A Question Mark Hanging Over All Of Us

Let me say at the outset, I’m not a fan.  Questions don’t belong on billboards, not ever.  As hapless commuters whiz past, they’re confronted with a demand for an answer but without any opportunity to supply it. Such is the nature of traffic. There’s barely enough time to absorb the question, much less cogitate and produce an answer of any value. It’s simply unfair on everyone. But this billboard was especially heinous.  

It was bright yellow with big black text ALL IN UPPER CASE WHICH IS VERY, VERY ANNOYING.  The billboard seemed to be questioning the need for lockdowns or vaccinations or both in combination when it’s still possible to contract and pass on Covid.  Or something like that.  There may have been a gratuitous aside about winged monkeys or a complaint that cereal boxes rarely come with free toys anymore, I can’t really remember – it all happened so quickly.  And whilst there’s a very simple answer to the billboard’s Covid question (‘Because science’ springs to mind), the banal nature of the enquiry was only one of its problems.

There was way too much text on the billboard.  It was as though someone had vomited random words that had then been put on display as a warning to others against the dangers of drinking seawater. Or similar.  There were words all over the place. The first chapter of ‘Lolita’ has fewer words than this obnoxious billboard.  It was the advertising equivalent of using a loudhailer to scream at the moon whilst pushing a shopping trolley. It read like something you’d expect someone to mutter under their breath as they wrap themselves in a space blanket shortly before smearing their body with peanut butter as a protection against the wrath of the sun god.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.  For all that text and all that UPPER CASE screaming, the question lacked one, fundamental thing. A question mark.  It’s one thing to deny Covid.  It’s another thing completely to deny the need for punctuation.  Somewhat ironically it begs the question; what kind of deranged non-punctuating pervert leaves a question mark off the end of a question?  (See what I did there?  I put a question mark at the end of my question.  Granted, the author of that pitiful billboard would consider that showing off, but there are standards to uphold.)

Brace yourself – here’s where it gets super dodgy.  This catastrophic upper case, punctuation-denying piece of anti-science word vomit bore the name of a political party.  The name of that political party featured the words ‘United’ and ‘Australia’ right next together without even a hint of irony.  How odd it is that such a divisive statement should come from someone who declares themselves interested in unity. Clearly, abandoning question marks is the least of their problems.  Any organization who misapprehends the meaning of the term ‘united’ is going to struggle with even the most basic medical advice, starting from ‘don’t stick a knife in an electrical socket’ right through to ‘don’t inject yourself with bleach to ward off coronavirus’.

We’ve come so far and given up so much to get here.  Billboards like this from people who struggle with basic sentence structure are more a form of heckling than anything else.  Indeed, the billboard could just as easily have featured a hand with a single raised finger and communicated much the same sentiment with the added bonus of not having offended the laws of grammar.

It must be said that there are quite a few interstate politicians who seem to be making these kinds of noises. Mostly, they come from parts of the country that have been relatively unscathed by the pandemic.  They’ve given up little, when compared to everyone here.  My only hope is that they don’t start turning up here in an ill-fated attempt to capitalize on people’s frustrations.  On the plus side, though, they won’t need to catch a plane to get here; having clearly decided to do all their travelling by bandwagon from this point on.

I was talking to a friend of mine who’d received multiple text messages from a particular politician spouting sentiments that they, no doubt, believe are billboard worthy.  She found it distressing and I think it’s understandable.  There’s something awful about being told by someone that everything you’ve endured or sacrificed over the past two years was for nothing.  To have someone attack that sense of consensus is upsetting.  I honestly believe they don’t know how much harm they’re doing. 

I have a question of my own. Should people who defy the laws of grammar be permitted to run for high office?  The answer, of course, is ‘no’ but that’s unlikely to deter them from doing so.  Enough’s enough.  I’m going to get myself a big old bucket of paint and put that question mark at the end of the billboard myself.  And, while I’m there, delete the word ‘United’ – which I’m beginning to think may be a simple spelling error – and replace it with ‘Untied’.  That would make more sense.  If those responsible for the billboard are reading this – assuming you can, in fact, read; consider replacing the billboard with a mirror and take a long, hard look at yourselves.  Just saying.

