Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lest we Forget

The scale of the homage this country pays to its men and women who served in times of war is deservedly huge and seems to grow with each successive Anzac Day commemoration. It is a very public tribute, but made up of millions of personal stories. There would probably be few Australian families who do not have a link in some way to a relative who served in one or another of our wars, in particular the First and Second World Wars which involved by far the greater proportion of young men and women. It is a collective message of gratitude and respect that the nation offers on this day, but simultaneously an opportunity for individuals to honour and remember grandfathers, fathers, uncles, and other distant or close relatives who fought not just for their country, but for us, their descendants.

In my case I remember first my grandfather who fought in the horrors of the trenches in France in the First World War. I don't remember him well as I was still a child when he died, but I'm told he suffered from shell shock, so he returned with his body intact but his mind and spirit unalterably changed.

My father, a quiet self effacing man in person but a towering presence in my life, served in the Australian Army in the Second World War from July 1940 to January 1947. He was a Staff Sergeant in the 2nd 48th Australian Infantry Battalion, Australia's most highly decorated unit of the Second World War. The battalion trained at Woodside in South Australia and then sailed to the Middle East. They fought memorably at Tobruk, then in El Alamein, returning to help staunch the onslaught of the Japanese in New Guinea where they battled in the mud of the infamous Kokoda Trail. They later served in the jungles of Morotai, Borneo and Tarakan, before being disbanded following the Japanese surrender in 1945.

My father saw action therefore in conditions of searing heat, desert, tropical jungles, mountains and God knows what other hostile and unforgiving terrain. As a result, being a fair skinned man, he bore a permanent legacy from this time, which was skin damage, ultimately manifesting in a melanoma which killed him, but not until the ripe old age of 92, so he was nothing if not tough.

He never spoke much about the war, despite our curious questions as children, provoked occasionally by coming across faded and tattered old photographs of skinny young men in khaki, usually laughing and looking like they were having a jolly good time. Opportunities for laughs were probably all too few, but the camaraderie that existed in the Australian troops was legendary and the fierce loyalty these old soldiers sustained towards their mates all through their subsequent lives is testament to that. Several of them, although clearly frail and weakened by age and illness, were there at my Dad's funeral and moving as the playing of "The Last Post" was to us, I can only imagine the memories it must have stirred in them.

In looking through some old photographs recently, I came across this one of my Dad as a young soldier in his uniform. I suspect it was one he sent to my mother, as they became engaged and were married while he was still on active service. On the back in his distinctive handwriting, which never varied throughout his life, he has written"This is me (underlined). Not at my best but near enough."

He is a serious looking young man, wide, guileless blue eyes in an open freckled face. Above all, he looks vulnerable - so young, so boyish but obviously so steadfast in his determination to live up to what he sees as his duty - to do his best for his beloved country, his mates, his family, his sweetheart, and his as yet unborn children. We, his children, are middle aged now and he and most of his comrades are gone, but we bear an unpayable debt of gratitude to him and all the others like him.

Let's not ever allow the memory of war to be glorified in any way, because there is no glory in killing. Let us always remember though, those who fought and suffered and died that we might have a chance of living in peace.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Moon fish with candied olive crumbs anyone?

I've just finished reading the new foodie supplement in the Weekend Australian, claimed to be the take on the "essential Australian eating and drinking experience" by those in the know, that is those at the cutting edge of the gastronomic coming of age of the Australian eating out experience.

I know we had a lot to learn, starting as we did with our closest things to multicultural cuisine being tinned spag bolognaise and sweet and sour pork from the local Chinese. That was back when I was a kid, so quite a number of years ago, and we have broken considerable new ground since then (and no doubt broken other things in response to various kitchen experiments). We have certainly prospered and profited enormously from the injection of European and Asian influences into our basic chops, snags and 3 vegs dining table offerings. Not only have we reaped the benefits taste-bud wise, but nutritionally the emphasis on fresh ingredients, lighter cooking styles and smaller quantities has doubtless been very good for our health, in some cases, the obesity epidemic aside.

However there is an unfortunate pretentiousness that has accompanied this foray into new food frontiers, where an element of the foodie fraternity has become totally preoccupied to the point of absurdity with experimentation for the sake of displaying their creative brilliance it seems, rather than for the sake of simply producing wonderful food. What is defined as molecular or avant-garde gastronomy has taken some countries apparently by storm, although digestive storm is more likely to be the result of such dishes as the above for example, or "black pudding with sour sherry-vinegared chocolate ganache and pickled cherries", or "luxe passionfruit custard with beetroot, yoghurt and mint". So maybe I'm a peasant but half the stuff trumpeted about in restaurant reviews these days sounds totally weird to me, that is when I actually know what it is, as at least half the vocabulary on such menus is comprised of terms I've never heard of.

I am all for experimentation, up to a point, but not just for the sake of novelty. And when you take the wonderful quality and variety of produce in which this country is abundant and combine it with inspirational recipes from countries all over the world, the result is often sublime. However let's not get so carried away that eating out becomes an exercise in snobbish one-upmanship and self-aggrandisement, at the expense of what it's supposed to be - relaxed and satisfying enjoyment of food, wine, ambience and if you're lucky pleasant company.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dog Rage and other things

I was going to write something here about the quiet Easter I've had and how much I enjoyed the opportunity and time to reflect, contemplate, and complete a few undemanding activities without the constant intrusion of obligations, commitments and externally imposed timetables. It can of course be great fun to take a trip at this time of year, as the weather is usually good and it's often the last bit of warmth and prolonged sunshine we get before the chillier days and grey skies set in. Still there's something pleasant about not joining in the lemming like exodus from the suburbs with all its attendant traffic hassles, rush and bustle. Then, I thought maybe this just makes me sound like a boring old recluse, extolling the joys of peace and quiet while secretly jealous of everyone else out there having a good time. So forget that.

