The place where they sell phones, internet plans and ‘Yes Moments’ isn’t the obvious setting for a lesson in compassion. But, just as the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears and it seemed that the sales crew (and myself) were due for a refresher course in how to be kind.
A visit to the phone store is no pleasure cruise – it’s a place you go to only when you absolutely have to. I’d tried all the links on the website, waited for someone in the off-shore call centre to help, but no. In the end I had to make a physical trip.
There’s no subtlety about the commercial design decisions of these shop fronts. The sterile white counters and hard edges clearly aren’t meant to be welcoming and the devices secured with retractable wire all but scream a basic lack of faith in humanity.
As for the staff - there’s often more than a hint of Handmaid’s-Tale-level burden about those with the job of providing face-to-face customer service. Maybe they know that the people who make the trip to the store are only there as a last resort.
As I waited for the next available member of the sales team, I perched on the edge of a hard seat and wondered why the music video on the flat screen TV was turned up so loud. It soon became clear that even The Killers couldn’t drown out the raised voice of the customer who had been shepherded toward the back of the store.
Rapid-fire looks were being exchanged between sales team members, their discomfort (irritation?) obvious. The awkwardness spread like a disease to the other customers who averted their eyes and got busy scrutinising the chained up devices.
It seemed that, despite coming into the store for assistance, an elderly, wheel-chair bound woman had been handed a phone, parked at the back of the store, out of the way and palmed off to the company’s call centre.
While she struggled to communicate with the disembodied voice on the phone, sales team members cruised the shelves as though it was a car showroom, detailing the latest must-have features of different devices.
Providing assistance to an existing customer in need of help, however, seemed to fall outside of their scope of work - Yes Moments are apparently reserved for those of us hungry for data and susceptible to sales gimmicks, viable targets happy to sign up for yet another 24-month contract.
The elderly woman explained, for at least the third time, that her home phone wasn’t working, she didn’t have a mobile phone, she was disabled and had a serious medical condition. Her home phone was literally her life-line and she needed it fixed urgently.
Everyone knows that dealing with a call centre can be challenging enough, but when your hearing and speech is impaired it becomes virtually impossible. The woman's voice began to falter as she struggled to hear and understand what the person on the other end of the line was telling her.
Still, members of the sales team carried on as though it was business as usual – nothing to see here folks! Customers like me played along, pretending not to listen despite the butt-clenching tension in the store.
I became aware that I was part of a really shameful display – gross incompetence (or was it callous disregard?) from the customer service staff and a studied detachment from everyone else.
The woman had come to the store only because she absolutely had to. Unlike those of us who wanted an upgraded phone or more data, her issue was one of personal safety and, despite her obvious distress, no one was in any rush to help.
As the sales guy tapped away at the computer sorting out my request, the phone call between the woman and the call centre continued to go around in agonising circles.
Suddenly the customer next to me decided enough was enough.
While I’d been standing there, feeling uncomfortable and furiously wishing that one of the sales team would step up and do their bloody job, a young woman walked across the store, crouched down beside the woman and offered to speak to the call centre for her.
Within just a few minutes the issue was resolved. The woman’s relief and gratitude was palpable.
With one decisive act of compassion a young person had schooled the Optus staff in how to treat a customer with basic humanity.
She also reminded me that showing up and offering kindness should be a default position instead of waiting for someone else to step in and do it for us.
According to my Instagram we’ve just come back from an incredible, month-long family trip to Japan. We covered a lot of ground – pretty pastries in Ginza, a wild ten-year storm in central Hokkaido, chest-deep powder snow, icy streets and bowls of steaming ramen tucked away in hidden alleys.
There were many hashtag-able moments. So many, in fact, that the 12-year-old had to step in, cautioning me about the unwritten rules of Instagram – flow, consistency of theme, crafting the perfect caption and, above all, restraint. One post per day. Tops.
With this in mind I ended up with a pretty impressive array of pictures, resulting in many likes, new followers and complimentary comments. It was the #tripofalifetime.
We all know that social media is BS and contrary to the curated story I presented on Instagram, the holiday was often no picnic. Of course there were fantastic experiences and pinch-yourself scenery (most of which were documented, cropped, polished and posted) but there were also plenty of outtakes deemed completely unfit for social media consumption by the pre-teen.
Maybe the old cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words was made for the social media era – although I don’t need a thousand words to demystify the story behind some of the misleading images I posted.
