Memories of elections past and thoughts on healthcare – so what’s changed?

Romney-Vs-Obama-480x342
Image of candidate Romney vs. President Obama: By DonkeyHotey from his flickr photostream and used
under creative commons license

Boy, will I be happy when this election is over at last – though I use “happy” with qualifications. If Romney manages to crack it, I’ll be decidedly unhappy, if Obama wins I’ll be relieved more than joyful. Unless of course he at long last begins to assert himself and force the neo-reicht into revealing what they actually are: fascists in Christian investment banker’s clothing, though that’s possibly a tautology.

To touch briefly on last night’s debate, I have to admire Governor Romney. His ability to stand in front of a nation and keep a straight face while contradicting just about every statement he has ever made is just awesome –Mitt the Oxymormon. But he wasn’t lying, one of the commentators on msnbc told us he was merely exercising flexibility. It put me in mind of a former Prime Minister of Australia and admirer of George W Bush, John “Bonsai” Howard who, when it was pointed out that he’d broken more than 100 election “guarantees”, said that they were “non-core promises”.

You may, or may not be interested to know that two opinion polls recently held in Australia revealed that an overwhelming majority prefer President Obama over Romney. Each survey polled 1,000 people and the results in the President’s favour were 72 per cent and 80 per cent. Lest that that seem meaningless, let me say that US trade and foreign policies have a profound effect on Australia, though you never hear about that here, of course.

President Obama could also do worse than have a decko at a recent speech by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in which she attacked the Leader of the Opposition, Tony “The Mad Monk” Abbott, for his sexist attitudes and the misogynistic view held by many members of his party. The Prime Minister held the Parliamentary floor for more than 15 minutes in response to Abbott’s attacks on her links to the Speaker of the House who has been forced to resign over extremely sexist text messages. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say the PM did indeed back the former Speaker’s appointment but The Mad Monk is a close personal friend of that now extremely sorry individual. I’m told by friends back home that the video has gone viral.

How did I get here? What I started out to say was that when this election is at last behind us – I don’t want to think about the aftermath – perhaps I’ll hear less of: “America has the best health-care system in the world”. I’m sorry, but it’s just not true. I owe my life to US medical technology – probably the world’s most advanced – but the system that delivers it – or doesn’t, as the case may be – lags a long way behind that of most developed nations.

I am bringing this up because I’m pissed off about a recently received summary of services for which my insurance provider had relieved me of the need to pay, a service delivered on October 1, 2012. Great, except I haven’t seen a doctor at any time this month. So to save myself a long wait on the phone – and the accompanying blandishments – I decided to register on the website and deal with the enquiry that way. I’m pretty confident on a computer, I have to be, but I couldn’t enter my chosen password. The drop down gave me a list of about eight forbidden characters, so I hadn’t used them, the sidebar told me that I should use a mix of characters, numbers and symbols and I had followed its instructions to the letter (bad pun, sorry), but no joy. A phone call to the help desk informed me I couldn’t use symbols. So much for the website. When I did finally log on, the page I needed was “unavailable at this time”.

Back to the telephone, where I was told the matter would be “looked in to”. In frustration, I called the office of the alleged service provider. The young woman on the other end of the phone assured me that I had indeed seen the doctor on that date but I pointed out that that was impossible and why. She got quite shirty and told me that the good doctor had indeed seen me on October 1 at the hospital in question. On the verge of a dummy spit I retorted that I hadn’t been at that hospital in 12 months and asked was he just getting around to sending out his bills. She looked again: “Oh, it should be 2011 and we have already been paid for that. I’ll pass that on to the lady who deals with things like this.”

We’ve also been confronted with evidence of what appear to be at best billing errors since my brush with the ugly old bastard with the fern hook. One was a large charge for emergency room services which I just did not receive. I went straight from the operating theatre at one hospital to the operating theatre in another (well almost straight, they had to keep me on hold at the local hospital for the best part of a day until a team was available at the hospital in the big city). Others were for doctors who neither my [then] wife – for the time I was off with the Old Ones in the Milky Way she was constantly at my side – nor I recollect seeing, but it was the emergency room charges that got to us and a couple of other apparent double dips.

We called Medicare, the hospital and the insurance company but the end result was nothing. Medicare and the insurance company intimated that there wasn’t much they could do and the hospital…well there’s a lot I could say about the hospital but perhaps I’ll leave that for another time

Flashback USA or Hello Australia

Voting for self

First published in LiketheDew | Oct 19, 2010
Under first the Howard government and now – and more so – the one led by Abbott, much of the national attitude described here is true of Australia

I watched a so-called teevee debate between a couple of aspirants to political office a couple of nights ago, and my reaction was akin to nothing so much as that of your archetypal stunned mullet. So you can blame the teevee, the candidates, the university and the panel for what you are about to receive – or not, depending on your attention span.

