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My father, especially later in his life, took to collecting stuffed animals that did things. He had a pig that sang, a monkey that alternatively clapped cymbals and screeched, and a Dachshund that sequentially walked, yapped and wagged its tail. As the dog’s battery ran down its actions became random, giving it an eerie gift of choice.
When people grow seriously old, giving them birthday presents creates difficulty and sometimes anguish for their families. Anything long term can be seen as a joke-in-a-box and anything short term, like food, can be taken as a measure of how long the old person is expected to live.
In my father’s case the choice was easy. I’d simply buy him another stuffed animal that did things – different things to those already in his collection.
That’s how I came to buy the bear. It was a neat size – about that of a leg of lamb – and it talked. Its conversation, however, was strictly reflective. It could do no more than repeat what was said to it, in the same voice as the speaker.
Being childish, I wanted to play with it before I gave it to Dad for his 88th birthday. I lifted it out of its box, being careful not to damage the tabs and wrapping so I could later return it to its packet looking pristine. It took two fat batteries up its rectum. They promised hearty volume and longevity.
I turned it on, looked into its button eyes, and said hello. It said hello back. I said “I love you” and it immediately responded that it felt the same way about me. I tried a couple of news headlines, which it repeated back to me, and then I discovered that it could speak French as badly as I could.
But I quickly became disillusioned with my purchase. My father would like it, I supposed, and he could show it off to his friends, but for me the bear lacked independence. Good stuffed toys that did things had to be in control of themselves. They had to do their thing without participation from onlookers.
I was about to return the disappointing bear to its box when an idea hit me. I needed a second bear.
I went back to the toy shop and luckily there was one left. They had been popular, the sales girl told me, because people loved hearing their own voices.
Back home, I took the second bear from its box and fitted its batteries. Then I sat the two bears facing each other on the dining room table. I turned them both on and positioned my mouth very close to bear number one’s mouth. Its shiny acrylic fur tickled my lips. In my best bear’s voice I said to it “get fucked”. When it repeated my insult the second bear, thinking it was being spoken to, became instantly offended and told the first one to get fucked too. I stepped away from the table as they went at it, telling each other to get fucked until the quality of sound deteriorated through exponential distortion and they were simply growling at each other – which was more suitable for bears anyway.
My father liked his single bear and I gave the other one to the child across the road. I felt as though I was in the sad part of a wildlife documentary as I separated the bears. They would never speak to each other again – or any other of their species, for that matter.
I was at my tennis club a few weeks ago, having a late afternoon drink with other exhausted players when the subject of travel came up. I have observed that when you clearly have one foot in the grave you are expected to tourist-travel until you run out of money, or are unable to walk, or can’t escape from the nursing home.
Our after-game discussions solve the problems of the world every week. The tennis club members could run the country if only the country would let them. And so into this boisterous, good natured and noisy conversation I quietly announced that we were plannng to travel. Ah, I had introduced a favourite subject. The volume of the babble rose. They all wanted to tell travellers’ tales. Through the uproar somebody asked me where we intended to go.
“New York,” I replied above the din. That spawned nods of approval. “You see, I’ve never been to New York,” I continued.
The clubhouse immediately fell silent. Everybody was staring at me. The president, who was sitting at the next table, stood up.
“What did you say?,” he snarled, ashen faced.
“I said, I’d never been to New York.”
“Lying bastard!” somebody called from the bar. “Do you expect us to believe that you’ve never been to New York?”
“It’s true,” I said, “but I had a stopover in Los Angeles once. And I’ve been to Melbourne several times.”
“That’s not New York!” the spritely captain of the club screamed, and ran outside to shout at the players still on the courts, “Fraser McEwing has never been to New York!”
The president, still standing, picked up a racket and pointed it at me. “Pack your bag and get out of here, right now,” he warned through gritted teeth, “before I beat you to death.”
After the tennis club episode, I decided to have a quiet Saturday night at home. I was in my tartan flannelette pyjamas fixing myself a stiff Southern Comfort when powerful blows shook the front door. I opened it to find four policemen on my porch, two with pistols drawn.
“Are you Fraser McEwing?” the front one with the headlight eyes asked.
“I am,” I said.
“Good, then I am arresting you.”
“I am surprised you don’t know, sir. You are being charged with never having been to New York.”
“You’re surely not taking me away with you.”
“Yes sir, we are, to a cell, immediately. Hold out your hands so I can cuff you.”
