Thursday, 31 May 2012

Countdown to winter.

There is half an hour left of autumn for the year.  In thirty minutes it will be winter.  Officially.  Mother nature blessed us with a final, stunning day, representative of the best of autumn - clear, blue sky, 18 degrees Celsius, still.  I knew it was going to be like this, so I had the washing machine going early to maximise drying time out in the air.

My kitchen faces north and at this time of year, on a day like today, if I position a chair just so, it is like a sun room.  So I do.  I pull up a chair and I roll up my sleeves and I take some sun.  As I write this, I'm mentally making a note to ask my doctor whether I can absorb vitamin D through glass.

The phone was working overtime today.  This morning it was so constant that I didn't have my shower and get out of my pyjamas until about noon.  It wasn't because I was lazing about either.  I was working.  Being able to do it in your pyjamas is one of the joys of working from home.  I don't work in my pyjamas on a week day very often.  Even though I have lovely pyjamas, I get dressed for work as part of gearing up mentally.

Anyway, I was drying off after my shower when I heard Skype calling on the computer.  My brother and I work together via Skype and usually we've made a specific time to meet.  I went out to answer the call - it was my brother - and almost accidentally pressed the "answer with video" option.  Thankfully, for everyone, I didn't.  Dashing naked from the shower to the desk at home is one thing, broadcasting via Skype is a whole other ball game.  Everyone is okay.

I had some errands to run and took advantage of the day by walking the long way round.  Crackling and swooshing through the papery autumn leaves is another one of my favourite things to do.  It took ages for the leaves to change and fall this year and now suddenly, on the last day of autumn, there are plenty taking up the footpaths.

Heading to St Kilda this evening was gorgeous at about 5pm.  The blue in the sky was darkening, tipped with blush pink and highlighted with golden streaks.  Being in slow moving traffic over the Westgate Bridge did not bother me one bit when there was a sky like that as backdrop.

After dinner with a friend and opening night of a play, I was looking forward to a quick trip back home.  My hopes were dashed when I turned on the car radio and heard that there had been an accident and the Westgate was closed in both directions.  I sighed.  I would have to drive the long way around.  Instead of 20 minutes, it took 40.  Five minutes from home I was pulled over for random breath testing. I'd had no alcohol to drink yet I still feel hot and guilty whenever I'm pulled over.  They're streamlining too: no questions about what I'd had to drink tonight.  Straight in with the request to "blow until I say stop".  I always run out of breath and then fear inadequacy.  I'm an actor and a singer for goodness sake.  I have more breath than THAT!

With twelve minutes to go before winter's arrival, I'm happy to be in my electric-blanketed bed with its white sheets and big, square pillows.  I imagine how much more I will appreciate it in winter.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Please ask me before you share.

It's 'flu season.  I don't have it, but after being on public transport today I've increased my zinc dosage and positive thinking shield in the hope that I will remain untouched.  As I catch public transport everywhere I know it's probably just a matter of time.

Travelling home this evening, I was encased in a carriage with a man who was sweating so much he had to mop his face with a handkerchief repeatedly during the journey.  He was coughing without covering his mouth, generously sharing whatever he was carrying with all of us and doing that revolting super sniff.  I'm not talking about mere sniffing where one breathes in through the nose.  I'm talking about the action that results in whatever is residing in the nasal passages being inhaled back down the throat.  Oh the sound that signals that!  It is a beastly symphony! Worse than the soundtrack of a horror film.

One person making these sounds within a carriage seems to trigger the sinuses and throats of at least half of the fellow passengers.  Soon it becomes a percussive symphony, threatening illness with every beat, every vibration.

At one level there is the rhythmic sniffer, recognisable by the single sniff every four beats or so.  It doesn't sound particularly congested but it IS annoying.  If they are nearby, I usually offer a tissue.  They either take the tissue or they shut up.

Add in coughers at various pitches.  The wet tenor cough, awful with rattling.  Sometimes in harmony with a soprano toddler who is guaranteed to not cover the mouth.  The dry barking baritone, usually played in triplets, offering interest with the cross rhythm it adds.

It's hard to believe that all of this is is barely enough to drown out the loud talkers on mobile phones revealing private details of their sex lives, deception of parents, financial failings and the more mundane bitching about co-workers and flatmates.

Days like today help me understand why Japanese people are frequently seen wearing masks.  I breathe into my scarf, am choosy about what I touch when I'm out and about and avoid touching my face or putting my fingers in my mouth.  I often refuse to shake hands or if this is not possible I carry hand sanitiser in my hand bag.  I use it after touching things that are likely to be germ laden and before and after I eat.  Can you imagine what would be on the handles in trains, the rails on escalators and staircases...and money?  Shudder. When I'm home, I just wash my hands.

As far as I know, I don't suffer from OCD but I will suffer if I can't work and therefore can't earn an income.

As a community service, I wish everyone would be considerate about when and how they share their germs and diseases. Asking permission before you cough all over me would be polite.  And I will refuse permission every time!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Facilitating in a virtual classroom.

Today I did something I've never done before.  I facilitated in a virtual classroom.  The students in the classroom were spread out over the Northern Territory and Western Australia and I was in my home in Melbourne!  Technology is providing some amazing opportunities and I'm quickly learning that the more versatile I am as a facilitator, the more people are likely to want to hire me.

In case you're wondering what a virtual classroom is, it's like a webinar, but this term usually applies to meetings, rather than learning situations.  There's a web based platform which provides the visual component and participants can interact by pointing, writing and highlighting.  This is accompanied by voice, either using VOIP (voice over internet protocol) or a good old fashioned conference call.  Web cams can also come into play and provide visibility of participants.

The material I was delivering today is material I am extremely familiar with.  I've been facilitating the program regularly in a face to face classroom situation over the last nine months.  Usually the program runs for a whole day, but in the virtual classroom it has been redesigned to be delivered as five 1 hour modules.  With some good design work and really thinking about the "essence" of each part, it's an impressive transition.

