Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Queue anxiety - when you play outside the rules

I like the sleek new post offices. Australia Post has been thoughtful in aligning the design of their retail outlets to the focus of their offerings to customers. There's an efficient but friendly vibe, even if the queuing direction is a little unstructured.

Personally, I'm happy without structure, but yesterday when I went to the post office to buy a parcel satchel, I met a fellow customer who craves structure.

It was about 5:15pm, and there were three service spots open at the counter. The staff there were all attending to customers; there were two people waiting when I joined the queue behind them. Soon there were other people behind me. The staff were dealing with people smoothly and soon I was at the front of the queue. Because of the loose organisation of furniture to give structure to the queue, I stayed standing where I was because I was right in front of the staff providing service and would only need to take two steps forward when called.

I could feel the anxiety of the person behind me rise, when I did not move the way she thought I should. She moved in front of me and stood where she thought the head of the queue was. The other people behind me remained where they were. I said nothing, intending to step forward when called. I had no reason to assume she was actually (gasp) pushing in.

A staff member called the next person forward and the anxious woman stepped forward.

"Hello. I'm next," I said to her and the staff member.

"Oh, yes, yes, I know. Yes, but you weren't in the queue," she contradicted herself in a flurry of nervousness.

"Yes I am. You were behind me in the queue," I replied.

"Yes. I know. But you hadn't moved up and I just thought..." she trailed off. I imagine she heard the contradiction of her argument in her own ears and decided it was best to be quiet.

I paid for my satchel and as I left, the woman was being served.

I wonder what was going on for her? I've noticed the same level of anxiety in queues at places like the airport. Everyone is standing too closely and so when the person and their luggage in front moves forward, I tend to stay where I am, only moving forward when it's "worth it". I'm the same when I'm driving. What's the point of moving a millimetre forward? I thought I was going to be rear-ended on the weekend when I made the decision not to go through an orange light when I saw the number of cars queued on the other side of the intersection. I actually locked the doors of my car when I saw the anger of the male driver behind me. He swore. He punched the steering wheel. He thrashed his head. He continued to call me everything under the sun.

I sat and shrugged inwardly (after I'd made sure my doors were locked). When the light turned green I took off at a safe pace with him sitting right on my tail. At his first opportunity he flung his vehicle into another lane and glared at me as he drove past in a blur.

I'm glad I'm not that wound up. How do people live like that?

What have you noticed about queue behaviour? What are your rules of engagement?

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

State of the Union - there's an elephant in the room

Tonight I attended a Fifth Estate session at Melbourne's Wheeler Centre  called "State of the Union". The panel was hosted by Sally Warhaft and included John Howe, a labour law specialist and Lisa Fitzpatrick a current official from the Victorian Branch of the  Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation. (Alan Boulton from the Fair Work Commission was ill and unable to attend.)

It's a timely discussion to have, given the back drop of the Abbott Government announcing a royal commission into union corruption, the announcement of a Productivity Commission inquiry into working conditions like penalty rates and Craig Thompson's guilty verdict for misusing union members' money. The Abbott government is ideologically hostile to the idea of unions, while labelling themselves as the "best friend of workers", so bad behaviour by an individual is pounced on as justification for actions with wide ranging impact.

The conversation started with the wide question of whether there is still a  place for unions in modern Australia. The lawyer said yes on the basis that unions monitor compliance and enforce standards set in agreements and Awards. He specifically differentiated the capacity from that of government regulators by noting that unions are "on the ground" and see things that others can not.

The question to the union official was about the credibility and culture of unions. She rightly highlighted the difference between what members think about the unions they belong to and the image of unions peddled by tabloid media.

Over the course of the hour, many references were made to past successes of the union movement. The current context was framed around dwindling membership numbers of unions generally.

There's always an elephant in the room when the discussion happens: unions are still linked to single sectors or industries, a design that fundamentally ignores the changing face of where work is, how people work and what workers worry about and want.

I don't mind using myself as an example. I was a union member for over 15 years. I have spent a large portion of my working life in the union movement in voluntary, elected and employed positions. Since 2008, I have been a member of a union for about 15 months. At the time I was working in a bank part time and then full time for a few months, so I joined the Finance Sector Union. While I worked part time, I also worked for the Victorian AIDS Council. Financially, it made no sense for me to be in two unions. From a personal point of view, it made a lot of sense to be represented as a union member in both work places, but there was no way to do this.

Fast forward to now and my work situation is even more multi-faceted. Apart from being self-employed, I also work on a casual basis for a private health care organisation, several universities, professional colleges within the health sector, as well as being a freelance actor and writer working very broadly.

With the union movement still designed to align with industries, sectors or crafts, there is no relevance to the way I participate in the workforce. I'm a committed unionist and there's no space for me in the current arrangements. What about younger workers who have no experience of the good that unions can do and little connection to how they benefit from union representation at the bargaining table or in the courts enforcing their rights and conditions? Or the ambivalent worker? There is little hope of recruiting them while ever the structure is tied to old identities and has no focus on the changing needs of the workforce.

