Workplace woes

A number of the inter-connected short stories in How to get Fired depict characters with all their complications and complexities as they fit – or, mostly, don’t fit – into workplaces requiring compromises they could do without.

The author, Evana Belich, “worked as a trade union official, a mediator and an employment relations adviser. She has degrees in law, dispute resolution and a master’s in creative writing…” This helps explain the depth of her understanding of workplace issues – and her skill in crafting each story. I read an article in today’s paper about wage theft and was reminded of ‘Peach Season’ with its heat-stressed and dehydrated packing-shed workers who pass a bucket along the line so they can throw up without stopping work.

Always, in these stories, there is tension between boss and employee. I detected a fear of being mocked, undermined, humiliated, and even fired, on both sides, disguised by arrogance, bullying, subservience, resentment and defiance.

One story, ‘The Consolidation Phase’, had such resonance I felt as if I were experiencing the tension of a PD (Professional Development) session all over again. One of those excruciating sessions where everyone is so quiet you know we’re all figuring out how we’re meant to respond and wondering why it all seems so alien to how we see our role in the job. There’s a miasma of collective embarrassment and awkwardness and a fear of seeming ignorant (what do all those terms mean?).

The story begins:

National Outputs Manager Steve Stirling stops for a beat. ‘Acuity, attention and resolve.’ His gaze arcs, chin-led. ‘What do we mean by acuity, attention and resolve? What do we mean by the Consolidation Phase?’

In the audience, Seamus visualises himself ‘like the mountaineer with broken legs who dragged himself back to base camp, scrabbling from one rock to the other. Small achievable goals, rock by rock.’

At the front of the room Steve Stirling slashes an electronic pointer at three orange triangles on his PowerPoint slide. ‘Acuity, attention and resolve,’ he says. ‘Can I throw this one out to the group? Let’s hear some ideas.’

The puzzled audience is unresponsive as they figure out what’s going on – another restructuring? Zac suggests to his co-workers, then, when they are in groups (and, of course, no-one wants to be the one to report back), he mocks the language of the presenter: ‘Going forward…I’m envisioning some of these learnings cascading into high-performance work streams.’ Seamus thinks: ‘We were never meant to be this fully dominated…We were never meant to have our wills so broken, to have other people make up our words, make up our thoughts for us.’ Reading this, I realised this weirdness wasn’t just in my work place – it was happening (is still happening) everywhere. And I was in teaching, for heaven’s sake, where a major goal was to ‘remove barriers to learning‘.

I recommend this book, and not just because you are sure to recognise yourself or others you are sure you know somehow, but because of the skilful writing, humour, irony and compassion. And if, like me, you are retired, you will be even more grateful for having survived the working world more or less intact (it can only be more or less when you find how easily you relive the stress as you read, wanting to laugh but fearing you might have a heart-attack). And it’s not all about workplaces. ‘Christmas with Chess’ has true and humorous family relationships which resonated with me too. The titular story comes last, and does what it says on the lid.

Dabbling in watercolour

I have begun Watercolour for Beginners classes at the WEA and, on the way, I walk through the Botanic Gardens looking for shapes and colours I might try to paint. The autumn colours are glorious and some of the vistas are grand. Others parts of the Gardens are more down-to-earth, so to speak, such as the shed in the Curator’s Garden.

I already had watercolour paints and a how-to book. My brushes weren’t the best, however, but I found a cheap set at The Warehouse after the first class and had fun using them today.

My efforts so far are a little disappointing, but I’m not too worried because I’m enjoying myself. The class is small and our talents are on a spectrum…continuum…sliding scale… My efforts today looked like something you’d find in a petrie dish.

I’ve been hoping in vain for the inspiration which led to my purchase of watercolour paints in the first place. Never mind, the techniques are interesting to experiment with.

I did some homework after the second class today. First, I wet the paper and attempted a ‘variegated wash’ like the one in the book. Instead, it morphed into a sort of memory of my train trip from Lisbon to Ēvora in 2018 (see post ‘Corker!’ June 2018) when I was enthralled by the acres of cork trees.

