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.

IMG_3405

A banana in time saves nine

 

Breaking: Nine lives were saved today by a banana that jumped in to the ocean and swam each of them to shore, depositing the ninth person on the sand only moments before the ship, the HMAS Tropical Fruit Salad, sank.

*

Banana issues statement after rescuing 9 from drowning.

Banana issues statement after rescuing 9 from drowning.

Pic: © Blathering 2016

Dear readers, lately I’ve been feeling a bit bored with my own writing. I’m never quite happy with it, particularly when I try to be amusing. If only there were more banana rescue stories, it would be more fun for all of us.

This navel-gazing causes me to once again wonder what the purpose of writing this blog is.

Of course, I can’t deny that writing a blog whiles away the time. I suppose that’s one purpose for it. After all, statistics suggest that, based on averages, I have a good chance of being on Earth for 40 more years – give or take – that I’ll need to fill up with activity somehow. (Heaven forbid I should sit and just look out at the back yard while sipping a cup of tea.) So I thought I’d fill at least some of that time by writing a blog. Of course I’m aware that this is written largely for my own amusement and that of a few kindly souls who are generous enough to read it every now and then.

Perhaps there are some of you out there that feel the same way about your writing sometimes? I enjoy writing – it’s become a hobby that I can’t do without – and sometimes I’d like to do more with it, but sadly I seem to lack the drive, or ambition, or determination – something necessary, anyway – to turn my love of writing into anything more than an that of an amateur hobbyist, plugging away at a personal blog.

I miss, too, the silliness that I used to achieve here in the first 12 month period, when the only reader I had was (still my favourite!) the imaginary reader, who always loves everything I write, without discrimination. So sweet!

It seems to me that if you have an interest in developing your writing, the downside of writing a blog is that after a year or two, any time you start to write something, it ends up being for your blog, and after a while you develop a sort of  lazy”style” or shorthand approach that doesn’t change much. I’m sure I’m guilty of doing this very thing, right now.

So I decided to challenge myself just a little bit, and signed up to an online course that requires me to write for 10 minutes – on the Course project page, not here on this blog – each day for 10 days in a row, inspired by the deceptively simple prompt “Today I noticed…”.  (Try noticing anything useful once that challenge has been put to you. So far, 2 days in, I’ve posted 2 pieces and I’ve noticed myself feeling happy, and that the bananas were ripe. An effort that is surely worth a sad face emoji.)

However, the more important thing is that in this ridiculously short time, I’m already feeling very motivated. I think that’s because I’m writing there for a different purpose, and for a different audience (delightfully, on the course project page, my posts so far have been viewed largely by a bunch of imaginary readers, and they are always so encouraging!). I enjoy writing to a time limit too, as it forces me to get ideas out, not worry too much about editing and re-editing every sentence, and not write pieces that are 1000 words too long, as I usually do here.

All in all, it’s quite liberating.

Now, it should be obvious from the lackadaisical style of this blog that there is no commercial sponsorship involved. Even so, I don’t like to act as if I’m being paid to endorse commercial operations – heaven knows, if they want to pay me, I’ll probably endorse them – so I won’t mention the name of the course here, but you can locate it if you are interested, via this link which will take you to the course work I’ve done so far, where you’ll be able to identify the course and the site offering the course.

For any other bloggers out there looking for some small way to motivate yourself, you could perhaps do worse than give this a go. At the moment there is a free 3-month trial membership to this site available for 99c, after that it costs about $96 per year to have access to all the courses available.

I’ve never signed up for an online course before – free or paid – but decided to see how much value I got from it for 3 months. So far, unless there is some hidden clause I haven’t read, it seems very worthwhile, given how motivated I’m feeling after 2 days! I was otherwise considering enrolling in a short 8 week course at my local community centre that would have cost $100. It would have been more detailed and extensive than most of the courses on offer through this site, but on the other hand, I would have had to give up all my Thursday nights for two months and made the effort to go out in the cold and dark to attend! Weighing up the pros and cons, people.

Again, I’m truly not being paid to endorse this or any online course, but at the moment I’m feeling very positive about this course, so I wanted to pass on the suggestion for anyone else looking for some motivation.