It's okay for nurses and teachers - their occupations mean they tend to work in hospitals and schools and are less dispersed across a variety of sectors. A nurse who works for two days in aged care and three days in a boarding school is still a nurse wherever s/he works, but people like me who are highly mobile and have generalist skills will be doing different things in a wide variety of places. I know that I'm not the only one.

I tried my hardest to talk about the elephant in the room when question time came. My hand was up the minute the invitation was issued, but I didn't get a look in. Four blokes in their 60's spoke about "militancy" and "the great strikes" and put positions focussed on recreating past glories, rather than asking questions. To me, this is a representation of the old ways and one of the problems with these kinds of discussions. The last question was posed by a young woman about the casualised workforce and the need for unions to appeal to these workers and I was happy the issue had been raised. 

The answers left me uninspired. The lawyer spoke about legal mechanisms to roll over to permanent employment. The union official said it was something she didn't need to consider. 

Right there is the problem - solutions reliant on things external to the unions themselves and a complete lack of imagination and strategic thinking. While ever the focus of unions is on their own survival, they are not paying attention to their potential members who are grappling with a fast changing world of work. It makes me sad because unions have an important social role to play. Ideas that people with no power or little power are able to represent themselves on an equal footing with their employer are ridiculous. 

You can listen to a podcast of tonight's discussion (and other topics) here.

What do you think about unions in the modern world? Are they relevant? What's their role? Why are you/aren't you a member? 
If you were at the Wheeler Centre, what did you think about the discussion?

I'd love to continue the conversation on this page or over on Facebook.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Blowing smoke - it's a question of manners

It was a gorgeous late summer day in Melbourne yesterday. I took advantage and met a friend for breakfast in the Village. We went to one of the old cafes that has recently taken advantage of outdoor space under trees by laying some astro turf and placing tables and chairs and removing a wall from their cafe.

It was to be expected that there would be more people than tables and so we started scouting for a couple of spaces on the end of someone else's table. We soon found it, joining a family who left minutes after we arrived. There was space for four or five other people, but we had eaten all of our food and were waiting to order our second coffee by the time we had people join us.

Three people sat down and within seconds, two of them had started to smoke cigarettes. I am an anti-smoking non-smoker and find the idea of sharing a table with a bunch of smokers abhorrent. We were outdoors, but I still think that good manners would dictate they seek permission to smoke before lighting up. We were there first and they were joining us. If we sat down where people were already smoking, it would be a different matter.  If permission had been sought I would have politely replied that I did mind if they smoked and would prefer that they move away from the table to do so.

We weren't going to be there much longer, so neither of us said anything. I wasn't in the mood for a confrontation. I was also quite unsure about what the actual laws are, not that the legal position should preclude common decency.

I'm interested to discover that smoking in outdoor dining areas is allowed in Victoria, subject to the position of the walls and whether or not there is a roof. There were no walls and no roof (other than a lovely canopy of trees) so these people weren't doing anything "wrong".

I'm left wondering why the smokers - an increasingly small minority - are allowed to hijack the best spots when dining out in Melbourne.

Would you have said something? 

Friday, 21 February 2014

Food samples and brand promotions

Sometimes food and drink is given away at train stations in Melbourne. Mostly, it's a way for companies to promote new products. Usually the products they are throwing at the public are sugar laden and therefore not anything I eat.

Yesterday, frozen pizzas were being handed out. It was fascinating to watch.

Very good looking people dressed in either very revealing clothing or something suggestive of scientific - or a combination of these (think very short lab coats) - smile at people and call out the brand name repeatedly. Before long, commuters are making their way to these very good looking people and clamouring for whatever is on offer.

If standing and watching this procedure was my first glimpse of Melbourne I would have thought that people who live here are reliant on UN food parcels for survival. It was like a flock of seagulls descending on a lonely dropped chip. No orderly queues to be seen here, just people on automatic pilot, lured by the promise of free fat and sugar, forgetting that it's actually advertising and a ploy to secure their money and loyalty down the track.

I wondered whether any homeless people would benefit from this commercial magnanimity but then realised the cruel twist of fate attached: frozen pizza is only edible if you can heat it in an oven first.

As I walked away, I saw a man wearing a t-shirt with the slogan "i Rock" emblazoned on his chest. Looking at him, I was unconvinced that he did in fact rock, but then looks can be deceiving. I wondered whether it was his looks he was railing against; that he'd had so many accusations that he did not rock, that he had hired a PR consultant and gone on the front foot with a declaration of his rockiness. Or perhaps he was trying to convince himself. Or, he was being completely ironic. Or he was making up for a lack of positive reinforcement from his parents during his adolescence. Or it might have been a statement of competency in his day job as a babysitter. Or he's a narcissist.

It struck me that the whole world is busy with image management.

I travelled home, without a frozen pizza melting in my handbag, and thought about the pleasure of making good food.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

I slipped - alcohol passed my lips.

I have a confession to make: I drank alcohol last night and I didn't even realise until this morning.

"So what?" I hear you ask. "What's a couple of white wines between friends?"

Ordinarily it wouldn't be a problem, except that this February, I am participating in FebFast and my chosen poison is alcohol. I've been very diligent and conscientious and then I experienced something that I told happens for people with an addiction to alcohol often.

