Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fiction and friction

I've been pondering an interesting thought today: that the most difficult people I've worked with in the last few years are not readers of fiction. I wonder if this means something in the broad scheme of things; perhaps it's a lack of imagination or perhaps they set their thwarted imagination loose on beleaguering whomever they are dealing with... like... er... me.

I had a situation with a client about six years ago. I thought she sounded like trouble when I first spoke to her, but the task itself sounded interesting - developing the layout for a book - so I took her on. She had virtually no budget. Which brings me to another thought: that people with little or no budget cause the most bloody trouble and are the most pernickety.

She was a nightmare. Total nightmare. Would ring me at 10pm or before breakfast with changes she wanted to her template. Was hassling me the day before my wedding until my soon-to-be-husband took the call and told her to bog off. (I'd told her not to call but to no avail.) The weird thing was that she wouldn't tell me what the book was about so I had no sample material to draft up and show her. Finally I loaded one of my own short stories in so she could see margins, how images fitted in etc. She read it and said it was very well edited, but on the whole she didn't read fiction.

I visited her home office a few times. She was right. She had bookcases lined with business books, books on success, books on self-help, books on every subject but those you could escape into with an imaginary character.

Same goes for last year's client who still owes me thousands and who is, it seems, untraceable at the moment. She doesn't read fiction either, but reads inspiring books, business books, books on neuro linguistics...

75% of my books are fiction. I like my life that way. In future, before I take on a new client, I'll ask them who their favourite author is.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The wheels on the bus go round and round...

Oh frabjous day! My gorgeous little car, more of a pet than a form of transport, is home again from the panelbeater's. She's shiny and fixed and the paint match is superb.

Because my husband is away at the moment, I had to catch public transport to the panelbeater's. What is normally a 25 minute drive took 1 hr and 40 minutes. Phew.

This is a bit memorable because for the first time in years I caught a Sydney bus. Stop laughing.

It's not that I'm a total car freak and never use public transport, because I enjoy taking the train into town, except for peak hour when it's seething with the great unwashed (sometimes literally I believe).  The train isn't as awful for my sociophobia as the bus. The carriages are quite wide, and there seems to be a little more legroom between seats. Mostly I can get a seat to myself, and I can listen to music, look out the window or read, which is a lot less stressful than driving through Sydney traffic into the centre of the city. It's also a lot faster and stops a lot less often than the bus, so you get to where you're going quicker than by bus.

Unless of course you're going to somewhere the train doesn't service.

Travelling by bus used to be easy. You'd step on board, give the driver some money, he'd grunt and give you a ticket and change where appropriate, you'd find a seat or hang on for dear life to a strap and all would be well.

Now, however, several bus services and major interchanges are cashless. You have to buy your ticket in advance, and no, there are no ticket machines at the bus stop, even if it's a major interchange. That would be too bloody logical. You have to find someone who sells them, usually a newsagent.

I had a sinking feeling that the interchange at Parramatta station would be a PrePay one, so while walking to my own train station stopped at the newsagent for a bus ticket. She didn't have any single tickets, only packets of ten, and buggered if I'd pay $45 for a single bus ticket.

The ticket seller at my own station said some bus drivers would accept cash if you had coins and smiled nicely, but she also only sold packets of ten.

At Parramatta train station there were ticket machines selling tickets to anywhere, so I lined up only to find that none of them was for a bus service. By now I was starting to be not in a good shape. People all around, no bloody signs saying Buy Your Bus Tickets here.  I made myself do some deep breathing and found a sign which looked initially unhelpful at the railway ticket office: We Do Not Sell Bus Tickets. Squinting, I made out a map underneath and ran over to it, discovering that the newsagent across the way in the station sold tickets.

When I said I wanted a single ticket to Gladesville that caused consternation. Where was Gladesville? I had to explain. I also felt a twit when I blurted out, "No, I don't know how many sections it is, I haven't taken the bus before!" and added quickly, "Not from here anyway."

Ticket finally in hand, I waited for the bus, hopped on, validated my ticket and like most of us as the bus was empty, got a seat to myself.

