Thursday, 29 September 2011

The wet commute.

Faces on the train this morning were filled with misery.  They matched the weather as they tried to get on the train without getting wet.  Once inside their wet umbrellas were held as though they contained fresh vomit.  The air smelt like wet dogs mixed with mothballs. The windows were foggy as 120 people exhaled.  And inhaled.  How long can I hold my breath for? I wondered.

I found a seat, sat down and travelled facing backwards.  The man beside me looked me over and shut his eyes again.  He had ear buds on, but unusually, whatever he was listening to wasn't so loud it bled through into my aural space. Perhaps he had nothing playing and just wore the ear buds to deflect interaction. I'd choose bigger, more visible, gigantic headphones if I was him.

In the group of four seats in front of me sat a girl dressed in a brown and dusty pink poncho.  She had long nothing coloured hair. Sad blue eyes. Her freckled complexion matched her poncho.  Occasionally she bit her lip, but mostly she just stared, looking like she was on the brink of tears.  Her eyes had welled and stopped there.  She didn't seem to blink.  Her arms were tightly folded.  Her forehead rested against the window. Our eyes met once or twice and she just looked away. I wanted to ask her what was wrong.  It looked like something terrible had happened. Or was about to happen.

Further down the carriage stood a man and a woman; the man with his back to me.  I could see the woman's face, looking up, fully and joyfully into the man's face.  He stood holding a railing with his left hand while his right hand lent on the handle of a white golf umbrella.  Her eyes didn't wander from his face.  Her hand touched his umbrella hand every so often.  They were talking - rather, he was talking.  She was really listening. Even from half a carriage away, I could see that see was listening.

They parted company at Southern Cross Station without a wave, let alone a kiss.  I was surprised. He left her the umbrella.

Riding the escalator up to the concourse, I studied the backside of the woman in front of me.  It was wedged into unflattering black pants.  It jiggled as her foot tapped, presumably in time to the music coming through her ear buds.  Her scalp was flaking onto her black jacket and her blond highlights had turned to a faded shade of spray tan orange. She carried an oversized, cheap grey handbag, ugly, but functional. Her ticket didn't work at the exit gates.  The last I saw, she was speaking to the ticket inspectors.

I reached the outside of the station and waited for the traffic lights to let me cross the street.  I hate crossing the street at this particular intersection during peak hour.  There are so many people dragging wheeled luggage  behind them, worse than back pack carriers in their oblivion of the size of their footprint and their turning circle.  Give them a mobile phone and they've got their heads down and aren't even looking where they are going anymore.

Then I received a text message and put my own head down to read it.  It was one of those life changing messages that I usually receive on email.  It read: "Nokia celebrates 40yrs. Your Mobile Number has won 900,000 pounds in the Nokia Awards..." Then there was a claim code and an email address so I could claim my prize.

I haven't sent the email yet.  I'm too busy, celebrating making it home in one piece.  Then I'll plan my shopping list.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Australian women - coming to a frontline near you.

Since yesterday's news that women will now be allowed into frontline combat roles, the radio has provided interesting listening.  When I wasn't yelling at it.

According to the article in The Age these kinds of jobs make up 17 per cent of all Australian Defence Force jobs.  They had previously been closed to women simply because they were women.  Now women will be able to do these jobs as long as they meet the physical and psychological requirements.  Just like any other job.

When I arrived home yesterday I switched on the ABC radio to hear Neil James, the Executive Director of the Australian Defence Association, going toe to toe with announcer Waleed Ali.  Of course James is against the idea of women on the frontline - he represents an organisation where there isn't a single woman on the Board of Directors.  I've heard his bizarre argument before when he appeared on ABC television's show "Q and A": women are unsuited to frontline roles because they have a greater chance of being killed than men.  I've never heard him actually explain his argument.  Any time the line of questioning is pursued, he attacks the questioner. I switched off when he explained that the physical demands of frontline combat roles threaten only a hernia for men, but women end up with a collapsed uterus.

On the other side of the equation ABC local radio's Jon Faine interviewed a young woman who is excited at the prospect of having the opportunity to fight for her country, having been working for Defence as a civilian.  I'm not excited by the prospect of fighting on the frontline of a war, but if that's what she wants and she now can have it, then good luck to her.  What made me angry this morning was the line of questioning put to her and other speakers:

"Why do you want to kill people?"
"The role of a soldier or anyone involved in a combat role is to kill."
"And you're looking forward to it?  Excited at the prospect?"

A man contemplating military service would never be asked these questions.  A man would never be accused of having blood lust because he had decided to serve in the defence forces in a combat role.

Then the questions became patronising:
"It is the quintessentially blokey environment you want to break into - you can't be unaware of that?"
"You're going to have to fight that battle before you get to fight any other battle." (Starting right here with this interview, I thought.)
"It's also the difference between what a defence force does in peace and what a defence force is called upon to do in times of war. Do you understand the difference...?"

You can hear on the podcast that the young woman acquitted herself very well.  I thought that was a miracle because I was ready to throw something at the radio.

After reading a selection of text messages, we went to an interview with the Defence Personnel Minister, Warren Snowdon.

"How can you find out whether or not they [women] can do the job until they do the job in combat?"

Oh for goodness sake - doesn't the same situation apply to any person?  male or female?

Then came the most extraordinary question of all.  Basically it boiled down to the recruitment of women costing more because of absenteeism due to child bearing.  The ultimate argument against women being recruited to ANY job. I can't believe that this argument was being put.  In Australia. In 2011.

And what does the whole discussion say about our view of men?  That their lives are somehow more expendable, less valuable than women's?  That they are more capable of killing and that's desirable?

I'd prefer the discussion to be about how the world can work towards having no need of military forces at all!

Mission Impossible

How am I going to read all my books?  Sometimes I despair, sometimes I am delighted, as I consider all the stories which await my discovery.  I always have at least one book that I'm in the middle of reading.  I never travel without a book.  If I need to wait, I always have the company of a book to pass the time.  And still, I know I can probably never get through all of my books, let alone the new ones I hear about and acquire or borrow from the library, or that my book group selects.  So I have no chance of getting through all the books in the world!

When I was in primary school - about grade 6 or 7 I think - I set myself the task of reading all the novels in the school library.  I started at "A".  I quickly discovered that I would have to go back as other readers returned books that hadn't been there as I skipped past and selected the next volume.  I think I made it to C.  Not very far in alphabetical terms, but there were probably about 50 books those first three letters covered.  And this was apart from the other reading which was required.  If I was to advise my twelve year old self on how to approach such a task now, I'd suggest going thematically, rather than alphabetically.

I'm not sure how I became such a reader.  I don't have particular memories of my parents reading to me, although we had lots of stories on records that had a book to read along with.  Tinkerbell would ring her bell signalling when it was time to turn the page.  Even now, I can hear it clearly.

I was an eclectic, ambitious and precocious reader right from the beginning.  On the shelves at home were hard cover editions of Enid Blyton - all of the Famous Five and the various other stories like "The Wishing Chair" and "The Enchanted Forest".  I moved onto Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mysteries but also read "Wuthering Heights" when I was about twelve.  I discovered Ian Fleming and James Bond in my early teenage years and loved to read the parts of the encyclopaedia which were delivered weekly.  Ruth Park's "Playing Beattie Bow" was an Australian favourite and my mother always kept track of what had won or been noted at the children's book council awards.  And we had a full set of Neville Shute's novels bound in red leather with gold embossing and beautiful marbled end papers.

Not having a television probably helped cultivate my lifelong habit which I can't imagine life without.  And my parents didn't censor my choices - as far as I remember.  It's rare that I don't finish a book, even if I don't like it.  Susan Sontag's book "The Volcano Lover" was a book group suggestion which defeated me, and most of the other members of the group.  "The Famished Road" by Ben Okri nearly had me, but I finished the whole thing and then threw it down the second I had  finished.  Even "How Late it was, how late" by Scottish writer James Kelman was not as great a challenge as that one, even though it is a stream of consciousness written in a Scottish dialect!