A few things made it really work for me today:

1. Early reminders for all participants about etiquette for participating.  Mostly this was similar to good practice for telephone conferences - say your name when you speak, use your mute button when you're not speaking.  It was up to me as facilitator to model good behaviour and gently, consistently, remind participants.  Years of practise chairing telephone conferences came in very handy!

2. Patience as participants learn how to use the platform.  It was important for me to have a thorough understanding too so that I could incorporate instructions regularly.

3.  A fear free approach to silence.  This learning environment requires some heavy duty multi-tasking for everyone.  Some people are better than others at doing this.  It's important to remember that participants need to hear the question, think about the question, come up with an answer and then use the tools to share their answer. All of this is happening in the silence.  In the facilitator's chair, the time taken before the first response appears can feel like hours.  To participants it's much shorter - they have a lot to do!

The word "facilitator" comes from the French word faciliter which means "to render easy" and from the Latin word facilis meaning "easy".  I always carry awareness of the meaning of the word with me as I approach any facilitation work.  Today, I really saw it come to life.  

The best thing of all was the level of engagement among the group.  Incredible, considering how far apart we all were!

Are you harnessing technology to support your people in creative and effective ways?  

Monday, 28 May 2012

Warning! Danger! Read the instructions.

I've just pulled my new slow cooker out of the packaging.

I always read the instructions before doing anything with a new appliance.  Having read these ones I'm wondering whether I'll be able to use it!

From the list under the heading "IMPORTANT":

Always use the Kambrook Essentials Slow Cooker on a dry, level surface.  Finally I have a use for the the spirit level app on my iphone.

Do not use on metal surfaces, for example, a sink drain board.  Lucky I'm not working in the new kitchen with aluminium benchtops.

Use the Kambrook Essentials Slow Cooker well away from walls.  Hmmm.  I have a small kitchen with small benches.  The benches are near the walls.  The cord on the appliance isn't that long.

Do not use in moving vehicles or boats.  OK.

Then there is a list of things which are written for stupid people: be careful it's hot! Don't hang half of the appliance off the edge of the bench (how would you even do that?).  Don't use it outside.  Don't let children play with the appliance - it's not a toy.

No it's not a toy.  It's clearly a very dangerous and complex item that mixes electricity with liquid and it gets hot!

All things considered, I should be able to use it safely by placing it in the middle of the kitchen floor!

Behaving badly

On Saturday night I went to the cinema with a friend.  While I go to the movies regularly, it's been a while since I've been there during a peak time.  These days I go during a weekday when I don't have work on.  It's a much more pleasant experience being at the movies when there are hardly any other people filling the other seats.  I also tend to see art house films where the audience tends to be filled with film buffs who take the experience of watching a film seriously.

My experience on Saturday night left me shaking my head.

We were seeing "Bel Ami" and were allocated seats in the second row from the front.  The film was screening in one of the small cinemas at Yarraville's Sun Theatre and we decided to see how we went.  If it was too close we could come out in the first ten minutes and have our tickets refunded.

The Sun doesn't show a lot of ads before the sessions start, so you don't have fifteen minutes of slack; you really need to arrive on time.  In the smaller cinemas, people standing up or walking to their seats will result in a silhouette of their head being superimposed over the film on the screen.

The film had just started when a pair of latecomers arrived and discovered other people sitting in their seats.  Instead of everyone resolving it quickly and politely, there was an extended, robust discussion about seating arrangements.  They were right in the middle of the cinema and therefore were also in the line of the projector.  Everyone was turning around to see what the commotion was and then the inevitable shushing began.  I'm not sure how they resolved the issue but eventually they must have as the noise subsided and the silhouettes disappeared.

To the left of where my friend and I were seated was a group of three women.  I'm not sure why they bothered to pay for a ticket to go to the cinema.  They spent most of the film reading emails and sending text messages on their mobile phones.  They also consulted extensively with each other over the content of the messages and the drafting of their replies.  It was incredible!  The film seemed entirely incidental to their world, let alone the fact that other people had also paid and were interested in actually watching the film.  Shushing did nothing to modify their behaviour.

Ushers would have been helpful, I think.  I remember seeing another film where a group of people were so inconsiderate in their behaviour that in desperation I left the cinema to find an usher to come and deal with the situation.  It worked, but it seemed unfair that I had had to step out of the film and that the people concerned had not responded to requests for them to, er, shut up.

What's the etiquette these days?  Am I being unreasonable to expect to be able to enjoy a film without being disrupted by the behaviour of other patrons?  What do you do to silence the rabble when you're at the cinema?

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Beware the stick figures and salmon balls

A couple of things I saw today caused me to raise my eyebrows.

A blackboard menu outside a cafe was offering "salmon balls" for lunch.  For a mere $15 too.  I was pleased that the usual penchant for ill-placed apostrophes hadn't taken hold.  Offering "salmon's balls", or even "salmons' balls" would have delayed me significantly, as I would have been forced to satisfy both my appetite and my curiosity.

Later, I was visiting my local K-mart on the quest to add a slow cooker to my kitchen.  The store is on the lower ground level and entry and exit are via travelators (you know, escalators, but without the steps).  The one on the left was not moving and the one on the right was travelling up.  I stood at the top, wondering what to do.  There were several aggressive signs advising that walking on the travelator is "prohibited", but the only way down was to walk on the travelator.  I stood there contemplating.  There was a teenage boy standing at the bottom of the travelator holding an armful of store catalogues.  No doubt he had some special punishment powers available to him when people - like me, for instance - breached the prohibition on walking.  

I decided to risk it.  Luckily, as I neared the end of my walk, he was distracted by a small African boy.  But that small African boy was not distracting enough and was gone, just as I walked off the end of the travelator.  The teenage boy noticed me and called out "Hello!" as I scurried past.  I kept walking without looking back.  Phew!  That was close!

Having completed my purchase, I thought it would be easy to exit without breaking the law as the travelator was moving upwards and towards the exit.  I would just stand there and wouldn't walk at all.  Except for the bit at the beginning where I walked on to the travelator. And the other bit at the end, where I walked off the travelator.  I resented being turned into a criminal.

