A Chicken at my Window

Early one morning, in that blissful pre-alarm semi-sleep state, I heard a clucking outside my window. For a moment I thought I had dreamt the sound, but I opened my eyes, rolled over, and the sound persisted. The window is an arm’s length away from my bed; so I dragged myself towards it, propped myself up on my pillow, and poked open the Venetian blind with my fingertips. Now there wasn’t any doubt. There was a chicken in my front yard. It clucked away happily to itself while scratching through bark chips and under bushes. It was a small red bantam hen, its feathers an almost metallic bronze in the morning sun.

When my cat discovered the chicken, it scrambled up to the window and forced its way through the blind, leaving its rear legs and twitching tail on my side, while salivating against the glass. Meanwhile, I ate breakfast, showered and dressed for work. By the time I walked out to the car, the chicken was nowhere to be seen. It was almost as if I had dreamt it.

But the next morning it was back again, clucking and scratching just outside my bedroom window. I discovered that after its morning feed, the chicken would climb into a nearby bush, where it would roost on the higher branches for the rest of the day. I began to worry that it wasn’t getting enough to eat, and began leaving breadcrumbs on the ground around the bush where it hid. My daughter, L, built a hutch out of boxes and left it near the bush in the hope that the bird would crawl inside to keep warm.

The chicken was still outside my window on the weekend, so L and I set about trying to find its home. We each took a different street and began knocking on doors. I didn’t think that the question – “Do you keep chickens, or do you know of anyone who does?” – was that weird, but judging by the looks and responses I got, I may have been mistaken. One woman looked at me with the kind of face one would reserve for someone from another planet.

L had similar experiences, however, at her third house, she got lucky. She was told that an old man in the adjoining street kept bantams. She found the house, knocked on the door, and was greeted by an elderly man who moved stiffly with the aid of a walking stick. It was, indeed, his hen, although he hadn’t noticed it missing, nor did he display any gratitude that we had found it. He explained to L that he was crippled and could not come to collect the hen. He asked that we catch and return it to him.

I was relieved to find the chicken’s home, but less than enthused by its owner’s response. Nevertheless, we set out to try and capture the bird. Our first attempt failed miserably, and the chicken simply flew into a nearby tree and refused to come down until we’d left. We then developed strategies involving boxes, blankets and a variety of disguises, but the chicken was too quick for us, and we only succeeded in scaring it into an adjoining yard. This arrangement suited me fine, but L was not impressed. “We can’t just leave it there,” she whined. She needn’t have worried. Within a couple of minutes it was back in our garden.

A new week started, and the chicken was still living in the bush outside my window. Every morning I would wake to its silly clucking. I would get up, feed the cat, and then shuffle outside to feed the chicken. It came to expect me, and would wait on the doorstep, do a little dance when I opened the door, then dash back to its hiding place in the bush, until I’d left its food and gone back inside. Begrudgingly, I grew to like the chicken, and looked forward to saying “hello” to it when I came home from work each day, and when I got up in the morning.

Some mornings it would climb up on my windowsill and peer in at me. This would excite our cat greatly and it would climb up and press its nose against the window. The chicken didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it almost seemed to be taunting the cat.

On Wednesday, the weather changed for the worse, and dark clouds blew in, along with a chilly wind. The chicken spent less time in the open, and more time in the shelter of its bush. I could see its football-shaped silhouette in the half-light of evening, perched on a branch in the middle of the bush, its little head bobbing nervously.

The following morning it did not greet me at the door, nor the morning after that. But I could still see it hiding in the bush. I’d bought some proper chicken food at a local pet store and left a pile of it on a sheltered patch of dry ground. The chicken eyed me cautiously from its hiding place. It seemed thinner than it had when it first arrived a week earlier. I hoped I was just imagining things. I really didn’t want to chicken to die.

It’s now early Saturday evening. The chicken is still out there. I can see a dark chicken-shape in the bush. I wonder if it’s cold or lonely. I wonder if it’s hungry. I worry about the wind and the rain. I worry that the chicken might not make it through the night.

All of a sudden the chicken is the most important thing in the world.

