You say tomay-to, I say tom-ahto, let’s call the whole thing off

Here in the land of Oz-stray-lia, we take great pride in drawing out our vowels, particularly that long aaaaayyy in Oz-traaaaaaayyyy-lia, as much as possible. It’s what makes us Oz-traaaay-lian. Well, that and our universal love of beaches and sport and draping ourselves in an Aussie Flag and a pair of thongs* before we go up to the shop to buy milk.

Note, however, that even though we Aussies all love sport so much, we don’t commonly refer to sports. As much as we adore it, one sport seems to be enough for us. Now, I’m not saying we never put an s on the end of the word, but over here, it’s stinkin’ hot, mate, so if you can save a little bit of energy by cutting a word short, even by one letter, you do.

Or perhaps it’s that, in our Australian minds at least, if not in the dictionary, sport is satisfactory as both the singular and plural noun. After all, we don’t add an “s” to other plural nouns and refer to sheeps, deers or pantss, believe it or not, even if we are uncouth and run around draped in a flag.

Here at It Keeps Me Wondering Laboratories (TM), unfortunately we don’t have a grammar expert on staff. Regrettably, the nearest we have to a grammar expert is someone who got an A in Year 12 English and has a dictionary on her phone. To discover, therefore, whether the word sport is a singular or plural noun, the team here at IKMWL had to embark on some rigorous online research. However, after googling at least 2 different online dictionaries, our research budget for this project ran out, so we are unable to answer that question. I’m sure some of you will be able to, however, and perhaps you will be generous enough to let us know what the definitive answer is. (Please address all correspondence to It Keeps Me Wondering Laboratories, in your capital city. No stamp required, as long as you post it before 6pm on the second Monday of the month.)

I have no doubt that someone with superior knowledge of grammar could explain this (and use better grammar in that previous phrase), but the IKMW research team hypothesised that sport is a lot like fish: you can have one fish, you can have 2 fish (even a red fish or a blue fish), and you can also have a whole pond full of fish – making fish both a singular and plural noun – yet I don’t think it’s incorrect to refer to fishes. Whoever wrote that story in the Bible about the loaves and fishes certainly thought so anyway, and I can see why. If it had been called The Loaves and The Fish, the dramatic point of the story may have been missed.

One fish. (Blue fish.)

One fish. (Blue fish.)

Pic: Dr Seuss Wiki

I frequently find myself reading American authors, or perusing the headings of news reports syndicated from America, where sport is used as though the word is singular, and requires an “s” to become plural.

Thus, in Australia we would say “Well, that was the news for today. Now, to sport” “I used to play a lot of sport” “She does a lot of sport at school” “What sport do you play?” In America, I gather the equivalent sentences would be “….Now, to sports”, “I used to play a lot of sports” “She does a lot of sports at school,” “What sports do you play?”

The funny thing is that when it comes to maths, the discrepancy is the other way around. Because in Australia we generally say maths, rather than math, which Americans say. 

Of course, in this case, both of us are abbreviating the word mathematics. Our research team here at IKMW Labs also spent some time looking up the definition of mathematics to determine whether it should be classed as a singular or plural noun. Is it a singular area of study, or a plural collective of infinitely recurring little numbers and plus and minus signs that all band together to stand up for their rights?

Our research team found that mathematics is “the abstract science of number, quantity, and space, either as abstract concepts (pure mathematics ), or as applied to other disciplines such as physics and engineering (applied mathematics ),”  a definition which did not directly answer our question. They pondered this definition for some time over an extended tea break, and the majority of the research team were of the opinion that this makes mathematics a plural noun, on the basis that the study of concepts incorporating the idea of infinity surely has to be a plural noun when there is an infinite amount of stuff hidden inside it. (This train of thought led me to wonder whether infinity is a singular or plural noun). (At this point I’m starting to question why we embarked upon this particular line of research. I will be checking back on the minutes from that meeting to see just whose idea this was.)

If you follow the logic that I used regarding sport, that would mean that math should be sufficient as a plural noun. It shouldn’t require the addition of an “s.” So why do Aussies keep the “s”? Could it be because if you take the “s” off the end of the mathematics, the word becomes an adjective, mathematic, eg, this is a rather difficult mathematic equation

Self explanatory really.  There are 2 fish.

Self explanatory really.

Pic: Dr Seuss Wiki

I don’t know the answer to this puzzle, and I regret to report to all our shareholders that funding for this research project has now come to an end. The all-expenses paid trip to LA and Disneyland taken by the team here at IKMW Labs was a lot of fun, and was crucial to our research, as it allowed us to confirm that Americans do, indeed, say “sports” and “math” even in real life and not just on TV. However that part of the research used up most of our funds so we have not been able to come up with any conclusion at this stage, as to why Australians add an “s” to “math.”

As a side note to this project, while writing up our findings, I’ve discovered that, probably in any country in the world, writing the word sport more than a few times can cause the writer to start wondering if she is using the correct word, or whether she has misspelled it. After staring too long at the word sport, it looks quite ridiculous, a sort of hybrid between short and spurt, words surely never heard out on the playing field without signifying a failure of some sort or other.

And by the way, I’m Australian, so yes,  I say Tom-AH-dow.

And pot-AAAAAY-dow.

*

 

* in American, thongs (pronounced “thongs”) are flip-flops. (pronounced “flip-flops”).

 

 

Who Are You This Time?

Brains are funny things.

One morning recently, as I went about my usual preparations for work, I was, as is not surprising, thinking about work. To be specific, I was thinking about a “difficult” client at work. Through a process of association, my thoughts wandered on, and I found myself thinking about my previous job, and a regular client I’d dealt with in that role, a few times each year – each “time” comprising of contact over a period of a few months while I organised her event.

I had about 3-4 lengthy “transactions” with this client each year, over about 5 years. Each  “transaction” involved negotiating about dates for hiring a venue for a week, negotiating over the charges for hire and staffing, chasing up deposit payments, organising the staffing and ticketing services, and reconciling the client’s financial account with my employer when their season was over. In short, we had a lot of contact. I recall some days telling my colleagues that I’d already had 10 emails from her, and that was probably before lunch time.

