Onomatopoeia! Thud-Whallop-Crash!

Experts around the world agree almost universally on this point: cows go moo.

There is also fairly general consensus that cats go meow, birds go tweet, and dogs go woof.

If, for any reason, I’d previously harboured doubts about the sounds made by those animals, my queries would have been put to rest when my daughter was little. One of the really enjoyable aspects of being a parent of a baby, toddler, and then pre-schooler, was the books I got to read. It was hard to stay grumpy with sleep deprivation, while reading, out loud, nonsense rhymes, poems and stories, and pulling the appropriately silly faces, and making the appropriately silly noises, to go along with the words.

The best were, of course, the books written by authors who are masters in the use of words, and of manoeuvring rhyme and rhythm* to suit the story, while exhibiting an irreverent sense of humour at the same time. Of those, Dr Suess, Rohald Dahl, and Spike Milligan, were some of my favourites.

If you must read to a small child, see if you can locate these two books first!

If you need to read to a small child, see if you can locate these two books first!

Spike Milligan was one of the most fun to read, and, I think we can cautiously venture, reveals himself to be somewhat of an expert in animals and the sounds they make, as illustrated by the article below.

On the Ning Nang Nong

Well ok, Milligan was obviously brought up in the city, since cows don’t go bong, they go moo, as we’ve previously covered. And trees don’t go ping, he must have been thinking of all those pesky microwave ovens that are always pinging away noisily everywhere you go in the city.

Nevertheless, when I received another request (?!) this week, to write a post on a specific topic, this time on onomatopoeia, my first thought was, who better to introduce the concept than Spike Milligan?

Who indeed. I got hours of enjoyment from his book of silly verse, delightfully titled Unspun Socks From A Chicken’s Laundry, a well-worn paperback that we found second hand in an Op (Thrift) shop. It’s yellowed with age and pages are falling out, but I had a lot of fun reading out loud to my daughter and possibly even sometimes to myself, just for laughs. The book design conveys what a hive of creativity the author was – some pages have traditionally printed text on them, while others reproduce handwritten poems and scribbled drawings done by the author.

Milligan’s poems have no morals or logic, and are simply downright silly. It’s precisely for that reason that it’s so refreshing to read them. I should probably mention that in keeping with the period (the poems were written through the 1970s – the book was first published 1981), there are some warnings: political incorrectness (eg Chinkey Chinkey Chinaman), inclusion of topics nowadays deemed unsuitable for children (I locked all the drink in the cellar/so nothing could get at the gin) a combination of the two (A Scotsman drowning in a whiskey vat) and no messing around with euphemisms. And always with such silliness that all offensiveness is surely dissipated.

Witness The ‘Veggy’ Lion:

I’m a vegetarian Lion

I’ve given up all meat,

I’ve given up all roaring

All I do is go tweet-tweet

….

I used to be ferocious,

I even tried to kill!

But the sight of all that blood

made me feel quite ill.

 

A tip for any parents feeling a mixture of curiosity and trepidation: the good thing is, when reading to small children, you can just leave whole poems out and they won’t know! For example, looking back at the book tonight, I dare say that in the interests of not creating a phobia about going to the dentist, we probably didn’t read our daughter the poem called By Gum:

Death to the Dentist!/Death to his drill!/Death to his ‘open wides’/Kill! Kill! Kill!

However, it softens the otherwise rather sinister tone to know that poem was inspired by his five-year-old son saying that he wanted to kill the dentist! Notes throughout the book indicate where and when poems were written, (eg Sydney, 1980) and some poems have extra notes to indicate when they were devised with his kids, or when something they said inspired Milligan’s imagination. For example, under the limerick about a girl called Nelly who has a nylon belly, which turns out (not entirely surprisingly) to be full of custard and jelly, is a note written by Jane and dad on the way back from the Natural History Museum, 15 October 1977.

Anyway, since you are probably wondering by now, the reason I thought of Milligan is because he has a poem called (this is how it is spelled in the book) Onamatapia. It goes as follows:

 

Onamatapia!

Thud – Wallop – CRASH!

Onamatapia!

Snip – Snap – GNASH!

Onamatapia!

Whack – thud – BASH!

Onamatapia!

Bong – Ting – SPLASH!

 

Onomatopoeia (pronounced, at least if you’re Australian, On-om-atta-pee-ya) is the formation of a word to make (as closely as possible) the sound it describes – eg cuckoo, meow, bam, whack, slap, bong, snip, splat.