Sex and the Suburbs

It’s a dreary late Sunday afternoon in Adelaide and I find myself slouched on the sofa watching ‘Sex and the City’ on dvd. (My daughter had left the disc in the player and I was too lazy to hunt for anything else.) I may as well have been watching the antics of an alien culture for all the sense it made to me. Do women really think and act like that? But it wasn’t just the women, at one point a montage of men aired their views on women, and I was equally baffled. Maybe I just lead a sheltered social life. Maybe I’m just expecting too much that ‘Sex and the City’ should even slightly resemble reality. Should I be viewing the show with the same suspended disbelief usually reserved for ‘The X Files’ or ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’?

I’ve never picked up a woman on the street, at the gym, or even in a bar. I’m actually even afraid to smile at a strange woman lest she should scream or call for the police. And the concept of a ‘one night stand’ is as mysterious to me as spontaneous human combustion or the workings of a microwave oven. It’s hard enough to meet anyone with whom you develop any rapport, let alone someone with whom you are happy to romp naked upon first meeting. Yet ‘Sex and the City’ would have me believe that sex is available at the drop of a hat (well maybe not a hat, but at the drop of something).

But maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I should be dating a different woman every weekend. Maybe I should be seeking sex in elevators and nightclub lavatories, with beautiful aerobics instructors, models and artists. After all, I haven’t always been so timid. I was once slightly adventurous when it came to such matters. But never once did a woman respond to me like Carrie does to Mr Big (or countless other men) when he slips her a flirtatious smile or remark. (That may have something to do with the fact that I don’t have a chauffeured limo, wear expensive clothes or smoke cigars, but I might be wrong.)

An attractive woman did once smile at me in the supermarket. In fact, she came back and passed me again with the same grin. Later, I saw her working in a nearby shop and asked if she wanted to meet for a coffee during her break. “I don’t have a break,” she answered, a look of terror on her face. “What, today?” I queried. “No, never,” she replied. I took that as a rejection of sorts.

Another time I told a woman I’d seen every day on the bus for six months that she always looked stunning. She went red, said “thanks”, but never caught the bus again. Did I say something wrong? Does the word ‘stunning’ have an alternate meaning that I’m not aware of? Such a scene in ‘Sex and the City’ would be the prelude to a passionate affair.

What we really need is a series called ‘Sex and the Suburbs’, where average-looking people go about their average lives, not eating at expensive restaurants, buying expensive shoes, and not having sex with a different beautiful person every night.

It might make for dull television, but it would make me feel a little better.

The Problem with Plumbers (and other Tradesmen)

There’s nothing particularly pleasant about the process of moving house. Especially if you actually have to sell the house you are living in first. We have been meaning to move out of our current house for at least two years. I just couldn’t motivate myself to organize tradesmen, visit hardware stores, paint walls and ceilings, and do all the other things necessary to get the house ready to sell. In the end I just went to a real estate agent and said ‘sell my house’. He put me onto all the ‘right people’ and in the space of a few weeks, we had tradesmen painting the guttering, installing new light fittings, erecting pergolas, fitting carpet and so on. More work was done on our house in three weeks than has been done in ten years.

With all this activity going on, I realised that one of the main reasons it has taken me so long to get all of this organized is my extreme awkwardness with tradesmen. I just can’t seem to relax, or even behave normally, when a stranger is working in or around the house. For example, we had some people working on the garden. It was quite hot outside, and the two gardeners has been shoveling bark chips and gravel for hours. I was inside, supposedly working on a writing project. But I just couldn’t sit still. I felt guilty. In the end, I began cleaning. And I couldn’t just clean quietly; I had to make lots of noise so that the guys outside would hear that I wasn’t just lying around. I couldn’t bear the thought of them saying to themselves: ‘Lazy bastard. We’re out here sweatin’ and he’s takin’ it easy.’

I even turned off the air conditioning just to let them know that I wasn’t much more comfortable than them.

Then there’s the issue of actually interacting with them. I know they are meant to be working, but I find it impossible to just ignore them and let them get on with their job. I feel compelled to make small talk with them. Ask them things about their job, talk about sport or the weather. The things I have found myself talking about are just ludicrous.