On my bedside table at the moment, waiting to be read, are the following volumes:

"Love in the Time of Cholera" - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"American Rust" - Philip Meyer
"Last Night In Twisted River" - John Irving
"The Passage" - Justin Cronin
"C" - Tom McCarthy
"Hard Times" - Charles Dickens
"Hamlet's Blackberry" - William Powers
"Super Sad True Love Story" - Gary Shteyngart
"Imperial Bedrooms" - Bret Easton Ellis
"Whatever" - Michel Houellebecq
"Under the Dome" - Stephen King

And one non-fiction title - "Influence - science and practice" - Robert B Cialdini

As I look at this list, I've just noticed that none of the authors are female.  However I am reading "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte, "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel" by Jane Smiley, "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan and "Dismissal" by Nicholas Hasluck.

Last year's birthday gifts were all books.  As this year's birthday looms, I suspect my mission will become even further from completion.  How fantastic!

Chasing Zeds

Last night I was physically exhausted.  I'd had two intense days working as a solo facilitator with two different groups.  Each group had its own personalities, dynamics, struggles, challenges and delights.  But both days ended on a solid note of satisfaction.

As the last person left the room, I could feel my last reserve of energy run out.  It's amazing how one can keep going without noticing and then the minute something finishes, switch off.  I struggled to stay awake on the train home.  For dinner I made toast, something I rarely do as I love to cook and even on the worst days have a stock of  frozen meals (made by me) in the freezer which only require reheating in the microwave.  I was hungry, but struggled to actually eat.

At 7:30pm I was ready for bed, but that just seemed ridiculous, so I put on an episode of "Seinfeld" and took up my knitting.  I made it through two 22 minute episodes and decided it was still too early to go to bed.  If I go to bed too early, I sleep badly, waking up in the middle of the night and struggling to fall asleep again. I pressed play for a third episode.  My knitting was slowing down and I wasn't really conscious of what George and Jerry were doing.

About an hour later I woke up on the couch.  The episode of "Seinfeld" long finished and my knitting left in the middle of a row (the ultimate knitting sin).  And I was sitting upright, not even lying on the couch.  I walked in my half sleep to my bed and that was it.  Until I woke up, thinking it was morning after a fairly wild dream.  It was 12:44am.  I had HOURS to go.  I tossed.  I turned.  I got up and had a drink of water. I went back to bed. I pretended to sleep.  I went through this routine a couple of times and then woke up this morning at 6:30, still feeling tired.

Sleep is fascinating.  Something I take for granted as generally I do it easily.  Boarding school and residential college at university trained me well to be able to go to sleep whenever and wherever I need to.  Bombs can fall outside and I wouldn't hear a thing or wake up.  But if I break my night owl habit and go to bed before 11:30, I'm awake at least once in the middle of the night.

I've shared space with sleep walkers who do all kinds of amazing things in their sleep.  It can be fascinating and frightening all at once, but I've always been glad that I'm not the one doing it.  However, I have been known to have episodes of screaming in my sleep.  Once when I was sharing a room while travelling in Spain.  Apparently before the scream comes out, I will groan and make a lot of sounds like someone fighting to make noise.  My friend in the other bed was awoken by my struggling and instinctively said my name and reached out and touched me.  At this precise moment I let out a full blooded scream.  She got the fright of her life.  I was terrified by whatever was going on in my head and I think we both then screamed at each other.  It was a wonder that the whole of Valencia was not awake and wondering.  But then again, Spain is a very noisy country.

I haven't felt so physically and mentally tired for a while.  It's amazing that when we're so tired our body just puts itself to sleep, regardless of what we're doing.  That's why I missed yesterday's blog post.

I'm very glad I didn't have to drive myself home.  I wouldn't have made it!

Monday, 26 September 2011

Best in show.

The annual Royal Melbourne Show is on.  It's easy to know this if you're catching a train from Flinders Street Station.  While I was waiting to catch a train home this afternoon, a train from the show ground arrived.  As the doors opened the people coming out could have been no where else.

There were kids carrying oversized, inflatable hammers! oversized stuffed animals with their own faces painted to match!  Teenagers laden with show bags from every conceivable brand and giant buckets of multi-coloured fairy floss.  Parents trying to round up and keep track of their kids and the kids were either over tired or over excited.  And probably pumped full of fast food and sugar.

I've lived in Melbourne since 2000 and have never been to the show.  Yet when I was at boarding school, the Toowoomba Show holiday was something to really look forward to.  It was a place to fraternise with boys from the Grammar School.  Fraternising meant screaming until they were deaf as they casually draped an arm across your shoulder on terrifying, dizzying rides.  It was very important to be cool and casual.

I can now understand my parents' dread at the prospect of the Show.  It seems to be an operation to suck the money right out of your pockets.  Although I do remember going to the Royal Easter Show in Sydney when I was a child. I can't remember how old I was - perhaps around 5.  I wanted three things:

1. a pair of those gigantic sunglasses, preferably in pink
2. a kewpee doll with a pink dress
3. a ride on the ferris wheel.

I got all three things.  Numbers one and two passed without incident.  Number three ended in tears.  And that was just my mother.  Perhaps my fear of heights stemmed from this early trauma, stranded at the very top of the wheel for hours while the skinny guy in charge of the rides loaded passengers and rolled himself a cigarette.

At the age of about 10, my brother and I spent hours on a ride called the Music Machine or Music Express at a rural show.  We laughed our heads off.  It was such fun.  It went really fast and up and down, but we were always attached to the ground.  "Knock on Wood" by Amii Stewart was the song that played over and over and over and over.  (Almost as much fun as when we put Billy Ray Cyrus singing "Achy Breaky Heart" on high rotation while we learned how to juggle.)

I don't think I'll be going this year. The other thing I remember is the weird looking chickens.  How can anything live up to those memories?

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Prophet misguided.

My next technological purchase is in the planning stage.  I'm sharing this information with you as a community service.  I have a bad track record when it comes to choosing technology.  History shows me leaping onto new technology that ends up occupying a sliver a time between the old technology and the Next Thing to be Omnipresent.  So, I'm sharing information about what I want to buy as a warning of change to come.

If I had been financially independent when the Betamax vs. VHS wars were on, you can bet that I would have gone Beta.  I read the stuff.  I talk to my friends.  I make a decision, and then suddenly I'm the only person in the world holding that technology.

I bought a double cassette player just as the world switched to CDs.

I bought a mini disc player and recorder.  I loved the mini disc.  So small.  So light.  So portable.  So pretty.  So redundant!  Not only that, I had time to buy a new stereo which has five CD capacity AND 5 mini disc capacity!  How handy!  Let's not forget that in the history of music only about five artists in the world released recordings on mini disc format.  The attraction was the re-recordable disc, the excellent sound quality and stability on the go;  unlike portable CD players, mini discs didn't skip even if you did.  I had a couple of friends who had mini discs and they made an excellent platform for sharing music.  I think I may be the only person in the world with this particular model of stereo system.

I bought an Advanced Photo System camera.  This was the one that produced no negatives and you could change the finished format of the photo and take panoramic shots. Can't remember beyond that, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

In both the case of the camera and the mini disc player, the world changed about five minutes after both purchases.  In the case of music it was the ipod and MP3 music format and photography went digital and I was left holding obsolete technology and paying a fortune to have my photos developed.

So here I sit thinking about whether it's time to upgrade my computer, or perhaps buy a big external hard drive and invest in an ipad and finally get an ipod to store and carry my enormous music collection.  This probably means that these items will soon be redundant.

 I even had an "electronic" typewriter.  It could store in memory a whole line of words, allowing you to edit and correct errors before printing the line of text.  Sounds like a good idea, but actually it really slowed down the writing.  I've always thought that writing and editting are two different processes which should be kept separate.  Writing is a creative, right brained activity and editting is an analytical, left brained activity.  Why would you want to do them at the same time?  I should add that computers seemed like overkill when all you wanted to do was type stuff.  Computers were for geeks!

As I told my story of technological misfortune to a friend who found the whole thing hilarious, his reaction to the consideration of the external hard drive was "what about the cloud?"  I worry about the cloud.  What if it rains?  Can't it be hacked?  Can't everything be hacked?  I think I'll rely on the cloud the day that Centrelink or the Tax Office puts everything there.  That would mean it's definitely secure, right?  Department of Defence?  I suppose my 1 terrabyte will therefore soon be on the pile of non-recyclable e waste.