In my first few encounters with this client, I was much newer to my role and therefore far less experienced in these kinds of negotiations overall. She came across as being unorganised, rushed, and a bit pushy, wanting the hugest event possible, for the smallest amount of money. She also liked to hold out on putting down her deposit, and would come up with excuse after excuse as to why it wasn’t paid yet, until the time came where, with the blessing of my Director, I cancelled her entire hire at extremely short notice.

In another scenario, doing this to a company planning a week-long event, only a few weeks out, would have been highly stressful but by this point I’d learned to speak politely but forcefully to this client. I would lay out terms really clearly from the start, continue to repeat those terms, remind her pedantically that I’d told her extra costs would apply if she changed her schedule, or that I’d already given her a deadline for payment, and therefore be really clear about who was responsible for the action that we had to take. I learned to judge just how much to concede to her and how to do it in such a way that she was very aware of where we stood. I was always polite, respected her right to negotiate, and apologised on any occasion where someone else in my organisation made errors (which sometimes happened. I may not be perfect but I can promise you, the errors were never mine in regards to this client).

By the time I left that job, I had probably dealt with this particular woman over 3 – 4 major hires per year, over about 5 years. We are talking about many phone calls, thousands of emails, and (a crucial point as you will soon discover), seeing one another in person at least once for each of those hires, so about 3-4 times per year.

I imagine by the time we’d dealt with one another for 5 years, we each thought of the other person with a sense of resignation. She needed our venue and we needed her hire, so we had to make the best of it.

That’s what I was musing about as I gargled the other morning. Suddenly, I realised that this stream of thought was accompanied by a sort of background screen-saver I hadn’t been taking any notice of – a picture of this client in my head. The funny thing, and the reason that it suddenly struck me, was that the mental picture of her in my head was not really her! It was the image I had formed of her years ago, prior to ever meeting her in person.

Every now and then, I’m caught out like this, only realising when the real person steps in front of me, that I’ve built up a picture in my mind of someone I’ve been dealing with by phone and/or email. Usually it’s wildly wrong. I’m guessing that everyone does this, but I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s just me. I do it unconsciously, and often I don’t realise until they arrive and stand in front of me, 9 times out of 10 looking nothing at all like the person I’d imagined. It’s fascinating to wonder what factors my imagination grabs hold of when creating its own little image of the person in question. I think the name is very significant, but other factors, including accent and even profession, are also in the mix.

Take this client, for example – the one I’d met at least 5 times. She had an American accent, a very American first name (let’s call her Cindy), and a greek surname, (let’s pretend it was Onassis). From my very first dealings with Cindy Onassis, she’d come across as unorganised and with unrealistic expectations about what she could do on a tight budget, and therefore likely to create a lot of extra work.

Without realising it, I created a picture of her in my mind. By the time I first met her, I’d – partly unconsciously – determined that the person I was dealing with was a woman in her mid-to-late 50s, probably overweight, with a permanently harassed air. She’d have shoulder-length hair which was naturally grey, but dyed a coppery-red, tied hurriedly back in an unkept, messy pony tail. She would always look slightly flushed, and slightly out of breath, and untidy strands of dry, frizzy hair would always be falling out of her ponytail, suggesting that she was always rushing to meet a deadline and didn’t have time to worry about her appearance. If pressed for more detail, I could have added that she would almost certainly wear a white polo-necked t-shirt teamed with some navy tailored pants, although when it came to her shoes, I drew a blank.

So it came as a shock when I first met her in person, to see how far removed from the physical image in my head she was. For a start, she appeared to be of Philippino background, and consequently her very dark hair was not frizzy and dry, but sleek and shiny. She wore it in a nondescript, longish bob, sometimes tied back. She was shorter than me, meaning that she officially qualified as “small” – and was not overweight. She was probably about 40 years old at most. I cannot specifically recall what she wore on any of the occasions that we met, but I am going to say it was something practical, probably jeans, sneakers and a jumper or denim jacket (my memory, or my imagination – I’m now unsure which – wants to shout “double denim!”).

If anyone had been able to read my mind on our first meeting,  they would have heard me say, “Um…hello, who the hell are you, and where is Cindy Onassis, she’s supposed to be meeting me here?”

Basically, I discovered today that, some 6 or so years after first meeting someone, my brain is capable of “remembering” her as the imaginary version I’d created before meeting her, instead of the real version I met at least 5-6 times.

No-one would be surprised to hear that our imagination colors our memories. Here’s a very common example. Currently, I’ve misplaced, or lost, my work keys. I discovered this when I arrived at work on Tuesday morning. Immediately, I replayed in my mind, the scene of myself leaving work on Monday night. There I go, walking out the door, putting my work keys into my bag. But the reality is that they are not in my bag or anywhere in my car, so reason tells me that I have question that memory. Is that memory of me walking out the doors at work with keys in my hand, actually me pulling my house keys out of my bag? Or, has my imagination kicked in and allowed me to remember walking out the door with my keys when in fact I left them on my desk?*

I’m sure that our memory sometimes recalls things that were only ever imagined, mistaking something that took place only in the imagination – like my imaginary image of that client – for a memory of a real event. For example, although I can still remember seeing it, it’s possible that there was not really a dark, menacing knight in shining armour standing outside my parents’ bedroom door in the middle of the night, back in the first house I lived in until I was four.

Um…hello…who the hell are you? I’m here to find my mum and dad, let me through!

 

 

*Update: the keys were found tonight, inside a box of muesli bars in the kitchen cupboard. Before you diagnose early dementia on my part, there is a perfectly logical explanation – the open box of muesli bars was in my bag, and the keys must have fallen into it while I was driving home from work. If you don’t believe me, you’re probably not the only one.

Don’t Dream It’s Over

You know, if I was a different kind of person, I’d wake up bright and early – at 7am, say, even on a day off.