So there I was, just standing, enjoying the leisurely journey up to street level (they had the speed set to a smidgen faster than glacial today), when I noticed another series of threatening signs.  The first one said that the travelator was for "passengers only".  I remain confused about the message conveyed by this sign. I think it referred to the fact that only passengers are permitted to travel on the travelator.  But then, who else would be travelling on the travelator?  Wouldn't everyone who stepped onto the travelator become a passenger by definition? Perhaps there had been a spate of livestock transitting through...but what would be the point of the sign?  Sheep and cows probably don't read English.  Or were they hoping to deter people moving their pianos and baby elephants on the travelator? 

It was all very confusing.

Then there was a frightening sign where the stick figures on the travelator looked like they were receiving some kind of electric shock where they gripped the handrail.  I know it was an electric shock because it was  depicted with sharp, pointy and yellow lines.  The same result could be achieved if they put their stick figure feet too near the edge of the travelator.  The baby stick figures were receiving the same treatment.

Suddenly it all became clear!  Stick figures had been wandering around Footscray, taking up space on K-mart's travelators, walking on them and everything!  Something had to be done and so they were being told in the only language they understand - stick figure pictograms.  It was stick-figureism at its most blatant. And in my neighbourhood too. 

I'm far from being a stick figure.  The signs weren't meant for me at all.  Be careful though; those stick figures can be very dangerous when they venture off the page.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Modern day shopping centre fairytale

I know, I know!  I've missed a couple of days.  My excuse is this: I've spent two very intense days facilitating a program with a very challenging group of men and one woman.  I was so tired over the last two nights that I was falling asleep over dinner and was in bed by 8 o'clock. I was even too tired to knit. This morning I woke up at about 7:30 and feel terrific after all that sleep!

Anyway, I want to tell you a story about something that happened to me a few weeks ago.

I was riding down an escalator in the city centre when I heard a man say, "Where am I to behold such beauty?"

I was in my own world and didn't turn around as it didn't seem possible that this comment was directed to me.  The speaker was waiting for me at the bottom of the escalator.  He had a wide smile and was looking at me intently.  As I stepped off the escalator he approached me and repeated his rather Shakespearean statement.

"Melbourne?" I responded, the upward inflection betraying my uncertainty.

I could feel myself blushing under his scrutiny.  One part of my brain was flashing its "serial killer/weirdo" alert and the other part was saying "lap it up/this is interesting/why not?"  There was also a message running in the background saying, "Wow, that facial that I just had was incredible.  I must remember to have it again.  What an effect!"

I smiled and said thank you.  No need to lose my manners at this moment.

The man was like an enthusiastic puppy, clearly drunk on my beauty (!) as he asked me my name.  I gave him my first name and then he asked me about my work.  Such a boring question!  I try to avoid this question in social settings.  What does it really tell you about most people?  Anyway, he then moved to direct questioning about my marital status.  I told him I wasn't married and he shook his head in disbelief and declared himself the luckiest man on earth.  He quickly moved to ask about boyfriends.  I replied that I see lots of people.  Then he pushed it too far and asked what I do with the people I see.  I feigned innocence and he then asked whether we have sex.

Right.  That was a line that was crossed.  I told him it was none of his business and reminded him that we were standing in a shopping centre, having just met.

He then asked what he could do for me.  I didn't really know how to answer this question and he then asked if he could take me out.  The alarms in my head were going off again.  On one hand I thought it was romantic to be stopped by a man making declarations - if we were in a fairytale, he'd be on a horse and I'd be gathering wild flowers in the forest while I chatted to the birds; on the other hand I feared I was being lured to my death.

While I was feeling overwhelmed, I wasn't feeling chemistry.  I was non-committal and politely took his number without making any promises.

I haven't called.  What would you do?

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Dome lights the way

I took this photo of the dome of the Supreme Court on Saturday night after my dinner at Movida Aqui.

(c) divacultura 2012
In these days of suggestions that democracy has been trashed and the presumption of innocence is being ignored in the case of the federal member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, I look at that light at what it represents.  To me, it's about the law shining a light in dark places;  the law being an instrument of enlightenment; and the law being a shining beacon of justice and fairness.

I'm not sure if that's what it's meant to mean, but that's what it means to me.  I'm feeling uneasy that the right to a presumption of innocence continues to be ignored.  What hope is there when we see the procedural battles in Parliament following Craig Thomson's statement to Parliament yesterday?  I even heard a suggestion that he wasn't to be believed because he called no witnesses in his defence!  This was a speech in Parliament, not defence counsel argument.

The local tabloid paper has even set up a "jury" to deliver their verdict based on Thomson's speech.  I think this is irresponsible and also devalues the media's legitimate role as the fourth estate in a healthy democracy.

So while this sorry business looks set to go on and on and on, I am posting my photograph of the lit dome of the supreme court as a reminder about the foundations of our society which are valuable and should be honoured and upheld, not taken lightly and torn to shreds:  everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence, regardless of who they are and regardless of the allegations against them.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Movida with mates

Food is something I enjoy.  I love to cook, especially for other people.  Increasingly, I cook vegetarian food when I'm at home.  It's delicious, cheap and freezes well, meaning I can have a supply of nutritious food on hand for those nights when I would otherwise have toast. Or nothing. Or pizza.

I have dabbled with vegetarianism before, but struggle to keep adequate iron levels even when I'm eating steak every night.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself eating goat on Saturday night.

I had secured a table for me and two friends at Movida Aqui which took some doing.  I told the truth about my friend who was visiting from the "desert" and how every time she visits we attempt to get a table at Movida, but have never been successful.  The only condition was we had to agree to keep senior citizens' hours and dine at 6:30pm.  Luckily daylight savings is over and it's black at 6pm these days.

We met for a pre dinner cocktail at 5:30 at TheTrust, the bar in the magnificent old Port Office building.  We were the only people there at that hour, so the service was great.  I had a Negroni and my friends had a dirty gin martini and a campari and soda. We left when the hen's party arrived, looking like the cast from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". We then had to navigate our way through footpaths that have been dug up as part of the replacement of the William Street water mains.  Not great when you're in your very high, suede shoes!

