Taking a Dump

Dump. It’s a simple word, isn’t it? Whether noun or verb, it’s wholly descriptive and the meaning is clear. Not sure? Look it up. But at some point in its otherwise inoffensive history, that meaning was extended (twice over) to include not only the ridding of a person, but also the expulsion of human waste. ‘Just gunna take a dump.’ Used so often it’s almost a catchcry, all who hear it understand the speaker’s intent. Glances are exchanged, a few brows furrow and the announcement is mentally filed under Ew! TMI! Is it a peculiarly Australian idiom? I don’t know. But having grown up here, it’s easy to appreciate the symbolism — when it comes to dumping, a person can be (and often is) accorded the same disdain with which one might regard a piece of shit.

We’ve all been there: the noisy playground filled with energy and spite, kids laughing and crying, rushing and huddling, pushing and shoving, bitching and arguing. And amid all that tumult a single voice still manages to be heard, from fenceline to dingy brick building, even carrying across playing fields and through closed doors to the inner sanctum of the toilet block: ‘You’re DUMPED!’

Oh, the humiliation! The noise mutes to a startled silence, before curiosity kick-starts a murmuring, a muttering, a windy whisper: ‘Dumped? Who’s dumped?’ And all heads crane to see. The Dumper, backed by a gang of supporters, is cross-armed, defiant and always triumphant; the Dumpee stands dejected and alone, the focus of pointing fingers and smirky smiles, before bursting into tears and running off to sob in a quiet corner. Yes, we’ve all been there. And we all know there’s no easy way to take a good dumping.

I was always the Dumpee. At least at school. Of course I learned my lessons well, and applied them in later years with all the gleeful aplomb of a master Dumper. But at school I suffered. Even now I can recall the ignominy of being rejected in fifth grade by Cyril. [No, that wasn’t his real name. Had it been his real name, no such ignominy would’ve transpired. It’s rare — though not impossible — for a Cyril to be hailed as the school stud.]

It goes without saying Cyril had a girlfriend: Ethel, the school babe. The two of them would saunter and strut together, lip-locked and holding hands. And it was fitting that they paraded their youthful (if somewhat overt) sexuality before us lesser beings while we sighed our approval in their wake; they did make a fabulous couple. As only fifth-graders can.

But one day there was a falling-out; a faint rumbling in the Heavens, and Ethel was cast down. Not dumped, per se, but put aside, ‘on hold’ if you like. Punished. Except, being merely mortal and just a little desperate to be adored, I wasn’t attuned to the playful antics of such demi-gods. So when Cyril, with a casual crook of his finger, a head flick and a lazy smile, summoned me over and told me I was ‘next’, I took him at his word. For four glorious days Cyril held my hand, locked his lips to mine instead of Ethel’s and I heard the approving sighs as we floated among the less fortunate. But Ethel didn’t sigh. Nor did her cohort. And on the fifth morning, when I bounded into the school playground with unleashed-puppy eagerness and saw her once again restored to her rightful place, I stared, miserable, while Ethel and Cyril and their hangers-on all sniggered.

‘Oh yeah,’ Cyril told me, with as much concern as he might’ve paid to an untied shoelace. ‘You’re dumped.’

There it was. I’d been rejected. Ejected. Dumped and wiped and flushed. Like shit.

Nope. Even then, aged ten, the symbolism wasn’t lost on me.

Jane Abbott   

Unnatural Selection

Melbourne Cup‘ The race that stops a nation.’ It’s a big claim by Racing Victoria, but is it really true?

Since its inception, and not even halted by two World Wars, the Melbourne Cup has been embraced with increasing gusto by every generation of Australians. But at some point during the 70s and 80s — when work was just a place you visited five days a week to fill in time and lunches were spent downing beers at the local pub — our attitude to (and love of) the race began a slow transformation into something much uglier.

Those heady decades leading up to Black Monday were a time of enormous wealth generated largely by a booming resource industry; a time when entrepreneurs like Alan Bond were showing the rest of us how they lived large in the ‘wild West’. A precedent was set and celebrating the Melbourne Cup ever more excessively became the new Australian way, the thing to do, iconic and culturally fitting.