A lovely pic of the teen and pre-teen sharing a moment on the chairlift. Just as well I took my phone out in the -15 degree cold because it was the only time it happened. One grudgingly-agreed-to run together. You may also note that the teenager has no helmet on. This became the source of several ‘heated discussions’, an ultimatum and a week of moody-teen/parent residual anger.
A snowy streetscape before a day of ice-skating – #familytravel bliss, right? This was the start of an hour-long trek to find the ice rink made famous by the Sapporo Olympics. No wifi meant no Google Translate and no map. We eventually found a 70s relic that looked like it was about to collapse.
Living the igloo life! What you can’t see behind this picture is the massive outlet shopping mall in the middle of an industrial area. Getting there was an hour-long bus ride, sardined with half the population of Sapporo and their wheelie-bags. The husband, who was still on Honshu and spending a week of quality dad-and-son time with the teenager (and that’s a whole other blog post), had seen an ad for heavily discounted Sorel boots, and we’d been tasked with bringing a pair home. Long story short, we went to the mall and all we brought back was this pretty photo.
The happy family shot. That big smile on my face is due to sheer hysteria and joy in equal measure: hysteria at the end of four weeks of living in Tokyo-sized hotel rooms with this lot; joy of being the cause of discomfort to the offspring as payback for the said four weeks. Naturally I am the source of butt-clenching embarrassment in so many ways but asking a kind Japanese guy to take a picture was the last straw for both of them. (Please note: teenager is wearing a helmet.)
The journey home. Apparently it’s best to #travellight when snowboarding by limiting your luggage to just a board bag and backpack. Those snowboard bags and the suitcase we named Big Bertha weighed a combined total of over 150kg. By their design snowboard bags are difficult to manoeuvre, particularly for kids and particularly on public transport. Our departure from Japan involved lugging these on and off a bus, a crowded train, another bus, two planes and another bus. It was no picnic.
Just as the lovely Jess Rowe has made #craphousewife a beacon of truth in the manufactured perfection of Mum-stagrammers, I’m proposing a new hashtag for the legion of travel bloggers and their endless posts of family holiday bliss. Family travel is hard and I’m disappointed that I was sucked into the fakery. Having seen the error of my ways, however, I’ll be stripping away the gloss next time to include the outtakes and tagging #familytravelsucks where appropriate.
For me, one of the best things about taking a trip somewhere is the planning – I can happily spend hours trawling through different tourism sites, looking at intricate maps of cities, trying to work out transport connections and fantasising about five-star accommodation.
Pre-internet, planning or research meant a trip to a travel agent to stock up on glossy brochures or shelling out for a Lonely Planet guide - there was plenty of hard copy material that could keep me in escapist mode for the months leading up to departure.
However, despite my love of travel articles and tourism information, I’ve always found it difficult to commit to an itinerary.
Our northern winter holiday to Japan was looming and with only one part of it actually locked in, I realised it was time to start finalising details. The teenager, who finds spontaneity and any lack of certainty deeply uncomfortable, had started hitting me with questions about the gaps in the itinerary. With several weeks of the trip still unplanned and flights not booked, I was confronted with my own trigger for discomfort – making a decision.
So much to book, so many options. I knew I had to commit, to take decisive action – the alternative would be a disaster. This I knew from experience.
Our first trip as a married couple had involved six weeks of driving around Europe with a map and a just vague idea of a route. I thought it would be free-range bliss - romantic scenery, stopping when and where we wanted. I was wrong. So wrong. It became clear that the husband was someone who preferred structure, a tidy plan with all details attended to. It made for an interesting road trip.
A couple of years ago, with the trials of that European vacation just a distant and funny memory, our family of four set out on a loosely scheduled driving holiday along the west coast of America. Hoping for a free-flowing travel experience, I deliberately left a number of days 'at leisure' on the itinerary. Surely, locking in every single detail of a three-week trip would make it seem too much like a school excursion.
Again, I was wrong. The lack of a clear, daily schedule was not something the male family members enjoyed. At all.
This time had to be different. Determined to execute a successful family trip, I knew had to stop flitting from one website to the next and make some hard decisions.
I’d been putting off booking accommodation (too many choices) when I received a message from my friend with whom the tween and I were going to be spending four days in snowy Sapporo. Not only had she booked a hotel in a great location, she’d found a local tour guide and confirmed several day trips for us. We would have the perfect balance of scheduled activities and free time - a bit of culture and a day of snowboarding, together with shopping and a trip to the city’s famous beer garden included in the plan. It was a revelation. More than that, it was a relief.
