Thursday, June 30, 2011

Close Encounters of the Corporate Kind

Tim: "Like, we know this amazing guy Barry, who's an excellent guy, which we've referred at, and, um, like Barry runs these whole Earth bush workshops, right. What he does..." - from Brainspace' - Tim and Debbie

There used to be a really clever and amusing Australian comedy duo called "Tim and Debbie". In OZ. A hundred years ago.

Tim and Debbie recorded a number of skits and one of my favorites was about their friend, 'Barry'. 'Barry' allegedly made a fortune by driving people to a place in the outback of Australia and "leaving then there".

This was before reality shows, long before shows such as "Survivor". People would pay good money for Barry's wilderness workshop experience - no doubt under the misguided illusion that they were being given the opportunity to "find themselves".

In perfect bogan dialect, the upward inflection pitched exactly right, Tim and Debbie let it be known how much they admired 'Barry'.

"Right, wilderness workshops. He gets a group of really, like, aware sort of committed people who want to find themselves, and he drives them out into the middle of the wilderness ... he just leaves them there you know, and it's really, and,and he only charges two hundred dollars, you know.It's really excellent, you know."

I was reminded of Tim and Deb the other day when a friend of mine launched into a description of something weird and less than wonderful. Something which I hope is not going to be a "trending topic" - to borrow a Twitterism.

Now this friend is not normally given to exaggeration, and so I am inclined to believe her, even though what she described to me appeared to belong on the West, rather than the civilized East Coast where of course, being intelligent women, we both reside.

According to the friend, there's a new sort of human evolving. A "Job Shrink" aka a "Career Facilitator".

And this is what such people do - for $$$ of course.

Career Facilitators are invited in to corporations who wish to improve on their return from their more highly-paid employees. Once embedded in the organization, the facilitators invite everyone who has anything to do with the targeted employees to attend sessions behind closed doors - one session per highly-paid employee. The only person missing during these sessions is of course, the target - the highly-paid employee.

Once the door is locked the participants are given free reign to say whatever they like about the said employee. All comments are noted and sometime later the victim is called in to hear the news. Oh, and all comments are of course treated as confidential.

I'm not sure what the goals of these work-place encounters are supposed to be. They seem a bit along the lines of the nineteen seventies 'encounter groups'. I hated those groups. You were expected to sit there and listen to people being boring about what was wrong with their own lives and brutally honest about what was wrong with yours. BUT - with encounter groups - you were present when everyone got stuck into you. You KNEW who said what, and didn't have to unwittingly invite enemies to your next party.

Not so with the career facilitator sessions. The victim knows WHAT people said about them, but not WHO said it. You just have to cop it sweet and try to learn from your supposed - or maybe imagined - errors of your ways.

Ah, progress! We have obviously come a long way since the nineteen seventies! Back then encounter groups were up-front and personal.

In 2011 they are behind closed doors and corporate.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Crusts of Life

Anyway for my sanity I am writing here. I am sixty-five years old. Past the Beatles song. By some accounts that is young. But when a man wakes on his fortieth birthday he may safely say he has no youth ahead of him. - from "The Secret Scripture", Sebastian Barry

So it seems now. Who was I then? A stranger, but a stranger who hides in me still, in my bones and in my blood. ... The girl I was. - from "The Secret Scripture", Sebastian Barry

The Girl I Was
I hate endings. And it is for that reason I don't eat the crusts of things. This annoys the hell out of people, especially people who sit opposite me in restaurants, or even worse, who cook for me.

I won't eat the crusts of anything - even things that other people think do not have crusts. Like pizzas. Like veal scallopini. Or french fries. In fact the only food I can think of that doesn't have a crust, is ice-cream.

I used to think the way men reacted to my leaving the crusts was an indicator of their tolerance to others. My first husband, for example, used to put less and less on my plate, hoping that one day I would eventually eat all of it. I didn't. No matter how small the serving I always left something and eventually he gave up. He was very negative. Very intolerant. Very first-husband.

Later I took as a lover, a Dutchman. The opposite of first-husband he gradually served me more each day, hoping that although I would leave something, at least I'd get my nourishment. Very tolerant. Very Amsterdam. Very lover.

