Monday, July 29, 2013

Occasion

Every morning on his way into the office building where he worked Timothy walked past, on the opposite side of the street to that which he customarily travelled, a shop that had always puzzled him. Most days it was a momentary puzzlement gone as soon as he rounded the corner, the idle repeated thought that occurs in such rote activities. On this occasion, however, his morning commute was thrown off axis by noisy men in workmen's vests tearing at the footpath where he normally walked. A yellow and black sign advised that pedestrians should use the other footpath and thus Timothy, who was not the kind of man to wilfully ignore such advice without good cause, duly used the other footpath.

So it was that Timothy found himself walking on the same side of the road as the shop which so intrigued him. It was a drab kind of shop front, its window taken up with a legend printed in plain white copperplate which read simply "Kelloby & Assoc. Occasion Planning". There were two things that caught in Timothy's mind each morning as he passed the strange little shop. The first was curiosity that the logo painter had decided to write "Assoc." instead of "Associates" when there was enough room for the entire word and more besides. The second was that the shop floor directly in front of the window (or behind, he supposed, depending on where one stood) was blocked by venetian blinds when it could, and in most shops would, be used to display some sort of material that promoted the qualities of the business owner.

Already disrupted by being on the wrong footpath Timothy decided he would completely destroy his morning routine and enter the shop of Mr (he presumed) Kelloby. He pushed on the dark green door and a small bell mounted above the door rang to announce his entrance, as is the custom. Inside he found himself presented with what looked like the office of an accountant, and furthermore that of an accountant who had no time for ornament. Two comfortable but plain chairs sat on one side of a heavy wooden desk. On the wall behind the desk were two framed certificates of some form of education, difficult to be specific due to the exquisite flourishes of the script in which they were written. Below the qualifications, and in a third chair from the same set as the two presumably intended for customers, sat a man. Short, well groomed, with impeccable moustaches and clear grey eyes, he was the kind of man one would trust to execute the will of an eccentric millionaire.

He also looked like the kind of man who would clean his glasses with great care using a special cloth, which he was in fact doing when Timothy entered. He stood and offered his hand.
"Good morning sir," his voice inserted itself into the quiet office with a minimum of fuss. "I am Percy Kelloby."
"Yes. Good, um, good morning. Timothy Brown," replied Timothy shaking the proffered hand.
"Please won't you take a seat?" Kelloby gestured at one of the empty chairs with a smooth but firm wave and waited politely for Timothy to sit before once more seating himself. He opened on of the notebooks and made a note of the name. "Well then, Mr Brown, how may Kelloby & Associates be of assistance?" Through some trick of tone Kelloby made it clear that the business name was definitely '& Associates' rather than 'and associates'.
"Truth be told, Mr Kelloby, I was simply curious as to what you do here."
"We do what it says in the window, my good man. We plan occasions."
"I don't want to seem rude but it seems such a, well, dull shop front for the planning of parties and weddings and such." Timothy adopted his most placatory tone, well aware that entering a business solely to impugn its owner was not good etiquette. Kelloby seemed unfazed.
"Yes, yes, I see the problem. We don't plan special occasions," it was clear the phrase was not one he enjoyed employing, "we plan all occasions."
"I don't quite follow you Mr Kelloby." Kelloby leaned back a little in his chair and tugged at the end of his nose with forefinger and thumb for a few seconds. When he spoke again it was with the attitude of a tutor.
"Consider, Mr Brown, this morning. You have the look of a professional about you, if you don't mind me saying so." Timothy shook his head slightly. "I assume it is your routine to take this road, but on the other side, to your destination and that those public improvements disrupted that routine." This time Timothy nodded his head, as yet unable to see the destination of Kelloby's reasoning. "There is no good reason that you should have been so disrupted by this event. It should be, and we at Kelloby & Associates firmly believe in fact it is, possible to not have day to day activities marred by such occasions." By this stage Kelloby was leaning slightly forward, fingers pressed together in a wedge formation pointed at Timothy. Timothy looked back in bemusement.
"Are you saying you provide daily planning, alerts, that kind of thing?"
"Nothing quite so prosaic. Are you a man of letters, Mr Brown?"
"I read from time to time, yes."
"You are perhaps then familiar with the literary form 'on this occasion, however'?"
"I suppose so, yes?"
"That phrase indicates nothing surer than deviation from the expected trajectory of events. The signal that some individual's desire for nothing more than a day of predictability and order is about to be crushed. The precursor to outbreaks of personal tragedy, strange events, or" it was only with great self control that Kelloby managed to keep the sneer from disturbing his moustaches, "adventure."
"I hadn't thought about it in that light to be honest."
"Perhaps you ought, Mr Brown. Perhaps you ought. Now think about this: we, for a reasonable fee, can make sure it never happens to you."
"How exactly?"
"Ah," said Kelloby beaming, "that is quite something."

Monday, July 22, 2013

Office

There’s a specific shade of blue-grey that is used on every cubicle partition in corporate Tasmania. Not all I suppose; one office I can think of had a depressing, faded orange instead, but the rest are blue-grey. There are dozens of models of partition. Some are designed to allow people see over them while seated to promote the ideal workplace atmosphere of unrestrained collaboration. Others are designed to only to be seen over when standing to promote the ideal workplace atmosphere of isolation, and also to make grown adults act like prairie dogs. All of them are covered with carpet, of course, to allow for the application of velcro dots so that Gantt charts can be more prominently displayed.

I’ve never understood the choice of colour. It’s the colour of an overcast winter morning in Hobart, the time of year that the sun isn’t quite all the way up when you leave the house. The clouds are doing little more than reflecting the grudging lights of houses making bleary-eyed breakfasts and cars creeping across the bridge. It’s not quite raining but there’s water hanging in the air, just enough to leave everybody uncomfortably damp when they finally arrive at the office.