I’m someone who’s reluctant to sign up for any course that sounds too demanding of my time, with expectations of my writing skill-level that are too high, but this site offers a multitude of (non-accredited) courses, which you can do at home, at your own pace, utilising videos and following instructions. By way of example, for the writing course I’m enrolled in, I’m required to write for 10 minutes a day for 10 consecutive days, and about 25 mins of video or sound files (I can access either or both) of the tutor describing the project and giving examples, etc, are provided for me to watch or listen to. These are broken down into short files of no more than 5 mins each, so that I never have to make a commitment of more than 10 minutes at a time. The course page also provides an extensive list of suggested reading, which includes books and websites, so the enthusiastic student can really go a lot deeper into the project if they want to. Most of this is optional, as it’s self-paced and there is no “pass” or “fail” at the end – only in your own head. Now that’s the kind of course I like.

Call the Motivating Banana for more writing ideas.

Banana now available as a motivational speaker.

Pic: © Blathering 2016

In terms of value, if I manage to do even just a few similar courses in a year, and find them motivating, then the $96 will be worth it. The site offers courses in all sorts of things, not only in writing – for example, I filtered the categories down to Writing, Photography, Design and Techology and saved 58 courses I was interested in before I could’t bear to keep scrolling any further, but there are many other genres of courses on offer that I didn’t even look at.

So I thought I’d tell you all about this. I know that learning online is not a new thing and there are a million different online course providers out there, and I’m a complete novice, as it’s the first time I’ve ever signed up for one, so I have no comparison to make. But even if just for the sake of providing some motivation to write,  it could be worthwhile to try out one of these courses if you’re in a rut, writing-wise. Why not join in Creative Writing: 10 Days to a Daily Habit with me and try the challenge yourself? It’s harder than you think.

What did you notice today?

 

 

Things that make you go hmmmm

It saddens me to make this distressing announcement, but here it is: customer service standards in Australia are slipping.

I believe that I am qualified to comment on customer service, having spent all my working life until I was in my mid 30s, in customer service roles. That’s including my very first part-time job at the local fish and chips shop/milk bar when I was 15. I can assure you that our service at “Cosy Corner” Milk Bar was always top notch – polite, efficient, and we only took a matter of minutes to add up the total cost for your Koolmints, TaB, pack of cigarettes and Chicko Roll™ – using a pen and paper and a calculator if lucky – enter the total into the cash register that looked like a large version of a toy cash register, and then manually figure out the change we needed to give you.

Exactly what that cash register looked like.

Exactly what that cash register looked like.

Pic: Turtles Treasures

In the 4 years that I worked there, I only once spilled someone’s fish and chips all over the floor in front of all the waiting customers, when my up-until-then flawless execution of the quick wrap-up in butcher’s paper went horribly wrong.

Ah yes, the late 1980s, perhaps the heyday of customer service in Australia. I got my first role as an official “Customer Service Assistant” when I determined that the arts degree I had started at Melbourne University was useless, and walked into Myer Melbourne’s Employment office – yes, believe it or not, in 1989, the retail empire devoted a whole building on Little Bourke Street to Recruitment and Training! – and filled out an application form. Lo and behold, two interviews later (!) I had my very first full-time job as a customer service assistant in the photography department. That seemed incredibly exciting, for about the first 2 months. But before I was allowed to set foot on the floor of the photography department, I had to undertake two paid weeks of training in customer service!

How utterly novel that seems now. Back then, Myer hired staff so consistently, that there was about 15 of us in this training group. Compare this to now, when you could shoot a cannon through most Myer stores and not hit any staff. In the last few years I’ve had multiple experiences of attempting to buy things at Myer but finally giving up because there were simply no staff around to process the transaction.

Anyway, back to our training in customer service. In a classroom set up, for two weeks, we were trained in everything from how to use the cash register to how to interact with customers, and the tone and professional manner that was expected of staff, what to do when someone made a complaint, or wanted a refund, etc.

Gone are the days when a large company considered it worth spending two weeks of pay on training staff to provide excellent service. These days, shareholders are outraged if profits drop from a billion in one quarter to only a couple of hundred million the next*, so how can they possibly be expected to spend money on training staff in how to be professional?