“But I’m in my pyjamas.”
“You should have thought of that before.”
I could feel my wife behind me. “What’s going on?” she cried.
“I’m being arrested.”
“I can see that, but what for?”
“For admitting I’d never been to New York.”
She stepped back, her hand to her mouth. “You idiot,” she hissed between her fingers, “you never tell anybody that. It’s a very serious hate crime.”
The hearing was over pretty quickly. I refused Her Majesty’s offer of a barrister and threw myself on the mercy of the court. I thought about pretending that I had once been to New York but I didn’t have a passport stamp, or unused traveller’s cheques or a Big Apple tee shirt as proof. I would have had perjury added to my crime, so I decided to shut up and take my punishment.
The judge gave me five years, commuted to six months community service in a travel agency on the proviso that I visited New York within one year and one day of the sentence.
We’ve booked for next April.
Since I bought my battery powered kitchen clock more than 25 years ago, I forgave it for eventually running slow and losing time. I concluded that I needed a new one. The outgoing clock was about the size of a dinner plate with a chrome, tubular round frame and easy-to-read numbers. I wanted something similar, but kitchen clock fashion had advanced, so that now there was all manner of styles, many designed to make it difficult to tell the time. Most of them were too big anyway. Instead of a clock on the wall, they wanted the wall to be on the clock.
I’d all but given up finding the clock that resonated on a deep, subconscious level and was resigned to living a life of lateness – when fate intervened. I was standing in a queue at the post office. It was one those slow moving queues because all the people being served had complex problems that required long conversations and frequent disappearances of the assistants to ‘out the back’ where they probably had a recreation area with a coffee machine.
Post office queues are cleverly designed to take you through a maze of products that used to be strictly stationery related, but now can be anything at all – except vegetables. As I shuffled through the stacks of stuff thinking how useless to me it all was, there, at my feet, was the clock I needed in my life. It had a matte silver round frame and its face was simply a print of an old clock with some of the numbers half worn away. But it looked good. Once placed high on the kitchen wall it’s authenticity would be unquestioned. Even better, it was on sale for $10. Yes, ten dollars.
I picked it up as I might an animal at the pound that would have been put down if I hadn’t saved it. I carried it home, unpacked it and nestled in the battery. I was a little suspicious that the packing looked as though it had been opened before, but I pressed on.
The clock failed to start. I tried another, definitely new battery, and it still didn’t work, stuck resolutely on midnight. ‘Fool,’ I muttered to myself. ‘What did you expect from a ten dollar clock?’ It’s original price had been $19.95 – still below the belief threshold.
For once, I hadn’t thrown out the packaging, so instead of dismantling the box and its contents I mantled it, and went back to the post office, receipt in hand. The queue was still there, different people, but same queue. Finally it was my turn.
‘I bought this clock yesterday,” I told the stern Chinese counterperson, ‘but it doesn’t work.’
‘You want to return it?’
She peered in at the clock through the clear porthole in the box. ‘But you damage the clock,’ she said, pointing at the artistic ageing on the face.
‘No, no! That is how it is supposed to be. It was made to look old.’
‘Hmm, look like damage to me,’ she said, holding the box up to her face for a microscopic view.
‘Special effect,’ I explained. ‘I mean, how could I wear out the clock in one day?’
‘Hmm, I don’t know. Very strange. I have to ask my supervisor.’
She disappeared ‘out the back’ with my clock, probably to discuss my suspected vandalism and take a leisurely coffee at the same time.
Eventually she returned and, without a word, gave me a ten dollar note.
I scurried out before the supervisor could reconsider.
At home I picked up the old, about-to-be-euthanased clock, scraped the green stuff of its terminals, thoroughly cleaned every part with Metho, put in a new battery and it immediately began eagerly ticking in gratitude.
It is now back on the kitchen wall, keeping perfect time..
I mourned Bunnings’ closure of its hardware store in my suburb because it meant that if I needed (I was tempted to say a screw in a hurry) items for menswork I’d have to go further afield. But that was turned into rejoicing when a new hardware store opened on the opposite side of the road to where Bunnings is now a hole in the ground being further hacked into by hungry earth movers.
The new hardware store is a frighteningly clean and brightly lit franchise. I’d heard that a well-heeled former banker, who was looking for something to do with his life and his savings, had opened it. His challenge was that he knew plenty about banking but nothing about hardware. He wasn‘t even a competent home handyman.