Two stops on a fat bloke got on board. I could be very PC and say he was morbidly obese but really, he was a fat bloke, almost as wide as he was tall.

To my horror, he thumped down next to me. Nearer the back of the bus were empty seats, lots of them, but obviously exercise like walking down to get to them wasn't his thing. I wondered briefly if he was a bit OCD and I was sitting in "his" seat, the one he always had.

I'd had the sociophobia under control but when a really big person sits within millimetres of me, so I can feel their body heat and almost their pulse, I tense up, and I did then, easing myself as close to the window as I could.

Then I had to put my hand over my mouth. Herbert! The pong!  Not only fat, but smelly. Old body odour, maybe the same shirt for the third day running? Whatever it was - Whoof!

Cruel and possibly Nazi as it sounds, I pondered then and there the invention and senate approval and installation of Personal Hygiene Meters on public transport. Robotic, probably, with a sensor that takes a sample of the air closely around you as you walk on board. If you smell too offensive, the buzzer beeps and sorry, mate, you can't board. Not until you put some deodorant on or otherwise get rid of the pong. Or...ah...this is good...have a Stinky Section at the back of the bus and put all the stinkers together. Maybe that would help them realise how much their smell offends others. The Stinky Section would have extra aircon to draw the smell out.

The PHMs would be easy to police on buses, but perhaps a matter for the guard on trains. Stinkers go in the Stinky Carriage -! Yay!

Or... charge them extra. Make them pay for being offensive to others. >:-)

Anyway, Stinker got off at Rydalmere and I started to breathe again and expanded to fill a bit more of the space around me. Thankfully I managed to keep my seat to myself on a half-empty mid-afternoon bus, but I was glad to step off the bus and into the rain, and walk in fresh air to where Minerva was waiting for me. It's been a long month without my four-wheeled friend, but Jeez, was today a loooong afternoon!

Monday, January 16, 2012

In search of the Scarlet Pimpernel

Regular readers - er, both of you! - will be aware that I'm self-employed and while I love the freedom this can bring, chasing down people who owe me money is one of the downsides.

I have been chasing one such person, whom I shall call The Scarlet Pimpernel, for months. She now has unpaid invoices going back more than a year and the sum total of them all has achieved five figures.

I have a very nice lawyer who specialises in debt collection - I know that sounds weird but he IS a nice guy and enjoys a robust glass of red wine when he's not sending summonses - on the case, but the Pimpernel is clever.

The Pimpernel appears to live under a bridge or on a park bench. Someone else is living at the last known address I had for her. Today I tracked down a more recent address she had used last year but when I drove subtly past the house a few things didn't compute and I've since discovered someone else has been living there for years.

She's not in the phone book. Plenty of people aren't these days as you end up getting too many telemarketers ringing you.

My next point of call will be the electoral roll; assuming she was a good little citizen and voted in the last election I will have an address current as of March last year. Which may or may not be the current one this week!

I'm getting rather angry over all this. It's not just the money; it's the feeling of being lied to.

I wish she had been upfront and said she was cash-strapped; we could have arranged from day one for her to pay me an amount each week or month to cover the enormous workload I was doing for her (at a discounted rate I might add as she gave me regular work). She gave an initial impression of being well-off, and is also a very likeable person. So... I worked during the weekends and evenings to fulfil her requests, and quite often I'd finish a task and she'd change her mind about it and I'd have to do something different. My stress levels were volcanic. I wasn't sleeping at all well. I felt nauseous with nerves and stress. I was depressed and cried at the drop of a hat. I had to knock back other clients because I simply ran out of hours in the day.

The Pimpernel told some amazing 'cheque is in the mail'-type porkies, too. For every payment she made - and she did pay her early invoices, albeit much later than I'd liked as well as some for her bigger corporate clients when they in turn paid her - there were false starts, stories of accounts frozen by the bank because they'd been hacked, or she'd forgotten to bring her ATM card with her when we met, stories of the bank's website being down for maintenance for nearly a week...  That last one, last year, was the one that put me into orbit. I also have an account with that bank and knew damned well the website was working perfectly but checked with the bank to make sure. The bank told me that freezing hacked accounts isn't their policy either.