My second husband has a German background and like the aforementioned men, he also cooks for me. And as with the other two, I always leave a bit. Second Husband serves the same amount every time. And of course I always leave a bit. And every time he has the same comment. "Is there something wrong with it?" Very consistent. Very German. Very second-husband!

With the Dutchman
But where was I? Yes I was talking about the ends of things and how I hate them. The last full day of a vacation is unenjoyable. It doesn't matter where it is - in Paris, Bali, London, it's the pits. It's not even worth having. I'd sooner leave one day earlier. But that would only mean the bad last day would come sooner. You just can't win!

The last day before going on vacation. I just hate that day too. I wake up thinking what's wrong with today? And then I realise it is the end of the time before my vacation. Suddenly I will love being where I am. Be it New York or Melbourne. Why am I leaving? I love this place I think as I reluctantly, joylessly throw a few things into a suitcase, looking forward not to the vacation but to my return home.

I hated my last day of high school. I lingered for years at university, never quite knowing when I'd finished there, and thus not only postponing, but also hiding the awful last day from my awareness.

The last day of being a kid. I even remember it. I was on my way home from school, walking along Glenhuntly Road in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick when I saw a rubbish-bin lid on the sidewalk. I jumped over it, a real spring in my step. I won't be doing that again, I thought sadly. Good-bye my last day of childhood. I was growing up.

And now I'm thinking it is the end of an era. A friend emailed me. She was going home from her home in the UK to the home of her childhood, in Australia. A house in Elsternwick in fact. Her mother still lives in the same house there, the house she was in when I first met my friend. My friend is going home to unpack that house of whatever it has accumulated for over sixty years, as her mother is now elderly an moving into a nursing home.

"An end of an era," she wrote.

Yes, I hate endings. Especially end-of-era ones. I can't just push them around on my plate like they are pizza crusts. I can't hide them from the sight of husbands or lovers, shoving them surrepticiously under the mashed potatoes.

My second husband once lost all the desktop icons on his PC. "Where did they go?" he asked, quite seriously. I laughed and laughed.

But when it is about me, it ain't so funny! My youth. Where did it go?

I am so consciously aware of this lost youth that it worries me, annoys me rather. I've gotten into the habit of waking up in the mornings with the thought, "Oh no! Not YOU again!" Of course if I woke up as someone else I'd probably scream in terror ...

Instead I just laugh at myself, get up and start the day.

Dreading of course, the end.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gabriel Gateau and the importance of je ne sais quoi

Those were the days, my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day - Eugene Raskin

Paté escargots soup de jour
cordon bleu chic coiffure
fait accompli maison
crème de menthe Marcel Marceau
meringue blancmange Bardot
gauche gay Paris garçon - "The French Song", Greg Champion

There used to be a man, a chef in fact - long before the days of the Cooking Channel, "Master Chef" and Scott Conant - called Gabriel Gaté. I used to listen to him wax lyrical about the virtues of the French, on Radio Australia. In fact he's still around - I just googled him. Gabriel Gaté. Apparently he was awarded "La Croix de Chevalier dans L’Ordre du Merite Agricole" in 2000. Wonders will never cease.

I used to call Monsieur Gaté, Gabriel Cake - well, Gabriel Gateau - because quite simply, he annoyed the hell out of me. I just couldn't hack his French accent, because I thought - and I still do - that he was putting it on. Anyone who pronounces "cabbage" as "cab-arge" after living in Australia for over a hundred years, just has to be fake.

Those were the days. When I lived in Australia, I used to listen to Greg Champion and the "The Coodabeen Champions" every Saturday morning. They had a footie show on the radio. Not that I knew or know anything about footie, but the Coodabeens could make anything funny.

American Cuisine, Michigan
In those days I actually listened to the radio. Now, in America, I've just never gotten the hang of it. The channel numbers I mean. And "FM" and "AM" - are they even meaningful here? All I know about American radio is that there's some awful guy called Rush Limbaugh on it, which is enough to turn anyone left of Genghis Khan right off.