The address for Movida Aqui is Level 1, 500 Bourke Street, but you need to forget about that and go around to Little Bourke Street.

The space is intriguing and there is lots to look at.  We spent some time considering the lighting - low energy fluorescent bulbs housed in milk crates along the top of the bar.

From the moment we arrived, the service was sensational.  The greeting was warm and our coats were taken as we were seated.  Our waiter was friendly and knowledgeable, refilling glasses and taking away plates unobtrusively.  Perfect.

The restaurant promotes sharing plates and we were advised to order about five dishes to feel satisfied.  Each of us put in our bids.  I selected CONEJO AGRIDULCE - Andalucian Sweet and Sour Local Organic Rabbit with Pine Nuts and Dried Figs and was very pleased with that selection.  It was tender and sweet.

We also had:

SERRANO 24 month old Jamon.  I love the translucence of the paper thin slices.

BUTIFARRA - House Made Catalan Pork Pepper Sausage with Chickpeas and House Made Morcilla.  This dish was robust and tasty and a wonderful experience to eat.

ALCACHOFAS - Fried Artichokes Served with Toasted Almonds and Manchego Custard.  I liked this more than I expected to.  The Manchego custard was what made me hesitate, but this was like a delicious, runny fondue cheese sauce.

SETAS - Braised Pine Mushrooms Cooked in White Wine.  This was served last and was too delicate to appreciate after the robust flavours of the butifarra.

And we had the goat - which isn't on the menu, so must have been a daily special.  I was nervous, but it was proposed as a trade for making people eat rabbit.  I looked at the dish when it arrived and it just looked like meat.  It didn't smell particularly strong and it's texture looked like lamb.  I plunged in.  The flavour was much milder than I expected.  It was a bit dry and stringy for my liking.  I could see why it is usually done in a long cooked curry.  I spoke to a woman in the bathroom who had also had the goat and was unimpressed, agreeing that it was very dry.

We shared a bottle of Mayer "Big Betty" 2010 Shiraz based on the energetic description given by the sommelier.  He was right about it being wild and its flavour changed considerably the longer it was out of the bottle.

We finished off the meal with FLAN - Crème Caramel Served with Pestinos and washed it down with a Pedro Ximinez sweet sherry and espressos.

I enjoyed the experience.  It's loud and sensory overload, not the first choice for an intimate dinner, but great for dinner with some mates.  Take the opportunity to wander past the open kitchen to see where the food comes from.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Humour - when it isn't very funny.

This week I've been thinking about humour.  For the first time in my life, I experienced humour in a negative way and gained a different perspective.

From my perspective, I've always thought that a sense of humour is as necessary to sustaining life as a heart and lungs.  I even remember ending a relationship because it became apparent that the man in question had no sense of humour.  It was worse than a physical disability.  I see the funny side of life and like to laugh, so was confronted when I had a participant in a program I was facilitating who used it to deflect responsibility.

The man was in a group of senior leaders in a significant organisation.  As it turned out, several of the other participants were led by him.  Very early in the course, he started to drop one-liners in response to anything anyone said.  There's nothing wrong with making people laugh.  What I noticed was that the response to his interventions was at best, lukewarm, polite chuckling.  And still they kept coming.  Any time this man was challenged or confronted he used humour to deflect responsibility and to dilute the confrontation.

This can be a really useful skill if you find yourself under attack.  Distracting the attacker and making them laugh at themselves is a way of ensuring safety.

The program I was facilitating was in the realm of leadership development and by it's nature is confronting.  My role as a facilitator is to "turn up the heat" and challenge participants to explore unfamiliar territory and think and act differently.  I could see that this man needed to take responsibility for the way he was acting and the results he was getting.  His use of humour as a deflection weapon was perfectly designed to distract attention away from his shortcomings.

He was very creative and tried everything to stay "safe": he forged alliances with anyone else struggling with a concept, he argued with me, he blamed me, he complained that a particular task was "hard".  The one thing he failed to do was take responsibility.  He was the king of the "yes, but" response.  He had official status within the group - he was probably one of the most senior leaders in the room - but over the two days of the program his status was diminished.  Through his unwillingness to take responsibility, he made himself less powerful and less relevant.

Truthfully, he was getting on my goat.  I wondered whether this was because he was stealing my spot as the funny person in the room.  I observed myself as carefully as I was observing him in the group.  There were opportunities for humour and I felt myself hesitating to use it (would humour at this point allow the whole group to deflect responsibility?).  I made the choice to be myself and took the opportunity to make the group really laugh.  They did.  Then I wondered whether I was actually being competitive with this man.  I rationalised my behaviour, deciding that we had fundamentally different roles in the room and that no competition existed.  I checked my view of this man with my co-facilitator.  He was thinking the same thing.

So, I challenged this man by asking him what was happening for him.  He opened right up and essentially debunked the organisation's view of leadership and what they are requiring of their leaders.  Ah ha!  He was fighting for air as the tide turned and he had to change or (metaphorically) die.  If he could create the sense that he's a "good bloke" it would be a useful defence to help him retain his job.

By the end of two days, there was a massive shift.  I was facilitating the closing session of the two days and asking participants to share their next steps.  This man waited until last.  He sat in his chair and put his hands on his head, thrust his chest out and spoke so quietly I had to ask him to repeat himself.  He started by saying "if I'm honest, and I suppose I have to be" and then said that he could see that the world had moved on and he had some decisions to make about what he would do.

I was so pleased!  Without this realisation and acceptance, this man would not give himself the opportunity to change.  He would continue on his path and then wonder why he was being moved on.  At least he was now in charge of his decisions.

In a different setting, perhaps I would have found him funny and been happy to laugh along with him.  Even though he was very challenging, I'm thankful that he was in a workshop with me.  He gave me the opportunity to question something fundamental to my way of working - humour.

As the group dispersed, another participant came to say goodbye to me.  He made the point of telling me that he really enjoyed my humour.