At that point I pulled the plug and said I wasn't doing any more for her until she started paying off the bills (which I'd been sending regularly with reminders). I suggested paying them off by the month but didn't get a response.

My last resort was to engage my wine-loving lawyer and of course a polite letter to her had no effect. She wrote back saying that I had caused her grief and depression. I think she got that the wrong way around.

She has also claimed in social media channels that she taught me new skills, I billed her for them and then blogged about these skills as part of my own client offering. I used those skills to do something for one of her clients and wrote about the experience, with a link to The Pimpernel's own site and glowing blah-blah about the Pimpernel herself. She claims in that same post that she is no longer offering those skills and appears to be blaming me for that. Something tells me that she can't find another dope like me to work like a maniac, give a discounted rate and not get paid. That's the real reason she's cut back on those particular offerings.

So now we are in summons-land. We are tracking her down, inch by inch, to that park bench or bridge. I feel sorry for her, because I would hate to owe somebody that much money - in fact I wouldn't let myself get into that situation in the first place - but I am also angry at the lies and the stress I went through to do her tasks.

I have learned a lesson though. New clients now have to pay 1/3 of the agreed cost before I start a job for them. No more Pimpernels please.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Girl on the Swing

I lost two days this week to the most Herbert-awful headache; probably the longest-lasting headache I've ever had. I would have willingly hammered a six inch nail into my forehead to relieve the pressure. I did everything. Visualised packing the headache into a tiny box and shooting it into space, every over the counter painkiller you could think of until I was near a dangerous dosage, but to no avail. I was stuck with lying down in a not-very-light room until I woke up yesterday and it had all but vanished. Thank Herbert.

I lost a third day of work yesterday for a different reason. New contact Susie runs a brilliant new startup called My Face My Body My Soul. She does facials, has a whole body vibration machine, and is a reiki practitioner. Face, Body, Soul, geddit?

My visit to her was to take pics of her relaxing little room so she could put them on her website; in return she gave me a mini combination facial and a turn on the vibration machine and the foot massager. With half the day gone by then, including a sushi lunch, I asked her for a reiki session at my cost.

Before I get onto the reiki, which is the real purpose of this post, a brief note about the facials. The combo was half an hour of the Micro Current Facial, which uses a very week electrical impulse to stimulate facial muscles and tighten them, followed by half an hour of an serum delivered deep into the skin via an oxygen machine, using a device that was first cousin to an airbrush. This plumps the skin up and fills in minor wrinkles and if you have deep lines helps them too. I swear I looked about 30 by the time she'd finished. Ideally you'd have a full course - six weeks - of both these treatments for maximum and longer lasting results.

And then the vibration machine. I want one! :-)  It stimulates your muscles and gives you the equivalent toning of a one-hour aerobics class. In ten minutes. Given my host Susie's trim taut body, and she uses it every day, if I lived closer to her salon I'd be in there every week using it.

But now to the soul bit. I asked for reiki as I've had it before and was blissed out for about 3 days afterwards. If anything was going to kick that headache into touch, it would be reiki.

Many people are sceptical about reiki and other 'new age' and alternative therapies. Not that reiki is new, it's been around for millennia. I'm a hippie at heart and believe that 'there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your constitution'. (Shakespeare occasionally comes in handy, although I am more likely to quote 'blow wind, and crack your cheeks!' when I hear someone fart.)

The lovely Susie is a grade 2 reiki practitioner - the first person I went to was a reiki master and I did get more of a sensation out of the first person, but I gradually sat up at the end of an hour feeling very much at peace and a bit tingly all over.

The really interesting thing was what Susie said afterwards.

"When I started with you, I got this very clear image of a little girl of about ten or so on a swing. She was wearing a long white dress, old-fashioned, and in a beautiful garden. Lots of roses and other flowers, flowers twining up the side of the swing even."

