Wednesday 31 March 2010

Armitage Shanks: Chapter 1

[this is NOT a huntsman spider ... but I had to start on you arachnophobiacs somewhere!]

[here begins the unfinished tale of Armitage Shanks - a story for all ages, but mostly for me ... In this episode we are introduced to Armitage Shanks and his friend Peg, and also discover the origins of the name Aunty Scuttle.]

Armitage Shanks was spitting mad. He squeezed up under the rough wooden join between the wall and the ceiling. It was not the squeezing that riled him. He loved nothing better. From the flickering gloom below him came a rattle, a thump and a mumble as the two people settled down to tea in front of the T.V. As usual, he too stared at the shimmering screen, but tonight his heart was not in it. He was fuming. "Three hours! Three scudmungling hours!" He rocked rhythmically from side to side, winding up his anger.

As he moved, the man suddenly looked his way. He froze, then squeezed further back into the shadow. He could still feel the man's fear as fresh as when, three hours before, those trembling hands had wrapped Shanks in paper and cast him out into the cold. And the woman's wild shriek that had come moments before. He felt that again too, though right now the woman was too busy stuffing large slabs of sausage into her mouth to notice him.

"Oh spittle! Why is it always me?" With one final glare over his hairy shoulder, he left the lounge-room and clambered through the ceiling towards his bedroom to nurse his anger. His bedroom was actually the toilet of this modest holiday house, but Shanks thought it particularly well appointed. It had an ample supply of insects including some juicy blow flies. It also had fine access through two huntsman-size cracks in the ceiling, not to mention the door and the window.

But all that was nothing compared with its crowning glory - the special shiny white seat from which he had taken his name. Despite his foul mood, he momentarily felt the same warm glow he always felt when he saw his name in black and white. For one thing, not every Huntsman could read as Armitage Shanks could. (He had taught himself by watching television.) But it also reminded him how distinguished his name was compared with any other spider he knew.

Of course he had great respect for the likes of his grandfather, the legendary Grandpa Grapple. And he dearly loved his Aunty Scuttle, who had brought him up almost single-legged after the Mortein Disaster that took his mother and father. Still, seeing such a distinguished name so boldly proclaimed, and knowing it to be your own, does tend to engender a certain pride.

All of this only served to deepen Shanks' anger. He was not just any spider. He was Armitage Shanks, a spider of distinction from a famous line of Benign Huntsmen. More than once he had heard the humans refer to his kind as `benign', and although he didn't actually know what it meant (a television education has its limits), he didn't feel that being shrieked at, wrapped in newspaper and tossed out into the garden, was quite it. So there Shanks sat, benign but brooding, listening to the louder than usual clatter coming from below. At last he flattened himself into an uneasy sleep.

When Shanks woke up he felt good. Surprisingly so, since his bedtime mosquito had tasted noticeably of spray. With a new spring in his step, he scuttled off towards the living room. He always liked to see what was happening down below. The moment he was within earshot of the humans he knew something was different. Squidging himself into the crack above the stove, he saw to his surprise that there were three people in the kitchen. The sight of the older woman was about to return Shanks to the bad mood of the night before, but before he could properly remember why, something far more important happened. The woman was talking to the newcomer. Even from where he was Shanks could see that this person was a child; a girl to be exact. But what made him open all his eyes wide was what he heard the child say. It came in the middle of a chat with the old woman.

"Deary me Peg, how you've grown. Let me look at you. How old are you now?" Then came the surprise. "I'll be nine in July, Nan." BENIGN! Shanks nearly spun a web on the spot. Benign...the very word which described himself, and now here was someone else who was benign. He felt an instant bond with the lumpy little girl at the kitchen bench below. As her grandmother chatted away, Peg looked casually around the unfamiliar room. Shanks was able to see her chubby freckled face, and her crooked gappy teeth. Such beauty! It was love at first sight. He hadn't known that humans could be benign, but as he stared at Peg's wide friendly face he had no more doubts.

Shanks had to try hard not to rush down there and then to greet his new-found friend. It was only the sight and sound of Peg's grandma that kept him still. He decided to give the whole situation a bit of thought. He would have to wait until he could see Peg by herself. That meant finding out which room she was in. Right, he would scuttle off through the ceiling and scout around. He was about to carry out this plan when another strange sound came from below.

