It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Recently the G.O. asked me for internet search assistance to procure spare parts for his motorcycle project. I realised I’ve been sourcing one thing or another somehow or another since I was fifteen years old. It all began with automotive spare parts at my dad’s garage followed by a couple of work placements he arranged for me at local car dealerships. In the early 1980’s, spare parts interpreting involved thick books with tiny print, microfiche machines and boxes of film, telephones and good repartee.

This recollection segues nicely to Lesson 2 of A Year of Writing to Uncover the Authentic Self course with Rachel Astor via DailyOM on the topic of work, “exploring career (or non-career) choices, mining those experiences for insights and stories”.

Back in the day of my country childhood, career choices were often straightforward: you followed in your family’s footsteps or took what was on offer locally. Strap yourself into my virtual time travel machine and prepare to journey through the years.

1960’s: Despite its parallels with my paternal grandmother’s family trade [their surname was Button and they were private bespoke tailors and seamstresses], long after I embarked upon making my own career choices, I heard a single mention that my mother had worked as a seamstress in a clothing factory. Presumably she left school aged 15 or 16 and it was during those 4 or 5 years before acceding to traditional trajectory of wife and motherhood.

Myself, while having the genes I have no skill with a sewing machine -evidenced by a well-worn family story about Dad doing my high school domestic science sewing homework- although colour and feel of fabric, wool, thread and buttons captivate me to this day.

1971: With an early hint of prescience and possibilities, at seven-years-old I played dress-ups and let’s pretend games on the verandah of my grandparents’ farmhouse, striding its length in the guise of a catwalk model whose alter ego is a secretary tapping at an invisible type writer.

Whereas I dabbled non-professionally during my teenage years modelling for charity fundraiser events and briefly found shopping centre fashion modelling lucrative for interim income after I finally quit country towns to live in the city, it turns out my inclination to the keyboard is what has dependably kept food on my table, connected me via internet with the world and the pleasure of crafting stories. Though not a touch typist, keyboard strokes are as instinctive for me as breathing.

Notwithstanding, the only piece of sound career advice I remember receiving is: “Never admit you can type or cook, or you’ll always be the one who ends up doing it”.

1979: It wasn’t I’d set the bar high, or low, on career aspirations but I simply, really, did not know. Little on offer appealed. Not for me hairdresser or nurse; my local country town high school career advisor’s suggestions should I wish to complete my education at the minimum standard the following year…. beyond then I’d be getting close to settling down. Country town attitudes evolve… at a glacial pace. (See 1960’s above).

Unlike my mother I never fell into motherhood. I’ve been a housewife only part-time and unavoidably… reluctantly covering the “second shift”. Possibly lacking her presence as a maternal mentor but not necessarily. Noteworthy in certain circles but within my family tree missing so many branches, not so unusual.

Until my cousin attended in the mid 1990’s university wasn’t something my family did. On the occasion my final year high school art teacher spoke of a teaching scholarship, despite my affection for an art room and its accoutrements, the prospect of studying and living in the city seemed distant and unrealizable.

1983: The day after my last high school exam, out for dinner with a friend who asked “you can be anything you want, what do you want to be?”. Without giving it a thought, I answered “ordinary”.

The day after the day after my final high school exam, Dad attired in grease-stained overalls arrived home somewhat worse-for-wear via the pub, and as we sat around our kitchen table for my first dinner home after my last day at boarding school, offered up his career advice “you can either be a barmaid or a mechanic”. Given the amount of time during my formative years I spent in his mechanical garage workplaces and preferred after work social venues, I certainly had the background. But no, even though I have an ear for engines apparently inherited from my mechanic-farmer paternal grandfather I didn’t feel the call.

A few years later I did a brief stint moonlighting as barmaid. I didn’t love working busy, loud afterwork Friday nights but I did enjoy slow quiet weekend afternoons keeping the regulars’ glasses filled. Apparently, I was a natural at coaxing a beer from a tap. Nurture or nature, I wonder.

I’d been living at home and helping out at Dad’s mechanical garage in return for bed and board for a month or so, when a few days prior to Christmas Dad said I should go see the man who owned “the bottom servo” [translation: the petrol garage and truck stop restaurant at the southern end of town] as there was a waitress-kitchen job for me. The man’s wife and young family were pleasant people, as were my co-workers and most of the customers, the hours were long [over the festive holiday season I worked double shifts, one twenty-four-hour shift and could barely feel my feet at the end], the pay was low but cash, and the man was repugnant. What he did with a lamb tongue on a plate no-one should have to see.