First up, I’d like to lay my cards on the table. My opinions are born of life experiences outside the ken of many Australians – especially those born in the boom years, and later in those gray decades of gray conservatism where nostalgia for an imaginary past and place colours political thought at the expense of progress – so it follows they are also outside the ken of many Americans.

These opinions are further colored by being born and raised in a country that, even today, is to much of the wider world as foreign as another planet. It’s an old viewpoint. The majority of the first official European settlers were convinced that as the rest of the world had been created by their god, then Australia must be the work of their devil.

It’s worth noting, too, that Aussies generally speaking have always considered Australia a Christian country in name only. The establishment of course thinks otherwise, especially recent administrations, but the ordinary bloke and sheila on the street, the staunchly religious aside, may have ticked the “Christian” box on the Census form, but would never think of fronting a god-botherer for anything other than culturally ingrained Christianised ceremonial occasions: namely weddings, funerals and babies’ headwettings.

There are historical reasons for this, also. Not least among them I’d guess is that it must have been hard to accept the message of a god’s love  rammed down your throat – attendance at Chapel compulsory – by the same bloke who ordered you receive 100 lashes for talking at meals in the prison mess.

Okay, so there are my biases out on the table; and I am biased, I’ll admit it, but I just had to write this. I know some may consider it rude, I’m a guest of sorts after all, but ah, what the heck. At a time when right is the new left and ostentatious the new subtle, it’s no better or worse than a lot of stuff out there. Agree or disagree as you will, I blame my frustration at the present state of what passes for political debate and patriotic aspirations for the mood I find myself in.

I’ve been interested in the USA for a long time; so long that I can’t remember what sparked it. Was it reading Twain, Longfellow, Stowe and the Pocomoto stories as a youngster? Was it learning of the politico-cultural interchanges (I made that up) sparked by goldrushes on two continents and America’s early realisation of the Home Rule so longed for by my forebears in Australia and their Old Countries? I don’t know, but it certainly began long before I discovered Steinbeck, Thurber or Guthrie; or before I found the Southern music, both black and white, that has influenced my musical tastes for more than half a lifetime.

Whatever my inspiration may have been, I’ve long had a great admiration for the idea of the USA, for what it is. I firmly believe, and have often publicly said so, that Australia needs to rewrite its constitution – at present hardly worth the paper it’s written on – to include some of the great aspirations embodied in yours, and to look at drafting its own Bill of Rights, though with both new documents tempered by the knowledge that the world has changed since the US Constitution was adopted and will continue to do so, and an acceptance that founding fathers everywhere, no matter how wise, were only human beings.

However, living outside this country it’s easy to get frustrated by the often rash decisions made by your governments at various times and by the insular view of the wider world adopted by the US’s political, military and business institutions  and adopted by a lot of its inhabitants. Now that I’m living in the USA, I can see more of the why – not that it makes some of these past actions any more excusable.

Living here also makes me truly understand why this country prospered – in the Western sense anyway – from the time it was first occupied by northern Europeans. It was just so bountiful that even the tattered remnants that remain are awe-inspiring to someone from a country where a farmer will plant thousands of acres of wheat on half an inch of rain.

But again, as an outsider now living on the inside, one can see that the happy circumstance of a bountiful continent has its bad side. It has made Americans – generally speaking – spoiled. They cannot seem to accept that everything they see as the good life is not theirs by birthright; that you can’t just leave it to Beaver and everything will be okay.

Australia has its faults, and plenty of them, though probably neither less nor more than most other nations on average, but a belief in some sort of munificent providence is not one of them. We learned early in the piece that a year of bumper harvests can be followed by five of drought then one of floods followed by another of devastating fires. We knew what Robbie Burns was getting at when he wrote:

The best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men,
Gang aft a-gley,
And leave us nought but grief and pain,
For promised joy.

Australian society sprang from a system in which undesirables were ruled by an elite who used their legal institutions to harness their labour in order to rid a country of its poor and to forestall the same sort of revolution that had engulfed France and later the US. It was this convict-bred society, forced to exist in a land that was the antithesis of everything European, that saw develop the Australian concept of mateship, an ethos that, when Australians were given suffrage, developed into the benign socialism under which the country is ruled today. You could be a rugged individualist all you liked, but as the Aboriginals had known for 60,000 years, when it came to flourishing in an unforgiving continent, then you needed social cohesion and cooperation. America the beautiful was so rich that its people no doubt saw little need of such measures in society. But there is dire need of it now. I think that your country has for a long time been living off the interest accumulated over millennia but now that interest has been spent and it is making huge inroads into the original capital.

And this brings me, I suppose, to my point. In all this seemingly endless season of political debate – and again I use the term loosely – funded to such an extent that the moneys splurged could probably settle the mortgage of every needy citizen in this beautiful country, in all this debate there has been not one mention of America the nation, the idea, the us, the entity, the ideal, the great aspiration made flesh that united this nation from sea to shining sea. Instead it’s a monotonous, carping mantra of selfishness: my country and my state and my religious beliefs and my kids and my job and my party and my flag and my bible and why should I pay taxes.

