Air ‘Mornings

Air ‘mornings.

As you sit in the workspace, its sometimes there.

That habit which ritualises the start of the day. Unremarked, it can bond a workplace yet at the same time provide a breeding ground for tattle.
It’s the Air ‘Morning.

You know the cheery
“Morning!” said to no one in particular, generally in a corridor between desks, perhaps the corridor lined with woollen sound pads. Does it cause the heads of the already present attendees to raise, even slightly? It’s possible to be more congregationally directed as in,
“Morning all.” Mostly it’s said to the air, not unlike the air kiss, preferred by Europeans and the monied classes. There is, however, a delicacy which should not go unnoticed.

I refer of course to the Air Morning response.

What is the right way to respond to the Air Morning, and even more importantly, the volume?
Three responses are possible.
Firstly the loud, direct response as in,
“Morning Air Morninger”. It’s a toss as to whether this is correct. Clearly an invitation for the Air Morninger to break stride saying
“Morning, Air Morning Responder”, personalizing the otherwise impersonal.
And there’s a trap, the trap of being perceived as being sardonic, too fully acknowledging the Air Morninger, and thereby drawing attention to the arrival, which the “Morning” is calculated to hide.
Secondly the most frequent response is the mumbled “Morning”, with or without head nod, in general direction of the already passed by Air Morninger. It’s a chorus with which an office can resonate, as if each responder is part of a flock calling to a neighbour to establish the flocks safety. Each response timed to ensure that chorusing is not too syncopated, once again ensuring sardonic avoidance.
Finally there’s the very whispered or almost nil response, and this dear friend is the most difficult to achieve. To be able to mumble as if responding when in fact you are not. I’ve tried many versions of this but above all there is a single rule. I am not in the least motivated to say anything, but not to do so risks shunning.
So what’s the secret. Yes I know there have been millions made out of “The Secret”. But this secret is free. Passed on to enable you to avoid the tattle that can come from being seen as a non Morning responder.
This simple strategy will allow you to validate your response and not be taken to task in the tattlers reports of the office PC committee.
The secret?

Be sure that your volume, the volume of whate’er you chose to respond with, is sufficient for your nearest neighbour to hear.




Bowling into work this morning, I wasn’t ready to be confronted. I’d tossed my pullover into my rucksack, intending to wear it should the sun not heat my room.

My room faces east, looking out into the Derwent Valley. Over the Eastern Shore Hills the sun rises at the winter solstice at seven fifty a.m., the solar trajectory arcing right to left, its intensity often blazing my screen in a white out dazzle.

Rather than lower the blind, I track the sun’s rise with a series of transparent Japanese plastic paper binders affixed to the window. Shade just my head, a screen, a paper umbrella. The screening effect is poetic, a rainbow slashing across the sky.

At morning tea I head out to the toot, and come back catching a passing glimpse of my nemesis Dilbert in his cubicle.

My heart sank, his pullover is just like mine. Well not exactly, but one clearly purchased in the same el cheapo department store, Walmart, K-mart, or Target!

How could I now re-enter the general office area I wondered? The inevitable chatter about how we looked like twins, all those comments I don’t want to hear, even worse listen to.

On the public broadcaster over the weekend, I had wondered about the advice on Mindfulness, a technique to still one’s inner beasts. Not through whispering, but by concentration on minutia. A raisin was mentioned as a focal point. Less an object, or mantra, more a mandala. Failing a raisin, on one occasion it’s reported that a Ferrero Rocher chocolate had been pressed into service. The contemplation, the anticipation, the texture, odour, the taste, the colour and on and on were expounded in describing these objects’ auras, and their capacity to calm.

No raisin, no Ferrero Rocher in my office. Think about yours!

The heart palpitations began to quicken, almost audible my chest, and reverberated in my ears. I looked down at my chest taking in the design which Dilbert had somehow stolen.

We both had the diamond shapes, in the cotton/wool blend. Mono coloured black sleeves and back panel, we could have been twins. On the front panel within a larger lozenge framed in mock white patchwork stitches are four diamonds, on point. Two vertical diamonds in grey are joined at their apices and in the shadow of their jointing, black and fawn diamonds are opposed, though alternately. The whole effect is to grant an appearance of larger black and fawn large lozenges running across the face, on a background of grey.