1984: In the midst of looking for jobs locally, reading Dad’s copy of The Land newspaper, I’d spied an advertisement for a governess position near Three Ways Roadhouse, Tennant Creek in outback Northern Territory, 28 hours/2600 kilometres from home. With all the tact of an eighteen-year-old I announced to Dad during his birthday dinner I’d had a call offering me the job as the first governess hadn’t arrived. Who’d be a parent? For the sake of his own unrealised dreams, he tried to be happy for me but the tears in his eyes told the real story. Three days later the first governess turned up.

Towards the end of my final school year, I’d sat for the State Government public servant exam, and subsequently was offered a role in a western NSW regional area more than a three hour drive away, and where I knew no-one. It looked like I’d be staying close to home, for the time being anyway.

The road to finding employment was bumpy. When there was an entry level role going at a nearby rural bank, both my city banker uncles put in a good word. The local verdict: with my extra two years of education, I was overqualified and unlikely to be satisfied in the role in the long term. The post office took the opposite view: having no experience, I was underqualified.

Much to Dad’s annoyance [I hadn’t bothered to complain about the man or lamb tongue] I ditched waitressing as soon as I had a start date for the clerkship and its attendant Bachelor of Business in Local Government via distance education, my job search efforts finally successful with the shire council in my neighbouring old hometown.

1985: I applied myself to my local government clerkship and much-anticipated university studies and it went well at the beginning. Distance education meant solo weekends reading texts and writing assignments, and two-week intensives on campus at a regional university a three hour drive away, where during university breaks distance students attended lectures and exams, staying in an almost empty share accommodation dorm. Institutionally austere at the best of times… during winter it was bleak, and communal dining was like a return to boarding school food. A fortnight of slog and very little fun: unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.

Many good memories of those times and co-workers who were like family, more so as I shared a flat and friend circle with my IT guru colleague; there was camaraderie and practical jokes, after work social occasions… Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights… sometimes after a few games of social tennis, and on weekends as an offsider in a very small plane for a co-worker who was getting his flying hours up, or supporting local football clubs.

But it’s the bra strap incident which stands out and reminds me no matter how much we enjoyed ourselves we were minions within a parochial and patriarchal bureaucracy… and society. Any sort of intimacy with those of higher socioeconomic status was unwise. Even an innocent occurrence such as an inadvertent show of bra strap whilst staffing the front counter. The unfortunate member of staff had been assisting a man who was an associate of her male superior [all the superiors were male] with an enquiry. It resulted in a formal complaint and harsh reprimand for her lapse of propriety. The unfairness and powerlessness were deeply felt by the rest of us, and by me still to this day.

It was at this time I accepted the offer to moonlight as a barmaid. Instead of partying it meant I was behind the bar being paid, and the rest of my weekends were spent studying. Following the uninspiring winter study sojourn, I’d just settled into my new routine only to encounter the first of the accounting subjects. I’ve never had aptitude nor interest in mathematics, and I struggled with the tedium of it. It coincided also with the progression to a serious relationship with the young man I’d been dating for several months who would go on not-too-much-later to become my first husband. He’d decided to relocate to a larger coal mining town down the valley, and wanted me to go with him. Regardless of the enjoyment of living in my hometown, my work, colleagues and social life, when there was a clerk’s role advertised at its larger shire council where study wasn’t required, the convenient solution was to take it.

1986-1988: My new job didn’t start well. My immediate supervisor, a woman only a few years older than me, disliked me from the get-go. Fruitlessly trying everything reasonable I could think of to get her to like me, I had a brainwave to be effusively pleasant to her which did her head in and started making others question her surly behaviour. Thankfully it resolved itself courtesy of her husband’s coal mining job being transferred to another locality.

That sorted, as before I enjoyed the work, getting to know my colleagues as editor of the staff newsletter, and a similarly busy social life: recently married, both aged twenty my husband and I regularly pursued different social activities prompting my mother-in-law to remark “it doesn’t look right”. However, after about a year, I began to experience health issues. Manageable migraines I’d had occasionally for a few years became severe and almost constant, interspersed with or often accompanied by sinus headaches*. I used all my sick and annual leave days. I can only think this is why a particular senior manager took such an interest, requesting unaccompanied chats in his office, recording them secretly and later using, in an attempt to pressure me into considering my suitability. Thankfully this also was resolved by creative thinking, and a telephone call voicing my concerns to a person -if one was to be eavesdropping- who might be assumed to be a union representative. Later I was told subsequent to the senior manager’s departure, a filing cabinet drawer full of non-actioned paperwork was found in his office.

