From Pandemic To Pan-Pipes: Haven’t We Suffered Enough?

I didn’t need to be asked twice.  As soon as it was announced that I was eligible to receive a vaccination, I was on to the hotline to make a booking.  As was every other member of Generation X, it seemed, resulting in a complete annihilation of the phone system.  Often, people complain about how long they were on hold – for the first three days of trying, I couldn’t get to ‘hold’.  Instead, I was unceremoniously dumped, with the encouragement to try again at a later time.  Then, on day three, everything changed. 

On day three, I made it to ‘hold’.  Which, I feel, is the telephonic equivalent to reaching the base camp of Mount Everest. There’s still plenty of climbing to be done, but at least you’re somewhere.  Having overcome the seemingly impossible hurdle of ‘getting to hold’, I now had to face the next challenge to my sanity – hold music.

What better way to soothe the jangled nerves of a frazzled public than with hold music?  And, given most of  the callers were Gen-Xers who came of age in the grunge era, what better way to relax them than with pan pipes? On a loop that plays over and over again, possibly for hours.  

This was thoughtless.  The least they could have done was to supply pan-pipe versions of classic grunge era songs.  Had the pan-pipes been performing a version of ‘Rooster’ by Alice in Chains, it would have been okay.  Instead, it was all weirdly mystical and filled me with an overwhelming urge to climb Hanging Rock.  Apparently, the ‘pan’ in ‘pandemic’ is actually short for ‘pan-pipe’. Who knew?

After forty minutes, I was sucked out of the third circle of hold without warning and delivered to an operator whom immediately asked me for my name.  Still reeling from the after-effects of forty minutes of pan-pipe music, I instinctively answered ‘Miranda’ before correcting myself.   After a minute or so of niceties, the operator asked me where I wanted to be vaccinated.  In a panic, I answered, ‘the arm, if possible’. All the images on TV had been of dignitaries presenting their biceps for vaccination, but maybe this was just for show and that, in actual fact, the needle went somewhere far less photogenic.  This put ‘vaccine hesitancy’ in a whole new light.

Turns out the ‘where’ was geographic rather than anatomical.  I had a choice of Prahran, Springvale or Cranbourne.  I was booked to appear at the Cranbourne Golf Course. I was surprised by the venue. I was also a little concerned – I hadn’t played golf in over twenty years always had an awful short game. I instantly imagined arriving only to be informed that there were only a few remaining doses left, the recipients of which would be determined by way of a playoff.  I wouldn’t stand a chance.  I confirmed the venue, but forgot to ask which hole.

I now had about eight days on which to work on my putting.  However, having been informed that  I would need to go to the golf course, I began to have doubts as to whether this was, in fact, correct.  My sister had been vaccinated in Cranbourne, but had gone to the local Turf Club, rather than the Golf Club.  Golf and racing are completely different sports; there really ought not be any confusion.

To be sure, I rang the hotline again.  This time, I sat on hold listening to what I was certain was a pan-pipe rendition of ‘Spoonman’ originally performed by Soundgarden, courtesy of the Pakenham Pan-Pipe Ensemble.  As the pan-pipes weaved their particular magic, I was suddenly wrenched from ‘on hold’ and delivered, shaken and a little disoriented, to a waiting operator.  I was told that the call may be monitored for coaching and quality purposes.  It seemed ironic that people who use pan-pipes for hold music should be concerned with quality.  

I quickly confirmed that I had a booking and that I’d been given the wrong venue in the first instance.  Throwing my five iron to the floor in disappointment, I was informed that I should, indeed, be heading to the Turf Club.  I decided to dress like a jockey in order to blend in. I’ve never really been to a turf club before, and I’d hate to stick out.  Granted, it’s rare for a jockey to be over six feet tall, but you’ve got to make an effort.

Arriving at the car park, there were dozens and dozens of people my age locking their cars, donning their masks and heading for the entrance.  Those without a mask were drinking coffee.  It says a lot about Melbourne’s love affair with coffee that drinking a flat white is a recognised exception to a public health order. 

As I approached the entrance, it occurred to me that this was the pandemic’s version of the Big Day Out.  Doubtless, the Pakenham Pan-Pipe Ensemble would be headlining the Main Stage, tearing the roof of with their version of ‘Enter Sandman’.  The whole thing ran like clockwork. I’d say it was like a well-oiled machine, but I’m yet to encounter a piece of machinery as awesome as the vaccination centre at Cranbourne.  The staff were, frankly, impeccable. I’m supposed to rest but, for some reason, I feel an uncontrollable urge to listen to pan-pipes.  Getting vaccinated felt like a tangible step out of the pandemic.  I can’t wait for the next one. 

A Total Lack of Selfie Awareness

Once upon a time, people rarely photographed themselves.  If they did, it was a complicated process that required buttons and timers and the kind of coordination and planning ordinarily reserved for launches of a space shuttle.  But what was once an oddity is now ubiquitous.  People photograph themselves all the time, perhaps more than anything else.  But for those of us who grew up pointing a camera at objects other than ourselves, this is a challenge.