Shanks turned to see a large gangly looking boy walking into the kitchen. His arms, his mouth, his hair were all stretched out in an enormous yawn. If it had been meant to scare a Huntsman, the boy couldn't have done a better job. Shanks took a quick step back.

"Morning sleepy head." His grandmother got up from the kitchen table and ruffled his hair. "What a sight!" " 'mornin' Nan," mumbled the boy, ducking away from the tousling hand to sit beside his sister at the breakfast table. In the next few minutes Shanks pieced together some more details about the new arrival. Terrence was Peg's brother, older by nearly four years. He didn't like breakfast, didn't like mornings, and didn't like being called Terrence. Worse still, he didn't seem to like Peg much either. Shanks began to think there wasn't much to like about this Terrence.

Worse news followed. It seemed that Peg and Terrence were sharing the same bedroom. Shanks' plans would have to change. There would be no chance of properly meeting his dream-girl with that brother around. So with his mood becoming gloomier by the minute, he went back to his room to suck on a wasp. Nothing cleared the mind so well.

Within the hour Shanks had a new plan. He knew that every day the humans came to his room at least four or five times. Sometimes they stayed and sat, sometimes they were in and out very quickly. He would wait until Peg came to his room for her long visit. That would be the right time for him to introduce himself.

He did not have long to wait, though it seemed it. After breakfast there was something of a procession into his room. It was often the time for long visits. As each visitor came, he anxiously crept to his usual vantage point. At one stage he felt sure he heard Peg about to enter the room, but there was a commotion at the door which resulted in Terrence pushing his way in first. And his stay seemed to be deliberately prolonged. He sat there reading something called "Woman's Day." Shanks' anger rose again. He muttered all kinds of dark threats and expletives to himself. "Sale of the Century! He'll feel my fangs on his butt if he doesn't take the money and run!"

But Terrence soon finished reading the latest about some long past royal event. With a touch of the button on Shanks' own royal throne, the thunder of water signalled the boy's departure. His odious presence was rapidly replaced by that of the beloved Peg. She came rushing into the room, bent over and cross-legged, her pants falling towards her ankles. Shanks' throat suddenly caught, overwhelmed again by the beauteous sight of the Benign Miss Peg. He cleared his throat, smoothed down his scopulae, and stepped into full view.


Thursday 25 March 2010

A Bruny Reunion

[pic: looking across the D'Entrecasteaux Channel from North Bruny Island]

[some thoughts on our experience of islands, and particularly Tasmania's Bruny Island]

Why do islands grip our hearts so? Peninsulas and promontories are all very well; seaside towns and mountain villages can be a delight. But there is something uniquely seductive about islands.

Island-dwelling novelist David Guterson, famous for Snow Falling on Cedars, offers this explanation.

Islands fill mainlanders with an unabashed yearning for a life simpler than the one they endure, a pared-down life in which all that is elemental - sea, wind, sun, love, the last light of day, the sand beneath fingernails - is brought to the fore-front of existence.

It was more than 30 years ago that our family first visited Bruny Island, across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel south of Hobart. The long, twin landmasses are joined at the Neck, a sand isthmus, but the twins are far from identical. South Bruny is the wild sylvan sister; North Bruny the conservative bucholic brother. The south has high, wet, wooded hills – almost mountains – running down to dramatic capes, strands and headlands. The north is drier, more cleared, laconic like a farmer.

That’s only on the surface, because both Brunies can sneak up on you, each in her or his own way. The north can turn dramatic, like a farmer who fits all the stereotypes but then takes to reading poetry and preparing fillet mignon to perfection in a romantic candle-lit dinner. And the south can be gentle and sweet, bursting with wildflowers, and weather that is full of sweetness and light.

To my initial untrained eye, Bruny’s lack of remoteness – the island can be seen from many of Hobart’s suburbs – lessened its appeal. Back then I was besotted with the grand, remote wilderness places of Tasmania. They were Bach’s B Minor Mass. Bruny aseemed more a snatch from a Bach cantata.

