Kentucky memories, II:

While looking for a house in Kentucky, my then wife and I stayed with her son and his family in Michigan in the region near Detroit.. Detroit’s local TV was a never ending source of delight and bewilderment for me, and here are a few things I scribbled while living there.

It’s in the eye of the beholder

HERE IN MICHIGAN a plastic surgery practice has a TV special running: “Buy one procedure, get a second one free”. There doesn’t appear to be any fine print – and TV commercials in the USA are big on the fine print and the disclaimer – so on the surface, excuse the pun, it looks pretty good. But I can’t believe there’s no fine print. Does nip and tuck count as one procedure or two? Does a breast implant include both the girls or do the terms and conditions stipulate “breast implants” or “breasts implants” or some other sneaky variation on the theme? I need to know. It’s worrying me.

The Bride Whisperer

I’ve seen the billboards in a couple of places, the most recent sighting being on I-96 near Lansing, Michigan. I don’t know the name of the company because I’ve never had time to read it – it’s the catchline that gets my attention: “90,000 Brides Serviced”, it unabashedly proclaims in flowing script. It might even be 900,000; I’m not sure, we’re always going along at a fair bat when we pass and I’m too busy smirking to care. Either way, it’s an impressive figure, but it’s also a fair bet that the coiner of that slogan – do you coin a slogan? – has never had anything to do with the horse industry, particularly the world of the thoroughbred breeders. Placed on a highway in Kentucky, a billboard proclaiming that boast would attract TV crews from all over the State and, I suspect, not a few outraged troops of the Army of the Moral Reicht who see no humour in anything, not even in Pogo. Still, I suppose it’s a good catchphrase. At least it gets my attention – not that I’m a prospective customer mind you, just someone in awe of the precise imprecision of the English language and its many dialects. Come to think of it, he’d also have to be something of a groom whisperer, wouldn’t he, to get away with it? Perhaps I’d better open my thesaurus too, though as Porkypine might have said, “Woss in ’er fer me barrin’ words?”

The wonderful Sara Elliott

Taking their cue from our US cousins, Australians have pretty much got used to news anchors whose expertise seems to lie more in the choice of the smart frock or nifty tie than in an understanding of the world beyond their studio. So to someone from, say, Muckinbudin, in Western Australia, the TV channels broadcasting from Detroit, Michigan, would be comfortingly familiar; the same stories about celebrities, cats up trees, humanity’s inhumanity and, of course, The Weather. Where would we be without The Weather? When in Western Australia the winter temperature plummets to 5 degrees above freezing, give or take, our chic young “reporter on the spot” grabs the opportunity and the microphone with both hands. Bundled up in bright windproofs trimmed with lashings of faux fur, she prettily faux shivers as the camera pans to scenes of frosty lawns and the face of “Concerned Homeowner” or perhaps “Hose frozen” who couldn’t get water out of his garden hose until 7 a.m. and wants someone to do something about it. It’s the same in Detroit, only more so. To be fair to the Michiganders, it is a fair cow, sorry, couw, of a winter; it was —24°C when I began writing this – and the roads are bloody awful, but it’s given our girls on the spot a golden opportunity to shine in faux fur and pink as they point at pot holes (Michiganders are the only people I’ve ever heard who can pronounce a word space) and snow drifts and give us the number of cars that have hit black ice and slid into the ditches along the rush-hour freeways. Pointing at the snow piling up around ruggedly fashionable and expensive boots, our girl on the spot gives a faux grimace and tells us that it’s snowed two inches while she’s been talking. Now I’ll give the girls their due. They’re sort of fashionably attractive and fashionably dressed, and they do brighten the dreary scenes of snowy, salt-encrusted freeways that they’re sent to report on, but it’s all a bit Hollywood – or is that Motowood, now that Detroit’s about to become a movie capital – all a bit…well…faux. But there is relief to be had, relief in the person of one Sara Elliott, weather reporter on the spot with CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Windsor, Ontario, whose signal reaches into Michigan. Not for Sara the faux fur hood and colorful windproof, the designer boots and fashionable gloves. No, like her fellow presenters, Sara is obviously of good Canadian just plain folks stock. Filmed in the dim light of a winter afternoon, she’s dressed for her job; The Weather. Wearing hat, gloves and scarf knitted by Great Aunt Somebody Or Other, make up outshone by cold-nipped cheeks and nose and her footwear hidden by a military style greatcoat, Sara’s smile is as bright and warm as the West Australian sun and her delivery is nothing if not truthful. “It’s minus 11 now,” she says, “and aboat to get a lot colder. If you were thinking of goin’ oat tonight I wouldn’t bother, it’s goin’ to be terrible.” Good on yer Sara – I need someone like you on TV, the world needs you.

I sent this piece to the wonderful Sara and she was tickled pink. When spring came and Canadians were oat and aboat in what seemed absurdly sporty clothing for weather that to an Australian seemed still bone-chillingly cold, a TV reporter approached a long lanky girl in the street, presumably to get her views on the sun and Spring. Who should it be but Sara Elliot who, true to form eschewed the jaunty sun top, designer skirts and expensive sandals in favour of jeans inexpertly cut off at the knee, a battered tee-shirt and one-dollar thongs. Oh, how I admired that girl!

These next two, written after watching US news reports, seem horribly apt today, January 3 2015, as South Australia and Victoria again do battle with fires

Great swathes of south-eastern Australia are again being blackened in a maelstrom of late-season bushfires. When I saw the first pictures, my heart went out to the men and women of the Bush Fire Brigades, the great majority of them volunteers. Almost everyone living in the Australian bush – whether in the small towns or on the farms and stations – has some connection with the volunteer fire brigades, either in a fire crew or as one of the army who, during prolonged emergencies, make sandwiches, fill the water canteens, cook meals and housekeep the “camps” set up in local community halls, schools or other venues, and keep an eye out for volunteers’ homes and farms. Living in the bush, you develop a summertime habit of periodically raising your eyes and scanning the horizon, searching for the telltale grey plume heralding the beginnings of a fire. The merest whiff of smoke sends you back to the house to wait for a call from your division leader or into the brigade headquarters, usually a galvanized-steel shed, to get ready for the fight.

