Attack of the grammar jammer!

IMG_3637I know that, technically, defacing billboards is illegal, but I have to admire culture jammers: those brave souls who climb up high ladders to get at ads for major companies and turn them into a critique of what’s wrong with society.

This sort of thing appeals to the anti-big-business streak in me.

But something that irks me even more than big-company billboards is real estate agents’ billboards with grammar errors.

It’s almost tiresomely predictable that every time you see one, there will be an it’s where there should be an its, a complements where there should be a compliments, or a comprises of where the preposition just shouldn’t be there. And dangling modifiers…don’t get me started!

There’s one such billboard outside a real estate agent in the local village, a few doors away from my house. You can see it at the top of this post.

If you can’t see the grammatical error, you probably won’t want to bother reading this any further.

But for those who are interested, look a little closer, and you see this:IMG_3635

Yes, I was delighted today to see that someone had culture-jammed the billboard. That’ll learn ’em.

Or maybe not. Bet it’s still there, just the same, next time I walk by. And I bet the next board that goes up has the same old errors. I have three words for you, real estate agent billboard writers: get an editor!

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WAIT! There’s no Easter Bunny?

I heard a funny (peculiar, not hah-hah) story this week about a company function to which the families of employees had been invited, and of course there were little kids there. The Easter Bunny made an appearance too.

It was really warm in Melbourne that afternoon – about 30C. After a while, the Easter Bunny, able to stand the heat no more, took off his head. “Whew!” the man inside the suit said, “It was getting hot in there”.

And all the little kids around him began to cry.

They were worried that the Easter Bunny had lost his head.

Or perhaps they were just upset that they’d been sold a pup, so to speak. The awful truth was, the Easter Bunny wasn’t real.

I grew up with the same stories about the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas, though I soon deduced that the EB couldn’t be real. I did, however, believe in the big FC until I was about 10 and some ratbag kid at school told me the truth.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m glad The Easter Bunny’s not real. A rabbit the size of a man would not be my idea of cute. Before long, he’d find a partner rabbit the size of a woman, and they’d have thousands of human-sized rabbit babies and eat all the grass and crops in Australia.

Rabbits are not native animals here, and they are pests in the wild, though apparently, they make adorable pets.

I do wonder, however, why as an entire society, we feel a need to pretend the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas are real, when the rest of the time we’re reassuring kids that the characters in their story books, including the monsters, are not real, and they shouldn’t talk to strangers they don’t know, even if they seem nice.

I guess it’s all part of the commercialised, commodified, mediatised world we live in.

Freshly baked hot cross buns from my favourite Vietnamese-run bakery will be my Good Friday breakfast.

Freshly baked hot cross buns from my favourite Vietnamese-run bakery will be my Good Friday breakfast. The crosses didn’t work out too well, but I’m assured people travel from afar to buy them.

That aside, there are aspects of Easter I like. Mainly, it’s a few days off work (during which I get to catch up with my marking—oh joy!). There are hot cross buns on Friday (ours are from my favourite family-run bakery), shopping on Saturday, a family meal on Sunday and a well-deserved lie-in on Monday.

And not to forget the chocolate Easter eggs. I’ve suddenly, just since a year ago, become a regular chocolate eater after not being much interested in it since childhood.

Back then, I used to hoard all my Easter eggs and eat them a tiny piece at a time, sometimes taking a month to finish them. This would infuriate my brother, who would finish all his on the same day he received them and then appeal to me for some of mine. Mum would tell me I should “share” with my brother and not be selfish. Hmph!

It’s pretty much the same in my house today: I savour a piece or two of chocolate a day, whereas Himself scoffs his then thinks I’ll take pity on him and share mine.

Not me: boys have always been taking my chocolate, and they don’t get it any more!

Should you stand up for a pregnant woman in the train or bus?

I shouldn’t have to ask that question — it should go without saying that you would do so. But, sadly, I do have to ask it.