The tactic which works quite well for a lot of phone customer service (not so well in a physical store where, if you are going to get rid of staff, you need to put in Point of Sale scanners and make the stock easily accessible to customers, as supermarkets have been doing for years. Just a tip for any Myer executives reading this) – is to provide a minimal service that amounts to telling a customer what they will need to do to fix the issue themselves.  And, because that’s all that’s expected of them by their employers, the attitude of most customer service staff has drooped, (yes, drooped, not dropped) to a nonchalant response that still just manages to be polite, but conveys a distinct lack of any sense of responsibility on the part of the company to do better, or on the part of the employee to represent the company in that endeavour. This is often conveyed through a show of complete surprise at your request – as if they’ve never encountered this question from a customer before and your request deals with topics outside of what they are there to help you with. Examples will follow.

Of course, anyone who has been reading this blog for a few years now knows that the outright winner in the Total Absence of Customer Service Awards goes to whitegoods manufacturer Fisher and Paykel, so I don’t need to go into detail about their unsurpassable accomplishment in in having a 24/7 customer service line staffed by people who are briefed to offer no service at all. I’ve already written a 3-part saga about it, and if you are researching your thesis on customer service and you make it through part 1 and part 2,  you’ll agree that this company have set the bar extremely high for any other companies hoping to beat them at this game.

Most companies take a softer approach, recognising that it’s better not to totally enrage their customers. They know that the best result for them is obtained by giving all appearances of attempting to help but putting most of the work back on to you, making it clear, through a combination of incompetent processes and disinterested staff, that it would be a waste of your time to try and get them to assist any further.

Here are some recent examples of customer service interactions that were mediocre enough to prompt this post. Sadly, these are not from commercial businesses but from government organisations, where I guess the pressure to cut spending by retrenching positions has a price.

I wrote a post a while ago about old-fashioned technology for financial transactions. This was inspired by the move back into the Dark Ages by my local council, who used to accept credit card payments for Visitor Parking Permits. In the past, I’ve paid for a Visitor Parking Permit by emailing my application form back, or paying over the phone. This year, the form had a place to fill out credit card details but stated that the only way to pay by credit card was to go into the Council offices in person. How quaint. Just as if it was 1920. If I wanted to pay by post – just as if it was, say, 1964 – I could organise a cheque or money order.

One wonders if my local council are aware that people who own cars nowadays could have been born as recently as 1997, and that generation have never owned a cheque book, organised a money order, or gone anywhere in person to pay a bill – because the means to process financial transactions electronically has been around longer than they have been alive! Or that one of the main advantages of a credit card is that it enables people to pay for things without needing to be physically present at the point of sale.

In disbelief, I phoned the council to double check that I couldn’t pay over the phone. When told it was correct, I commented that it was a backward step in technology, given that they used to take credit card payment over the phone. The customer service person laughed merrily, although I wasn’t making a joke, and agreed that it did seem a bit backward.

In the face of that response, I moved on, and asked her if it was possible for me to email the form back to council rather than pay $1 to post it. (I needed to send it back to get my own Resident Parking Permit, which didn’t require payment since each household is entitled to one free permit). This option was notably absent from the form, and no email address was supplied. The customer service person seemed to find the question surprising, but once confronted with this incredible concept, she considered it, and thought that I probably could email it back. After a second or two had passed, I prompted her for the email address, since it didn’t occur to her to supply it, and then ended the call.

Needless to say, I still have not organised a Visitor Parking Permit.

With the technology that is commonly available these days, it should be possible for the council to store residents details so that I could just log in to a portal and tick a box to say that yes, my address and the car registration details are still the same as last year, and tick another to say please send out the Resident Parking Permit, thankyou. It seems council would rather print a letter for every car in the city and pay for postage to send the form out so that each car-owning resident can tick the box, sign the form and pay $1 to post it back. Maybe they have entered into some kind of service agreement with Australia Post.