Bizarrely, my first reiki person saw that same little girl, although she was wandering in the garden rather than sitting swinging. She was wearing the same white dress and had the same long brown wavy/curled hair.  I told Susie that and asked what it might mean. She said, as did the first person, that the girl was either me in a former life or a guardian angel or spirit. Susie suggested that if I'm passing a children's playground, I should get on the swings :-). It could help lower my stress and clear my thinking.

I'm wondering if that little girl is my grandmother as a child. Nan and I were the best of friends, and a tarot reader once told me that Nan was still about, looking over/after me. In my head now I'm calling that little girl Ivy, my nan's name.

Susie also had a strong vision of me walking by an ocean with a dog, and told me I was at my happiest and healthiest near the coast. "You need the negative ions you get from salt water and the surf, even if you don't swim. You work all day with computers which emit positive ions so you need to balance it. Heading out to the Blue Mountains for a day will help restore your negative ions too. But try to get to the beach regularly all year around, just walk by the water in winter.  You could also try standing in the rain." Fat chance with the rain, I hate getting wet when I'm fully clothed! :-)  The ocean is nearly an hour's drive away but I think I'll have to make a regular effort; it's true I am happiest near water, whether it's the river or the ocean. I'm a Virgo, an earth sign, so my need for water is a bit weird!

The headache, she said, was coming from my stomach area, and she did a lot of work around that chakra (which made me fart later when I went to the loo after my reiki session!). It was stress-related. Given that it's January and my stress levels are pretty low as work is light at the moment, I wonder whether it was a year's worth of stress just releasing itself.

Isn't it weird that both reiki people saw the little girl? She is obviously a key part of my psyche.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Not The New Year's Resolution

This year the only new year's resolutions I made were:

  • to be happy
  • to be less stressed about everything

Not for me the give up smoking/drinking/eating/chocolate/anything enjoyable that most people put on their lists, because trust me, it doesn't work and you just end up miserable because you've given something up and then more miserable because you've failed and launched back into the smoking/drinking/eating/chocolate/anything enjoyable a few weeks later.

Every year I have muttered at one minute to midnight on New Year's Eve, "This year I'm going to lose weight!"  And I do, in a Bridget Jones sort of way. A bit off here, a bit back on there, with my weight typically being the same on December 31 the next year. This year I thought, "Stuff it!" instead.

And now here I am, reading The Clean and Lean Diet book. More on that later but honest, I wasn't looking for a diet.

Mmm... yummy Niigella!
It's amusing as how I found the diet was googling Nigella Lawson. I was blessed to get a copy of Nigella Kitchen from my Mum for Christmas; unlike some of Nigella's books this one isn't heavy on the fats and cream, and everything I've cooked out of it so far has been delicious. Put it this way, we've been living off the book's recipes since Boxing Day and haven't put weight on over the holiday season. However, we haven't been our usual sedentary desk-bound selves either, which helps. We have had plenty of walking and exercise and physical labour.

I like Nigella. Well, actually, that's not quite right. I fancy her rotten. She is sexy, warm and simply beautiful. And shit, she looks great for 51! I get the occasional crush on women (don't get me started on Sue Perkins or this blog post will run for days) and Nigella has been a crush for many years.

So I thought I'd do a search and see what the scrumptious Ms Lawson has been up to lately. Losing weight was the big one. She's gone from a size 18 to a size 12.  Obviously she hasn't been eating anything from Nigella Express, her fat- and preservative-laden fast recipe book! A little more prodding produced the Clean and Lean diet as the secret to her new slenderness (she looks even hotter now!).

I've been hovering around the 5kg-too-heavy mark for about a year, after losing 7kg the year before that. Given my usual life of stuck at the desk from 9 to 6 most weekdays and often weekends too, it's a minor miracle I'm not the size of a house but I try to ensure both of us eat pretty carefully. You know, fat trimmed from meat, no package meals, as many fresh ingredients as possible, organic when I can a) afford it and b) find it in Western Sydney. We rarely have biscuits in the house, don't do fast food, and only eat crisps if we're at a friend's place and they are put in front of us as nibbles because I have the willpower of a marshmallow when I'm hungry.