The Miriam Webster dictionary says that onomatopoeia is:

the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as in buzz, hiss)

Onomatopoeia helps the reader to hear the sounds in the world created by the writer. The interesting thing is that so many onomatopoeiac (?not sure what the adjective is) words are really fun to say and hear.

It’s clear that Milligan has an ear for such words and loves to use them. Unspun Socks…. fairly clangs, pops and thuds with the noisy fun of silly words bursting out of it. In the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, he says that the poems were inspired by listening to the way his children used words, and noting down mispronounced, misunderstood, and self-invented words. “Knowing children’s love of vocal exclamation, i.e. Boom! Bang! etc. – I’ve included a few bits of onomatopoeia,….”

He certainly has. Consider these lines from various poems in Unspun Socks:

Chip chop/chip chop/down comes a tree, Chip/chop/wallop/plop/Help, it’s fallen on me!

…They practise every night at nine/Plankety plank bumm-bumm!!

….He tied them back/with bits of string/But they shot out again/with a noisy – PING!

….Wallop! Wallop Thud! I go/until the bell goes ding!

….Gurgle gurgle gurgle!/that’s urgle with a G!!/The sound that people make I hear/when drowning in the sea!

They are also full of the self-invented and mistaken words that he loves, particularly imaginary creatures, like The Squirdle:

I thought I saw a Squirdle

I think I thought I saw

I think I thunk I thought

I saw a Squirdle by my door…..

There are creatures such as the Hipporhinostricow, the Leetle, the Multikertwigo (who says Sniddle, Iddle Ickle Thwack/Nicki-Nacki-Noo) and something inside his Granny’s boot that goes Binkle-Bonk Ickle-tickle-toot!*

I’m getting off the topic of onomatopaeia here but trying to illustrate that Milligan’s silly verses are just bursting with playfulness, and his use of onomatopaeia is one part of that. If these poems have an agenda, it is to impart a sense that words are a lot of fun!

I feel I should also apologise, or explain, because the request to write a post about onomatopoeia was prompted by my last post, where I said that the word bioluminescence almost seemed to have an element of onomoatopaeia to it, with the soft hiss of the “scence” encapsulating the sound that, in my imagination, is made by the light that softly emits from bioluminescent creatures under the sea. It’s not really onomatopoeia – as I think it’s safe to assume that it’s only in my imagination that bioluminescent light makes a soft hiss.

After all, it’s usually under water.

Spike Milligan poem - Onamatapia

Spike Milligan poem – Onamatapia

 

 

*rhythm – that was my second attempt at spelling it correctly

*the boot is now in the zoo

 

World of Wordcraft

Today, dear readers, you are in for a treat, because I rarely write posts by request.

Of course, that’s mostly because I never receive requests for my posts. In fact, I’ve never received a request for a piece of my writing in any format, actually, apart from when I was a kid and mum was always asking me to write a letter to my grandma.

And there was that time the New Yorker phoned to say that some famous author had pulled out of a contractual arrangement at short notice, and they were desperate for a piece on the theme of rhinos and boiled eggs. Coincidentally, I happened to have such a piece lying around, just dripping with the diligent background research, months of interviews, and intelligent, well-informed interpretation of the content that their highbrow readership could appreciate. Personally, I thought it was quite a moving piece.

(Sadly, that piece was never published – for some reason, at the last minute New Yorker Magazine changed the theme for that week’s “Idiot’s Ramble” and didn’t go with my piece. I’ve followed them up, but the last time I phoned that editor, she’d had her number changed and quit the magazine, and no-one knew where she had gone.)

Anyway. Recently a reader, not even an imaginary one as far as I can tell, casually commented in a comment (where better to comment?) that I should write a post about words that have annoying spelling – silent letters, for example. This was because I mentioned that I can never spell rhythmn rhythm correctly first go. In an odd twist, that’s not because of its silent letter “h,” which could legitimately trip someone up, but because I suffer from a little-known, but quite debilitating, neurological condition, causing me to see a phantom letter “n” where no letter “n” really exists. Fortunately, the only circumstance in which I ever see that letter “n” is at the end of the word rhythm, so I’m able to live an almost normal life, and few people have ever guessed at the hardship I suffer in private.