My working life resumed normalcy. Nonetheless, my husband decided he wanted to relocate to the north coast to pursue a different line of work. Reluctantly I resigned. Except, the plan didn’t pan out. We’d given ourselves a couple of weeks to tidy up loose ends and prepare for the move. He changed his mind a day before we’d arranged to depart.

There was no chance of returning to the council in the short term so I quickly applied for any jobs going, among them a receptionist role at the flashiest hotel [which was actually a motel with bar and restaurant attached] in the same coal mining town.

“Everything is funny, if you can laugh at it” [Lewis Carroll] epitomises how I felt about the almost twelve months I spent alternating day and night shifts in the place. Daytime was run-of-the-mill but night-time in the late 1980’s mining boom era of excess -which not even the 1986 introduction of Fringe Benefits Tax had dampened- was vastly different. It had its upsides: dinner from the restaurant kitchen; there was much activity and the hours between 3 and 11 pm passed quickly; celebrities and important people who visited the region stayed; and the middle-aged manager couple and their small fluffy dog were convivial. Its downside: minimum award rate didn’t remunerate me sufficiently to make up for the flipside experiences of the upsides.

1989: I continued to peruse job ads in local newspapers. Desperation and an attractive starting salary drove me to apply in one instance although less than qualified. Aged 23 I was two years younger than the stipulated age, female and without a shred of industry experience to support my application for Office Manager of the NSW branch of an earthmoving equipment hire company. I talked my way into an interview with the visiting interstate based financial honcho, who decided I’d do. I had no idea what I was getting myself in to. The branch manager turned up a couple of weeks later. He wasn’t particularly pleased to see me as it had been his wife who’d held the interim role while the office was being established. Strange as it sounds, it quickly became apparent he and I had past life karma… and from there things got messier. A recent company takeover had generated tension and smouldering ill-feeling between stakeholders and employees of both parties. The man who appointed me belonged to the new regime and the branch manager belonged to the old. As it eventuated, each regime wanted the other out. I was caught up in the middle.

1990: Wrangling and competing egos, conflict and non-cooperation, dodgy agendas and practices, escalating indications of questionable business activities over the course of the year, along with my problematic personal life prompted me to at last -aged 24- make a long overdue move to the city. Despite change of location, the refrain of my life remained the same… wherever you go there you are. Suffice to say, I had yet to come into my full complement of common sense… and it would take many more years.

A couple of short story-blog posts I wrote a few years ago: when the bough breaks and the long way ’round provide background to this period.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair” [Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities] just about sums it up.

Only the remainder of 1990 through to 2015 of paid working life to tackle for this exercise. Later… much later, I need to park this lesson and move on.

*The sinus headaches stopped after I moved away from the coal mines, and the migraines twenty years later were diagnosed by my GP as mini-strokes, a side-effect of the contraceptive pill I was prescribed aged eighteen to counteract fainting caused by low blood pressure.

In hindsight it’s understandable I couldn’t choose a vocation from the standard offerings of the day. Society of the 1970’s and 1980’s -its work culture markedly- was clinging onto much of the 1950’s and 1960’s ethos. Progress towards a future where: women freely work outside of the home after marriage or choose it instead of; university education; and multiple careers are common, had barely been accomplished. It wasn’t until 2017 the term “multipotentialite” coined by career and life coach Emilie Wapnick appeared in her book How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up.

Even today specific focus evades me, despite decades of diverse employment followed by tree-changing and downshifting our lives from city to country in late 2015, and three and a half years of horticulture and permaculture studies since. Only this I know, over the years I’ve toyed with writing stories and poems, resuming -yet again after a hiatus- early in 2011, venturing into blogging later the same year: equipped with pen, notebook and keyboard, I keep returning to wordcraft.

My affection for spending time in an art room endures… I’ve been making consistently ordinary pottery off and on since primary school. Not the sign of a new vocation, just for the love of mucking around with clay, I’ve signed up for 10 week Fundamentals in Clay course at Phoenix School of Art, Bowraville.


12 thoughts on “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

  1. I think it’s always interesting to hear another person’s story, which often helps to have understanding about who they are and how they came to where they are now. My own evolution was tumultuous and troublesome, but it was the path I took, and I now see that it all worked out splendidly. We have all of the experiences we’re supposed to (my belief) and there is no right or wrong path.

