Sunday, 30 November 2008

Deadbeats and Deadlines

Working in the public service - some people would call that a contradiction in terms, and there are times I'm inclined to agree.

Time travels at a different pace in the world of government. The people at the top apparently don't have enough of it, the people at the bottom are flat out with menial and mind-numbing administrative tasks that no-one else can be bothered with, and there appears to be a swathe of middle-ranking people who, as far as I can see, spend their days drinking coffee and swanning about looking busy and important, but not actually doing much. Some jobs have an unreasonably frantic pace, while others could be done easily by a snail on Valium (often a fairly highly-paid snail on Valium...)

I've noticed that the seriously busy people tend to be too busy to tell the world that they're drowning in work. It's the ones with nothing to do who make the most noise.

There's one person I know whose voice rises about 20 decibels whenever a phone call is related to work. It's deafening. The bellowing actually drowns out the loud music I have coming through the earphones that I have jammed into my ears as a last resort to try and block it out. One or two of the tasks I have in my hideously unengaging paid employment demand concentration. When the Bellower is in full flight I can't hear the conversation of a colleague who might be standing right next to me. I've developed an almost Pavlovian response to the ringing of the Bellower's phone, and leap for my earphones whenever she picks up the handset. Ah, the joys of an open plan office.

The same Bellower can be heard from the other side of the room when engaged in work-related talk - or when explaining to new staff what her very busy and important role in the organisation is. I began to think perhaps she had a hearing problem. Maybe she was unaware of how loud she actually was. Maybe I was being mean and unfair. Then one day she took a call that she clearly didn't want anybody else to hear. She really should have continued to bellow in her usual way. I would've headed straight for the earphones and cranked up the volume. Instead, I found myself straining to hear her very interesting secret conversation, and marvelling at how quiet she could be. No, I'm not going to reveal what the conversation was about. I only managed to catch a few key words here and there, and had to fill in the gaps for myself, with wild imaginings and great leaps of logic. It's probably safe to assume that there weren't really any pole-dancers, gerbils or cans of whipped cream in that conversation.

And then there's the Princess. The Princess has a demanding job keeping track of a very important person. This makes her every bit as important as her boss. This is why it's imperative that she takes some time out every hour to abandon her ringing phone and stand outside smoking. Or doing her make-up. Or shopping while deadlines come and go, and other people answer her phone for her. And she has this really intense way of interacting over the most trivial things. She drops her chin and stares up through her lashes, a la Princess Di, and says things like 'I think I'll get a coffee now. I can tell I'm going to need one before I can [answer this ringing phone, do this report etc etc etc]'

Speaking of deadlines... as an ex-teacher I have a very healthy respect for deadlines. They actually mean something to me. I can't imagine blithely wandering off to class 10 minutes late while 25 or 30 adolescents run riot, and then not having any work for them to do because I was too busy talking on the phone to prepare a lesson. I can't imagine not getting exams marked in time to get reports written. I can't imagine turning up late to a parent teacher interview and not having my material ready.

Civilisation might not fall if a deadline is missed (well, I suppose it could, if it involved heads of governments and nuclear weapons and so on), but at the very least it appears unprofessional - and it decreases the turnaround time for the poor sucker who gets the work after you. It's unfair. When that poor sucker happens to be me, week after week, I get mad. There's no way my job really needs me to be at work for 10 or 11 hours in a day. But 11 hour days happen when little TGs (Tinpot Gods) think they are too important to have to bother with deadlines.

And the next time a certain TG scowls in horror, to see a minion of my lowly level in his office (at my manager's request, mind you), I may just go postal.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Customary vs Habitual

OK, the dictionary tells me they're synonyms - but I reckon they are very very different.

Having my "customary" after dinner drink(s?) somehow doesn't sound anywhere near as bad as having an habitual after dinner drink, right?


Saturday, 22 November 2008

Of Mice and Me

It's just as well mice don't freak me out the way big spiders do. There was another nocturnal adventure at my place yesterday.

It's not the first time Oscar bin Laden has tried gifting me with a mouse. I'm no stranger to teeny weeny mouse corpses, but I prefer not to be a witness to the corpse-making process.