This post would become far too long if I related the follow up call I made about a month later, to politely enquire as to whether they were close to processing my Resident Parking Permit any time soon, since my current one had expired. Let’s just say that interaction caused me to picture the person I was transferred to as a computer boffin in a cardigan, working in a basement with one DOS computer that was slowly disappearing under a rising sea of paper (the sort that is used in dot matrix printers and comes joined together with holes along the side of it).

Person at a desk, swamped with a mountain of paper.

Sort of like this, except my local council must have at least one computer somewhere amongst all the paper. And the desk would be smaller. And the person look more like a boffin.

Pic: Ego Friendly

I was reminded of this today, when I rang a State Government organisation, Consumer Affairs Victoria, the state’s consumer affairs regulator. I work in the Non-Profit sector, and they regulate our processes for holding Annual General Meetings and reporting on annual finances, amongst other things. We need to apply to them for an extension on the date of our next Annual General meeting. I had downloaded the application form from their website, but then I called to make sure the version on their website was correct. Because on last year’s application, I was able to fill out credit card details to pay the administration fee, and email the form back. But this year’s form states that credit card payment can not be accepted via email, and if paying by credit card the form must be posted back!

I am starting to sense a pattern in local/State Government processes, which seem to be steadily marching backwards. Forget the paperless office – these Government departments must be cutting staff so that they can afford to hire out warehouses to store all these forms in.

The person who answered my call at Consumer Affairs at first said that emailing it back would be fine, but I read the point written on the form out to him, which then prompted him to read it himself, apologise and say that I was correct. He didn’t offer any explanation as to why that less-than-optimal change had been made since last year.

Although I could guess the answer to my next question, I then asked him about another change – last year, I filled in an electronic signature to authorise the application before I emailed it through, while it appeared that this year I would have to email the form to our Board Secretary so that she could print it out, sign it and send it back to me via email or post, before I could post it to CAV. It was no surprise at this point when he agreed that this was correct, yes, we would have to take all those extra steps to replace the one step process that was available last year.

To neither of these points did he perceive that there was a need to explain to a customer why the service had apparently gone backwards.

Wow! I spent years diligently providing the best service I could in various customer service roles, which included apologising when appropriate, giving an explanation for things that would otherwise appear to the customer to be deficits in the service provided, and where possible, offering another option or solution. “I’m sorry you’ve had to wait, the phones have been very busy because Bon Jovi went on sale at 9am”, or “I’m sorry, I can’t give you two seats in the middle of row C because they are already sold, but I can place you just slightly right of centre in row E, which is excellent seating, in fact in my opinion, it’s better than row C. Or we could look at another date.”

Surprisingly, the guy on the phone at Consumer Affairs did then volunteer some information: that I didn’t really need to worry about putting in the formal application form, because Consumer Affairs is not currently fining organisations for late submission of Annual Statements. That’s great, I said, could you send me a quick email so I have that in writing? Unfortunately not, was his reply, but it is the case, and it would save you time and the cost of the administration fee. I explained – somewhat crossly at this point – that if Consumer Affairs is giving advice that has implications for an organisation’s compliance with the regulations they oversee, but refuses to put that advice in writing, then I’m not willing to go against what the regulations require.

He didn’t miss a beat, but just politely responded that was fair enough, and was that all he could help me with today. Yes, I said politely in return, thanks, that is all.

*

*made up statistic that does not reflect any particular company’s profits.

Faraway, So Close!

Faraway

I feel a bit weird today. I can’t really put a finger on how I feel, but it’s a mixture of exhausted and deflated, that slightly empty feeling that comes when some intense and prolonged group activity (eg, a school camp) comes to an end, and you all part ways and go on with your separate lives.

I’m feeling that gloom because I arrived back in Melbourne at 7.45am this morning after a week away in the Philippines for my brother’s wedding. Traveling overseas to attend a wedding is a privilege, I know, and it’s because of the cost involved that my partner and daughter did not attend with me. Instead, I travelled with my father, who is 78 years old, and met my sister, who travelled to the Philippines from Dublin via Seoul. We were met and looked after there by my youngest brother, who is Melbourne-based, but works in the Philippines, and his wife-to-be, who is a Filipino woman. Add another two visitors to the country, friends of my brother, who joined us on Friday night, and that made up the wacky little gang of friends and family that I’ve been with over the past few days.

