Friday, May 30, 2008

Photo Fables

I've spent the day with Sapphire's year 3/4 class at Nirvana Farm in the Adelaide Hills and then on to her classmate Sam's property for cubby house making with wild bamboo, blackberry bushes and gum tree branches. Therefore I'm slightly sunburnt, have very little voice and am dying to sit down, eat more chocolate and have another glass of wine. How her teacher deals with those 29 hopping mice on espresso every day astounds me......

I'm stealing this 'pictorially speaking' idea from Baino. Seems about all I've got the strength for tonight. Sapph's in bed, Milly's snoring in her beanbag at my feet, Love Chunks is watching the Crows Vs Essendon and Skipper's in his hutch eating a late supper of carrot and capsicum and I'm about to eat and review some Lindt 'cookies and cream' balls. All is relatively right in my corner of the world.

What is your first name?

What is your favourite food?

What high school did you go to?



What is your favourite colour?

Even better if
has something
to do with it.

Who is your celebrity crush?

It's been John Cusack ever since seeing 'The Sure Thing' in 1985; solidified by 'Say Anything' in 1989 and forever sealed with 2000's 'High Fidelity'.

Favourite drink?

and H2O.

Dream holiday?

New York - with money no object, then a relaxing recovery at a 5 star beach resort: anywhere with clean sheets, cold drinks and a kids' club.

Favourite dessert?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Happy, with a healthy and happy family. Financially OK. Working with dogs, or having a dog work alongside me....

.... with hopefully some of the spirit, wisdom, kindness, originality, personality, perseverence, genuine interest in others and irreverence that my Grandpa had.

What do you love most in life?

What one picture describes you?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Feature Garages

The other day I was walking around the 'hood with Milly the dog, pausing to let her sniff each tree for her boy buddies' scents or try her luck at finding a dead bird under the leaves when this scene of devastation and demolition faced us.

The house next door to it is a fairly good replica of the house they were knocking down: a solid brick, 1940s-style house that was in good condition, on a quarter acre block with the original groovy wooden windows and sandstone frontage.

It was certainly in much better nick that the (older) and much-less respected house further up our street:

This place is infamous in ~ahem~ 'my parts' for an owner seldom seen but who clearly adores old Ford Lazer cars. At one stage he had five bodies of varying condition in the front garden, and the bush to the left of the picture also housed about 40 chickens. People who live either side of him have described him as being about as cheerful as a hillbilly with a hangover so it's a perfect case of the home suiting the owner.

There are only two car bodies now (the other is at the head of the driveway), but the 'look of love' is maintained via the backblocks fence, the wood placed where some glass in the window should be and a verandah so cracked it groans when it rains. As such, no-one will cry when Mr Chuckle Trousers finally sells up and the place gets knocked down.

But what will replace it, or the 65 year old sandstone around the block? Another interminable brick-venereal with a feature garage? Or worse, three of them crammed together and enticingly advertised as 'Low Maintenance City-Fringe Courthard Homes for the Busy Career Couple'?

Having a gander in my stolen copy of Adelaide Matters didn't do anything to assuage my fears:

Have a gander at this little pearl. Dontcha love the flat roof and no eaves, except above the two upstairs windows so that the end result is a house that looks rather astonished at its own ugliness? Payneham or Painham?

No verandah for shelter from the sun or rain and air-conditioning required all year round. Add a thin layer of cement render that will:
a) crack within six months; and
b) require the poor owner to repaint the entire outside of their house every couple of years...
and voila! Dream home worth knocking over a WWII classic for! A bright blue door reminiscent of council flats via TV's the Bill just adds to the aura of success and style. Grrrrrr.......

Even nobby old Burnside is falling victim to the Feature Garage folly. But wait - there's a two storey box stuck on the back so that humans can live in the house's arse-end and the car resides at the front! Lovely.

But hey, at least this one has a verandah, albeit a tiny cage-like vestibule. But it doesn't have any eaves on the front windows or on the back air slits. No green stars for this design. Grrr grrr *snarl* grrrrr...

Now What. The. F**k. Is. This. Unlike the Burnside bunker directly above, this joint doesn't even bother with any front rooms or windows, it's all garages - nay two garages. Oh and a little door hidden under a welcoming gas-chamber installation.

So they drive their two petrol guzzlers off the road and straight into their custom-built hangars, and when safely installed, they continue to wend their deluded way through the small intestines of the building to the rectum at the back for living in. Ni-i-i-i-i-ce.

This design'll stand the test of time won't it? I'm sure it will be standing for far longer than the WWII home that got smacked flat last week..... Think of the generations of children that will be raised here - "Mummy mummy what's that noise?" "Shut up and polish the cars kid, looking out at the world outside aint for the likes of you"..... Puts a whole new meaning on neighbourhood gossips twitching their net curtains - they'd need a mighty quiet garage door remote to get their fix of scandal these days.

So economists tell us we have a severe housing shortage and that people are erecting whatever they can afford at the cheapest price. Fair enough but the houses I'm seeing are in city-fringe suburbs that aren't being paid for by first home-buyers or low income earners. These shockers are being bought and sold by people earning good wages and usually driving two cars. How many of these butt ugly buildings house at least one 4WD whose only off-road action is when Mum overruns the kerb at footy training?!! Grrrr, grrr, *snarl*, grrr, chomp...grrrr.....

The only thing that cheered me up about the demolition was the graffiti painted on the side of the dozer - You Suck. Yes, you do. I hope that all the greedy renovators end up living in a Feature Mock Georgian Garage Box themselves with faulty air-conditioning and a family of narcoleptic snorers, throat-clearers and fast-track farters that can be heard all-too-distinctly through the wafer thin veneer walls...