The alternative is the tradesman who seeks you out for conversation. Only recently, one of the plumbers I had working on my house thought nothing of spouting racist nonsense within two minutes of meeting me. What can be done with such people! There’s no point in arguing with them, particularly when such people are dealing with necessities like water or electricity. I’d hate to confront a plumber about his apparent racism, only to find that he’d subsequently connected my outgoing sewage pipe to the incoming bathwater tap. So I just grinned like an idiot, not agreeing, but not challenging his stupid comments.

Finally, there’s the food and drink situation. What exactly is the etiquette here? Are you expected to feed someone who’s been painting your house all day? Do you offer beer? Hot food? Sandwiches?

I recently offered a bricklayer some cake. He took the cake, but I’m sure he was laughing at me behind my back. (‘Cakebaking, doughpoking pansy!’) At least I didn’t offer him fairy bread!

Thankfully, all that anxiety and awkwardness is now over. All the work is complete and it’s just a matter of finding someone to buy our neat, clean and sparklingly tidy house. I’m just hoping that the plumbing holds out until we’re gone.

Homer Sweet Homer

Some weeks ago, a woman at work said; ‘You look like Homer Simpson.’ There was nothing malicious in her tone or body language. In fact, I believe she thought it was a compliment. She smiled broadly, eyes sparkling, and said it in a friendly, singsong kind of way, as one might say; ‘You look lovely today’ or ‘I like your haircut’. I didn’t reply, not really knowing how to react to such an observation, but merely smiled and nodded. Should I have thanked her? Should I have reacted angrily? It was difficult to consider any reaction without first determining what she’d meant by the comment.

In what way did I look like Homer Simpson? True enough, I was wearing the sort of short-sleeved business shirt favoured by the character. And my hair is thinning on top. But is my head shaped like a football? Am I yellow? Am I flabby and overweight?

Or did her comment refer to Homer’s other qualities – his laziness, dishonesty, stupidity, greed, clumsiness.

It really was a struggle to find anything complimentary about the comparison.

After discussing it with my daughter, I could only conclude that there was something about my physical appearance that made me somewhat Homer-like. Maybe I had put on some weight. Maybe my head was a little more egg-shaped that I’d imagined. (Why this person thought the comment was a compliment was still a mystery, however, as I was too afraid to ask.)

There was nothing I could do about the shape of my head, but I could try and lose a few kilos. We drew up a dieting and exercise plan and, to help motivate me, my daughter L agreed to participate, despite the fact that she doesn’t look like any of the Simpson family. (She looks a bit like Betty from the Flintstones, but even that is stretching things.)

The first thing to go was any Homer-like food – doughnuts, hot dogs, soft drink, pizza, pastries, biscuits, ice cream – in fact, anything remotely tasty. L drew up a daily menu plan that included lots of apples, carrots, celery, lettuce and water – litres and litres of water. According to L water is the cure for all evils. I can’t drink enough of it.

An exercise regime followed. L tried to come up with a suitable plan, but the fact that I set down a series of limitations made the process very difficult. I refused to swim, run, lift weights, go to a gym, do yoga or aerobics, or wear sports clothing of any kind. That left walking or cycling, and without a bicycle or helmet, the cycling option was pretty much ruled out.

We live in a quiet suburban neighbourhood. There is nothing especially interesting or beautiful about our suburb. It is, in fact, quite dull. But every day, for the first week at least, L and I were up early, trudging up and down the local thoroughfares. L was in shorts, t-shirt, sneakers and sunglasses, looking like a healthy, active, sports-minded teenager. I was dressed as I would for any occasion – short-sleeved casual shirt, blue jeans, business shoes – looking like I was on the verge of a breakdown – pale, sweating, gasping for breath. I think L was embarrassed to be with me, as she kept sprinting off ahead.

We did this religiously for a week. During the second week, I kept finding myself busy with other things (surfing the net, watching tv) when it came time to exercise, although my dieting plan remained on track. By week three, both L and myself had given up the walking plan altogether, and I was sneaking muffin bars and biscuits in between meals. In short, our plan was failing miserably.