I was at a networking event. The formal bit was over and we were mingling, business cards in one hand and beverages in the other. This is a familiar environment and there's a ritual that goes with the environment. When my colleague suggested that we get a glass of wine, I agreed. When she offered to fetch me another, I agreed.

It's hardly a major breach. The bit that was most interesting to me was the automatic nature of my behaviour in that setting. I was speaking with one of the mental health nurses with whom I work (she is very experienced in dealing with people who are addicted to alcohol) and she told me that I had a set of learned behaviours and had experienced a "slip". I just did what I normally do in that situation.

The other thing that struck me about my behaviour was that I wasn't even aware of my slip until this morning. Here I am, being so mindful of not drinking alcohol for a whole month, and I didn't even notice when I broke my pledge.

This is one of the benefits of the wave of behaviourally based awareness and fundraising projects. Participants gain a tiny insight. I will never judge someone again when they claim say they "forgot" or were "unaware". It's completely possible.

I'll be paying a fine as penance for my slip all in the name of raising funds to support programs for young people who have problems with addiction. Thanks to those of you who have already offered support, either morally or financially. There's still time to consider how you can support this wonderful organisation.

Are you doing FebFast? What have you given up? Have you "slipped"?

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

A Bruce story and mixed messages from the stadium.

Melbourne was buzzing with Bruce Springsteen stories over the weekend. People were wearing tour t-shirts, old and new, and the name of The Boss could be heard when eavesdropping in cafes.

The Yarraville Festival was on Sunday and before I headed off to see the show, I had a poke around the stalls as there are often some interesting wares to be found. As I asked a stall owner about a dress, she told me that she was very excited because Bruce Springsteen is in town and "everyone is talking about it!" She then asked if she could tell me her Bruce story. Naturally I said yes.

"Well it was a few  years ago and I was at the concert down the front. My boyfriend at the time was six foot four and I'm quite short and was surrounded by really tall people. I couldn't see anything. My boyfriend told me to get up on his shoulders and I did. Anyway, I was there waving my arms around - it was great, I could see everything - and then Bruce paused and started to wave his arms from side to side, then I realised that he was waving at me! I waved back! We did that for about twenty seconds!"

Her excitement over this 20 second exchange was equivalent to the level I would display if I'd been invited for a night cap and a private audience after the show. That wasn't the end of the story...

"And the other day, I came across this video on the internet. It was made by fans, for fans and anyway, I watched the whole thing - it went for about half an hour and then right at the end, there was me waving to Bruce and he was waving back! I reckon they had me there for about 6 seconds! At least I know it really happened!!!"

She laughed as the endorphins surged as she relived the experience. I'd have to call an ambulance if she'd had the night cap.

At the gates to the stadium we went through the usual bag search and noticed that all drink bottles were having their lids removed and anything over 1 litre was being confiscated. I asked why, wondering if was a cynical attempt to boost bar sales.

"Well see that lid?" the security woman held up the pale blue lid of a Mount Franklin bottle of water.

I nodded.

"That's a potential weapon. People were throwing them at Bruce."

Her grim delivery of the message nearly convinced me until I saw the size of the stadium. The world's greatest baseball player would have trouble getting that lid to hit its target. And what kind of fan wants to throw bottle tops at The Boss? A friend later told me that the lids are confiscated so that full bottles of liquid can not be thrown.

As I sat in the stadium before the show began, I noticed all the signs around the stadium.

One sequence that had me puzzled was the invitation to "join the conversation" via this billboard:
© 2014 divacultura
This was immediately followed by severe warnings that photography is forbidden in the stadium. That third icon represents Instagram, the photo sharing social media platform. Most people would obey this sign and ignore the other.

Lastly, there was the sign that said "Text anti social behaviour to [phone number]". The idea of personal safety within a stadium environment is important and while I think it's great to provide a way for people to report bad behaviour, this instruction is very ambiguous. It could mean:

  • I send a text message with the words "anti social behaviour".  What happens next?
  • I could send a message that is an example of anti social behaviour, for example "$#%^ off". What happens next?
  • I could send a picture of someone behaving badly. What happens next?
I suppose what they want is for a text message with details of who, when and where the behaviour is occurring so those fifteen year olds wearing a high-vis vest with the word "Security" emblazoned on the back could receive a message through their ear piece. 

There was no anti social behaviour near me and I resisted the urge to be mischievous by sending pointless text messages.

I hope Bruce wasn't injured by a stray bottle top.

Monday, 17 February 2014

An audience with the Boss - Bruce Springsteen plays Melbourne.

Bruce Springsteen has long been one of my favourite songwriters. Ever since my grade eleven English teacher encouraged us to analyse lyrics, as well as poetry, for one of our assignments. I remember studying "Scarecrow" by John Mellencamp, "Four Walls" by Cold Chisel and "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen.  So when the opportunity to see him live came up, I seized it with both hands.

I remember that he played at Lang Park in Brisbane after the "Born in the USA" album was released. I was at boarding school in Toowoomba, so the feasibility of going to a mid week gig in another city was zero. Bruce has been to Australia many times since then, but it has never really worked out.