What's your relationship with humour?

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Emerging Writers & blogging masterclass.

I'm so excited!  I've enrolled in a masterclass being run as part of the Emerging Writer's Festival here in Melbourne.  With divacultura approaching its first anniversary and the blog being part of my daily work, I thought the opportunity to learn some professional skills and network with other writers was too good an opportunity to pass up.

The topics covered are wide ranging and relevant.  From the website:

  • Blog to Where? – a blog’s success can lead to a variety of opportunities. See how they can be pursued
  • Monetisation – tips and tricks to making money from your blog
  • Content Creation – writing blog, podcasting, video blogging – how should you say what you want to say
  • Strategic Planning – planning and forecasting for blogging success
  • Audience Development – how to create and engage an audience for your blog
It will be interesting to think about some things that I haven't really thought about.  

I'm a great believer in thinking and exploring the world, including the things that I do regularly.  There's always more to learn.  I spend such a lot of time helping other people with their professional development, it's a luxury to be on the "other end", sitting in a room and being the receptacle, rather than the facilitator.  I've never participated in the Emerging Writer's Festival before either, so that's another aspect of interest.

I don't know what all of this will mean for my blog, or for me as a writer and a person.  We shall see.  Maybe you will too.  Meanwhile, I'd better start thinking about who should play me in the movie!

What investment have you made in your professional development lately?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Mixed up and lost

Today I tweeted:  Feel like it's Friday. But it's not. Friday.

Do you ever have that feeling?  When you're not quite sure what day it is or what's coming next?  

Today is actually Wednesday, so I was travelling forward in time by a couple of days.  

It's almost Thursday.  Not quite.  Almost. 

Thursday is not Friday.  Wednesday is not Friday.  Today, Wednesday wasn't even Wednesday.

I wonder what day it will be tomorrow?  What will Thursday masquerade as?  

I'd be content with Thursday to be Thursday.  I'm not working on Thursday this week.  Whenever it occurs.

I would be less happy for Thursday to be Friday this week, as I am working.  

Given today felt like Friday, I've thought about whether yesterday felt like Thursday, or just an ordinary Tuesday.  

I don't think yesterday felt like anything other than a day.  So perhaps it was just being Tuesday.

Thank goodness I didn't do anything rash.  My Fridays are often full of rash, end of week behaviour.  If I had fully embraced my feeling that today was Friday, there is no telling where the week would have ended.

Well there is.  It would have ended on Friday.  Just like every other week.  Except this time, Friday would be brought to us by Wednesday and we'd all say goodbye to hump day.

It's an elegant solution really.  Just cut out the middle man and be done with it.

With Masterchef and The Block on television every night of the week, I'm lacking differentiation.  Is it any wonder I'm suffering from a serious case of mid week madness.  

Or maybe that's end of week madness.

I just don't know anymore.

Is there a name for this?

When you get your dyas all mixed up.


Good morning.

Good gracious...

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

What's needed? Code of conduct or brave leadership?

I am closely following the story unfolding around the former Health Services Union official and now Member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, and the governance of that union.  (You can read the latest news story here and the full 1127 page Fair Work Australia report into the HSU East Branch is available here.)  At times I am angry about what's happening and at other times, I am just plain sad.  Tonight I'm banging my head against the wall wondering when it will all stop.

As a former union official (working for members of a different union, not the HSU), I know what a privilege it is to have the people you worked with elect you to represent their industrial interests.  I felt the weight of this responsibility heavily and tried to exercise my advocacy consciously for their benefit.  I resent the fact that when I reveal my past to people they get a look in their eye and then want to know how I used my union credit card.  By sharing a job title on a CV, hard working and sincere men and women are looked upon as corrupt - or at least corruptible - by others.

I had a credit card and so did members of my team.  It was very clear to me and to my team how we were to use this credit card.  Rules for usage and accounting were in place and there was no tolerance for anyone who went outside these boundaries.

Discussions about what the findings of the Fair Work Australia report mean for a sitting member of Parliament in recent days has been focussed around developing a code of conduct for parliamentarians and establishing rules spelling out powers Parliament can exercise in relation to someone in Craig Thomson's situation.  It amazes me that in most situations where it is suggested that people with stewardship of an organisation may have failed to act in accordance with community standards, rewriting of the policy handbook is one of the first responses.

I have not yet read all 1127 pages of the Fair Work Australia report.  I have followed the story closely in the media and also talk with friends who still work in the union movement.  Whether Craig Thomson himself is ultimately found to be guilty of fraud or negligence, it seems likely that a culture had developed within the union which allowed loose governance to become the norm.  How is a code of conduct going to help in a situation like this?  If people think it's okay to use the union (or company credit card) to procure prostitutes and all the checks and balances within the organisation fail to correct this, writing another policy is not going to protect the members of the union or shareholders of the company.

As a member of any organisation, I have a reasonable expectation when I join that the governance structures and processes will be facilitated honestly and conscientiously by the people who happen to be the custodians at the time.  If I was worried about something before I signed up, I wouldn't sign up until my worry was demonstrably resolved.  If I joined and then had concerns I would ask questions inside the organisation.    But what happens when you're a relatively low paid health services worker who feels powerless at work and joined the union because you saw it as a way to secure a better deal at work?  The last place you'd be thinking of fighting is your own union.  You'd probably have enough on your plate at work and at home.  Imagine then that you'd become active in your union and volunteered some of your own time to help organise your workplace.  You had a sense of pride and achievement as you grew membership in your workplace and helped resolve issues.  Perhaps this had even extended to supporting an official or a staffer in their quest to further represent workers by standing for election as a member of the political arm of organised labour, the Australian Labor Party.

Imagine then, how you must feel each day as you go to work, each week as you pay your union dues and consider whether it's worth it.  How would you be able to wear your union's t-shirt, jacket or badge again with anything other than shame?    This is what makes me so angry.  The trust and comradeship of ordinary workers has been violated.  That's just not fair.