Where did the week go? Dad and I checked into Melbourne airport on a cold, grey, rainy Wednesday morning one week ago at 7am, and this morning at about 8.25am we stepped back out of the doors of Terminal 2 and onto a footpath bathed in glorious Autumn sunlight.

As always seems to happen on a trip like this, the time in between those two Wednesday mornings seems to have simultaneously stretched and contracted.

Time seems to become pliable when you are away on a trip. As the days unfolded, there were some lovely trips in the country, and time spent chatting around a few drinks, but there were also moments when I felt tired of all the time spent waiting for transport or sitting on transport, irritated by the lack of privacy, worn out from the constant need to socialise and interact with others, or just plain exhausted, and at those times, I felt as though I had a long week stretched ahead of me. On Wednesday morning as my dad and I sat on a plane heading to Manilla, and again on Wednesday evening as we sat in a 12-seater van in Manilla traffic for about 4 hours on our way out of the city and into the country, when I thought of Saturday – the day of the wedding – it seemed a long way off.

But Saturday morning arrived, and once it did, it seemed as if time sped up. The day itself was very full and a lot of fun, and then suddenly at about 10.30pm everything was over. Sunday we went for a day-trip with the new bride and groom and some new friends, and out to a dinner hosted by a local, then, barely before I’d had time to blink, it was Monday and we were leaving the province where we’d been staying, and driving back into Manilla for our last night in the Philippines. Already! Tuesday – just yesterday – was spent trying to fit in shopping, around making huge allowances for Manilla traffic when we planned the timing of taxis to take us to and from the shopping centre, which resulted in more time spent sitting around and waiting.

I can hardly believe that just this time 24 hours ago, I was attempting to cross a 4 lane intersection in Manilla with my sister and my brother’s intrepid friends, on our way to find somewhere good to eat dinner.

The whole thing already seems like a blur. Especially last night. And no, it’s not because I drank too much to celebrate our last night there! It’s because every day, every hour, every minute there were so many new things to see and experience, and take in and think about.

I’ve never visited a developing country before, but in many ways the Philippines was exactly as I had imagined it. Perhaps my brother’s very eloquent and descriptive emails painted an accurate picture in my mind, or perhaps it was a conglomeration of images I’ve seen of lots of different developing countries, on TV in documentaries and news stories. In any case, although it was the first time I’d been confronted with such sights, I was not surprised by the long narrow streets in Manilla, packed with tiny houses and shops that looked poorly made and maintained, or the long stretch of slums on the outskirts of the city that we passed around sunset, where we spotted almost as many stray dogs wandering listlessly around as there were people sitting outside structures that pass for homes.

As we drove outside of Manilla the houses continued. It was not until the very last part of our journey, where there was forest on each side, that we saw any stretch of road that did not have houses lined along it. Every house was different to the one next to it, and every now and then, right in amongst the decaying houses, shacks made of pieces of rusted tin and slums we would see a large, though usually still run-down looking house, suggestive of a wealthier population in the past, or of wealthier residents willing to live right in amongst the abjectly poor, something I generally don’t see evidence of in my own country.

I was not able to take photos of the houses I saw on these trips because we were always in the van and moving when I saw them.* We drove everywhere for a few reasons. Firstly, for most of the week we were based, as organised by my brother and his wife, in a resort-style hotel situated about 20 minutes drive out past a town called Tanay, and there was nowhere else to go that was within walking distance. Secondly, we had our 78-year old father with us, and he joined in most of our outings. Thirdly, a van and driver had been loaned to my brother and his wife for the week for the precise purpose of driving us around, and finally, once in the city of Manilla (without the van and driver), anywhere we wanted to go seemed to far for Dad to walk and we couldn’t expect a 78-year old to cross roads in the city by marching rapidly through lanes of oncoming traffic as locals do.