A big fire in Australia’s eucalypt bushland is a hellish thing, never forgotten. Perhaps started by a lightning strike during a dry storm, it quickly gains ground, feeding on the shed bark and, if it has been a good spring, the flammable scrubby understorey. Gaining strength and momentum as it flows down ridges it begins to climb tree trunks and lick at the lower branches. By now it is developing a voice, the crackle and snap of burning vegetation replaced by a low, rumbling roar as the flames begin to draw in oxygen, creating their own winds. The air, sucked dry by the scorching summer gales, rises rapidly, dragging balls of burning twigs and leaves skyward, throwing sparks and debris sometimes thousands of feet into the air. If the fire gains enough momentum, the volatile oils from the eucalypt leaves may explode, sending flames racing into the forest canopy – the dreaded crown fire. A crown fire bellows and roars; gigantic, flaming tongues leaping from the canopy and disappearing into the dense black smoke rising into the atmosphere. Fireballs of burning matter hurtle through the air, starting new fires well in advance of the main front and threatening crops and homes. The atmosphere seems devoid of oxygen, consumed by the fires. I have seen a fire front roar over the top of a gully where a crew was battling a spot fire. They found it hard to breathe, as if their lungs had been emptied, and they watched in awe as branches and vegetation were sucked into the air above their heads. Exhausted, the crews battle on, sometimes for weeks. If the fires are localized, then neighboring brigades join the fight. But in a bad fire year, everybody might be busy in their own patch, so you just battle on, hoping for the best. You snatch sleep where and when you can. You ride the fire truck through blackened, burning skeletons of trees and you try not to think too much but you hope, hope like hell, that your wife and your kids and your mates and your house are all right and that the family who live over the eastern ridge managed to get out along their rough old track because you know their house has gone. You turn to the bloke next to you. His eyebrows went west in a bit of a blowback and you know he’s doing his best to hide a pretty badly burned hand. “You all right, cobber? How’s the hand?” you ask. “Yair, she’ll be right, mate. She’ll be right.”

I was once a member of one such brigade, based in a tiny village set in a valley among the rugged ridges and gorges of the New South Wales sandstone country, a vast region that includes the Blue Mountains, the Yengo, the Wollemi Wilderness and the Goulburn River gorges. Thickly timbered and in places inaccessible except by helicopter, the area can explode in flames when summer lightning flares and crackles along tinder-dry ridges.

Fire part two

CNN carried another report on the Australian fires this morning. At the end of the segment, the anchors expressed their amazement, tinged with just a teensy bit of disapproval, that Australia has no compulsory evacuation laws for situations like these. That’s not true, but neither is it the point of this blog. A lot of those firefighters you see on the news reports are volunteers; members of the many Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades that have long formed the front line against disastrous fires in rural Australia. In a bad fire season when brigades all over the States are preoccupied, local crews can be stretched pretty thin over the ground, so people choose to stay and attempt to defend their homes because they believe they can do it. High-level publicity and advice about fire awareness is constantly given to bush folk and one of the points always hammered at is the need for preparation. During the fire season you must do all your can to make your home safe; you must make your decision to stay or go early on if a fire threatens and if you choose to leave, then plan the safest route out. And these can be isolated country towns, some of them with just a single one-lane road in and out – and lousy roads at that – and often with no police presence, let alone luxuries like doctors and hospitals. In a lot of Australia, the bush is the bush and it would be next to impossible to organize evacuations – and to where? We’re talking about serious fires here, as I wrote in yesterday’s blog. A crown fire can travel at great speeds over the country, starting new fires miles in front of itself. One minute you’re driving through nothing but smoke, the next and the world around you is exploding in flames. Experienced fire crews have been burned to death in their trucks so it’s easy to understand how ordinary drivers get caught. In some areas, too, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that many new residents are “tree-changers” seeking what they fondly imagine is a rural lifestyle but with no knowledge of its responsibilities and in some regions this has meant a decline in Fire Brigade memberships and a rise in the incidence of fires, accidental and otherwise.

Of course there’s room for improvement, there always is, but Australia is greatly different from the USA in many ways and bushfires there pose many problems and challenges different from those faced here.

Taxes that really are unfair

Here in the USA, as in Australia, a major theme of political discussion, whether among individuals or “In The Media” seems to be taxes, i.e. the government takes too much. It takes too much income tax, businesses are taxed too heavily, high fuel prices are exacerbated by the government take and so it goes on. As an Australian of a certain age my views about the responsibilities of governments and the role of taxation are very different from my younger compatriots and nearly all Americans, or so it would seem. But let’s not go into that. There is, however, one US tax that never seems to rate a mention yet it’s one I find extremely unfair, not that it has ever affected me. I’m talking about the tax on lottery winnings. Why should people be taxed on what is, after all, sheer bloody good luck? Sure, if you invest the money – though who’d be brave enough to do that in these times? – then you should pay tax on any dividends or profits accruing from the investment, that’s fair enough. But on the actual winnings? No way, sport. Okay,at this point I’ll admit to a teensy bit of self-interest. When I win the big one here in Michigan I’ll have no hesitation whatsoever in making substantial donations to worthy charities but I’ll really resent handing over what I believe amounts to about half of my winnings to government. Oh, I’ll do it all right, I’m a law-abiding man, but it’ll be with no good grace at all.

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