We both fall down when it comes to wine, chocolate and the occasional sugary thing though. My husband is much worse than I. He will have toast laden with butter and marmalade at breakfast regardless of whatever else I serve up, even bacon and eggs. I might have toast and marmalade once a year; I prefer my toast with a hint of butter, and perhaps some Vegemite, if I have toast at all. He has two sugars in coffee and tea, I have none. No matter how large and delicious our evening meal, he'll pull out the chocolate and put it on the coffee table for afterwards; sometimes just looking at it makes me want to heave. And we both enjoy wine every night. It was only last week I'd had my first alcohol-free night in months. I like white wine, and typically drink it over a lot of ice, quite slowly, so during the evening I might have 1 to 2 standard drinks. He likes to guzzle beer before dinner in summer.

To my horror - but not unexpectedly - the Clean and Lean diet bans all alcohol and sugar for at least two weeks. The sugar I don't care about but there goes my delicious evening treat, my reward to myself for a hard day's work, my lovely glass of pinot grigio/sav blanc/chardy/whatever.

My husband has dipped into the book and grumbled copiously. Being a Scot he was born with a sweet tooth and now in middle age it's showing. He's a good 15 kg overweight. I don't know how far down this Clean and Lean journey he'll go with me. Mind you the diet features quite a bit of smoked salmon so that's cheered him up as it's one of his favourite foods.

I started the diet yesterday afternoon. I'd like to say I started it in the morning but I didn't, because I'd baked a Nigella chocolate cake earlier in the week and we had to finish it. You know what it's like. :-) So it got eaten yesterday and last night I sipped on soda water with a lime squeezed into it. No chocolate for either of us after dinner (grilled chicken with steamed veg). I couldn't get to sleep because I was hungry; I find on alcohol-free days I do get hungry late at night even if I've had a good meal.

The diet is a low-carb one (surprise!!) and we both lost weight on something similar a couple of years ago - I lost my 7kg on the paleo diet and my husband dropped a few kgs too although he cheated more than I did so didn't get quite as good a result. This one is very varied on what we CAN eat and if my husband starts seeing a result he'll stick with it I think.

After two weeks you can introduce some carbs and dairy back into your diet, eat fruit again (as fruit of course is sugar on the whole), and have a blowout meal once a week and the occasional drink, apparently only one per week but I suspect I will end up drinking every second or third night once I've got some weight off. Gin and tonic is apparently better for you than wine as far as calories go. Luckily it's also a favourite of mine. :-)

Reading through the recommendations of what to eat however the 'best' is typically organic produce, to reduce the toxins we put into our bodies. This makes sense but it also makes it a very expensive way to eat assuming you can find the stuff.

It's no surprise that wealthy celebrities can brag about how much they lost on this diet or that diet. Eating well typically means spending more money on your food. Replace sausages with steaks, and not supermarket steaks packaged in plastic and sprayed with preservatives; steaks from the butcher and preferably organic ones. Suddenly you've gone from paying $4.50/kilo for your sausages or $9.99/kilo for premium beef mince to $33/kilo for your steak. Not a problem if you're wealthy; if you're a typical working family with two or more kids and a mortgage those sausages or mince are going to sound a lot more tempting.

So we'll try this diet and pretend not to notice the cost of organic this and that. It's not a new year's resolution so it may well work :-). I'm betting now that I reach my goal weight but my husband will cheat too much and not make the scales.

If the Domestic Goddess, with her self-confessed greediness for delicious food, can stick it for a bit, so can I.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bad carma

You know you're in trouble when a car mechanic or repair professional sucks in air through his teeth with a whistling sound, and shakes his head.

If this is accompanied by an "Ooo," the news is even worse.

We have had a run of bad luck with our cars in the last couple of weeks. On Boxing Day mine got hit by a garbage truck. The ironic thing is that I had driven it over to my mother's as we were staying there for three nights, thinking it would be safer outside her place than parked outside ours. We live in a low socio-economic area and I had visions of returning to a car minus wheels, windscreen wipers and groovy wing mirror covers.