When a work task is causing problems during the day, the last thing you want is to look away from the monitor and have your line of sight blocked by a constant forecast of the conditions that await your trip home. Blue may well be calming, and grey might promote a sense of professionalism, but mixing the two creates the colour code for dispirited.

For the most part the carpets are the same colour but a little darker to hide the coffee stains.

Next week's word is ontology. No it's not that would be terrible. It's odalisque ossuary oleaginous occasion.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Narration

There is only one this Australian political pundits love talking about more than a leadership spill, and that is a narrative. They talk with serious faces about the narrative of a campaign as if they've lost sight of the fact that a narrative is not real. A narrative is nothing more than the connective tissue used to describe a series of events, or in the case of political campaigns the grafting of connective tissue onto a melange of ideals, demagogy and slogans to create a sort of Frankenstein's candidate.

I have talked before about how much the issue of boat people (or asylum seekers, or refugees, or whatever they're being called now) annoys me. Not for the patently ridiculous fashion in which governments from both sides have handled the issue (I say ridiculous because inventing the idea of excising first parts and eventually all of a country from an invented thing called a migration zone reads more like Yes, Minister at its finest than a real policy) but because it continues to be regarded as being an issue at all.

In 2001 being tough on immigrants (especially brown ones) was a pretty good way to get people riled up and ready to vote. A couple of months later, after September 11, the merest hint that some of these so called refugees might be terrorists and then clamping down on them was enough to win an election. Since those heady times, the story of stopping terrorists changed slowly to a story about it being unfair to process 'queue jumpers' before those who followed the rules, and eventually to the current story about doing it for the protection of the refugees so that they don't take a risky trip that might see them drowned.

Although the story has slowly changed so that people feel warm and fuzzy about the awful bipartisan stance on the issue, boat people has never truly left the political discussion in Australia. I had begun to wonder over the last few years why exactly it still managed to be an issue considering both parties offered solutions so similar that only forensic study would be able to separate the two. Beyond the argument that Australian political discourse has finally reached the Titanium Tax Point there must be some reason it still gets talked about. A few days ago, my mother got a call from a polling agency and I found the answer.

I've never received a polling call before and nor has anyone I know, or at least they haven't talked to me about it. There were many questions about party preferences (political, not cocktail), preferred leaders and whatnot, but one question stood out as the answer to the boat people narrative problem. She was asked to list in order from one to five, the importance of a number of issues. There were only five options provided and alongside health care and education was border protection (which is a polite way of saying "stopping those horrible boat people").

It turns out that polls create a situation in which border protection must be a top five issue for anyone they poll and then the newspapers report with solemnity that border protection is one of the top five issues for the Australian electorate, and the politicians see it is an important issue to the electorate and so they continue to talk about it, and so the pollsters feel obliged to include it on their list of issues, and so on ad nauseum. Our country's political narrative has become a nationwide round of "no, you hang up first".

That's the last time I get on that particular soap box. Promise.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Negotiation

"Let me tell you a little something about how this is going to go," said Garth as he reached for a butterscotch from the obscenely expensive crystal dish on his desk. "You think you've got information I want and that's true enough as far as it goes. So in your mind's eye you see me being on the weak side of this exchange." He sucked noisily on the sugary lozenge. "You're thinking I'm going to play a game of bluff and bluster, but in the end I'll give you pretty much everything you want and you'll give me just enough to feel like I didn't get taken to the cleaners'. I imagine you've stood in front of a mirror practicing that look of supreme confidence, checking that you look just the right kind of indifferent when you check for dirt under your nails. Dirt that isn't there because you probably had someone clean them for you before you got here, because you've never done an honest day's work in your life. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I wouldn't have if I'd had a choice. Doing an honest day's work just means you don't have the imagination to do a more profitable day's work." He paused again, forcing the sweet repeatedly against his teeth so it made a sound like a clock ticking slowly.
"So what's my trick? You have the advantage and you know you do. I have every card in the deck but you're playing craps. Where can I possibly find a position of strength here? Or do I already have it? I was born with nothing and now I have, without boasting, pretty much everything. How many times along that road have I out maneuvered people who thought they were in a position of strength only to find themselves left with nothing?" He put his feet up on the desk and leaned back arms crossed behind his head.
"That's got you thinking hasn't it? I didn't have to do this myself, I have buildings full of people who can take care of something as simple as what you think this is. But here I am taking a personal interest and there must be a reason for that. Now that little seed of doubt has crept in, is starting to gnaw away at your confidence. It's nothing major, you're still pretty confident, but you're starting to wonder who's honoured to meet who in that photo with the president, and just how highly ranked the Chinese official I was owed a favour by must have been to get that statue out of the country. Just how much am I truly capable of?" He leaned forward, eyes hard.
"Maybe what you thought was a position of unassailable strength is starting to feel like a room with no door. The mantle of superiority is suffocating you, weighing heavy on your shoulders. Perhaps that information you thought was worth so much seems more of a burden." He shrugged and let the edge fall from his voice to be replaced with implacable resolve. "So this is how this is going to go. You're going to let me win and in exchange you get to lose. You get nothing more than knowing I could have made it worse for you. That's my final offer." There was silence as he regarded the empty office in front of him. After a few seconds, a boy of four or five years old crawled out from behind a potted ficus and walked over with crossed arms and a cross look. He put out his bottom lip and slapped the desk with two open hands.
"That's not how you're supposed to play hide and seek grandpa. It's not fair."
"I don't play Billy. I win. Now have a butterscotch."
"I don't wanna butterscotch."
"Have it your way."

Next week's word is narration.