I’d stagger out of bed, lumber downstairs to the kitchen to make coffee, and sit at my kitchen bench, marvelling at the sounds of birds singing in the trees, while I started planning my day. By 7.30am I’d be outside watering the plants, or inside dusting the bookshelves, or heading off to the gym, or whatever early-risers do. I’d use my time to the fullest, every day, in ways that other people could see and appreciate.

But alas, I’m not that kind of person. I’m the kind of person who sleeps till 9am on a day off and thinks it’s extra nice to go back to bed with a cup of tea and a book until 12. No wonder I’ve achieved so little in life.

To anyone observing my sleep – ASIO for example, if I was under investigation – it would look as though I spend an average of 9 hours a night fast asleep. In reality however, on a weekly basis, a reasonable proportion of that time is spent lying in bed with my eyes shut, breathing slowly and engaging in encouraging, comforting self-talk.  It’s ok not to be asleep, just relaaaax. Relaxing is nearly as good as being asleep. Maybe I even am asleep, just really lightly asleep. I’ll count backwards from 100, here we go. 100. 99. 98. 97. 96. 95. …..

Another proportion of those 9 hrs is spent less calmly, tossing and turning while the self-talk changes tone to something like this: Well I slept from about 11 to 12, and it’s only 4am now so it’s still possible to get another 3 and a half good hours if I can JUST GO TO SLEEP RIGHT THIS MOMENT…..ok, calm down, that’s not going to help. Let’s think about words starting with P. Pumpkin. Porpoise. Particular. Pedantic. Personify. Personal. Patriachal. Puppy. Playful. Pantomine. Pendulum. Piston. Palpable. Pretty. Pod. Perfect. Plait. Plate. Pine. Pour. Pout. Prefect. Plum. Pudding….THIS ISN”T GETTING ME ANYWHERE, I”M STILL WIDE AWAKE!!!

At least one night a week I go to bed about 10.30 feeling tired, but find that I can’t go to sleep. Instead I toss and turn until my partner comes to bed at some time around 1am, and starts snoring about 4.5 minutes later. Meanwhile, I continue to toss and turn. On a night like this, tiny noises that probably occur every night, jolt me out of any semi-sleep state I might be about to drift into. But sometimes, I might only toss and turn for another half an hour or so, and finally nod off to sleep about 1.30am. Hurrah, success!

But not for long. Inevitably after a bad night of sleep, I wake the second it starts to become light outside. Noooooooooo!

One moment I’m lost somewhere deep within a dream, the next moment my mind is awake and conscious that there is light in the room. I don’t want to register that fact! I keep my eyes closed, and try to calmly grasp onto that feeling I had one second ago – that warm, comfortable, sleepiness. Stay comfortable, stay relaxed.

What was I just dreaming?

Don't even start me on that damn violinist who wanders through my room. No wonder I've got a hat jammed down over my ears.

How’s a girl supposed to sleep with  that damn violinist wandering around the room?

pic: Wikimedia Commons

I desperately try to manipulate my mind into slipping back into the dream I was just having, as if it’s as easy as taking the pause button off on a movie. But of course on this particular morning, when I’ve had little sleep at the other end of the night, there seems to be no in-between state available. My mind has gone from unconscious dream-state to switched on in an instant. At one level I know I won’t be able to get back to sleep but I try for a while anyway. Ok, this doesn’t matter. I’ve thought before that I’ll never get back to sleep, and I have. I”m sure that’s happened. At least once. Just relax. Relaaaax. Relaxing is almost as good as being asleep. Listen to the birds. Soon it will be time to go to work. Don’t think about work. Of course today I’ve got that meeting with that difficult client who – shhhhh. No thoughts about work. Relaxing thoughts. Deep breathing…..OH BUGGER WHAT”S THE POINT??? I may as well get up.

All of us wake up all through the night, but those people lucky enough to sleep soundly usually don’t recall waking. Most mornings I recall multiple times where I woke up through the night. To me it’s a good night’s sleep if I woke up multiple times but got straight back to sleep. Having had periods in my life where I had chronic insomnia, I feel pleased if I can get to sleep in less than an hour, or if total sleep over the night equals 6 hours or more. It doesn’t mean I feel great the next day, but I take some comfort from getting those 6 hours because I know from experience that being awake night after night, until 5.30am, when you have to be up again at 7.30am, is very bad for your mental health.

The bonus is that all the failures in my ability to sleep make sleeping a valuable pastime that I appreciate. Man, I do love to sleep! I love the creative time that my mind takes to wander in that hazy half-world known as dreams. Almost every morning I wake up recalling a dream, or multiple dreams from the night before. I think it’s partly because I wake up throughout the night that I recall my dreams so well, because when I wake out of a dream in the night, for a second or two it enters into my conscious mind.

We know that the brain is very busy at night, connecting neural pathways, storing away memories, and categorising and filing information, and that dreams play a part in all of that. But I also just simply enjoy recalling dreams. Frequently they interest or amuse me. “On paper”, the content of a dream may seem nonsensical, or banal, yet often the memory of a dream is accompanied by feelings that are harder to convey or even recall accurately, and that fade quickly from the memory. It could be a feeling of cosiness, or security, or a sense that something interesting is happening just outside of my focus. Perhaps the dream was of an ex work colleague of mine, but with only one eye, which was big and bejewelled and possibly had a laser beam coming out of it. (*True recent dream). Yet this weird image could have been accompanied by a feeling of anticipation that something exciting was going to happen. (*feeling is fictional and concocted for the purposes of illustrating this point.) It’s often that feeling that makes me want to go back to my dream on waking, so that I can continue on with it.

So in reality, I may appear to be much lazier than the energetic person who leaps out of bed at 7am, goes for a half hour run, and by 8am has had a coffee and a shower and sold some shares, but I actually expend a lot of effort on trying to sleep, and on trying to dream. I hope that my efforts at sleeping to the best of my limited abilities will put my neural pathways in at least equal condition to early risers, by the time we are both 85.

Of course, that probably won’t be the case, since I notice that those annoyingly cheerful, early-rising, high achieving people are always inevitably the ones who never have the slightest bit of trouble sleeping, so they probably do all of that hard brain work too, just without ever waking and being aware of it. Damn them!