I woke up on 26 December to find the garbo had reversed down Mum's hill, collected my car on the way and pushed it nearly four metres down the hill, up the gutter and up over Mum's low sandstone retaining wall.

The driver had to return later that morning to do the recyclables run and we were waiting for him. He denied doing the damage but seeing we'd found bits of his mudflap on the road at the point of impact, and the dent in my car's poor rear matched the curve of his tyres, there wasn't much doubt. His boss visited the site and agreed his company would take liability. Cue calls to the police, insurance company, panel beaters, towing company etc etc.

This time of year in Australia everything shuts between Christmas and New Year, so it was only yesterday that I was able to get Minerva towed to the panel beater. I followed her up there in my husband's trusty Subaru and was relieved when the panel beater said he thought it would only be panel damage, not chassis damage.  There was no air sucking, head shaking or Ooohs.

That done, and as the mercury was rising steadily, I headed down to the river for a swim in the baths. It was heading for a stinker of a day, so I enjoyed the cool water and shady trees. I swam around slowly, keeping moving continuously for a solid forty minutes before drying off in the sun and enjoying Douglas Adams' The Salmon of Doubt. Nearing lunchtime I decided to head home. I should have really dropped in at my Mum's for a shower and lunch, as she was only five minutes away, but I had some work to do in the afternoon so decided to think about that crisp salad waiting for me at home.

Ten minutes down the road the clutch pedal refused to lift up when I changed gear. Little alarm bells started to ring in my head. I flipped it up with my foot and continued carefully. The Subi was NOT happy and started to judder underneath near the front of the car. When I put the clutch pedal down again I had trouble changing gear so pulled it into neutral and coasted to the side of the road, coming to rest under a huge Moreton Bay Fig. Acrid smoke was billowing from underneath as I turned the ignition off. Bugger! The clutch!!!

I made the call to the road service people and settled down to wait for the second tow truck of the day. The tree was shady, I had a book but I was madly hungry and also penniless. Even if there had been a sandwich shop open in the vicinity I could only have looked and drooled. Thankfully I had a bottle of water with me which kept the hunger at bay a bit.

My driver arrived and I told him what had happened. He shook his head, sucked in air through his teeth and said "Ooo."

By then I'd figured for myself it wasn't a simple clutch cable replacement but something more serious.

We got the Subaru onto the back of the tow truck and headed for the mechanic's.

While my driver unloaded the Subi I went to chat to the booking staff in the blessed cool of the office and explained what had happened.

Shake of head. Intake of breath through the teeth. Ooo.

I have a theory that the slower and longer the shake of the head, the worse the news is. The mechanic is clearly doing a quick calculation of just how expensive the job's going to be.

The mechanic shook his head very slowly indeed and my heart sank.

The Subaru is an all wheel drive, you see; in order to muck around with the clutch you have to take all four wheels off and half the underbelly and it's a sort of double clutch arrangement or something.... not what you get with a two wheel drive car, anyway. I forget the actual term he used but the estimate was $1700 if they had to replace the entire clutch. Hopefully it will just be replacing the clutch plate itself and that may cost less.

The kind tow truck driver gave me a lift towards home as he had to use a loop road underneath the main road to change direction, so in the 37 degree heat I luckily only had about 400 metres to walk. I arrived home sweaty, salty and hungry and just a bit grumpy.

So now we are carless for a while. Apart from public transport we will be totally reliant on our bikes for transportation, not just pleasure rides.

Maybe it's the universe telling us to slow down, as we haven't had a real break these holidays. There have been people, and dinners, and lunches, and car smashes and all the faffing around that involves. My husband has been fixing our boat and messing around rather badly with fibreglass, which has been full on physical work for him; I have been sanding and painting outdoor furniture. We haven't had the time to fulfil our intentions of simply relaxing and doing nothing. Nothing. Just sitting and reading, or drawing and painting. This weekend we'll have no choice as any journeys we make will be very local.

I think it's bad carma.

I just hope nothing goes wrong now with the bloody bikes!