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Say G'day to Skipper

Never underestimate the massive strength of Pester Power by an eight year old, dear reader. Especially when it has been occurring on an hourly basis - every day - for the past year. I tried everything to dissuade our now nine-year old daughter Sapphire, telling her the usual lines like:
  • We'll see
  • You're probably allergic to them like you are to cats - do you want your eyes to swell shut again or your Mummy to get a 'visit' from the child protection agency?
  • I need to chat about it with Dad. No not right now, but when he's at home and we have time to discuss it in detail. No, I'm not going to make a specific appointment.
  • Hmm, why not find out more about them on the internet?
  • Didn't you say that their teeth get really long and they bite?
  • True, Milly could bite too, seeing as she's a dog. But she's a friendly one, more likely to lick than nip. Isn't she enough for you? Oh yes, true again, she seems to have chosen me as her 'Alpha' but she likes you too. What's that? *Sigh*, well yes, when you're the one feeding her she does.

....all the way to the hardest, meanest most unfair one of the lot that I'm sure most parents will use out of sheer desperation and for an almost primal need for some respite from the pestering: "We need to see you doing more chores at home, behaving better at school and not answering back every time we ask you to do something and then maybe - just maybe - you will be ready for the responsibility of having a pet of your own."

And you know what the little so-and-so did? She completely blew my prediction out of the water. Instead of giving up the campaign for manners, tidyness and tolerance after a couple of days, she persevered.

"Mum, I'll feed the chooks for you," or "Hey Mum, I've made my bed and tidied up my desk, do you want to see?", and "My school bag is unpacked and I've taken the tissues out of my culottes before putting them in the hamper." Each day I was accosted with her bright face, her hopeful eyes and a desperation to prove herself worthy; trying so hard to keep up with her chores and even create new ones. The final stick for this camel's back was her "Have you spoken to the teacher yet? She wants to tell you about an award I'm getting for academic achievement and for being a caring leader." Poo. Bum. Bugger. Shit. Fart. Sapphire was really, genuinely, 110 percentedly doing her damnedest to earn herself a rabbit reward.

Then the magnificent Monique read my previous blog about the issue, and did absolutely nothing to strengthen my case for 'no'. Amanda Blair had recently interviewed an outstanding lady called Sally, owner/goddess/carer/marketer/nurse/rescuer/adopter and champion of all things rabbit oriented.

OK, so maybe it was worth a call.... And unfortunately, it was. It was obvious from the two conversations I had over the line with Sally that she was a passionate, kind, generous and genuine person who wanted to make sure that rabbits were treated decently and, if lost, not suited or mis-treated, be removed and given to good homes. I made an appointment for Love Chunks, Sapphire and myself to go and meet her on Sapph's birthday.

To write that my daughter was 'beside herself' is like saying that the Warner Bros Road-runner liked to get from A to B fairly quickly. Every few minutes she'd rush up and hug me, saying "Oh thank you Mum, thank you for trusting me enough to have a rabbit, I can't wait until Friday, oh thank you!" I'd have to clear my throat and blink away the surprise tears that threatened to reveal the chinks in my serious-and-sensible-and-sombre parental demeanour. I was probably as excited as she was.

And here she is, reverently holding her new bunny boy Skipper, looking for all the world like the proud mother of a newborn* baby.

She spent most of Friday holding him, patting him, stroking his ears and talking to him. Love Chunks earned The Coolest Dad Ever award by deciding that Skipper can come inside whenever Sapphire is home on the weekends or from school, and can stay in his hutch for meals and bed times.

Skipper has grown in confidence since Friday, when he blasted out bunny beans from his butt faster than a slug gun. Luckily, they seem to be just as dry and I wouldn't put it past myself - in a bleary, no-coffee-yet state, to mistake them for coffee beans and shove them into the Gaggia.

It was a huge relief to find that Milly was fascinated and not angered by the new addition to the family. She likes to lick Skipper's ears and he doesn't seem to flinch or mind in the slightest. She also seems to have developed a taste for the bunny beans she's found on the floor; so as revolting as it may seem, it's a bit of a cleaning bonus for us less-than-fully-houseproud pet owners.

It feels like I'm being attacked by the PMS Poltergeist a couple of weeks early, because it's made me all unavoidably teary. Sapphire was in her room making a video of Skipper familiarising himself with her - the tell-tale sounds of a few scattergun shots of bunny-butt beans and the scrabble of tiny claws on the floor - and Sapph's clear voiceover: "Is this a dream? Are you finally here with me? Did my Mum and Dad agree to have you? This has been the best birthday ever." Geez, there's never a tissue when I need one....
As I sit here in the spare room tapping away on the laptop, Sapphire's in the living room watching the Narnia DVD with Skipper on her lap and her head leaning on Love Chunks' shoulder whilst he is stroking Milly's warm velvet ears. It is such a beautiful scene. I'll ruin it by trying to describe it without resorting to corny cliches. Instead I think I'll stay here until the movie ends so that the damn tears don't sproing out again.
* Obviously this is not something we hope for at her age, and if Love Chunks had his way it would be never.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stuff what I've learned me good so far this year

Last night I was keen to get to my karate lesson - the orange belt and its star studded, arse-kickin' glory is nearly within my clammy grasp - and thought that everything was set. Love Chunks had got home from a long day at work; Sapphire was drooped over the arm of the sofa, too tired to come; and I'd left them a huge pot of my delicious pumpkin soup. Milly was fed; the dishwasher doing its dazzling duties and I was cutting quite a swathe in my freshly-ironed white Gi.

Several minutes later, I paid my five bucks, reached into the carry bag to pull out my membership card and sparring gear only to find that I brought my knitting along instead. Both bags were expertly made by my sewing goddess mother and I'd confused the two. So, while my Nin Tai ninja buddies were busy doing some butt-kickin' bunkai, Mawashi Geris and a few Oi Tsukis to scare off any pensioners stripping nearby, I was contemplating just how I could incorporate a few mean rows of purl and cast-off knits on size four needles before giving up and going home.