A few weeks ago, I saw three member organisers of the HSU interviewed on television.  Their hearts were breaking as they talked about their betrayal.  My heart broke as I listened to them until their final words made me cheer: "It's our union.  We are the members of the union and the union belongs to us.  We want it back!"

The rallying cry of these three women is what it's all about.  It's not about people exploiting power which has been entrusted to them and it's not about writing a policy or a code of conduct.  Anyone who thinks it's okay to use the union credit card for any personal expenditure (whether it's buying prostitutes or buying bread and milk) because there isn't a written rule that says it's not allowed, is not fit for office in any organisation.  Any organisation that discovers such a person in their midst should not hesitate to remove them.

Decisive leadership which supports the values of the organisation they lead is the only answer.

What do you think?

Monday, 14 May 2012

Philosophy day

Yesterday was a very social day.  I started the day discussing books over brunch with my book group.  We were discussing "Hard Times" by Charles Dickens and I put my credibility on the line early by declaring that I had now read Charles Dickens and that was now done. There will be no more.  

Then I met a school friend for coffee in the afternoon.  She was in Melbourne for the weekend and we realised that the last time we had seen each other was at the ten year school reunion which was fourteen years ago! When did these numbers get so high? 

While we are connected on facebook, she made the observation that we don't really know each other now.  This is essentially true.  We have very different lives, but there were echoes of similar quandaries and dilemmas in our lives.  It was interesting to hear her views about me.

She sincerely congratulated me on having my own business and celebrating its first birthday.  I was very happy to receive this acknowledgement.

She is going through a change of perspective about some of the people in her life; the term she used was "culling".  I asked why.  She told me about the treatment she had received at the hands of some of these people.  I shook my head and said she was right to realise that she was better off without these people in her life.  She observed that I had always "spring cleaned" as I went along.  Her concern that I would be offended was visible.  I wasn't offended at all - that is very true.  As I've gone along in my life, I have pretty clear lines about what's acceptable and who is worthwhile to have in my world.  

We also talked about perceptions that people have and what it means if we live our lives with deep concern for what others think of us.  It could translate into a sense of doing what is expected of us.  She had been constrained by this feeling and is now finding her power to realise that it doesn't matter and it's okay to act in accordance with what she thinks of herself, rather than what others think.

I offered her my congratulations.

In the evening it was off to dinner with another friend.  We talked life, work, world, politics.  The discussion turned to the issue of life plans.  Neither of us have one, although now that I'm in business for myself, I am thinking more long term.

I've always been an opportunist.  I'm quite happy to seize the moment and turn down a path to see what is down there.  My friend was quite vocal about how he felt about "those people" at university who had life plans which mapped out their whole lives.  I wondered why it mattered.  We pondered this question and it led into a discussion about everyone getting on with their own thing and doing what they need to do without worrying about how others were approaching their lives.  A theme was emerging.

More and more I find myself feeling very happy about the choices I've made and not worrying about the choices others make.  Except when it comes to politics.  This is the area where I really care and will work to persuade people.  Perhaps because whoever is in power can potentially have a profound impact on my ability to live my life.  

I finished the day feeling philosophical and thoughtful.  I pondered the meaning and nature of friendship and individuality. I said thank you to the world for where I am and the people I have in my life.  I realised that I probably do have a life plan - it's more about how I live than what I achieve and would look like a mind map rather than a lineage of milestones.  That suits me just fine!

What's your approach to life?  Have you thought about this lately?

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Prayers to the goddess of parking

I had allowed myself just enough time to get where I was going, find a park and be ready to start my job for the day.  I was working in one of the big hospitals and I'd never been there before.  I had a map, so thought I'd be fine.

It turned out that I had to navigate tram tracks and lanes of roads that would not allow me to turn in the direction that I wished to go.  I had to drive further down the road and then find a way to travel towards my destination, rather than away from it.  I started to go in circles.  The minutes were ticking by and soon I was going to be late.

Abandoning all thought of trying to reach the car park, which seemed unreachable regardless of the direction of my approach, I decided to find a park on the street.  I did.  There was a three hour limit on ticketed parking.  I hoped the machine had credit card payment.  It didn't.  I plugged in the $1.45 I had in change which was just short of the $1.50 hourly rate.  I placed the ticket on the dashboard and hoped that I'd be able to get some change, go back and top up the ticket and be in place to start work all in the space of less than two minutes.  It wasn't going to be possible.

All I could manage was to be in place ready to start work.  I resorted to quasi religious thought and quietly begged the goddess of parking (I call her Ashphalta) to show me mercy.  I reminded her that I am a good person who hasn't had any driving infringements and only one parking ticket in my life and that I was working on a Saturday to help overseas trained doctors practise for their exams.  Surely I deserved a break.

I put the prospect of a ticket out of my mind after I rationalised that parking in the hospital car park could be more expensive than paying a parking fine.  The real shame was that it wouldn't be tax deductible if I paid it as a fine rather than a fee.

At the end of my day, I dashed off to my car, straining to see whether there was anything flapping about on my windscreen.  Ashphalta had heard my pleas.  I had been spared.

I drove home feeling smug.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Tropical sunsets

Sunsets are one of the things that you "do" while you're in Darwin.  You can pay to take a sunset cruise on the harbour, or you can head to one of the beaches and watch for free.  It's great to combine a bit of sunset watching with a trip to the Mindil Beach markets.

This is what I did last Sunday - along with a lot of other people.

(c) divacultura 2012
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Is it any wonder people go to watch the sunset!  It's glorious.

The other great thing to do is have dinner at Stokes Hill Wharf.  The night I went there had been a heavy downpour of rain in the afternoon which left everything refreshed and cleared the humidity.  The night was clear with a gentle breeze.  As we sat on the wharf eating fish and chips, we watched the fish swimming below.  The colours of the night were amazing.
These are the colours - no filter has been applied to this photo.
(c) divacultura 2012

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Danger in Darwin

My recent visit to Darwin highlighted that danger lurked on every corner.  The day would not be complete without a crocodile story on the front page of the daily paper.  A recent favourite carried the headline Croc eats nine pet dogs.  (Check out the croc photo gallery on the linked page too!) Those crocodiles don't muck around.  Having seen them at feeding time last time I was in Darwin, I don't want to have anything to do with them.  Any of them.  Ever.

