Monday, 31 August 2009

Children of Dune

I was never a party animal and I always knew that. This past weekend I got yet another reminder for the fact as well as a reminder for just how detached I am from Australian mainstream.
The Mothers Group that Jo & Dylan belong to, a group of [mostly first time] mothers assembled by our local council and united by everyone having kids around the time Dylan was born and the intention of them helping one another with insight, was organizing the group’s common two year old birthday party. One of the mothers was willing enough (or silly enough?) to offer to host the party at her house, which is where we’ve headed this Saturday morning.
I didn’t see Richter at the party but I did see most of the group and I did see the house the party was taking place in. Insight soon followed.
First of all, it was interesting to note I was the only one at the party who was obviously not Anglo Saxon. In a very none Aussie way, there were no people of Far Eastern appearances and no one that was obviously Greek or, say, Italian. This is probably a fair representation of the affluent area we live in: we do, after all, live in a very safe Liberal seat, and it has to show somewhere. How can I put it? I don’t think of myself as particularly racist person, but being surrounded by this big homogeneous group to which I clearly did not belong did, indeed, intimidate me. Even if they were all nice people. Perhaps it was the notion that in order to be as affluent as many of these people are one surely must have quite the killer instinct (that, however, is a gross generalization). [Clarification added on 3/9/09: There was more to it than everyone being an Anglo; everyone just looked so similar it felt the same way one would feel if one was to find themselves in the middle of an Orthodox Jews' congregation or a Manchester United supporter finding themselves on the Liverpool stand: the men were all dressed similarly, the majority of women sharing the same hairstyle. I was stepping into a circle that obviously shared some strict codes and I was obviously breaking them through appearance alone.]
By now, two years after the births that changed our lives so significantly, the vast majority of the group already has or is deeply into having a second child. The only exceptions are the parents that require IVF for number two, a group we belong to. What I find weird about the situation is the way we were being repetitively asked what our plans for number two are and the way in which the question was asked. We were expected to want a number two and to be working on it; it was as if the move was to be taken for granted. So much so that it seemed as if the majority, if not all of the group’s families, have this set life plan with their idea of living a life being checking the boxes next to their plan's list. Not only that: all the plans are, essentially, the same; you are expected to aspire and to work towards the same goals as everyone else. That feeling was so dominant I didn’t dare break the party atmosphere and tell people why I really don’t want a second child; they would have chucked me out if I did.

It was impossible for me not to note the premises throughout the party. You could say it dominated affairs in more than one way. It had to dominate; it was designed to dominate.
It was huge, it took hold of the majority of the plot it was on, and it was filled with the latest and greatest. It was, in effect, the materialization of the most Aussie of dreams – the dream house.
While the living room alone was probably as big as our entire house, it was the extravagant way in which the house was designed that attracted most of my attention. We are currently working on designing a second story for our own house, an effort spent on identifying green and efficient solutions to deal with environment so that our house would be pleasant to live in. In contrast, this house we’ve visited was all about twisting the environment so that it behaved the way its occupants wanted to live.
Examples? They don’t have a barbecue, they have an outdoor kitchen; each room is fitted with rows of electrical heaters as well as air-conditioning ducts; wall to wall windows that surely lose heat in winter and bring in hear in summer cover significant portions of wall space; an outdoor pool with a jacuzzi is waiting a few steps away from the living room; outdoor electrical heaters, to cover for cases where one wants to go outside but one has to contend with the cold, have been switched on; and the kitchen oven was left on on throughout the party, even when it was not cooking anything.
Don’t get me wrong: I would have bought a house like this myself had I been able to afford it, I’m pretty sure of that; the thing I find more amazing than the house itself, and the main subject of my attention itself, is the attitudes of those living in the house and the similar attitudes of most of the party's visitors.
Unlike other social occasions in which I took part in Australia, alcohol did not play much of a part. Perhaps it was the morning hour, perhaps the childish theme. Towards the end of the party, though, the men – like men do – congregated next to the barbecue, each holding a bottle of beer, and formed a meaningful discussion on that most Australian of discussion debates: real estate.
Don't get me wrong: I didn't suffer at the party. I actually enjoyed myself: the food, and the people, were nice and welcoming. Not to mention the eye opening effect it had.