This born-blonde boneheaded behaviour got me thinking. Surely there are a few things I've learned so far this year? I mean apart from avoid any public speaking invitations, seeing a rescreening of 'Hey Hey It's Esther Blueberger' or eating muesli with a blocked nose? It turns out I've also learned that:

  • Gum nuts wash surprisingly well when hidden in the pocket of a pair of school culottes, but gum leaves and tree sap (also referred to as 'amber' by our daughter Sapphire) are a different matter altogether
  • Fake tan looks fake. And the human ankle - even if untouched by Garnier Golden Glow or equivalent somehow soaks up also nearby fake tan, and remains a fluoro-orange colour for weeks and weeks.
  • Dogs don’t like natural yoghurt. Or baked beans. Stale bread rolls are objects to bury in a deep hole, not chew, and fish oil for canine arthritis does not improve their breath one iota.
  • A pale bathroom floor attracts more pubic hair, towel fluff and lint than Chewbacca applying Head'n'Shoulders during his acid rave dance-a-thon.

  • You should never ever drink a Farmers Union Feel Good Iced Coffee if it’s even one second beyond the use-by date. Unless you actually prefer your teeth without enamel.

  • According to our (almost) nine year old, blue Slush Puppies are the sixth food group.

  • Having long nails is a let down. People complain of being scratched when you only mean to touch them and yucky gunk collects underneath them (the nails, not the scratchee).

  • Crockery sets are always sold in odd numbers at second-hand shops – threes, fives, sevens. Our wine glasses - survivors of 21sts, engagement gifts, wedding presents and K-Mart trips, also end up in odd numbers.

  • Channel Nine are a bunch of heartless stinky bottom burps for not televising the latest series of Survivor which my karate sensei, Damien, tells me is the best one ever.

  • Dog poo outlasts chewing gum and super glue for sickening staying power when it comes to scraping it off the bottom of a brand new pair of sneakers.

  • Sandpits contain invisible magnetic properties for any person under the age of ten, especially when wearing a clean school uniform or their best clothes. In fact anything with socks, pockets and cuffs.

  • No matter how they are talked up by the chef, labelled or presented, sausages for dinner are still utter crap and better flung out onto the footpath where they belong.

  • One white tissue, inadvertently included in a dark washing load, has the ability to spread itself to at least 30 times its original size when distributing its white waste over woolly socks, polar fleece jackets and my nice black tops.

  • Dog farts don’t blast out the windows; nine year old daughters’ do. And they are always inordinately proud of this.

  • Here in Oz, divorcing a celebrity not only gives you more money but also guarantees fame, a slot on ‘Dancing with the Stars’, undeserved advertising work and a ghost-written magazine column. Having talent, a secure love life and intelligence does not.
  • Kids still love being taught how to finger knit, plant broad beans and make Anzac biscuits.

  • The nicest smell is that of your own home, when you’ve just opened the door after being away. Unless you’ve just burnt the toast or left an uncleaned tin of tuna in your fliptop bin.

  • Your nine year old can beat you in every single game of Cluedo.

  • This same child can out-read, out-count and out-write every other child her age in class but still cries when she drops her ice block onto the ground.

  • Your maternal love is strongest when the nearly nine year old is fast asleep, unmoving and completely silent.

  • Your love for your husband is strongest when he is holding you, massaging your migraine-racked temples and offering to empty your sick bucket.

And yet I still can't figure out which way to turn the key in order to open our back door, how to make a decent milk froth from our coffee machine or see any joy in gardening. So much to learn, so little time.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sweat-soaked survival

I got through my one hour talk yesterday relatively unharmed. Even found my own way to West Lakes without having to turn the Gregorys directory around to face the direction the magna was actually driving in. Swallowed a 600ml carton of Farmers Union Feel Good before walking in and kept it down. The data stick (I bought three) worked, and 50 chairs were laid out in waiting.

Thumpa Thumpa Thumpa went my heart, out-beating an entire orchestral percussion section. In they walked, those feckless folk who selected my topic for their 'breakout session'. Breakout was the word: any sweatier and I'd have been squelching. They were clearly tired, full of lunch and all staring. At me.

I've realised since about the age of fifteen that I don't like people staring at me, and as such, my comedic acting aspirations died right there on stage during the year ten production of 'The Girl with Green Hair.' Even on my wedding day, I wanted to shoo the guests away and tell them to look at Love Chunks or the garden instead.

neck zit-from-hell had returned and with it my paranoia that it was more entertaining than anything that I was about to impart.

The first thing I did was the ultimate cop out and a bit of a plea for understanding: "I'm a writer, not a presenter, so I'm going to sit down so that my knees don't give way and you can't see if I've wet my pants or not." The pounding in my ears and the pulsating spots in my vision meant that I had no idea what the audience's response was, so I heavily plonked my arse down and started blabbering, hoping my Pompeii pimple was angled away from them.

Speaking s-l-o-w-l-y and clearly was the plan but like most good plans, it was demolished quicker than a cheesecake at a mothers' meeting. Instead, I had an out-of-body experience and could uncomfortably see that I was speaking like a (slightly sweaty) chipmunk on acid, desperately trying to summarise 20 years of work experience, 150,000 words of research and several dozen anecdotes into an over-heated room that had the distinct ping-ping-pinging sounds of the pokies being played immediately next door.

I have absolutely no idea if I stuck to my interminably-researched speech or ad-libbed, but... no, that's not true. Like a bad dream it's beginning to come back to me. I remember saying, "If the publishers would have let me have a watermark on each page, it would have said, in screaming capitals, STOP FEELING GUILTY." I recall seeing a reserved, slightly older lady with a hairstyle like the Mother from 'Mother and Son', nodding and saying in a gravelly voice: "Hear Hear. I gave that up years ago."

My armpits are moisting up even more as I write this, as I recall even more rather less-than-professional utterances: "Find the BALLS to leave at five every night!", and "Don't tap her on the shoulder for night time doona dancin' at 11o'clock - turn the telly off at 8:30 and try your luck then!" Oh God, I might even have mentioned - or was it my neck zit, which, by this time, had grown big enough to have its own gravitational pull - that Love Chunks had been the lucky recipient of such advice.....