 *

**In keeping with the frequent-but-not-always theme of this blog, this post is named after a song. This particular song is by popular New Zealand band Crowded House.

Get Into The Groove

A few posts ago, I wrote a post about about the meaning of cool, referring to its definition to mean hip, fashionable, groovy. (As opposed to its other uses, to mean somewhat on the cold side, or unfriendly.)

As a tangent to that post, today, I am going to look at cools first cousin. Let’s just say that today, I’m feeling groovy.*

Groovy. It’s a fun word to say, right?  The team here at It Keeps Me Wondering Laboratories (TM) have spent months researching this topic, and we conclude that it’s because the double “o” in groovy sounds a million times more drawn out and laid back than it does in words that groovy rhymes with. I

f you don’t believe me, try saying them out loud. Go on, no-one’s watching! Have a go at words like foodie, moody, or nudie. I bet you’ll have finished making the “oo” sound before you know it. Now try groovy. You really had to pout your lips for that one, didn’t you?

Our theory is that extra effort is required by the mouth to make a “gr” sound, so that slows the mechanics of pronouncing the whole word right down, causing the remainder of your efforts to play out like a close up shot filmed in slow motion. By the time you’ve mastered the “gr” and got to the “oo” it feels more like “oooooo,” and your blood pressure has dropped slightly. Finish it off with the “vy” sound, which makes any word sound kind of humorous (just ask the navy), except gravy, which I’ve always found to be very sombre stuff.

In short, scientists here at IKMW (TM) Laboratories believe that there is a sort of “placebo” effect to the word groovy. In other words, it’s hard to say groovy without simultaneously feeling more laid back and….well, kinda groovy.

So much for the mechanics of pronunciation. I know what you are really all wondering is, what exactly does the word mean? According to the Miriam Webster online dictionary:

1. Marvellous, wonderful, excellent

or

2. Hip, trendy.

One offering on Urban Dictionary suggests that the word means excellent, tubular, awesome or cool.

Groovy seems to have very similar origins to cool. According to Wikipedia: The word originated in the jazz culture of the 1920s, in which it referred to the “groove” of a piece of music (its rhythm and “feel”), plus the response felt by its listeners. It can also reference the physical groove of a record in which the pick-up needle runs. (Wikipedia)

Many sources reference the word as being very highly used in the 60s, and at the page linked above, Wikipedia provides an impressive list of songs from that decade with groovy in the title to prove that true.

According to Wikipedia, however, common use of the word groovy had died out by the 1980s.

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 3.00.36 pm

I beg to differ. I recall being taken by surprise in 1990 when I heard a girl a few years younger than me, use the word groovy. It’s a seemingly trivial moment to remember so clearly, but I know what year it was because I was at art school, and I really did register surprise. I remember thinking that I had never heard that word used by anyone in real life before. In my memory, had only ever been used by characters on shows like The Brady Bunch or Get Smart, to situate characters firmly in the 60s or 70s.

Both cool and groovy can be used to mean that something is excellent. That is one cool jacket!  That is such a groovy idea! However, when used to describe a person, they are, to my mind, quite different from one another. Cool describes someone who is a step ahead of the pack in terms of their willingness to embrace the new and set the trend, or to go against the crowd, and often also implies someone who is slightly aloof, perhaps set apart from, or above, the pack, who aspire to be like them. Groovy is very different. Groovy retains its 60s-70s hippie vibe, so someone who is groovy is generally very laid back and easy-going, likely to be into certain types of music (eg funk, soul, etc), and may even still wear flares.

In my post about cool, I suggested that the people who epitomised cool were The Fonz, and James Dean. In keeping with that line of thought, I’d have to say that my pick for the people who epitomise groovy is these 3 dudes:

Now, when I was born the 60s were fading to an end, and I was only a kid in the 70s. As far as popular culture goes, it was from the 80s onwards that I was really taking any notice.

Therefore, I thought I’d look back at what a few experts have said about being groovy, since the 1980s.

Get into the groove

Boy you’ve got to prove

Your love for me

Madonna, 1984

Here Madonna is clearly telling this “Boy” that if he wants to be considered awesome, excellent or even tubular, he needs to do more than just mooch around looking moody. At the moment his behaviour is just not cutting it: he needs to lift his game.

Your groove, I do deeply dig, No walls, only the bridge, My supperdish, my succotash wish.

Sing it, baby!

Deee-Lite, 1990

Now I can’t be certain, but I think what Deee-Lite was saying was:  “I like you a lot you may be sure. But walls are for squares, let’s go outside and get together on a bridge. BTW, I’ve got a craving for a dish of sweet corn and lima beans* for my supper, and I’ll really like you if you make it for me and serve it up in this dish.”

Groove is quick but thick no trick

words manifest

Lyrics I lick

Snap, 1990

Interpretation: “this beat is very fast, and hard, but it’s real, man. It’s a challenge to create lyrics that make sense, but hell, words are just coming to me as I rap, yeah, I’ve got the lyrics licked.”

So we can clearly see from the above evidence that 1990 was indeed a renaissance for the word “groovy.”  We also conclude our studies by noting that some lyrics are best left uninterpreted.

* Lyric from The 59th Bridge Street Song (Feeling Groovy) – Simon and Garfunkle, 1966

*Madonna, Get Into The Groove, 1984

*Dee-lite, Groove Is In The Heart, 1990

*Snap, The Cult Of Snap, 1990

Poetry in the workplace

Think back, if you can, to your earliest days at primary school. Do you, like me, recall interminably long afternoons that seemed to drag on for ever, inevitably in a swelteringly hot classroom?

Corr Blimey, teacher, what did Harry Potter do next???

Corr Blimey, teacher, what did Harry Potter do next???

Pic: BBC- Primary History

(Is it a common phenomenon to recall only the hot afternoons? For some reason I don’t have any memories of being cold at primary school, even though logically, I should have experienced a lot more cold afternoons at school than warm ones, particularly when at least 6 weeks or so each Summer are spent away from school enjoying the holidays so cleverly named Summer holidays.)