On the music front, initially I was thinking ipod Touch, but now I'm thinking ipod Classic because of its huge storage capacity.  I know Apple is making a big announcement soon.  I'm delaying making my purchases until after that, but now you know, you heard it here first - ipods will soon be passe!

Give me the old technologies that have survived over centuries - pencils, paper, books, scissors, knitting needles, fire, the wheel.  It's incredible that simple things like these are still pretty much the same as they ever were.  The materials may have changed, but essentially a pencil is still a pencil; paper is still paper (the last big innovation was probably the post-it note - wish I had thought of that!).

And what about the book!  (My favourite author) Jane Smiley describes the book in chapter two of her book "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel":  "As an object, it is user-friendly and routine, a mature technological form, hard to improve upon and easy to like."  As usual, JS has nailed it.

I have an e-book reader (Sony - a gift from a friend).  I was sceptical at first, but the built in dictionary and customisable font size sold me, as well as the ability to pack dozens of books for holiday reading without leaving me to choose between my toothbrush and a clean pair of knickers to fill the rest of the available baggage allowance. I still have so many actual books to read though, I spend about 25% of my reading time in the electronic format.  I won't be getting into wee books.  They've used a sans serif font which makes it very hard to read.  That declaration probably means that they're here to stay and will become the dominant form of the non-e book.  Sorry!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The love rug

News of women around my age being diagnosed with breast cancer has been coming my way lately.  Amongst the men in my life, there has recently been a stroke, an aneurysm and a heart attack.  Again, these men have been around my age.  Which isn't very old.  Really.

It's terrible to hear this news.  I wonder how their story will end.  Then I wonder what I can say or do.  It's so difficult to know what's appropriate, but it's also hard to know what I actually want to express.  For someone adept with words, at these moments I find them to be hopelessly inadequate.

Early this year a very close friend of a very close friend of mine told us that she had just received this devastating news.  I know her only a little bit, but I still felt terribly sad to know that she now had this disease to contend with.  I wanted to let her know that I cared, but wasn't sure how to reach out to her.  I knit her a pair of socks and sent them unannounced.  She featured them in a photographic series of "chemo footwear" she has featured on facebook.

Not long after this I received a group email from a woman I didn't know asking for suggestions of how we could support and care for our friend.  Out of this, the idea to make her a love rug was born.  We were invited to contribute a knitted square which would then be made into a blanket.  I'd not long finished my 150 square effort for the fistula hospital in Ethiopia, so one square was easy!  Lilac.  Garter stitch.  With my own "handmade by" label sewn on the back.

Progress reports were received from those who were joining them to make the blanket.  I was delighted to receive news that the blanket had been finished and had been presented to our friend.

I thought this project was a wonderful expression of community.  It can be challenging for everyone and this idea was pitch perfect, I think.  Such love and effort has been poured into this project, there must be healing power in the concentration of love.

Amanda has given me permission to publish this wonderful photo of her and her children in this (enormous) blanket. How could you feel anything but loved?

Friday, 23 September 2011

Up against it in peak commuter time.

This morning I caught a train in peak hour.  I used to do this all the time.  These days, if I'm travelling in the morning, it will be before the crush.  Having relived the experience this morning I don't know how I did it everyday.

Today I was travelling at 8am.  By the time my train arrived at the station, it was already quite crowded.  When the train stopped at my station, about fifteen people were waiting at the same door as I was to board.  The rules are to wedge yourself in and try to find a little spot where you can keep yourself to yourself.  I spotted a seat!  In a bank of six seats, five of which were occupied, the spare seat had been left  by the window.  If no one else wanted it, I'd take it!  I excused myself and asked the two people to move over.  Instead, in a futile gesture, they moved their knees a little to the side, avoided eye contact and looked sullen.  As the train was moving I was required to climb over their legs while hauling a handbag and a briefcase.  It's a wonder I didn't end up in someone's lap.  I could feel their silent fury radiating towards me.

Then my stop came.  Naturally, they were staying on, so I had to climb over them again to get out.  My aim was to make them wish they had just moved up!

Switching to another train at the particular city fringe station I was at is hard work during the quieter times; during peak time, it's madness.  Everyone is clutching a mobile phone or ipod as if their life depended on it.  Heads are down and if you're not careful you'll be knocked off your feet into the path of an incoming train before you have time to evade the ticket inspector. You travel up a level to cross the concourse to another platform only to be greeted by a train that was twice as packed as the first one I had already caught.

There was no chance of getting a seat on this train.  There was barely a chance of having enough space to plant two feet and a briefcase.  People were pressed together very intimately.  My hand found a rail to hold onto.  It was in the armpit of a man I have never met.  Even after having my hand in his armpit, I haven't met him.  He glared at me.  Then I noticed that the aisle down the carriage had hardly any people in it.  I called out for people to move down, but their reaction was as though I smelt bad and had just said something incredibly embarrassing.

As the announcement came over to warn us to "stand clear, doors closing", I noticed the sign on the door urging us to keep the doorway clear.  What a redundant instruction.  It was clear of protruding finger, toes, arms and legs, but that was the best I could achieve and then only by breathing in and not upsetting Armpit Man.  As this train pulled into the next station, I knew that I would need to step off to allow people to disembark.  The train had not yet stopped when a person behind me informed me that I'd need to move out of the way as they would be needing to get off the train.  I'm not sure where I was expected to go.  We were like one of those squares puzzles where there's one space and you need to move the squares around to make a picture or get the numbers in order - except that we didn't have the spare space.  This person was pressing into me.  I don't understand.

I travelled two more stops and then fell out of the train , pushed by the human tide surge behind me.  The surge carried me up the platform and onto the escalators.  Again, people weren't looking up and out at the world.  They had their heads down and were buried in their hand held technology.  How ironic!  That people can be so disconnected from the world as they move through it because they are busy staying connected.  I don't know what that's called, but there should be a name for it. Perhaps I'll come up with one - just as soon as I have enough time to stop and smell a strange man's armpit.

It was warm in there.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Blowing in the wind

It's been really windy here today.  I don't like wind.  It unsettles me.  Everything feels edgy, destabilised, as though disaster could strike at any moment.

Wind makes me think about my hair differently.  I have lots of hair.  Wind whips it up.  Makes it look even more unkempt.  The romance of "windswept hair" is lost on me.  Anyone remember the Bee Gees and their hair?

Those romance novels always highlight the concept of windswept hair as a desirable characteristic. The people who have it obviously never wore the following items:

1. lip gloss.  Long hair, lip gloss and high winds combine to make me look like I have a moustache or cat's whiskers.

High winds also make the following unmanageable:

1. a wrap-around skirt or dress.  In high winds these articles of clothing should be renamed "unwrap-around".  Fun for spectators, no fun for the wearer.  For added difficulty add high heels and fill the hands of the wearer with several things to carry.

2. contact lenses.  They just shrivel up and fall out costing a lot of money and leaving you blind.

Add the beach into the equation and you get the sand blasting effect, which some salons charge for under the banner of microdermabrasion (a cut and polish in common parlance).

Hoping for calm tomorrow. Wind makes me unsettled.  (The kind made by the external world, not by me!)

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Plane speaking

I'm just back from another transcontinental work trip - Melbourne to Perth to Melbourne in the space of about 36 hours, with a full work day thrown in to make it interesting.  Being encapsulated in a giant tube with a whole lot of other people I wouldn't normally choose to spend time with provides an interesting study of human behaviour.

On the way over, I was flying with Virgin Australia.  I'm not an airline snob - my main requirement is for plane not to fall out of the sky - but the flight is four hours on the way over and the aircraft had no in-flight entertainment of any kind (unless you count playing with the life jackets - more on that later).  I'm fine with that.  I'm an avid reader, so I am quite happy to have the time away from phone calls, email and the internet to indulge one of my favourite things.  It's the other people who are the problem.

As I approached my seat towards the back of the plane, I noticed that the last 4 rows of the aircraft were empty.  I felt a glimmer of optimism - maybe there would be space to spread out and breathe my own recycled air.  It was not to be as two men who looked like brothers approached with their matching set of children - a girl and a boy each.  One set - father, daughter and son - sat in the row behind me and the other set sat across the aisle in the same row.  Thoughts of peace and a comfortable journey were immediately shattered.