My face was redder than a babboon's bum by the end of it and there was a smattering of applause when I breathlessly squeaked, "Well, that's it from me." Whether it was from relief that it had ended or to encourage me to get the hell out as quickly as possible I'll never know, because I grabbed my 'thank you' box of Haigh's chocolates and was running to the carpark before the participants had reached the afternoon tea table.

And I'm happy to let the feedback remain a mystery, because the organisers forgot to put out any speaker assessment forms.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tripping over Tuesday

I know I've written about having an extra day before - Smunday - but can I either swap roles with my dog Milly for the next twenty four hours or skip tomorrow entirely?


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Gruesome Gifts

One of my cyber idols, Myninjacockle, recently discussed the moral quandary of wanting a decent present for his birthday instead of a useful leaf-blower.

My first thought was that it is a clear sign of growing up when you seriously consider a leaf-blower as something you need as opposed to a Uber-doof-doof quadrophonic sub-woofer tri-tweater stereo system for the car, and even go as far as enviously checking out your neighbour's decibel-destroying gardening appliance.

However it's not just the onset of middle age, mortgage and parenthood that leads us towards the ideals of sensible gift-giving. For instance, a leaf-blower can be a useful item for the household - especially during summer and autumn when we're plagued with the never-ending rainfall of eucalyptus leaves, a large garden but not the enthusiasm for doing any active work in said garden (me). On the other hand, it's not exactly a fun-filled present for an individual person, is it?

A couple of Boxing Days ago, Love Chunks' first fridge - purchased second-hand in his post-uni, first-paypacket, better-quality-pizza-and-beer sharehouse days, finally died; shorting our fuse box with its dramatic death. His beloved Kelvinator 'Foodarama' had withstood moves from Adelaide to Melbourne; Melbourne to Darwin (and two moves in Darwin); Darwin back to Melbourne; and then Melbourne to Adelaide. It weighed more than a carbo-loading sumo
and left more than a few gouges in each kitchen floor it was dragged across. Despite this, it had done a sterling job of cooling our food and was proudly entering its fourth decade as probably the only existing 'Foodarama' still in working order. Any product ending in 'arama' or 'omatic' is a winner with me.

Trudging over to the Great Blokes Super White Good Warehouse HomeMaker Hell Centre, we ended up buying the ubiquitous Fischer and Paykel. Light, white, on wheels, freezer underneath. All huge improvements on the Foodarama but the purchase was about as exciting as watching golf. Nor am I thrilled to spend any of my precious time with the Comb-over Crazy - the guy from Godfreys - to buy a new vacuum cleaner. Yes we need a new one, but it's not pants-wettingly thrilling enough to burst inside the front door, Dyson box above my head, yelling, "BEHOLD - this wondrous object I hold here, in my arms will suck harder than Paris Hilton at a Playboy party." Nor will the rest of my family gather round, oohing and aahing in admiration, choosing to turn off the telly and gaze at the Godfrey purchase instead.

But back to gift giving. When you've been with your regular squeeze for a long time, what on earth do you buy them that they don't already have? If Love Chunks needs clothes, he buys them. Wine - he orders it; DVDs, books, fitness stuff, cooking gear - he wants it, needs it and gets it. How do you surprise your partner? It turns out that five blocks of Cadburys and a Mitre 10 gift voucher doesn't quite say 'I Love You' as effectively as a childless weekend in a five star cottage equipped with wine and Foxtel might have done.

Are there any people more difficult to buy for than your parents? Parents don't (normally) live with you and like to get their own fuddy-duddy frock wear. They usually have no mortgages or debts and aren’t in need of anything to help with home renovations. Well, we might think they need some help regarding their d├ęcor, but they don’t. Whatever the differences in style and taste, it’s still hard to work out just what they might like or need. The other day it was reported that foot spas, ice shavers and grills were among the least popular gifts and it caused me to blush a little. I had been seriously thinking about getting a foot spa for Mum, thinking that she might appreciate a bubbly soak after a long day on her feet in the Lifeline shop or out in the garden. Plus I'd bought them (as a joint present - *wince*blush*wince*) a health grill many years ago. It seems as though appliances of any sort are not what people want for Christmas.

As a 39 year old, any obvious shockers for gifts would of course be less forgivable than it was for a nine year old. Way back in 1977, my younger brother Thumb and I thought it would be a great idea to combine our pocket money and give Mum a flip-top rubbish bin as a Christmas present. To say that her response was a shade less than enthusiastic is like saying Jordan's best feature is her book writing skills.

In 1978, I thought I had easily made up for that childish faux pas by taking an ancient bicycle out of the Mackenzie’s back shed and painting it with pink undercoat found in the Dutton's old garage. Mum didn’t have a bike and I figured that she’d no doubt love to ride along with us three kids in her free time. Hell, who wouldn't? After I was made to return the bike and apologise to a puzzled Mr Mackenzie (who didn't even know that his dead father's rusty 1930s bone shaker had gone).
I awaited the dreaded punishment that night. This usually entailed Dad having to come in just before us three kids hopped into the bath (either in turn or together, depending on age, size, mood and toilet needs). He'd give us a swift, sharp smack on the leg which was designed to sting and show up on the skin as a red reminder. It never really hurt that much, but when combined with his deliberately angry face each one of us would end up in the tepid brown Murray river bath water hiccupping and sobbing in sorrow. This time, the dreaded visit from Dad never came.

Looking back now I can understand that they knew that my intentions were good: it was just the execution of it that was bad. The following day I rode my own bike (a maroon Malvern star with sissy bar, fluoro-orange flag and a plastic basket on the front) to Tom's the Cheaper Grocer for a more practical gift. The chosen item pretty well blew my entire budget of $4 - a green and white set of plastic salt and pepper shakers and a mini rubbish bin (old ideas clung on hard) filled with Pez pellets. Mum’s reaction to these gifts has been wiped from the memory banks but I don’t ever recall seeing the shakers on our dining table.

