Part 5: The quiet room

In order to get some respite from the hordes of family who have taken over my house, I decide to “look after Ms 5” by which I mean lie on the bed like a petulant teenager and scroll through Twitter. Around 4 I get the call from my husband’s surgeon. His surgery had taken longer than expected (6.5 hours compared to 4) but he was well, and would be transfered to the ward in 15 minutes.

Knowing that time is a malleable concept in the hospital system I choked down a “salad sandwich” comprised of crunchy tomato, limp lettuce, and stale bread. My baser needs satisfied I was off!

Parking didn’t prove much easier the second (third?) time around, but I managed to find a park which while not being in the direct vicinity of the hospital, was at least in the same postcode. While walking I received another phone call, this time from a nurse on the ward, the same one who had written down my number before: my husband was on his way to the ward, now was the time to visit!

After the day’s earlier calamities my spirits were buoyed. I was finally going to see him and know for myself if he was ok.

Through the hospital’s entrance I walked, down the hall, then up the lift to level 4.

When I arrived I was told that my husband had not yet begun the journey from the theatre to the ward, so I was directed to sit and wait in the “quiet room”.

While the waiting room from earlier in the day had been grey, the quiet room had beige as its defining motif. The carpet was beige, the walls a different shade of beige, and the furniture was the most delightful shade of brown melamine. There was a side table that I recognised as being from The Reject Shop. I admit I know this because I have this same ‘piece’ in my house.

This was a dreary room. A depressing room. A room for receiving bad news in. A room for making unfortunate phone calls in. A room for being quiet.

The guy perched awkwardly on the end of the lounge we were sharing had a different interpretation of the term “quiet” than I did. He was watching a YouTube video on his phone of an interview with the boxer Mohammad Ali. At full volume.

The quiet room was not devoid of decoration. There were 4 ‘prints’ which looked remarkably like wrapping paper presented in cheap metal certificate frames. There were also some aging wilting flowers which had been cast aside by patients past. Lastly, one wall of the quiet room was dominated by a pair of brown curtains. I pulled the curtains aside to reveal:

IMG_20150223_172508what appeared to be an xray screen. The curtain was an affectation, an attempt at homeliness in a beige and sanitised space. The quiet room used to be a consultation room.

Fifteen minutes turned into thirty turned into forty five. My phone’s battery died, leaving me with the windowless curtains to ponder. My fellow quiet room patron started to watch another video. I couldn’t tell you what or who he was watching, just that they fancied themselves a comedian and bandied about the “n word” a lot. It cut through the silence like nails on a chalkboard. The tension was palpable, or maybe it was just me.

Then lo! A wild nurse appeared. 30 minutes he tells me, not long at all! I might have believed it an hour ago, but now i’m not so sure.

The die is cast. I sit in the not-so-quiet quiet room and I continue to wait.

Part 4: A fuck up of biblical proportions

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

It appears someone has installed a revolving door in my house. Social conventions have gone out the window as well-meaning family members let themselves in and out without knocking, without so much as calling out. I am resentful at their intrusion on my space, then feel shitty at myself for feeling resentful. They are helping! Stop being an ungrateful bitch! I can hear them now, taking up all of the chairs in the living room, making awkward small talk.

3 pm comes and I drive to the hospital. Cars are circling like sharks around prey. I get lucky and find a spot to park in, albeit one on the dark side of the moon. It is only for two hours but that should be fine… it should be fine..

I drag myself up the hill. The clothes that were suitable at 6 in the morning are now far too hot and heavy. I am sweating and anxious and feel sick. It doesn’t help that I haven’t eaten since this morning, but surely that mascarpone should tide me over? I enter the hospital entrance and walk with conviction, walk with purpose, whereas really I am just walking the way that the architecture ostensibly leads me to go.

I get to lifts and give up my one-woman mission. I ask a young guy who could be an intern or a specialist, I can never tell. Without taking his eyes off his phone he directs me to level 4. The lift carries me up.

I get out and walk until I find a desk. Visiting hours have just started but there appear to be people everywhere. Am I late? Could I have already got here? A nurse asks who I am looking for. I say my husband’s name and the woman repeats it as if she has never heard of such a person. Hell she probably hasn’t. He is my husband and I need to know if he is okay.