L and I are determined to revisit our dieting and exercise regime again in the near future. In the meantime, I am trying to think positively about Homer Simpson. He is kind of lovable, in a stupid, oafish sort of way. And he can be very passionate (about food, beer, get-rich-quick schemes), even if only for short periods of time.

Doh!

Lost in a Hardware Store

Poets do not belong in hardware stores. At least, this one doesn’t. I approach every visit with the sort of apprehension a normal person might reserve for a shark-infested pool. There are few places in which I would feel less comfortable – an aerobics class perhaps, the front bar of the Coober Pedy hotel probably, the changing room at a football venue most definitely.

There is a hardware retailer near my house that calls itself a ‘mega store’. Everything about it is ‘mega’. Not large, not big, but ‘mega’. It even has a ‘mega café’ (although, oddly enough, I couldn’t find it). I might be exaggerating a little, but the store is so big you could comfortably fit a Jumbo 747 in there, with room for a few double-decker buses and an elephant or two. Why do these places need to be so big! As if they aren’t already intimidating enough with their drills, nail guns and chainsaws.

Anyway, I was in the middle of a much-avoided home improvement scheme. I drew up a shopping list and, expecting a long arduous visit, packed a flask of water, some food and a compass. What I didn’t have, and desperately needed, was a map to the store. The shelves were so high it was impossible to get my bearings, as though I were trapped in a jungle or rocky canyon. The folks that run these places might like to think about installing a few lookouts, or at least employ guides (and even a couple of donkeys).

After ten minutes of aimless wandering, I found myself in a ‘secret wing’ of the building that smelled like horse manure and contained rows and rows of giant pots and enormous bags of fertiliser. I found a troll-like woman under a concrete mushroom who kindly gave me directions to the paint department. After mopping the sweat from my brow, and taking a sip of water, I was off again.

An average supermarket could have fit into the paint department – it was huge. My head was soon dizzy with choice – low sheen, textured, semi gloss, oil-based semi-gloss, low sheen textured semi-gloss, hi sheen super-gloss super-textured. I was still staring at one of these walls of paint when a shop assistant approached me. She had the same nuggetty-build as the troll woman I’d found earlier and spoke with a similar gruff, earthy rumble. After admitting my ignorance, she fired off a series of baffling questions, to which I gave equally baffling replies. Somehow, she was able to determine what I needed, and after referring to various charts and codes, presented me with a tin of paint.

Before leaving the paint section I grabbed a stack of those intriguing colour charts. I’ve always found them fascinating. Somewhere on the planet a poet or two are being held hostage by paint companies and ordered to come up with interesting names for paint colours. Who else but a poet could come up with colour names such as ‘Pomp’, ‘Sourdough’, ‘Speedboat’ and ‘Donkey’?

I found my next stop – the plumbing section – by mistake. One minute I was looking at brushes, the next I was in a section labelled ‘screwed brassware’. Amazingly, I found what I was looking for – a roll of plumber’s tape – without having to ask anyone. Although it did involve browsing though several aisles of solvents, pipes, saddles, brackets and copper capillary fittings.

The nail and screw section featured helpful signage obviously aimed at hardware-dodos like me. By answering a series of simple questions I could determine the sort of fastener I needed. Was I nailing or screwing into plasterboard, chipboard, timber, treated pine? Was I erecting a bookshelf or a pergola? These and other questions helped narrow the choice down to just a hundred or so fasteners!

Before heading to the checkout, I spent a few minutes wandering around the tool section. It really is a torturer’s paradise! There are tools to cut, smash, bend, penetrate and destroy every possible type of material. I was tempted to buy something called a ‘wrecking bar’. It would certainly it would come in handy when fighting for a parking spot at the local shopping mall.

While much of my hardware experience explored unknown territory, the visit to the checkout was very, very familiar to me. It doesn’t really matter what you buy – sausages, sandals or screwdrivers – the pain as the checkout operator runs your credit card through the card reader is the same.

‘See ya next time,’ guffawed the checkout chap with a goofy grin.

Next time? I didn’t count on coming back until the next home improvement scheme, which should be about halfway through the next decade.