Well, now try to imagine as an adult, working in a company where an all staff meeting that seems to be designed to recreate that sense of primary school ennui is held every single week on a Tuesday afternoon.

While you are picturing that, I’ll just interrupt your train of thought to note that I began the draft of this post at my previous work place. That means, in case you are wondering, that I’m not referring to my current place of work. This makes it a lot easier to finish off and post now, since I have the benefit of distance.

Happily for me, the long, drawn out, mostly pointless, Tuesday afternoon meeting is now a thing of the past. I look back on the memory much as I do on the memory of myself in the Prep-Grade 1 room at primary school – basically I feel a sympathetic affection for the bored, listless figure of myself sitting in the classroom/meeting room, probably staring out the window and daydreaming and therefore not benefitting from anything accidentally useful that might be said in the lesson/meeting.

Now, it wasn’t always hot all year round at my previous workplace, which, let’s face it, was not in Saudi Arabia, but in fact was only a 25 minute drive from where I currently work, in an inner suburb of Melbourne. In Melbourne, as everyone knows, the weather can go from 38 degrees with hot north winds blasting, to 18 degrees and hailing, within half an hour, (it’s happened before) and still be sunny again in time for tea. (3pm.) (that’s when I like to have a cup of tea. Green, no milk or sugar, thanks very much.)

Yet when I think back on those unbearably long Tuesday afternoon meetings, I always picture us on a hot afternoon, crammed in around the table in the old office where the airconditioning never really quite managed to make any difference to the temperature, all sweating in the heat.

There were about 10 staff that would attend those meetings. The agenda began with a section that you could reasonably expect to take no more than 2 minutes, where everyone around the table stated their days in/out of the office for the next week. (This tradition began under a previous director who ran such a loose ship that it got to the point where the majority of staff , including management, would email at about 11am (presumably when they got up) to announce they were “working at home,” taking “Time  In Lieu,” or coming in late. This had led to at least one scenario where I only discovered through a casual comment made by the Director that there would be no-one in the office the following afternoon unless I took it upon myself to change my own hours around to keep the office open.)

It should take only 2 minutes for 10 people to say if they are in/out of the office over the next 5 working days, but even this round could sometimes take 20 minutes as some people felt the need to elaborate on the reasons why they’d be out of the office and then go off on tangents related to that.

After that section came updates from the General Manager, and then each staff member updated the team on what they were currently working on. The entire meeting would not infrequently take 2 hours. 2 hours, people!!! 

 

How riveting, another staff meet...zzzzzz

Oh excellent, another staff meet…zzzzzz

Pic: Global English

Due to the regularly overblown meeting length, myself and a few other thoughtful/busy human beings would keep our updates to approx 4 minutes, and would also avoid asking questions or commenting on anything that was not a matter of life or death (ie, nothing) during other staff updates, for fear of increasing the length of the meeting any further. Assuming there were about 3 of us who spoke for about 4 minutes each, that means the other 7 spoke for an average 15 mins each.

As you can probably gather, these meetings were not well adjudicated. Various staff would frequently use them to try to raise issues that they wanted to hash out right then, or to start mini-conversations about a particular project with other staff that did not need to include the other 8, or go off on tangents, throwing in dubiously related information that they felt was relevant and needed discussion, with the real aim of making sure the team, and the GM, were aware how much they were doing.

The usefulness of those meetings was questionable. I wouldn’t say that the entire 2 hours was a waste, but probably in many cases, about 1 hr 45 minutes of it did nothing to provide me with any new information that would inform my work. As the minute-taker, I would often find myself just sitting there and not typing, waiting until the meeting got back on track and wasn’t just a 2 person conversation about when to organise flyer delivery, for example.

On other occasions, the topic under discussion would remind someone of an amusing story, which they did not hesitate to share, clearly having no doubt that we would all like to extend the staff meeting for a further 10 minutes, to hear them tell it.

Somewhere along the line, I realised that there was one thing I could get from these meetings, and that was an amusing list of totally random topics, since there were so many discussed at every meeting. I began to try and note down topics discussed during meetings that were either entirely unrelated to work, or so vague and useless that time should not have been spent pondering these things out loud while holding up a room full of people who were being paid by the hour to sit there.

The list looks like a stream-of-consciousness by someone with, well, not very much on their mind.  I like to call it Workplace Poetry. Following are just a few items that were discussed for at least a minute or two, over two or three staff meetings:

  • Swing dancing
  • Star signs
  • (lengthy discussion re. how many people around the table are Virgos)
  • Everyone is wearing polka dots today
  • Academy Awards(TM) use the same  software as we do
  • (lengthy description of an artist’s studio)
  • 3 poodles were seen sitting side by side at the cafe
  • We purchased some chairs from someone who apparently was friends with an ex-staff member, but no-one can remember who – perhaps she was the friend of a friend? (- time spent on discussing who it might have been)
  • A potential client is going to Paris, and has already arranged to meet with our GM when he gets back, to talk about Paris
  • A tradesman who’s name sounds like “Precious”. (- A few minutes spent debating whether it’s likely that he changed his name.)
  • Mineral foundation
  • Wild Orchid
  • 80s trash
  • X’s parents – she may use a water gun on them.
  • Barbeque – need to sacrifice a person on it first time you use it.
  • Make a list of people and burn the list on the barbeque
  • MONA (The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania) is very well organised
  • There was sun, people lying on the grass, very nice
  • Leatherwood honey drops are an acquired taste
  • They put a man on the moon in 1969, X. watched it on tv at primary school
  • 40 years later we can make tea and coffee in the office
  • Staff fun day idea: staff ride around on the lighting rack
  • OHS issues with above idea.
  • Cupcakes from the city are the best.

That’s the end of my list, but I kind of regret now that I didn’t keep this list more diligently. As the minute-taker, I could easily have been typing notes while people talked, and just pretended I was still catching up on the previous topic.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear to me now that the hidden stream-of-consciousness poetry within these meetings was the best thing about them.