The woman is on the phone. She talks to numerous people in order to ascertain that my husband is still in theatre. All bustle and business she reports to me that he will be at least another two hours, if not more. I ask if something has gone wrong, if I should be concerned. She answers as if by rote that she doesn’t know, but that it is likely he was bumped back for another surgery, perhaps an emergency came in overnight, perhaps perhaps perhaps. I am welcome to wait but they will ring next of kin, explaining it to me as if I am a small child. “that’s me!” I exclaim “I am his wife!”. She takes down my number on a slip of paper I am convinced will never been seen again before asking me to repeat my husband’s name. She writes my name besides his, joined with an arrow. My connection to my husband reduced to a road marker.

I want to scream his name. I want everyone in this ward to know his name! I know it, it is burnt into my skin. I am trying not to cry, I am angry and upset. This is a fuck up of biblical propoertions and yet a completely ordinary misunderstanding. I should have called first. I should have eaten lunch. I want them to know my husband’s name. I don’t express any of this. Instead I say “… oh okay thanks”. I turn on my heels and take the lift downstairs. Then begins my long walk back to the car.

Part 3: A parental call to arms

You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

I hit publish on this when the phone rings. Not my mobile, which I expect to ring, but the home phone which we only keep connected because parents and in-laws tend to be averse to using their mobiles. My heart is in my throat as I have no idea who would be calling that number and why. I hurry to answer it.

After pleasantries are exchanged I am asked if I am Mum to Ms 5. I answer in the affirmative. “She just vomited” the voice on the phone tells me. “I will come and get her right away” I answer.

A parental call to arms. Regardless of the other dramas that might be happening, and my overwhelming compulsion to sit around feeling sorry for myself, I race to Ms 5’s school.

I park illegally and half-walk/half-run into the office. A kindly office lady brings my baby out. She is pale and shaking, vomit splatters the front of her school tunic. “There was red in her vomit, did she drink red cordial?” she asks kindly. “At a party yesterday, yes, red cordial” I reply, hoping that it is in fact red cordial and not a sign of something more sinister. She did attend a party yesterday, against better judgment she drank red cordial. But what if? I shut that thought down quickly. That is not an option.

I bundle her home. Bubble bath is run, toast is made and promptly goes cold. A fever has gripped my baby, we argue about medicine which she stubbornly refuses to take. She is now in bed, on my husband’s side, watching a movie on our TV. I am jumpy, every movement sounds like the beginnings of a vomit. I hear my phone making phantom noises. What if someone needs to contact me? What if what if what if

Plans are rearranged. No ballet for Ms 5 this afternoon, likely no school tomorrow either. Work commitments flicker on the edge of my consciousness. Lists and lists and lists of tasks to do. Time critical tasks. A husband in surgery who needs me. A child in bed who needs me.

I want to not be needed for five minutes. That doesn’t change the fact that I am.

I feel sick I feel sick I feel sick.

It isn’t even 2 pm.

Part 2: “I’ll have the special”

I went from the hospital waiting room after saying my goodbyes, to the beach. Well, not directly to the beach as I had to navigate the labyrinthine car park in order to even leave the premises. The parking machine didn’t take credit cards, I somehow took three wrong turns in the car park itself and for a while found myself unable to leave. Trying not to cry, trying not to become overwhelmed, failing on both counts.

Eventually I escaped and found myself at the beach. I left the hospital and went to the beach without even really knowing why. I drove there because it is a scenic place to be, and I know how to get there, and the parking is easy at that time of the morning. Mind you, I don’t have to justify that decision to anyone as there is no one to justify it to, but here we are.

A man is sitting in the gutter, covered in blood. A police car is next to him, with its lights flashing. His bike lays mangled up on the grass. I don’t know what happened. He is alive I guess, as am I. Traffic slows to take in this spectacle. I avert my eyes and park my car.