Inspired by her decisiveness (and comforted by the free cancellation policy on booking.com – you know, just in case I changed my mind), I committed to an itinerary, locked in accommodation and even signed us up for a couple of organised day trips.
With everything confirmed and loaded onto a very tidy travefy.com itinerary, I’m now feeling unusually calm. I think I’ve finally managed to satisfy everyone’s travel preferences this time.
We’ll soon find out.
I’m also predicting they’ll be grateful that I managed to sneak in a few free, unscheduled days just in case.
Rack off. To my ear at least, it sounds bold, a little crude and decisive all at the same time. It’s just going – leaving – without a backward glance.
According to the Collins Dictionary online, to 'rack off' is to literally go away or depart. Apparently it’s an adverb, not that I care. People my age weren’t taught grammar so giving it an official, part-of-speech label isn’t useful information.
I haven’t heard anyone say it for a while (maybe it was a 70s thing) but it popped into my head recently when I started thinking about the possibility of packing up the family for an extended trip.
Students take a gap year. Executives and academics go on sabbatical. Hipsters un-school their kids and roam the planet. Maybe middle-aged Australians with moody teens just rack off.
Whatever the correct term is, I’ve been thinking about doing it for a while and the vibe has caught on. The husband has been working to get the house Airbnb-ready (progress documented on Instagram @found.in.transit) and, with a bit of luck and a couple of bookings, we will be heading off on a trip after Christmas.
Getting ready to rack off has been no cake-walk. The house we built 11 years ago was never really finished. As any partner of a tradie will appreciate, it’s often the case that by the end of the working week there is no energy left to drag the tools out again for a bit of weekend DIY. Even when it’s just small things, like skirting boards and door handles (and maybe the railing to a second storey balcony) – nothing important, until you start thinking about advertising it as a holiday rental.
Then there’s the kids. Even with the lure of more than a month out of school, there’s a whole lot of questions and even a bit of complaining. Will there be wifi? What are the sleeping arrangements? What if there’s no wifi? How long will we be away? Can you just make sure there’s wifi?
I can’t answer their questions. The whole point of racking off is to just do it – no questions asked. Obviously it’s not that simple when it’s not a solo mission. Yes, it’ll be disruptive, and probably a bit messy - and that's exactly what I’m looking for.
No, not Prince.
I woke to the news on that Friday morning, the blow surprisingly acute. Prince dead? It was hard to believe and I wasn’t the only one reeling. Well-worn entertainment reporters were in shock, music historians spoke of his genius and labelled him a modern-day Mozart, purists lamented the loss of a truly unique talent. While I’m unable to lay claim to any particular musical expertise, I felt the loss just as keenly. As the day wore on a purple haze descended, taking me all the way back to 1985.
As a teenager I’d loved Prince’s music to the point of obsession. While most of the other girls at school were fawning over pictures of Wham! I’d sworn allegiance to Paisley Park: substance and innovation over manufactured, pretty-boy pop.
Countless hours were spent lying on the floor of my floral-wallpapered, teenage bedroom watching the needle on the record player move from track to track and poring over the lyrics and credits on the 1999 album cover. I couldn’t get enough of his funk infused sound. The loaded words and suggestive dance moves carried more than a whiff of danger. Where I came from, to love Prince was rebellious.
But now more than 30 years later, with Prince gone, I found myself listening, with a new appreciation, to the soundtrack of my adolescence, but this time it was in a very different bedroom.
We’d planned to re-do the 15-year-old’s room for his birthday and, despite the gloom resulting from Prince’s untimely death, we had a deadline to meet and had to push on. The re-vamp became a best-of Prince weekend (although it seemed almost sacrilegious to be washing paint brushes with The Beautiful Ones as accompaniment). It was somewhere between Let’s Go Crazy and Take Me With U, as I was scraping paint spatters off the timber floor, that I had a very real flashback of what it was to be cocooned in a teenage bedroom, door shut to everyone and everything.
The teen bubble: it pretty much dominated my life from 14 to 17 years of age. Vast amounts of time spent mooning about in my bedroom, pondering everything as only a self-indulgent teenager can – all with the incomparable soundtrack of Prince’s early catalogue. Now, as I rolled paint onto my own teenager’s walls, there were vivid memories of that adolescent sense of being consumed.