The Lord of the (Burger) Rings

The Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy was very popular in our house. Such was our obsession with all things Middle Earth that we began to take on some of the physical characteristics of its inhabitants. My eldest daughter, E, developed a Gollum-like cough, while I acquired hairy feet and a liking for tobacco. And my other daughter, L, bought a replica of Arwen’s pendant and began speaking in Elvish.

So when we decided on having a family celebration to ‘farewell’ E on her journey to Canberra, we thought a Lord Of The Rings marathon – a screening of the three movies back-to-back – would be an appropriate way to spend some of our last hours together. We decided on the ‘extended’ dvd versions of the films, rather than the cinema releases, which meant sitting through about 12 hours of television – the audio-visual equivalent of climbing Mount Kosciusko or crossing the Nullarbor Plain on bicycle.

Before commencing such an expedition we required provisions. A trip to the shop yielded several packets of microwave popcorn, ice cream, soft drink, chocolate, corn chips and an enormous bag of Burger Rings. Unwisely, as it turned out, the girls also organized pillows and blankets, transforming the sofas into long narrow beds. I was left to squeeze in between someone’s feet and the armrest, or squat on the floor.

Timing was crucial. With both E and myself working the following morning, we didn’t want to start much past midday. Unfortunately, L was delayed by other engagements, and we didn’t begin until closer to 1.00pm. The first hour passed happily, popcorn was munched and soft drink was sipped. We made it out of the Shire without much problem, but well before Rivendell we experienced our first casualty. Far too comfortable in her ‘bed sofa’, L had fallen into a deep sleep and could not be roused. E and I continued on through the mines of Moria, Lothlorien and down the Great River. By the time we reached Parth Galen, two packets of popcorn, a bottle of Creamy Soda and all the Burger Rings were gone.

We had a ten-minute break before recommencing our expedition. I tried to wake L but only succeeded in getting smacked in the face. Meanwhile, E opened the Sarsaparilla, fluffed her pillows and settled down for the journey across Rohan. By the time the first disc of ‘Two Towers’ had finished, both E and I were weakening. I was hunched uncomfortably on the floor but still managed to find my eyes closing in the latter part of the disc, and almost missed Gollum’s schizophrenic exchange in Ithilien.

It was now about 7.00pm. We’d planned a half-hour break for tea, so while I attended to pets, telephone messages and email, E prepared a nacho dinner. L had finally awakened from her slumber and was suddenly full of energy. The mobile phone came out, and she was off to her bedroom to chat to friends for most of the tea break.

We sat down just after 7.30pm with six hours of television to go. The day had almost disappeared and we were only halfway through our journey. The next two hours passed easily. The battle of Helm’s Deep still managed to thrill us all despite this being about the twelfth viewing. Another ten minute break at the end of ‘Two Towers’ enabled E to speed to the local service station for another giant packet of Burger Rings and more soft drink, the remainder of our supplies having been demolished along with the Deeping Wall.

The last leg of our journey started promisingly, everyone was sitting upright, with eyes open and minds alert. But as Sam and Frodo neared Shelob’s Lair, and Sauron’s legions approached Minas Tirith, the long day began to take its toll. There was a Sarsaparilla spill on one of the ‘bed sofas’, which caused a brief but heated exchange between L and myself; then an argument erupted over the remainder of the Burger Rings. As midnight approached, we were all a bit tired and battered.

I don’t know if any of us saw the entire final disc. Sam and Frodo’s ascent of Mount Doom seemed to take forever, and, of course, after the Ring was finally destroyed, there was the reunion, the coronation, and the Grey Havens. It was approaching 2.00am by the time I fell into bed; feeling as though I had traversed Middle Earth myself, not watched others do so from the safety of my lounge.

When I awoke the next morning, and stumbled about in preparation for work, I studied the remnants of our achievement – a pile of empty junk food containers, a row of soft drink bottles, and fragments of Burger Ring, mashed into the carpet.

Best of Friends

If a television is on, and no one is watching it, I must turn it off. It is one of my ‘pet hates’.

Now, anyone who has teenage children will know that it is the job of the teenager to not only discover the things that annoy their parents the most, but to exploit that discovery to the full. During her last years at High School, and then at University, my eldest daughter developed a most infuriating study habit. Some people like to listen to music while they study. Others require complete silence. My daughter decided that she could only concentrate if the television was on. Music annoyed her. Other sounds distracted her. But the sound of sitcom laughter, fast food advertisements, and repetitive theme songs helped her relax and absorb texts on post-colonialism and feminist theory.