Where’s the clarion call to unite; to stand shoulder to shoulder for the common good? America is a great idea, always has been, so why believe in the myth of a conservative gloryland, a heaven based on “that’s the way it’s always been” and chase something that never existed? John Wayne did not win WWII, he just made a heap of cash pretending he did; cowboys did not wear rhinestones or clean shirts and trick their horses out in red leather; the little house on the prairie didn’t have indoor plumbing – you shat in a hole in the ground – Custer lost at Little Big Horn and teevee wrestling is rigged. Hollywood is not the truth but neither does Christianity have all the answers – though like Hollywood it also dislikes being questioned.

Ray Bearfield wrote: It doesn’t matter that we were never as pure and strong as we’d like to imagine.” He’s right. We have to stop believing that we were and that we can stand alone and win the West. We need to lend a hand to help our mates up. Forget the snide bastards backing the so-called purists, the trick-me freedom fighters, for their own grubby ends; think of the country, the great idea. America is ailing and in need of treatment – does it really matter who supplies the medicine?

On the other hand, if Gordon Gecko were to run for President…

It’d be funny if…

We all make mistakes, of course we do, but increasingly we are being bombarded with news stories, political handouts and company PR releases that make absolutely no sense. I was feeling pretty outraged last night about the biased report that the ABC’s 7.30 did on the kerfuffle surrounding Adani Coal’s attempt to dig the world’s biggest hole in Queensland, and that got me thinking about the way in which attempts to obfuscate – or at best appear intelligent, educated and well-read –  are leading to the stripping of any real meaning from the reporting of even the most serious events. This piece I wrote for the USA’s LiketheDew sprang to mind.

Writing in Kentucky News ReviewLu-Ann Farrar said that Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University…now let’s just hold it there for a second while I try to work out where to start. To make things a bit clearer, I’ll italicise Lu-Ann’s words, at least the ones I think are hers.

Got that? Ms Farrar wrote that  the professor  told the Detroit Free Press that paramilitary troups [sic.] are being used more often in police situations. Now right there I’m puzzled. What’s a police situation, a job with the service? And do paramilitary services have entertainment units, even misspelled ones? She goes on: A Detroit imam, Luqman Ameen Abdullah, was arrested and shot by an elite FBI Hostage Rescue Team. Arrested and shot? In that order? By a rescue team? She went on: Abdullah is the first time a religious leader has been killed by government forces since…Abdullah is the first time? Wouldn’t “Abdullah’s is the first death of a religious leader at the hands of…” have been a little less confusing?

Then Ms Farrar quotes the professor: “We’ve seen…real serious problems with various SWAT tragedies…Real problems arise when it’s misapplied to the wrong circumstances.”

Doesn’t writing an article about something this serious warrant a little care?

I had intended to hand my virtual “Newnglish” award to a writer whose copy I edit, for the descriptive gem “the most rainy day of the year”,  but she was well and truly outclassed.

US Flashbacks, or, Don’t let it happen here

Image of candidate Romney vs. President Obama: By DonkeyHotey from his flickr photostream and used under creative commons license

Boy, will I be happy when this election is over at last – though I use “happy” with qualifications. If Romney manages to crack it, I’ll be decidedly unhappy, if Obama wins I’ll be relieved more than joyful. Unless of course he at long last begins to assert himself and force the neo-reicht into revealing what they actually are: fascists in Christian hedge fund manager’s clothing, though that’s possibly a tautology.

To touch briefly on Monday night’s debate, I have to admire Governor Romney. His ability to stand in front of a nation and keep a straight face while contradicting just about every statement he has ever made is just awesome –Mitt the OxyMormon. But he wasn’t lying, one of the commentators on MSNBC told us he was merely “exercising flexibility”. It put me in mind of a former Prime Minister of Australia and admirer of George W Bush, John “Bonsai” Howard who, when it was pointed out that he’d broken more than 100 election “guarantees”, said that they were “non-core promises”.

You may, or may not be interested to know that two opinion polls recently held in Australia revealed that an overwhelming majority prefer President Obama over Romney. Each survey polled 1,000 people and the results in the President’s favour were 72 per cent and 80 per cent. Lest that that seem meaningless, let me say that US trade and foreign policies have a profound effect on Australia, though you never hear about that here, of course.

President Obama could also do worse than have a decko at a recent speech by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in which she attacked the Leader of the Opposition, Tony “The Mad Monk” Abbott, for his sexist attitudes and the misogynistic view held by many members of his party. The Prime Minister held the Parliamentary floor for more than 15 minutes in response to Abbott’s attacks on her links to the Speaker of the House who has been forced to resign over extremely sexist text messages. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say the PM did indeed back the former Speaker’s appointment but The Mad Monk is a close personal friend of that now ostracized individual. I’m told by friends back home that the video has gone viral.