A few months ago Oscar was dancing about on my bed at around 2.30am. He was insistently plucking at a throw rug that I'd put on top of my doona for extra warmth. The constant poke, poke, poke suddenly triggered a response in my sleeping brain - and I became very awake very quickly, and gingerly lifted a corner of the throw rug just in time to see a long mousy tail wriggle closer to me. Oscar saw it too, and prepared to deliver the death blow. Yuk - not on my bed you don't, you mouse-murdering little bastard!

2.30am in a Canberra winter is no time to be wandering the back yard in your jammies, looking for a safe spot to liberate a traumatised mouse, but that's what I found myself doing. Mouse, 1 - Cats, 0. Betty Mouse-Friend - frozen but metaphorically warm & fuzzy.

So anyway, last night's mouse, which had eluded both Oscar and Miff during the 2am mouse-chasing fiesta, was nowhere to be seen this morning. I was sort of glad - the tiny little corpses always make me feel a bit sad.

Mice aren't very bright, I discovered. When I saw that my slipper had an inhabitant, and picked it up to take it to freedom, stupid Mousie leapt out, into the waiting jaws of Oscar bin Laden. My God, the GUILT! I had delivered him to his doom! I would be responsible for an innocent (but stupid) mouse's tortured demise. NOOOooooooooo!

Mayhem ensued. Oscar kept catching Mousie, releasing him and batting him across the floor. Mousie would recover and run, which Oscar found very exciting. Miffy joined in, and suddenly two fanged Furies (or Furries, if you prefer) were having great fun playing mouse-tennis.

Ernest(ine) the giant spider watched the proceedings from her new corner, high above the front door, while I ran around the house with a plastic takeaway container to catch Mousie if I got the chance. It was exhausting.

Mousie ran beneath a wrinkle in a rug, and cowered there, catching its breath. The cats took turns poking their arms under the rug, right up to the elbows (do cats have elbows?) with no luck.

Oscar ran out of patience and did something I've never seen him do before (sometimes that cat is scary). He leapt upon a corner of the rug, and in a brilliant display of fancy footwork and sleight of paw, flung the rug back to reveal the unmoving mouse.

I pounced with my takeaway container. My moment had come; my chance to be a hero and to redeem myself. I hoped I was in time...

Mousie was released into the wild (yes, my grass is growing back at an amazing rate) and what passes for normal life in Chez Betty resumed. Betty Mouse-Friend, smug but weary, gave Ernest(ine) the Giant Spider a friendly wave, and shuffled wearily back to bed for a much needed rest.

I must empty the kitchen dresser and move it - I am almost certain that's where the mice are getting in. I like an adventure as much as the next person, but mouse-murders at midnight aren't my idea of fun.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Shiver me timbers, change the lingo!

I'm thinking it's time we found a new word for 'pirate'. Somehow, every time I hear the word pirate I have images of Johnny Depp camping it up, or Captain Hook - or even that scoundrel Long John Silver. Parrots and wooden legs and eye-patches come to mind, aaaaaarh, they do.

It doesn't seem right. Storybook and Hollywood pirates are figures of fun and romance. Kids gleefully devour tales of pirates, and even relatively sensible grown-ups get a big bang out of stuff like International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Storybooks and Hollywood have turned callous cut-throats into lovable larrikins.

Pirates have been claimed by storytellers and film-makers, romanticised and given an overlay of folk-heroism that's at odds with what they really were - and more importantly, what they are today.

Ask the terrified refugees who left war-torn Vietnam behind in the '70s, to try and find a better life, and who were attacked by Malay pirates who robbed, raped and murdered without a second thought. Ask the crews of ships recently taken by pirates off Somalia what they think of the lawless thugs who've captured them, terrorised them and held them and their ships for ransom. I bet the lovable Jack Sparrow is the furthest thing from their minds.

But it's the first image I get when I hear yet another news story about pirates. Damn it, it's Hollywood's fault!

Pirates are very, very bad people, no doubt about it. That's why I think we need a better word for them; one that doesn't have a whole swag of likeable associations attached to it. One that doesn't make you feel like a wide-eyed kid snuggled under a doona while someone reads Peter Pan or Treasure Island to you.

There's nothing cartoonish or buffoonish about the real pirates of today. The amusing pirate caricature in my mind is just that - a caricature - and it's totally at odds with the terrifying and lawless skullduggery - the stuff of recent news stories - that the current crop of 'gentlemen of fortune' engage in.

Saturday, 15 November 2008


Today is an important anniversary for me.