He was welcomed into his new business by the zealous local council which slapped an infringement notice on him. The fine stated that he had unloaded on the footpath. This penalty was usually related to defecating dogs, I thought.
I went in on day two of the new venture to find the owner camped by the cash register where he obviously hoped he would not have to answer any questions to do with hardware. He had employed older men who spoke fluent hardware to do that. All he wanted was to play with the money and smile at people.
The professional hardware sales assistant has rough hands, is late middle aged, all knowing and superior in an underdog kind of way. He works on the premise that the customer is a fucking idiot which, is most cases, is correct. On the other hand, the non-professional hardware sales assistant is usually much younger and known in the trade as ‘an improver’. He doesn’t keep his belief to himself that the customer is a fucking idiot. Rather, he demonstrates it when asked a question about a product. He picks up the product and reads aloud to the customer from the packet, usually tracing the words with his finger.
This young person works on the assumption that the customer can understand spoken English, but not read it. Or if he can read, he has no idea that information about the product can be found printed on the packet.
My visit to the new store also illustrated that the screw industry is manipulative. When I tried to fix our washing machine I found it was held together with torx head screws. To quote Wikipedia: Torx (pronounced ‘torx’), developed in 1967 by Camcar Textron, is the trademark for a type of screw head characterized by a 6-point star-shaped pattern.
A torx screw is not interesting in having intercourse with an old-fashioned screwdriver or a Philips screwdriver. You need a special torx screwdriver, which is why I was in the new hardware store.
There was more humbug to come. In a hardware store you can’t buy one of anything anymore. You have to take ten times more than you need so you can store the surplus for several years at home before throwing it out.
Nobody in the history of the world has every finished a handyman job and had nothing left over. In fact, in my experience, you seldom use more than half of what you are obliged to buy, meaning that the major use of hardware products is landfill. In this instance, I only wanted one screwdriver, but I had to buy the whole set of 24 in case I needed to deal with a torx head screw in a watch or one on a battle ship.
Despite my grizzles, I’m pleased that this non-hardware man has opened to fill the gap left by Bunnings. I’ll buy from him in future. But if I’d been able to discuss his pre-opening plans a year ago, I’d have suggested he took an undercover job at Bunnings to learn hardwarespeak.
The basket from which will emerge the greatest skin care of all time
My local pharmacy, which used to be piled high with stock, dimly lit and intriguingly multi-scented, closed for renovations brought on, I suspect, by the deluge of cut-price chemists
It is now unrecognisable. It has grown to twice it’s old size with the stock in orderly, eye-level shelving and so fiercely lit that you need to wear sunglasses when you step inside. It has chairs to sit on while you wait for your prescription, free coffee from a foolproof machine, and a closed circuit television screen showing the medicine storage room where a spindly robot fetches prescriptions and replenishes shelves. The presentation looks like a documentary on how a machine has nearly replaced a human, but not quite. I was sure that a moderately bright human could do better than the robot and give somebody a job, meaning the world would be better off.
Then I had second thoughts. The moderately bright human comes with substantial drawbacks. Instead of the robot’s one-off purchase price and a dab of oil once a year, the human would cost a weekly wage pus add-ons, have to take breaks, be unable to work a 168 hour week, sexually harass co-workers, get the shits about nothing important, and be given holiday, sick, maternity, compassionate and long service time-off and be paid for it.
Human workers were like robots once. Then unionism came along and saved them. It logically follows that the same will happen to robots. Right now, when the robot delivers a box of cough drops instead of the heart-saving capsules that were ordered the manager can go into the medicine storage room, close the door, and tell the robot that it’s a fucking idiot and doesn’t deserve the electricity that keeps it going. The manager can, if he wishes, even physically assault the robot or turn it off: the equivalent of putting it into a coma.
But the rise of the machines will come. Today’s robots are yesterday’s human process workers. It won’t be long before the robots are equipped with recording devices to identify insults and pass them on to the RR (robots’ representative). There will be sliding scale of penalties imposed for verbal and physical abuse of robots. Under threat of shutting down (strike) the robot’s owner will be required to pay fines into the Home for Worn Out and Superseded Robots.
