You don’t see this too often

eggThe other morning, I decided to have a fried egg for breakfast. I heated the pan, cracked the shell of a fresh, free-range organic egg, and…out popped a beautiful double yolk.
I’ve seen this only once or twice before in all the thousands of eggs I’ve eaten, including the truly free-range farm eggs I used to buy in rural Thailand in the early 1990s, they of the bright orange yolks and rich flavour.
It got me thinking about other natural phenomena we love to see: there’s something about them that makes you feel lucky all day.
I’ve seen several shooting stars. They’re usually something you see out of the corner of your eye and realise only after that that’s what it was. The most memorable was in Bangkok in the late 1990s. My then-husband and I used sometimes on a Saturday night to go up to the roof of our apartment building where the pool was and lie on the deck chairs, looking up at the sky.
Unbelievably, given the pollution, you could still see stars. One night, we saw what we thought was a bright shooting star go right across the sky. I’m calling it a shooting star, but this is my name for anything I see in the sky like that: it may well have been some other phenomenon.
I’ve never seen a five-leaf clover, but I have a friend who goes running every day, and she has seen quite a few.
But then, you have to be looking for these things to see them.

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The Old School Tie

Remember how much you hated your school uniform? The uniform at St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, New Zealand, at which I spent about half my schooling, was Black Watch tartan, with hats and gloves required whenever we left school grounds (though hats could be removed after 6pm).

My old school tie, slightly the worse for wear now, with some of my favourite books from childhood, saved (luckily) for decades by my mother.

My old school tie, slightly the worse for wear now, with some of my favourite books from childhood, saved (luckily) for decades by my mother.

In summer, we had a tartan pleated skirt and a sailor-top with the tie built in, but with a lowish neck at the front that would sometimes be embarrassing. In winter, we had itchy woollen gym frocks, belted at the waist, with white shirts and a man-style tie. There were cardigans, blazers and green felt hats in winter, and white straw boaters in summer that would turn yellow in the sun.

I hated wearing long socks, because we were supposed to wear elastic garters to hold them up, but I found garters unbearably annoying, so my socks constantly fell down and I was always being told off for it.
We had dreadful sports gear: black rompers like something out of 19th-century England for younger girls, and an equally bad all-in-one black watch tartan romper suit for older girls. Both had puffy legs with elastic at mid-thigh level. We felt and looked ridiculous in them, and we had to do long distance running in the streets in these outfits, too. Young men and boys would laugh at us as we passed by.
Learning to knot our ties was a rite of passage, but I cursed the silly things every day. I’d always end up with one short end and one long.
I had forgotten all about my school tie until, recently, my mother returned it to me, having kept it all these years. I’m so glad she did. The hated thing is now reinvented in my mind as nostalgic memorabilia of happy school years with my best friend, Yvette—who is still my dear friend today.
These memories have come flooding back to me because we recently moved house  and we are next to a big school with extensive grounds like the one I went to. Their winter uniforms, even these several decades later, are similar in format, though different in colour and material. They have much better sports gear, though.
The other day, I happened to be walking home from the train as school was coming out. Students were milling round, some being picked up by mothers or fathers, some by grandparents. “So what did you do today?” “Mum, I have to tell you about Chrissie–“; “I need the money for the excursion, Mum, there’s a note about it in my bag…” “Dad, can we go to the park?” “No, no homework at all’; “So much homework.”
In the midst of all this, with cars drawing up to pick up kids and others pulling away, full of tired but still exuberant students, a white mini-bus pulled up to the curb. A mother waiting by the curb clapped her hands together in joy as the doors opened. “Hello, sweetheart!” she called. Her son jumped off into her welcoming arms. There must be a school for kids with special needs around here too, I realised. “Did you have a good day?” she said as she took his bag and bundled him toward the car.
I went to quite a few schools, in three countries, but it is always St Cuthbert’s College that stands out most in my mind. It was like Hogwarts in some ways, though they didn’t teach us to do magic, unfortunately. Our ‘headmistress’, as they were called then, Miss Holland, wore to morning assembly her academic gown, a fearsome black number that billowed round her sensible figure and reminded us that there would be no nonsense here.
One morning, I was in a particularly joyful mood, and I leapt up the stairs two at a time. Standing at the top of the stairs, was Miss Holland in her black gown, looking like thunder. “Go back down those stairs immediately and come up one at a time like a lady!” she exclaimed.
Miss Holland was dour and fearsome when I was at school. But about six years later, when I was a journalist, I met her and another teacher at a function. Miss Holland was friendly, smiling and personable. “Do call me Joan,” she said over a glass of wine. “Oh I couldn’t,” I replied, and she laughed delightfully. “We’re ever so proud of all our girls in their exciting careers,” she said, or something similar. Miss Holland, who held her position from 1969-1989, lived in a house within the school grounds, and had never married, so we had all naturally assumed that the school was her entire life, and perhaps it was. But I realised that day that she was actually a person, not just an intimidating school principal.