I get it.  Being able to take your own photo rather than pester bystanders is clearly part of human evolution.  This kind of ‘selfie-sufficiency’ is to be applauded if not celebrated.  But there’s a generation now who are probably under the impression that allphotos are self-taken as opposed to taken by experts.

When I was growing up, a ‘selfie’ was something you painted on a canvas and took about eight months. For those of us devoid of any artistic abilities whatsoever, this was a fruitless waste of time. Invariably, the results were little more than a gigantic smudge.  Mind you, this smudge did look a lot like my passport photo, but I prefer to think that my efforts were unrepresentative rather than the more depressing possibility that they are eerily accurate.

These days, they teach you how to take a selfie before you hit high school.  Right after Phys Ed.  Young people are total black belts in selfie-taking.  Having completed my education in the pre-selfie era, my lack training is fully evident.  Not that I haven’t noticed that there are several skills you need to master the art of the selfie.  One is sucking in your cheeks (easy enough).  The one is the arm thrust where you stick your arm out so the camera is just the right distance from your face.  

The random arm extension can be either harmless or have near fatal consequences, as I was to discover when one person enthusiastically extended her arm whilst she was seated and I was standing in near proximity aboard a shuttle bus at an airport.  Had I been able to speak after the resulting impact, I surely would have asked what value there was in taking a selfie whilst in a crowded shuttle bus. 

Cocking your head to the side to achieve the most flattering angle is also a big one.  Nobody looks straight on.  Nobody.  Nothing will sooner reveal your selfie ineptitude that having your head on an even keel. To improve my results, I’ve tried cocking my head to the side to find a more flattering angle but I’m not sure any such angle exists.  After several attempts, the angle I was using had become so extreme that all that was left was the curve of my neck and part of an ear.  By the end, I was almost horizontal.  

Once, photos were taken either by your parents or trained professionals.  They lurked at shopping centres and we lived in constant fear that one of our parental overlords would decide that an impromptu portrait might be a good idea. Against a light blue background, you would be required to stare off to the side, hand elegantly placed on the shoulder of a sibling.  Were it not for lockdown, I’d be heading down to the nearest shopping centre to get one of these.  I refuse to accept that a ‘selfie’ can’t be outsourced.

Having to take a selfie has busted a number of myths for me.  Previously, I thought that the reason my eyes were always closed in photographs was because the photographer and I were never in synch.  Selfies have taught me that this is not the case. Even having eliminated the photographer from the equation, I still manage to produce photos with my eyes closed, albeit on a more flattering angle.  It’s as though pushing the button to take the picture and closing my eyes are two actions that are inextricably linked.

The results were awful. Despite the fact that these were photos, they bore an uncanny resemblance to a Picasso painting. Things were not, anatomically speaking, where they should have been.  I contemplated using an old trick favoured by ageing movie stars and rubbing some Vaseline on the lens, before deciding the five hundred gram jar I had was unlikely to be up to the job.  

Then I got desperate.  I decided that I might get a better result if the snap was more candid and unexpected.  I can only say that it’s very difficult to catch yourself off guard when taking a selfie.  I’d walk into rooms only to be startled by the sight of my own arm leaping out of nowhere before an explosion of light.  The results landed somewhere between alarmed and the kind of photo you might see of a celebrity immediately as they’re released from prison.

At a certain point, you’ve got to concede.  From the thirteen thousand or so attempts, I selected two that appeared almost semi-human and not very Picasso-like at all.  They are, of course, set against a blue screen that I improvised using a bed sheet and I’m staring off the side in the middle distance, one hand hovering over an invisible shoulder.  Sometimes you’ve got to stick with what you know.  You can agree or disagree with this approach.  But at least you get the picture.

The Lowdown on the Lockdown Hearted: Your Handy Guide

To borrow the words of William Shakespeare: ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’.  These words were attributed Henry the Fifth, who was attempting to inspire his soldiers prior to them storming Harfleur to get the last available rolls of toilet paper and beef mince.  Or, to put it as Yogi Berra once so memorably did, ‘It’s de ja vu all over again’.  Here we are, once more, in lockdown.  It’s a little deflating, I know, but temporary.  By now, though, we’re all kind of experts.

Traditions have developed. Firstly, everyone sees the announcement coming a mile off.  Despite this, nothing seems to prevent the customary panic buying the instant it becomes official.  It seems that people drop whatever they’re doing the moment the news breaks before throwing the green bags in the back seat and hightailing it down to Coles, Woolies and Dan Murphys.  Possibly not in that order.  It’s as though we demand the right to lose our minds before lockdown kicks off.

To be honest, I’m not sure who these people are.  Surely they can’t be the same people who stuffed their trolleys with every spare bit of two-ply they could get their hands on in the first lockdown? They must still have mountains of the stuff from last time.  Perhaps those who kept their nerve in previous lockdowns have decided to get the full pandemic experience and discover what it’s like to fight someone for a packet pasta swirls and half a kilo of mince meat.