The crowd gathers inside AAMI Park.
© 2014 divacultura
I've heard people rave about him in live performance, but you have to be one of the tiny people in a huge stadium crowd to fully appreciate the extent of his artistry in performance. There was not a single moment when I felt taken for granted or that he was bored or not enjoying fully, his work.

The wonderful Dan Sultan kicked off the show at 5pm. I love Dan's music, but his smaller band and sound really suffered in the sound mix designed for the fat, saturated sound of Bruce and the E Street Band. The bass guitar was distorting and dominant over all the other sounds. Still, it's great exposure for him.

Hunters and Collectors re-formed to play this gig and it was great to hear them play their hits. It's been a while since I've seen a rock band with a french horn in the line up - if ever - so that was also a treat.

The Boss came on at 8pm and was on stage until about 11:45pm. No one could complain that they didn't receive value for money! I debated with my friend about what the first song would be and suddenly it was 1985 again as the instantly recognisable opening bars of "Born in the USA" hit us. It was on! Apart from every song, the absolute highlight was hearing that they were going to play the whole "Born to Run" album from start to finish! I was in heaven! Hearing this album (released in 1975) as a whole body, was an interesting opportunity to consider Bruce Springsteen's evolution as a writer. The perspective in 1975 was much more individual with stories about people from a personal level, while his more recent songs take a broader political perspective - they're still about people, but it's a broader perspective.

I had an emotional night. Joy was my main feeling, but I had a few tearful moments too. (The story leading into "Growin' Up" and the song itself were deeply affecting.) I think I was overwhelmed. Suddenly I understood all those pictures of girls crying at Beatles or Elvis Presley concerts. It can just happen when you're feeling open  and receptive to the music.

While I was well out of reach to have any direct interaction, it was lovely to watch the crowd interactions. Those big screens and fabulous directors of photography did a wonderful job, capturing a huge event with a sense of intimacy.

I looked around the crowd and noticed how different we all seemed, yet here we all were, celebrating and united by music created by a great artist.  If you're vaguely interested in music, writing or performance (he's a master of creating tension and holding a crowd) and have never seen Bruce Springsteen live, put it on your list!

I kept notes of the set list and include it here (if there are any errors, please let me know):
  1. Lucky Town 
  2. Death to My Hometown 
  3. High Hopes 
  4. Born to Run
  5. Ain't I good enough for you

  6. Encore
  7. This Hard Land (just Bruce, his guitar and harmonica)

Did you go? Have you seen The Boss before? What did you think?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Handwriting - what makes a good hand?

There's been some discussion lately about the value and importance of handwriting. My handwriting these days is situational. How it looks will depend on the circumstances of its production. If I'm writing a card or letter (yes, I still do that sometimes) I still use the looping, sloped "running writing" I learnt at primary school; but if I'm scribbling notes to myself, it's a more upright and messy version. Writing on flip charts and white boards, I am told that I have a good, strong hand.

My study of penmanship occurred at a time when class time was dedicated to the practice of letters. Exercise books ruled with blue lines to fit letters between and red lines to guide the length of ascending and descending loops were filled with copies of individual letters. Once perfected, the letters would be joined to make words and those words would be endlessly copied.

I was also subjected to the variations of education systems when state borders are crossed.  In NSW where my career in penmanship began, we were taught Modern Cursive. As the name suggests it was a modernised version of "running writing" - all the loops were removed and the uppercase letters were basically the same as the printed letters, but they leaned to the right. Gone were those beautiful fancy captial efs and kays; the es was stripped of its flourish and the el was just two perpendicular lines. How would that have looked embroidered on Laverne's breast? There was no drama, just function. When I moved north across the border to Queensland, they were still doing a version of Copperplate, a little less fancy than actual Copperplate, and I don't know what it's called, but it was better. There were more loops, swirls and I just liked it. I went wild. (I was also really good at drawing treble clefs, so maybe all that practice just translated to the letters.)

Perhaps I had been influenced by my Grandfather's pride in his own handwriting. From an early age, my siblings and I were encouraged to write letters to our grandparents. I've seen some of my early work, written in pencil, and while the prose is a bit lacking (of the "hi-how-are-you-I-am-well-variety") those letters were legible. The importance of having a good "hand" was impressed upon me early. The character of others could be immediately discerned. Being described in very serious tones as having a "good hand" or a "lovely hand" was far better than being described as being a "tight knitter" or a "loose knitter".The tones describing the latter were doom-laden and accompanied by knowing glances and shaking heads. For example, "Oh, yes, well, you know, she's a very tight knitter. Very tight." Or, worse, "What do you expect? She's a terribly loose knitter you know." They were actually talking about knitting, weren't they?

Of course, back in those days, the ability to write a letter was an essential communication tool; as was the ability for others to be able to read it. Who writes letters anymore? Well I do. Recently I wrote a letter to a friend specifically because he said that no one ever writes him letters anymore. Sometimes I will write a letter to commemorate a special occasion or even just to express a feeling that deserves to live beyond the five minutes after it is emailed or tweeted. Just last year, I wrote a letter to an 85 year old woman in response to the Christmas card she had sent me. She's Jewish and I agonised about whether to send a Christmas card. I should have just written her a letter anyway. It was a lovely letter -full of descriptions of the garden and the visiting wildlife - one I would have been happy to receive, and was pleased to have written.