Given that the Top End has dinosaurs turning up in people's swimming pools and chowing down on puppies, it's easy to think that they breed them tough up there.  You can't be a wimp a live in the Territory.

After enjoying lunch by the water at Cullen Bay, I spotted this bronze beauty lounging  in the sunshine.
Bronzed. (c) divacultura 2012
It's a shame he had to be mounted on blocks.  If he was just standing on the paving he'd look very realistic.  I studied him, marvelling at the bumps and ripples on his armour plating.  I walked around the other side and noticed a sign.
Keep off crocodile - sharp edges may cause injury.
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So in the land of the tough, there's a warning on the bronze crocodile.  I threw back my head and laughed.  The instruction to "keep off the crocodile" seemed redundant at best; the words "sharp edges may cause injury" seemed to be stating the obvious.  Had someone been injured while climbing on the crocodile and then sued someone?  I looked around and then patted the crocodile.  Would a ranger (curator?) pounce the moment they saw me place myself in peril.  Is this what park rangers do now?  I pictured them hanging signs around the necks of live crocodiles to warn unsuspecting tourists.  If they're not doing this, what are they doing to protect us?  Surely real crocodiles are more dangerous than the bronze statue of a crocodile!

There was another warning about danger which I encountered in another unexpected place.  At the Defence Museum I came upon this sign:
Caution! Danger! (c) divacultura 2012
Clearly when people go troppo they start climbing on things and hurting themselves on the sharp edges.  War materials are inherently dangerous - designed to kill - but we need a warning about sharp edges.

I hadn't noticed this feature of Darwin before.  What had happened in the five years since I had left?  The heat haze made me see sharp edges and danger everywhere.  I looked at the post office and newsagency with new eyes.  They are both in danger of legal action being taken against them for negligence as they lack the appropriate sign:

Pieces of paper may have sharp edges.  To ensure your safety, please handle with care, wearing appropriate personal safety equipment.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Darwin daze

Five years since I was last in Darwin I feel the hot air curtain as I step off the aircraft.  It's a welcome contrast to the 9 degrees Celsius I left behind in Melbourne.  I was in town for a day's work but went up for the weekend before so I could acclimatise and enjoy a tropical mini break.

I was met at the airport gate by a former colleague, which was impressive because the flight has arrived twenty minutes early.  She had seen some backpackers walking (a substantial distance) to the airport and picked them up.  They were French and they were chefs and they were out of money and on their way to Bali.  So there she was.  I was the only one whose "people" were there to meet me.  I felt happy.

As we drove to her place, I was dazzled by the lush green jungle that lazed casually by the roadside.  I remembered how much I'd loved the place.  The halo of frizz was already taking hold of my lustrous locks and I remembered how much I hated the place.

I had come to Darwin on Territory Day in 2007 to lead the "Your Rights at Work" campaign for the CPSU (Community and Public Sector Union).  My focus was the Darwin centred seat of Solomon which was held by the Country Liberal Party (CLP) on a wafer thin margin.  The seat was seen as essential to Labor's federal electoral success.

Six months later my work was done, the Labor candidate victorious, and I returned to Melbourne happy to escape the build up to the wet season.  I'd worked hard, but somehow the tropical lifestyle gave life an air of permanent holidays.  I'd made friends and embraced life.

My host had invited me to the trades and labour council's (Unions NT) annual May Day dinner on Saturday night.  I accepted with some dread initially.  The world of organised labour seemed a long way away and I wasn't sure I really wanted to go; but I was staying at her house and good grace dictated that I had to accept.

My dinner ticket with the slogan "Secure Jobs, better future.  Every Territorian deserves a secure job"
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In the end I was really pleased I did go.  I reconnected with people I had campaigned with five years ago and I met the next generation of young organisers and delegates who don't even know my name.  It was great to see this.  It's an election year in the Territory and time already spent in government is going to make it difficult for Labor to return to power. The dinner speeches were heavy on politics and it was great to reach the awards part of the evening.

My favourite awards are about workplace delegates who volunteer their time and often stick their neck out to support their colleagues.  It's where I started and I know how hard it can be.  A long standing delegate from one of the blue collar unions was recognised with a lifetime achievement award.  The story of his contribution was told by a fellow delegate with good humour and respect.  He was described as turning up to meetings with his legendary bag.  That bag carried every document relevant to every determination, decision and agreement covering workers in his workplace.  He knew the history of every issue and why certain agreements had been struck.  He knew the purpose and intention sitting behind every line in every document and could produce these documents at a moment's notice - complete with notations and coffee stains.

The room erupted into applause as a man with long grey hair and beard, wearing black pants and a black shirt took the podium and accepted his award.  He made his way to the microphone to make his acceptance speech and couldn't speak.  He was overwhelmed at the recognition and managed to just say "thank you" as his emotion spilled over.  These two words carried so much meaning in their humility.  It was a wonderful end to the formal part of the evening.

The dinner was held at Sky City Casino.  The view at dusk from the picture windows was wonderful.
Darwin city skyline at dusk - from Sky City Casino, third floor.
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The room looked wonderful too, with union banners on display all around the room.  Here's the old PSU Northern Territory Branch banner:
The traditional PSU banner depicting the various occupations of members.
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I didn't make it to the May Day march on Monday afternoon.  I was resting in my air conditioned hotel room.  The sound of bagpipes pierced my cyclone proof windows (what would a march be without the bagpipes?) and I went down to the esplanade to enjoy an evening walk and take in the festivities.  There was an air of celebration and family.  A combined union band was playing funk and blues and they were fantastic.  So was the sound.

It's interesting to revisit not only a place, but a time of one's life.  Some former colleagues recoiled when I told them that I am now a business owner and it's my company's first birthday this week. As though my values that I slaved in support of had been surgically removed and I was now a member of a different class, an enemy class.  That was disappointing and I wanted to scream at them.  Instead, I took my complimentary $5 chip and made quite a bit on the money wheel.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Missing in action

I'll be missing in action for a few days while I do a few things which may or may not leave me with the space to blog.