It was just hard to filter out the half-arsed attempts to address work issues, to see that at the time.

You Can’t Stop The Music

What gives a city its character?

I’ve been holidaying in Sydney for the past fortnight (that’s my excuse for the longer-than-usual delay between posts) and while I wandered around enjoying the shopping, the views and the cider, in Sydney’s typically overcast, warm, humid weather, I tried to pinpoint what elements, for me, give Sydney its character, and make it a place that I enjoy coming back to for holidays. Believe it or not, it’s not the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House that I come back for, as stunning as they are.

Sure, they're sweet.

Sure, it’s a nice building, but I wouldn’t want to clean it.

Like most major cities of their size, both Melbourne and Sydney are chock-full of permanent and temporary residents who originally came from elsewhere, and are richer with the diversity of cultures this brings. Some city-dwellers are asylum seekers or refugees, who have travelled over the sea in boats, or flown in from other lands, to escape life under dictatorships, civil war, or risk of torture or genocide. Some are migrants – like our very own current Prime Minister – whose families came to Australia seeking a better life, or to reunite with family members.

Some city dwellers, such as myself, are merely escapees from small Australian towns, where employment prospects were limited, privacy was non-existent, and the number of like-minded people with similar interests could be counted without using double digits.  To us, a city offered all the excitement of open-ended possibilities for our futures, and the anonymity to pursue those possibilities without being gossiped about by friends of our parents. And occasionally I even come across people who were actually born in the city and have lived there all their lives!

Those of us who leave small country towns for the big city have an undying loyalty, not to their home town, but to the city that gave us a break. Or then again, perhaps not. Perhaps I’m speaking only for myself.

I have always liked Melbourne, where I’ve lived since I escaped country-town life at the age of 18. I know there are cities that are bigger and more glamorous than Melbourne, but I’ve always felt that Melbourne is perfect in many ways. It’s big enough to have lots of different inner-city areas with their own distinct flavour made up of different cultural mixes and histories (eg, St Kilda, Fitzroy, Carlton, Brunswick), but still small enough to get around to different neighborhoods with relative ease, and affordable enough to be constantly somewhere near the top on those annually-produced lists of “most liveable cities” that give newspapers something to write about on slow news days. (although the cost of housing and rentals has increased significantly in the last 20 years or so, making Melbourne far less affordable for students and anyone else not earning a full-time, high-bracketed wage, than when I was a student.)

I’ve only ever been a visitor in Sydney, and I’ve always had the feeling that it’s a much bigger city than Melbourne. Perhaps this is partly because its hilly topography makes it very easy to see that high-rise apartments fill the CBD and Northern Sydney, but are also speckled up and down the hilly landscapes surrounding each little bay on the world-famous Sydney Harbour. However I realised on this trip, more than ever before, that like any large city, the monolith can be broken down into different little neighborhoods that have their own distinct character: eg, Surry Hills, Kings Cross, Newtown, Bondi.

Bondi - ok, yes it's nice but I sunburn easily, so I'm just as happy in Melbourne watching it rain, thank you.

Bondi  Beach – ok, yes it’s nice but I sunburn easily, so I’m just as happy in Melbourne watching it rain, thank you.

Walking around Surry Hills last week, I was struck by how Sydney’s inner suburbs seem to have retained a majority of their old pubs (“hotels” or “drinking establishments”), built any time from the mid 1800s to the 1960s, largely intact and reasonably well-maintained. To me, this gives those suburbs a certain character that is missing now in some of Melbourne’s older suburbs.

The Cricketers Arms Hotel, Surry Hills, Sydney.

The Cricketers Arms Hotel, Surry Hills, Sydney.

Pic: Sydney Pub List

Sadly, in Melbourne a large majority of old pubs have been turned into apartments or cafes, and those still operating as hotels are either “gentrified” into fancy establishments with bland interiors that lack any real character, and ‘fine dining’ menus where a main meal costs $35, or, alternatively, where pokie machines have been installed and are the main crowd-pulling feature.

It appeared to me that Surry Hills has a cosy-looking old pub on almost every corner (My research team estimate that approximately 3 corners in Surry Hills do not house a pub). Most of the older pubs I passed by in any suburb seem to have retained their original features, and most were very well attended, inside and out, whatever time of day we walked past them.

It’s interesting to ponder not only what factors give a city character, but equally, what factors can directly, or indirectly, destroy a city’s character.

In the eternal question about which city is better, Melbourne or Sydney, Melbournians like to claim that Melbourne has a far better live music scene. This fact has been repeated since the late 80’s, accompanied by evidence in the form of comparisons with the number of live gigs, the number of bands from cities like Perth and Brisbane who end up in Melbourne, and, tellingly, the number of live music venues. As the story goes, back in the 80s, Sydney’s live music scene was indirectly the victim of real estate development. The scenario goes something like this:

  • Developer builds apartments near well-established live music venue that contributes to the character of an area, making the area a good investment because it’s desirable to younger, up-and-coming (yuppie) types.
  • New residents move in because they want to live in this cool area
  • New residents complain about loud music keeping them awake at night
  • Venue is forced to stop hosting live music because of complaints about noise
  • Owners of venue can’t continue to pursue their passion (live music) or can’t afford to keep hotel running in it’s current incarnation, and put hotel on the market
  • Hotel gets sold to a developer
  • Developer turns old hotel into brand new apartment block.

Sad to say, since the mid 1990s, Melbourne has been slowly catching up to Sydney in this regard. In the time that I’ve been seeing bands, many of the venues that played a significant part in the history of Melbourne’s rock music scene have totally disappeared, to become shopping centres, apartment blocks or cafes. To name just a few that were around in the late 80s or early 90s: the Old Greek Theatre in Richmond, now shops (I think), the Punters Club in Fitzroy, now a cafe, The Club in Collingwood, which I think is also now a shopping centre, and the Continental in Prahran- I’m not sure what is currently in that building now.