Testing Times: A Millstone for a Milestone

Milestone birthdays are really something.  People truly go out of their way to wish you the best. It’s delightful.  Having just gone through a pretty major birthday, I was thrilled to hear from people both near and far.  I even got a card from my local Member of Parliament. Sweet.  This week, however, I received a letter from the Nation’s Chief Health Officer. The words ‘happy birthday’ didn’t appear, but the message was clear: Congratulations! You’re now in an age bracket in which you’ll be pushed, prodded and generally put under the microscope.  Good grief.

The letter was to forewarn me. It told me, in simple and emotionally detached terms, I could expect to receive a bowel cancer screening kit through the mail.  It says something that they don’t just send you the kit; that they feel the need to tell you it’s coming rather than have it lob up on your doorstep unannounced along with the ‘Goonies’ t-shirt you ordered on ‘RedBubble’.  What it’s really saying is this: brace yourself.  I am now officially on notice.

The first thing I’ll do is express my disappointment that the Chief Health Officer communicated to me by letter, rather than by birthday card.  Personally, I’d love to receive a card that said, ‘Happy birthday!  Consider this testing kit a small gift from me to you!’   Or if, on balance, it was felt that a birthday card was too trivial a vessel for a message of such profound importance, then maybe something a little more personal.  Like a Gorilla Gram. 

There are some people who think that a Gorilla Gram could work to trivialize what is an extremely important and potentially life-saving message.  Those people, however, fail to appreciate the work that goes into delivering a really good Gorilla Gram.  It’s not just about strapping on a gorilla suit and spouting any old rubbish.  These people are masters of their craft and can be trusted to deliver sensitive information, albeit in gorilla form.  If the letter was intended to soften the blow, surely the distraction of a counterfeit primate would lighten the shock to the point that the recipient may fail to comprehend it altogether.

I get it.  The message is too serious for a Gorilla Gram, but not serious enough to warrant a home visit.  Rather, it’s somewhere in that awkward in-between space. Were it not for the subject matter, I’d say that the issue falls between two stools.  

This puts me in an invidious position.  One in which I am now awaiting the arrival of said testing kit.  I’m not sure what to expect.  A series of test tubes, a Bunsen burner and a microscope?  Maybe the kind of set up that comes with Walter White’s seal of approval (with a picture of Walt on the box giving a ‘thumbs up’)? I hope so.  Or a test that involves a series of equations and a sixty-minute time limit, complete with a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to the use of calculators?  I was never that great under pressure.  

I’m not afraid to say it – if the test arrives by truck, I may panic.  Not to put it too highly but if I hear the ‘reverse’ beeper and peek out through the blinds to see someone lowering a tray at the rear of a semi trailer, I could well scarper out the back door and over the neighbour’s fence.  Similarly, if the test is delivered by someone wearing a Hazmat suit, it’s possible that I may refuse to open the door altogether.

When it does turn up, I’ll need to get it out of the envelope / box / metal container stamped with the word ‘biohazard’, in which it arrived before use.  It begs the question whether the test itself will be suitably gift-wrapped.  I think that would be appropriate.  It is, after all, a birthday present of a kind.  

This is not the first time I’ve had an age-related birthday shock.  Immediately following an earlier milestone birthday, the professional association I belonged to wrote to both congratulate me advise that I had been removed from the list of ‘young practitioners’.  I was outraged.  Demanding that I restored to the list, I remain there to this day.  On this occasion, however, there’s no putting it off.

The thing I’m most concerned about is the fact that there will be instructions.  I am hopeless at following directions – a fact that has seen me banned for life from IKEA stores worldwide.  Who knows what kind of instructions they’ll be? Super-wordy instructions that try and tell a story?  Or ones that uses pictures and, if we’re being honest, leave a lot to the imagination?  Instructions and I have a somewhat difficult history.  There’s a very real risk that I’ll get it wrong.  Potentially resulting in even more correspondence from the Chief Health Officer.

Let me say this – to live in an age where you get a test through the mail that may well save your life is an amazing, glorious thing.  Will I take my test when it comes?  You bet I will.  I won’t go so far as to say that I’ll make a day of it, but I’m grateful that these programs exist.  Perhaps it’s the sense of anticipation that I’m struggling with.  Or the fact that it’s a tangible reminder of how things change as you get older.  Happy birthday to me.

Under The Influencer: All Hail the Halo!