This is because twice this week I have seen instances where people appeared reluctant to stand for obviously pregnant women.
This morning, a woman got on the train and, after a few moments, I stood up for her, and she gratefully sat down, thanking me and giving me a lovely smile.
I say “after a few moments” because I was surrounded by young men and women, most of them 20 or perhaps even 30 years younger than me. I admit, I’d thought one of them would stand (is that wrong?). However, they remained in place, even in the seats opposite with notices that say the seats must be vacated if elderly, pregnant or disabled people need them.

 

 When I got up, none of the young men or women made a counter offer. They settled further into their seats, one making eye contact but quickly looking away.
A 35-ish man standing opposite me was shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe that out of that whole group, you were the one who had to stand up,” he said. “Manners! Modern society, eh?” He said it loud enough for others to hear; they just sat there. Now, I’m not elderly or infirm or anything, but I do think that very young people should stand up before middle-aged people. There used to be a rule, too, that if you were on a student ticket, you were obliged to give up your seat to an adult. What annoyed me most was that more than one of us should have been prepared to give up his or her seat.
As I said, this was not the only incident this week (I catch a lot of public transport!). A few days ago, I got on to a crowded bus with no spare seats. After me, a woman got on who was pregnant. She stood for a while: no one got up for her, including people in seats right next to her.
Finally, a young woman standing on the other side of me courageoulsy tapped one of them on the shoulder and said, “I think you should stand up for her”, indicating the pregnant woman. The seated girl was genuinely surprised, and leapt up immediately. “Oh! I didn’t even notice,” she said.
I wondered if this was indicative of what had happened in both incidents. That people weren’t being rude, ill-mannered, or insensitive. They just didn’t notice.
Are we so embroiled in our personal worlds of music played via headphones or ear buds, texting, social media and even reading, or a combination of those things, that we fail to notice when fellow humans need our assistance?
It seems we need to get over ourselves, look around, and notice what’s happening in the world.

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.

A foot is not an almond or, If the shoe fits…

My almond-toed boots: always uncomfortable but on trend.

My almond-toed boots: on trend, but always uncomfortable

When I see some of the lengths fashion-conscious women of the past went to to look à la mode—tightly laced corsets, skirts so wide they couldn’t sit on a chair and so on—I wonder how (and even why) they did it. I’m glad we’re now emancipated from such follies.

But there’s a fashion item women still wear every day that’s every bit as ridiculous, restricts movement, results in chronic lifelong pain and causes crippling injuries that sometimes have to be operated on.

It’s the shoe.

Look at your shoes right now. Chances are, if you’re a woman, the shape of your shoe is nothing like that of your natural foot. For example, feet don’t extend to a point with the longest toe being in the middle (a shoe shape marketed as “almond toed”); the inside of your foot is actually straight (or should be, if you haven’t damaged it with faulty footwear), then curves down and round to the small toe; your heels are not 5cm or 10cm higher than the ball of your foot.

While we can make some allowances for fashion – some padding and rouging and other trickery – shoes are taking it beyond the extreme.

Shoemakers are stuck: if they made lasts that truly followed the shape of the human foot, perhaps not many people would buy the resulting product. This is because of the influence of media and popular culture: everywhere, there is reinforcing “evidence” that assures us that all women are obsessed with shoes (Carrie Bradshaw and the Sex And the City crowd have a lot to answer for); that high heels and pointy toes are attractive, feminine and make you look slimmer; that “sensible” shoes are for nanas and they age you before your time.

I’ll tell you what’s ageing: aching feet all day that make you purse your lips and frown.

Yes, I went through my teens, 20s and 30s addicted to fashion, poring over high-fashion magazines, and spending all my spare cash on clothes and shoes. I wore high heels every day, even to the beach.

But I saw the light some time ago. Still, I have some footwear that I shouldn’t have bought.

In this area, men generally make better choices than women. Ironically, pointy-toed high heeled shoes were a male fashion in the 17th century (starting earlier as riding shoes), but somehow changed sexes along the way (cuban heels and cowboy boots excepted). Now men generally make much better choices on footwear than women do.

I was waiting on the train platform the other day with about a hundred other commuters, and I took a look at the shoes people were wearing.

I know men sometimes wear pointy shoes, or shoes that are too small, narrow or ill cut. However, the vast majority of men on that train platform were wearing shoes they could, at least, walk in—run in, if they had to—that wouldn’t put them in danger of falling over, twisting an ankle or developing bunions.