Now, some people would not see that as a request, but based on the fact that FM radio stations can get away with pretending they’ve received “requests” for songs that no-one ever wants to hear, I think I can legitimately claim that comment was a “request” for me to write such a post, so here it is. An attempt to write a post about words, some of which may be annoyingly spelled.

If that endeavour fails, then at the very least, I’ll be using words to write the post, and some of them may be annoying.

Before we get on to words, though, I must point out that amongst the blogging community, not surprisingly, there are at least a few people with more than a passing interest in words. Even amongst those blogs I regularly read – I say “even” because I mostly read blogs that are personal, non-academic, and usually don’t follow a particular theme – there are plenty of bloggers who have a keen amateur interest in etymology, or linguistics, or maybe just know the rules of grammar and have a passion for seeing them implemented.

The reason I mention this is because, as usual, I am an expert in none of those things. Jack of all trades, master of none. Sure, I like words as well as the next guy, but not so much that I study up on their history. If I’ve written a post about a word – such as my post about cool – my focus has been about the concept the word embodies, rather than the word itself. I’m not so much into focussing on particular words. I like them best when they are in a group, as you can gather from the length of my posts.

Because words have meanings, I find them most interesting when juxtaposed against other words with seemingly no connection – for example, the random selection of words that ends up in the “Tag Cloud” on my blog simply because they are words I’ve written about and tagged more than any others.

A random selection of words I must like.

A selection of words I must like.

The enjoyment I get out of that random grouping is that my mind tries to make meanings from two unrelated words placed next to one another. In fact, I’m lying – it doesn’t even try, it just enjoys their meaningless juxtaposition. Maybe when I read those words, in a milli-second, faster than I can concsiously register, my mind tries to combine the words, and finds the outcome amusing. Being too slow to catch the speed of that transaction at a conscious level, all I register is that the juxtaposition makes me chuckle. Perhaps I will do a series based on the Tag Cloud, and see what I can manage to write about Christmas cockroaches, existentialism eyeballs, Radiohead rhinos, and Simon and Garfunkle spam stars.

Outside of chuckling at random pairings of otherwise unconnected words, I like words best when they are strung together to form a sentence that communicates an idea. Now there’s an idea for my epitaph:

She liked words, but only when they were strung together to form a sentence like this. 

(Whether I run with that one or not, it’s almost certain that my epitaph will be the shortest piece of writing I will ever be associated with. But if it happens that, by the time of my demise, advances in technology have developed an inexpensive way to engrave a 1500 word essay about some ridiculous topic onto a headstone, I will instruct the executors of my estate to take that option.)

But back to the topic at hand. Words. Yes, really, the further I dig myself into this post, the more I think that I’m the wrong person to write a post about interesting words, annoying words, or words of any sort, because I don’t really collect and analyse words as some people do – probably as any aspiring writer-type should do.

It’s a huge failing on my part, that probably highlights what a lazy would-be writer I am.

Why, just a few months ago, I read a post about favourite words, and, much as I would have liked to contribute my own favourite words in the comments, I discovered that I was unable to think of a single favourite word! I let the idea sit in the back of my mind for weeks, and still couldn’t come up with one. It was only some time later, when I came across this word again, that I recalled with almost a sense of relief, that I have previously identified a word I like, all on its own:

bioluminescence

That’s a great word. What does bioluminescence mean? Well, as I’ve previously covered here, it’s the production and emission of light by a living organism – think of fireflies, or some types of jellyfish and other deep-sea creatures. That’s pretty cool isn’t it? Like, on the list of superpowers that would be handy to attain, it should be right below invisibility.

But, seriously, I think the reason I like the word bioluminescence is not because it’s a cool concept, but because so many of the creatures who are bioluminescent are other-worldly. Generally they live in an environment that I will never see and can barely imagine – the darkest depths of the ocean, down at the ocean floor. It’s only a few miles to the bottom of the ocean, but down there it’s like another universe. Can you imagine that darkness, miles below the surface, where the light from the sun doesn’t reach? Can you imagine how it sounds down there under all that water? How it would feel, all that water weighing down on you and all around you.

 

oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/biolum.html

                                     oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/biolum.html

In some ways those bioluminescent creatures are the closest things we have to aliens life-forms, right here on earth, scuttling around in watery darkness, emitting their own light, where their ancestors scuttled around a million years earlier.