I had one of the (young) boys behind me.  He spent the whole trip kicking the back of my seat.  When he wasn't doing this, his sister was squeezing past to visit her long lost cousins sitting across the aisle.  The lack of an in-flight entertainment system in the aircraft was irrelevant to them as they each played on an iPad, screaming about their successes.  The two fathers appeared to be oblivious, or else they had also lost the will to live and were actually hoping I would take matters into my own hands and resolve the whole thing by committing murder as we travelled over the Great Australian Bight. (Is there a term for murder at altitude?)

I tried to be Zen about it, but I failed.  It was FOUR HOURS worth of kicking and prodding.  If they were more systematic, I could have got them to work in the knot in my shoulder.  I coped by listening to Philip Glass music and almost finished reading my novel.

On the way home I flew in a QANTAS airbus which has a marvellous in-flight entertainment system.  Thoughts of finishing reading my book were put to rest when I realised I could watch the rest of Season 5 of "30 Rock".  ( I had seen the first two episodes on an earlier trip over and been noticed for my unrestrained public laughter.)

In the middle bank of four seats I had one of the aisle seats.  At the other end was a VERY large man who complained about everything from the moment he sat down.  Beside me sat a man in his late fifties who reeked of stale alcohol and cigarettes.  The fourth seat, to his left, was vacant.  Before very long, the VERY large man had complained his way into a different seat, leaving me and stale alcohol man with four seats to share between us.  Did stale alcohol man move along one, so we could both have our space?  No, he didn't!  Did stale alcohol man and I compete for sovereignty over the arm rest?  Yes, we did.  If I'm honest, as soon as I realised he wasn't going to move, I started waging a silent war of attrition over the arm rest; the objective being to get him to move along one seat.

My strategy failed. He stayed right where he was, even when we did the elbow slam over dinner.  Then, he fell asleep.  the banter of Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy was drowned out by his industrial strength snores.  I fell asleep a few minutes from the end of episode nine in the season.  I stirred to consciousness and opened my eyes when I smelt the smell of stale alcohol man.  Our foreheads were nearly touching!  Our drool hadn't yet melded, so that wasn't too bad.

Sleeping in an aircraft is such a weirdly intimate thing.  In the wedged confines of economy class, there's a good chance you'll end up swapping something more than a business card or sachet of sugar with someone. It's a wonder flight attendants don't wake up with post-traumatic stress disorder every time they disembark.  Have you ever looked at your fellow passengers as you walk the aisles?  Heads thrown back, chins rolling down chests, snail trails of slobber oozing from mouths.  When did the aliens move in?  And how about the crazed eye contact a passenger makes when you open the toilet door to exit?

There are many things about air travel that don't bear thinking about.  Some aspects of the safety briefing really get me.  Some of the things they want us to do must just be on the list to get us to do stuff if there is an emergency.  Those oxygen masks aren't real are they?  They look like the lids of aerosol cans that someone has gone to work on with a hot glue gun and a roll of elastic.  And how about the "brace position"?  I love the bit where they say that you should "keep your feet flat on the floor to stop them moving forward"!  If I'm in a plane that's plunging towards the earth, I reckon it's going to take a little bit more than flatness to stop my feet moving forward.  We're all going to be moving forward!  (Sounds like an election slogan.)

Whenever I hear this part of the safety instructions, I smirk inwardly.  I smirk inwardly because outward smirking or worse still, laughing, about airline safety and security can land you in serious legal trouble.  So I keep it to myself.

The other thing that gets me is the instruction to wait until you're outside the plane before inflating your life jacket.  Well, der.  Can you imagine a plane full of over-inflated panicking people trying to fling themselves out the window with a fully inflated life jacket?  I suppose they have to tell us, because somewhere, someone, discovered that no one could get out of their economy class seat or move down the aisle or get out of the plane if they prematurely inflated. Again, I smirk not.

The other thing that I experience on a regular basis is the swipe test for traces of explosives.  Every time I fly, I am randomly selected to have a pimply 19 year old boy, or a 55 year old woman with ample hips, wearing  ill-fitting trousers (everyone's trousers are ill-fitting - it's part of the uniform) wave a wand at me.  I commented once that I was the most randomly tested woman in Australia and the air went chilly.

Wit suppression in public spaces, with a particular focus on airports and in planes themselves, is on my list of things I'm working to develop expertise in.  For now, I just submit.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Singing? Me?

Singing is one of my passions in life.  I've been a member of a choir all of my life.  When I was a child, I loved watching "Johnny Young's Young Talent Time" and idolised Tina Arena  who first went on the show as a contestant and later joined the Talent Team.  (I vividly remember that she wore an American Indian's costume and sang the ABBA song, "Money, Money, Money".)

In the days before karaoke, singing along with Tina on the television or to the latest single on the record player was fantastic.  As my proficiency playing the piano developed, I would buy sheet music for all the latest pop songs and sing along as I accompanied myself.  The piano part never sounded as good as a band - how could it capture the drums, bass and guitar all on the piano? - and all the songs sung by men were in the wrong key all together.  Female singers always ended up singing it at the pitch written which was impossibly high to sing without doing the full soprano sound or put down an octave it was far too low.  I laboured over so many pop songs, swinging wildly between my high and low voices,  before giving up and switching to jazz.

In this genre I played and sang all the jazz standards for hours on end, channelling Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and later, Shirley Bassey and Liza Minelli.  Such romantic and swinging songs and passionate songs.  And as 12 year old, I sang with the kind of  commitment any judge on Australian Idol would demand.

Then I discovered music theatre and borrowed entire scores from the State Library for musicals that had won Tony Awards on Broadway, but which I hadn't really heard of.  I'd order in the CD's and learn all of the songs, doing full mini-performances of the shows.

Then I discovered the ultimate female singer, kd lang, and focussed on vocal technique and learnt to play and experiment to discover everything my voice could do.

I didn't have an ipod.  I didn't even get a Walkman when they were cutting edge.  If I wanted to hum a tune while walking around, then I would.  I didn't want, need or have the perpetual soundtrack to life that most people seem to walk around with now.  Whenever they leave the house, the have to be plugged in and wired up.

On one hand I think it shows an amazing confidence to be able to go out into the world and walk around with one of your senses effectively disabled - that is, so absorbed in what's coming through your ear buds that you wouldn't hear danger approaching.  Granted, we are not at threat from sabre tooth tigers or hungry, gigantic dinosaurs these days, but there is traffic and other people who could pose a threat as we go about our daily business.

On the other hand, I admire the lack of self consciousness that seems to happen when people are cocooned in their own world of recorded sound.  Some of the best entertainment I've had recently has been listening to people singing along with their headphones.  At its best, it happens in an enclosed space, like a train carriage, that doesn't have many people in it and the person succumbs to the illusion that they are alone.

First the seep-through sound of the music turned up too loud starts to invade the shared space with its tinny vibrations.  Then the person in question starts a quiet hum.  Then they let go a little for the first verse.  By the time they've reached the chorus, they're in full voice, but think they are singing quietly.  Other people start laughing.  And I've even heard some people join in or seen them play air guitar or drum solo.

Then there's the quieter person who doesn't really let go.  In many ways this is worse.  They think they are singing along in their own head and so can not hear that they are actually making sound which other people can actually hear.  In these cases the sound made echoes a small, ill animal - perhaps a kitten, or a frightened guinea pig.  Hang on when they reach for the high notes!  These kids are squeezing sound out of such a constricted aperture that the dogs in the neighbourhood start to stir.

This week, I was exposed to a performance of this genre by a tall, skinny, Asian boy.  So concave was his chest that his long white t-shirt looked like it was draped over a square piece of cardboard.  He was afflicted with a bad case of acne and had the self-conscious gait of the awkward teenager who has to walk alongside embarrassing parents.  And then there was this sound!  Not at all pleasant and a little bit like listening to Chinese opera, with the tonality that my western ear isn't trained to appreciate.

And then this afternoon, while I was sitting in the car in a friend's driveway after dropping her off, we heard gorgeous, effortless and joyful singing.  A teenage boy was plugged into his headphones and singing in full voice as he walked.  He was singing for no one but himself, uninhibited as he walked past where we were parked in a smooth and lyrical voice.