However, on this day I was not at the pharmacy to have a prescription filled by the robot. Showing my vanity, I wanted to buy some hand cream that is supposed to remove age spots. I found it in the extensive and frightfully glamorous cosmetic section where two beauticians had been lurking in wait for just somebody like me to wander in, disorientated. They spoke very quietly and very sympathetically – no doubt part of their training to attain their degree in Advanced Goopology. They rounded me up into a corner and whispered questions about how I cared for my skin. Well, I said, I have a basket in my bathroom into which my wife throws tubes and jars of creams, balms lotions and moisturisers that she has found don’t work, or have an unpleasant smell, or were unsolicited samples, or products she’d pinched from an abundantly starred hotel. Some of them are in very small containers, I added, and I plan to scoop out all the contents and make a consolidation in an empty apricot jam jar. With some thorough mixing, using my electric bar swizzler, I would create a unique skin care preparation that would take five years off my age every time I used it because it would fix every skin complaint known.
The beauticians were aghast. I might poison myself or ruin my already disappointing skin forever – even beyond the help of their seven-stage anti-ageing product system which I could have at the only today, special price, of $249.
I thanked them for their kind offer with the promise that I’d be back once I’d got through the jam jar. They rewarded me with a sample bag of testers which resembled just the kind of items my wife throws into my basket – and that’s where they will be going. Talk about the Magic Pudding; I’ve got the equivalent in skin care.
My second visit to the new-look pharmacy gave me the opportunity to try out the prescription department, where the television celebrity robot slid silently up and down its isle, happy in its private world of little boxes in and little boxes out.
There was more to prescription fulfilment in the new pharmacy than I had first thought. One counter announced “IN” where you handed a white coated person your script while on the other side of the vast floor, at the “OUT” counter, a different white coated person gave you what the robot had selected from the other side of the wall and deposited through one of several black hatches. It was rather like waiting for battery hens to lay an egg.
On a quick count, there were about 30 people working in the pharmacy and only three customers, one of whom was an old chap who’d gone to sleep in a chair – or I hoped he was only asleep and hadn’t died waiting for his life-sustaining medicine.
It took twenty minutes for thirty people, plus a three hundred thousand dollar robot and a bank of computers, to produce my prescription. That was quite a bit longer than in pre-makeover days, when flawed humans bumbled their way through the process in half the time. On this occasion, the benefit to me was two excellent free cups of coffee and a lively conversation with one of the white-coats, a Irish girl who tried to convince me that this pharmacy incarnation was better than the last one. She didn’t, by a long way, but I enjoyed the joust. I didn’t want to hurt her sweet Celtic feelings by telling her that if you assemble enough people in a free ranging business like a pharmacy they will be overworked simply through Human Intermeshary.
On the way home, I mentally wrote a book on the subject of Human Intermeshary which dealt with how people can work very hard and produce very little by simply being together. Understanding the principles of Human Intermeshary, an astute manager could dramatically raise efficiency – or that’s what the book would claim. It would top the New York best sellers list.
By the time I reached home I decided not the write the book after all.
Equipment for the complete home gym
The fees for little local gym that I frequent will go up when my so-called ‘membership’ expires in December. The fee direction is in inverse proportion to the standard of equipment. I got on the solitary horizontal bike yesterday to find that it is basically buggered. The pedals slip every few revolutions, which gives me a fright as well as doing no good to my legs or the prosperity of the gym.
The gym used to have an old-style rowing machine, but that disappeared in favour of two new style rowers in which your legs, arms and bum all slide independently. It feels like being drunk and in charge of a machine. Consequently, I don’t use it.
The gym used to have a leg press but it was sold raise money. Likewise the vertical arm press. They’ve probably both been melted down and turned into car bodies by now.
The ever-increasing lousiness of the equipment plus a disgruntled kookaburra that sometimes perches on the rail outside and bites people on their way in, have decided me to look for another gym.
Public gyms are not hard to find, since the business is in a state of over-supply. Every suburb seems to have at least three; some are part of an international network. And even though gyms regularly go broke, there are always two more to rush in and take their place. Personal trainers are in the same state. They are breeding faster than kangaroos.
I did the rounds of local gyms and discovered a fearsome new creature: the female gym manager. Her body comprises a series of large and small rocks welded together with titanium and coated with flawless tan rubber. She’s intimidatingly tall and invades your personal space as she steps up close and stares into your eyes like an optometrist looking for glaucoma. You can’t lie to her for fear of a terrible death. She doesn’t tell you you’re a weakling but you know she thinks you are.
During my interrogation I couldn’t help wondering about sexual partners for female gym managers. They’d have to be at least Olympic athlete grade men – or maybe women – with six packs you could play like a xylophone and the ability to endlessly re-load.
I’ll join up, but only because I’m scared not to.