The second part of the routine is that we have to dig out our masks again.  For me, I like to pick a different theme for my masks each time we have a lockdown.  Last time, I went with ‘the Ned Kelly’. Whilst fully Covid-compliant, I’ll admit now that it was a little uncomfortable, both for me and for everyone who saw me wearing it.  Something about seeing someone walking down the street with a metal bucket on their head makes other people nervous.  Apparently.  In addition to chaffing, it also drastically reduced my field of vision. Trying to buy fruit with a Ned Kelly helmet on is an absolute nightmare; believe me.

This time, I’m steering clear of bushrangers altogether.  Instead, for this lockdown I’ve decided to make a mask that I like to refer to as ‘the Tuckerbag’.  Based on the world’s most manifestly inadequate puppet and spokesperson for the supermarket chain ‘Tuckerbag’, my mask will both be a nostalgic celebration and a reminder that, once upon a time, shopping bags were made of truly recyclable paper rather than some kind of heavy duty plastic that probably has a half life that would rival plutonium.  

There’s a slight problem with the eyes.  I’m pretty sure the original ‘Tucker’ had eyes that were stuck on.  Stuck on eyes are no good for navigating the fruit and vegie section of the supermarket.  It’s bound to lead to trouble.  Worse still, in the event that I am actually able to find the supermarket whilst wearing ‘the Tuckerbag’ mask, there’s a very good chance I won’t be able to find my way back out again.  

The third part of the lockdown routine is the regular evaluation of exposure sites.  This serves two purposes: to see how close the nearest exposure site is to where you live and, secondly, to look with awe and quiet admiration at the busy social lives of others.  I do want to say that those who supply these details are performing an immeasurable public service.  But when I look at the list, I am struck by the fact that I really don’t get out enough. 

If I’m being honest, it’s hard not to be a tiny bit, well, judgmental.  In previous outbreaks, who amongst us didn’t read the list of exposure sites and see both ‘Dan Murphys’ and ‘Off Ya Tree’ and lift and knowing eyebrow?  Or wonder at the kind of person who visits multiple K-Marts in a day instead of using the internet like the rest of us do?  Yesterday, I saw that a shopping centre comfort station was listed as an exposure site for a ten-hour period.  My thoughts immediately went to the person concerned, hoping that there were multiple trips involved as opposed to a single, catastrophic visit.

My own lockdown traditions tend towards the idiosyncratic.  I have taken to getting changed after work just so that it feels different. In old movies, they’d often talk about getting ‘changed for dinner’.  It sounds kind of civilized.  Last Tuesday, I ditched a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt to put on a tuxedo before mealtime.  It was rissoles.  In retrospect, I may have overdone it.  I choose to look at the positives.

I am now a certified black belt in ‘Microsoft Teams’.  I also feel I know what to do when a lockdown is announced.  I’m disappointed – but who isn’t?  Nobody wants to be here and everybody wants things to get back to something like normal.  Which they will. But I marvel at the ability of people to adapt, to look out for each other and to do what needs to be done. If the horror-show that is the last twelve months has taught us something, it’s that we can do anything when push comes to pandemic shove.  Soon, lockdown will be a thing of the past and I can finally burn my Tuckerbag mask.  The day can’t come soon enough.

A Hardware’s Day’s Night

In the past fortnight, I’ve been to the local hardware store four times.  As someone for whom such a trip is, at best, an annual excursion, this is quite the turn of events. But despite the vastly increased frequency of my visits, I remain none the wiser.  The whole experience is as mystical and as unfathomably mysterious as ever.  I appreciate that terms like ‘mystical’ and ‘mysterious’ are seldom used in reference to a store that sells lug-nuts but there is a simple reason for this: I am not a handy man.

By ‘handy man’, I don’t mean someone with a Mario-style tool belt who’s available to perform odd jobs around the house or, alternatively, leap over barrels maliciously hurled across a building site by a gigantic monkey.  Not at all.  Rather, I mean I missed out on whatever genetic makeup is necessary to be able to distinguish between a left-handed hammer and a right-handed hammer.  If I’m being honest, they all look the same to me.

For me, going to a hardware store is like going to another country; one where everyone else speaks a language I don’t.  I live in fear that, at any moment, someone will say something to me I won’t comprehend and I’ll be left to simply shrug my shoulders, grunt in reply and point. At best, I feel like an imposter even for being there, which is why I tried to dress the part for my first visit and purchased a checkered shirt, gumboots and chewing tobacco in the hope that I’d fit in seamlessly.  I also bought a pair of denim overalls to add, so I hoped, to the overall effect.  (Incidentally, I may well start a band called ‘The Overall Effect’ where all the members wear denim overalls.  I might even write a song called ‘Overall’ to the tune of ‘Wonderwall’.  I’ll keep you posted.)   

Turns out, people who frequent hardware stores do not chew tobacco.  Instead of making me fit in, it made me stick out like a sore thumb that, presumably, had found itself on the business end of a left-handed hammer.  Spurting tobacco juice through the gaps in your front teeth like some kind of hillbilly whale is frowned upon if not outright prohibited by the proprietors.  Indeed, it was after one such nicotine-laden liquid expulsion that I was encouraged to buy a mop.

Before making my second trip, I decided to do a little research.  By looking at websites, I discovered that people who visit hardware stores are, without exception, delighted to be there, as nothing else could account for the wall-to-wall smiles on the faces of those present.  Also, I learned that when members of the generally public interact with staff members, one of them is always holding something whilst the other is always pointing.  But as I continued my research into the products themselves, I was left more confused than ever.