Thirty years later brings us to the present day, trudging dispiritedly around Tea Tree Plaza, tired, in need of a Farmers Union Feel Good Iced Coffee and a personal shopper. My budget may be slightly larger than 1978’s four dollars in twenty cent pieces but my brain is just as clueless. Our dog chewed the legs off a rather cute wooden chicken that Mum had sitting on the edge of her plant stand – what if we found something similar to replace it with? Nothing we saw was as whimsical or cute, just ugly and tacky.

I decided to go with my instincts and avoid getting her the Bawdy Bart Simpson statue who grunted out: "Roll me over darling, and I'll show you yer birthday present." She is allergic to perfumes, soaps and bath oils, has more jewellery than Zamels and would rather chew her own leg off than have someone else select any clothes for her to wear. Any books I’ve given her in the past have not been enjoyed and seeing as Catherine Cookson’s been dead for about a decade I do not want to buy one of her ‘latest’ books, written earlier this year. Maybe a set of three clay ducks instead.

Dad, Dad, Dad. Tools - the man already has three back sheds full of the stuff. Books - he's a member of a book club and has read everything before our local Angus and Robertson's put it on the shelves. Chocolates - he'd love them, but Mum would be likely to snatch them away and say "No, your father doesn't need those. Not the way he's looking at the moment." (She means well, but it's no surprise that he doesn't appreciate her intervention). The CSIRO diet? Oh yeah, that's really nice, really tactful way to embrace the spirit of Christmas. Clothes? Naah, we always give him clothes. He may need a couple more Penguin shirts, but what sort of thrilling gift is that? DVDs? We gave him and Mum a DVD player last year (with some movies they like) and last week or so Mum inadvertently blurted out, “Oh, we haven’t used that DVD player since you showed us how to put on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ for Sapphire on Boxing Day last year.” Bugger. A 'Got One' fishing gift voucher for it is then.
*Sigh*, maybe a leaf blower isn't so bad in the scheme of things...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Petrifying Public Speaking

I am running an hour long session next week on Work/Life Balance and my gut is already doing some staccato stomach squeezes in nervous anticipation. My session is during The Unholy Hour: after lunch on the final day of a rather serious conference. How in Cadbury's name am I going to engage a room full of strangers when all they want to do is wear their screen-saver expressions, eat the last of the good biscuits and get a good head start on the peak hour traffic?

For some reason, I can goof off with friends, during meetings, karate classes and even on radio but the thought of actually standing up as the sole focus of attention, trying to convince the people staring at me (or are they checking out my Ayers-Rock-sideways arse? dog hairs on the bottom of my trousers? a king-sized boogie blowing in the breeze of my left nostril?) that I have some idea of the subject matter truly terrifies me. As Seinfeld once noted, most people nominated public speaking - over death - as their biggest fear in life. "So they'd rather be the one in the casket than the one still living, delivering the eulogy."

Imagining the audience naked doesn't work for me. It just leads to nightmares where it is me who is naked, normally behind a podium, trying my damnedest to hide the fact that I may be wearing a shirt and jacket on top, but have nothing on below the waist. Besides, wouldn't it be harder to entertain and engage a completely unclothed crowd - they'd certainly be much more easily distracted, surely.

Perhaps that’s why I’m enjoying writing from home so much. I can ration my time in front of strangers or even the need to ‘perform’ in front of co-workers. No need to dress like a professional, add the right amount of comment during planning sessions or have to speak authoritatively about some obscure part of government legislation to a member of the public I'd dearly like to shove under a bus. There's also no requirement to facilitate team meetings, convince senior management as to the wisdom of my ideas or be called on to answer a difficult question during a leadership seminar.

However, this session is about my book, and why I, the Poster Child for how NOT to achieve work/life balance actually found the ways and means to achieve it. All well and good, but how can I spin that out for 60 minutes before resorting to "Let's open it up to the floor," (and instead hoping the floor would open up to me and let me disappear forever), giving them a half-hour early minute or resorting to finding some funny YouTube clips that only vaguely relate to my topic? What if I forget what I was going to say? I'm not sure I can go noteless like Andrew Denton or be able to spin off some witty anecdotes in quick response to the situation. "Er, I seem to have forgotten what I was going to say...."Amnesia used to be my favourite word, but then I forgot it," heh heh, sweat sweat, blush blush......

Several years ago, I did a brain dominance psychology test at work and it revealed that I tended to perform pretty well in front of others, but suffer stress before hand, usually by throwing up before walking on stage. Too true, although 'throwing up' should be cancelled and 'crapping daks and farting like a flute' inserted instead.
Even during relatively innocuous occasions I've suffered at the hands of facing the public. Making the speech at Taka and Justine's wedding, my left knee shook so badly that the beads and sequins on the neckline of my dress appeared to be flashing, and after enduring a live telecast of 'Wheel of Fortune' as a 'lucky' contestant, I immediately regurgitated the complimentary chocolates and champagne the second I walked off the set. Even teaching high school students felt like a performance in front of a particularly picky and hostile crowd: how many times, in a work situation, are you faced with a fifteen year old looking you up and down and then asking sullenly, 'So how old ARE you, Miss Read?"

Back to now, or next week to be precise. How should I handle this presentation? Reliable old Powerpoint with some dot points and slightly humorous photos thrown in to keep them staring straight ahead and amused? Straight speech and copies of detailed notes to hand around? Minties and a mini group meditation? Or open up a stand with the sign 'Buy My Book Here' ??

Who knows, except the surety that I'll lose at least a couple of kilos in the hours before I start.....

Monday, May 12, 2008

Workplace Wevenge

Co-workers are a great deal worse than family. Yes, we know that you can pick your friends and you can't pick your family - and co-workers in this scenario firmly fall into the 'family' category. Sadly though, it's even worse when you consider that you spend more of your waking hours at work. The last thing you need is to spend that time with colleagues who possess the personality and intelligence of bathroom tiles and IR laws prevent you from giving them a hen-peck or dead leg like you could do to your siblings during times of frustration.