I have more than a passing interest in typography. This interest was piqued early in my days of journalism study. When we studied print, we learnt about physical layout of type and a page. I'm not old enough to have been composing with metal type and tweezers, but it was still a time, pre-computer software, when the term "cut and paste" was literal. I will soon be attending a workshop which is all about hand lettering. I know I will swoon as I smell the ink and then hear and feel the sound of the pen on paper. It's pleasing to see a page filled with letters, those letters forming words and fitting on the page in a pleasing and easy to read way.

I wonder how my Grandfather observed his own experience of writing by hand. Even his shopping lists were written in the same formal hand. Had he been to university, I can't imagine that his notes would have been scrawled. (He didn't finish high school.)

I'm lucky to still have samples of his writing. I'm sharing with you now, not only his handwriting, but also part of the story of my family, the Fife family from Ireland. Grandfather wrote this piece for a history of the family which was published to coincide with a family reunion in the mid 1990's. I remember him reading it to those gathered at the reunion because, as far as anyone knew, he was the last man alive to know Nixon Fife, one of five children who was sent by his father from Ireland to Australia during the 19th Century famine. As far as I know, Grandfather never owned a computer and probably never even used a type writer.

From my maternal Grandfather, Eric Hilma Brown, who was born  3 July 1912 and died 7 April 2001.

Is handwriting important? How's yours these days?

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Union corruption inquiry - what's it really for?

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's announcement of a Royal Commission to investigate corruption in the union movement is hardly surprising. He can't very well legislate to bring down unions in the way the Howard Government's Work Choices was designed to do, so instead he's done something even more potent. The frame for discussion whenever unions or union officials is mentioned is that fundamentally both are corrupt and they have to prove that they are not. This is probably politically more effective than resurrecting the "dead, buried and cremated" Work Choices legislation.

As a former union official, I know the effort, dedication, sacrifice and commitment that I brought to my work. I also saw it in those around me. I didn't see corruption and believe that I would have stood up if I had. I hope so - I was never confronted with that situation, so it's hypothetical anyway.

Today I agreed with Tony Abbott when he said: ""Honest workers and honest unionists should not be ripped off by corrupt officials and honest businesses should be able to go about their work without fear of intimidation, corruption (and) standover tactics."

Listening to union leaders and Labor parliamentarians respond to news of the Royal Commission is less than inspiring; to me, they sound defensive. The only possible answer is to say "Yes! bring on the Royal Commission. We are confident about our governance. If you do find corruption then we'll say thank you because we are not corrupt. Fundamentally, we are good people doing noble work, ensuring workers have a voice." I suppose it's hard to answer that way when you know that there's an agenda to destroy you and the organisations of which you are a custodian.

The practical problem arising from the Royal Commission is the cost of being involved. There won't be financial assistance for unions required to give evidence, surrender records and be represented. These costs will come from members' dues as members' dues are the main income for most unions. While unions are busy complying with the directions of the Royal Commission they'll be stretched thin and distracted from the business of representing members, negotiating agreements, enforcing agreements and so on. Eventually, the whole thing makes them look self-interested.

It's also interesting to hear the Government rhetoric about breaches of trust and officials inappropriately using money given to them by the people they represent. Goodness me, but that's how I describe Liberal parliamentarians going to social events like friends' weddings and claiming tax payer funds in the form of travel allowance to cover their costs. I can only hear tumbleweeds when this is mentioned. I doubt we'll ever hear Prime Minister Abbott say that honest tax payers and honest citizens should not be ripped off by corrupt parliamentarians using funds to attend social events - especially if they're on his side of the House.

The worst thing is that corruption within the union movement has the ability to cause deep harm to people who are vulnerable. When Malcolm Turnbull used the term "workers" on ABC TV's Q and A last night, it sat very uncomfortably - they are not the party of the workers.  Unions are important in a just (Capitalist) society.

If I was leader of the union movement at the moment, I'd be organising two things: firstly, a coordinated plan to share the burden of the Royal Commission and secondly, buying SPC Ardmona at Shepparton and establishing it with workers as the shareholders (ie a cooperative). The first is practical and is probably happening; the second would be both brilliant PR and have a practical effect, keeping employment and opportunity in a regional town which relies on fruit growing and canning as the mainstay of its economy. It would be pretty hard to think unions are evil when they're the only ones who've done anything to save jobs.

I have a problem with governments handing gifts of money to large, overseas owned companies (in this case Coca-Cola Amatil). I don't think it should happen. However, if there's a flood of people onto the dole queue, then the $25 million sought by Coke will soon be overshadowed by the welfare bill, social costs and flow-on effects to other businesses in the region.

I'm not leader of the union movement, so I'll have to wait and see along with the rest of you. I'd be surprised if these these ideas are not being considered. In the meantime, I have changed the way I describe my past experience. I will now be describing myself as a "community campaign leader" as I see no benefit in carrying around the smelly baggage I've been lumped with as a former union official.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Beating the heat at the movies.