I sit myself in a cafe after being directed by wait staff to sit anywhere I like. I wait 20 minutes and realise no one is coming. I don’t have the mental energy to flag down a waitress so I sit somewhere more public. When asked what I want I order my usual coffee (you know the one) and “the special”. I order it because reading the menu is confusing, plus the special has mascarpone which a) sounds delicious and b) i have never had. Now seems like as good a time as any to try mascarpone. I am not entirely sure what it is but if pressed I would say it was a kind of cheese.

When the food comes I take a photo of it and post it to instagram with the caption “heaven”. I have no idea why I do this as heaven is a place that some people think dead people go to. I don’t. The food isn’t heavenly. The pancakes are slightly burnt and weigh heavily on me. I cram it into my mouth in that half distracted way that you do in order to satisfy yourself, in an attempt to not feel feelings. Despite the pancakes being burnt and sickly, when the waitress returns I tell her “it’s lovely, thanks”. What else can I possibly say?

On autopilot I drive home. My daughter is at school so I am bouncing about the house. I write a blog post. My sister-in-law (who I appreciate more than I can ever express) drives out to my house and sits with me. I spew stream of consciousness things at her about my worries and fears, work, the recent death of my Father, clothes we both like. She brings me coffee and listens and offers no solutions because sometimes there are none to offer. She leaves as she needs to and should, full of unnecessary apologies. I am now alone.

I am agitated. My hands are shaking. People are sending me supportive messages on Facebook and Twitter and I reply with smiling face emoticons. There is no “agitated, hands shaking emoticon”. I am running on adrenaline and caffeine.

My husband was admitted at 6:30am. It is now 12pm. I will see him in 3 hours.

For now I will wait.

Part 1: You’re waking up with Sunrise!

The artificial light in the waiting room cast a sickly grey pallor over everything. A small TV overlooked the space, the noises cutting through the otherwise silent room. An obnoxiously cheerful blonde woman dominated the screen, rabbiting on about whatever it is people on such shows rabbit on about. Mr TSC and I eyed each other warily and exchanged those tight-lipped smiles that people do in emotionally fraught situations. “You’ll be fine lover” I told him, trying my hardest not to let my eyes well up. I chastised myself internally “For fuck sake woman hold it together”.

Two women appeared out of nowhere. One in administrative garb and one in surgical scrubs. The lady in the office clothes sat next to me and started speaking far too quickly for the time of day it was. “4c you can come up to 4c between 3 and 8 are the visiting hours 4c” is what it sounded like she said. “You mean she can’t stay, she has to go?” said my husband. “You’re waking up with Sunrise!” said the cheery woman on the TV.

I had bags of books and pens and water bottles, prepared for a day of waiting. Apparently none of this was necessary as I was being given my cue to exit. The woman in scrubs looked on sympathetically. The administrative woman with the staccato voice disappeared. “Take your time” said scrubs woman, in a way that suggested that we should say our goodbyes quickly.

I held my husband and kissed him on the cheek. I couldn’t kiss him properly as I have a cold that won’t go away and I don’t want him to get sick. I have lived in fear of it, knowing this day was coming. We exchanged goodbyes multiple times, not wanting to let go, not thinking this was going to be it. I understand that logically these people perform surgeries every day, that my husband is one of the many people who come in and out of these rooms. But I don’t love all of them. They aren’t all the father of my big-headed baby. I love this one. My heart is sick with worry.

My husband is having surgery on his sciatic nerve as I write this. I am going back at 3pm to see him. I need him to be okay. Please let him be okay.

Out of the Frying Pan and into the Toaster: the casual who coveted the fractional appointment

Anyone who has followed my blog would probably be aware that it has been a hell of a year. Among other things, I have gone from being a long-term sessional academic, to a professional staff member employed on a coveted fractional appointment. I am privileged enough to be able to continue to work within the sector I have spent so much of my time involved with and dedicated to. I have invested a lot into this sector and enjoy the challenges it presents.

In the past year I have established a profile for myself within this space. I have been the lead investigator on two successful grant applications for 2015. I work bloody hard, and invest much of my emotional and physical energy into making sure that my work is done efficiently, transparently, and to the highest possible standard.

