Monthly Archives: May 2007

The skeptical mayor of Kagoshima

goldminer.gifYears ago I was in Japan with a delegation from the Western Australian Goldfields.  We had a mayoral reception at the Kagoshima City Hall.  It was all very formal, gifts were exchanged and an interpreter did his best to convey the abundance of best wishes expressed by both sides. 

Our delegation leader explained to the Japanese dignitaries that in the early days of the Goldfields, prospectors had traveled hundreds of kilometres on foot through the harsh Australian bush.  Often, all their meagre possessions were contained in a simple wooden wheelbarrow, which they pushed before them.  The image of the struggling miner with his wheelbarrow has since become an iconic part of Australian folklore and symbol of the Goldfields themselves.

As a result, our delegation presented to the Mayor of Kagoshima a palm-sized gold plated replica of the prospector’s wheelbarrow.  He handed it to the mayor and explained slowly that it was in a wheelbarrow like this that the early Goldfield’s pioneers had carried all their possessions into the rugged Australian interior. 

The interpreter paid careful attention and relayed the story to an attentive mayor.  When he had finished, however, his boss looked puzzled and muttered something that was then relayed to the leader of our delegation. 

“The mayor would like you to explain again, please,” he asked apologetically and then strained almost physically to catch every word as the story was told again.  When it was over he paused, obviously unwilling to relay to the mayor a tale that was no different to the last. 

The mayor waited expectantly and, it must be said, with an air that was somewhat skeptical.  A sense of embarrassment began to permeate the room. 

All of a sudden the interpreter smiled and stamped his foot with delight and relief exclaiming, “Ah, it is a miniature! It is a miniature!” 


Filed under australia, humour, life

All children die


My son is twelve and there is a pimple in the middle of his chin.  Yesterday morning he says to me, “Why do we have to have pimples, Dad? “  Then he adds, “Why do we have to have pubic hair, too, and all that stuff?  I mean, what’s the point?”

 “You’re asking the wrong person’” I answer.  “I haven’t even worked out why men have nipples yet.” He is twelve; he grins and he moves on. 

Last night we had a boy’s night while his 10-year-old sister went to a school disco.  Off to a games arcade where we worked in tandem to eliminate various virtual baddies and me feeling somehow effeminate in the way I gasp the purple gun and loose off panicky shots at everything that moves; followed by a coffee (his chilled, mine espresso) and then a curry puff as we walk around the markets. 

“Do you want chilli on that?” asks the Indian man behind the counter. 

“Do you want chilli?” I ask my son.  He nods. 

“It’s very hot, Sir,” says the Indian.   

“I know. He likes chilli.  We both do.” 

We walk around the markets eating our curry puffs; we compare it to the food hall in the next street.  My son says, “Well, Dad, it’s more expensive but at least you get chilli.” 

We walk past the bar because he likes to watch drunken people.  I watch him as he watches two buskers and realise that he is growing up and, even though I know all children must die, I suddenly know that I am going to miss him. 

Later, we are driving home and sitting at the lights.  Beck is blaring through the speakers and rain spits half-heartedly at the windscreen.   He turns to me and says quickly, “Love you, Dad.” 

Then we talk about our favourite Beck songs.  But in the silences I do wonder why we have to get pimples, pubic hair and stuff.


Filed under life, loss, Love, youth

Wherein obtuseness is turned to devilish advantage

besen04_familyguy-familytv.gifShortly after our first child was born, my ex-wife and I travelled north to show off the new baby to my parents.  One night, we all sat around the TV to watch a comedy that often ended on a somewhat risqué note.  I hoped that it would not be too blue and mentally prepared to create a brief diversion if the humour was lurching too near the edge.

   Sure enough, at the end of the show, the following joke is told:  Two nuns are having a bath together.  One nun says to the other one, “Where’s the soap?” to which the second nun replies, “Yes, it does, doesn’t it.” 

As usual the dim-witted character fails to get the joke and the main character raises her eyes as the credits roll. 

Dead silence meets this scene in the Oscarandre household. I notice my wife is blushing.  Then my mother who, with her religious proclivities, has been quite keen to have a laugh at the expense of the Catholics, says, “I don’t get that; do you, Bob?” 

My father looks equally mystified but has reached that age where he has come to expect it.  “It’s no good looking at me,” he says.   

So everyone looks at me instead. 

“Well,” I begin, “there is nothing to get.  That’s the point – the joke has no point.  It’s an absurdist piece that simply shows how dim-witted the character is.  She doesn’t even get a non-joke.” 

“Oh,” says my mother, her voice edged with disappointment.  “Well, it’s all a bit too clever for me.  Who wants a cup of tea?” 

As we make our way home that evening, my wife says to me, “You handled that joke business really well tonight.  You even had me convinced.”  Then she laughs, “Shit, I didn’t know where to look. Certainly not at your poor mum” 

Then she stops as if something has just hit her.  She is aware of my mind racing desperately, aware that I have become too silent. “You did just make all that stuff up, didn’t you?  You did get the joke?” 

But my confusion is too obvious, even in the darkness.  “You didn’t get it, did you?  You really thought that stuff you said was true.”  Now she is laughing and the tears are running down her face. 