The sound of a favourite word also plays a big part in why you like it. At first, up above, I wrote bioluminescent. Then I thought about it and realised that bioluminescence is a better word. I think that is because of the sound it makes: the softness of ending on the “s” of e-scence instead of on the “t” of e-scent. There is almost an element of onomatopoeia, at least in my imagination: as if the soft hiss of scence at the end of the word somehow matches the image of something gently emitting a soft glow.

So for me, the word bioluminescence, is like shorthand for other-worldly creatures, life forms that have existed with little change since before humans were on earth. Mysteries. Chills up my spine.

Words. They can be annoying. But they capture concepts so well when they get together and form handy phrases! This has been so successful that I may write more posts about words. Or possibly I’ll just utilise more words and write another post. Only time will tell. Just don’t ask me to spell rhythm.*

*

(*I typed the n and then deleted it)

 

 

 

 

Reach out and touch somebody

It’s nearly 200 years since Darwin first came up with his theory of evolution and yet, even now, evolutionary scientists can not fully explain how new species arise.

In the 1980s in Australia, there were reported sightings of a previously unknown animal. These reports increased throughout the decade, probably because the creature was easily identifiable due to a unique combination of traits, particularly the sound it made.

By the late 1980s, anywhere you went in Australia, whether hiking in the bush, mucking around at Bondi Beach, or trekking by camel across the remote sandy desert, sooner or later you would stop, and turn your head towards the breeze, on which you could faintly hear, wafting, the melodic strains of this distinctive creature, floating through the air.

Sometimes a new category of species is created through breeding processes, and although it was still 20 years before we would all go crazy, mating our labradors with the neighbor’s poodles to make a batch of warm, fluffy labradoodles, it seems that some sinister laboratory cross-breeding experiment went horribly wrong and resulted in a new species that was a cross between UK band Simple Minds and Aussie band INXS.

The newly-emerged creature was a specific category of male homosapien, about 6 feet tall, with dark hair, that was always curly – if not genetically, then through chemical means – usually worn in a long mullet. The creature’s normal garb was black leather trousers and a black leather jacket, and his natural habitat was on a stage in front of a drummer, a bass, lead and rhythm guitar, and – since it was, after all, the 1980s – the optional but highly likely additions of a synthesiser and a saxophone.

These creatures seemed to be capable of multiplying at an astronomical rate, and during this period, a plethora of Aussie bands flooded the airwaves with the Simple Minds-X-INXS sound – much as, 20 years later, dog-rescue centres would be flooded with an oversupply of labradoodles, cavoodles, schnoodles and schmoodles.

Anyone who has studied the history of this animal (the mullet-headed band leader, not the poodle-cross) knows that the most significant practitioners of this sound were two particular Aussie bands, Noiseworks and Boom Crash Opera. (Another trait these bands had in common, apparently, was to ensure that loud noise was synonymous with their very identity.)

Below follows a taste test, so that you can make your own decision about the similarities. First, the originals:

  1. INXS – Melting in the Sun (1984)

 

2. Alive and Kicking – Simple Minds (1985)

 

And next, their progeny:

Boom Crash Opera – Great Wall (1987)

 

Noiseworks – Touch (1988)

 

Anyone interested enough to check out a portion of each, will find evidence that definite cross-breeding occurred.

Inevitably, just like a labradoodle, Boom Crash Opera and Noiseworks never quite managed (in my humble opinion) to reach the same level of success that their forebears had. Back in those days, I loved INXS (did I tell you about the time I met Michael Hutchence?) and I guess I liked Simple Minds well enough. Whereas to me, the most interesting thing about Boom Crash Opera was that one afternoon in 1988, guitarist Richard Pleasance called hello to me and a friend from the window of an upstairs apartment in St Kilda. Despite the thrill my 19-year old self felt at that event, the relationship between myself and Pleasance never progressed any further, and nor did the relationship between myself and the music of Boom Crash Opera. As for Noiseworks, I was never interested in their sound. It was not that I had developed more sophisticated taste by then (I hadn’t) but just that in 1988 I preferred the gentler melodies of The Pet Shop Boys and Aussie/New Zealand band Crowded House.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that they only ever seemed like a weak imitation of a better band, and even the fact that a few days after starting this post I thought of at least 2 far better songs with the lyrics “reach out” in them, it was the Noiseworks song above that I thought of when I received an emailed response to some negative feedback I’d given about a food product I’d ordered.

Aha! You thought this was a post about 80’s bands, but it’s really about corporate catch-phrases. Gotcha!

