Her grandparents read to her. They do it well too. Her grandfather is particularly good at making the appropriate noises in the appropriate places. Her grandmother talks about the pictures and helps her to read them.
But A... is getting ready to read. She almost knows the letters of the alphabet. She can read her own name. She can read her sister's name. She recognises several other words without hesitation. And so, if we read a book, we read it together. I let her choose the pace and try to make sense of those strange squiggles on the page. I let her tell me about the pictures because reading the pictures is an important part of reading the story. I'll tell her that a word like "elephant" is one she knows already. I have to judge whether she needs me to tell her, guide her, encourage her or let her go her own way.
     "You're reading her, aren't you?" her mother commented when she came to find us all.
Yes, I suppose I am reading a small human. It's a difficult task. I don't always get it right either. She will tell me, "I do so know that word!" Oops!
But reading her is like reading a good book. Her plotting is unexpected and exciting and I want to go on reading.