How did I get here? What I started out to say was that when this election is at last behind us – I don’t want to think about the aftermath – perhaps I’ll hear less of: “America has the best health-care system in the world.” I’m sorry, but it’s just not true. I owe my life to US medical technology – probably the world’s most advanced – but the system that delivers it – or doesn’t, as the case may be – lags a long way behind that of most developed nations.

I am bringing this up because I’m pissed off about a recently received summary of the latest round of services for which my insurance provider had relieved me of the need to pay, a service delivered on October 1, 2012. Great, except I haven’t seen a doctor at any time this month. So to save myself a long wait on the phone – and the accompanying blandishments – I decided to register on the website and deal with the enquiry that way. I’m pretty confident on a computer, I have to be, but I couldn’t enter my chosen password. The drop down menu gave me a list of about eight forbidden characters, so I hadn’t used them, the sidebar told me that I should use a mix of characters, numbers and symbols and I had followed its instructions to the letter (terrible pun; sorry), but no joy. A phone call to the help desk informed me that I couldn’t use symbols, that was my problem. So much for the website. When I did finally log on, the page I needed was “unavailable at this time”.

Back to the telephone, where I was told the matter of the latest summary would be “looked in to”. In frustration, I called the office of the alleged insurance company’s billing service provider. The young woman on the other end of the phone assured me that I had indeed seen the doctor on that date but I pointed out that it was impossible and why. She got quite shirty and told me that the good doctor had indeed seen me on October 1 at the hospital named. On the verge of a dummy spit I retorted that I hadn’t been at that hospital in 12 months and asked was he just getting around to sending out his bills. She looked again: “Oh, it should be 2011 and we have already been paid for that. I’ll pass that on to the lady who deals with things like this.”

We’ve been confronted with evidence of what appear to be at best billing errors ever since my brush with the ugly old bastard with the fern hook. One was a large charge for emergency room services which I just did not receive. I went straight from the operating theatre at one hospital to the operating theatre in another (well almost straight, they had to keep me on hold at the local hospital for the best part of a day until a team was available at the hospital in the big city). Others were for doctors who neither my then wife – who, for the time I was off with the Old Ones in the Milky Way was constantly at my side – nor I recollect seeing, but it was the emergency room charges that got to us, along with a couple of other apparent double dips.

We called Medicare, the hospital and the insurance company but the end result was nothing. Medicare and the insurance company intimated that there wasn’t much they could do and the hospital…well there’s a lot I could say about the hospital, but perhaps I’ll leave that for another time.

This originally appeared in LiketheDew during the election campaign that saw President Obama re-elected. 

Image of candidate Romney vs. President Obama: By DonkeyHotey from his flickr photostream and used under creative commons license

A midwinter nightmare

This was also written in the USA. Since returning to Australia I am now more than ever convinced that Tony Abbott and Rand Paul are related

Things get in the way. This morning I was going to write the second instalment of a story begun last week but it wasn’t to be. On Friday last, the postie – that’s Australian for mailman or, in my case, mailwoman – delivered a piece of junk mail that saw Rabbie Burns’ Law kick in. The Great Scot’s ghost was still hovering about the house when I read a Dana Milbank (Washington Post) piece in the Opinion pages of Sunday’s Lexington Herald-Leader, and is looking over my shoulder today as I listen to UK’s public radio station WUKY. I was going to ignore it, but it’s just no good to try; part two will have to wait while I get this off my chest. I’ll deal with Burns’ mischief-making in reverse, beginning with this morning. Here goes.

This morning WUKY reported on the results of a study into the eruditeness, or rather lack of it, among lawmakers in Washington. The study found that the level of debate among federal legislators is now about equal to that of middle-school students. I will, however, say it’s probably a world-wide phenomenon: I know Australian parliamentarians aren’t much better. What has happened? Back in the very late 19th century, when Australia was gaining nationhood, the following exchange* was recorded in the Parliamentary Hansard:

The Hon. The Member for Yarra: The Honourable Member opposite has got the brains of a sheep.

Hon. Members: Shame, shame. For Shame.

The Hon. The Member for Ballarat: Mr Speaker, I demand the member for Yarra withdraw that remark.

The Hon. Speaker of the House: Yes. The Hon. The Member for Yarra will withdraw that remark.

The Hon. The Member for Yarra: Mr Speaker, I apologize and withdraw. The Hon. Member opposite does not have the brains of a sheep.

How many of the current crop of politicians anywhere would get the joke, let alone be capable of a repartee anything like it? And so to Sunday’s paper.

According to Dana Milbank, Sen. Rand Paul, most eccentric of the Tea Party’s Mad Hatters (my words), told a meeting in Iowa that he wasn’t sure President Obama’s view of marriage could “…get any gayer.” According to Milbank, Paul – I won’t dignify him with a title because he, along with many Republicans and teevee ‘journalists’, denies the President that courtesy – wants to cut Social Security benefits by nearly 40 per cent, slash defense spending to “catastrophic levels” and end Medicare for current and future recipients within two years.