So anyway, three days after I sent my feedback, I’d received three emails from this company. The first was an automated reply to say my feedback had been received and that they’d be in touch with me shortly. The next email, about 48 hours later, was to say that they’d received a high amount of contact this week and there would be a further delay in responding to my feedback. The third was an actual response, written by a human being, that opened with the line, “Hello. Thank you for reaching out to us.”

The scariest thing on reading this was, that this was the second time in one week, I’d been thanked for ‘reaching out’. The other instance was equally as ridiculous. At work we use Dropbox for all our electronic files, and I knew our Dropbox Business Account was due to be renewed, I wanted to confirm what the charge would be, so I checked our account online, where I could see our 15 Dropbox accounts – and the total cost that we paid last year. I thought there might be an increase in the cost for the next financial year, so I filled out the online form to ask what the cost would be this year. In response, I received an email from a staff member at Dropbox, that began, “Thank you for reaching out. I understand you would like to know how much your annual charge will be” – and then pointed me to the link I’d already checked, to our account, showing me what the current charges are.

From these two emails I gather that suddenly we are not able to simply “ask how much our bill will be” or “give some negative feedback”, and heaven forbid we should be perceived to be “making a complaint.” No, all of these interactions and more can now be summarised under the touchy-feely, feel-good umbrella of “reaching out.”

This is where we come to another, more insidious sort of cross-breeding, that of terms and concepts from psychology and psychotherapy, bred most unfortunately with terms and concepts from New Age theories, for the purpose of creating a brand new Marketing and Communications Strategy.

The result is watered-down terms that have lost their original meaning. To describe someone as “reaching out” traditionally implies that they are asking for help in really dire circumstances. If you Google “reach out” in Australia, the first page of links are all for a youth organisation called Reach Out. That makes sense to me, because community organisations encourage people to reach out for help or support in a time of need.

It’s now common in Australia, that after any story on TV, radio or in print media that touches on topics like depression or anxiety, suicide, mental illness, or any other issue that could cause distress, phone numbers for organisations like LifeLine are listed, along with a message that says “if anything on tonight’s program has caused concern please phone the numbers below.” That’s because we try to encourage people to reach out, and let someone else know that they need some help. It’s a phrase that relates to circumstances a million times removed from checking on an annual bill, or complaining that a meal was not edible.

So I really find it repulsive that corporate-type companies have begun to take over the term “reaching out” and use it, apparently, for any and all customer contact. On both occasions, my reasons for contacting the companies in question were mundane, and it is a manipulative use of language to describe those interactions as me “reaching out,” as if I reached out needing help in a time of distress, or perhaps just needing some friendly contact to stave off loneliness, and, lo and behold, these corporate-type companies came to my rescue.

I’m glad to report that I’ve unsubscribed to the first company. I can’t unsubscribe my workplace from Dropbox but I’ll avoid “reaching out” to them again if possible.

If I do feel the need to reach out to somebody, I’ll probably start with my family, my friends, or even write a post here, as writing a post feels far more personal than emailing a supplier to ask how much my bill will be.

Or maybe I’ll just put on some bad music from the 80’s and imagine I’m reaching out to touch somebody.

*

“Reach out, reach out, reach out and touch somebody.” – Noiseworks, from The Noiseworks Marketing and Communications Strategy, 1988.

Into the air

Today I noticed the sky.

 

The light. 

 

Sharp shadows in the late afternoon.

 

Cold air, warm patches in the sunlight, the last month of Autumn.

 

The shapes of buildings.

 

Dates on old buildings: 1878. 1926.

 

Today I noticed how easy it is to forget an idea that flits through your head. An idea for today’s writing flitted through my head just as I emerged from the dingy stairwell out onto the rooftop car park where my car was parked, at about 5.15 this afternoon. I recall that, as I stepped out the door, I was contemplating the blueness of the sky and the view of the city buildings spread out below me. 

 

What was that idea, that I pondered momentarily, thinking, naively, that I’d write it down later? Was it to do with the surprising blue of that sky, given the chilly temperature, or the shapes of the clouds? Was it something about looking out over a town in the late afternoon in late Autumn, when the sunlight is yellow and soft and the shadows are starting to lengthen?