A much-loved childhood book was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson, about a little Spanish bull who did not want to fight in the bull ring. Instead, he liked to sit under his favourite tree and smell the flowers.

His favourite tree was a cork tree. Can’t you tell!

There is a cork tree in the Botanic Gardens which I make a point of visiting, giving it a pat on its warm, textured bark.

Quercus suber

Am I ready for the ‘Monochromatic tonal value scale and 3D modelling’ which is the topic for our next class? The Gardens may be my muse after all and I’ll be perfectly content within my limitations, like Ferdinand.

Bringing up mother

An interesting reversal of roles is, perhaps, inevitable when you live with your mother in later life.

Mum came to live with me after the February 2011 earthquake in which her 1920s, double storey house was damaged and its integrity compromised. In other words, it was unsafe to live in. My 1930s single storey house fared better, despite some broken bearers under the floor, since repaired. I had no hesitation in welcoming her. There was something which happened to us all in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake: shock, combined with heightened emotions which meant holding family close. We were also braced for action as aftershocks continued for several months.

If I’d known, as a teenager – or even in my 20s or 30s – that my mother would come to live with me, I might have emigrated – or at least moved cities. But, when it happened it seemed the most natural thing. I had left home as a teenager and, for a while after Mum moved in, I reverted to being like a teenager as if I was picking up where we’d left off. I had to give myself a talking to about that. We had already spent time together as adults, including travelling to Europe twice, and found we got on very well. I knew it would work, and it has.

Mum is 94 now and, as I write, she is doing the vacuuming. She does this every Saturday, regular as clockwork which is admirable to a person like me who does not operate like clockwork. Mum is very thorough with her vacuuming – another reason why this co-habitation works!

Mum makes her own breakfast (always porridge, toast with marmalade and tea) and lunch, unless I cook her an omelette or make soup, and I cook dinner. She does what’s left of the dishes after I’ve washed the pots and other cooking things. Mum enjoys baking, usually shortbread and, lately, Anzac biscuits. She does her own laundry: hand washing on Sunday after church (she still has her driver’s licence) and a full wash on Monday (more clockwork). Speaking of clocks, her cuckoo clock cuckoos the hours and, strangely, doesn’t drive me mad. It’s nice that she has her own things in the house: her comfy chairs, books, photos of grandchildren, treasures. I’m learning to read a barometer.

There’s the odd reversal of roles, where I become the mother to her teenager. Mum has a stubborn aspect to her character which, annoying as it can be, I quite enjoy because it is her. A recent example was when she came with me to Ballantynes where I hoped to find her a nice skirt (she never wears trousers). Finding a simple, A-line skirt with pockets has proved quite a mission in the past and at times I have used mail catalogues, but the results have not been great. A helpful sales assistant found us a skirt but Mum refused to try it on! “She’s such a stick-in-the-mud!” I said, frustrated, to the poor assistant. But Mum was simply tired, and it was an effort for her to walk from the car. She was overwhelmed by the visual ‘noise’ of the department store. I thought of going back later and just buying the skirt, but procrastinated.

Finally, I looked online and found a better skirt and there was only one left and it was in her size. I think I showed it to her and got her approval before going ahead with the ‘click and collect’ process! I also made a note of some plain white cotton blouses that might go with it and when I went to collect the skirt I chose one of those (and it was 50% off).

It is a success!

“Anything for me?” asks Felix.

He’s got the key (chip) to the door…

With Felix becoming increasingly adventurous, it is time to give him his freedom. He is now seven months old which some cat-years-to-human-years calculators put at 12 years of age, not quite the 21 human years required to have a key to the door.

The vet’s advice to keep him indoors for the first 10 months seems an impossible undertaking, especially in this warm weather when we have doors and windows open.

Confined to the house overnight, Felix was waking me in the wee small hours to be let out – having decided that his litter tray is beyond the pale. Then I would lie awake worrying about him getting into fights with the big cats – or the rats in the woodpile – and would watch for him asking to be let back in.