While she generally liked any television as a backdrop to her studies, my daughter favoured a handful of popular American shows – Sex and the City, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and most of all, Friends. We have episodes of Friends on dvd and prerecorded VHS, as well as a teetering pile of blank VHS tapes filled with Friends episodes taped over the last 10 years. In fact, as the show is popular with both of my daughters, and both have their own dvd/video collections, we have multiple copies of the same episodes. In our house you cannot sift through a pile of media without coming across an episode or two of Friends.

Anyway, back to my daughter’s annoying study habits. I initially tried to stop her from having the television on all day and all night. We argued. There were slammed doors and thrown books. But when it became obvious that she would not study without television, and therefore, fail her course, exam, assignment etc, I relented, and tried to adjust to a life of painful co-existence. I woke up on Sunday morning, and Friends would be on. It would be on while I ate lunch. It would be on during dinner and after dinner. Sometimes I complained. Most of the time I said nothing.

As the relationship with my daughter went through its ups-and-downs, my relationship with Friends also went through a series of changes. At first I couldn’t stand the show. I thought it just another in a long line of vapid American sitcoms, with its all-too-beautiful characters, painful laugh track and clichéd plot developments. Then I warmed to it. I grew to appreciate its Woody Allenesque neurotics, its clever writing and keenly-observed insights. And I fell in love with all the women. I loved Monica’s smile, Rachel’s hair and Phoebe’s laugh.

Then, as with all Friends who outstay their welcome, I grew utterly sick of them. I grew to hate the theme song. I grew to hate Ross’ whining and Chandler’s constant need to joke and mock. I wanted to grab Joey by the shoulders and scream: ‘You’re a terrible actor! Give up! Give up now!’ I wanted to make a mess in Monica’s kitchen. I wanted to grab Phoebe’s guitar and hurl it from the top of the nearest skyscraper.

And I became so critical and nasty. While my daughter sat at the computer typing up her latest essay, and Rachel and Ross went through yet another break up, I stood in the kitchen peeling carrots for dinner and muttering under my breath: ‘Why don’t you just strangle each other and be done with it! You idiots!’

My daughter finished her Uni degree in January and has since moved to Canberra, along with her share of the Friends collection. The house is mostly quiet now, and the television only goes on when someone is watching it. The exploits of Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Ross, Chandler and Joey are tumbling around in my memory along with all the other nonsense.

But sometimes, late at night, I’ll slip on an episode or two, catch up with the old gang, trapped in their Nietzschean universe, doomed to live the same life again and again, to make the same jokes forever. There is comfort in the idea of some things staying the same, while all else moves on.

And, if the atmosphere is just right, I imagine that if I look back over my shoulder, I would see my daughter sitting at the computer, one moment deep in thought, the next tapping madly at the keyboard, a Friends-induced smile on her face.

Things I Will Never Buy

While shopping at the supermarket today, my daughter pointed out that you could now buy chocolate-scented rubbish bags. Chocolate-scented rubbish bags! I’m afraid it’s true. They are also available in strawberry, lemon, lime and lavender. I can understand citrus-scented products, after all, we’ve had lemon-scented floor cleaner and dishwashing liquid for some time, but chocolate-scented products are a different matter. It might just be me, but there is something very wrong about the idea of having your garbage smell of confectionery.

As far as I can see, the innovation is going to have two possible follow-on effects:

1. People are going to want to eat their garbage.

2. People are going to think of garbage next time they eat chocolate.

Either effect is surely undesirable.

I can’t help but imagine the sorts of things that might have been said when the company behind this product first discussed the idea:

Executive A: ‘How can we persuade people to buy more rubbish bags?’

Executive B: ‘We need to make them more attractive!’

Executive A: ‘But they’re rubbish bags! How can we make rubbish bags more attractive?’

Executive C: ‘We could make them look nicer! Y’know pretty colours and designs!’

Executive B: ‘And we could make them smell nice!’

Executive D: ‘And we could make them taste nice!’