I can only conclude that for some people, the "privacy" the headphones provide, is like that provided for nose pickers in a car.

Keep singing!  It's one of the gifts we humans have.

How rude is this plant?

Amazing what you can see in nature. In the streets of Yarraville.  Wonder what kind of plant it is?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Thought for today

As a lover of words, I look forward to my daily email from Wordsmith.  Not only do I get to discover - sometimes rediscover - words, the email also includes a provocative thought for the day.  

I'm sharing today's with you because it reflects what I'm discovering through my writing here.

"A writer -- and, I believe, generally all persons -- must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art."

 -Jorge Luis Borges, writer (1899-1986) 

What I saw on the wall.

Having spent a reasonable amount of time in hotel rooms over the years I've been exposed to a lot of interior decoration choices. I'm very happy that we seem to have moved from the salmon pink and coral colour schemes that dominated the 1980's and 1990's.  Now we're in neutral land.  Everything is brown and beige and grey.

Against this neutral scheme the art on the walls is often the only thing that provides a splash of colour.

Consider this monstrous piece hanging on the wall of my otherwise tastefully decorated Adelaide hotel room.
I couldn't believe it.  Now I know that a can of spray paint can be a handy thing, but this looks like the Better Homes and Gardens crew rummaged in the bin, picked up a rock and went mad with their hot glue gun and threw the whole thing at the wall.

It disturbed me.  Give me a blank wall instead.  Or even the picture of horses galloping on the beach/through autumn leaves/down a mountainside which accompanied the salmon pink and coral phase.

Taste is an illusive thing to define.  Can anyone explain this picture to me?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Laughed and laughed and laughed and then I cried.

The alarm went off at 5:15 this morning.  One of the things about freelance work is that there is no routine - it's one of the things I like most and least about it.  I had to be in Healesville at 8:15 for a corporate acting job.  I'd done the trip once before and knew that once I was on the road with one of my lovely fellow actors, I'd forget about the early start to the day.

My companion was due to be at my place at 6:30am.  He was leaving his car and it was my turn to drive.  It always takes me a little bit to warm up in the mornings and it can take me a long time to get ready; what would take 15 minutes during daylight can take 45 minutes at this time of day. My main mission was to at least be dressed by the time he arrived.  I succeeded and we set off on our journey.

Every time I have to wake up before dawn, once I'm actually awake and out in the world, I love that time of day.  Even in the city, there's not much movement - a jogger, a couple of people out with their dogs, fewer than usual cars on the road. It may take me longer to get ready, but I can go everywhere faster!  The air has a different quality and the light is particular.

Spending time with someone in a car is a great way to get to know them.  The close quarters seem to create a kind of intimacy.  We become hypnotised by the dotted white line and we start to talk about anything.  This morning, on the journey out there, we turned silly.  And rude.  Our silliness was only boosted by the gorgeous sight of mist, tinged with pink from the sunrise, sitting in the valley.  We went wild with joy.

We arrived fifteen minutes earlier than required and put our serious faces on.  This was Big Corporate and the stakes were high.  The other two actors were there and we got down to some serious turbo-prep.

Putting four actors in a room at that time of morning when our creative brains are in control because our rational ones haven't fully awoken is a recipe for mischief.  Suddenly we were in a full blown laughing fit.  There was no going back - we had to go through.  I don't even remember what triggered us off but it felt marvellous!  Laughter in full flight.  Faces red.  Heads on desks.  Tears flowing.  Breathing, forgotten.  Thighs slapped.  Breathing found - snort! Everyone started up again.

There is nothing like the feeling of shared laughter which is completely out of control.  We are actually out of control because the laughter has taken over and is in control of every cell in our bodies.  Eye contact made triggers another wave and you can see the endorphins bouncing around the room.

Then we stopped.  We regained ourselves. A little snigger would seep out...and off we'd go again.  This thing had a life of its own.

Later, I received some sad news.  While I was talking to on the phone to my dear friend who was delivering it, we found the space to laugh, heartily, forgetting death for a moment and affirming life.

Laughter is good any time, but it's a beautiful thing to share!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Amour de langues

Today has been a day to revel in words.  I've come across two of my favourites today:  "rigamarole" and "fiasco".  I like they way they feel in my mouth.  Spoken, they sound like what they are.

I've always been more literate than numerate, reading from a young age and picking up language quickly.  In the first year at my high school several languages were part of the compulsory curriculum - French, German, Japanese, Latin, Indonesian - but in the second year only French and German were offered.  No Italian or Spanish.  I loved dabbling and delighted in the fact that I could speak Latin!  For all the use that was.  I can still tell you that Caecillius est pater and Matella est Mater and Cerebrus est canus.  I could then proceed to tell you where in the house they were at any given time.  That's all we had time for.  It was off to Indonesian (Salamat pagi!) and then Japanese with which I never really came to grips, although the beauty of the ideograms appealed, before we settled into the inevitable French and German.

I studied French all the way through to Senior Certificate in spite of the agony of the classes we took.  It was well known that a double period French class was worse than a double Religious Knowledge class.  My French teacher was also my home room teacher, so I got to see a lot of her.  Her name was Miss Callow.  Her given name was Ruth, which we never heard spoken, but would see it written on our report cards at the end of term.  What a name laden with meaning:  "ruth" meaning pity or compassion, sorrow or grief and "callow" meaning lacking experience of life or immature.  Her parents could not have known when they chose her name that she would be immersed in language and teach French, but I think it incredibly fitting for a language teacher to have a name made up of words with ordinary meanings, yet words not often used in daily life.

As I think of Miss Callow now, I see her short grey hair, set.  Her trim figure is clad in a rust-coloured, polyester pants suit (she would have called it a "slacks suits") with a cream turtle neck jumper underneath.  The outfit is finished with tan crepe soled shoes and a gold chain around her neck to hold her spectacles.

We had no idea how old Miss Callow was, but she seemed quite old in comparison to we exuberant teenagers and sometimes her monotonous teaching style was too much to bear and we'd look for distractions.  One  hot, slow afternoon when the class was particularly rancorous and restless, I gazed up at the whirring ceiling fan and noticed what looked to be blood.  Blood!  On the blades of the fan in the French classroom!  What had been going on in here?  I interrupted the steady flow of French and pointed out to Miss Callow the blood.  Without missing a beat, she looked over her half moon glasses and said in the same monotone, but in English, "Yes.  That's what happened to a particularly recalcitrant girl." And she continued on.  Knowing the meaning of "recalcitrant", I narrowed my eyes.  Sceptical.  Miss Callow held my gaze. I did not wish to suffer such a fate and dropped the subject.

At the beginning of another class one of the students enquired whether the written assignment we had submitted the week before had been marked.  The assignment had been to write a letter - in French - to a pen friend.  The enquiry was framed thus: "Miss Callow, have you marked our French letters yet?"

Was there an intake of breath?  Did her colour heighten?  Did her pulse speed?  Even just a little?

Miss Callow removed her half moon glasses and said: "Girls.  When asking about your written assignments, it would be better to enquire whether or not the letters you have written in French - lettres écrites en françaishave been marked.  I suggest you refrain from using the term "French letters".

She strode back to her desk, replaced her glasses and picked up the text book. Her numbing intonation started.

I thought this was hilarious.  Being a precocious reader I had a theoretical understanding of the term.  I think many in the class just put Miss Callow's response down to her usual pedantry.

I suspect that under her powdery exterior, Miss Callow might have had a tinder dry sense of humour.  Of course, we would never ever truly see it or get a real sense of her as a woman.  I didn't even really think of her (or many of the other teachers) in terms of womanhood.  She was the French teacher, or more correctly, the teacher of French.  I now wonder what her hopes and dreams were.  Had she ever been in love? What was her favourite food? Did she wear perfume on the weekends? Which handsome movie star did she fancy?

So far, I have had no use for my French, having not travelled anywhere which speaks the language, but it all came flooding back when I started studying Spanish.  Whenever I could not find the Spanish word, the French word would make itself available.  What an amazing thing! I'm pretty confident that I could still order a croissant and a cafe au lait and then ask directions to get to the station, beach, bakery or butchery.  All handy things to be able to do.