Where am I leading at with this account?
Australia is an immigrants’ country, yet there are many in it who feel that everyone should bend down and assimilate to the dominating Anglo Saxon mainstream. I’m talking about people like, say, ex Prime Minister John Howard. Or perhaps I should use the language of his deputy, Peter Costello, and refer to the dominating culture as the "Judeo Christian" culture?
It doesn’t matter which term you use. My point is that without absorbing and learning from other cultures and other approaches, that mainstream Australian culture will rot to its core. Living your dream is nice, and congregating in communities of people of similar demographics is human nature; but it’s even nicer to be able to dream a dream of your own instead of following the herd.
It may also be wiser to realize that, in the face of evidence such as global warming, perhaps that dream of yours is not as attractive or attainable as it first seems. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow; but think of your children!

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Parallel Universe

A news item in SBS World News regarding civil marriages in Israel made me think: What would my life be like had I stayed in Israel instead of migrating to Australia? I thought it was an interesting thought.
One thing is for sure: Had I stayed in Israel I wouldn't have been married to my real life wife. It's a complication resulting from the item SBS was talking about: By Israeli law, people of different religions cannot marry for the simple reason that all marriages are to be carried through religious authorities, and these do not regard mixed religion marriages favorably (even if at least one of the marriage's parties does not regard himself as belonging to any particular religion in the first place). That hurdle can be overcome by marrying overseas, but then there is another hurdle: Israel will only welcome Jews into its population, and since my wife is certainly no Jew she would not have been able to acquire basic rights such as the right to work for a living.
So let us assume that I am married to someone considering herself Jewish. We can take it for granted that I am more than a bit frustrated by having to go through a religious ceremony and paying some corrupt rabbi to marry us; hopefully we got married in Vegas instead. Let us also assume that I have one child, the way I do now.
By now the army would have probably stopped calling me for reserve duty, one of the main reasons I wanted to leave Israel in the first place. Career wise, I would have been a nicely paid executive with a company car, thus able to make timely payments on my mortgaged apartment.
This apartment would have been not far from where I used to live with my parents, for the simple reason that my parents (or my wife's parents, or even better both parents) would have been called upon to help us deal with the child. We wouldn't be able to make it without them, because I would be expected to work till seven or so on a normal working day and my professional wife would have had some not too dissimilar requirements from her place of work, where she has to work full time. That child would be picked up from kinder by its grandparents, and I would have had just enough time to say good night to him upon coming home from work.
Personality wise, I would have lacked the experience of being unemployed for more than six months and the ensuing desperation. That would have meant I would have been much more of a capitalist than I am now and much less of a humanitarian socialist. Being that I wouldn't have had the perspective gained from living in a society made of many differing cultures, and being that I would have only been exposed to Israeli news coverage with its Israeli oriented analysis, I would have probably been significantly less of the left winger I currently am (although I would have definitely still lean heavily to the left; I always did). Perhaps I wouldn't have even detested religion as much as I do now, although living in Israel where religion has a direct effect on your life I cannot be sure about that observation.
For company, I would have had my best childhood friends to hang out with often and play computer games with. I miss them dearly, and indeed this is the one biggest thing whose loss I mourn (together with family contact). While we have made friends in Australia, the contact is not as close as with the Israeli friends whose company is always taken for granted rather than booked in a calendar weeks in advance, perhaps the result of the physical proximity imposed by Israel's condensed population. This emphasizes the fact I did not truly assimilate into Australian culture: while I can easily take part when meeting friends despite my lack of affection to the AFL, bigger social occasions such as parties tend to be celebrated significantly differently to what I am used to; these are mostly opportunities to drink and get drunk, two activities I don't enjoy and even find repulsive. Then again, in Israel there is a tendency to dance, an activity I detest even more.
Vacationing and holidaying options are also interesting to compare. Israel has quite a lot to offer when it comes to historical sites, but Israeli is also significantly less nice to travel in: facilities are poor, traffic is a major pain, and the people around you are always rude. Israel does have a major advantage up its sleeve: the water, as in sea water and swimming pool water, is actually nice and warm to bath in during half of the year; in Melbourne that is never the case, a real shame given the huge stretches of beach that are just everywhere here.
Australia's seclusion, especially its south east corner's seclusion, also mean that if you want to go away you're pretty limited in options. European proximity, on the other hand, means that Israel outguns Australia there: the ease and the low cost of taking a weekend in Europe is a major advantage. While Australia does offer nice places to go to it cannot compete with the variety of option provided by Europe. There's a bit of an irony there: It's Australia's seclusion that earned it its charms, but it's the seclusion and it being at the ass end of the world that are also its biggest disadvantage.
I can go on and discuss other areas, such as shopping (or rather the availability of goods for nice prices) and the proliferation of the internet (as in the availability of web facilities such as eBay), but I won't go there. These things do have a significant impact on lives, the way small things always do; going to that level, however, would mean this post will never end.