Paul, Milbank goes on, also will eliminate the departments of commerce, education, energy, and housing, as well as gut homeland security and programs for the poor while reducing the top tax rate to 17 per cent. (I know that Paul also opposes government oversight of home-schooling and wants to get rid of the Environment Protection Authority  because it is “anti-coal”.) Paul doesn’t have to get it. He is the joke.

Rand Paul demonstrating that you don’t have to listen or even see constituents while talking to them—Photo Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.
Rand Paul demonstrating that you don’t have to listen or even see constituents while talking to them—Photo Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.

And now to one of my pet gripes: telecommunications and the ISPs and teevee service retailers who allege they give us blisteringly fast internet and unsurpassed programming. Among Friday’s mail was a flyer from my ISP, HughesNet, urging me to make the most of my service. Dripping with hyperbole about the wonders of its technology and the assurance that there are “so many reasons to love” my service, it told me that Gen4 is getting closer. My ISP’s “bold new service” will “revolutionize the world of satellite internet” – its bolded type, not mine. However, within the spiel for this “dramatically faster” service was revealed the reason my internet service is so crappy: HughesNet doesn’t know where its satellites are! According to the blurb, the new satellite is on its way to a rocket launch site in French New Guinea.

I am of the firm belief that my clothesline picks up a satellite signal equally as well as my HughesNet receiver.
I am of the firm belief that my clothesline picks up a satellite signal equally as well as my HughesNet receiver.

That’s right, my ISP is sending a satellite to French New Guinea, a country that doesn’t exist. From this I can only assume the company has done this on previous occasions and, because its whizzkids don’t know the exact orbits – other than somewhere in the sky – its earth stations only manage to pick up intermittent signals from other satellites, hence the patchy service in Stamping Ground, Kentucky.

Can’t you hear the conversation in the shipping line’s boardroom? “We’ve got another booking from HughesNet. They want to send a satellite to French New Guinea this time. Where did the last one go? Scottish New Caledonia, that’s it. Just tell the captain the same thing; sail around the South Pacific for three months or so then drop it off on an island somewhere. Should do wonders for the bottom line.”

Like Rand Paul, HughesNet is lost in space. It’d be funny if I wasn’t paying for both of them.

*I can’t remember the seats the members represented and couldn’t find the reference in which it is recorded, though it’s in my shelves somewhere, but I’ll vouch for the accuracy of the dialog.

My Farewell To The USA

This was written as I was preparing to leave Kentucky to return to Australia, and it is with not a little horror that I note that since the Abbott government came to power we are sliding rapidly into a facsimile of those aspects of the USA that so troubled me.

It seems donkey’s years since I’ve put finger to keyboard to contribute, and I don’t really know why. LikeTheDew is always a great read and just as I’ve enjoyed contributing, I’ve enjoyed the many and varied passions of its contributors. But these past few months I seem to have been visited by that come-and-go ennui that seems from time to time to plague anyone involved in creative pursuits, but the packers have been and gone and with them the mood that has prevailed over the past few months.

The packers? Yep, in three weeks or so we’ll be stepping onto the tarmac at Hobart International Airport and walking the 50 yards to the terminal building to wait for the baggage cart to drive into the passenger lounge where Quarantine Beagle will give it the once over before we can grab our gear off the trailer. In other words, I’m going home – not to the state in which I was born, but to the island state I love equally as much.

It’s not without great sadness that I’m leaving. I’ve enjoyed my time here in Kentucky and forged many friendships that I know will stand the test of time – or what’s left to me of it anyway. I think I’m finally admitting to myself that I’m getting older, though a lot of what remains of my brain may still be stuck somewhere between 1960 and 1980. I also feel that I’ve got to know many of you out there; though we’ve never met, you’ve said some nice things about me from time to time.

I’m going to miss the great jam sessions I’ve had close to the source of the music I so much love: the mountain ballits and dance-tunes, and the blues and jug band music that once flourished in the south, all of which appeal to the brooding Celtic genes my forebears passed on to me. I came with eight guitars, an autoharp, two ukuleles, a set of small pipes and a piano accordion; I’m returning with three of the guitars, the ukes, the accordion, the small pipes and autoharp, and a custom-made mountain dulcimer and an open-back banjo bought two months ago and on which I may one day be competent. You’ve got no idea what it feels like for me to put that banjo in sawmill tuning and play Pretty Polly close to the hills that for a century more kept it from escaping back to the wider world from whence it came.

And I’ll be able to boast that I met an old feller named Deward who was once in demand to play fiddle for dances, and how we sat on his porch fronting a narrow road hidden in the woods and I accompanied him with guitar and voice while he played Leather Britches and Handsome Molly on a fiddle whose friction tuning pegs had been replaced with ones made for a guitar because Deward had a “tetch of the roomatics” in his fingers. He would say: “Thisun’s a hay chord,” and he’d start in on her and I’d pick her up and he’d yell, “You got ’er there boy, you got ’er,” and away we’d go, buckin’ and skippin’ over the hills and far away into that bright, gravity-free nirvana that musicians sometimes reach. We’d play Oh the Dreadful Wind and Rain to summon the shades of Celts long dead and then he’d change the mood, the battered old fiddle calling on Old Jimmy Sutton to dance for us, hearing him in our souls as he flat-footed on the ancient boards of the porch.