 

I’m sure, in fact, that a whole sentence came to me as I walked to my car, and whatever it was, it struck me as interesting, worthy of inclusion in today’s piece of writing. This makes me think that it must have been a different kind of sentence than the ones I usually write. I liked it for that reason. Usually, I write in a habitual way – all my sentences are structured the same way, and as the writer of those sentences, I have to admit that I get a bit bored with that. Even as I am writing this next one, I can hear them – all sounding the same as always. The same sort of voice. The same rhythm.

 

(Rhythm: a word I always mis-spell, ever since I was tragically knocked out of the inter-school Spelling Bee in Grade 6 by mis-spelling it. Although it’s already a tricky word, being stuffed full of silent letters, including not one but two silents “h”s, and containing no vowels at all, my mistake is not to leave out an “h” or put something in the wrong place – it was, and still is, that I persist in thinking there’s a silent “n” at the end.)

 

Blah. And then, blah, BLAH, blah.

 

Anyway. Whatever it was, it’s gone now. Another idea, forgotten, and – who knows? – maybe it was a good one. I can pretend as much. It’s lost now, floating somewhere in the Autumn sky, above the rooftop carpark.

Hot Air Balloon over Melbourne at sunrise, 2005

Blathering About Nothing: a word from our CEO

(This speech was given recently by the CEO of Blathering About Nothing Industries™ at the annual Blogs Taking Up Space (BTUS) Awards)*

Here at Blathering About Nothing we are proud to consistently offer our readers unbeatable value for money. Independent reviews consistently rate the blatherings of our team in the top 10% of all blatherings about nothing worldwide. What’s more, despite what the title may suggest, we don’t restrict ourselves to blathering only about nothing. Sometimes we blather about something.

Blathering about Nothing is the central mission of our company, and one which all employees are required to pledge allegiance to. To reinforce our goal, every Monday morning, to start the week, we all stand in a circle and do 5 minutes of star jumps, followed by 5 minutes of Blathering Time. A timer is set, and off we go – all blathering at once. It’s a great team building exercise, as well as a good way to get the old brain juice going. Staff can use the opportunity to test out an idea, since everyone else is blathering at the same time and no-one can really hear what anyone else is saying. It’s a lot of fun, and afterwards we all go for coffee.

We are very proud of our team’s hard work, which fills about 90% of our pages with blatherings about nothing on a consistent basis. We do also allocate a small amount of space to other activities, such as pondering the trivial, questioning the banal, investigating the ridiculous and even hypothesising about the inane. Ultimately, our central mission is to blather about nothing, and our strategic plan recognises the difficulties we face in achieving this goal, and acknowledges that occasionally we may have to blather about something, in which case we are mindful to ensure that it’s done in the most superficial way possible.

When this blog first began, it was titled It Keeps Me Wondering, a name chosen to signify a spirit of exploration (and/or an unwillingness to be tied down to any particular subject matter). Although the name has changed, those of us behind the scenes still oversee the It Keeps Me Wondering Laboratories™, which were set up for the purpose of scientific and philosophical exploration into, well, basically anything that regular laboratories won’t touch with a 10 foot pole. We may blather about nothing, but our research into our subject matter is rigorous. Sometimes we look at Wikipedia and a second site, to verify the facts.

Our ongoing explorations are crucial, because they provide us with the content, ie, the nothing, about which we then blather.

The team behind It Keeps Me Wondering Laboratories™ are highly skilled researchers with varying backgrounds. Some are scientists, some philosophers, some journalists, and one has hopes of one day opening a second-hand bookshop with a coffee bar. The mixture of skills, experience and knowledge on our team ensures that the highest quality reportage reaches your inbox once every week. (or thereabouts – it’s a loose deadline). We encourage our team to take every opportunity, while employed here, to think outside the box. Our exploratory laboratories follow the classical (Greek) model: there is little distinction made between a philosopher or a scientist, as long as they can turn in an article at least once every year.

To show how serious we are about breaking down the barriers between science, philosophy and journalism, we require all staff to wear a white lab coat, grow a large bushy moustache*, and carry a clipboard in one hand and a recording device in the other. That way, if you bump into one of our staff in the corridor, it’s impossible to tell if he or she is a scientist, philosopher or journalist.

One of our staff on the job.

One of our dedicated staff on the job.

Pic: Neatorama

Reports by our team have frequently been ahead of global research in their field. In some cases, our team of thinkers have achieved outstanding results in areas that mainstream science/philosophy has not yet thought of. (The downfall is that sometimes it can be difficult to know how to target the PR release, and whether to send news of our findings to CSIRO, NASA, or Gardening Weekly.)