Consumed by everything. From lyrics (oh god, how could they be so, like, meaningful?!) to a particular riff (the one that would make you lift the needle off the record, move it back a bit, and lower it down, hopefully in the right spot, just to hear that bit again and again). Consumed with the tragedy of love songs that caused tears and an almost physical ache. Nothing Compares 2 U? It devastated me. That teenage world … it’s so extreme.
And suddenly I knew that we weren’t just doing a bedroom makeover. No, it was much more than that - we were creating a new cocoon, a haven: a space for all those heightened emotions, the introspection, the angst. The 15-year-old would be getting not just an amazing new room (although it absolutely is, thanks to Rachael Miklas @design_detail) but a place to retreat from the world. Somewhere to be alone, to play guitar, to sob into a pillow (maybe), to write angsty poems or songs about love (hopefully), to slam the door on his hard-ass but loving parents (surely not).
Who knows what the soundtrack to all this will be? Of course that’s up to him. I like to imagine that in thirty years’ time, maybe when he's doing his own kids' bedroom up, he'll think back to his 15th birthday room reno and the memories will be accompanied by that unique voice, those freakish guitar solos and the sage advice that “if the elevator tries to bring you down, go crazy, punch a higher floor…”.
I had big plans. A blog post, followed by at least a few thousand words to punch through the dreaded middle section of my work-in-progress. The conditions should’ve been perfect. It was overcast (rain = writing). The husband and teenager were out of the house (no requests for food). Daughter had a friend over (plenty of food hoarded in her room, facials and nails to be done, iMovies to be made). I’d finished reading the latest book (no more excuses).
The blinking cursor drove me nuts after a while. I had nothing. No, really, NOTHING.
Seemed like all my writerly friends on Instagram were being productive, providing proof of their work with high-angle pictures of laptops and coffee and taunts of #amwriting. Others were busy on Facebook sharing all manner of inspiring quotes by famous writers and must-read blog posts about what publishers really want. It took quite a while to check out what everyone else was up to. They all seemed so motivated, so chipper and hopeful, loving their #writerslife, while here I was, struggling to string some words together.
I was onto my second coffee of the morning by the time I’d gone through the usual social media checks when it struck me. I hadn’t posted anything in ages. I’d been in a fog, so consumed by the achingly beautiful writing in A Little Life that I’d neglected sharing. So I snapped a picture of the dog who was looking me with a look of resignation (or was it accusation?) and popped it on Instagram with what I hoped was a jaunty sounding #dogsofinstagram #writerswithdogs followed by the guilty disclaimer #procrastinating.
Enough of the distractions and back to the task at hand. I was more determined than ever to get cracking.
The re-reading of the last paragraph I’d written took longer than expected. It was rubbish. After 20 minutes of re-writing I was back to the blinking cursor. The rain outside was falling steadily, the drumming on the tin roof a reminder (so obvious!) that lately I’d been neglecting my personal commitment to be more mindful. I took some time out to listen to the constant rhythm noticing, as I stared of the window, how the muted light made the garden an iridescent green. As I was posting a quick pic (#nofilt #mindfulness #procrastinating) a nasty idea offered itself up to me. If that last paragraph was such garbage, maybe the rest of it, months of writing, was just as bad.
I nervously scrolled all the way back to Chapter 1 (breaking the rule of reading the first draft before it’s finished) when my phone buzzed with a notification. The daughter, tucked away with her friend, liked my photo of the dog. There were a couple of new posts by writers mocking me with #amwriting #writerslife. Over at Facebook, at the top of my feed, was a link: Why Your First Draft Is NOT Crap. Timely? Or was someone monitoring my #procrastinating pleas for help?
OK, so there was lots of positive cheerleading and by the end of the post I was reminded of a pragmatic piece of advice from author Allison Tait: just finish the damn book. Yes @allistontaitwriter, you’re correct, despite the #writingcrisis of the day I will #finishthedamnbook. Tomorrow.
If there’s one phrase that I really can’t stand it’s ‘me time’. Along with ‘date night’ and the term ‘mojo’, hearing someone lament that what they really need is some ‘me time’ gives me the shivers.
It’s not that I’m against taking time out from routine – quite the opposite. I love nothing more than being on my own or doing something relaxing like walking the dog, reading the paper, going to a café, etc. But the idea of scheduling this sort of thing seems like a contradiction. Making time in your diary to do nothing… What’s up with that?