A recent case that has drawn a lot of attention and angst from anyone in Melbourne and even beyond, who values live music and/or history, is that of the historic Palace in Bourke St, which has been through many different incarnations as a place of cultural significance to Melbourne. When I was 19 I spent my Thursday nights with other university students, nightclubbing in that very venue, then called The Metro, but the venue had a long history as an entertainment venue, having first been used as a theatre in 1912. After its stint as a nightclub, it began to host live music, and played a big part in the touring scene, as it held an audience of approx 1850. Off the top of my head I recall seeing Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, Kim Salmon and the Surrealists, Grinderman, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, at the venue. Music lovers are missing out – for example there is a lack of sideshows this year when festivals like Soundwave come to Melbourne, because the city is now missing a venue that is the right size for certain bands.

Palace Theatre, Bourke St, Melbourne

Palace Theatre, Bourke St, Melbourne

pic: Melbourne Heritage Action

The Palace was put up for sale in the past year or so, and was purchased by a Multinational Developer in China. Developers are not known for being sentimental about real estate, so it’s unsurprising that a developer situated in another country has no interest in the cultural significance, or historic significance, of a building they have purchased over here. To them it’s an obstacle that simply needs to be demolished, in order to build a hotel or high-rise apartment block.

The building in question also happens to be in a leafy precinct at the top of Bourke Street in Melbourne’s CBD, amongst buildings dating back to the 1800s, an area where nothing else is more than about 3 stories tall. It’s the area referred to by Real Estate agents, who are not embarrassed about using such terms, as “the Paris end” of Bourke Street. Well, alright, I can see what you’re trying to say, but in Paris they realised some time ago, the aesthetic value of keeping buildings to a certain height within the city area. That’s exactly why it’s used as a metaphor for the beautiful part of the city, Mr/Ms Real Estate Agent. And that’s why people go to Paris just to see the city itself, apart from all its other attractions.

I, too, went to Paris and photographed buildings.

I, too, went to Paris and photographed buildings.

Boring as it might sound, when I think about what gives a city character, I’d have to say that “planning,” is pretty crucial, if that means keeping an eye on trying to retain the character a city or area has developed, probably prior to the notion of planning ever becoming a “thing.” A city’s history is a very important part of its character. Areas where its history is respected and well preserved end up being those little pockets that residents love, and guide books recommend to tourists, just to walk around and experience.

When I, for example, remember my visit to San Fransisco many years ago, I remember fondly the inner-city neighborhoods like Haight Ashbury, Russian Hill, etc. As a tourist, I understood the many layers of history these areas contained, because I could see original buildings, maintained from when they were first built, and I could learn more about the artists and cultural figures who had famously lived or worked in those areas, particularly, of course, in the fifties and sixties, giving them another layer of rich cultural significance to the city. I barely recall the CBD, except to remember that it lacked any character at all.

I left Sydney after this holiday feeling less sure that Melbourne is actually streets ahead of Sydney in character, as I used to think. I think we Melbournians might be applying wishful thinking there. We feel like we must have more character, because Sydney got the views and the better weather. But hey guys – Sydney has also got lots of old pubs! Add that to views and better weather and I’m starting to think……well, anyway, I”m less sure now that Melbourne wins that competition.

It’s one thing I really missed when I moved to the otherwise lovely older, inner Melbourne suburb that I live in, and still miss now – there is not one single old pub with any character in the whole suburb. Just some bland, characterless pubs and some wine bars.

In any area, the absence of a good old cosy pub, preferably with slightly sticky carpet and an open fire in winter, my friends, is a big shame.

*

 **The Save The Palace group is running a campaign to fight the developers at VCAT (the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal). If you would like to support them in their fight against a large multinational developer, you can donate here – they would be grateful for any amount you can donate.

How To Be Cool

James Dean had it. Lou Reed had it. Patti Smith has it. Ralph Wiggum doesn’t have it and nor did my high school maths teacher. What is it? I’m talkin’ about cool, that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Cool is an adjective and a noun. You can be it, and you can have it, but just like hipsters never admit to being hipsters, no-one, perhaps apart from The Fonz, ever lays claim to being cool. Because to show you had any investment in being cool, would, like, definitely not be cool. So what exactly does cool mean?

It’s not unusual for the meaning of a word in the English language to evolve through the centuries. According to this article in Slate, use of the word cool (originally col) to mean a temperature that is neither too hot nor too cold can be traced back to the 9th Century in the English language. Use of the same word to convey the diminishing of heated emotion first pops up in the 10th century, in Beowulf.

By the 16th century, cool had fully evolved from an adjective of the atmosphere around us to one of the attributes within, suggesting deliberation, rationality, and calmness.(1)

In 2014, this humble, 4 letter, 1 syllable word holds many different meanings, as seen by this extensive listing in the Merriam Webster Dictionary:

cool:

- moderately cold :  lacking in warmth

- made of a light, thin material that helps you stay cool

- able to think and act in a calm way : not affected by strong feelings

marked by steady dispassionate calmness and self-control<a cool and calculating administrator

- lacking ardor or friendliness <a cool impersonal manner>

- of jazz :  marked by restrained emotion and the frequent use of counterpoint
free from tensions or violence <we used to fight, but we’re cool now>
- used as an intensive <a cool million dollars>
- marked by deliberate effrontery or lack of due respect or discretion <a cool reply>
- facilitating or suggesting relief from heat <a cool dress>

- of a color :  producing an impression of being  cool; specifically :  of a hue in the range violet through blue to green

 - of a musical tone :  relatively lacking in timbre or resonance

slang:

a :  very good :  excellent; :  all right

b :  fashionable, hip 

One little word, so many meanings. It’s not surprising that earlier ideas all bubbled up together to form yet another layer of meaning that is elusive to define: the “slang” referred to above, used by anyone and everyone, from those in their mid 60s, down to pre-teens, to mean

hip, trendy, desirable -

– eg Frankie magazine is so cool!

or, to mean everything you have just said perfectly meets what is required in this situation.

– eg, Yep, that’s all cool!

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the word came to embody the idea of cool that we associate with someone like Lou Reed.