Examples of our cutting edge results can be seen in reports such as When Cats Do Starjumps,  A Really Brief History of Time, and the follow-up to that report, Forgotten Again, Poor Cockroaches. Not to mention our infamous  2-part investigation into the dangers of yoga mats, which caused outrage when the issue of dangerous yoga mats was taken up on A Current Affair. There was also our shocking exposé on The Behaviour of Socks, which won the prestigious Literary Laundry Workers Journal award for best application of scientific theory in an essay about laundry. That plaque hangs proudly above the staff washing machine.

Our team is always on the look out for new topics, particularly for any conundrums that have not yet been solved by the world of science or philosophy. These top minds work round the clock, (on a rotating roster of course – our Workplace Health and Safety policies are above reproach), always alert, and always on the look out for possible new subject matter worth further investigation.

So on behalf of my team of hard working researchers, I thank you all for this award. We will continue to do our work so that the world may benefit from our blathering.

Suggestions for future topics may be written on a scrap of paper and dropped in the hat we are passing around amongst the audience now.

*

*imaginary awards

*staff who can’t grow a bushy moustache are supplied with a stick-on moustache such as this one.

moustache1

I am the cockroach

This weekend, once again, I had a burst of determination. It happens every now and then, and goes like this: I’m going to find a part-time job writing, so that all the time I spend writing, instead of doing housework or paid work or interacting with my family members or socialising, is not just indulgent, time-wasting, anti-social and ultimately meaningless.

On most occasions, immediately following this decision, more hours of time are wasted in anti-social activity as I trawl through internet results gleaned from a search for “Writing Jobs.”

This exercise never fails to remind me precisely why I don’t work in copywriting, advertising or any other field where I could theoretically utilise my writing skills (such as they are) and write to a brief. It’s possible to stumble across hundreds of advertisements for writing jobs, but as soon as I start to read one and sense there would be expectations, limitations, permutations or combinations imposed on what I had to write, I disregard it as a possibility. Where’s the fun in writing restricted, claustrophobic, boring copy to someone else’s requirements? Yawn.

Nevertheless, tonight I wasted half an hour or so on searching yet again, in a naively deluded fantasy that there may be someone out there with a position for a writer with little-to-no published history, to write about whatever they feel like, on a weekly (or fortnightly, depending how I’m feeling) basis, no restrictions imposed.

I’d had no luck so far, and had even investigated page 2 and 3 of the search results. When I desperately clicked on to page 4, I came across the heading: Termite Specialist. We all know it can be easy to fall down an internet rabbit hole, so I checked the search terms – yes, I was still on the search results for “writing jobs.”

Well, as nothing better had been on offer on pages 1-3, I paused to consider this opportunity for a moment. I was intrigued to discover that a writing job for a termite specialist existed. Writing jobs for termite specialists must surely be few and far between. If you happened to be a termite specialist who had been longing to spend less time wearing head-to-toe extermination gear and more time writing a character portrait of those frisky little buggers, this job opportunity would surely be your dream job!

Judging by the title of the position, and the accompanying url, I could confidently rule out the possibility that a university science department was looking for an entomologist specialising in the life-cycle of the termite. It appeared that some commercial company had created an ongoing, (or perhaps fixed-term) role for a writer to write specifically, and exclusively, (with specialisation) about Termites.

It seemed feasible, after all, last time I conducted the same search, I found a legitimate, permanent ongoing role with a Bollard company, writing content for their e-news, which – I have to assume – is focussed on the topic of bollards, and probably called “What’s new in Bollards this week?”

So in light of that, it seemed only natural that there should also be an ongoing role writing content for a e-newsletter dedicated to termites. This seemed to me to have even more potential for creativity than writing a newsletter about bollards. After all, bollards are, let’s face it, inanimate objects, and don’t really do or say very much. I suspect I’d find it a challenge to come up with new material after a few weeks of writing about bollards, unless the Bollard company was open to my taking inspiration from Gogol’s short story, The Nose, and creating an ongoing series about a Bollard that runs away and becomes a bit uppity; starts to dress in designer gear, and worms its way into Melbourne’s upper classes, driving a huge 4-wheel drive, smoking cigars at the Men’s only club on Collins Street and sending its children to schools somewhere in the Kew/Toorak area.

Termites, however, are alive, and fairly active from all accounts. There must be something interesting to write about them, but the first question to ask was, what was the purpose of this writing to be? (I didn’t bother to click the link, preferring to speculate.)