But then Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring fits that category, and how many compositions can match the sublime perfection of that diminutive masterpiece? To return to Bruny is to discover again a down-home, “she’ll-do” shackiness cheek by jowl with the wild. As if to reinforce that one morning our dog walk turns to dolphin spotting as a pod of dolphins sports and cavorts at one end of Nebraska Beach. And another night a curious eatern quoll peers in the deck door.

The weather too is wild. A westerly gale hauls a load of clouds that bounce off the higher mountains to the west. This creates mountain waves, alternating bands of clear sky and cloud. The air thrums deeply. I can’t determine whether it is a frequency created by the abrasion of wind on earth or the beating of waves on the shore.

On one early visit, in the late 1980s, we stayed with friends who had borrowed a shack at Dennes Point, near the northern tip of Bruny. There are shacks and there are shacks. This peculiarly Tasmanian name for a holiday house can apply to anything from a humpy to a seaside mansion. This shack was much nearer to the former than the latter. The ceilings were sagging and stained with possum piss from the resident screeching marsupials. Stealthy legged and noisy winged wildlife also had free rein through the house, most annoyingly in the form of squadrons of mosquitoes. The beds were lumpy and in a dubious hygienic state.

Four adults and 6 children spent two hilarious nights in the shack. That at least is how we came to see it in retrospect. At the time it was a case of roll over; swat; get up; hunt mosquitoes; change a nappy; hush a child; listen to our friends’ children scream; listen to our children scream; scream a bit ourselves; and finally laugh and get up at first light.

Apart from retrospective humour, the shack bequeathed one other long-lasting treasure. From somewhere in my febrile, sleep-deprived mind, a children’s story was hatched. It was inspired by the squalid, wildlife-invaded building. That and the brand name of the shack’s toilet: Armitage Shanks. Somehow a story featuring a huntsman spider who could read and speak was formed.

20 something years later, I confess with some chagrin, the story is still not finished. But getting back to Bruny, the scene of its conception, has inspired me to post the so-far-completed chapters on this blog. Who knows, it may inspire me to finish the story. Perhaps that mosquito at 3am this morning was a sign.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

A Sublethal Envenomation: or Did Curiosity Almost Kill the Dog?

[Nuala practises looking serene]

[a close call with nature, close to home]

Our dog Nuala – Noo for short – is getting on a bit. She has a few old age lumps, and is a bit stiff in the joints at times. But overall she’s had a lucky life with a caring family. We’ve helped to transform her from a flighty, insecure, attention-seeker into all-of-the-above with vague pretensions to serenity.

We think she may just have extended that lucky streak.

We were away for the long weekend, and our daughter Heather and her husband were minding the house and dog. Heather noticed that Noo was not very happy on Monday, leaving her food un-eaten (that’s serious!) and seeming very stiff-legged. We found this out when we rang from Campbelltown on the way home, and by the time we got home, Noo was avoiding all attempts to touch her. Instead she slunk off to the privacy of a dark corner.

We thought a tick-bite, a wasp or bee sting, or even a scrap with a rodent may have caused some of the symptoms: that or a more sinister internal problem. The main issue seemed to be her semi-lame back legs. It was too late for the vet, but one of our neighbours is an ex-vet, and she was happy to come and look at the dog.

Nothing obvious sprang to mind until the next morning when our neighbour – displaying exemplary after-care – knocked on the door with her snake bite theory. Minutes before we had discovered a lump on Noo’s muzzle, on the upper lip. Putting two and two together, we agreed it was quite possible that Noo had been bitten by a snake – probably a tiger snake.

Tiger snakes have complex and highly powerful venoms. They contain neurotoxins and necrotoxins (these can cause the kind of muscle weakness/damage Noo was exhibiting) as well as procoagulants (which can interfere with blood clotting and can cause swelling and bleeding). The toxins also cause a sensitivity to light, a possible explanation for her hiding in a dark corner. In many cases with animals internal bleeding, breathing paralysis and kidney failure can lead to death. The only good news is that tiger snakes are not very efficient at delivering their venom. They rely on grasping their prey in their mouth while the venom oozes from their backward-facing fangs rather than being injected quickly into their victim. It works particularly well on rodents and similar small prey.