Exactly when, and where, cool aspired to more than mere composure—to an alluring mix of style, hipness, poise, and who knows what else—is impossible to determine…(2)

According to Slate, this use may have first cropped up in the 19th Century, when a (very patronising) study on African Americans noted their use of the phrase “Dat’s cool!” (with no explanation of the context or meaning). By the 1920’s the word was used in jazz lyrics and by the 1940s was commonly associated with jazz culture. (3)

By the 1950s the word was taken up by a newly recognised demographic – the teenager – to describe someone who was fashionable, hip, very good, excellent and alright. The best example of cool entering straight into mainstream popular culture is probably that All-American sitcom set in the naively idyllic 1950s (although made in the cynical, disillusioned late-1970s), Happy Days.

Happy Days!

“Chick Magnet”, Fonzie, at top left.

Pic: TV Series Finale

Fonzie: Like I always say, you live fast, you die young, you leave a good-looking corpse 

Potsie: Hey, that’s cool.

Richie: Nick Romano said that in Knock on Any Door.

Fonzie: I think I said it better. (3)

In the late seventies, The Fonz was a role model for teenagers in how to be cool, 50s style. Slick back your hair, address adults in a way that an older generation might have found disrespectful, (“Mr C”), convey your approval with a thumbs-up gesture combined with saying “Heeeeeyyyyy!” – or better yet, develop a catch-phrase, like Sit On It!  The boys at my primary school took note, and made use of those phrases at every available opportunity. For the rest of us, Ritchie, Ralph and Potsie, and daggy little-sister Joanie, gave us hope that we were not the only nerds around, hoping to bask in the glory of occasionally associating with someone cool.

But hang on – wasn’t the coolest thing about Fonzie in the end, the fact that, despite being so cool, he hung out with Richie, Ralph and Potsie? That he involved himself in their little family/suburban dramas without judging them to be beneath him?

Thus we come to the conundrum that is cool.

Cool is not the same as popular, even though the popular kids might not realise this. Cool is not the same as “currently in fashion”. Cool transcends being fashionable. Aiming to be popular is the antithesis of cool. Any being who is truly cool does not care what the rest of the world thinks of them.

It follows, therefore, that the truly cool can hang out with the most uncool people around if they choose to, including Ralph Wiggum, your elderly mum, the IT guy, or the crazy cat woman who lives up the street, and this will not spoil their credentials as cool.

While we are on this topic, perhaps it’s useful to think about characters who are uncool. (A kind of How To Be Uncool Bonus Insert, if you like). Well, traditionally, the opposite of the cool kids has always been the nerds – think of Ralph Wiggum, Millhouse, George Constanza. All insecure, gullible, with little ability to laugh at themselves, and also physically weak, making them a target for teasing or bullies. Millhouse and George both wear glasses, neatly fitting into the stereotype of the nerdy friend in popular culture. Looking back to earlier models for the uncool, we have Ralph and Potsie in Happy Days, or Brian in The Breakfast Club. What makes these characters nerds are the traits they have in common. They are all respectful of authority, and happy to accept what they are told by others – they don’t wish to rock the boat by questioning the status quo. They don’t stand out in a crowd, and don’t wish to.

These characters are nerds. They are geeks. They are the opposite of cool.

Brian, in The Breakfast Club.

Brian, in The Breakfast Club.

Pic: Monologuedb

Yet in recent years there seems to have been a shift in the status of geeks and nerds. In the past 7 years I’ve worked with a few very smart people who I consider to be pretty cool, who are proud (or at least, nonchalant) to claim that they are “database nerds.” It’s no longer embarrassing, in fact it’s empowering, to admit you are an introvert. (“Nah, sorry, I’ve been out twice already this week and I need a quiet night in to recharge.”)  There are whole subcultures popping up around previously geeky hobbies such as knitting, home-brewing, baking, and for all I know, probably stamp-collecting. Being a geek is now as cool as it gets – but the truly cool have always known this.

For many decades, the patron saint of cool was James Dean, largely due to the character of Jim Stark he played in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). The depiction of a “rebellious” teenager in that film may seem slightly quaint now, but who is willing to stand up and say that James Dean, or his character Jim Stark, are not cool? Not I, sir.

And what makes Jim cool? It’s because despite being a surly, troubled young man who is misunderstood by his parents and picked on by the popular kids at school, the viewers sees the sincere, vulnerable kid underneath, desperate for understanding from his parents, and willing to befriend and assist another, weaker kid who doesn’t rate amongst the popular kids. (It also helps that he ends up with the girl, of course.)

Teenage Rebel wearing a tie

Teenage Rebel wearing a tie

Pic: Moviemail

Of course all the real-life people I’ve named in this post are in the music or film industry, where they have achieved some level of success (albeit very short-lived in the case of James Dean). If you want to be cool, those are the industries to be in. Another alternative would be to try your hand at being an artist – another person on my list was Andy Warhol. That’s because there’s a possibility of fame, which brings along with it the possibility of being cool. It’s a possibility, but not a given, in my opinion. There are many, many celebrities, but not many who I would describe as cool. Isn’t that right Kim Kardashian?

Of course, you don’t have to be in the film or music or art world to be cool (although it helps.) Earlier I mentioned people that I’d worked with, the self-described “database nerds.” I thought of each of those people (there are 3 I can specifically think of) were cool. All of them liked to party, all of them worked in theatre, all were fun to work with, whilst also being intelligent and hard workers. All of them had, in conversation with me or more profoundly, through their own life choices, shown that they were willing to challenge stereotypes and work to create more understanding about gender/sexuality/disability or other issues. The fact that they described themselves (on separate occasions) as database nerds made the term cool as far as I could see. In the end, perhaps cool is in the eye of the beholder?

So what is cool, and how do you get it?

Well, cool is elusive. When it comes to really defining what makes someone cool, it’s probably best to turn to the words of the one of coolest people in recent history:

I can guess, but I just don’t know. (4)

*

(1) and (2) – Slate – The Birth Of Cool 

(3) – Wikiquote
(4) – Heroin, Lou Reed
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