Firstly, as any writer considering a commercial project would do, I considered the potential readership. Who, I wondered, was the audience for The Wandering Termite (the name I was tentatively considering for my new termite website/magazine/newsletter)? Was it yuppies who had purchased small Victorian weatherboard terraces in Richmond, only to find that their supporting beams are continuously being devoured by those pesky little critters? If it was, how much new information about termites did these people require on an ongoing basis, and what sort of information were they after? I suspected, rather grimly, they were probably looking for articles detailing the latest and most effective ways to exterminate them, rather than creative surreal short stories about a bunch of renegade termites taking over Question Time in State Parliament.

Next, I considered my eligibility for the job at hand. While it would be stretch to call myself a Termite Specialist, I have read Metamorphosis, and written a post about cockroaches before. That makes me almost an expert on cockroaches, and surely they are almost the same thing?

An artist's impression of a termite/cockroach. (To tell the truth, the artist is not sure which it's meant to be.)

An artist’s impression of a termite/cockroach. (To tell the truth, the artist is not sure which it’s meant to be.)

A moment after having that thought, I face-palmed myself as I realised that a true Termite Specialist would never think such a thing!

That would be like an Irish person saying that a Dutch Cream potato was pretty much the same as a Desiree – something that would never happen. In real life, an Irish person stopped my (Australian) sister in the supermarket in Dublin once to say incredulously, “Surely you’re not going to use those potatoes in that are you?” – indicating an understanding of the nuances of potatoes vastly superior to mine, or hers. As well as an admirably passionate desire to eliminate potential potato calamities, even at the cost of intervening in a stranger’s shopping.

Anyway, back to the Termites. I checked the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and found that in fact cockroaches and termites come from the same order of insects. The order is one with the lot, including a handful of termites and cockroaches, to go, thanks.

No seriously, according to Wikipedia, termites

 evolved from close ancestors of cockroaches during the Jurassic or Triassic.

I wasn’t too far wrong then. Termites and cockroaches are basically third cousins, with a great, great, great grandmother in common. Or something similar.

Wikipedia also informs me that there are about 3,106 species of termites who have been described, and a few hundred more still to be described.

Aha! Maybe this writing job is for someone to describe a few hundred more species of termites. Well that’s pretty easy.  Small, spindly, 6 legs, 2 little antennae, creepy little heads with no discernible eyes, icky whiteish color….there you go – there’s another one described already, (*description based on a picture on Wikipedia of the Formosan subterranean termite) – and that was for free!

Perhaps, I thought hopefully, the Termite Specialist is really a guerilla marketing tactic and the employer just wants someone to write an interesting, mildly amusing post on any topic the writer likes, creatively including mention of a termite in every post? If so, I’m the person for that job. I could apply for the Bollard job and do them simultaneously!

Just imagine the whacky adventures the termite and the bollard could have together. Especially if the bollard was made of wood. I’m laughing already.

*

 

*The title of this post is a song by Aussie punk/rock musician, Kim Salmon, about the inevitability that the cockroach, which has existed across millenia, will survive on earth after humans are long gone. Link to lyrics above.

 

A banana in time saves nine (part 2)

The sky.

The light.

Sharp shadows in the late afternoon.

The ability to feel happiness at a simple thing like the sun shining in her back garden.

That was what she was thinking about, idly, in her kitchen one afternoon, when suddenly, she was struck by an observation: that the bananas in the fruitbowl had reached exactly the right amount of ripeness.

She was filled with joy, not so much at the ripeness of the bananas, but at her own observation of their ripeness. She was, after all, an aspiring writer, constantly scribbling away, but always about what was going on in her own head. This had become quite tedious to her, since she always had the same thoughts, and those thoughts were always self-conscious musings about her own state of mind, combined with self-referential commentary about writing – questioning the purpose of the activity, etc, etc. So it was exhilarating to make an observation about the outside world.

With a gasp, she grabbed the nearest scrap of paper, and on it, frantically wrote the following.

Today I noticed the bananas are exactly perfectly ripe. Or are they?? Sometimes there is no certainty anywhere. They are yellow and speckled, but if I was to eat one…..will it be (gasp) – OVERRRIPE?!!! Best not to find out. I reserve my judgement.

She was fussy about fruit, anyway. Carbohydrates are so much more reliable.

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