It’s also the term itself. I love words and well-put-together phrases but this one… Yuck. It seems to me that it has more than a whiff of self-absorption about it.
When I started writing the first Finn McMartin story earlier this year I had a timeline in my head of deliverables. No self-indulgent mornings or afternoons swanning about for me! To keep productivity up I thought I’d do 1,500 words a day, have the first draft done in a month, then re-drafting and editing another month.
While some days the words rush out with the force of a projectile vomit, other days it’s a struggle to string a sentence together. And it’s then that I find myself having guilty snatches of ‘me time’ all over the place. Early on the café around the corner was my go-to place when it was just too hard to come up with something decent to write. I usually came back feeling guilty for wasting an hour and still had nothing to add to a chapter or scene. I started to notice that if I took the dog for a walk instead, or even went outside to hang the washing, by the time I was back in front of the screen I actually had something to write.
Apparently this is pretty common. According to a study by Stanford University, low level physical activity like walking leads to more creative thought and generates new ideas. And here I was thinking that I was just procrastinating.
Writing, and other things that require a bit of imagination or creativity, need some room to happen. Everyone works differently and I’m a bit in awe of people who can write an entire novel in between full-time work and family. I couldn’t do it. Apparently what I really need is quite a bit of me, sorry, walking time.
I hadn’t imagined that I’d be spending too much time reading during our trip to Japan. After all, this was going to be an epic snowboarding trip (well, skiing for me) to a little-known mountain in the middle of Hokkaido. Our friends, experienced snowboarders (@pacificprizmboardstore @design_detail), had let us in on this special spot and were happy for us to tag along on their holiday, and we'd been counting down the days. We’d be away from all of the other Australians who flock to Niseko and Rusutsu and smack-bang in the bullseye of the famed Hokkaido powder belt.
The book I’d been dying to read would be great for that 9-hour flight, but I figured I’d be way too busy to read during the actual holiday. All that powder… Not a moment to waste sitting inside!
The very civilised Yukku Yukku book café had my name all over it. It's an oasis of calm, peace and civility - a Scandi-style café/bar with soaring glass windows framing a run lined with elegant poplar and alpine ash trees, branches draped heavily with snow. This was a place with comfy chairs, minimalist blonde timber furniture, great coffee and cheesecake. But it was the bookshelves and library-like quiet coupled with Hokkaido wine and cheese that got me. Oh yes, my new happy place.
I found it on the first day of our stay and usually ended up there each afternoon for a few hours with a glass of wine and my book. It didn’t take long to realise that this is just one of the benefits of a longer snow holiday – no guilt about relaxing and just enjoying the view. Until this holiday we’d only ever had short, intense trips to the Australian ski fields – it was just too expensive to swan around in on-snow accommodation in Australia for a whole week. But this eight-day stay in Japan cost as much as a weekend in Perisher, with better snow, no crowds and the peace of the Yukku Yukku café.
I finished my book (guilt-free), enjoyed the local wine and cheese and had time to soak up the incredible scenery and peace of the Japanese snowscape on the other side of the glass.
There aren't too many things I enjoy more than seeing good friends, eating, drinking wine and talking about holidays.
This Easter Saturday I got a large helping of all of my favourite things. I always look forward to catching up with childhood friends Nicole and Kim (girlupaladder.com @girlupaladder) and their extended family. It's time to reminisce about the regular family picnics we shared as kids and our youthful ventures to Europe and America. I love hearing about their legendary shopping expeditions, the strategic way they approach Ross stores to find the best designer bargains and how they manage to get their purchases back without paying for excess baggage. There's always lots of laughter and I usually leave feeling inspired to book a flight somewhere as soon as possible.
Books aren't usually on our discussion list - we have our own stories to chat about - but this visit was different. Before leaving for a recent family trip to Japan I'd posted a picture of the books I was taking with me on Instagram - not really thinking that anyone would be too interested. But I didn't realise the power of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It's one of those books that, once you read it, you kind of want everyone else to read it too.
It was the catalyst for a great conversation with Nic's husband, Colin, who'd loved the book as much as I had. It wasn't a discussion of the literary merits of the Pulitzer Prize winning book - more of an oh-my-god-didn't-you-LOVE-it kind of thing. Sometimes this is my favourite kind of book discussion!
I think I love talking about books almost as much as I love reading them. So cheers (*raises glass) to a weekend full stories both remembered and written.