You know the types: the frustrated old Cardigan who guards the stationery cupboard with his life; the Girlfriend at the pub who backstabs you at the office; the graduate know-it-all with an attitude larger than his IQ; unflappable old lag whose age you can guess by counting the rings around her coffee cup; and the evil egomaniac boss who was born, raised and trained in the fiery caverns of hell. Just to name a few.

Getting revenge on these office anals can be a very tricky business. Firstly, you don't want to appear like an unhinged bully or mentally deranged stalker. No, revenge office-style requires patience, delicacy and careful planning. Here are a few ideas for those of you who wish a great more than a paper cut on your comrade cube citizens:

The Raw Prawn. Legend has it that Aussie soldiers in World War II would snort, "Ah, don't come the Raw Prawn with *me* mate," if they felt they were being treated like a fool. Well this is the time to make your *co-worker* the fool instead. Unlike ex-boyfriend's apartments, it is the rare office that has curtain rails to hide raw prawns in, so you'll have to practice your long shots at home with a long-dead crustacean and the slot of your toaster.
When you think you're proficient enough, simply stroll past your victim's car, whip out your prawn and aim it at the grill directly between the windscreen wipers and the windshield. Remember, it is vital that your shot gets the prawn in there first time so that you don't leave any incriminating fingerprints. You probably won't be there to witness it, but the mind-numbingly awful odour of a prawn slowly going bad especially when dispersed via the air vents on long, hot drives home will be severe. Rest assured too that the suffering driver is very unlikely to discover the source of the smell.
Cost one prawn.

The Nigerian Talking Clock. This is a classic, beloved of all wronged people everywhere. Except maybe Nigerians of course. Spend a few valuable minutes looking up the international dialing code and number for the Nigerian talking clock. "After the second stroke, the time will be.." When your co-worker has left their desk for the weekend, dial the number and leave it off the hook until they arrive back on Monday. Said co-worker will be struggling to explain to the accounts department just why their outbound calls increased by seventeen thousand percent in one week.
Cost: 2 minutes of internet search time.

The Audio Assault System. This requires a great deal of technical proficiency, so may only appeal to true cyber geeks (like my darling husband Love Chunks). He has informed me that there are ways of rigging a computer so that the sound is unbearably loud and can blurt out all sorts of unfortunate pieces of information like "I'M DOWNLOADING PORN!" at the most inopportune moments.
Cost: sleeping with an IT guru. Try it, you might find that you like it.

Sugar Substitution. If you're a regular dipper into the shared, coffee-crumb-infested sugar bowl in the office kitchen, you will need to ween yourself off the evil stuff for this to work without your own taste buds being blasted into smithereens. Before your co-worker slumps in for their regular cup of java, substitute the white sugar for salt. Trust me: the totally unexpected taste of salt mixed in with coffee is likely to leave the sipper with a hairstyle they hadn't planned for when getting ready that morning.
Cost: a bag of salt.

Finally, for those with no social life and lots of newspaper, we have the Scrunch-a-thon. A lot of office doors are left open so that cleaners can get in and empty the bins over the weekend, or, failing that, have windows above the door that can be jemmied open. Get yourself a nice selection of beer and chips and tear a page out of the pile of newspapers in front of you. Scrunch, and throw in. Yes, your aim will get better the longer you try. Hopefully you will stagger home in a jolly mood and leave your co-workers' office filled with an ocean of black-and-white balls of paper to wade through.
Cost: your time.
There's plenty more where THOSE ideas came from.....

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Early Mothers Day pressie

We all dread being woken up at 2:00am but when the phone rings at 8:30pm you're not normally expecting any bad news and the telemarketers have normally left their offices to catch the last train out of Mumbai.

Except for last night. Sapphire and I were watching a DVD documentary about a year in the life of a mob of kangaroos and we were stunned at the photography and how much we learned about these beautiful creatures that we hadn't known before. We had both showered and were warmly snuggled up together on the lounge in our dressing gowns, enjoying a few squares of chocolate. Love Chunks had just phoned us from Woomera, sounding homesick and not a little envious of our broadband wireless facilities and access to the coffee machine.

Then Dad called. "Your Mum's had a car accident, but please don't worry......"

Yeah, right.

"....she's been transferred from Strath to the Royal Adelaide Hospital on a back board so that they can properly x-ray her for any neck or spinal injuries."
I was unusually silent, listening. Dad continued, asking politely, "So it is OK if I stay at your place tonight?"

Funny what levels of manners you can still have under strain. What did he expect in response, a "No, actually. It's Tuesday night and Sapph has school tomorrow" ?? Sapphire was thrilled to give up her bed for Grandpa and slot into Love Chunks' empty spot with me, and, after being reassured that Grandma was not seriously hurt, she scampered off to her desk, calling out, "I've got to make her a really good 'Get Well Soon' card." The outcomes of the kangaroos' year would have to wait until later.

Dad arrived at 2am, exhausted but relieved. He'd spent several hours with Mum in the Accident and Emergency ward, surrounded by the wails, screams and groans of their Tuesday night intake. "One bloke had clearly lost a fight with his mate and a crowbar, and a couple of coppers had to spend the remainder of their shift sitting by the side of his bed. Another woman was as high as a kite and determined to undo the handcuffs that were securing her to her bed - your Mum might as well have been wheeled into the middle of the Christmas pageant for all the rest she got."

I had waited up for him, knowing that Mum was OK but still wanting to see Dad, hear it directly from him. Several stitches were dropped from the blanket square I was clumsily knitting - one of Mum's many community projects, this one being the provision of bed blankets for a homeless shelter.

It was nice lying next to Sapphire's warm, tiny body, hearing her breathing and surreptitiously reading the card she'd left on top of Grandpa's guest towel. The card was festooned with pop-up love hearts (thanks to an Origami book and a fondness for sticky tape), a portrait of them both sitting on the rock together at Kangaroo Island and 'I love you Grandma - you are the best there is and I'll hug you as gently as you'll let me.' How on earth did we make this kid?