Two things come into my mind after reading the above comparison. The first is some wondering as to whether I really performed an exercise of the mind with the above speculative analysis or whether I was just describing my impression of the way my closest Israeli friends are living their lives.
The second is this huge thumbs up for taking the plunge and moving to Australia; not because my quality of life is significantly better on the material side of things (in many respects it is inferior), but rather because of the freedoms I enjoy at Australia: The freedom to work less, the freedom to think for myself and not be suppressed by the prevailing state of mind of Israeli society to belong. Even the freedom to avoid Aussie social conformism by renting a DVD instead of going out for drinks. And most of all, the freedom to choose my partner by my own parameters.
It all comes down to one thing: Escaping from a cerain self imposed social convention and into another that allows much more freedom. The freedom to be myself.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Star Wars Exhibition, Episode 2

Back in 2002 we visited Sydney's Powerhouse Museum to see an exhibition called "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth". We've enjoyed it, but it was a pretty basic exhibition: it had a collection of dolls and props from the films. That's all; it was not much more than a nice Star Wars photo opportunity.
This week we've been to Melbourne's Scienceworks Museum to see an exhibition called "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination", and frankly we expected much of the same; the main difference is that I'd be armed with a digital SLR on one hand and us both having to contend with a two year old toddler with our other hands.
Turns out we were wrong.

In usual Scienceworks fashion we weren't able to enter the exhibition before going to a cashier sitting on the opposite side in order to redeem the free entry tickets we got out of being Museum Victoria members. Then we read the signs plastered everywhere saying no baby prams or strollers are allowed in this particular exhibition, so I had to go back to the car to stash ours away and we had to mentally prepare for a "run after the fugitive baby" session (as opposed to the expected "let's enjoy an exhibition" mental state). Now, I understand they don't want to crowd the exhibition's already limited space with prams, but at the time of our visit - a late midweek afternoon - space was not the final frontier. Some basic common sense would have been very useful, but it was obviously lacking.
With the stroller safely tucked in our boot and with me wondering what those arriving to the museum using public transport are expected to do, we came back in only to see that drinks are not allowed, either. So we had to leave our child's water bottle at the entrance. Hey, at least I didn't need to go back to the car for the second straight time.
To put the icing on the Gestapo like cake, we were informed during admission that reentry to the exhibition is not allowed. You're in, and once you're out, that's it. The point was made very clearly and its implications even clearer when our Dylan filled his nappy up immediately upon us entering the exhibition, rendering a rather unpleasant aroma to the entire affair and forcing us to go over it all with a distinctive sense of haste. Before you ask: there are no toilets inside the exhibition's area.
I used to think senseless regulations out of Nazi style rulebooks were reserved to airport security personnel. What a shame to encounter them at a science museum, of all places.