Rush Limbaugh or Gabriel Gateau. Who is worse? Reminds me of when my son was little and he'd keep coming up with silly questions like, "Who would win? A dog with one eye or a rabbit with a broken leg?" And, "Who would win? A cat with three legs or a monkey with the measles?" I didn't know then and I still don't.

Even worse was when my daughter of the time asked me to send her to France so that she could "get a French accent".

Humor. There's nothing like it to keep one sane. And even though I am 12,000 miles away from some of the funniest people in the world, here in America humor is alive and well.

In a few weeks I'm going to see my new idols - Larry David and Susie Essman, from the excellent comedy series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm". They, along with their co-star Jeff Garlin are appearing at the 92nd Street Y, to celebrate the launch of the eighth season of the show. I can hardly wait.

So who is funnier, Greg Champion or Larry David? Greg Champion with a broken leg, or Susie Essman with chicken pox? Scott Conant eating raw red onions or Gabriel Gateau at the Tour de France hosting the "Taste Le Tour"?

Stay tuned ....

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Magic Faraway Tree and the Vegetable Song

beetroot to yourself
lettuce get along
Bean so good getting to know you
Peas to you and all of your family - Tim Juliff (1950 - 2011)

So that's it then? His father has gone and there's nobody ahead of him. Nobody higher than him on the tree. - Caryl Phillips, "In the Falling Snow"

Memories of Dandenong Road, East St Kilda (OZ)
It doesn't take much. This time it came upon me completely unexpectedly. The all-consuming sorrow.

I was walking to the local park; taking photos for my blog. I crossed York Avenue. Jay-walking New York-style. And there it was. Right in front of me on the sidewalk. I almost bumped in to it. A tree with a big hollow in it. I was reminded.

My mind went back a hundred years. Dandenong Road, Australia - on our way to Windsor State School. I was nine. My brother Tim, five. Latch-key kids. There was a tree somewhere along Dandenong Road. I remember it was a plane tree. The things we remember ... The tree it intrigued us. We'd stop by it every day. We believed that there were elves and goblins in the hollow. Children of the Enid Blyton generation, we imagined we'd found "The Magic Faraway Tree" of Blyton's story for children.

Tim's gone now. The last time I spoke to him was shortly after Japan's big tsumami and I guess that's why Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki" song is indelibly linked in my mind to my brother's death.

When our mother died Tim told me that we were now orphans. I hadn't thought about our new status. And now it's even worse. I'm at the top of the tree, as the novelist Caryl Phillips puts it. And there's no Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot, Angry Pixie, or any of Blyton's characters up here. I'm all alone ...

Too many reminders. I'd just about gotten over the hollow tree association when I read a Facebook friend's status for today. "It was exactly three months ago that the tsunami hit the north-eastern coast of Japan," she wrote. So many months away. It was just one week after that tsunami that I spoke to my brother for the last time. We discussed the problems with the nuclear reactors in Japan. I'll call you again in a few days, I told him. Within two days the cancer had taken his hearing. We never spoke again.

And then - today is the shortest day of the year in Australia. The anniversary of something I cannot discuss here, but the anniversary is now painful, though what it celebrates was, at the time, joyous. Every 21st of June I take stock. And now in 2011 the stock is added to.

The sentiments expressed in my brother's "Vegetable Song" are admirable, and if we could all follow them, our lives would be richer.

Richer, yes.

But longer?

Obviously not.

Tim was just 61 when he left us.

I wish all of my friends "peas". And peas to their families too.

Remember to eat your veggies! ASIF Tim did! I remember when he was very little. He used to hide his beans under the table-cloth at dinner time. One day my mother caught him in the act. "Do NOT put your beans under the table-cloth!" she admonished. Straight away Tim pulled them out from under the table-cloth and put them on his head.