Last year – or was it the year before? – vowing never to have a cat or dog again, I had a glazier remove the old cat and dog doors. The glazier came back in the weekend and cheerfully installed a microchip cat door. The door is smart, and recognises Felix’s microchip, so no other cats can come in.

Felix learned to use it in no time.

I put a step made of books on the inside and a nail box step outside. The books include A Guide to Places of the World and James Herriot stories, both of which I thought appropriate.

I still worry about Felix being out at all hours, getting lost or stolen, running out onto the road or getting into fights, but so far so good and at least I get to sleep!

Book heaven

My older brother told me about the new bookshop in Kaiapoi. It is in a former bank building and has a library ladder which slides along a rail. This was the first stop on our visit to Kaiapoi today.

I found that the bookshop has two ladders. Other delights included a bay window with seat, a fireplace, interesting book shelves and a fabulously restored facade. And, of course, a vast selection of books, stationery, games, and a post office.

Further down the street, the others wandered into Blackwells Department Store while I nipped into the fabulous library before joining them.

The library building also has a museum and a small art gallery.

On the river the paddle boat was just heading out on its lunch time excursion. There was an intriguing long fin eel sculpture/water feature beside the footpath.

≥≥≥≥≥≥≥≥≥≥≥≥/ (Thank you, Felix, for that contribution!) We had lunch in the restored former railway station – tongue and groove walls and ceiling and sash windows – and decor more French than kiwi.

We came home with various items from the op-shops we visited.

I also came home with these two books from the wonderful bookshop.

Felix playing

Felix continues to enjoy climbing trees. He is six months old now and curious and adventurous (when not sleeping by the fire).

Cupboards are worth exploring and for a moment it looked as if he was going to settle in the hot water cupboard.

There could be some good reading here…or here…

A string of lights and a ladder prove irresistible. Tigger seems amused.

He likes to ‘help’ with tying shoelaces – having previously untied them.

And unpacking the groceries gets him in a delicious tangle.

I don’t remember what we did for entertainment before Felix.

Felix and Vera

Vera looks through the window enviously (I’m guessing) while Felix sleeps by the fire. One day she came in and found a sunny spot to settle.

You could swear Felix encourages her to come inside. She doesn’t waste an opportunity when she sees it.

Does Felix want to play?

Felix has checked out Vera’s living room with its fresh straw – and mirror.

Vera bustled in this morning and sampled Felix’s food.

This afternoon it rained and they found a sheltered spot together.

Autumn Storm

The garden looked very green and fresh on the morning after the rain-and-wind storm last week. It felt like autumn though. No more warm summer days and nights.

The wind had blown down the archway made by the climbing beans. It collapsed completely and I consigned it to the compost. I thought of Jack and the Beanstalk as, with some difficulty, I cut it up the tough stems and disentangled them from the stakes which had failed to hold it up. Did a similar task inspire the writer of the story?

Vera followed me to the compost and, as usual, stopped and stared pointedly at the grapes hanging tantalisingly out of her reach. They are steadily ripening and, after tasting a few myself, I draped some over the wheelbarrow for her.

The fresh autumn air has made the grapes perfect for eating: cool and sweet-tart. Delicious.

Getting Creative with Courgettes

Felix continues to explore outside (despite those warnings from the vet). He has found that birds like to eat the grapes, so he sometimes hides in the leaves to surprise them.

Other fruit and vegetables are ripening or ready to eat: apples, rhubarb, tomatoes, lemons, silver beet, kale, broccoli, spinach, lettuces, herbs, and courgettes, while the runner beans are all but finished. My neighbour brought me apples and grapefruit yesterday and I gave her lemons, grapes and tomatoes, and she met Felix for the first time.

I was surprised to find an enormous courgette the size of a submarine hiding under the leaves. They can really get away on you if you don’t check them regularly. Today I made a Courgette and Carrot Kugel from half of it (4 cups, grated), and stuffed the other half with tomatoes, chopped courgette, chives and parsley from the garden, plus garlic, peppers and cheese.

It’s almost like living off the land.