Then, on the first Tuesday of each November, offices around the country would close for business from mid-morning. Old box televisions were wheeled into board rooms, canapés and flutes of French champagne were passed around with largesse by ruddy-faced directors, and there were always at least five sweeps on the go in any one place, giving every tipsy worker a fair chance of scooping enough cash with which to celebrate later. For those few hours, corporate tiers were torn down, bosses mingling (usually in more ways than one) with employees, the reception desk abandoned and the switchboard turned off — all for the sake of a three-minute horse race. What other nation on earth would dare to slow its production wheels for such a silly thing?

But if the race managed to grind too-rich corporations to a halt, there were plenty of industries that didn’t — couldn’t — stop to partake: teachers, doctors and nurses, emergency services, transport workers and the like. The adage that the Melbourne Cup ‘stops a nation’ didn’t then — and doesn’t now — bear scrutiny. How could it? But it’s a great marketing gimmick, and one that Racing Victoria clings to.

Even the most extreme measure taken by Victoria — declaring Melbourne Cup day a public holiday — hasn’t proved the claim true. In a number of regional centres it’s business as usual; they celebrate their own spring racing carnivals (Kyneton Cup) and they’ll take their holiday when it suits, thank you very much. Most Melburnians decide, since Tuesday’s already a holiday, they might as well bunk off on the Monday off too, so it becomes the longest of long weekends. A chance to get away. Race? What race? And for those Victorians who do give a damn; who plan a modest get-together of their own — the men tapping in online bets and beering it up around the BBQ while, in the kitchen (yes, even in 2014), women peel cling film from bowls of salads and supervise hordes of children — it no longer holds the same appeal. Because, just as it’s been for the last 40 years, celebrating the Melbourne Cup isn’t about watching a race. It’s about over-indulging and skiving off work. And when you’re already off work, what’s left to celebrate?

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Flemington main stand, 2013 Melbourne Cup by Jupiter Firelyte via Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, unless we ignore the race altogether, what else can Victorians do except attend the bloody thing?

So we do. In droves. Every year the numbers increase (over 104,000 in 2013) and one could be forgiven for thinking the enforced holiday nothing more than a clever money-spinning ploy. But there’s no denying that for many who frock up and flock to Flemington for the big day (or the whole week: 331,196 last year), the Melbourne Cup remains a high point on the social calendar. And it celebrates everything that’s wonderful, as well as all that is truly awful, about our society.

It’s about selection – the fastest horses, the best-dressed race-goers, the most expensive foods and wines, the most coveted of tents — the rich, the powerful, celebrities and dignitaries alike, all choppered and chauffeured to the track and separated by affordability and popularity from the untidy masses who collect on the concourse. It’s as much about selection as it is about rejection, and it isn’t hailed ‘the sport of kings’ for nothing. Charles Darwin, if he were alive today, might be more than a little bemused by the spectacle.

Because there’s nothing natural about the Melbourne Cup. It has become a day of wanton excess. A day where twenty-four of the world’s most thoroughly-bred and genetically engineered horses compete for brief accolade, and their owners and trainers compete for huge prize-money.

2013_Myer_Fashions_on_the_Field_(10705584675)

2013 Myer Fashions on the Field by Chris Phutully via Wikimedia Commons

It’s about breeding, and not just on the track. It’s about who’s-who and what’s-what and where to be as well as how best to be seen. It’s about gambling, about squandering that last fiver or throwing down another five hundred — because let’s face it, so many there can afford to — on a whispered tip. It’s a day that heralds every extravagance and every hope and every desperate dream. It’s a race that’s less about the majesty of the horse — its power, its grace, its extraordinary stamina — or the skill of the jockey, and more about a multi billion-dollar industry.

While it can be argued that the Melbourne Cup generates huge profits for all involved in organising and running the event (no, they don’t ‘stop’ either) and helps fill government coffers, it’s not all pretty.