Always remembered will be the family gathering I attended up in the mountains. Asked to sing a song, I played Crow Black Chicken and was at first taken aback at the shocked faces, relaxing when the expressions changed to ones of delight as some of the guests began dancing.

I’ll also miss the green moistness of Kentucky, especially when I’m back to nursing a vegie garden through yet another Australian dry spell, but I won’t miss the frost and snow, nor the guilt I feel every time I mutter, “All right Hughie, that’ll do for a bit” when the rain gauge is full yet again.

I’ll look back with fondness on the polite way my stories about life in Australia were received. Even though I know a lot of what I said was taken with a grain of salt, people still listened – they were after all the ones who asked the questions. But after nearly five years here, the disbelief is understandable. The other day I told a Good Ol’ Boy that his all the bells and whistles Chevy Silverado would cost him just shy of $126,000 in Australia, and that the repayments on the nifty little V-Dub van I drove back home were nearly twice as much as what I’d pay on a Cadillac here. He shook his head and said, “Lawda mercy,” but I could tell what he really meant: “Pull the other leg, it plays Dixie.”

The talented surgeons who undoubtedly saved my life will always have my gratitude, for not only did they save me, they were incredibly kind to my then wife through a very trying few days. I know that if I had died there would have been no meaningless platitudes but genuine sympathy and that’s comforting. If ever you badly need a heart surgeon you could do a lot worse than Dr Hamid Mohammed-Zadeh.

Oh, there’s lots of nice stuff I’ll miss, but there’s also lots of stuff I’ll be shaking my head over for years. When you’re a foreigner hailing from a country that apparently is only second-rate or at least not the best on earth, you know that the USA Hollywood and Teeveeland like to show you isn’t true. I mean, fair crack of the whip, cobber, I’m not as green as I am cabbage-lookin’. Not everyone lives with five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a swimming pool, two cars, perpetually clean shirts and permanently fixed-in-place hair, but movies and teevee have been telling you most of your life that it’s the land of golden opportunity where anyone can become president and there seemed a ring of truth to that.

You grew up listening to your Dad and his mates, whose first experiences of “The Yanks” were during World War II. They told you how shocked they were when they saw what the GIs ate for breakfast: “Bloody Golden Syrup on their bloody bacon for chrissake!” The fact that a country could be so generous as to feed its PBI bacon was astounding enough, but to see those same footsloggers pour what the Diggers at first thought was Cocky’s Joy over it, well jesus, mate, strike me bloody pink, you just wouldn’t credit it, would yer? Then in the next breath you’d detect thinly disguised awe as your Old Man – who had done his four-and-a-half years in the Forward Field Workshops in the Mediterranean, Africa and the Solomons – describe how if the “…Yanks’d want an airstrip, they’d throw everybloodything at ’er. Our mob’d still be workin’ out if the requisition forms should be in triple- or duplibloodycate and the Yanks’d have bombers landin’ on theirs. Fair dinkum. Couldn’t beat the bastards at that game.” Then the mood would darken. “Their officers did the same thing with their bloody men. Threw ’em at the Japs like there was no bloody termorrer. Bastards. Like the Poms did to our blokes in the first big stoush. Lousy bastards.”

So when you get here you know it’s not going to be like Hollywood or Disneyland, but everything you’ve ever read or heard hasn’t prepared you for the reality that is the USA, the Great Idea, in the 21st century.

It’s the apparent opulence that hits you first, the abundance of everything that makes you want to rush around and buy up the world: autos, tools, clothes, giant meals; all ridiculously cheap and easy to buy on tick at rates so low it’s hard to believe. After a while you begin to slow down to your usual pace and look around a bit more. As you move around in your day-to-day life, the varnish begins to crack a bit, peeling off here and there as the poverty becomes a little more evident. You begin to see the families and older, single people living in decaying trailers stuck on tiny lots right on the road verges in rural areas so beautiful they’d break your heart. You see the evidence of poverty – and its handmaiden, ignorance for lack of education – everywhere in the supermarkets where food and drink that’ll poison you is less than half the price of fruits and vegetables shipped in from all over the US, Mexico and China. Not that a lot of this food’s much chop, picked so green that it’ll rot before it ripens, denying many of its benefits. (Sadly, this result of factory farming is now common in Australia. At least a couple of generations have now grown up without ever having tasted ripe fruit.)