Mum's x-rays showed no fractures and her back was described by the doctor as 'sprained'. Dad and I went to see her as soon as Sapphire was dropped off at the school gate, Milly the dog yanking at her leash to be allowed inside the classroom for a sniff but, as usual, being denied.

Dad explained that Mum's clothing had been cut by the paramedics. Sliced off, so they could insert the back board and keep her still. "Good thing I remembered to grab her PJs and gown before I left, or I'd be tempted to get her to fill up the tyres with air at the Portrush road BP in her arseless hospital gown." We both laughed harder and longer than we needed to, filled up with my strong coffee and relief.

There Mum was, in bed number five, floral flannelette pyjamas and a spot of mascara, nivea face cream and a nice slick of shimmery pink lipstick. Bruises on her arms from the medics' attempts to draw blood and finding that the shock of the accident caused her veins to retreat further than a taunted turtle. "Your back will be looking blacker than the sky out there," I said, kissing her.

She told us that her biggest worry was the need to do a wee during the ambulance ride. "There I was, pretty well naked down the front, begging them to find a bed pan. Unfortunately it couldn't be used because I was on a board, so they shoved a bunch of towels under me and said to 'go for it'," she recalled. However, she got a weird case of performance anxiety and couldn't do it until the ambos considerately stopped off for a coffee and stood chatting outside whilst the towels changed colour.

She held both our hands as we walked her slowly to the car - how was she going to clamber inside Dad's much-used, dusty old 4WD? With ease - no stooping, just sliding in, smiling. They drove me back home and as we reached our street, there was Sapphire, her teacher and her classmates, standing in front of the building site of a McMansion near our house. I remembered that they were studying buildings and architecture this term.

Dad stepped on the brakes and called out to her. "Grandma's OK, Sapph! Come and say hello!" She did, as did her mates, and Mum looked as though she was enjoying the attention. Sapphire looked as though she'd scored the 'Show and Tell' jackpot for that week at least.

At home, Mum was settled in our best reading chair, enjoying another round of strong coffees and some of my homemade Nigella breakfast slice. Milly took great care to sit at Mum's feet, licking her hands whenever they were low enough. "Well, do you still want to cook me lunch on Sunday?"

"Oh and in the back of the car - if it's not broken - is a casserole dish I bought myself from Big W yesterday. If you haven't got me a present yet, you can give me that if you like."

Absolutely Mum. If this is the car-accident-you-had-to-have, and all you did was run off the road in wet weather and end up in a ditch, then you've won the jackpot. And so have we.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Joyless Jobs

Growing up, if we ever dared tell Mum that we were 'bored', she'd send us out to the shed to grab an ice-cream cartons' worth of almonds and be forced to crack them all into an old Nescafe jar.

Not only was it even more boring that whatever the hell it was we'd been complaining about originally, but my fingers normally got hit by the hammer a few times and my skin would be bleeding from scrabbling at the hard, splintery shells before long.

However, such jobs were few and far between in my pretty idyllic childhood. In my later teenage years, however, my folks were trying to generate some more income to pay for three kids about to start uni and live out of home. And thus started the first of a rather long line of Joyless Jobs on my CV, the first being: Cucumber Polishing.

Dad and my brothers picked the cucumbers and Mum and I stood in the packing shed, sorting them by size, cleaning the dirt off them and packing them into boxes destined for the Adelaide produce market. Mum had a few old teatowels to help us do the job, but the actual, er, 'polishing' was incredibly suggestive, nonetheless.

Now you need to put this scenario into context. I was a shy sixteen year old, still yet to enjoy any horizontal happenings and my mother was (and still is) a very elegant and proper lady. Pleasuring a truckload of phallic salad veges with my parent doing the same alongside me was more embarassing than watching a torrid sex scene or tampon commercial with my grandparents.

I didn't know whether to laugh out loud and incur Mum's disapproval or to silently blush and hope that none of my friends popped in to visit. Surprisingly, it was Mum who started sniggering. This then set me off and we laughed until our stomachs hurt, tears streaming down our faces. Not a word was said, but it was the ideal way to recognise the obscenity in our actions.

Years later, after graduating from uni with a BA in Major English Texts and Roman Art and Archaeology, the ANZ Bank decided that I'd make an ideal graduate trainee for the world of finance. Soon ensconced in the position of Assistant Bank Manager, I was utterly miserable. Charging customers LAFs (loan approval fees) for literally doing nothing, trying to be interested in accounting procedures and being a lunch time teller wasn't my idea of what paid work should be.

We did have some good times, however. The photo here shows how carefully we looked after Elton John's glasses collection when they were being displayed at OPSMs around the country. As soon as the doors were shut, we'd crack open a few beers, wear a selection of his shades and try and add up the cash. Seeing Mark do some expert hand-stands in the strong room was always a highlight, as was his evening banter with Jasper:

Mark - Hey Jasper, I can't believe you've still got your tie on
Jasper - Hey Kath, I can't believe you've still got your skirt on.

Despite the positives, after two years I'd had enough, convinced that mortgage lending wasn't my destined career path. I did a nanny course and went to London. The nannying job lasted three weeks before I left in disillusionment and disgust. Having to wash - and iron - three kids' bed sheets every single day was humiliating, as was being told that my clothes could not be washed with theirs and I had to use a cheaper brand of powder. Starting at 6:30am and finishing at 8:30pm was not fun, especially when the mother - an unemployed 'interior decorator' was out shopping or waiting for her daily in-home masseuse to arrive.

Perhaps living in a home as a housekeeper to adults would be better. And it was, for the most part, except for Monday mornings. Mrs D suffered from Multiple Schlerosis, and was at the stage where she had a nurse come over twice daily to change her dressings. She ate like a bird because she was no longer able to walk or use her arms too much, but every week, on the dot, she needed to make sure that her struggling body could produce a poo.

Yes, as she told me, "It's more embarrassing for me than it is for you," but it didn't make Mondays any easier. She would forgo her usual decaff for a triple strength Nescafe, ask me to lift her onto the loo and leave her for a while. No matter how prepared I thought I was, whenever I heard the 'Errrp!' of the buzzer it still made me jump.