Executive A: ‘Whaddya mean, taste nice? We don’t want people to eat the rubbish bags!’

Executive D: ‘Mmm…sorry, maybe I did get a little carried away…’

Executive A: ‘But I do like the other ideas – a new look and a new smell. What sorts of fragrances did you have in mind?’

Executive B: ‘Well, what sorts of things do people like to smell?’

Executive C: ‘Flowers! Perfume! Roast chicken!’

Executive A: ‘Fruit! Apple pie! Freshly-cut grass!’

Executive D: ‘Fish! Beer! Chocolate!’

Executive A: ‘Fish-scented rubbish bags? What a revolting concept!’

Executive D: ‘Yes…er…maybe I was getting a little over-excited.’

Executive A: ‘But chocolate! Chocolate-scented rubbish bags. You might be on to something there…’

I manage to resist my daughter’s appeal for chocolate-scented rubbish bags, and make a mental note to add the product to the list of ‘things I will never buy’.

P.S. For your information and amusement here is the current version of this list:

1. Caravan
2. Golf clubs
3. Gun
4. Homebrew Kit
5. Global Positioning System (anyone who cannot read a map should not be driving a car)
6. Frozen spinach (making a bad thing worse)
7. USB Cup Warmer
8. Surfboard
9. Reef thongs
10. Meat-shaped soy products
11. Guinea-pig
12. Flippers
13. Fishing rod
14. Any power tool

The End of Sleep

Two weeks into the New Year, and all that’s left of my illness is a badly out-of-sync body clock. I spent so much time sleeping during that period – albeit at the oddest hours – that I am wide-awake at night, the ability to fall asleep seemingly forgotten.

I’ve spent many long nights with eyes wide open, listening to the wind, insects, night birds. Sleep is a weird thing. Like breathing, or the beating of our heart, it is a function we do not think about. It just ‘happens’. What are the instructions for sleep? Where is the manual?

1) Lie down on bed
2) Put head on pillow
3) Close eyes
4) Sleep

That’s about it, as far as I can tell. I seem to have forgotten how to become unconscious, forgotten how to initiate that little moment when we slip out of awareness and into something else. One night, after giving up any attempt at sleep, I find myself on the net, trying to find help. I go to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and type in ‘Sleep’. I scroll past the list of possible results of sleep deprivation (brain damage, obesity, hypertension, heart attack, cancer, and death), glance at some interesting statistics on the sleep habits of animals (e.g. giraffes only require two hours of sleep), and find the section on ‘sleep hygiene’.

The list of guidelines for better sleep is as follows:

– Reserve the bed for sleep and sexual activity.
– Keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature.
– Keep the bedroom as dark as possible.
– Establish a regular bedtime routine (light activity, no video games, tv or computers).
– Avoid caffeine and other stimulants.
– Avoid large meals within one hour of sleep.
– Use relaxation techniques (e.g. meditation) before sleep.
– Regular, vigorous, daily exercise, preferably in the morning.
– Get adequate exposure to natural daylight.
– Avoid exercise within one hour of sleeping.
– Avoid napping during the day.

Now, I’m not sure what they mean by ‘reserve the bed for sleep and sexual activity’, after all, I’m not what other uses it might be good for (jogging? acrobatics? building model aircraft?), but I’ve tried most of those suggestions. Maybe I should be exercising more during the day? Maybe I should have another go at meditation?

I try some other sites, and find a few more suggestions:

– Drink milk.
– Hide your clock.
– Don’t smoke.
– Eat some turkey.
– Do visualisation – focus all your attention on your toes, or visualise walking down a flight of stairs.
– Keep a sleep diary.

I’ve tried drinking milk, and I don’t smoke, but hiding your clock! That’s something I haven’t tried. I take my big clunky Mickey Mouse alarm clock and hide it in my underwear drawer. I sense the clock’s unhappiness, but try and put it out of my mind.

Now, what’s this about turkey? Apparently, turkey contains trytophan, a building block for making serotonin, a neurotransmitter, which sends message between nerve cells and causes feelings of sleepiness. That explains a lot about Christmas Day. I thought I was just bored.