But that morning Noo was quite chirpy – and our neighbour ended up calling it a “sublethal envenomation”. To the rest of us that means the bite – if snake bite it was – hadn’t killed Noo! So she’s lived to stick her snout in another day. We just hope the snake has decided to move on and stick to disposing of rodents instead of harassing serene old ladies.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Back to Cradle

[Savouring the summit of Cradle Mountain, Tasmania]

Recently I returned to the summit of Cradle Mountain. It was partly in the spirit of getting back on my horse, although the proverbial dog returning to his vomit could be another way of looking at it.

Last October I fell off the mountain. Or at least I slipped and fell off a part of the mountain, somersaulting backwards down a snowy chute for a few frightening seconds. You can read about it here

But March is a very different time of the year to October. I often tell visitors that autumn is Tasmania’s most reliable season. So the plan to spend the March long weekend at Cradle Mountain with my wife Lynne and some of my mainland family looked good on paper. That was until a rogue low pressure trough began slouching across Bass Strait towards us. It looked as though card games, eating and reading might be our only forms of exercise.

But you’ve gotta love the fact that Tassie is a relatively small meteorological target. I’ve seen cold fronts mysteriously slip beneath the island, or just softly caress the south-west, and leave the populated parts basking. And ugly low pressure systems can sometimes wobble dangerously off the east coast, yet hardly land a precipitative punch.

This time the trough decided to linger over the flesh-pots of Melbourne, deluging the Victorian capital, denting it with golf ball-sized hail, and even stopping several sporting events (no mean feat in sports-mad Melbourne). In contrast the day that Lynne and I planned to climb Cradle stayed clear, warm and sunny.

Marions Lookout has to be climbed first, and there’s no way around it being sharp and steep. It’s good training for what’s to come once you amble across the plateau, past Kitchen Hut, and reach the face of Cradle itself. There’s no ambling after that – just one foot in front of the other, until it becomes one foot and one hand in front of the other.

I’m always in two or three minds when it comes to telling a first-timer what a walk or climb is like. Is it really helpful to tut, tssk and mutter things like “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” as they gasp and pant and beg for a stop? On the other hand, will your memory of the walk be at all accurate? In my experience, the answer is “rarely”. Time, rose-coloured glasses, and neuronal glitches often combine to make my memory hazy.

In this case, however, it had only been 5 months since my last ascent. And I had plenty of reasons to remember it vividly! Fortunately Lynne was feeling particularly determined, and my hints of dire boulder scrambling ahead didn’t dent her confidence. She was more interested in seeing where I had fallen – and so was I!

The absence of snow made the site of the fall both more and less dramatic. More, because the chute looked even steeper without its cushion of snow. Less, because the snow had been intimidatingly deep. We paused for the obligatory “here’s where you nearly lost me” photo, and then it was another couple of hundred metres of scrambling before we could celebrate summiting the lovely Cradle Mountain. For me it was ascent no. 5 (or is it 6); for Lynne it was a first. Her eyes bagan to water, I must report. And why not? It was a significant ascent for someone who had so often stayed behind looking after children while I was off on mountain tops.

We topped off a superb morning by having lunch, and then finding a quiet spot to simply lie down and soak up the wonder of it all. It was a much gentler surrender to gravity than last October. It was good to be back.

Thursday 4 March 2010

The Cake Policy

[Something lighter ... here are some extracts from my workplace's Cake Policy, which I had a hand in developing. Every tea room needs one! Please feel free to use and adapt for your own place of work.]

A Workplace Cake Policy


“Let them eat cake” (Marie Antoinette)

“Man shall not live by bread alone.” (Jesus)

There are undeniable differences between these sayings of Marie Antoinette and Jesus of Nazareth. But regardless of those temporal and thematic disparities, both clearly envisaged that cake, and all that it represents, should be a part of how we live.

For what is a cake but a confectionary embodiment of the celebration of life, its highs and its lows? And also of the need to bring joy, and sometimes reparation, into the daily lives of those around us. The untimely executions of the two persons above quoted should in no way discourage us from following their culinary examples. Let us laugh in the face of our own metaphorical grim-reapers, and bring on the cakes!

Mission Statement
To embrace the concept of ‘cakeable happenings’ and ‘cakeable offences’ and provide a regular supply of comestibles to foster communication and general bonhomie amongst [workplace name] ‘cakeholders’*.