After a while you begin to pick up on the “National Mood” – a generalization to be sure, but palpable nevertheless. The contempt in which the poor are held still shocks me – as does the national attitude to welfare and anything else that might suggest a social conscience, the latter seemingly confused with socialism à la the Nazis. On the national news, I may have heard Native Americans mentioned maybe twice in the almost five years I’ve been here and I’ve heard and seen coverage of heaps of protests about the war on coal, but none at all on the social plight of families in Appalachian coal counties. When the mountain folk are mentioned, it’s usually to reinforce the stereotype of shack-dwelling, drug-crazed, incestuous, gap-toothed, banjer-playin’ dumb yokels but nary a word about why their society is in crisis and why it is that the coal counties of Kentucky and West Virginia, producing a commodity allegedly “vital to the national economy” are among the nation’s poorest. As long as I live I’ll not forget a local teevee channel’s 6pm bulletin. The bright young thing opened with: “Three coalminers have been killed in a mine accident in Eastern Kentucky and we’ll return to that soon, but first our Big Story…” then proceeded to rabbit on about the latest doings of the UK Wildcats basketball team.

It’s also hard to believe that anybody with most of their screws reasonably tight would vote for politicians who claim to believe a god created the world and that this should be presented to students as an alternative to evolution. That journalists would treat such people as credible candidates for any office – let alone the presidency – and devote hours of space and time to them hardly bears thinking about.

And I’ll be glad to have my freedom back. Living under a Constitution that insists on a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and freedom of and from religion gets a bit harrowing at times. The number of times I have been chastised in supermarkets for forgetting where I was and slipping into Australian dialect have not been all that many, but they have been unsettling. Sometimes, when looking at prices, an Australian jumps into my mouth and I’ll let slip with “jesus bloody christ” or something like that. One bloke demanded of me – demanded – that: “You fall upon your knees sir, and ask the good lord to forgive you before you are struck dead.” When I told him he’d better rack off out of it if he wanted to avoid the heavenly bolt himself, I thought he was going to call the cops. I once asked a political canvasser if he was aware that the god-bothering bastard he represented was concerned about freedom from union interference but apparently didn’t care about the Peabody rip-off of miners’ pension funds. He told me I was going straight to hell, which to me is a good thing if heaven is populated by his candidate’s ilk. Mention taxpayer-funded universal health care, compulsory wearing of helmets when riding a motorbike or pushbike and a near-total ban on private ownership of handguns, and the response is nearly as bad.

Another great puzzle to me has been the attitude to sex – or anything that suggests it – and anything viewed as profanity. Who sets the standard? I once saw, with my own eyes, on ABC’s 6.30 news, Brian Williams apologize because “children might be watching” and he was about to mention a book title containing the word ‘hell’. PBS is currently airing an English police drama that is sometimes, to my mind, a little too gratuitous with the gore. But that’s seems not to disturb whoever’s job it is to worry about such things. Instead, English vernacular as mild as “tosser” and “arse” are bleeped out and bare breasts and bums are a definite nay sir – even dead ones on a morgue slab are blurred out. Look at the “news” clips on even the upmarket sites purveying news.” ———’s [insert name here] topless bikini too raunchy for San Tropez (pictures)”. No blurring here, just a big black bar straight out of the 1940s. On the other hand, we can turn to cable teevee and watch 4 year olds dressed and acting like, at best, ghastly parodies of Las Vegas showgirls or, at worst, $20 bagswingers moonlighting as 1930s burlesque queens.

Lest I be thought churlish, I am painfully aware that I am returning to a country almost totally in the clutches of the mining industry. Not long ago, the presently governing Labor Party had a rush of blood to its collective head and appointed as Prime Minister someone who should have been held up as an example to the world – the child of working-class Welsh immigrants, irreligious, intelligent, in a caring relationship though unmarried and a woman. Instead she was held up to the same sort of insults, scrutiny and opprobrium that have plagued President Obama and for similar reasons. She wasn’t the status quo and she wanted to change things and industry and the establishment weren’t happy with that.

Despite the fact that Australia is getting ahead of it’s green energy targets, that it has a national debt less than 25 per cent of GDP, that it has experienced 21 straight years of economic growth despite the horrors of universal health care, subsidized education and a reasonable pension in old age, despite all this she was sacked and replaced by the man she herself replaced, a wishy washy Christian who backed down on the carbon tax that will now probably be repealed and who suggested, but lacked the guts to push through the nationwide fibre-optic roll-out that Ms Gillard got going.

It is possible that the Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – laughingly calling itself the Liberal Party and led by Tony “The Mad Monk” Abbott, a charismatic Catholic – may win the imminent election, so in anticipation it has been in talks with Rupert Murdoch to discuss the introduction of policies that have proved popular in the US, e.g. allowing corporations to make covert donations to political parties, changing media ownership laws thus allowing mining magnates to own a greater share of the press, teevee and radio and presumably allowing Rupe to at last accomplish what he has always wanted to do – own a larger share of Australia’s media, previously forbidden him by law and so motivating him to take up residence in the USA and Britain, the consequences of which are painfully evident – and other progressive measures.