By the next morning I have learned something about nuns and soap that I didn’t know before.  But that’s what happens when you are raised an Anglican, no one tells you anything.  


Filed under humour, life

A lament for lost ignorance


“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.”Oscar Wilde 

My parents have been married for 50 years and are getting on a bit; it doesn’t take much now to knock them down when some virus or other is going around.  So when I found out Mum was laid up with the ‘flu and unable to get out of bed, I rang Dad to see how she was going. 

“Doesn’t look good,” he tells me.  “She’s been in bed now for two days and can’t eat or even stand to have the light on.” 

A day later, however, I get a call from Mum who says she’s feeling much better. “Your Dad must have been worried though,” she says.  “He came into the bedroom yesterday and asked me how the washing machine worked.  And then he took notes so he wouldn’t forget.” 

I talk to Dad.  “You are a very lucky man,” I tell him, “ to get to your age and not know how to operate a washing machine.”  He chuckles.  They say it is a wise man that knows what he doesn’t know; it’s an even wiser man who knows what he doesn’t want to know. 

It’s all a bit different to my life spent half the week as a single Dad, maintaining a demanding career and keeping a house together.  In 10 years of married life I was gradually disabused of any blissful ignorance I’d had about the “proper way to do things.”  Some lessons remain:

  1. Clothes pegs are only designed to hold one piece of underwear;
  2. Skirting boards exist and they are supposed to be cleaned; and
  3. Dusting is a weekly ritual and not an annual festival

 And the trouble with knowledge, of course, is that it’s so damn hard to unlearn it. Anyway, I thought I now owned the sum total of information least designed to make my life happier.  And then, just yesterday my ex-wife drops in.  In an act that I can only describe as mean-spirited and spiteful – and provided under the benign guise of helpfulness – she explained to me how to iron my daughter’s pleated skirt. 

Now, for those of you who know how to do this, I need do no more other than offer my profoundest sympathy.  For those of you who do not know how to perform this feat – which remains a conspicuous omission from the Geneva Convention – I will only say that the ironing of pleated skirts is tortuous, deadly, deadly dull and, in medical circles, a strongly suspected link to Tourette’s Syndrome. 

Think of watching grass grow and then imagine helping it grow by personally drawing up each blade of grass with a pair of tweezers.  A veritible smorgasboard of  intellectual delights compared to the bitter gruel of the pleated skirt!  

They say that knowledge will set you free; but some knowledge can make you a slave. They say that knowledge is power, but then, how do you explain George Bush? 


Filed under chauvinism, housework, humour, life, Marriage, Men, Women

In which Nick becomes an intellectual and then isn’t

hsc0552l.jpgOne semester, when Nick and I were 18, we left it too late to complete our course options and, once again, found ourselves picking through the leftover courses that no one else wanted.  With one course still remaining we didn’t have much choice so we signed up for something called Existentialism in Literature.  Now I had read a fair bit and had a natural interest in philosophy. For Nick, however, reading served a purely utilitarian function.  The only books I’d ever noticed in his bedroom were “How to improve your golf swing in ten easy lessons” and “Making the Perfect Beer.”  Still, there was no choice and so we set off for new horizons. 

The lecturer, Ms Berksen, was a very animated woman with big glasses, hairy arms and a moustache.  She was very happy to have us in her class and referred to us as “My gentlemen.”  The same could not be said of the other eight students, all of them girls with fat arms, cardigans and the faint scent of acne cream.  They rightly gazed at us with suspicion and only barely disguised contempt. 

When she read excerpts from a book, Ms Berksen, insisted on creating a new voice for each character, the effect of which became somewhat distracting as we ploughed through, for example, Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” For effect she would stop suddenly and gaze with glistening eye over the top of the page.  It was like kindergarten for intellectuals. 

Nick, for his part, displayed a great animal instinct for survival.  He said little and listened less.  Along the way he inadvertently learned about symbolism and was quite impressed to discover that a sun was not necessarily a sun or a river, merely a river.  Everything, he learned to his confusion, could be imbued with meanings about which he had been blissfully ignorant.   

When silence was not possible, he would sometimes relate obscure anecdotes that he believed illustrated a point at hand.  I only vaguely remember one of these, in relation to the theatre of the absurd, which involved a one legged Aboriginal high jumper.   “A very interesting interpretation, Mr Palmer,” coughed Ms Berksen after a slight pause.   

Eventually, his cover was blown, of course.  One wet winter’s afternoon, sitting by a window in a beam of sunlight, warmed by lilting tone of Ms Berksen’s rendition of an excerpt from Sartre’s “Nausea”, Nick fell asleep.  Eventually the eyes of Ms Berksen gleamed maniacally over the pages of the book as she reached one of her inexplicable climaxes.  The room was hushed. 

“And what do you think of that, Mr Palmer?” she asked.  Nick jerked into consciousness.  Instinctively he asked, “Pardon?”  The lecturer asked her question again and we all watched with bated breath as his mind raced through all the possible answers that, with sufficient ambiguity, might get him off the hook.  Nick was no coward; once settled on his lifeline he threw it with the instant conviction of the great optimist. 