It was a matter of necessity.  In order to photograph an object successfully, I needed appropriate lighting.  Scouring the Internet, I found a type of lighting that suited my needs; it was an adjustable ring light.  Just the thing for taking photographs of inanimate objects.  The catalogue referred to it as an ‘influencer’ light.  At the time of purchase, I had no idea what this meant.  It was, so I believed, a reference to a particular type of bulb.

Turns out that ‘influencer’ refers not to the light itself but to the person using it.  An ‘influencer’, apparently, is a person who uses social media to promote brands.  To the untrained eye – namely, my eye – this sounds a lot like unemployment.  Doubtless, people who do this kind of thing spend their days rolling around in Bitcoin in the far-reaches of cyberspace, but it’d be an odd thing to put on a customs declaration under  ‘occupation’ when arriving in another country.  The product is intended, in every sense, to show the ‘influencer’ in the best possible light.

Instantly, I was overwhelmed by the need to call JB Hi-Fi to tell them the light wasn’t to make me look better (if that were possible) but to help take photographs of various objects. When the person I was speaking to was either disconnected or became completely non-responsive after suffering a catastrophic lack of interest, I emailed a clarifying statement.  I heard nothing back.  I am now concerned that they have me pegged as some lunatic who spends all his time engaged in on line frippery and desperate self-promotion.  Which, of course, I would be if I knew how.  

There’s nothing worse than being misunderstood.  Being thought of as an ‘influencer’ is especially troubling.  The only people I’ve ever seen who have declared being an ‘influencer’ as their life goal have been on Married At First Sight. Each to their own, but anything associated with the toxic cesspit of human misery that is MAFs is surely worth avoiding.  It is, perhaps, no accident that ‘influencer’ sounds a lot to the ear like ‘influenza’ and is probably just as bad for you.  One minute, you’re picking up a light; the next you’re off to the doctors for a certificate.

When you’re young, you can dream of being anything you wish.  As a kid, most people I knew dreamed of opening the batting for Australia even if, like me, they couldn’t tell one end of a cricket bat from the other.  Or an astronaut.  Perhaps a plumber (thanks a lot, Mario!)  Or maybe a shape-shifting bounty hunter from another planet sent to overthrow the government before colonizing Earth and its inhabitants as part of a boarder intergalactic upheaval.  (Or maybe that was just me?)  At a certain point, your options seem to narrow.

I was hanging out with my nephew.  (Just being able to write given the past two years is something to celebrate!)  We were killing time and found ourselves in what I might loosely refer to as a ‘variety store’; the kind that stocks pretty much everything from kitchen utensils, to hair gel to flux capacitors and all points in between.  As we roamed the aisles, hemmed in by shelves crammed with all kinds of goods, we came across a section for costumes.

They had a startling array of dress ups available for sale.  But, for reasons I can only assume relate to a deep desire to avoid being sued, the names of some of the costumes didn’t match their appearance.  One costume looked a lot like a Smurf, but called itself, ‘Blue Elf’.  An Oompa Loompa costume was titled ‘Red Candy Maker Boy’.  ‘Kid’s Space Rebellion Fighter’ was obviously Star Wars and ‘Green Plumber Boy’ looked a lot like a certain figure from Nintendo. But there was an exception; one that didn’t fear the laws of intellectual property.  The ‘Children Jesus Costume’ was exactly as it sounds.  

It begs the question: who sends their kid off to a fancy dress party dressed as Jesus?  It would, I feel, place a lot of pressure on the child to live up to the hype.  To turn water into Fanta.  To feed thirty kids with a slice of fairy bread and a single chocolate crackle.  To raise Sparkles, the Highland Terrier who’s buried in the backyard just beyond the Hills Hoist, from the grave.  To walk across the family swimming pool.  And that’s even without mentioning the additional pressure to achieve one hundred per cent accuracy in ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’.  Better off to dress them up as Spiderman and be done with it.

Then it struck me – Ishould purchase ‘Children Jesus Costume’. With a few adjustments, I could adapt something intended for a nine year old and make it fit me.  Better still, I could take my influencer light and attach it to the back of my neck so that a saintly halo appears over my head. Then update all my profile pictures –Instagram, Linked In and my customer account at JB Hi-Fi. 

 The irony is this – if after publishing this story there’s a sudden rush to buy ‘Children Jesus Costume’, I will have become an influencer, like it or not.  It will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  As I sit here in my robes, my influencer light glowing gently above my head, I think that sounds just about right.