Peas, brother.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Gentle People of New York

I love those dear hearts and gentle people
Who live in my home town
Because those dear hearts and gentle people
Will never ever let you down - "Dear Hearts and Gentle People", Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard, 1949

New Yorkers Sun Baking at Carl Schurtz Park
Yesterday I decided to walk across to the Carl Schurz Park to see and hear the "Sing for Hope" piano there. Sophie Matisse (yes she's the great granddaughter of Henri) and a number of other New York artists have painted a bunch of pianos and we are all invited to come outside and play. The painted pianos have been set up all over Manhattan, and looking up the "Spring for Hope" website" I saw that the closest was on the East River at the Carl Schurz Park. I took my camera, thinking to take a photo of our "local" piano for my readers.

On my way to the park I couldn't help noticing several signs of the honesty and civic responsibility of my fellow New Yorkers. Traits not often associated with the Apple people.

So I took photos - as EVIDENCE!
In the space of a few blocks I saw several items of lost property hanging on railings, put there by whoever found them, in the hope that they'd be claimed. You can see a couple of them in the photos above. The red cardigan in particular looks very stylish.

Volunteer Dog Walker, East 92nd Street
More evidence of New York's community spirit was found closer to the the park on 92nd Street and York Avenue. Volunteer dog-walkers from the nearby ASPCA walking "rescue dogs". I took a photo of one of them resting at a small plaza.

At the park. It was a good day for being outside and there were heaps of people sitting in the shade, reading, sun-baking, roller-skating, walking and riding bikes. I looked everywhere but could not see or hear any evidence of a piano. It was hot and I was too lazy to ask anyone if they'd seen one.

I turned back. I walked along 91st Street this time. I stopped at "The Vinegar Factory", a designer supermarket, known for its expensiveness and pretentiousness. Now I DID hear music. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. "So Upper East Side," I was thinking, when it occurred to me that perhaps I was being Upper-East-Side-pretentious for recognizing it.

Somehow hearing classical music playing at supermarkets reminds me of people who brew coffee when their house is open for inspection - the aroma is said to attract buyers with money. Enough already. I bypassed the one hundred brands of virgin olive oil, ducked past the ducks à l'orange, bought a cornish hen, and left.

Manhattan for Yard Sale
A few meters on I and almost blinked and missed a Manhattan-size yard sale (Australians, read "garage sale"). I bought two glass tumblers from the Polish girl, who seemed as Poles do "in charge". I accidentally gave her two dollar notes and a twenty instead of three singles - I hate the way that American notes are not color-coded like Australian ones! The nice Polish girl called me back. I thanked her for her honesty and walked on.

I strolled along, thinking about New Yorkers and how we are much maligned, then stopped to take my final photo of the day.

A bike, still chained to the railing, sans wheels.

Oh well, who said that New Yorkers were perfect?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Do Baby Boomers Have Aims?

"Siamo qui per servirla could be another option", with a hint of sarcasm - from Word Reference Forums on a good Italian translation of "We aim to please".

Straight out Kerouac, Boomers at a Manhattan Flea Marke
We were talking about aims. Well, HE was. I wasn't. "He" being my husband.

It was over dinner and he told me his current life aim. "Oh," I said. Yes I know. I can be very uncommunicative. It's a family trait on my mother's side.

"So, what's YOUR aim?" he asked. I replied that I didn't have one, and attempted to change the unwelcome subject.

In fact the question puzzled me. Are we meant to have aims? "Life aims", I mean; because that was the sort of aim my husband was talking about. I've never had one. A grandiose aim - I should be so lucky.

But nevertheless, aimless as I obviously am, I dwelt upon the subject later. Perhaps it was an age thing. If you don't have your whole life in front of you, why have an aim? Unless it is an aim to stay alive. Which is sort of a default aim and doesn't count. I dwelt and I dwelt.

And I think I've got it worked out.

I grew up hardly knowing where the next meal was coming from. I had a single mother at a time in OZ when there was no supporting parents' benefit and women earned very little. There were stretches when my mother was unemployed. And there were no unemployment benefits back then. So that just getting to the next day was an achievement.

Me and my Bro.  Outside Wilson Hall, Melbourne University
I remember other girls at school having aims. Like - "I am going to be a lawyer. "I'm going to be a pediatrician." I was in awe of those girls. I just hoped that I'd get a scholarship to go to university and wouldn't have to be a tram conductor. I did not think of anything beyond that.