So, how was the exhibition itself?
It was very much like our previous Star Wars encounter in Sydney, but with a major twist. It was a genuine science exhibition of the best kind I can imagine. Allow me to elaborate...
The area devoted to Star Wars spaceships also featured exhibits on potential real life spaceship technologies, as in ships that may take humans out of the solar system. The area on robots had some interesting exhibits on genuine real life robots, and more interestingly featured some exhibits to play with: you could design a robot's motor system of your own (as in, the robot's legwork), and then test your design out; and there was a robot with a basic vision system installed, so it could greet you as you entered its field of vision and react to rough movements of yours. There were also lots of interactive games that should really appeal to kids and teens, such as civilization computer game like consoles discussing the structure of the Star Wars world's societies and allowing you to experiment with them (I guess these assume you do not have a toddler with a nappy that needs changing with you).
Most interesting to our Dylan was the hovercraft related exhibition, which provided the facilities to make your own Lego like hovercraft and have it hover over a magnetic field. For Dylan it was a classic opportunity to do his favorite thing, "make a train", and indeed that's exactly what he did:



To summarize things: Dylan ran around, half scared of all the "noisy spaceships" and half intrigued with the new playing opportunities presented to him; Jo was running after Dylan; and I was being my usual selfish self, taking lots and lots of photos. And all of us were annoyed, to one extent or another, with the prevailing circumstances.
A typical family outing.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Singapore on Video

I came, I saw, but then I had to fly back. That's the story of our recent vacation to Singapore, and that is probably the story of most holidays; only that we have a twist on our hands: we have a two year old with us.
Prior to flying the question was whether we're going to be healthy enough to go on vacation in the first place. We just managed it, although the actual flight gave us some second thoughts. We flew with Qantas, which meant we got cheerful service, but it also meant we were exposed to the airline's cost cutting ventures. In other words, Qantas is not what is used to be: we flew on an aging plane, and the crew was so busy being cheerful and easy going they forgot to serve us one of the meals.
The intolerable sound system meant we gave up on the movie on demand facilities really quickly, but the true reason for giving up on flight time entertainment was our own personal entertainment unit: once it had found it cannot achieve its desired sleeping posture on an economy seat it decided to pick a fight with us. He was already annoyed with us giving up on our suitcases while checking in (luckily for us, we "gotted the suitcases" after landing). Later we also noticed the air on the flight was so bad (did I mention Qantas is cutting costs?) that Dylan's asthma got aggravated and we had to give him some aggressive medicines we took with us to keep things under control. Luckily, that's where things stayed, but I don't want to think of our fate had we flew further than Singapore.
Our tactic with calming our two year old down had been to acquire some trip friendly toys and expose him to them as we went along. By far the most popular of these was the Terrific Trains book; it was so popular we were asked to read it again and again, with the occasional change of anchorman. It became such a repetitive act that we took alternate videos of the readings: In the first one it's yours truly, in the second it's Jo.





The nice thing about these videos is the way they demonstrate the different reading styles. I make it a more physical experience, but it's quite easy to see who the better reader is; however, it is also easy to see who the better cinematographer is.
Regardless of our attempts at appeasing the monster, it was clear Dylan had landed on the dreaded age of the tantrum. There is a good reason why they call it The Terrible Twos: it seems as if some magic button has been pressed to make every action we parents want to take, say going out somewhere - even to places he would like to go to - into some sort of a torture.
The following video demonstrates what I have in mind. When watching it, do consider the fact the video had been taken after past the tantrum's peak:



Things were so bad it became clear going out to fancy restaurants was not an option we should consider. The Master might let us ravel in the food for fifteen minutes, perhaps even half an hour; but once he gets bored, no one is bored. So instead of dining out in Singapore's best, and Singapore is definitely a culinary delight mixing the best of many foods - from India to China to Western - we ended up finding ourselves in such fine establishments as Pizza Hut. Just because they were easy. We didn't eat particularly well or as well as we wanted to, but we did get to play with ice:



Originally, one of the places we wanted to stay in while visiting Singapore was the resort island of Sentosa. Luckily for us we didn't, because our day trip venture there revealed the island is set in the romantic atmosphere of Singapore's commercial port (probably the busiest in the world), and the island itself is one big construction site. It seems Singapore is intent on getting rid of any bits of greenery still on the island and replacing them with quality cement.
To get to Sentosa we took a ride on a "bumpy cable car":



On Sentosa, and after paying an entry fee, there are buses and trams that take you around the island's different extortion points for free (an extortion point is defined as a so called attraction designed to primarily rid you of much of the cash in your pocket, especially if you have children with you).
The video below documents one such bus ride. How shall I put it? If you are after a beach resort type holiday, any beach in Queensland will always beat Sentosa by a very wide margin.



The return cable car ride from Sentosa was on a "bumpy purple cable car", a sentence that took Dylan a while to master. It was one of those experiences he kept talking about, together with "we wented to look at the lion" (an event documented on my photo page at Flickr). For now, enjoy the ride back:



To get out of Singapore's Caves of Steel (more on those in a future post), we took Dylan to the Jurong Bird Park. It felt good to be closer to nature, even if for a short while, even if it was stinking hot and humid, and even if it rained (a bit). There are some "wow" exhibits to behold, or as Dylan still says - "lots and lots of noisy birds".
Still, the park's biggest attraction, as far as Dylan was concerned, was its train: a monorail riding slowly around the park. After continuous nagging we took the ride ($5 per adult), and I have to say it was good: we did a circle around the park and it allowed us to identify the best attractions, such as the birds of prey and hornbills section. Not to mention the area dedicated to Aussie birds!
On the positive side, I have to add Dylan had stopped nagging us once we took him on for the ride; I don't want to think of the senseless alternative.



Overall, we had ourselves a good time. I think I can safely say Dylan enjoyed himself on this holiday. Not only did he like the holiday, he also liked everything that came along with it, including his "holly bed" and "holly shoes" (i.e., the warm weather sandals that replaced his cold weather shoes). It is also obvious to say he was quite stimulated by the things he saw, clearly affecting his development. One of the nice things about Singapore is the way everyone went out of their way to be nice to Dylan, even plain people on the street; it was also nice to see Dylan enjoying the attention without discriminating for sex, race or religion.
It is, however, important to remember that when traveling with a kid, the way down is always beckoning. As in the case of our return flights: With only two hours time difference between Singapore and Melbourne we didn't think jet lag would be an issue; however, with Dylan spending just a slight portion of the night flight back asleep (out of exhaustion), the result was a very effective jet lag. Or just sleep lag?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Nightswimming

I was under the influence a fortnight ago. The moon’s influence.
While hanging the laundry I kept on thinking about the moon landing’s fortieth anniversary. That made me think of REM’s Man on the Moon song, which made me do something I haven’t done for ages: I picked up a CD, REM’s Automatic for the People, and played it on our stereo.
You know the feeling you get when you haven’t done something for a long while, and then you do it and then you wonder what had stopped you from doing it all this time? Well, that’s the feeling I’ve had. The music was intoxicating, the presentation quality unheard of: I could hear things taking place in the songs I never heard before, curtsy of my stereo. It was sheer fun! And so relaxing – just dimming the lights and listening to the music…
For a few years now music has stopped playing the role it once had for me. For years I would spend my nights just listening to music in the dark, but through what has been going on in the music industry – the commercialism and the junk that passes for music these days – and through the transition to low quality compressed MP3 material, as well as the transition to becoming a family man, I had learnt to live my life without music. On that night two weeks ago I have learnt what it was that I lost.
Between playing on the PS3 and watching all the movies that we watch, I should make an effort and dedicate some time to listening to some good music played properly, from a CD on a proper hi-fi.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Before God

