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.
“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.