That night, not many of those men would have aching feet because of their shoes, I mused. And they looked good: cool sneakers, chunky workmanlike boots, suede slip-ons, even black patent leather shoes to go with a big-city job.

And what were the women wearing? Some, granted, were in comfortable shoes, even some of the younger women: I’ve read that flatties are in again. But most were in high heels, some so high and thin they could barely walk; and pointed toes; and toes that curved upwards slightly; and enormous stacked heels that made them look like something out of a 1980s glam rock band (though I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing—I loved those bands).

There wouldn’t be a high-heel wearer alive who hadn’t got her heel caught in lawn, or a drain, or other trap multiple times, and tripped, fallen or had to remove the shoe to extract it.

Our own former Prime Minister had two well documented and highly embarrassing shoe moments, both of which would not have happened if she were wearing better equipped footwear. One was on a visit to India, when the PM’s heel became lodged in the lawn and she actually tumbled right over in front of the cameras. I cringe for her every time I see the clip.

As Gillard explained it at the following press conference, “For men who get to wear flat shoes all day every day: if you wear a heel, it can get embedded in soft grass, then when you pull your foot out, the rest of it doesn’t come, and the rest of it is as you saw.”

She also lost a shoe when she was extracted (in a ridiculous manner, I thought) from a situation involving Australia Day protesters in 2012 that her security team had deemed dangerous. In this case, she wasn’t even able to retrieve her shoe and had to leave it behind. It ended up with the Aboriginal tent embassy of long-term protesters in Canberra (they’ve been there 40 years). Check out the sensationalised report from the time:

Such is the power of this fashion “statement”, that even a deeply committed feminist and pioneer such as Gillard (our first female PM) couldn’t bring herself to defy its dictates.

It’s hard to buy women’s shoes that are truly comfortable and never hurt no matter how much you walk in them. My own workaday comfortable shoes have been wonderful, though they were so soft they offered little support. Anyway, they have worn out and I need to buy new ones. We have recently moved and I was delighted to see that there was a specialist shoe shop in our village with row upon row of comfortable but attractive-looking shoes.

They’re expensive, but I don’t mind paying extra for shoes that look good but won’t hurt me.

Well, I tried on every pair of shoes in my size in that shop, much to the exasperation of the assistant. Nothing came close to comfortable. She assured me they would “give” and that I would wear them in. But in my experience, shoes that pinch when you buy them still pinch in the same places when you’ve worn them in.

I noticed that one brand that purports to be a wide and comfortable fitting had those pointy toes that are “on trend” at the moment. The UK online site I used to buy my shoes from calls them “almond toes” and has put them on all its ankle boots.

I questioned the assistant about the “almond toe”, saying, but isn’t this brand supposed to be health-conscious? Do they have any round toes?”

She shook her head, “No, their boots are all pointed this year.”

Well, Mr or Ms Shoemaker, this is what I have to say to you: “A foot is not an almond.”

 

What I saw written on the bathroom wall

The women’s facilities near one of the classrooms where I teach have been annoying all year because of their leaky taps.
As we all know, a dripping tap wastes a huge amount of water, which is expensive for the institution, and environmentally irresponsible, particularly in a water-challenged country such as Australia.
Anyway, recently, two identical notices went up in this bathroom, one on each wall. This is what they said:
Tap1
One of them was directly above the worst tap, which now runs, rather than drips, and which is nearly impossible to turn completely off, even if you twist it as hard as you can. Here is a picture of how much it runs (a few weeks ago, it only dripped):

Tap2
A few days after these notices went up, some bright spark added in pen to the notice above that constantly running tap, “Or…you could fix the tap”.
Well maintenance would be a fine thing, but it seems to be at a minimum these days. The maintenance staff simply don’t have time to fix everything.