Lots of rallying and protesting took place all over Australia during the last weekend as gay people protested their inability to marry one another according to Australian law. Despite having the majority of the population behind them, the gays are still prevented from corrective legislation. The Liberals are officially against it, and even Kevin Rudd reveals his true colors by going against such changes and preventing Labor from discussing these changes that most of its members would like to see coming.
One of the main arguments raised against gay marriage is that a marriage is a “contract between a man and a woman before god”. Under normal circumstances, these people say, we wouldn’t mind changing things; but being that marriage is “before god”, we’re not really in a position to change it, are we?
Well, I am here to say that we already had. Look at my own marriage: I was married in Australia, and I will gladly testify before any conceivable court that god was not present at my marriage. Mind you, I wouldn’t have minded bumping into him/her/it/they; I could have had a word or two with god, mostly telling it what I think of its rather lacklustre execution when coming up with this world of ours. Or, in other words, is that all an all powerful being can come up with? A world full of so much misery and a promise to maybe rectify things afterwards but only if you behave? And what’s the deal with asking for worship – didn’t god get enough attention from its parents?

Anyway, my point is simple. I got married according to Australian law in a totally civil ceremony with no religious elements whatsoever. I was not married before god yet I am still legally married and no one seems to have a problem with my marriage.
I see no reason why gay people should not enjoy the same rights.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Oh, What a Lucky Man He Was


lucky man
Originally uploaded by raumoberbayern
Someone I know is going through all sorts of health issues at the moment. It's hard for anyone to go through such things, and the effect it has on this particular person is them going on saying how unlucky they are.
But are they unlucky? Not that I am in any position to preach to anyone with health concerns, but think about this before you claim to be unlucky: By being born, you have a good claim for being the luckiest entity in the whole world.
Think about the odds there. What are the chances of the particular father sperm out of which you have materialized being the chosen one? We're talking about one in a billion(s) here. What are the chances of this particular sperm finding itself to your mother's particular egg (one in hundreds)?
If you think these odds are mind boggling, think of this: What are the odds of your parents being born the way they were, and of their parents' parents etc? You have to roll the tape back some four billion years and countless generations here, to the time life first appeared on earth, and do the odds for each and every generation since. Boy, you are a lucky bastard!
But it doesn't even end there. What were the odds of life on this planet of all planets? Or, if we do indeed live in some sort of a multiverse world where our universe is but one of many, what were the odds of being born in this particularly friendly universe of ours?

You don't need to tell me that none of us measure their luck in absolute terms; we all judge it by comparing ourselves to the guy next to us. We all want to do better than "that" nasty guy.
Yet wouldn't our world be that much nicer if we stopped comparing ourselves to others and thought, at least from time to time, about the grand scheme of things instead?

Monday, 3 August 2009

Abba Cutted the Grass


Picture 013
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
What is wrong with the following sentence: "Abba cutted the grass".
This sentence is commonly repeated by Dylan, who saw me (his father, or Abba in Hebrew) use the lawnmower more than a fortnight ago. Obviously, the experience has left its mark on him.
So, what is wrong with this sentence? Well, it's obvious: We don't really have grass; whatever grass we may have had died years ago. I was mowing weeds.

With this Melbourne's rainfall at a record low this winter and a forecast for another killer summer in the wings, it is obvious that even our weeds are going to have a hard time ahead. At least my State Government is taking steps against water shortages by building the world's "largest desalination plant in the southern hemisphere".
I'm a weirdo, though, because when I hear the government's message I become furious: Furious at the millions of liters of recycled water being poured into the ocean every year, furious at the major greenhouse emissions artifact being erected in the shape of that desalination plant, and furious at the way this artifact will only make our weather problem worse.
Victoria's government needs to be cutted and replaced by sanity, and soon.