    I loved your words, “Even today specific focus evades me…” because I feel that way myself. Yet we recognize opportunities to shine and rely on what we know, and we entertain openly, what a future endeavor might offer. Dale, your stories are always so interesting and candid. Your thoughts are a comfort to many of us who have wondered about or entertained the very same considerations or reflections. I truly enjoy your writing and photos.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words of appreciation and understanding, and taking the time to read. I truly enjoy reading personal account stories; they more often than not provide a sense of oneness and connectedness… perhaps that’s why I tend to write them too. Similarly for me, it has all worked out splendidly but as I’ve been told more than once… more good luck than good management! I feel too my long-suffering guardian angels have given me sufficient rope to allow freedom of choice but not enough to tangle myself up too much. We recently watched a wilderness reality TV program, in which one of the featured people was asked what his job was. He answered… living.

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  2. It was so interesting to read this Dale. As LittleSunDog says, it gives understanding of the (generous, gentle and understanding) person you are now.
    We like to believe that we are in charge of our own lives, but so much of what we are able to do is determined by circumstances. i always wanted to be a teacher like my Mum, but really there was little option. Later life has told me I would make a terrible nurse. I love the phrase “You can’t be what you can’t see”, and now young girls must be seeing so many more options.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate it very much. What you say is very true, so many options weren’t visible or viable. Such an astute phrase “You can’t be what you can’t see”… Despite being a reader, my exposure to the potential of the wider world was quite narrow… it was the stuff of fiction. And even though I knew people who had moved away, they were considered very Other by those who stayed, and new people with new ideas who came were viewed as equally Other until the status quo assimilated them. I know today’s world isn’t perfect for women young or otherwise but together we are steadily supporting and encouraging progress.

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  3. I am late to comment for a very good reason . . . when I saw your long post arrive and realized there was your story on the page I knew I wanted to read it slowly and thoroughly to understand the writer of the many highly interesting posts I had read since your Sydney days. I am so glad I took the time as so many gaps have been filled and so many questions ofttimes in my head answered including your desire to move to and live in tree-change country. Dale, most sincerely . . . it has been a privilege. For me it has also been an interesting comparison twixt two women, admittedly not quite of the same generation, who needed to look further and wider out than the ofttime woman’s role of school followed by a brief work period and then a lifetime wife and mother scenario. one which as a post-war immigrant girl with a hundred words of English to my name I/we could not accept. Tho’ I indeed was of the female species my darling father,, whose very high-ranking law and military career went totally unrecognized by the Australian Government, went on to manage working six days a week doing overtime with heavy physical labour so I could get my Leaving Certificate and complete six years at the Sydney University to finish medicine. Back in Europe women oft were/are ahead in numbers of men in many faculties . . . thus the differences in how life was looked at and lived by two females even if years apart have been tremendously interesting to read . . . the stages of life which have made us the persons we are . . Speaking of ‘trivialities’ neither of us seems to be a touch typist and both of us manage to get satisfaction out of distance studies . . . am getting a great deal of huge pleasure out of mine . . . . be well and thanks again . . . .

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    1. Thank you for the lovely long comment and kind words. I often have wondered at those affinities that have been suggested from the comments you write both here and on others’ posts within the virtual community we both inhabit. I’m pleased to hear it was of interest to read and also prompted recollection of your own circumstances, stages of life, differences and similarities. I guess it’s part of the reason I like to write -and share- stories, often based on my own experiences, because sharing our stories promotes understanding of our core homogeneity.

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  4. It has taken me a while to read your story, what with various interruptions and limited spare time at the moment, but I’m so glad I did. I agree with Lori that ‘we have all the experiences we’re supposed to’ and I also identify with the Charles Dickens quote with regard to my early adult life. As I look back it seems chaotic, and yet it led me to another country and a life I love so how can I be regretful? With the big conversation of treatment of women here in Australia at the moment, I felt deeply for your workmate and her dismissal. Our daughter was subjected to shocking workplace prejudice as recently as 2012 when she was told (as an HR graduate about to get a Master’s Degree) that she was attractive so she could go sit at the Reception desk. Fortunately she was ‘head-hunted’ at about that time and is now on the senior management team at South Australia Cricket Association and highly respected by her colleagues. The treatment of women is still, sadly, abhorrent. I’m looking forward to seeing what the year of writing yields for you. You certainly have a way with words! xx

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    1. I appreciate you taking the time to read, consider and comment, and your kind & thoughtful response. I believe as I commented to Anne that together we are steadily supporting and encouraging progress… that is all too often hard won and remains still, sadly nowhere the in state it really should be. I put down my work story for my own record but the words are a sign of their times… and so much hasn’t changed since then, your daughter’s experience sadly being common still. The current big conversation around the abhorrent treatment of women disappoints me, as it’s yet another chapter in a chronicle that should have been redundant eons ago.

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