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go…

The tools of my trade: mobile and casual

The tools of my trade: mobile and casual

Do you have the sort of job that is secure, full-time and that pays you holiday (vacation) leave and sick pay? Is it a job that encourages you to strive to achieve your best and that offers a career path and promotion? Do you feel valued and appreciated, thus making you a more loyal and committed employee?

If you answer yes to these questions, you are in the minority—at least in Australia and, as far as I can tell, in other Western countries such as NZ, the US and the UK. And even if you do have a ‘proper’ job, you’re often treated appallingly as an employee. For example, read about my blogosphere friend Goldfish’s treatment in the US this week: http://fishofgold.net/2014/08/03/when-2-hours-feels-like-5/

The appealing idea of being happy in our work is now only in the realms of Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, she who whistled while she worked and they who sang merrily as they marched off to work in the mines.

When I first came to Australia in 1988 as a young but experienced journalist, things here were pretty good. Back in NZ, we still got ‘Christmas bonuses’—an extra week’s pay in December. That didn’t happen in Australia, and I had to take a pay cut, but there were other benefits. Rent, food and wine were cheaper in Australia, we got more holiday leave and—I can hardly believe I’m saying this now—we got a “leave loading”, that is, more pay when on leave than not. As a journalist, I worked most public holidays, but I also got six weeks and three days of paid holiday leave a year. We were all full-time employees with permanent positions.

Even in the early 2000s, when I worked for a magazine owned by the media mogul Kerry Packer, we all got enormous holiday hampers in December. These were worth several hundred dollars each, and included pretty much everything you needed for your celebration, including a choice of turkey, ham or salmon in a special fridge pack, wine, luxurious chocolates and much more. All company employees got the same type of hamper, from the lowliest office junior to the CEO.

Mr Packer is dead now, and so is that sort of magnanimity. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you don’t get laid off right before the holiday season.

I changed careers from journalism to tertiary education in 2008. In the tertiary education sector, latest statistics (2012) from the Commonwealth Department of Education paint a disturbing picture: 84% of all academic staff have insecure jobs; 80.3% of people employed in teaching-only positions are casual and a further 10.2% are on short-term contracts; and note that these are full-time equivalent numbers, each of which equates to four actual workers. These figures were reported in the July 2014 edition of Connect, the magazine for casual academic staff run by Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU, of which I am a delegate).

In her article ‘University work becoming more precarious’, NTEU president Jeannie Rea says that  there has been no comment on the statistics from any university, and that the NTEU is the only tertiary entity to have published them, apart from the government department.

I have been working as what is euphemistically called a “sessional” (really a casual) since 2008. Luckily, I have had enough work nearly every semester. But there is still that dreadful time from November to March when there is little or no work (I’m trying to rectify that now by working at another institution as well that has a summer trimester). At a time of year when the weather is warm and people in my industry should be relaxing or on vacation, I’m counting pennies and worrying about how much work I will get next semester so I can start paying off the inevitable credit card debt.

It’s not all bad though. I have time to write and to paint, time to recover from 60-hour weeks at the end of the year and so on.

But in my experience, nothing beats a secure full-time job. I believe the country is the poorer for treating many of its most highly educated, smartest and ablest workers, in fields from journalism to education to anything else you might name, as expendable commodities.

It’s a worker’s right to expect security and decent pay and conditions. In return, it is an employer’s right to expect that employee to work hard, to be loyal, honest and committed, to take sick leave only when they are sick, and to be respectful of the company and their co-workers.

Casual employment is a lose-lose situation for both employees and employers. When are they going to realise it? I predict that things will, eventually, change for the better. One day, some bright spark in HR will come up with the amazing idea that employees who feel secure and valued do better work, enabling the company to make more profit.

But I don’t think this will be in my working lifetime. I predict it will take a generation or more for this to happen. Hopefully, it will be in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.