We've all heard about various types of rages in recent times ... road rage, phone rage, shopping rage, etc. and perhaps been unfortunate enough to be victims of some belligerant person who thinks the best way to deal with the stress and frustration of their life is to take it out on someone else. If this development is indeed a symptom of the inability of 21st century man to deal sanely with the challenges of the world, then it's a very regrettable reflection on society. There are clearly lots of things in life which are worthy of rage - war, cruelty to animals, child abuse, domestic violence ... the list is a long and sorrowful one. But personally I don't believe there's a lot of justification for aggression against someone who has simply inadvertently inconvenienced you.

It happened to me the other day. I was walking my dogs down a street near my home, past a large ostentatious house, while a man with a rather vicious looking Alsation was approaching from the opposite direction. As he neared me he yelled out "Don't let your bloody dogs piss on my plants if you don't mind." I hadn't noticed that they had, but as Fergus tends to lift his leg at almost every vertical object we pass, it wasn't a great surprise to me that perhaps he had dribbled on a piece of shrubbery. The man continued, "Yes, this IS my house," which by now I'd gathered, and turned into the drive with his unpleasant looking dog.

A number of retorts came to mind, such as "Would you like me to put a nappy on them?"; "Think yourself lucky it was only number one's", "I suppose your dog doesn't piss anywhere."

The latter would probably in fact be true as the poor dog was probably completely anally and urinally retentive, living in constant fear of punishment for even breathing.

However having had this demonstration of rudeness and completely unwarranted aggression, I thought it better not to incite any further chastisement, given that this bloke looked just the sort to set his dog on mine and stand back and enjoy the sport. So I kept silent but was left feeling that this incident had marred what was otherwise an enjoyable activity for both me and my dogs.

What this man gained from his outburst, I can't imagine. He is obviously under a great burden of stress and anxiety for whatever reason, although can't be doing too badly considering the size and grandeur of his house.

It all seems so futile and pointless though, to behave this way. As with other such displays of misplaced anger, all the perpetrator does, if they only realised, is make a public exhibition of the total ugliness of their character.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Body / Brain Interaction

Having reaped the benefits of a year of pretty regular exercise now, in terms of being a lot slimmer and fitter, I am enthused about the idea of keeping on with it. As I might have mentioned on my blog a while ago, I joined up with Healthy Inspirations - a place devoted to "reshaping" women, not only bodily but also in terms of reshaping their ideas about healthy nutrition and the very real benefits of regular moderate exercise. Probably because it is a place for women only and the staff are very understanding and supportive and about as far from your intimidating "gym bunny" type as you are likely to get, its clientele is largely women of a certain age.

However having gone about as far as I can go with what they have to offer, I decided recently I needed a change and so have bravely decided to join a real gym - with men!! I will be starting there next week and am looking forward to the experience, albeit a little apprehensively. There is a greater range of offerings in terms of classes, as well as the full complement of cardio and weight resistance machines so I will be well and truly challenged. Just scanning the names of the classes is somewhat challenging in itself. For example I am given the opportunity to partake of such hedonistic delights as "Body Attack", "Cardio Blast", "Body Pump" and one I know I just won't be able to resist - "RPM" - a studio cycling class that threatens to "lead you on a journey of total calorie destruction".

So think of me sweating it out and hopefully not killing myself. Whenever the flesh weakens in regard to exercise though, as it does from time to time of course, I need only remind myself of some fairly amazing (if not new) information I read recently in a fascinating book called "Brain Rules" by John Medina, a molecular biologist. His passion is trying to identify ways to translate what we know about how our brains work into adapting our educational institutions and workplaces so that better outcomes are achieved.

There are several major factors in life that have a fundamental and undeniable influence on the efficiency of our brains, which he terms "Brain Rules". One of these and perhaps the most elemental is exercise. Exercise boosts brain power. We, by virtue of our evolutionary history, are just not meant to be sedentary beings. Physical activity, it has been well and truly proven, enhances our cognitive skills, and helps slow down the ageing process (both the mental and physical aspects). There is in fact one major factor that predicts how people will age - the presence or absence of a sedentary lifestyle. Empirical evidence indicates that consistent and regular exercise results in an elevation in cognitive performance. Experimenters measured the cognitive abilities of a group of couch potatoes, exercised them consistently for a period of time (only a few months), and found on repeat testing that all kinds of mental activities had become strengthened. When the exercise levels were decreased again, the levels of cognition correspondingly fell.

For anyone who wants, needs or just likes to use their brains (which is pretty much everyone I guess) and would prefer not to end their days vegetating in a nursing home, what this means is we have to keep on sweating it out. Even if aerobics and spin cycle classes are not for you, substantial benefits can be gained just from several brisk walks a week apparently. So anyway I am inspired enough to keep on and will keep you posted on the new gym and the scenery!!