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Manilla public transport – a jeepney

For me, this trip was a mixture of observing and learning about a culture I’ve never visited before, meeting and getting to know new people – my brother’s wife, her three children, and two of his Australian friends I’d never met before – and spending an unusual amount of quality time with my brother, my father and two of my siblings. I always value time with my sister, since she’s my only sister, the sibling closest to me in age, and we get along well together, but don’t see her often as she lives a 24 hour flight away from me, in Dublin.

The most unusual aspect of this holiday, as far as the family side of it goes, was spending so much time hanging out with my father.  I’m pleased to say that he constantly surprised me. I did not anticipate that he would be so willing to “go with the flow,” and join in whatever plans we made, nor did I think he’d be willing to try any drink or food item that was recommended to him, and usually like it.

So what is affecting me the most today is that the time spent with family, particularly my sister, has come to an end.

Of course, the ending came gradually. The time spent with my brother ended on Monday night when he accompanied us to Manilla and then headed back to Tanay. The time with my sister, whose flight back to Ireland left much later than ours, ended abruptly when our taxi for the airport arrived at the hotel. After that it was back to the old team – just Dad and I – and all the tedious parts of international travel: the queuing, the waiting, and the sitting. We sat together for 3 hours at the airport (because the taxi had, after all, ended up getting us there faster than predicted), we sat together on the 8 hour flight, queued up together to get through passport control, baggage collection and customs. I walked him to his bus (back to the country town where he lives) and we said goodbye, and then it was just me.

But even as I finish writing this post, 13 hours later, my sister is still flying. According to flight tracking, her flight from Korea is about 26 minutes away from landing in Paris, but she still needs to connect with her flight to Dublin. So the trip is not quite over yet in my head, because one of the gang is still travelling. It never fails to bend my mind, when she flies home from Australia – or in this case, the Philippines – to witness how my life goes on while she is stuck in the twilight zone of a long-haul flight.

Time is a tricky beast. 24 hours is not very long: I just said goodbye to her at 5pm last night, hardly any time ago at all. But when someone is flying away from you, it’s far too long: she’s a whole day’s travel away from us now.

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*

*I’m not sure that I could have taken photos of the houses anyway as I would have felt like I was treating people’s homes as if they are novelties to post pictures of on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inane in the Brain

Today, in what could possibly become the first in a regular* series, we look at: Advertising slogans.

Now, pretty much everyone in the world is subjected to advertising all day long, whether it’s online, on TV, on radio, in printed media, on billboards and signs. We are used to hearing and reading inane little catch-phrases devised to appeal to the listener and entice him/her to buy whatever product/service is being peddled, but, ironically, often insulting any thinking person’s intelligence in the process. These are so commonplace that the stupidity of a specific piece of advertising barely seems worth commenting on, but on the other hand, sometimes the stupidity stops us in our tracks. When that happens, we need to point them out to someone else and say “WTF?” Well, that’s what this post asks you, dear reader.

This week seems to have been full of dumb slogans. Probably because I felt so lazy on Sunday night that I watched some free-to-air TV. That will do it, for sure.

Here’s just one example of what I encountered there. An ad that begins with a musical fanfare that lasts about 2 seconds, and signals to Australian audiences that we are about to see an “infomercial” – a tried-and-true format that’s been on our TVs for at least about 20 years, cunningly disguised as some kind of community service to provide the consumer with straight-up information about a product, with no made-up story or background music.

It has as much integrity as a segment on a morning talk show, where the host asks a marketing person some really hard questions about the vibrating weight-loss belt featuring that day, we cut to shots of slim, good-looking models using the vibrating belt – and then back to the studio, where the host and the marketing person both agree what a fantastic product it is!

But back to our ad. After the quick fanfare, Pavlov’s dogs the TV viewer is greeted by a pleasant, semi-professional-but-not-in-a-threatening-way woman – with wavy, brunette, shoulder length hair, slim and of indeterminate age – old enough to be taken seriously but not look “old” – wearing a neatly pressed, loose-fitting, shirt and slacks, standing in front of a wall of shelves in a supermarket.

“Let’s face it,” she chirps brightly at the camera “there’s always something new to learn about fish!”

Now, the funny thing is, I don’t completely disagree.