I wondered how the pattern had evolved, resisting the temptation to go see a mirror, but as an exercise, in Mindfulness, it worked for me. Looking deeply into minutia had transformed the moment, leaving me to later deal with this day’s minutiae.

I entered the office at peace, settled.

Reality had dawned when I discovered my pullover was inside out.

Kate Prendergast – Shift da Fokus

Shift da Fokus.

You know you’ve met them. They lurk in community groups, in workplaces, especially at the water cooler. They’re there when you arrive at work, or when you have that tight deadline to meet.

Here’s a snippet of a conversation.

“Did you hear about the [insert a headline from last night’s news], wasn’t that [funny/shocking/awful/deserved], you say.

Response comes back.

“My [cousin/sister/mother, felt/heard/saw] the same [feelings/emotions/pain] when they were in [Seattle/Vanuatu/Toorak/Bridgewater] on holidays [last week/year]

Undaunted, you persevere,” I feel so [sorry/hateful] towards those folk I saw on tee vee; don’t know how they can [cope/get away] with it. We should donate more money, don’t you think?

Waiting for a rejoinder, you kinda expect to hear a continuation of your interrogative, but you work out that you are actually hearing,

“My [son/daughter] was always at me for donations. When we lived out east the bushfires engulfed our home and we relied on donations to get through. The kids were magnificent and …….”, and by now you have tuned out. You suspect the same story is going to be repeated, refined and endured for the rest of the morning. D’oh!

So what is this phenomenon? I call it Shift da Fokus, named in honour of a working colleague of my ex-wife, a teacher at Mont Sant’ Angelo, a large Sydney girls school, whose nickname was Kate shift da Fokus Prendergast. I meet her once, though the stories of her Fokus shifting abilities were legendary. I wondered at the time if it was simply female cattiness amongst her associates, but over the years I have come to recognise these symptoms in many otherwise perfectly respectable folk.

Think of your friends, colleagues, enemies, anyone you come into contact with and see if you too can detect the Fokus shifters amongst us.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have seen them!

Mum and Dad – Two dyings, Two deaths

We gathered around the bed, we had before. But at a different bed. We had gathered in a ward at Princess Alexandra. All families do. Its what makes families, families.

Mum was dying. Her descent had been swift, no longer the feisty, sometimes argumentative lady who had gifted me my outspokenness, quite un-chinaman-like. However, it was defiance my father so disliked. Over several months her decline accelerated, the inevitable process of life moving to death.

I dreaded and at the same time longed for her to be at peace. I had memories stored which were of little use to me now, memories of my father’s passing all those years ago, close to forty.

He too had lain in a hospital bed, resenting being there, wanting to be at home. Walking in there, he’d realized early on that he was not going to walk out. For me at the time, yet to be twenty one, I had no idea. My life full of the promise of bright years to come, never once glimpsed the shadows of the other side. With Mum working, visits to the hospital were squeezed in between college lectures, a commute from the suburbs into town then back home again. It was a very long six months.

Mum too lay there. She had been brought by ambulance from the aged care home. She had taken a turn, and for safety she had been brought in for a check up.

After a visit, within days of my return five hundred miles north to the badlands of the Fitzroy River delta, Mum had been returned to her care home, said to be stable, but it wasn’t so.

The news came to me across the wires, or maybe the airwaves, I can’t now be sure. She had been returned to the hospital, condition pneumonia, situation critical.

I flew. Flew to her beside and the little knot of the family was gathered there.

I hadn’t flown as quickly to Dad’s side, in Melbourne at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

He had become increasingly cranky, had made inexplicable changes to his will, on multiple hospital note pads, his handwriting scrawling yet legible, the letter formation was bolder and rounder than his usual tight cursive script. He held court with a string of visitors, mostly friends, backgrounded in his church, but was at his most magnificent best in front of family. Little was I to know that this theatre was the final production for the family on which I believed I could rely. However, when Dad left this stage, the audience would slowly dissipate. Whilst Dad’s strength came from the extended family he had been brought up in, the strength wilted with his passing. I noted, but never once understood, that he was both pushing and pulling the whole family scene. Like a puppeteer making the performance and at the same time viewing it. All I could see was the flickering puppet shadows on the stretched buffalo skin screen of life. The flickering light provided by Dad’s ebbing energy. When his light died, the show was over.