Bliss was my first feeling as I felt the need to pull up the bedcovers early this morning. It has been days since it has felt cool enough to even consider pulling up a sheet! The waking experience has been a sigh as the realisation dawned that the temperature felt like the middle of the day and it was only 7am.

Without an airconditioned home, the weekend's heat meant that retreating to somewhere cool was a necessity. My usual strategy is to go to the movies. When the weather is like this, I will see whatever is on next. That is why I saw "12 Years a Slave" on Saturday. On Sunday I planned to go in the middle of the day and saw "Inside Llewyn Davis", the new Coen Brothers' film.

My tissue supply was not assured as I took my seat for "12 Years a Slave". The film was not on the top of my "to see" list because I rated the content as "harrowing". Physical comfort trumped the psychological.

Solomon Northrup wrote the account of his kidnapping, transportation to the south and sale into slavery and the film is adapted from his account. For most of the first part of the film I was unmoved. I was interested enough in the characters, but felt quite removed from the story. Intellectually I absorbed the details of slave transactions, deceptions and the clear view of slave owners that slaves were not human. My tears flowed at moments of kindness shown to Solomon and during a particularly harrowing scene of a slave being beaten. The hyprocrisy of slave owners reading the bible to their "property" and using the scripture to justify beatings and other examples of bad behaviour made me angry, rather than sad.

It was a musical moment that brought me completely undone. A group of slaves sing a gospel song after burying one of their number. Solomon takes some time to join; when he does, the ferocity of his singing conveys such meaning - anger and hope simultaneously.

It was a complete change of pace on Sunday when I bought a ticket to watch a film about a folk singer in 1961. My heart sank as I took my seat in the cinema that was uncomfortably hot. Before the previews were through an usher advised that the airconditioner had died that morning. It had just been fixed, but it would take a while for the cinema to cool down. Full refunds were offered. I decided to have faith.
Before long I was freezing to death as the newly effective airconditioner caused a layer of ice to form on my bare arms and shoulders. It was welcome.

I'm a fan of the Coen Brothers' work and was looking forward to a film about a singer. It turned out to be a strange film. There were moments where I laughed, but I was largely frustrated by the lack of Llewyn Davis to seize the opportunities he had before him. I really enjoyed the music but the film is less than memorable.

As I emerged from the cinema the wind had turned and the cool change had arrived. Such a relief!

What's your strategy for surviving the heat?

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Campanology campaign - a resounding success!

We did it! Our composition for the Federation Bells went off without a hitch yesterday morning and seemed to be well-received and appreciated by passing Melbournians and guests participating in the Melbourne Recital Centre's fifth birthday.

When I arrived at 8:45am yesterday I felt as if mere hours had passed since we finished Friday night's dress rehearsal. We were issued with our celebratory orange t-shirts and my heart sank. Since spending all of 2007 wearing an orange t-shirt (I wasn't in prison, I was organising the Your Rights at Work campaign), I am under no illusions about my relationship with orange. It is good for accessorising, but wearing a whole garment in the colour makes me look like I am either very sick or have drunk too much red wine on a hot day. I decided to accessorise with an over-the-top floral crown to draw all eyes away from contemplating me in an orange t-shirt.

The score for the piece we composed for the
Melbourne Recital Centre's fifth birthday.
© 2014 divacultura
As we began our dress rehearsal and reviewed the score, it became evident that two members of the team had fallen by the wayside. We quickly rejigged things and made it work. We worked out the second part of the composition under the guidance of musical facilitator Steve Falk and then embarked on our dress rehearsal.

It was a beautiful evening and people looked at us curiously as we draped ourselves around the wave sculpture near Hamer Hall. There was magic as I struck the first note and others joined in. The rehearsal went well with only a few adjustments to make.

We were blessed with a glorious morning yesterday. The light dappled through the trees along St Kilda Road. I felt a profound sense of celebration and reverence as I struck the first note again. People stopped and looked. Some even smiled. Many of them asked what it was all about and I happily told them. Crossing Southbank Boulevard we encountered a man who was impatient for us to cross. He waved at the flashing red man on the traffic light and turned in front of us. We continued the tintinabulation. As we reached the Melbourne Recital Centre there was a crowd of people waiting for the doors to open; it was our job to open them.

Federation Bells - that's "E" on the right.
© 2014 divacultura
As the sound died, I found my partner for the door bell. I struck the E and he followed with C. The conversation continued until a frenzied pace was reached and we stopped. The high Cs were struck. The G, followed by my E and a low C. It was our musical joke - the descending C major arpeggio which is the call for patrons to return to their seats after interval in concert halls the world over. Three times we descended and then the doors opened. The people followed us in.

We went up the stairs to Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and continued to play as patrons took their seats.

Naturally the piece concluded with a rendition of "Happy Birthday" and three cheers.

It was a truly joyous experience and energy was high as we returned to the VIP room. Contact details were swapped and t-shirts were peeled off.