I'd go back into the bathroom, lift her gently up and back onto the pad-lined wheelchair and have a look down.
"Is it enough, Kath?"

Invariably, my answer, swallowing a sigh, was, "No, Mrs D. It isn't. I'll have to put you back on to see if any more will emerge."

After six months of housekeeping in Finchley, a 'Banqueting Traineeship' opened up at the Savoy Hotel. A friend from home recommended I apply, reasoning that they were looking for hard-working staff who could present themselves well, learn quickly and use their brains. Oh and you could eat and drink there for free.

The first three months saw me serving champagne and cocktails to the rich and famous, which was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Unofficially, we bar staff had umlimited access to whatever alcohol we were serving at the time, so a helluva lot of Bolly was sucked down, as was a lot of smoked salmon and stilton filched from the hors'doeuvre platters on the way back to the kitchen.

One evening I was looking for my boss, Ed, and couldn't find him anywhere. "He's under there," gestured Nick, towards the trestle table. And so he was, in a coffin pose, dead to the world, lying on top of four crates of tonic water. For that to have been comfortable he must have certainly drunk more than his fair share of freebies. Not only that, but a thin layer of linen was all that was shielding him from a ballroom of patrons including Fergie, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liza Minnelli, Nick Faldo and Michael Aspel.

However, like all Joyless Jobs, there always comes the time to leave. And that time, for me, was after eight weeks in the kitchens. It was a sunless hell of 16 hour days, burned fingers, being sworn at by world-famous chefs who clearly enjoyed bullying unknown galley slaves and dodging the groping hands of sly waiters in the service lift. The closing soundtrack to the Benny Hill show springs to mind when I think of that time but preferably with some grungy guitar solos to indicate that I wasn't enjoying any of it.

I left the Savoy feeling physically exhausted, suffering from a never-ending flu, and desperately needing funds to not only pay the rent on my dog box but also my frightening credit card bill. For the next three months, I worked as a kitchen-hand in a Mental Hospital, and learned a lot more than how pleasant it feels to hoick your trousers up under your armpits.

The remaining year or so of my time in London was spent in a serious Debt Collection department of a major bank, being the last person on the phone to a borrower before the bailiffs came to repossess their home. Making these phone calls were about as cheerful as a dead kitten under the kids' Christmas tree and I needed a good ten minutes respite between each call to psych myself up for the next deluge. Deluge of lies, insults, fury, sneers, threats, tears, sad stories and - worst of all - numb surrender. People sometimes posted in their keys, writing 'Here, take the house', and yet the cruelty of lending too much to people a couple of years earlier who now earned too little for a home worth much less meant that I'd still have to chase them and say, "Thanks for your keys, but you still owe us another fifty thousand pounds."

Upon returning to South Australia, I applied for the Graduate Diploma of Education at Adelaide Uni, figuring that it would give me a year on Austudy and time to think about what I really wanted to be when I grew up. Teaching high school kids English, Social Studies and History sure as hell wasn't it. Thirteen year old Darrel, in a year nine English class straight after lunch, let out a loud and odorific fart. He was happily basking in the laughter and admiration of his peers and clearly enjoying not having to open up his graffitied copy of 'The Crucible' for a while yet.

I did the only thing I knew how to do - opened my big mouth.
"Good on you Darrel, you've now released a few more valuable braincells that you honestly can't afford to lose."

The class laughed - at him now, instead of with him - he blushed, put his head into his book and we resumed the lesson. The head master was strolling past the classroom at the time, and wanted a word with me after school. "You can't put down the students like that," he explained, "It hurts their self esteem and sets a bad example of how to treat others." Fair enough, but when a fart eats into learning time, what other tools did I have? None, other than to look for a new job at the end of the year.

Which I did, after finding myself engaged to Love Chunks and following him back to Melbourne. WormWorld Security saw that I'd done some soul-sucking debt collection in London and appointed me. As the only non-smoking, non-pokie-playing, non-Victorian in the all-female team, I was the rank outsider who was left answering everybody's phone whilst they grumbled about this new-fangled rule about not being allowed to stay inside and smoke at their desks. It was a short walk home to Flemington, it paid for petrol in the 1973 Volvo and allowed me to sit Australian Public Service Graduate Selection Tests.

Think nearly fifteen years in various Government agencies, departments and units. Graduate Trainee, Ministerial Liaison Officer, Speech Writer, Program Director, Team Leader, Directorate Manager, Medical Manager, Research Administrator. All were very stressful and each role, public service program and budget planner had about as much spare cash to throw around as a Big Issue vendor - not one workplace offered free tea and coffee, let alone a cup, teaspoon or milk!

It was time to downshift. Just do a bit of admin and contribute to a department or university with subject matter and goals that genuinely interested me and allowed me to leave for home, unencumbered with laptop or files, at 5pm. As so it came to be. All was good and well for about a year, but then my boss, Bulldog decided that whilst it was fine to enjoy the services I provided above and beyond the level of my paid role, it was not fine to let me have any support or credit for those services.
On slightly less emotional and angry reflection (and several months later), I can see that she was all ego, hyperbole and no longer had any new academic or real world ideas to offer anyone. She was merely a legend in her own lunchtime, and someone bent on ensuring that any real opportunities available to her staff would instead be snorted up by herself. Karma will come, Bulldog, even if I won't be in your employ to see it.

And finally, I have arrived at the Self Employment stage of my working life. All the tracksuit pants, uggs/crocs, singing out loud opportunities, talking to the dog and availability for school pick-ups and coordinated playdates I can poke a stick at. Time to read, research, write and just fling myself into things I have a real passion for. Time for being a better mother, partner and friend. Time for helping out others at school and in the community and even do a bit more work around the house. Time to work out, run, walk and take a few photos. Time to laugh and realise that it's not a luxury but a necessity.

You know what? Folding clean washing doesn't seem so bad when I've spent the most part of the day happily tapping at the computer, hearing my dog softly snoring in her beanbag at my feet.