Fire. Water. Wireless Digital Printer

‘Is there no end to your talents?’  They were words of kindness, after I had had unveiled my latest creative masterpiece.  As flattering as the remark was, there’s no getting away from the fact there is a very real, unambiguous answer.  The answer to the question ‘is there no end to your talents?’ is, without any fear of overstatement, “yes”.  Yes, there most certainly is.  That end arrives suddenly like a sheer cliff drop to oblivion the moment that anything remotely practical arises.

It was purchased as a matter of necessity.  Changed circumstances meant that a new printer was required.  After days of research, I made an informed decision and, between lockdowns, went out and bought it.  As silly as it may sound, the fact of choosing, purchasing and collecting the printer felt like an achievement on par with, if not scaling Mount Everest, then at least getting to base camp in a shopping trolley whilst blindfolded and juggling.

Having achieved the near impossible by purchasing the printer, I then completely lost my mind altogether and unpacked it.  This, it must be said, is totally out of character for me.  It’s quite common for me to buy something and leave it in its box – which I consider to be its natural environment – for some considerable period.  Gleaming and new, the printer sat there looking perfect.  ‘Stay gold, Pony Boy’, I whispered under my breath as I began to clear away all the packing materials that had, moments earlier, been cradling my printer.  What I couldn’t do, however, is print anything.  That’s because I hadn’t taken that final step and set it up.

Once upon a time, setting up an appliance meant taking it out of the box in which it came and plugging it in. Simple, but brutally effective. Things are so very different now, with a tertiary qualification in engineering being if not mandatory, then at least highly desirable.  Despite the fact of describing itself as ‘wireless’, there are still wires to be plugged in.  This is often followed by a short voodoo ceremony in which the gods of the Internet are summoned through the art of interpretative dance and, possibly, a goat sacrifice.  

Now that I think about it, summoning up the Internet gods involves a ceremony almost identical to the one in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, which explains why the instruction manual recommends wearing a fedora when assembling.

I put it off for as long as possible until the unrelenting gaze of necessity wouldn’t permit me to leave it any longer.  Taking a deep breath and putting on my fedora whilst humming the entire John Williams’ score, I got to work.

It’s not so much a lack of interest as it is a paralyzing fear of failure.  What if I try and can’t figure it out?  Lockdown is much like outer space in that no one can hear you scream.  But not only did lockdown mean my emotive outbursts were for naught, it prevented me calling on more talented family members to come and help me out.  I would have to use a radical mix of ingenuity and rat cunning. Like MacGyver.  Indeed, to set this printer up I would need to go the full MacGyver.  

I looked at the instructions. I stared out the window. Then I looked at the instructions some more.  Things clicked into place.  There was a whirring sound.  I pushed a button and a display panel lit up.  Then I printed a document.  I stood in awe as the page slid out from the machine.  Like a child, I eagerly snatched at it before reading a short message that said, ‘Nice work.  Love, MacGyver.’

I was overjoyed.  I felt like that monkey in 2001: A Space Odyssey who’s just figured out how to use a bone as a tool.  It probably helped that I was playing ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by Richard Strauss in the background.  Mind you, if I get up tomorrow morning and find a giant monolith in my living room, I’m going to be quite put out.  Unless, of course, I can hang my washing on it.  Then I won’t mind so much.

I’m mindful there’s more than one perspective here.  From the point of view of those who made the printer, they think they’ve dumbed down the process to the point that a blindfolded Chihuahua could do it. Whereas, from my perspective, assembling the printer is a technological triumph on par with putting a man on the moon.

With the printer connected, it felt like a moment if not in the evolution of humankind generally, then at least for me.  Putting it together isn’t really an act of technological brilliance but about overcoming the fear of failure.  Everyone, I think, has a wireless digital printer in their lives somewhere. That thing they never get around to because the fear of not succeeding is simply too great.  But I am living proof that with patience, encouragement from MacGyver and the music of Richard Strauss playing at an almost obscene volume, that anything is possible.  For me, it’s about moving on to the next challenge. Which, in this case, is in the living room, sitting in a box.  It’s a television I bought when the old one decided not to work anymore. Just let me find my fedora first.