The "backyard". This is normally a carpark.
© 2014 divacultura

I went downstairs to the backyard which had been astro-turfed and turned into a festive party venue. I ate a taco from the taco truck and listened to the Welsh Men's Choir. I played a tune on the decorated piano which was sitting on the footpath and then found a seat to take in some of the open jazz jam. A house band welcomed soloists on a variety of instruments to join them for a song. It was terrific to see so many teenagers taking the stage with their saxophones, guitars and trombones. I wasn't sure if they accepted singers, so I just enjoyed the show. As people rode the escalators to the next level they swung their hips to the music and smiled. Any wonder anything with a swinging beat was considered "devil's music". Never know what an escalator ride and jazz could lead to.

I decided to leave before the day became too hot. As I was walking back to the city, I stopped off at the National Gallery of Victoria. An artist was working in the foyer. Dozens of plastic mesh rectangles had been embroidered with words in black and the backgrounds needed to be completed in white. About ten people were stitching when I arrived. It was lovely and cool in there so I decided to find some words that appealed and contributed a few stitches.

Leaving my mark
© 2014 divacultura
As I sat stitching, I was struck by the variety of people involved: women, men, boys, girls. A Chinese woman sat beside me and asked what it was all about. I explained and she picked up a rectangle and started to stitch. I introduced myself and she told me about her holiday. Her name was Jinbor (I don't know how to spell it) and she is a fashion designer with her own label in China. She told me this after I remarked on how swiftly she stitched.

After four rows I left. My body was starting to feel the work of carrying and playing that bell and I needed to rest.

As I made my way home I felt so happy to live in a city where there are public spaces and events with really interesting and welcoming things to do on a very hot day where retreat to an air conditioned space is top of the agenda.

Noticing my body this morning, I decided that indulging in campanology is an excellent upper body work out and a very enjoyable one too. I now realised why a hunchback rings the bells!

The bells go back in their cases.
© 2014 divacultura

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Ringing the Federation Bells - it's a celebration!

I made a decision to join in with something this week which has made my first full week back in the world of work and home very intense. The opportunity is unique and I'm glad that I decided to join, even though I'm limping towards the end of the week.

This weekend marks the fifth birthday of the Melbourne Recital Centre. Five years ago I was lucky enough to have a tour and experience the building the day before it opened to the public, thanks to local ABC radio. We even sang Happy Birthday in honour of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch after whom the main hall is named. Now I am working with a group of complete strangers to compose and perform a work on the Federation Handbells.

I've never played handbells before, let alone the special ones, but I figured that I was probably going to be at least as musical as anyone else joining in. Apart from the musical experience, I was curious about the process that would be used over only two workshops, each 2 and a half hours long, to make this happen.

I attended the first workshop last night, after a very long day and found myself being asked to have ideas. Ideas are one of the things I'm pretty good at having, but I had to work a bit harder to keep my brain switched on because I was mentally and physically exhausted after two days playing a bully. Switching on my creative brain proved to be invigorating and I'm pleased with the contribution I made.

There are about fourteen of us in the group, including the musical and the theatrical facilitators. Mostly women and one girl who I think would be about twelve years old. Most people contributed original ideas or enhanced another's idea in some way. We composed the whole first half of the performance. Our score is written in coloured felt tipped pens on a giant roll of butcher's paper laid out on the floor.

At the break, one of the women asked me if I was a "professional plant". I pictured myself as a rose bush, then a cactus and then I realised what she meant. I asked her what I would have been planted for and she said "to come up with ideas". I laughed and told her that that was just me playing. (I did have a brief worry that I had contributed too much, but no one in the group or either of the facilitators was giving me the oh-do-be-quiet-eye, so I relaxed.)

We will compose the second part tomorrow night and have our one and only dress rehearsal. I'm excited to be involved, but wish the forecast for Saturday was a bit easier to anticipate. The temperature is forecast to be 40 degrees Celsius on Saturday.

If you're in Melbourne, it's a good excuse to get out of the house early before it gets too hot. We'll be starting near Hamer Hall after 9am and arrive at the Recital Centre's front doors by 10am. If you're not in Melbourne there's no need to miss out! You can stream the festivities. Check on this page from 9am (Australian Eastern Daylight Time). Click here for more information about coordinating time zones.

That's all I can tell you.

Oh, and I'll be playing "E".

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Emotional rollercoaster - getting what you want with only a look

When was the last time you had a really good belly laugh? The kind that leaves you sore and weak and happy to feel like that? What set you off?

I had one last night. On the telephone with one of my oldest friends, we laughed and laughed and laughed.

One of the things I love about talking to really old friends is the shared language that develops. There's a shared history mythology and recurring gags and moments to be endlessly referenced. I laughed until tears were rolling.

It was a good set up for today's work where I was making my annual appearance as the power crazed bullying doctor. My character is the kind of person who causes people to move out of the way with a mere look. One of my favourite moments of the day was when a student had bags on the floor which were blocking my pathway. I said nothing, just looked at the bags and waited. Soon the bags were being moved and the student was nervously apologising.

I took 30 minutes to shake the role off before I left the dressing room tonight. I sat and chatted to my fellow actors and felt the character lift up off my shoulders. I felt my face relax as I rediscovered myself and people started to relate to me normally again.

Anger and frustration that has accumulated over the last year was poured into the role. How lucky I am to have a place to channel it. I hope I'll have enough for tomorrow!