And it seems sarcastic comments are not appreciated, either (even when they tell the truth).
Yesterday, I found that the notice with the graffiti had been taken down, leaving the other unannotated notice, on the other side to the faulty tap. However, by mid-morning, this had happened to that remaining notice:
Tap3
Same message, worded slightly differently. I wonder if anyone will actually get the message, or will it too be removed?
By the way, at least three of the six taps in that washroom drip. I wonder how much water is wasted across the entire university because there are no longer enough maintenance staff. In some bathrooms, there is a notice with a number to ring to report faulty equipment, but not in this one.
I might add that in another building, there is a faulty toilet cubicle door that hasn’t closed properly for 10 years…

Australians: lazy and overpaid? I think not

The bakery—good business but hard work. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2014

All stocked for a busy day at the bakery—good business but hard work. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2014

Everyone I know is working harder, in every industry—and I know a lot of people. Let me tell you about the manager of a bakery/lunch bar from which I buy a sandwich and a coffee three days a week. She commented to me on Tuesday that I had an early start that day, when I uncharacteristically bought a chai latte at 8.30am.

I said, “But you had a much earlier start.”

“Yes,” she said. “I start at 7am every day.”

“And what time do you finish?” I asked.

“7pm,” she said.

Turns out she works 7am-7pm from Monday to Friday, but she also starts at 7am on Saturdays and Sundays.

“And what time do you finish on weekends?’

“Oh, finish early – 5.30pm,” she said.

So she works 81 hours a week, and there’s travel time to and from work on top of that. I thought I was doing it hard at 65-70 hours, much of which I can do from the comfort of my own home.

“It’s a good business though, isn’t it?” I said. There are loads of customers at all hours at the bakery, because the food is ultra-fresh and tasty, the service fast and always with a smile.

“Yes, but we just keep afloat,” she said, adding that she should earn more money than she does.

Ironically—or perhaps just coincidentally—this conversation happened on Budget Day.

As I said, every Australian worker I know, including me, is toiling harder than ever before, many of them for less pay than they received previously. So I took it as a personal insult when Dr Sharman Stone, a Member of Parliament (Murray) in the current federal government, inferred on Monday on the ABC TV panel show Q and A, that Australian workers were lazy and overpaid.

Dr Stone did this by claiming that Australia had one of the lowest productivity rates of any workers in “developed” nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and in the next breath noting that Australians had one of the highest minimum wage rates in the world (she said that like it’s a bad thing).

Dr Stone, a former Minister for Workplace Participation (2006-7),  has a PhD in economics and business, but it seems here that she’s letting her politics get in the way of her education; she’s manipulating statistics to frame her agenda.

This is what she said, from the transcript to the show on the ABC website: “Australia has some of the lowest productivity per worker in the developed world and it has been going down over the last 10 years. We have about the highest, I have to say, minimum wage as well in the developed world…

“If we have a very high minimum wage and we have very low productivity, when we have a highly regulated work force, so there’s very little flexibility…” (http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3985872.htm)

The Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, this year criticised the ABC for not supporting Australia. So how is it that one of the most long-standing MPs in his party felt it was OK on national television to put down every Australian worker?

For a start, her use of OECD productivity figures ( http://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=32480#) is misleading. Our productivity as estimated by the OECD is above that of Japan, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Finland, Italy and Spain, amongst others. But more importantly, her assertion that Australians are not pulling their weight is offensive.

If you read the OECD statistics, you realise they are not suitable for application to a judgement on whether individuals or groups work hard or not and whether they are thus overpaid. To use them as such is a logical fallacy. They are a macro-type guide for big business, exporters and so on. The OECD itself has a disclaimer on its website, saying that the statistics as “[e]stimates of productivity levels are more uncertain than estimates of productivity growth; therefore, some caution may be warranted when interpreting those measures.”

Meanwhile, Dr Stone seems to think that cutting people’s wages will result in them working harder. So, my message to Dr Stone is this: look around you and see that people are already working hard, many for so little that they can barely afford to put a roof over their heads, such are our exorbitant housing prices in Australia.

And, crucially, this: You don’t get more productivity by paying people less, including cutting the minimum wage, though in the (very) short-term, some statistics might make it appear so. In the medium and long term, you get better productivity by paying people fairly, by providing good working conditions, job security and ongoing training.

That would seem obvious but, apparently, it’s not.

If all your stuff was packed away, what would you miss most?