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2007 Melbourne Cup race day – English import Bay Story put down after crash with Bling Bling in Race 3. Via Brisbane Times

It’s been impossible (for me, at least) to find any records stating the exact number of horses that have had to be euthanased as a result of injuries sustained on Melbourne Cup race day. Racing Victoria guards such statistics zealously. And this year, much has been made of the legal wrangle between the racing industry and The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses, when the latter erected a billboard depicting a dead racehorse over one of Melbourne’s busiest tollways. (It’s since been removed). Add to this any number of horror stories about what happens to these magnificent animals once their use — their money-raking days — are over.

melbourne-cup-2009 -3But there are other horror stories too, the derisive kind, those that mock ridiculous fashion and excessive drinking and spending, and next-day’s tabloids are filled with pictures of the plastered and the poorly attired and all the mess they’ve left behind. And for us Melburnians who have ignored it — who’ve escaped the city and are returning from our long long-weekend — there’s the after-race spectacle to endure as dishevelled, panda-eyed girls totter and weave their way home, while already drunk race-goers decide it’d be a ‘great idea, mate!’ to continue their carousing, crowding pubs and clubs before vomiting and defecating on street corners. Yep, it’s a glorious day for all.

So wherever you are tomorrow, if you’re watching, make sure you savour every second of those three minutes. After all, ‘the race that stops a nation’ is the real reason you’re there. Isn’t it?

Jane Abbott   

Happy Halloween, Australia

Halloween-picQ: I moved house a few months ago, and I’ve been enjoying my new neighbourhood. That is, until last week when I found a note in my letterbox asking me to put a couple of orange stickers (supplied with the note) on my gate so I can join in Halloween celebrations. I don’t even have kids! And isn’t Halloween an American thing? I don’t want to upset the locals and be the only one not participating. What should I do?

Spooked, VIC     

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A: Is there anything more un-Australian than our adoption of a not-even-American festival that’s been plucked from the depths of pre-medieval history to become a sugar-hyped free-for-all? Probably not. Yet, since none of us have any real clue what it is to be Australian (and without any re-worked traditions of our own), what else can we do but tag along? (It could be argued that has become our tradition.) But don’t worry because it’s hardly the same thing at all.

Cotton wool strung between ragged gum trees, badly carved fly-buzzed pumpkins perched on picket fence posts, unlit lanterns thrashing in a hot wind, sweaty little monsters swathed in metres of bed sheets — no, it doesn’t resemble anything close to Halloween. Here (thanks to a little thing called geography, and a not-so-little thing known as daylight savings) it’s celebrated under a scorching sun. No spookiness, no ghosts or goblins, no haunting shadows cast by flickering orange-tinged candlelight, no screams of delight or even fear. It’s nothing more than tiny gangs of over-excited and already over-fed children shepherded by over-indulgent parents, who trudge from orange-stickered house to orange-stickered house hoping to snag a few freebies. And where’s the harm in that?

Many years ago, my mother — a schoolteacher who, by the end of every day was utterly fed up with children of all ages and sizes (including her own) — opened the door to a trio of brave trick-or-treaters. After they’d made their demands, she yelled, ‘This is not America!’ and promptly slammed the door shut. I don’t know who was more shocked, and I was still too young to realise the erroneousness of her statement. Australia may not yet be America, but by God we’re trying our hardest.

So take heart and suck it up. Put those little orange stickers on your front gate – hell, paint the whole thing orange; grab a few pumpkins and relieve your frustrations with the biggest knife you have; buy kilos of chocolate (the cheap kind) so by the time the little darlings get home it’s melted to brown goo; pull a sheet off your bed and wrap yourself in it — not toga-like, of course; this isn’t a Roman orgy. And when you open your door to their sing-song voices and their cherubic smiles, smile back and thank all that is Australian that we haven’t (yet) adopted more outlandish traditions.

If there’s any consolation to be found, it’s this: you may never fully embrace or even enjoy Halloween, but you can be sure your role as the Grinch in upcoming neighbourhood Christmas festivities is already firmly established.

Jane Abbott   

 

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Name Tag Etiquette

Confused name tagQ: I recently attended an industry function where we were all made to wear name tags. Mine had a faulty clip and kept falling off. When I took it back to the registration desk they said they had no spares but still insisted I had to have one and wrote my name on a sticky label instead. Now my silk shirt has a horrible rectangular stain; even dry-cleaning hasn’t been able to remove it. What’s the best way to get out of wearing one next time?