42 years ago today, my mother, my two younger brothers and I stepped off a BOAC flight onto Australian soil for the first time ever. 15 November, 1966 - the weather was gorgeous as we stepped onto the tarmac in Sydney. It was some ungodly hour like 6am, but it was light, and bright, and WARM ( we had just left a dark Novembery England, remember...)

Brand new Pommies. It was balmy, the light was eye-stabbingly bright, we were blindingly white and English. We were fried to crisps very shortly thereafter!

42 years ago I was 7 years old, and while it was all a bit exciting coming to a new country and all, and going on an aeroplane for the first time (yeah, great, all I did was leave a 12000 mile trail of vomit across the planet) I didn't want to be here. My life (such as it was!) was back in England.

This hot country where kids ran barefoot in the everlasting summer was not where I wanted to be. Oh God, I cringe sometimes when I think I must've been the most pompous 7 year-old Pom in the entire country. All I wanted was to go back to England.

When did I become Australian? I'm not sure...

I stopped missing England when I started high school in 1972;
I became an Australian citizen in about 1998, I think;
I started thinking that England was a foreign country when I visited in 2005, and the green hurt my eyes...

It happened sometime in amongst all of that - and I still can't say exactly what it means to be Australian, because all that "football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars" stuff makes me cringe.

I suppose what it means to me is that I can't seriously imagine living anywhere else - this is Home. I don't love everything about this country - in fact, there's plenty of stuff I don't like - the racism that pretends it doesn't exist; the worship of larrikinism (yeah, it can be cute in small doses but after a career as a schoolteacher I'm over it); the underdog mentality that seems to coexist so uncomfortably with the "wannabe" mentality; the "cringe" mentality (I confess, I cringe about Strine, but still feel as if it's somehow mine)...

When I think about being Australian, though, I guess what I'm identifying with is a love for the enormous expansive varied mish-mash of people and landscape that makes this place so wonderful.

I notice it most when I'm riding, and particularly when I'm riding a long way from home, especially when I'm by myself. Nothing makes me feel more Australian, and more comfortable, than pulling up at a country pub on my bike after a 500km ride, staggering into the bar, asking "can I have a room?" - and hearing the publican say "course you can, love, where you from?" It's the voice of belonging, of Home. I tried it a few years ago (sans motorcycle) in Portugal, and somehow something was lost in the translation... Give me a country Aussie pub any day!

I came to Australia in 1966 as a child of my parents - it was their choice to come here, not mine... I floated here on the waves they created - and quite frankly I resented it for a long time. It took me a while to appreciate what a great choice it was, but after 42 years here I can say this: I'm an Australian and I love it!

Whizzing Past Spiders

So tonight I walk out of my room into the dark hallway, and an enormous shadow detaches itself from the ceiling and abseils in a graceful arc in front of me. It drops to the floor and scuttles off. It's dark, so I could be mistaken, but it seems about the size of a small car.

Of course, barefoot and terrified of giant spiders, I jump up and down and scream a bit, and fumble for a lightswitch.

No sign of the giant spider, but I KNOW I glimpsed it abseilling and scuttling, and when I walk into its effing web I scream a bit more. The sticky rope clings to my hair, my shoulders, my back.... What if the spider is clinging to me as well?

Aaaaargh, I hate this!

I run around the house a few times, shimmying and shaking and waving my arms in the special spider-dislodging dance, then I check the bathroom, the loo and the study. No sign of anything enormous and eight-legged. (Aside: I'm not absolutely sure, but I think that's actually worse than seeing it and knowing where it is...)

After I spend the next half hour huddled in my room in abject terror (with my mate Johno laughing at me via Messenger), nature wants to take its course. Of course. Murphy's Law dictates that the wall behind the dunny will have become the favourite stopping place of Ernest the Giant Spider (they're marginally less terrifying if I name them). Of course again. Yep. That bugger is even bigger with the light

A couple of years ago I bought a nifty device called a Whiz, which I thought would be ideal for those terrible times when you're caught short on the road and you don't want to have to drop your dacks in snake and spider territory. It's just the thing for big tough girl bikers with tragic bladders, ha ha.

I have diligently packed it on every long trip - but have never had the opportunity to try it out properly for real etc, by the side of the road,where God intended. Have had a couple of half-hearted attempts at home, butyou feel a bit silly really.

But not tonight. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Turning my back and baring my bum at a spider the size of New Zealand is something I simply cannot do.

Thanks Whiz.