Even objects that I consider to be relatively basic come in a near-infinite number of varieties.  Much as in nature, you can refer to a ‘bird’ or, if you prefer to be super-precise, a ‘Slender-billed Flufftail Gruiforme’, so it goes with almost everything at a hardware store.  I’ve no idea what a ‘Fernuggin Nut’ is, much less the heightened circumstances that might necessitate it being pressed into service.  How a ‘Shaka-shaka Wing Wang Doodle Cordless Drill Bit’ is used is, I feel, best left unanswered.  The less said about the ‘Lolly Gobble Bliss Bomb Two-inch Adapter’, the better.

There were some objects I recognized, even though they appeared in a different context.  I, for one, was unaware that a ‘Dutch-oven’ was something you could purchase for the very reasonable price of one hundred and seven dollars and fifty cents.  Who’d have thought? I feel misled.

On my third trip, I took my brother.  In the genetic lottery, my brother scooped the pool when it came to being handy.  If you were to give me a set of instructions and ask me to construct an infant’s cradle, I’d fail on every level.  There’d be nothing to show for my efforts other than a pile of splintered wood and smoldering wreckage.  My brother, on the other hand, built his own crib as a newborn using a cordless power drill.  He also added a small gazebo and a feature wall.  Show off.

If hardware stores were a principality, my brother would be King.  As it is, he walked into that place like he owned it and other patrons doffed their hats and referred to him as ‘your Majesty’. With confidence and great certainty, he navigated through the aisles like someone who knew exactly how and when to use a Fernuggin Nut.  Within minutes, he had retrieved me from the small base camp I had established over near the outdoor furniture settings and we were on our way. 

The fourth trip was showing off on my part.  Having received a royal pardon from my brother, I returned to get a Shaka-shaka Wing Wang Doodle Cordless Drill Bit before surrendering my inhibitions completely and splurging on a Dutch Oven.  As I write, I am surrounded by a sea of instructions and bits and pieces of everything and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that I’ll never figure out how to put them all together, despite my left-handed hammer.  After all, I am not a handy man.

For Better or Worse, Music is the roadmap to your soul

I have a lot of CDs.  For those who don’t remember, CDs (or ‘compact discs’) were how you purchased music back when people still bought music rather than rented it.  Hard to imagine now, I know.  I used to buy CDs weekly.  Each Saturday, I’d take a trip to the store and make what I hoped would be wise and judicious selections.  I’d fossick around for hours before marching up to the counter. As I did, I’d always be looking for some flash of recognition from the person tallying my purchases – a small facial inflection that said ‘this person really knows their stuff.’  I don’t know why approval is so important when it comes to music, it just is.

My purchases were a mix of the well-researched and pure, gut instinct.  It might have been an article I’d read about the band or a review in a music magazine that piqued my musical interest.  Or the cover.  More often than not, I wouldn’t have heard the songs before buying them.  It was a leap of faith into the musical unknown.  An act of curiosity designed to expand my horizons.  Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.  There are definitely some CDs that were played once in the car on the way back from shopping and were never played again. 

The role of CDs in my life has changed.  I used to have a box of CDs that I carried around in the car, swapping out the contents based on my taste at the time.  I did this to ensure that I had access to high quality music whenever I was driving.  Traffic lights were opportunities to change discs.  During this time, I mastered the art of being able to swap CDs without looking.  In my house, every flat surface was occupied by a small pile of CDs, waiting patiently to be played.  No more.

I was in high school when compact discs first appeared. It was in a music class and the teacher spoke of CDs as if they were an invention that would rival penicillin in terms of sheer usefulness to human kind.  I couldn’t tell you the name of the piece, but it was classical music rather than pop.  The teacher put it in and pressed play before a look of pure serenity came over his face.  This, he claimed, was nothing short of a miracle.  The difference, it was said, was quality.

I was a tape person at the time.  Most kids were.  I owned very few records and generally avoided them.  The record player was located in the living room. This meant that music played on the record player would be music the whole house would have to listen to. There are seven people in my immediate family – the chances of consensus on anything, much less music, were slim to none.  My father owned records by the Randy Van Horne Singers and of the Beatles once predicted that ‘people would never tolerate that kind of rubbish’; he wasn’t going to think much of the things I wanted to play.  In Venn diagram terms, there was nothing to work with.

Music is personal.  Which is why tape decks were so vitally important.  I had a tape deck in my room and there I could listen to anything I wanted.  I could also tape songs I liked off the radio.  This was an art in itself.  You had to have the tape cued up and leap upon the ‘record’ button within the first two seconds of your song coming on.  Sometimes the disc jockey would ruin it by talking over the intro.  (Surely they knew they were ruining the home taping efforts of teenagers everywhere when they did this.  Maybe that was the point.)

I was proud of my efforts.  Every mix tape was a work of art and the latest tape was always the best one I’d ever made.  I don’t know what became of those cassettes.  I’m not sure I even own a tape deck now.  It goes to show how far the cassette has fallen – from indispensible to relic within a couple of decades.  