I'm very excited because I am the owner of a Sony tablet as of today which should make blogging on the go much easier.  We shall see.  I'm making no promises on the first outing.

Upon my return, there shall be stories.

In the meantime, I'm off to round up all my cords, chargers and adaptors.  These days, the electricals take up more room than my lipstick and shoes!

In the meantime, you might like to visit Haught, another blog devoted to writing letters, often of complaint.  This week the Yarra Trams response to a Haught complaint leapt out of the blogosphere and into mainstream reporting.  It certainly tickled my fancy!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

What do you look for in a letter?

What to write about tonight?  All inspiration, creativity, will to live has been squeezed from the very cells of my being.  It's not often that I feel like this.  Thinking back over time, I think I've found the common thread.  I had to speak to the bank today.  On other occasions when I've felt like this, it's after I've had to speak to the bank. Or myki. Or government departments.

You'll understand if you read about my experience of trying to complete the simple task of opening a bank account, why I avoid having contact.  Two weeks ago though, I received an offer in the mail which was perfect for meeting my business' (banking) needs.  I was carried away in the warm glow generated by the thought that my bank knew what I wanted and was anticipating my needs. Here they were writing to me before I had even asked!

I completed the accompanying form and popped it in the mail.  And waited.

Today I collected the envelope which I anticipated would contain everything I needed.  Well it contained a letter.  From a distance, the letter looked like a standard letter from a bank.  Up close, it was a confusing and annoying piece of gobbledygook.  Why did they need my trust deed?  They already have it.  Why do they need me to take 100 points of identification into a branch?  They have all my identification.  What is the due date?  Oh it's five days after the cycle date.  What's the cycle date?  It's the date defined in the letter of offer.  The letter of offer doesn't define it.

So I call to confirm what I need to do.  The letter says I won't get the card until I do everything they say.  On reflection, it's starting to read more like a ransom note. I sigh.  I press the numbers on the phone. I wait.

The person who answers the phone listens, tries to direct me back to the banker from hell (with whom I now refuse to deal), puts me on hold, comes back and tells me to disregard the letter.  The whole letter?  No just that paragraph in the letter.  What about the other paragraph I was asking about?  Well it turns out that's wrong too.

I ask her how this can happen.  She tells me that some changes were made two years ago....Hold on.  Two years ago? The product I was applying for was launched two weeks ago.  Do I need to check the other paragraphs in the letter?  Apparently not.

She tells me that the problem is that the letter is written to the general populace.  I ask her why it isn't written to me.  It's addressed to me! She tells me she doesn't know and suggests that I could give feedback about the need for their letters to be "less vague".  I tell her that isn't what I want.  I want them to be accurate with the information I need.  I can hear her eyes rolling.

I finished the phone call and felt the life force drain out through my toes.  I looked down expecting to see a puddle.  All I saw was grey. Grey despair. I now have to wait another five days.  If I'm lucky I'll receive another envelope with a letter inside.  Can't wait for that one.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

That's how you handle a complaint!

There was a call I took today which grabbed my attention.  It was the station master at Flinders Street station calling in response to my complaint about the communication debacle that occurred the other night when I - and the rest of Melbourne - was trying to travel home.

Mike was very apologetic.  People in these positions usually are.  I could feel the fob off coming.  But then something happened.  We had a genuine conversation.  He thanked me for my complaint and said that it had given him a list of things to follow up.  He even invited me to make future complaints if something happened that warranted it.

This is why I always ask for a phone call, rather than a letter, when I'm asked how I would like to receive my response.  When making a complaint, it's rare that you have the opportunity to speak to anyone with any influence.  More and more, there's a whole call centre with people sitting somewhere in a charmless building under the banner of "customer relations".  The poor people working there have to listen to complaints, note the details while they are aware that they are completely powerless to actually do anything to help anyone.

I think Mike deserves acknowledgement for what he did today.

Today was the first time I have been contacted within the quoted time frame (7 business days) after making a complaint about public transport.  I included that fact in my complaint.  Perhaps it worked.  I received an email the day after I called to let me know that my complaint was important and being investigated.  Sneakily, the email said the time frame for a response was 10 business days.

So well done Mike! It felt good to let him know that I don't hold him responsible every time a V Line train trips a signal at South Kensington, or the signals malfunction twice in the one day at Newport.  It was great to be able to tell him that the failing public transport infrastructure, heaving under the pressure of increasing patronage isn't his fault, but how passengers (victims) really need information when it all goes to hell.  Credit to him for being willing to engage in a real conversation where he seemed to understand the plight of commuters when we can't get home and all we want is information so we know what we're dealing with.

In my experience, it's pretty rare that people in charge speak in real terms to customers; usually they hide behind that weird corporate weasel language.  All I feel at the end of an encounter like that is uncertain.  And itchy.

After today's Victorian state budget where there's not much news about investment in public transport, the private companies operating our trains and trams are going to have to be really good at communicating information when things don't run smoothly.  Without government investment it's not going to improve.  Try  googling "Victorian budget public transport" and you'll find the first four results are from 2011!

So go Mike!  Get in the practice of handling complaints and having real conversations with commuters.  It's important that people like you know what it feels like to a be commuter;  if you have that knowledge you'll change the way you react and communicate when things break down.

That's my non-complaint of the day.

Before and after dolly mix

Recently I bought some hand spun and hand dyed merino wool on Etsy from Sheepish Sarah.

I knit the whole thing into a triangular scarf.

I'm wearing it right now.

The joy of knitting with this kind of yarn is the surprise of how the colours will show themselves.

Here's a before and after shot.
© divacultura 2012

The colour is called Dolly Mixture and it really does look like one of those little jars of tiny boiled lollies, called dolly mix.  I wonder why?  Is it because they are lollies for your dolly?  Dolly lollies.

Well I do know that this scarf is delicious.