Time passed more rapidly years later at Mum’s bedside.There wasn’t anything to say to her, from the world we were in, the one she was leaving. For assurance, we stroked her hands and held them. Alive but asleep we watched over her, listening to the shallowest of breathing, each breath somehow more difficult, the breathing which through life we take for granted, now reduced to an effort. For each might well be the last. Wordless between us, it’s the first time her grandchildren had seen death approaching, an inevitable end we all face.

“What are your wishes through the night if there’s an emergency, Mr. Poon” I am asked by the registrar away from Mum’s beside. “Do you wish us to take resuscitation efforts?”

It takes a few moments to grasp the nettle of the registrar’s meaning. My mind engages faster though, thinking “What the fuck, of course, you need to, this is my Mum you are talking about!” But he offers us the chance to go sit and chat it over in a waiting area lined with red vinyl covered lounges.

We sit and talk, or rather I talk and the my children listen. Life comes to this, the best it can be is that those who love you best decide. All those years of hearing accepting and rejecting Mum’s advice comes down to this. Will her training and genetics inform this decision?

In the afternoon of December 23 years before, there were also decisions to be made.  I had arrived to see Dad. None else was there. I looked around at the other patients, propped up in bed or dozing in front of ridiculously elevated televisions. Being a public ward, drawable curtain screens hung by metal loops from stainless steel rails to provide a semblance of visual privacy; the swinging clanking of the loops being drawn, inevitably tuning up one’s ears to tune in on others secret.

We had been saying nothing, but if it was something, it is now nothing.

“Where’s the pan?” he said, his gaunt features taut with the pain of great discomfort. I looked around, in the bottom drawer of the grey metal bedside dresser, then under the bed. Slippers, a dropped handful of tissues, a waste paper bin and two writing pad papers, which I picked up and stuffed in my pocket.

“Can’t see one, Dad”, was all I could offer, “I could go get one from down the hall”

“No, no, no time, hurry, hurry, fi de,” he breathed, the force of the statement stressed in Cantonese.

“Get something, anything! I can’t wait,”

The tissue box atop the dresser seemed ideal. I reefed the few tissues remaining from slit and pinched in the sides of the box to make a cardboard pannikin. Meanwhile Dad had made an attempt to untie his pyjama drawstring and push his pants down. He moved onto his left side facing away from me. I was never prepared for the sight of his emaciated thighs, hips and thigh bones almost visible through his pale yellowing skin. He had not been eating, and unable to exercise he looked as though he had been starving. He was no burden to lift onto the cardboard so that his buttocks were cupped in the cardboard. Somehow I had managed to reef the curtains around. Swish, clatter. The privacy was enveloping. The look of relief on his face was enormous as he relieved himself. The smell overpowering. I used the tissues I had hauled from the box to wipe him clean. A none too thorough job. I extracted the now full tissue box and delicately dropped it into the waste paper bin from under the bed.

Wordlessly I grabbed the bin, and as I looked for the slit in the curtains to exit, an entering nurse showed me where it was,

“0k, I’ll take over now,” she said as I headed for the lavatory with my shit laden bin.

It took some time to work out how to dispose of the cardboard box remnants, all the tissues and then clean up. I felt no shame, though looking back it must have been adrenaline that kept me going.

Adrenaline kicked in as I sat at the PA with the children pondering what to do for Mum, resuscitate or palliate. It’s not the children’s decision, this time, though perhaps being present might steel them for such in the future. Who knows? How do we tell when the hope of life has flown. Comforted in the knowledge that Mum’s lifelong faith had prepared her for this time, I decide, no heroics. No resusitation. It’s a decision the registrar accepts with equanimity, the children leave and I stay to sit at Mum’s bedside through the night.

The lights dim through the whole ward, the staffing changes to the night shift. I draw up another chair in front of mine and rest my feet on it.

I settle in for the night. I prop my hand holding her’s on the bedside. Green and red lights hold or flicker on bed heads, in the darkness to which my eyes become accustomed. My phone lights up, embarrassingly causing my side of Mum’s bed to be illuminated by the unmistakable mobile glow of the text. It reads:

“We support whatever decision you make Dad, Timbi”.

I cry.

Holding Mum’s hand I tell her that I am here, and that it’s ok for her to go. I am intensely aware of my aloneness. I tell her that I will be ok alone, Dad and Jere Shing having already gone ahead. She is breathing more and more shallowly. I can hear her rattling, the fluids winning in the race to be pumped away from her lungs. It’s not easy to hear, but then again we are born after floating in our mother’s womb, lungs filled with liquid, it’s to there my Mum now returns. A final breath and she is gone.