As I packed my CDs into boxes this week, I was confronted by every choice I’d ever made on those Saturday mornings.  Some I was proud of.  Some were mystifying.  More than just my musical taste at a particular point in time, these CDs were tangible evidence of the person I was trying to be.  They were like musical fingerprints.  

A box set of Maria Callas because I wanted to understand opera (not sure I succeeded, still trying though).  A copy of ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye because it was reputed to be one of the greatest albums of all time (which it is).   Dave Pike’s ‘Jazz for the Jet Set’ because the cover had a lady with a fishbowl on her head.  (Which, apparently, was enough to prompt me to buy it.) What owning a copy of Aaron Carter’s debut album says about me is not worth thinking about.  Yikes.

Being reminded of all those decisions is kind of melancholy.  But the strangest thing about packing up my CDs is wondering whether I’ll ever see them again.  There was a time in my life when they were organized on shelves in alphabetical order and in categories.  Now they’re housed in cardboard.  It’s quite the fall from grace.  Packing them away is an oddly melancholy experience. But they served me well. Doubtless they’ll be packed away for some time yet.  Maybe they can hang out with my cassettes and exchange musical war stories. I get the feeling that my CDs and cassettes would have a lot in common.  Rock on.

You’re Welcome! A Short Treatise On Feedback

It used to be so easy.  Pay.  Exchange (goods or services).  Then everyone went on their merry way and got on with their lives.  That was it.  Quick.  Simple.  Everyone knew where they stood.  Things, however, have changed since those halcyon days.  It’s not enough to just pay for something, receive it and then move on.  These days, everybody wants feedback.

Last month I bought sneakers.  The mistake I made was in making said purchase on the Internet rather than an actual shop, foolishly believing that it would be simpler that way.  What a dunce I was.  In the weeks since I made my purchase, I have been inundated with requests for feedback.  From everyone.  It’s getting on my nerves.

The shoemaker wanted to know if I was happy.  It wasn’t altogether clear whether this question was shoe-related or not.  The people who delivered the shoes also wanted feedback, pleading with me to rate their service.  Naturally, I was reluctant to do so for fear that any criticism I may have to offer would threaten already-fragile international supply lines.  No matter how strong your feelings, there’s always the risk that saying something will only make things worse.  It used to be said that if you don’t have something good to say, then say nothing at all.  These people would never survive in the age of feedback.

Honestly, I don’t know what’s wrong with these companies.  What’s happened that their self-esteem has so drastically withered that they need a constant stream of self-assurance?  Granted, we all like to be told that we’re awesome, but these things should be given freely rather than demanded at gunpoint or, alternatively, a snarkily worded email.  It’s odd.  I don’t recall anyone from an actual shop ever asking for feedback.  Presumably there was no need – it was written all over the customer’s face.  Perhaps that’s the benefit of human interaction.

When did feedback become so important?  Once upon a time, ‘feedback’ was something you heard moments before Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire.  I think that’s the kind of feedback I’m most comfortable with.  Imagine the reaction you’d get if, in response to a request for feedback, you sent over a recording with several minutes of atonal squealing followed by footage of you setting your computer on fire, Hendrix-style.  They’d soon stop asking for feedback.  Or, in any event, you’d soon stop receiving their emails as the smouldering wreckage that is your laptop stinks up your home office.

At some point – presumably when my back was turned – ‘feedback’ was elevated to the status of a fundamental human right.  Presumably the United Nations updated the Charter of Human Rights to include ‘the right to feedback’ together with ‘the right to reasonable internet speeds’ and ‘the inalienable right to not have to watch MAFS’.  In something of a twist, I doubt very much that the UN sought feedback before making these radical changes.

After being inundated with requests for feedback, a steady trickle of emails began.  By now, instead of seeking my reassurance that they’re wonderful, they attempted to demonstrate how splendid and magical they were by flooding me with material about themselves.  These were newsletters, giving me the very latest information on product lines, colours and designs, whether I wanted to hear about it or not. 

If I am to be slugged with unsolicited information from a corporate behemoth pretending to be my friend, they should at least ensure that it’s information in which I have some basic level of interest.  Forget commerce – I’d much rather hear about the human shenanigans going on within the company itself. 

No – I don’t need to know that you’ve invented a new shade of puce for your upcoming summer range.  Yes – I do need to know that last week Daphne accidentally ate Trevor’s low-fat yoghurt that was stored on the wrong shelf in the communal fridge, resulting in an investigation by HR after all hell broke loose.  No – I don’t need to know about your upcoming sale.  Yes – I do want to know that Dessie Chambers used a warehouse forklift to relocate ‘Dangerous’ Dave’s Nissan Micra so that he couldn’t find it in the staff carpark when the shift finished.  If that was the type of information they’re giving out, sign me up.