The Cake Policy Proper
A person who has committed, taken part in, been subject to, or undergone a ‘cakable happening’ or ‘cakeable offence’ is required to provide a comestible (preferably cake) for morning tea. Should said ‘cake-ee’ renege, forget or otherwise appear to ‘evade the cake issue’, inordinately rude and unchivalrous derision shall be visited upon them, and another, grander cake will be required the next working day. With some ‘recalcitrant cake-ees’ the compounding effect of missing too many cake days has been such that on retirement they have had to hold a slap-up banquet for the whole workplace as a way of making amends – don’t let this happen to you!

P.S. No cheating for weekends, public holidays, and/or leave either, it carries over till the next working day.

Interpretation of the policy is based on common law (the commonly held view of cakeholders*) and precedence (evolving custom). More technically we may refer to Section (II) of the policy as Tarts for Torts – a tort being “the branch of law concerned with civil injuries and their remedies” (Macquarie Dictionary).

Any aggrieved cake-ee who feels they have been unfairly caked, can take their grievance to a ‘cake moot’. A gathering of cakeholders that will be held the following day between 10:30 and 11:00 am. Be warned, however, that such cake moots do have an unsavoury predisposition towards doubling or trebling the penalty unless the grievance is extremely funny.

* A cakeholder is deemed to be anyone who turns up in the tea room between (but not limited to) the hours of 10:00 and 11:00am with a fulsome and hearty desire to ingest a comestible.

Section (I) – Cakeable Happenings
These include, but are not limited to the following clauses:
1. birthdays;
2. an addition to the cake-ee’s family (baby, cat, dog, other being of emotional focus and social and fiscal responsibility, such as a Land Rover);
3. having one’s name, photo, project mentioned in the media (television/paper/radio or other electronic media) on occasions other than advertisements and public notices;
Sub-clause 3.a – it may be necessary to establish a Special Cake Offence Feeding Fund (SCOFF) for high profile projects;
4. commitment ceremony, marriage, shacking up together etc;
5. settlement of a significant acquisition such as a house, a boat, a car or the like (excluding Land Rovers – refer Section I, Clause 2);
6. commencement, return or leaving (wilfully or otherwise);
7. promotion, reclassification, contract extension, granting of permanency;
8. receipt of an award/prize or other such acknowledgment;
9. major achievement such as a degree or other such qualification; publication of a report, paper, etc;
10. the taking of long service leave of greater than 2 months duration; and
11. in the case of the taking of extra long leave (i.e. death) the cake-ee’s progeny are released from any standing cakeable events and offences incurred by the deceased. However, deceased cake-ee’s are encouraged, through whatever good graces may be available to them in their new plane of existence to attempt to materialise the odd cup cake or lamington - particularly around Halloween - for old times sake.

Section (II) – Cakeable Offences
These include, but are not limited to the following clauses:
1. tearoom telephonic transgressions, ie mobile phone calls. The phonee whose phone emanates an audible noise or a noticed vibration shall be deemed to be caked;
Sub-clause 1.a – mobile telephonic trangressions in situations other than the tearoom may also be deemed cakeable if sufficient embarassment and disruption ensues. (Examples may include during a public presentation or while the Minister is being interviewed.)
2. tearoom talk transgressions, ie discussion of work in the tearoom. On the rare occasion that such discussions are consensual, that is approved of by all potential caker-holders present, the behaviour is deemed exempt. However, should someone new enter the tearoom, a new agreement must be negotiated. Where agreement cannot be reached, any person continuing work-related discussion could be called to account (‘caked’) for transgressing the terms of the policy stated herein;
3. being caught speeding (receiving a fine) in a work vehicle;
4. having an accident in a work vehicle. An exemption will be granted where the river is physically injured necessitating medical intervention. However, a consultation for precautionary documentation and recording of events does not exempt potential cakees;
5. being caught placing work-related literature on the tearoom table noticeboard acceptable);
6. having to be ‘rescued’ from being bogged, reported lost and the like;
Subclause 6a – helicopter rescues count double, with exemptions only as per Section II: Clause 4; and
7. the General Manager receiving correspondence regarding driving expertise or general behaviour.