Miss Callow died last year. Au revoir.  Reste dans la paix.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

What's that?

The cover on my iphone
Continuing my thinking about the pace of technological change, here is a photo of the cover on my iphone.  I was in a shop the other day and put my phone down on the counter with the cover facing up (like in the photo).  The girl behind the counter looked at it with some curiosity and asked, "What's that?"  I replied that it was the cover on my iphone.

She rolled her eyes and looked at me like I was an idiot.  "I know it's the cover of your phone - I want to know what it is."

I hesitated.  Then I understood.  She didn't know what a cassette or tape was.  Boy did I feel old.

Cassettes were the greatest thing in the world when they hit the market.  It meant being able to play recorded music without the need for parents to supervise as they did with records.  They were much hardier and the risk of scratching didn't exist.  You could play them in your car!  But don't leave them there on a hot day or they would melt.

My first independent music purchase with pocket money saved up for months was a six cassette set of Elvis' 100 Super Rocks.  It was so exciting and I was proud of how smart I'd been with my money - getting six cassettes!  100 songs!  I think it cost me around $25 at the time.  My grandmother was not impressed, chastising my mother about allowing me to spend my money on "that sex stuff".  It took many years before I understood the sex appeal of Elvis Presley.  At the age of about 9 I just liked the music.

The most craved purchase then was a personal stereo system.  I always purchased too early and ended up stuck for a long time with a single cassette player, when the next innovation was a double cassette player.  This allowed longer continuous play, but also allowed copying.  The making of a mix tape was the sign of true love.  It was even better to receive one from a boy you liked.

The Sony Walkman passed me by.  You may recall that I also don't listen to an ipod while I'm on the move.

Having a recorder which had a built in radio facilitated the recording of favourite songs direct from the radio.  At night in western Queensland, it was possible to pick up Sydney radio stations playing all the latest music.  I would record these songs direct from the radio.  This took skill.  There was an art to noiselessly pressing the "play" and "record" buttons simultaneously at the right moment.  The right moment would minimise the amount of time the announcer was talking over the track and maximise the amount of the song actually captured.  It took concentration to get the latest Culture Club or Wham! song onto that tape.

A couple of years ago I had to purchase a blank tape for use at a voice over course I was doing. Blank tapes were something from yesteryear.  Where would I find one?  After looking in various places and having no success, I went into a stationary store.  A shop assistant asked me what I was looking for.  I whispered that I was looking for a blank tape, feeling a little bit dirty as I did so.  She looked a little bit taken aback, but then slipped into her helpful and confidential voice.  She led me to the back of the store.  At a back shelf on the lowest level was a dusty box with a a few blank tapes in it.  I felt like I had asked to see their most hard core pornography.  She left me alone to browse the selection.  I plucked one from the box and walked out $9 poorer, but I had what I needed.

Where would I play it?  I had to listen to my work which had been recorded in class in the car!  It was the only place I had a cassette player.  But now even that is gone, replaced by a CD and MP3 player.

It's incredible to think that most of us are walking around with our entire music collections in our pockets every single day.

As for the cover on my iphone, I like the juxtaposition of the old and the new.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Tenth anniversary

I've been in a self-imposed media black out over this tenth anniversary of the twin tower and pentagon terrorist attacks on the US.

Like many people in Australia when the attacks happened, I was watching "The West Wing" on television.  Suddenly there was a cut to breaking news and there were the pictures of the first plane flying into the twin towers. It took me a minute to understand that this was not part of the story line on the show and find where fiction ended and reality started.  It took some time for the enormity and significance of what I was seeing and hearing to sink in.

The following day, I remember dealing with a member of my staff who was very disturbed by what had happened.  I sent him home with the phone number for the employee assistance program.

I understood this.  It was far away, hard to comprehend, but somehow threatening to us over here in Australia.  When I heard the stories and saw the footage of people leaping from the buildings I found that very difficult.  Late last week a man phoned ABC local radio to recount his experience.  He had been in Manhattan on the day of the attack and described the sights and sounds of people falling to their deaths.  It was too much, even to hear this third hand account.  What must these people have been thinking and feeling at the time?

I know myself well enough to know that I can not cope with the relentless onslaught of the anniversary each year, let alone the tenth anniversary.  So I switched off.  I did catch a glimpse of Yo Yo Ma playing a cello solo.  I caught my breath.  My eyes filled.  Yet again, a master artist conveyed with the voice of his instrument the mourning and grief of so many people.

As one of my friends said to me the other day (somewhat accusingly), "You just want everyone to love each other and everything will be okay in the world."  Well, yes.

I hope that peace can be found.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Life drawing

My daily life puts me in contact with a fantastic array of people from all walks of life, doing different jobs, with different values, talents and skills.  I love it!  Not a day goes by when I don't hear someone comment about "the one thing" they wish they could do.

I'm no different.  There are lots of things that I can do, some of them very well, but I have my one black spot - drawing.  I can't do it.  I want to do it.  The idea of it appeals to me immensely, but something happens when I put the pencil to paper.  I don't understand what it is, or why it happens.  I'm a visual thinker and great with colour and design.  I can match thread or yarn colour by memory and get it exactly right without a sample to compare it to.  So why this affliction?

Notwithstanding this lack of skill, I am very proud to say that I won third place in the black and white drawing section for 13 year olds at the Toowoomba Show.  It was an abstract piece.  (Of course it was, everything I do is abstract, but this one was meant to be abstract.)  My mother had it laminated and I won $10 and a certificate.  It felt like I won the Archibald Prize.  Somehow, I knew that that was the beginning and end of my career as a visual artist.

Knowing this, you may be surprised to learn that I love to play Pictionary.  While my cows always look like dogs and my dogs look like a series of hairy rectangles it's actually about communicating a concept.  I haven't played it for a while, but a couple of incidents stand out.  Playing with a Swedish visitor I had to draw "magazine rack" for him.  Now being the country of Ikea, you'd think this would have been easy, but if we'd been made to keep going until he answered correctly, we'd still be playing 15 years later!

One of my friends is great at drawing.  This can make for a dull game of Pictionary.  He draws it and you name it. Where's the fun in that?  But one day, there was a misunderstanding.  He misread the card in one of the group rounds where everyone has to draw.  He drew a picture of someone breathing on someone else with them dying as a result of this encounter.  Everyone else was drawing a funeral, so naturally, I went with their hints and started to follow the death route.  We were still going and my team mate started to look at me very, very strangely.  He started to do that weird, mute semaphore which humans do when they're not allowed to speak.  Turns out, he had read the wrong category and was drawing "bad breath".

If you want a challenge, try drawing "unroll".  It's impossible.

Occasionally, I'll be inspired to try to conquer my deficiency and take a class.  The last class I took was at music camp and the object was to draw each other.  I must have exuded an "I can't draw to save myself" vibe  because everyone wanted to sit next to me.  The reason?  If they were sitting next to me, I wouldn't be drawing them!  They had cause.  I made my friend who was teaching the class look like a serial killer.  On my second attempt he was just any guy with a beard.  At least he looked vaguely human, rather than like some kind of demon.

I once dated a life model.  This was something he mentioned in the first 5 minutes of our meeting.  I'm sure it didn't work out because I lack the drawing gene, but who knows if he would have inspired me.  Perhaps I should have stuck with him.

So now, I colour in.  I make patterns and delight in creating a vibrant treat for the eyes - well balanced with gorgeous colours.  It's very meditative and what I need after yet another failed attempt to draw anything recognisable.  I'm sure I will crave to draw for the rest of my life while occasionally attempting to master it, before throwing it away in frustration.

What's the one thing you wish you could do?

I'm off to draw some stick figures.
Self portrait - this is pretty much how I've drawn women since I  first wielded a pencil.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Window washer, the song

Following on from yesterday's post, here are the lyrics of one of the first songs I wrote.  The page of the note book has 16 March 2006 written at the top.  I was inspired to write it after a man came and washed my windows.  The windows were attached to my 11th floor office.

It's a slow, sultry blues.


Shock of my life - what's he doing there - 
Suspended by wire, high in the air?