The trouble is, they’re seeking more from me than I am willing to give.  Fact is, I don’t think about sneakers every day.  Don’t get me wrong – I like sneakers and I think they’re very useful.  I just don’t need constant updates as to whatever may be happening in ‘sneaker-land’.  If I was that interested, I’d subscribe to a specialist publication like ‘Sneaker Freaker’ magazine (it’s a real thing – one of my brothers used to buy it).  I’m just looking to exchange goods for tender.  I’m not looking for anything ‘long term’.  I feel that some of these companies have misread the signs and misinterpreted my willingness to buy something as an overture of a completely different nature.  Put simply, they are gravely mistaken.

But given that they’re so keen to know what I’m thinking, let me simply say this: stop pestering me.  In fact, forget we ever even met.  Please destroy my details and never darken my inbox again.  That’s my feedback.  Do with it what you will.  Add it to the no-doubt gargantuan pile and have Dessie Chambers use the forklift to store it in some long-forgotten corner of the warehouse.  Include it in your next newsletter.  Better yet, set it on fire, Hendrix-style and let the smoke gently waft up into the air conditioning vent.  And as the automatic sprinkler system begins to rain down, let me simply say – you’re welcome.

Mark Zuckerberg – From Super Geek to Super Villain

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  What better way to fend off accusations that you have way too much power than by exercising it as capriciously as possible?  Like Mr. Burns blocking the sun over Springfield, Facebook decided to make their point as obnoxiously as possible by taking the ‘Pearl Harbour’ approach and disconnecting not only news feeds but anything that stood in its way.  If the goal was to make everyone hate Facebook, they succeeded admirably.

It’s breathtaking how disconnected from consequence Facebook are.  That they were happy to impact not just news organizations but hospitals, government departments, charities and support groups is a pretty spectacular form of skullduggery.  Even when they apologized, it came with the kicker that it was really our fault because the term ‘news’ could be interpreted broadly.  That is, having made a mistake up there with building the Titanic out of fly wire, they still couldn’t concede they were wrong. This should worry everyone.

I’ll admit that Facebook’s cyber-tantrum had little impact on me.  I don’t have a Facebook account and get my news from, well, news sources.  I have, however, seen the first ten minutes of ‘The Social Network’ so I feel more than qualified to comment on recent events.  Better yet, I’ve also seen ‘Star Wars’.  I’m not referring to the abominable prequels or the more recent evidence (if it were needed) of the immutable law of diminishing returns. I’m talking about the original Star Wars series in all its bowl haircut glory.  In ‘Star Wars’ terms, what Facebook tried to pull off was its ‘fully operational Death Star moment’.  

I guess that makes Mark Zuckerberg Emperor Palpatine.  If there were any lingering doubt as to Mark’s transition to the dark side of the Force, it’s long gone now.  Instead of conforming to the laws of the country in which they operate, companies like Facebook act like Empires or (more specifically) theEmpire; blowing up planets, killing Ewoks and throwing Luke Skywalker down a set of stairs.  Nasty stuff.  We should abandon the idea that companies like Facebook are going to behave the way we expect them to.  They won’t.  Take tax as an example.

In 2019, Google paid almost $100 million in tax in Australia.  I know this, because I Googled it.  (Touché!)  It sounds like a lot until you learn that this amount was paid on $4.8 billion in revenue.  The reason they pay so little tax as against their colossal revenue is that they attribute most of it to Singapore.  Perhaps they’re confused and think that Singapore is just outside of Moorooduc, but I’m pretty sure that ‘Google Maps’ would clear that up quick smart.

Facebook is no different.  In 2019, it paid $16.8 million in income tax based on revenue of $167 million.  Or, in other words, a hefty ten cents on the dollar.  It is, of course, more complicated than that – but it gets worse.  The amount of advertising booked exceeded $670 million but most of this isn’t counted towards its tax.  That’s because Facebook categorizes itself as a ‘reseller’ of advertising services.  I don’t know exactly what this means but I suspect it’s a bit like trying to reduce your tax bill by categorizing yourself as a turnip.  It works right up until it doesn’t.

 Facebook, Google and other digital giants have been feuding with Governments the world over about the amount of tax they do or, more to the point, don’t pay.  That will (eventually) sort itself out.  But when Facebook decided to pull the plug in protest against a proposed law that was before Parliament, they went from global mega-corporation to full-on super-villain.  Whilst a lot of people have expressed shock, I wasn’t surprised.  My only question is: what next?

Now that we’re all on the Facebook ‘naughty’ list, it’s hard to know what kind of dastardly action Mark Zuckerberg will take as ‘Project Mayhem’ goes into full swing.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Facebook soldered all the shopping trolleys together at the local Woolies before repainting all the parking bays so no one can open their car door.  It’s inevitable that they’ll campaign to kick us out of the Eurovision Song Contest because Australia is not in Europe (they know something about geography when it suits them). Perhaps they’ll set up one of their signature ‘fake news’ pages that claims that the Pavlova was invented in New Zealand and not Australia.  Having reached the bottom of the barrel, it’s clear that Facebook are determined to keep digging.  There is no depth to which they won’t sink.

Don’t get me wrong – Facebook has achieved plenty: it broke democracy for starters.  But Mark has well and truly jumped the shark this time.  The next time we see him, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was wearing a turtleneck and stroking a hairless cat.  That’s once he gets back from his weekend playing ‘Pokemon Go’ with Kim Jong Un, of course.  Mark, when you read this, take a long hard look at yourself.  Unfriend yourself on Facebook if needs be. And then come back to the world where paying for things like content and tax are highly valued.  If and when you’re willing to do those things, then consider this my ‘friend’ request.