After the work today I went out with friends who had been working on the same job. Our meal was accompanied by raucous conversation and lots of laughing.

So when was the last time you laughed until it hurt? It leaves me exhausted, but I want to do it all the time.

Monday, 3 February 2014

I'm profounded - I mean confounded - words matter.

I received a lesson in the importance of precision in language today.

Back in May, during a period of very wet weather I told my real estate agent that I could hear dripping in the ceiling. There was no reaction. Three days later I had water running down one of the walls in my bedroom. The light fitting was sparking as the electricity met the water that was running through there.

A (very handsome) electrician came and dealt with the electricity - in the ceiling - and left a gaping hole in my heart ceiling. Since then I've had no light in the bedroom and a gaping hole in the ceiling. I have taken to wearing a miner's lamp when I'm selecting my wardrobe for the day.

This happened seven months ago.

People sprang into action last December and decided that the week before Christmas was a convenient time to pack and remove the contents of the apartment, remove the ceiling, replace the ceiling, paint the bedroom and restore the contents. I had other plans thinking that my recent five week absence would provide the perfect opportunity.

Things don't always turn out the way we hope. I won't bore you with the details, but I arrived home to be confronted with packed boxes stacked in the lounge room, bedroom and the entry to the bathroom. And I brought suitcases which also needed to be unpacked. It was 42 degrees Celsius and I had to start work the following morning.

You can imagine the conversations I've been having. I'm writing everything down so they can feature in the absurdist script I'll produce one day. One of them involved the agent advising me to "just follow your normal routine". What am I? A rat in a box maze? She clearly thinks I'm insane. Or some kind of contemporary artist making a statement about some aspect of society as I turn my place into a piece of performance art. Shame I can't sell tickets. There's nowhere for the patrons to stand. I've rigged up a periscope so I can watch television. That's the only activity I can reasonably accomplish - unless I consider moving boxes around to be a leisure activity.

Anyway, the precision of language...imagine my initial surprise when the agent shared an email telling me that she had advised the insurance person and the owner that the flat is "inhabitable". After some thought, I decided she was right, but there was something off about the tone of the email.

Today I received another email telling me again that she'd told the insurance guy that the place is "inhabitable" but also that he shouldn't take her word for it and would need to see for himself.  Again, I had a nagging worry that she actually was using the wrong word.

I had to find out, but was unsure how to ask without causing offence.  I settled on asking if she meant "inhabitable" as in I can live there or "uninhabitable" as in I can't live there.

Her single-word response came: uninhabitable.

I imagined the insurance agent being moved to even higher levels of frantic inaction with the vehement statements that the place is inhabitable! Any wonder nothing much has happened in seven months.

Considered with the correct understanding, the email from the agent became even more ridiculous as it finished by stating "the place is [un]inhabitable and the insurance agent is aware of that so just wait and see what happens"!

Lucky the roof wasn't blown off! Imagine what "urgently waiting" feels like when you've got bigger problems than not being able to coordinate your outfit or needing to use a torch when you make your way to the bed. Add some boxes into the pathway and you've got added excitement at bed time.

My response in this situation is to initially get angry, then I go floppy and then I start looking for comedy to exploit. I can't even drink as an activity because I've given up alcohol for February as part of Feb Fast.*

Oh and I'm also taking legal advice.

* See how hard it is! I'd love you to sponsor me and support programs for young people who suffer from addictions

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Giving up alcohol

The first day of February has dawned and my commitment to give up alcohol for the month has commenced. I'm participating in Feb Fast as part of a workplace team.

If you're not familiar with this challenge, it is an example of yet another creative way of raising both awareness and funds. This time the funds go to helping young people who have addictions.

There are four things available to give up: alcohol, caffeine, sugar and digital screens. I've given up sugar already. Caffeine would be harder to avoid than alcohol. I was ready to give the digital fast a go, but then read that e-readers were included in the fast. Given I am an avid reader and now my books are most often on the e-reader I just couldn't give that up. So alcohol it is.

I've set a personal fundraising goal of $400 and would love you to consider donating by sponsoring me. You might also like to join in!

I've kicked things off with a $30 donation, the price of a good bottle of wine.

You might consider:

  • sponsoring $1 (or another amount) for each day of February
  • instead of buying a round at Friday night drinks, you could pass the hat around and donate the price of that round
  • how about that morning latte? If you can't imagine going without for a whole month, could you go without for a day or a week and donate the price of your cup of coffee to the cause?
Each small amount contributes to the larger amount.

I hope you can help. I can't imagine what my life would be like if I had an addiction. I often joke that I'm addicted to knitting (I can't watch TV without working on something; I finish one project and immediately start another; I think about knitting when I'm not doing it; I look forward to my next "hit"; sometimes I knit in secret (especially if I'm making a gift for someone). Addiction is a serious illness and the costs to individuals, families and our community are large. I've chosen to participate in Feb Fast as a way to take a small piece of responsibility for supporting my community.

I also expect to feel some personal benefits. I'm not a big drinker, but do enjoy wine. I consider I have a healthy relationship with alcohol, but I know that I'll still benefit from having none for the next month. 

Please consider helping in any way you can. If you decide to join the Fast, please let me know so I can support you too!