Man at the window peering on in
Strong arms sweep widely - he sends me a grin. 
I smile at him, really wanting to speak.
He's swinging quite wildly - I'm feeling weak.

He's starting to go down,
He's making me squirm
He's strong and he's sexy
His tool belt is firm.

He visits me monthly
15 minutes a time
He washes my window
I think he's divine.

He's my flying Diet Coke ad
It's my great good luck
He's hot and he's handsome
And he loves to clean!
(c) Tanya Edlington 2006

Friday, 9 September 2011

Fly too high

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a room on the 22nd floor having a very intense conversation with a client. I had my back to the window and suddenly there was a really loud noise - like a big fan - and I could see the client's eyes were distracted by something behind me.  I looked around.  The windows were being washed by three men in a box which was moving up the outside of the building.  The noise was coming from the engine that was driving them from ground to roof.

As someone who suffers from acrophobia, the idea of being suspended that high up terrifies me.  I've struggled to look down from the third floor, but I love to watch them work. They concentrate so intently on their work that they never seem to notice the people on the inside who are looking out.   I wonder if they can actually see in?  Who can I ask?  Most people haven't been suspended outside the 22nd floor of a skyscraper, so they wouldn't know.

This team of three had a hierarchy.  The guy who was doing the driving.  He only occasionally wielded his squeegee.  The guy at the other end worked quickly and efficiently.  No nonsense about him.  And the guy in the middle who worked on one particular spot.  Scratching and scraping with the same commitment as an altar boy polishing the chapel silver.  As the platform moved up, this guy was still leaning over working on the spot.  They were up cleaning the next window when the box came back down.  The guy driving the operation was rolling his eyes as the middle guy got out his rag to work this one spot on the window a little bit more before he took matters into his own hands and pressed "up".  I swear I saw him spit on the rag.  That was some tough piece of dirt.  On the window.

Now I appreciate having clean windows as much as the next person, but this did seem a little extreme.  The spot was high up on the window of a room that was empty most of the time. The view out to the west of Melbourne was so spectacular it was unlikely to be upstaged by a dirt spot on the window.   I imagined a tug of war amongst the team; this clash of work standards happening at every level.  Annoying the boss would not be something I'd want to do out there.

I once sat in an office on the 11th floor of another city building.  My window overlooked a building with about 8 floors, so I could see their roof.  Roofs are interesting things.  Secret places that are often forgotten. Equipment, doors leading somewhere, occasionally a chair, airconditioning ducts. One day, I watched the whole process of two window washers setting up to abseil down the side of the building.  The procedure was very involved and it looked like it may have been the first day on the job for one of the workers and he was (literally) being shown the ropes by the other guy.

A complex routine of laying out, tying up and throwing over occurred.  Then there was this little piece of wood, kind of like a child's swing that would hang from a tree, which they sat on as they went down the side and washed the windows.  It looked like really hard work.  After about 20 minutes, they were nearly ready to go over, but couldn't go before they each got out a couple of squares of carpet.  I couldn't look away before discovering how they were going to use the carpet.  They laid it over the edge of the building so they wouldn't hurt their knees on the way over!  I love this!  At least they wouldn't have skinned knees when they plunged to their deaths on the footpath below.

Plunging to death is the only option when I think about heights.  I'm okay flying, but was paralysed with fear halfway down the Kuranda skyrail near Cairns in Queensland.  At one of the stops in the rainforest on the way back, I threw myself out of the gondola and begged the (very handsome) guide not to put me back in there.  The friend I was with showed a great deal of patience as she and the (very handsome) guide wrestled me back inside and I sat on the floor as instructed, a shaking mess until we arrived back on the ground at the bottom of the hill.  I thought I'd be okay because it was completely enclosed - sealed in fact - just like being in an aircraft, but I was wrong.

One of the first songs I ever wrote was inspired by my observation of a (very handsome) man who spent an eternity hanging outside my office window, wielding his squeegee.  I'll dig out the lyrics and post them soon.  In the meantime, all this talk of heights has made me nervous.  I'm off to lie on the lounge room floor.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Travelling with the flying kangaroo

A recent spate of work-related travel has thrust me back into the world of airports and planes and flight attendants.

Qantas took me to Perth in one of the new Airbuses.  Very nice way to fly.  Even in economy class on a flight of more than four hours.  The in-flight entertainment allowed me to select from a wide variety of luke warm, middle of the road movies and a great selection of television programs, music and games.  I decided I would take the opportunity to watch "Bridesmaids" for free as it had been one of the highest grossing films and was supposed to be a new landmark in comedy for chicks.  It really was chewing gum for the eyes.  I may have smirked twice during the whole thing which seemed to go for much longer than necessary.  My emotional state only changed when I was advised they were out of the stir-fried beef for dinner and I'd have to swallow the cheese ravioli instead.

Before I donned the headset, a calm announcement was made.

"If there is a medical practitioner on board, please make yourself known to cabin crew.  We require the assistance of a medical practitioner.  Please make yourself known if you are willing to assist."

A small ripple went through the cabin, but I didn't see anyone get up, or faint for that matter.  Several members of the cabin crew moved in the aisles in the same direction, but they gave nothing away.

The film finished and I decided to watch "30 Rock".  Episodes from the new season 5!  I was impressed.  And I was laughing in public.  Loudly apparently.  After we had landed, I was washing my hands in the restroom and a woman asked me what I had been watching.  I'd never seen her before in my life, but clearly, I was better than the inflight entertainment from her point of view.  I asked her why she wanted to know and she said she really wanted to know what I had made me laugh so much.

On the flight back home, I had an encounter with the particular breed of cabin crew - the Queen who decides he likes me on sight and decides to refer to me as his girlfriend for the duration of the flight.  It's a great strategy to have one of these looking after you.  Extra chocolate, extra wine, whatever you want, whenever you want it, all served with compliments about how fabulous you are.  When you're wrecked from a heavy few days of work, this is a nice way to fly.

As we deplaned back in Melbourne, I was impressed to see the Captain standing at the front door with the cabin crew to bid us farewell.  As we had started our descent, he had made an announcement about the current campaign Qantas pilots are running to secure fair conditions that ensure Qantas remains a quality Australian airline.  I wished him well with the campaign.

Then I thanked him for getting us home safely.  A great inflight entertainment system doesn't really matter if the cabin crew are surly and demoralised and the plane doesn't land safely.

Read about their campaign here:

Hiding in boom town.

The people waiting at the luggage carousel in Perth airport said a lot about what's going on there.  About one third of people were wearing orange jackets with reflective strips and heavy boots on their feet.  Their luggage was a back pack and a swag, or at least a sleeping bag.  Many of them were women.  They must have been coming to the city to spend the money they'd earned working in the mines.

Arriving anywhere at night I find to be an oddly disorienting experience, especially if it's somewhere that I'm not familiar with.  As I waited in the queue for a taxi to my hotel, the ABC television program "Q & A" was on the television placed for us to watch while we waited.  Greg Combet looked put upon, Sophie Mirabella looked smug and Tony Jones tried to referee the whole thing with his regular intonation, "I'll take that as a comment".

Inside the taxi, the driver put some instrumental music on.  I can only describe it as African muzak.  It was African-esque, but something had been done to it to remove its soul.  I never want to hear that kind of noise again.  We drove through the suburbs past shopping hubs that had everything you needed:  24 hour gym, computer store, anytime deli (open 24 hours), adult shop and an ATM.  I could see people in the gym and wondered what order you would visit the stores in.  ATM first and any order after that I decided.

As we pulled up to the hotel, I knew that its grand name was an overstatement.  I was to meet my colleague in the bar at about 8:45pm after I'd checked in and settled.  Every step through the shabby corridors saw my heart sink a step further.  I knew that I had no hope of subtle lighting in the bathroom - or anywhere for that matter.  I flicked the switch on, and there I was, looking more craggy than I had in the loo on the aircraft only here, the mirror was bigger and I could actually turn around.

I waited for what seemed like 20 minutes for the lift to arrive and then found the bar.  A woman who barely spoke English and took four attempts to get the order of "soda, lime and bitters" right ("you want lemonade?")  then barked that it was last drinks and they were sold out of bar snacks.