I know all this and it saddens me that it’s what I’m going back to, but it’s my country and my fight. I’ll be able to write angry letters to the editor based on my experience of life in the USA and getting up the ratbag politicians for wanting to go the same way. When at political rallies someone claims that corporations have the same rights as individuals, I’ll be able to yell “If America’s so bloody good, why don’t you go and live there?” and have the moral authority to do so.

In New South Wales, near the little farm I once lived on, is a well-preserved and vibrant 19th century gold-rush town named Gulgong, site of the last of “the poor man’s rushes”. It was my watering hole in the days when I drank and I used to sing every year at its Folk Festival. My dear, dear, entertainingly alcoholic friend, the late Jules Sackville lived there and I followed the horse and dray that bore him up Mayne Street to the cemetery where, at his request, I sang “Go To Sleep You Weary Hobo” over his grave.

Gulgong’s facades and most of its buildings have been preserved as National Heritage and among them are two of my favourite things, two wooden facades fronting stores built in the 19th century. One bears the legend “The Wonder of the World” and close by is the “American Emporium”. Whenever I looked at them, for some reason I thought of John Steinbeck and America. To me, John Steinbeck was America and America was the Wonder of the World, the Noble Experiment, the Great Idea, Democracy with a capital D and uninhibited by monarchy and class. Where is the America of my imagination? As an Australian I feel crushed by the dead weight of the religious bigotry and money-based caste system that are holding this country back. You, my dear American friends, may not be able to feel it, but as an Australian born and bred I do, and it scares me.

I was once a fervent anti-monarchist and hoped to see the Old Brown Land at last truly free of the English in my lifetime. Australia’s parliamentary system is a mix of both England’s and the USA’s and now I’m not sure if it doesn’t work better than both of those from which it drew.

I hope that this is only temporary, a blip in the continuum, and that soon the people will rise-up to reclaim their heritage, to stage another revolution, though bloodless this time, to reiterate what the first one sought: equality for all. Even better, perhaps my inborn Celtic love of sweeping, embroidered oratory has so clouded my thinking that all this is mere imagination, the hoop-de-doodle so frowned upon in the Palace Flop-House and Grill. I hope so, I truly hope so, because there is so much about this country and its people that I love. So, if you’ll allow me, when I’m not busy fighting to change Australia’s stupid bloody flag or railing at some other insult to the country that bore me, I’d like to drop you all the occasional line.

Farewell, my friends, and a thousand thank yous for making me feel so welcome.

An introduction to a passion

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I’ve kept pigeons of one sort or another off and on since I was about 13. Even in my nomadic years, if I looked like being in one spot for more than a couple of months I’d put together a small flock to keep my hand in.

Why? Because I like them, I suppose is the best I can offer in this brief introduction to a passion. People keep them for all sorts of reasons – some are hooked on racing them, others like to show them, still others enjoy the high-flying or aerobatic varieties. Me, I’ve always liked tumblers, aerial acrobats that do flips of various sorts while in flight. But I also like pigeons for the romance associated with them; the images they conjure up. They were domesticated long before the horse was tamed in Europe and were being bred for special attributes at least contemporarily with ancient Mesopotamia – famous in ancient times for its white ‘doves’. (In the strictest sense, the words ‘dove’ and ‘pigeon’ are interchangeable, the former coming to us from the Germanic languages, the latter from Latin via Old French. These days, however, dove is used mainly to describe the smaller members of its large tribe – except by poets who prefer it over pigeon on every occasion.)

Pigeons were carried with the caravans that plied the Silk Road and traded along the way. The ancient cities of Bokhara, Lahore, Damascus, Istanbul, Iskenderun and others are commemorated in the names of pigeons that first came to the West from them, sometimes carried among the chattels of returning crusaders.

There are pigeons bred in bewildering variety: for their voices; for their speed, endurance and ability to navigate over hundreds of miles; for their plumage; their aerobatic abilities; their colour – and yet they all share many common traits. They are intelligent and affectionate to their keepers, whom they recognise by their facial characteristics, and feral pigeons will remember for years the face of someone who once fed them.

I once produced and edited the magazines of Australia’s National Pigeon Association and its US counterpart, and was commissioned by Ivy Press (UK) to write the text of a small coffee-table book titled Beautiful Pigeons. Among the more exotic breeds I have kept re Dewlaps – originally from the region around Syria – and Szegeds, a breed introduced to Hungary by the “Moors” and bred for its ability to fly above its loft at great heights for an extended time.

These days I have Iranian Highfliers, an attractive breed from ancient Persia bred to fly at great heights over several hours, occasionally tumbling as they do so.Some have a sharp crest at the nape of the neck, others have plain heads.

If you’d like to learn a little more about what Andrew D Blechman called “the world’s most reviled and revered bird” follow this (intermittent) blog. If not, then forgive us pigeon keepers our passion – it takes all sorts as my Grandmother would say