Tears well in my eyes. I am happy for her, sad for me. I sense the emptiness of the world and the coolness creeping through Mum’s body.

As I walked back from disposing of the bin contents and washed up, the curtains were still drawn. I can’t recall if Dad was lying there peacefully, or whether he was already dead? I want to think that he was lying peacefully and that sometime after I came back he died as I watched over him. Or maybe I did and I can’t now recall, but why? Perhaps it was that he was already dead and that to make sense of my guilt I conveniently forget or scramble? These are not easy thoughts.

What remains, is sitting there and pondering, for an unknown time, realizing the burden of responsibility I felt, my Mum and my brother. Years to be lived in Dad’s shadow. A nurse comes after sometime and I tell her that I think my Dad is dead. She confirms he is, and after time to compose myself, Dad’s body is taken away, and I leave.

A nurse and I clean Mum’s body and change the sheets. I ring her grandchildren, and in the dead of night, they come to spend time with their Ah Ma for the last time. We leave before Mum’s body is taken from the ward.

Auntie Alma – The Visit

Seeing Alma

Lying there, she glances up at the voice, startles then stares. A smile creases the corners of her mouth, her greying eyes question. She lies in the third bed set sideways across the right side of the entry from the cluttered corridor. Attempts at personalizing the place in the hallway have failed.
On the white wall above the bed and the ledge before the window knickknacks and pictures tell a jumbled story.
“Hello, Aunty” I say, ” It’s Jere Chee, come to say hello, see how you’re getting on.”
“I know who you are” she retorts, with a mild rebuke.
I feel comforted to at least be known. I wonder why, but the thought passes almost as it forms. It will take some thinking to resolve why it is that we need to known, and by whom.
“I’m in Tasmania now, working with the health department” I offer, realizing that as I say this it’s totally irrelevant. What is relevant in such a moment? We hold hands, her’s much warmer than mine. She looks at me, I at her, and in that exchange the words form slowly,
“You have a brother don’t you?” she asks. I rock back a little thinking about my brother, dead all these years.
“Yes” I say, and before she asks where he might be I go on,
“He’s passed away,” and on my fingers I try to count the years. I come to a handful of fingers, reminding myself that any years past yesterday aren’t relevant.
“Yes, sometime ago, he was younger than Chris” I say.
Chris doesn’t seem to come to her mind. If he does she shows no cognition. Both my brother Jeff and Chris, her son, suffered mental illness.
On top of items laying on the dresser I see a pink visitors book, where folk coming to visit can write about their conversations for Aunty to read about later. She reads avidly and without glasses, an accomplishment at ninety seven
“How long have you been wearing glasses?” she asks. All I can offer is that it’s been a long time, since I was a teenager.
“So how old are you?” she queries.
“Sixty two” I say, “Getting old” with a slight laugh added.
“I’m ninety” she replies and maybe just maybe there’s a hint of …. Well how do I describe that hint. I know she’s not ninety, but then again dare I contradict her? Is it a naughty ninety? The ninety of a lady who knows she’s older but teasingly admits to being younger? Or is it the ninety of someone who’s making conversation, a place to start talking and engage? The polite ninety, the cocktail ninety?
I wonder how to find out what Aunties exact age is, maybe ask the staff? Slowly I realize that the ninety is not what matters, it’s the chance to open a conversation. We look at each other, I wonder what she is seeing, I wonder if I am disappearing into my father’s image in her eyes, the way in my eyes she is dissolving into my mum. Her skin, the sun grey scaled blotches, the sun wrinkles of the years, the duller eye lights which sparkle, when the the electricity of memory powers a cheeky twinkle. I see it, as we sit and let our memories wash over us.
I reach for the pink book and write. Strangely I write about me and want to write otherwise. Isn’t this the time to write something significant, but it’s for Aunty and for her to read later to recall something which will seem fresh when she reads it in the days ahead. It won’t be remembered longer than it takes to read, but for the moments the words echo between optics and understanding I will be there after I take my leave.
“I’m off, Aunty, I’ll see you tomorrow”
A strange thing to say really, I could come tomorrow but how will I? Does it make it ok that she won’t know if I do or not. Did I say it to myself?
A kiss and a long hug, but I am left wondering.