Melbourne used to have tram conductors. They were invariably women, employed to walk up and down the tram (Americans - read "trolley") checking that everyone had a ticket, and selling tickets to those who did not.

What got it into my sixteen year old head that should I fail my final year at high school I'd be a tram conductor, I don't know. But it did. Negative reinforcement. It spurred me on and I did go to university, enrolling in subjects whose content I had no idea of. I enrolled in psychology because I liked the look of a boy who had already enrolled in it. He was later to become my first lover. So much for sensible planning. Still, the psychology has come in handy ...

I suppose I've just drifted on, ever since. I remember my mother asking me, "Are we shallow?" and I answered yes. We didn't think of the big things we were to busy worrying about the small. Being able to achieve big things never entered our minds.

Send your aims to HERE!
I DID have a fantasy though. I dreamed I'd get engaged in New York to someone who looked like a young Cary Grant. He would propose on a patio belonging to a penthouse apartment in Manhattan. I would be wearing a pink taffeta dress and would look like Debbie Reynolds. In this fantasy I was employed. Some sort of office job. The job didn't play a part in the fantasy - apart from existing. But I do remember that the office building was on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and there were revolving door at the entrance.

Weird. I did end up in Manhattan and I actually worked on Fifth Avenue in a building that had revolving doors.

But it wasn't planned. It sort of just happened.

I suppose if forced I COULD say I had an aim. It would be to be aimless. To accept what the world has to offer and to have the basics needed to survive.

Oh yes. There's another hidden aim. An aim that dares not speak its name. More like a wish. I would like to see or even hear of my grandson. But that's another story ...

And unachievable.

No wonder I do not have an aim.

So yep, I don't have an aim. If any reader has a surplus of them, please send them on.

I can offer them a good home. In a building in Manhattan.

That has revolving doors.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

For a poet and a one-man band

And every stop is neatly planned.
For a poet and a one-man band. - Paul Simon, "Homeward Bound", 1966"

Second Avenue, June 2006
The MTA, the New York Transit Authority, has a novel way of squashing criticism, that I hate to say, must have been dreamed up by a woman.

The residents up New York's Upper East side are angry at the state of the sidewalk and bus services on Second Avenue. And rather than tackle the problem that has been going on for five years and will continue it seems for at least another five, the MTA has apparently sought to solve the problem by showing that it doesn't exist.

First the problem.

Every weekday morning, along with hundreds of others, I stand on Second Avenue waiting.

I hate to think of the millions or billions of dollars spent by the City of New York in lost productivity. Because time spent standing, waiting for a bus is time wasted. And there is an increasing amount of time now being spent by New Yorkers standing waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Five years ago we had bus shelters and space. Look at the photo above. I took it in June, 2006.

94th Street and Second 2006
And here's another, taken around the same time.

Those were the days. People living near 93rd and Second Avenue had a choice of the two bus-stops. Now we have one.

We, the locals, would not be peeved if we had to put up with the inconvenience for a year or two, but it has been six years to date and the end is not in sight. When will we have our sidewalks back? The latest news is that we MIGHT have them back in 2016, but seeing as the completion date has already been pushed back several times, I doubt it.

Look at the bus-stop we have now. One would think that in New York in 2011, that "temporary" should not mean ten years.

Same bus-stop, 2011
And to add insult to injury the number of buses servicing the area has been substantially cut. AND a new system has been put in place. There are now "Select" buses.

"Select" buses have flashing blue lights and do not stop every stop. "Select" buses need to have wide sidewalks where they stop as tickets must be purchased within one hour from machines on the sidewalk at the bus-stops.

I don't know what it is like to ride in a "Select" bus. That is because the sidewalk where I live is too narrow for the ticket machines. To get a "Select" we'd have to walk to either 103rd or 87th Street.

So every weekday morning I stand with a dozen or so other frustrated people, watching the Select buses fly by with their blue flashing lights. Last Tuesday I counted five Selects as I waited for our "Local" bus. The first two Selects had a few people in them. The next were virtually empty. Someone was counting the commuters hailing cabs. He got to eight and then our bus was in sight.