Reflections on the End of the World – Part Three

Last night I saw the shorts for the new film featuring Gerard Butler. Called ‘Greendale’, it’s one of those calamitously noisy films about the impending end of human kind.  I can’t say for sure what kicked it all off, but the footage showed human beings as they crawled over each other in a quest for survival.  Doubtless the studio will describe this as an edge of your seat adventure set against the backdrop of human misery and a looming apocalypse.  It does nothing for me.  In fact, after the past year, I wouldn’t describe scenes of desperate humans struggling to survive as ‘entertainment’.  I’d call it ‘Tuesday’.  Or, for that matter, pretty much any day of the week over the past year.

I’ve learned a lot since the pandemic arrived.  Mostly I discovered that hand sanitizer is a wily beast that’s not going to leave the nozzle the way you expect it to.  It might come out sideways, slantways or – if you’re not careful – creep up behind you when you least expect it and tap you on the shoulder before asking directions for the nearest pair of hands.  Surely there’s a list of all the hand-sanitizer related injuries of the past year, where the unpredictable liquid has made a beeline for the eyes of some poor hapless soul.  Never have I been more relieved to wear glasses than I have during hand sanitizer’s reign of terror.  

A lot of people have acquired a new skill whilst stuck at home.  A new language, a musical instrument – there’s been no end to the challenges people have taken on.  I, on the other hand, have gone the other way in that seemed to have forgotten how to drive. Last week, I sat behind the wheel for twenty minutes, unsure of what to do and waiting for a ‘zoom’ meeting to start.  That said, I have mastered the art of making coleslaw.  Granted, this is a skill that many others take for granted, but I really wanted to get it right.  It’s not going to help me much when – at some point in the presumably distant future – I land on the shore of some far-off country and people start speaking to me in a language I don’t understand.  It’ll do me little good when all I have to offer them is a weak smile and a bowl of chopped up cabbage.

My father has not acquired a new skill during these uncertain times.  Instead of learning Latin or mastering the lute, he used his lockdown to chop firewood.  He’s currently eighty-one years old.  Based on the quantity of firewood my father has chopped up, I’d say he’s planning to live to around one hundred and seventy.  It’s probably the first woodpile that can be seen from space.  I guess he’s being practical, but I’m beginning to regret buying him his own personalized lute for his eightieth.

I’ve learned that a dog really is your best friend.  As one of the wholly sanctioned options for leaving the house, our dog provided one of the few legitimate means by which to socialize with other human beings.  The ability to go to the park with the dog and see other people; to commiserate, encourage and generally be around in a socially distant way, was profoundly important. Other pets couldn’t compete. That said, I did see one brave soul attempting to take his cat for a walk.  It is fair to say that the cat objected to the leash and was being ‘uncooperative’.

The songwriter, Bill Fay, once sang; ‘Life is people’.  I think that’s true.  I also think that lockdown really made that clear.  I missed seeing members of my family.  Even though I feel I never see them enough, extended periods of not seeing them at all served only to emphasize their importance to me.  Work colleagues too. A zoom meeting is well and good, but is not substitute for seeing people in person.  

Now here we are in another lockdown, albeit of the ‘snap’ variety.  I’m sure it’ll be short and am confident that it’s for a good reason, but suspect that no-one in Melbourne can even hear the word ‘lockdown’ without a slight chill running down their back.  It feels too soon to go back there.  Lockdown 3.0 carries with it a sense of resignation. Like most sequels, there is a sense of diminishing returns – the adherence to wearing a mask has, much like the mask itself, slipped a little.

Two weeks ago, I was at my father’s house in Tyabb.  There was noise movement and kids were scattered everywhere.  My father made sure everyone had their picture taken in front of the woodpile he’d built, arguing that if it was good enough for the ‘Big Banana’, it was good enough to the ‘Big Woodpile’.  In my photo, I’m grinning and giving a big-old cheesy thumbs up.  As you do.  

I’m yet to watch that Gerard Butler film.  Presumably there’s a scene where he scarpers down to Woollies in search of toilet paper only to the find that there’s not a roll of two-ply Sorbent left anywhere. This, of course, makes no sense in that surely the people who hoarded the bog roll in the first two lockdowns have enough to last them to 2050.  Gerard will take matters into his own hands when he learns he can only get one packet of mince.  I think I’ll ignore that movie for the time being and find something more uplifting.  Lord knows we need it. At the very least, I have pictures of the world’s biggest woodpile to take my mind off things.

O Donald! My Donald! (With Sincere Apologies to Walt Whitman)

O Donald! My Donald! Your fearful term is done

Bookended by impeachments like a legal burger bun

Marine One’s near, the bells you hear, the people all exulting

But Twitter’s ban means you can’t say things false and insulting

            But O heart! heart! heart!