Branded, VIC


A: Name tags are pesky things. As if walking into a room filled with three hundred people you don’t know isn’t daunting enough, you’re immediately presented with a far more practical dilemma: how to affix your tag one-handedly because your nervousness has prompted you to seize a too-early drink from a passing waiter.

Now, instead of entering with rehearsed confidence, you’re forced to shuffle in with bowed head, fondling your left breast while you press an already bespattered, wrinkled and too-sticky label to uncooperative material. Clips are worse because unless you have a neck like a giraffe (and a nearby table on which to set down your glass) it’s impossible to align the tag, and everyone has to spend the next four hours with heads tilted to an uncomfortable twenty-degrees just to decipher your name. Pins prick tender flesh, bringing tears, (as well as a sharp reminder of why you opted not to get that nipple ring) and tags dangling from lanyards are no good either; threatening to choke, they twist and tangle and are forever grazing bowls of congealed taramasalata.

No, there’s no easy way to deal with a name tag. But they are useful, not least because they provide no excuse for the very forgetful. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name,’ is never heard at a tagged function.

Name tags are the ultimate icebreaker. As graceless as your attempt was to fix the tag (and, later, the label) to your silk shirt, you can be sure everyone else in the room has just wrestled with the same problem, and many a wet-chested, taramasalata-smeared conversation has opened with some kind of tag disparagement.

But for subversives, there are plenty of ways to show disapproval and mess with a name tag. Be creative. Let loose. Imagination over convention, I say. Alternatively, you could pocket the damned thing and encourage the fading art of good old-fashioned introductions. You might be surprised how quickly it trends.

Jane Abbott   

Prepare for Unauthorised Entries

partyWriting a story is a bit like throwing a party. If you’re a plotter, odds are you’re also a planner, the date chosen well in advance with plenty of notice given to intended guests. Your menu will be detailed and practical, catering for vegans and meat lovers alike; music will be playlisted and honed to an exact number of themed songs, timed to finish at the appointed hour. Invitations are always mailed (e- or snail-), RSVPs ticked off a corresponding list; mathematical precision will allow for just the right amount of alcohol and mixers, having ordered all necessary glassware from a catering company. Neighbours will be apprised and the function will proceed in an orderly fashion. Naturally, the police will never be called.

At the other extreme is the pantser. They’ll throw out a casual invitation to pretty much everyone they meet, the start time will be vague, and the menu an unplanned and artless display of potato chips and questionable dips. Depending on that day’s mood, music will range from soulful eighties ballads to heavy rock. They’ll buy too much alcohol or, worse, not enough. The few plates and glasses they manage to scrape together won’t suffice and trusted guests will be dispatched on arrival to fetch ice and other essentials. The pantser will forget they even have neighbours and the police will be summoned. Several times.

But whether it’s planned with military precision or left to chance, one thing neither plotter nor pantser ever allows for is the unwanted guest — that unexpected character. Some are harmless; a visiting relative, too insipid to be left alone, is brought by a friend too dear to admonish; a work colleague tags along on the vague assurance that the host ‘won’t mind at all’; both are fillers and assume cursory roles.

And then there’s the other type, a plotter’s worst nightmare: sauntering into the room (and onto page two) with fuck-you confidence, they settle without apology and demand everyone’s attention. It’s easier for pantsers. Having had no real command of the situation in the first place — and still a little vague about who was invited — most will welcome the intrusion, flinging the door wide.

Just as there are social constraints placed on a host — do you insist firmly that the guest leave, or endure their presence with stoic grace? — so writers face the same dilemma: stick to your hard-worked plan and hit the delete key, ridding the scene of this unwanted person, or offer them a drink (watch as they snatch the whole bottle) before introducing them to others? Most likely they’ll have come armed with an intriguing life story and a slew of bawdy jokes, and they’ll quickly divide the audience, charming or horrifying everyone they meet. And there’s every chance they’ll slip your darling a mickey, or stab them in the coat closet, but that alone might be the just reason they’ve appeared.

Just like your party, if you want your story to be memorable, don’t kick out the most interesting characters before you’ve made an effort to get to know them.

Jane Abbott