The Middle Age of Reason

Once more, the dance begins.  It’s the one that occurs annually between my brother and I when our birthdays roll around.  You see there’s just under a year between us which means that, for a short time, we’re the same age.  It’s been that way since we were kids and I see no prospect of it changing any time soon.  So it is that my brother has now, once more, caught up to me.  

The meaning, however, of this temporary state of equilibrium has changed over time.  Suffice to say, it used to be an opportunity for my brother to claim that he was no longer my younger brother.  Now, however, the tables, chairs and possibly the curtains have turned.  This overlap now definitely works to my advantage.

I can still hear him – a broad grin wrapped around his face telling me that I was no longer ‘the boss’ of him.  Upon hearing this, I was always somewhat conflicted. Firstly, I was unaware that I had been ‘the boss’ of my younger brother.  Had I known, it’s fair to say I would have taken full advantage of the awesome power and responsibility it brings.  Secondly, there was the small matter of mathematics.  

Foolishly, I would try to explain that I was still older by several hundred days and that this would never change.  He was immune to my attempts to reason.  In retrospect, that was part of the fun – he knew that refusing to concede would drive me crazy.  Which it duly did.

But things are different now.  Whereas once, being the same age was seen by my brother as something to celebrate, middle age has seen a recalibration of sorts.  The intersection of our Venn diagram is now seen by my brother as something to fear.  Rather than have him lord it over me, it is now I who lords it over him.  Somewhat callously, I now repeat to him the same thing he used to say to me – ‘we’re the same age’. Somewhat gratuitously, I have then added the word ‘sucker’.

Denial is not only a river in Egypt but a powerful force that lurks in all of us.  My brother has been insisting that he is still ‘mid-forties’ even though he’s much closer to fifty.  It’s obviously a point of some sensitivity.  As an older brother (for all but four days a year), it is my duty to exploit this mercilessly.  I do this using a variety of techniques. 

Each year, I make a calendar full of family photos. On my brother’s birthday, there’s a picture of him, under which I posted the caption ‘late forties’.  It sat on the wall at my father’s house all year.  Only last week, I sent him a picture of it.  As soon as lockdown was lifted, he was straight over there with a big, black texta, crossing out ‘late’ and scrawling ‘mid’ over the top.  It was an act that reeked of desperation and texta (so aromatic!).

Earlier this week, I sent him a gift.  I included an inscription that simply said ‘happy fiftieth birthday’.  It is, so I will claim, a matter of rounding up.  He later sent a photo of himself holding the card, pointing towards the message with a look of consternation on his face.  The message accompanying it declared with the force of multiple exclamation points, ‘mid forties!!!!’

But if it’s my brother’s birthday, it means that very soon I have a birthday of my own to contend with.  Sadly, for me, there’s no way I can use the term ‘mid-forties’ and keep a straight, albeit slightly creased, face.  It’s a big one, and there’s no getting around it. ‘Fifty’ sounds so gargantuan, but it is what it is.  To prepare, I did some research.  When I was younger, ‘research’ was something you did at a library. Now it’s something you ‘Google’. The results were both perplexing and concerning.

I typed in ‘fifty is the new…’ hoping to get a much younger virtual age for myself.  The first thing that came up was a question: ‘is fifty the new thirty?’ Excitedly, I clicked on the link expecting to be showered with life affirming declarations of positivity only to find a single word – ‘no’.  The search also coughed up other helpful titles such as ‘how to survive turning fifty’ which makes it sound too much like a near-run thing.  There were variations on the theme including ‘fifty is the new forty’ and, perhaps with my brother in mind, ‘fifty is the new mid-forties’.

I’ve never much been a fan of my birthday.  I have, however, been lucky to have a brother whose birthday was right next to mine, meaning that I never really had to go through all the fuss on my own.  Fifty, it seems, is the new fifty.  It means that all those people I went to school with are reaching the same point.  It’s impossible not to think of all those mullets and perms and to wonder what became of their owners.  It seems like both forever ago and only yesterday.

Tonight, I’ll see my brother.  He’ll use the term ‘mid-forties’ more often than can be considered reasonable in the circumstances.  It will be a joyous occasion all the same.  Not least for the fact that we can see each other in person. And even if my brother is currently growing a beard that screams ‘Santa-in-training’, when he uses the term ‘mid-forties’ I won’t say a thing.  Other than, of course, ‘happy birthday Cameron.’