I make a mental note to eat more turkey.

I try focusing all my attention on my toes, but only feel nauseous, then try to visualise a stairway and can’t stop worrying that I’m going to fall down it.

I’m not sure about the idea of a ‘sleep diary’. I’ve kept a ‘dream diary’ before, but not a ‘sleep diary’. I imagine what it might contain.

11th January – Went to bed at 11.30pm. Drank warm milk. Tried to meditate. Could not sleep
12th January – Went to bed at 12.30am. Ate turkey sandwich. Tried to visualize toes. Felt sick. Could not sleep.
13th January – Went to bed 11.15pm. Listened to meditation tape of running water. Needed to pee. Could not sleep.
14th January – Went to bed 10.30pm. Could not sleep. Did some push-ups and running-on-the-spot until tired. Could not sleep. Wrote in sleep diary.

I decide there is little value in keeping such a diary.

In the end, I give up and go to the doctor for some sleeping pills. I am given Temazepam. I take not one, but two, before bed. I still can’t sleep. I feel very, very tired, but can’t sleep.

However, the following day I fall asleep at work. Not only does no-one notice, but I also get my work done well ahead of schedule. At the end of the week, my manager even praises me.

‘You’re doing some marvelous work, Graham,’ she says. ‘What’s brought about this sudden burst of energy?’

‘I’m just getting some quality sleep,’ I reply with a smile.

Some sleep links:

http://www.sleepeducation.com/
http://www.helpguide.org/
http://en.wikipedia.org/Sleep
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_hygiene

The Ministry of Waiting

We are asked to assemble in the foyer of the Ministry at 9.30am. A man dressed in a wig and gown meets us there and leads us along hallways lined with marble and ornate tapestries to a long, low room filled with chairs. We are asked to take a seat and wait. We wait for about forty-five minutes. We wait quietly. Most people stare into space. Some have brought books or newspapers. No-one talks.

Eventually, another man, dressed similarly to the first, appears at the front of the room and calls out names from a list. We reply ‘here’ when our name is called, and the man crosses our name from the list. He then gives us a card marked with a number. Mine reads ’27’. The girl sitting next to me has’136’. Some people do not answer when he calls their name, and we assume that they are not here. He underlines their names with a red crayon. The man then leaves, and we are left to wait for another thirty minutes.

A third man, dressed in a military uniform, appears at a side door, and selects about twenty people, who then follow him out the main door of the room. Another man appears, and the same thing happens again. This happens several times, until there are only about twenty people left. We are asked to follow a woman to yet another room. She is dressed in a dark suit and sunglasses. We follow her along more corridors, down winding stairways, past rows of grim statues, until we arrive at another long, low room.

This room is smaller than the first, and there are already a number of people positioned around the room on important-looking chairs. There are men and women wearing wigs and robes, and men wearing military clothes, helmets and leather boots. There is a woman at the front of the room scribbling strange markings into a ragged notebook. We are asked to sit in a row of seats across the back of the room. Yet another man enters the room. He is very old. His wig is very large and his robes are a very dark maroon. He sits at the front of the room next to the scribbling woman. His chair is very big, and very important-looking.

One by one, the very old man calls out numbers. If our number is called, we are to stand up, walk across the room, bow to the man, and sit in the identical position on the opposite side of the room. This goes on until all the numbers are called, and we are all sitting on the opposite side of the room. The very old man confers with the scribbling woman, and one or two of the other wigged and robed people. They look solemnly in our direction and nod.

We are left alone in the room for about fifteen minutes. Eventually, the woman in the dark suit and glasses returns and leads us to back to the first room. It is already filling with people. I do not recognize any of them. We are asked to take a seat and wait. After about forty-five minutes, a man dressed in a wig and gown enters and begins calling out our names. When our name is called we are given a fresh card with a new number. Mine says ‘72’.

This routine continues throughout the day, with only subtle variations. There is a break at 1.00pm, and again at 3.30pm. We are allowed to leave at 4.30pm. We are paid $52.50 for our day at the Ministry. This does not compensate us for meals or childcare, but goes some way towards the cost of transport. If we do not attend the Ministry we are fined, possibly imprisoned. The law says we must wait.