            O the strange things that he said

            Where every day my Donald lies

            No proof, not a shred

O Donald! My Donald! Rise up and hear the tweets

Rise up – for you the flag won’t fly – when you call others ‘cheats’

Relief as we ungrit our teeth – as the whole world now detoxes 

Rejoice as fleets of moving vans pack up those cardboard boxes

                Dear Donald! O Donald!

                My Oompa Loompa bruiser

                Forever now on history’s page

                Remembered as a loser.

The Donald does not answer, his lips are pursed and orange

His eyes are tight, he looks as if he’s sucking on a lozenge

Will you get your bond back? It’s something I don’t know

I’m sure you’ll take the bathroom fittings back to Mar-a-lago

                As you head out to the landing

                Your steps unsure, unsteady

                We rue that you did not explain

                The meaning of ‘covfefe’

Charles and Diana – My part in their downfall

A new season of ‘The Crown’ has been released. Season 4 of ‘The Crown’ covers the years 1977 to 1990 and, apparently, one of the episodes is set is set in Australia, based on a tour by the Prince and Princess of Wales.  This prompts the obvious question – who will be playing the (presumably) significant part of, well, me?

This is not the first time ‘The Crown’ and I have crossed paths.  Earlier episodes focused on Prince Phillip’s time in the Navy.  His friend, Commander Parker, lived out his days in Melbourne and was the chair of an organization that ran public speaking competitions for school kids, which is how I met him. It was weird to think that the kindly elder gent I met back then is now the subject of a fairly dramatic episode of ‘The Crown’.  Now, it seems, it’s my turn.

It was 1985.  Prince Charles and Princess Diana were touring Australia.  In response, we did the not-so-obvious thing and put on a rock concert at Hamer Hall when, for a more uniquely Australian experience, we should have invited them to a B & S Ball in Ouyen, with his Highness responsible for drawing the winner of the meat tray.  In retrospect, it’s obvious, but we seldom thought to have dignitaries watch circle work back then.

The concert included ‘I’m Talking’ (Kate Ceberano’s band), The Models and INXS.  And ‘Kids in the Kitchen’ which accounted for my attendance.  Being just fourteen, I wasn’t a member of the band.  Rather, I was in a choir that was to be wheeled out during the performance by ‘Kids in the Kitchen’ to give one of their songs some much needed emotional heft.

In the eighties, if you wanted to say something big, you’d stand on something big – preferably a mountain, building or, if you’re Cher (and let’s be frank – who hasn’t wanted to be Cher at some point in their lives), a naval destroyer.  For mystery, get some venetian blinds and – hey presto! – instant mystique.  For heartbreak, show flowers being thrown to the ground in slow motion.  In fact, pretty much anything in slow motion is shorthand for emotional turmoil.  Then there was the music.

As a result of something I like to refer to as ‘We Are the World-itis’, quality music in the eighties had to stand for something. And if you had something profound to say, it wasn’t enough just to say or, for that matter, sing it yourself; you needed a choir.  That’s where we came in.

The song was called ‘Current Stand’.  The chorus was incredibly uplifting and featured the lyrics: ‘Do what’s needed, meet still the sorrow, this is the way we stand’.  To this day, I’ve no idea how anyone might ‘meet still the sorrow’.  But it means something profound, reinforced by the sweet, sweet sounds of a choir. That’s how we ended up on the recording and, later, at a performance for Charles and Di.

I’ll be the first to admit, I was worried.  Having just turned 14, my voice was becoming a little– shall we say – unreliable as it transitioned gradually from pre-pubescent squeak to adulthood.  The stress of it all was so great that by the time it came to the day of the concert, I had a cold sore on my lip so large that it could be seen from space. 

The day itself is something of a blur.  It could have been that a lot was happening or, alternatively, it could have been the cold sore medication I was taking.  When it came time for the choir to strut our stuff, I gave it my all.  My voice had other ideas and I sounded like a wounded walrus, fracturing under the strain of a lethal combination of over-exertion and teenage hormones. I was horrendous.  After it was over, I was struck by a deep sense of shame.  

Having just witnessed my performance, Charles probably thought that Australia becoming a republic seemed like a pretty good idea. Later, we were escorted to a balcony when the Royal couple made an appearance.  Cue general mayhem.  Somewhere amidst the madness, I thought Diana glanced in my direction.  There was an expression on her face, a mix of pity and admiration.  Clearly, she knew that behind the colossal cold sore on my face was someone of indisputable quality and charisma.  Someone profound.  This was reinforced by the sound of ‘Current Stand’ by ‘Kids in the Kitchen’ playing in the background.

Clearly, this what they call in the biz, ‘the money shot’ around which the entire season of The Crown should turn.  Hugh Jackman will play me.  Granted, we’re the same age and he’ll stand about three feet taller than the other choir members, but he’s so talented that he can do anything.  And the part demands someone who can convey the emotional heft the moment requires…

I’ve just finished watching season 4 of ‘The Crown’.  It seems the producers have elected to focus on the couple’s 1983 tour of Australia rather than the altogether more compelling 1985 tour.  There’s no ‘Rocking with the Royals’, no ‘Current Stand’ and no Hugh Jackman in the highly prized role of the younger me.  Naturally, I’m disappointed.  So disappointed that might go right out and meet still the sorrow.