After a restless night accompanied by the percussive clang of giants walking around in the air conditioning system and a fridge humming in the key of E flat, I met another rumpled and bleary guest at the lifts.

"Sleep well?"  I asked him.

"I've been on the phone to my EA to tell her never to book me in here again," he replied.

"It's pretty dire," I said.

"This is the kind of hotel you book into when you're hiding from the law," he declared.

I laughed.  Then I looked at him again and wondered.  I swear he looked at me too. Clearly the new class of criminal runaway wears a suit and cufflinks.

As I ate my breakfast in the chaotic dining room, everyone looked a little shady.  Everyone was hiding from something and this was the place to do it.

View from the office

I'm working in Perth for a couple days. Interesting place to visit. I was last here before the mining boom and it now seems more entrepreneurial - like I imagine the gold rush towns would have been with everyone seeking to make their fortune. I will write about this place when I have some perspective and am not on my iPhone!

A few of you noticed my absence and checked to see that I was okay.  Well, okay, one person checked.  And the only message on my home answering machine when I got home was.....from the ambulance service reminding me to pay my subscription.  It's nice that they want to make sure I'm paid up if I need an ambulance.  Must do that tomorrow.  And also write.  For now, I just wanted to stop by and say hi.

In the meantime, here's the view from the room I was working in today. How can I be expected to work in such conditions?

And here's the Big Australian:

And just to prove I WAS here:

Sunday, 4 September 2011


On a quieter than usual Sunday afternoon in the village the sounds of two women screaming obscenities at one another caused everyone to stop.  Locals are used to the sounds of the local "colourful" character shouting in the streets, but this was more energetic, higher pitched and backed by intention.  I was going into the bakery and could see them, toe to toe, nose to nose.  I went into the shop.  It sounded dangerous, right on the point of escalation.  Then one of the women walked past me.  She was visibly shaken but was walking, not running, and facing straight ahead.  She looked like she was going home to get something or at least to make a plan.

I don't know what their dispute was about.  I don't know if they knew each other, or if it was a random act of rage.  I've seen a few of these in public - always in daylight.  They are striking, because usually our emotional range in public stays within a narrow band.  We may play outside this band when behind closed doors, but generally there's not much adrenalin pushing us to fight as we go about our business in the world.

It reminded me of a road rage incident between a taxi driver and a civilian driver of a big four wheel drive.  It was in the access drive of an inner city hospital where there were lots of cars coming and going as they picked up passengers, dropped them off, or stood briefly while they went into the pharmacy to collect prescriptions.  I was standing on the street waiting for a tram.  I watched unfolding events keenly, imagining I would one day be required as a witness in court.

The taxi had dropped a passenger off, pulled out of his park and was waiting for the traffic to ease so he could enter the main road.  Just as he eased out of the park, the big four wheel drive was coming up to the same spot, much too fast for where he was.  He had to slam on his brakes when he saw there was a taxi in front of him.  The driver of the four wheel drive got out of his vehicle, opened the door of the taxi and pulled the driver out by the shoulders, wrestling with him.

It was clear the taxi driver had been caught completely off guard.  He was a skinny little man who looked terrified.  He didn't want trouble.  He didn't even know what the trouble was. he was just on the hunt for his next job.  A male passer-by noticed the brouhaha and intervened.  He managed to peaceably separate the two men and get them both back into their cars.  I admired his willingness to intervene and the skill and effectiveness with which he did it.  It can be a dangerous decision these days, sometimes meaning the difference between life and death.

With both drivers back behind their wheels, the taxi driver nosed forward to survey the traffic.  The big bully four wheel drive rammed into the back of the taxi.  The taxi recklessly pulled out into the traffic and sped off, followed by the four wheel drive, right on his tail.

I wondered what happened next.  Did the taxi duck and weave and lose the four wheel drive?  Or did the four wheel drive stalk the taxi like a stealth fighter, following relentlessly until the taxi HAD to stop?  My imagination stopped there.  I couldn't bear to consider the possibilities.  I read the paper over the next days, certain I would hear of the death or beating of a taxi driver.

The level of stress that some people carry around with them (like the driver of the four wheel drive) must be extraordinary.  What must their lives be like?  On the other hand, as an actress, I know how thrilling it can be to go outside my normal emotional range and get the adrenalin surge.  I'd love to intervene too, but it's not a sensible thing for a woman to do.  Not safely anyway.

If I was to see the driver of the four wheel drive again, I'd love to slap a "remember to breathe" sticker on his back window.  Just to see what would happen.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

On the streets today

In the city today was a cacophonous clash of cultures.  Glorious.  Annoying.  Incomprehensible.

In one corner, a miked up busker with a bird on his head, lip synching to 1970's pop as he opened his steel case to reveal his juggling implements.  On the big screen at Federation Square, just a few steps away, black and white footage of vintage fashion parades showing obese old men ogling the models in their oversized bikinis.  Competing on the steps of Flinders Street station, a self-styled "preacher" who wasn't really preaching, but reading in a monotone from the Bible - he needs to book in to my presentation skills workshop - and a gaggle of wannabe punks/emos/goths strutting and airing their plumage, daring passers-by to catch their eye.

Meanwhile, the first glimpses of spring racing fashion are seen, confirming a few things. It is possible for a hat to be too young for the wearer.  It is possible to overdo the spray tan (why does no one know this?).  Plonking a hat on your head that does not work with the outfit, will not make the outfit work.

Capturing it all are the photographers.  Classes or clubs of them? or just a coincidental gathering?  Everyone seems to have an expensive camera pointed at something.  I want to photograph them, but feel I will be noticed if I point my iphone at them.  I decide that "pixellation" is the perfect collective noun for a group of photographers in the digital age.

Amongst it all were a lot of homeless people on the streets today. Then I wonder how I know they are homeless.  I don't, but they don't look like they have somewhere they belong with people who love them and would miss them if they weren't there.   I'm sure they are always there, every moment focussed on survival and life in a different way from me.  I see them looking hopefully into a bin, asking strangers for cigarettes, talking to unseen aggressors and wonder what has brought them to this and how they are allowed to exist in a city that has so many freedoms.

In the city of churches

I've just come back from Adelaide.  I always do come back from Adelaide.  I wouldn't like to stay in Adelaide.  In fact, I hadn't been to Adelaide for quite a while and that was just fine with me.  Adelaide is not my favourite place in the world.

This was a brief business trip and I was pleasantly surprised.  I had several pleasantly surprising experiences which left me feeling happier about the place.

On the flight over a big, tall man wedged himself into the middle seat next to me where I was already in the window seat.  I was very tired, having had an intense few days of work and was looking forward to a nap.  I looked up briefly and commented on the wedging factor (in a sympathetic, funny way) and turned back to my book.  Then he started talking to me.  I was resistant initially, but he was such a friendly, interesting and interested person that we had a very lively conversation all the way to the baggage carousel.

Then the taxi driver who took me to my hotel said hello and was happy to drive me to my hotel.  I pictured the headline on the front page of The Advertiser the following morning: "Taxi driver happily drives passengers!"

I checked into my hotel and was settling into my room when the phone in the room rang.  It was reception.  My heart sank - they'd be calling to tell me my credit card had declined.  No!  They were calling to check that everything was okay with my room.  I was impressed!  I'd stayed in much more expensive and high end hotels than this one and this had never happened before.  It was a nice touch.

My work the next day went very well.  A wonderful group of really decent, down to earth people were participating in the workshop I was facilitating.  Even though the room was hot and stuffy spending time with them was a joyful experience.  But I was ready to go home.  I arrived at the airport two hours before my flight was due to leave and was dreading the soulless hanging around that is necessary in an airport.  What a pleasant surprise it was to hear live music!  A nice looking bloke was set up with an amplifier and was singing and playing guitar in the middle of the airport.  Now this was something I'd never seen before.

During a break in his playing I asked him how he came to be there.  I thought busking would be an unusual pursuit in an airport.  He told me that Adelaide airport hires musicians to play every Friday afternoon/evening!  How progressive!  How fantastic!  He agreed it was and told me that he really enjoys the gig.  I told him I was really enjoying the music.  He told me his next song was his last song.  I sat and listened.  He finished.

I went back to my soulless waiting.