And now for the "solution".

A few weeks ago, as a result of the many complaints it seemed we had achieved a reaction. Perhaps something was going to be done. For one morning as we took our seats on the bus we saw a pretty young woman holding a clipboard. She was from the MTA and was surveying the Second Avenue commuters.

Lining up for the bus - Even New York kids wear black
I watched her and listened. She was like a breath of fresh air as she approached the commuters, selecting the least hassled and ... was I imagining it .... preferring middle-aged males. I listened to her questions, and their answers.

"What do you think of the bus service?" she asked sweetly.

"Oh it is wonderful," came the replies.

"Did you have to wait long this morning?"

"Oh no, hardly at all!"

"Has the service gotten better or worse?" she smiled.

"Oh better, definitely".

Ad so on ad nauseam and nauseatingly.

The women next to me sneered. "Listen to the old fools," she grumbled.

I however, was impressed. I have great admiration for the use of creativity in solving problems.

Suddenly a majority of the people were contented with the lack of service . The men were happy.

Even I was happy. I admired the solution. And I liked the young woman.

Plus, she had a lovely smile.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

On Being Self Referential

A word that describes itself is called an autological word (or autonym). This generally applies to adjectives, for example sesquipedalian, but can also apply to other parts of speech, such as TLA, as a three-letter abbreviation for three-letter abbreviation". - Self Reference.

I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me. - Woody Allen

Self Portrait at Tiffany's
I have always been a bit vague when it comes to the exact meaning of self-referential. I think it used to refer pretentiously to works of art that created by people who are only interested in themselves. An Asperger's kinda thing ... Come to think of it, it is perhaps an "it's all about me" existentialist thing - a New York thing even. I wear black because I am ... but I digress.

I came to be reflecting on the meaning of "self referential" last Saturday round noon, when my cell phone rang. It was a stranger on the other end of the line. And the conversation went something like this.

Stranger: "Hello, is this 646 XXXXXX?"
Me: Yes"
Stranger: "Well you have taken my number. My number is 646 XXXXXX."
Me: "No, I have had 646 XXXXXX for eight years. It is MY number."
Stranger: "No it is mine and now we both have the same number and I just this minute dialled it."
Me: "Well, in that case, why aren't you answering your call?"
Stranger: "Because YOU picked up!"
Me: "OK. I'll hang up now, and you can call it again and I won't pick up this time and you can talk to yourself."
Stranger: "OK!"
A few seconds later, my phone rings. I ignore it and play Angry Birds on my iPad.

A Touch of Color at Dumbo
The ringing eventually stops and I forget about the whole bizarre thing. But about an hour later the phone rings again and I pick it up. It is the stranger back again.

Me: "Please stop calling me. I am busy."
Stranger: "But you have my number."

And so on ....

In the end he went away, but I just couldn't resist. I checked my call log and clicked on the number that had last called me. The stranger's number. No answer. "It's me," I voice mailed, "have you figured out your phone number yet, or am I YOU?".

Some time later Mr Stranger actually called again, but this time, to apologize.

Apple Store, Fifth Avenue
Meanwhile I am left self-referentially confused, and no wonder. For lately I seem to be surrounded by some very strange people!

I have a native New Yorker friend who thinks she is the only person in New York dressing in black - my Moon Follows Me" friend.

I have a stranger who thinks if he dials my number he is calling himself.

But perhaps the most strangest is my non-existential referential neighbor who recently bought an iPad 2. Worried that a man she knows might mess with it when she went away on vacation she hid it. Somewhere. Where, she has no idea.

Two Aussie New Yorker Philosophers
If can be proven, as some philosophers think, that an object needs a relationship to an observer for it to exist, does this mean that it ceases to exist when no one can see it? Certainly my friend, let's just call her Jay, left her iPad alone in her room, and while she was away in China it ceased to exist - for her, anyway. What is odd however that it still doesn't exist and she's she's back.

I think I'll put Jay in touch with the man who doesn't have the same phone number as me. He can help set up her non-existent iPad with MobileMe so that she can find it next time she loses it.

Stay tuned ...