Humans probably do have the capacity to continually learn new things about fish. Whether you are a marine biologist, or a hairdresser who always wanted a goldfish, I’m of the school of thought that one can always learn something new about anything, and fish certainly fit into that category. (i.e. “anything”).

To prove my point, I have written posts previously on the topic of things I’d like to know more about, and amongst the long list of things I’d like to know more about, alluded to fish (within the general category of deep sea creatures.)

Fish are part of an incredible aquatic ecosystem that fills our rivers and our oceans. There are fish that walk, fish with teeth and fish that are bioluminescent (included the dreaded, yet cutely-named cookiecutter shark!). It’s not hard to imagine that the drive to uncover more information about fish could indeed become a life-long obsession. I’m right with you, smiley lady in the neat shirt. Hit me with some facts about fish!

A walking fish.

A walking fish.

Pic: Suess.Wikia

But in the next second we discover what type of fish this woman is referring to. Today’s new information about fish relates to…..the Finger variety, classification: Genus Fishus Fingerus.

Ah yes. Commonly known as the Fish Finger. Most often found swimming in the bottom of the greasy water in the sink after the dishes have been washed, the Fish Finger is a strange, primitive creature, having no discernable fins, gills, eyes or mouth. It’s a perplexing little critter, as scientists have so far had difficulty detecting any nervous, respiratory or digestive system, and when observed under water, they exhibit almost no movement, and begin to disintegrate after a few days, a trait that is unusual in aquatic creatures. Scientists are also still in the dark as to how this species reproduces, but note that numbers are at a healthy level and the Fish Finger is not on the endangered species list.

Some have joked that in a darkened room, the fish finger could be mistaken for a piece of cardboard, and indeed, if Coal Mining industries have their way, Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef, currently the home to a wide variety of marine life, may become a large, bleached-out, colourless pit of sludge best suited to hosting schools of fish fingers or cardboard. But that’s getting us off track.

When I encounter a line like this I have to stop and wonder who, when briefed to devise an ad campaign for processed stuff that is almost definitely not fish, sculpted into something that doesn’t look like a fish, came up with the brilliant idea of running ads disguised as infomercials that begin with the statement that we can always learn more about fish???

What, exactly, are we to learn about fish, from a box of fish fingers? That this is what happens to fish that don’t eat their peas??

The primitive Fishus Fingerus, wishing it had eaten its peas.

Two primitive Fishus Fingeruses, wishing they had eaten their peas. Above them is a sea cauliflower.

Pic: Huffington Post

And finally, why would you start that line with Let’s Face It? That’s a phrase most often used when you are about to reveal an unpleasant truth to someone who probably already knows it.

Let’s face it, Bob, ever since you got that wooden leg your chances of winning the State Breakdancing Competition have been very slim.

Let’s face it, Margery, if you eat another tub of ice-cream tonight you’re not going to fit into that leotard tomorrow.

Let’s face it, if you turn on the school alarm right before the exam, you’ll end up in detention AND still have to take the exam.

It just doesn’t fit at the start of neutral, observational statements: Let’s face it, the bus is due at 10.25. Let’s face it, those are great shoes you’re wearing. Let’s face it, I just saw Joe up the street and he was looking quite well.

It’s definitely out of place at the start of an announcement:

Let’s face it, we’re having a baby!

Let’s face it, Julie passed her exams with flying colors!

Let’s face it, flights to Bali are on sale for the next 48 hours! 

All in all, I just can’t fathom how anyone came up with that opening line for an ad about fish fingers. I’m afraid the idiocy of that line was the only part of this ad that I took in, so I can’t tell you what information about fish was actually imparted. I’m pretty sure it was not why and how some fish are bioluminescent; a fact that I only mention a second time because I love the word, and concept: bioluminescence. I’m also fairly sure it was nothing to do with how some fish are in danger of becoming extinct, or in fact, anything to do with fish other than their tenuous connection to the Fish Finger.

Which is a shame, because it would be a great community service to impart new facts about our marine life on TV every day.

*

*Here at Blathering About Nothing, a “regular” series could be anything that’s been posted at least once in the last 5 years. Notable series so far include the dangers of yoga mats, and – well, that’s about it.

 

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