“I agree with what you just said, Ms Berksen.” 

We all sat there silently blushing.   Nick’s brief days as an intellectual were over. 

(Cartoon from

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Filed under Books, education, friends, humour, life, Writers, youth

Is Sunday school child abuse?

sunday_school.jpg“Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”  Article 14 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children 

No, because Sunday school provides children with a moral compass. 

They already have a couple of pretty good moral compasses; one is their conscience and the other is the example of their parents.  And, you know, scaring people into goodness is a fairly tenuous approach to teaching morality. 

No, because children can always make a choice about their beliefs later in life. 

Wasn’t it the Jesuits who said, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”  And often it’s just a half a man. And that half usually feels guilty as hell about everything. 

No, because salvation is the greatest gift a parent can give their child. 

Hmmm kind of depends on the religion, doesn’t it?  I mean, some kids are taught that salvation comes in the form of a suicide bomb.  And some of them are getting told that you can gain salvation with multiple wives – now, after that, death will feel like salvation but it’s not really the same thing. 

No, because Jesus said to suffer little children to come unto him. 

Well, that’s true but maybe he meant to freely come unto him.  As opposed to being packed off at the age when you still believe in Father Christmas, fairies and love eternal. 

No, because Sunday school doesn’t include sex. 

Well, if you’re lucky, it doesn’t but I wouldn’t count on it, would you? And even if you are lucky, some of that stuff they teach you is going to seriously affect your future sex life forever, including the one you have with yourself! 

No, because Sunday school is a family activity. 

So is incest. 


Filed under life, Religion, school, sex, youth

The little man on the edge of the world


According to the Australian Newspaper’s John Armstrong, Kant believed that the fullest expression of humanity comes in three forms:

  • The appreciation of natural beauty;
  • The love of goodness; and
  • Freedom of the mind.

Strange how we so often express our humanity in exact opposition to these very notions as we tear down natural beauty; exercise badness on a breathtaking scale and harness our every thought to rampant consumption and the pursuit of comfort.  

At about ten o’clock last night, tired of television, I stepped outside and looked up at the sky.  A damp evening with the threat of rain.  Clouds, very low, hastened southwards like they were on a secret mission. They appeared almost sullenly silent like I had caught them up to mischief and slipping by in the darkness.   Beyond them I saw much higher clouds, very still and set in a smattering of stars.  Lines from a Tennyson poem trotted through my head: “Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers/And I linger on the shore/And the individual withers/And the world is more and more.”

So there I stood, humanity’s representative on the edge of the wide earth, lost in the wonder of nature, paving my way to hell with good intentions and free to think I was trapped.

(Cartoon from


Filed under consumerism, life

A beer for Churchill

people-talking.jpgThere are two kinds of compulsive talkers.  There are those that babble on without any real concern if you’re listening or not; the kind for whom the sound of their own voice is, by definition, conversation.  These are the easy sort; the sort that go down smooth with a glass or two of red; the sort that you can relax into like you might by a babbling creek or a windy beach.  They demand no responses other than the occasional murmur of assent; they allow one to drift into a quiet, peaceful reverie. 

The other sort of active talker is a little more difficult.  The tone is tends to be strident, the topics those that challenge dissent of the hapless listener.  They demand responses of more than one syllable.  And worst of all – this sort of talker maintains eye contact and leans in towards you like a dentist who just spotted a new set of golf clubs in your mouth.   

Unfortunately it was with one such friend that I ventured to a bar on Saturday night.  Not only is she a compulsive talker but she has a strong streak of egoism – which means that she is always saying about herself what she should be saying about me.   

I was kind of resigned to the fact and sat there mesmerised like a rabbit in the glare of her unending monologue.  It’s not as if she knows a lot about everything; more that she talks alot about everything she knows.  Didn’t I think this? And wasn’t such and such awful? And who did these people think they were anyway? Etc etc.  Eventually the conversation moved on, as it always does with her, to right wing politics and the problems with unions, how no one wants to work any more and what this country needs most is another war – all topics about which she had long since beaten any resistance out of me. 

I sat there on the shores of Dunkirk waiting for salvation. 

Eventually an ageing and deeply offended drunk at the next table was unable to contain himself any longer.  Apropos to nothing in particular he made his way a little unsteadily to our table.  He placed his knuckles between the beer slops and sodden crisps, a kind of Churchill with palsy.  “If your father…” he began and then stopped, obviously overcome with indignation and struggling for the right words. 

“Do you know my father?” asked my friend, always earnestly ingenuous. 

“No I do not,” replied the man with suppressed emotion, “but I can tell you now, young lady, I can tell you now…” He paused before delivering his final withering retort. “If your father were alive today he’d turn in his grave.” 

Then he wandered off, shoulders back, leaving my friend to contemplate the full gravity of this ominous, if fundamentally flawed, portent.

 And I, taking quick advantage of a lull as rare as one at the Somme, slipped quietly to the bar to buy myself a stiff drink.  And then I bought one for Churchill.


Filed under drunk, friends, humour, life