NeedleI have access to 5% or less of my stuff at the moment, because most of it is packed into boxes awaiting our big house move on Tuesday.

Do I miss that other stuff in the 60 boxes? Well, yes and no.

Books aside—because I still love mine (though I’ve given loads away) and I’m a specialist collector—do we need the ornaments, piles of kitchen gadgets, knick knacks, souvenirs, shoes, bags, bathroom paraphernalia, cushions, pictures, 25 wine glasses and 20 towels?

The answer? I think it’s no. We just kind-of acquire this stuff and then become attached to it, because we think it has something to do with identity.

I’m still me without the ceramic cats from Thailand that hang over my bookcase, without the enormous glass fish I bought cheap at auction when a favourite bar closed, without the three wise men statues I bought in Beijing, and without the coloured-light replica of The Space Needle building I bought in Seattle (pictured, above). But actually, I do want these things, because they’re sentimental.

But there are some things I could happily divest myself of.

Ninety percent of my clothes are sealed in a box now, but I don’t care, because I wear only a small proportion of my clothes regularly.

I think about it this way: last year, I went to the US for about four weeks and I took a small bag the size of carry-on luggage (though I always check mine so I don’t have to carry it). That was fine, as long as I remembered to find a washing machine every three days. So, if I can survive for four weeks with this small bag of clothes, why not forever?

The other thing we’ve done is not replenished the food in our fridge or cupboards as we usually do. We’re down to loaves and fishes-type dishes now, if you know what I mean, but they’ve worked out just fine.

We spend a lot of extra money on whims with food, and we end up throwing some of it out. In fact, I’ve read government statistics that say about 40% of the food Australians buy ends up being thrown away because it goes off before people can eat it. You can read more about that here.

And the thing I miss most about not having access to my stuff? My art equipment! I wish I’d put aside my little travelling paint kit to keep me company this week. Oh well, I’ll see it all next week on the other side of the city.

My Winsor & Newton travelling water colour set. Picture by Caron Eastgate Dann

My Winsor & Newton travelling water colour set. Picture by Caron Eastgate Dann

What I heard on the train: why new graduates can’t get a job

trainHaving been paid to be nosy as a journalist for decades, I still have the habit of listening in to other people’s conversations, just in case there’s a story idea there.
This morning, standing in the peak-hour crush in an overcrowded train (not the one pictured left, that was my nicer going-home train), I overheard two middle-aged lawyers talking about the state of their industry.
It transpired that one of them worked for a huge company that I won’t name here. He was talking about job opportunities for lawyers.
There’s a big debate in Australia at the moment about how difficult it is for people over 50 to find jobs. However, there are also great difficulties for new graduates to get their first “proper” job. I hear it’s almost impossible for a fully qualified law graduate  to find a job as a junior lawyer in Melbourne now, and you’re most likely to be paying to do another expensive course to get your articles, rather than finding a job as an articled clerk as most used to.
Anyway, this guy on the train said, “Graduates used to come in at entry-level and do all the research and initial leg-work for cases. No longer. It’s all outsourced. Can you believe that? It’s all outsourced overseas, and it’s much cheaper. But it’s just not the same. Mind you, my company still charges out to clients at $5000 a day, even for outsourced material.
“No wonder graduates can’t get jobs any more. And then more experienced lawyers are being brought in on what used to be entry-level rates, but they’re not doing entry-level work; they’re expected to do the work of a lawyer on a trainee-level wage.”

I suspect this is happening in many other industries, too.

“Stupid” award of the week

drawersWhat’s wrong with this picture?

Yes, there is a drawer missing. There wasn’t a drawer missing when we put these two sets out in front of our house this afternoon, free to a good home.

We’re moving, so we’re taking the opportunity to give away what we don’t need. These two little sets of drawers have served me well, but it’s time to update and get a proper dressing table.

So out they went. In our area, good used furniture placed out on the nature strip usually lasts from 30 seconds to 30 minutes. I like the thought of someone coming across it and taking it home to be useful again.

But when we looked after a while to see if the drawers were gone, we saw this: some bright spark had taken away just one drawer, meaning that chest of drawers is now useless for anyone else. Stupid as all get out!