Be that as it may, my contract is ending on the 31st of December. My position is going to be advertised, and I am going to apply for it. This isn’t a reflection on my capabilities, and was not the decision of anyone ‘up the chain’ from me to. Rather it is an interpretation of a clause within the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that when my current funding ends, it is expected that my job will be advertised internally to my institution. Regardless of my performance, and ongoing responsibilities. My one comfort is that this situation is not unique to me, and affects many of my colleagues, as well as many across the sector.

To adopt the parlance of our time I am more than aware of my own privilege. I have had access to sick days, and family leave when my daughter has been unwell. I was able to reduce my hours in order to deal with the illness and subsequent death of my Dad. I have access to a computer in an open-plan office, and get a lot of satisfaction and meaning from my job. But much of my time recently has been absorbed not only with processing the death of my Dad, a husband who is unable to work due to a back injury, and a 5-year-old daughter who selfishly insists on eating every bloody night, on top of that I have been running the bureaucratic gamut of trying to ensure all of my ducks are in a row for my impending job application.

Most frustratingly, my job has yet to be advertised, and with the end date of my contract looming, it is appearing more and more unlikely that my new contract (were I successful in my application for the job I currently do) would be in place before the end of the year. There are a few side effects of this (other than sheer inconvenience) that I will outline:

  • As my position is only being advertised internally, I will need to be on a current contract in order to apply. If the appropriate measures are not put in place before end of year, the possibility exists that I would become ineligible to apply for my own job. The job that my colleague and I wrote successful grant application for. For the project that with our combined efforts we made a success.
  • If my contract was to end without me having secured ongoing employment, I will need to remove all of the files from my computer, in order to format it and return it to the Information Technology people. Likewise I will need to return swipe cards, and empty out the space in which I have been working. Effectively I would need to erase any evidence of my existence, only to bring it all back in again if and when my contract was reinstated.
  • I will lose any accrued leave entitlements (sick leave, long service leave), as any contracts you have need to run back-to-back in order for these to carry forward into the next year or period.
  • The project I am working on currently, into which I have invested so much emotional energy, would be in jeopardy without someone to continue the work or preparing for project activities ongoing.
  • In my unique circumstance I am afraid to reduce my hours or take too much advantage of the flexibility afforded to me following the death of my Dad, because a part of me worries that it will reflect badly on my work ethic and impact my chances of getting my job again next year.

People ‘in the know’ have advised me to pursue an extension on my contract, which would allow me to continue working, while the lumbering cogs of bureaucracy tumble into place. This will address some of the above issues (such as being ineligible to apply for my own position) however this only delays the stress, and doesn’t negate it entirely. An extension on my contract offers no guarantees as to my employment status ongoing, it only buys the institution time to fulfil their obligations while allowing my important work to continue. It is a band-aid, it isn’t a cure.

As I have stated before, I don’t think these decisions have come about as the result of any one individual’s cruelty or poor judgment. Rather I think they are the result of business decisions, decisions which take into account bottom lines and balancing cost centres, and not valuing the knowledge and experience of the staff you already have. Their personal circumstance. The emotional and psychological impact of precarious working conditions. Higher Education is a business, and while business has been better (the push for deregulation has suffered a setback);  it is still a money-making enterprise.

I was asked by someone, in a completely innocuous fashion, why my contracts should run consecutively. Why, it was posited to me, couldn’t I in fact start back again in Autumn session? There was no malice in this question, and my understanding was that it was in response to a ‘business case‘ type scenario. The appropriate boxes needed to be ticked, the right questions answered with the right key words, and HR would gloss smoothly over my position before examining the next. However the fact that question was even asked was honestly a shock to me. The scenario offered was that at some Australian institutions (thankfully not mine) the regular practice is to end contracts on the 15th of December, and not start then up again till mid way into the next month. The justification being that across a whole university, the savings are immense. No paid concessional days. No carry over of leave entitlements. This was explained to me in a matter-of-fact way that perversely makes sense in a literal ‘money comes in, money goes out’ way, but all I can see is the human cost. The emotional cost. The angry, disillusioned, and frankly tired staff who have spent the year working hard and achieving objectives and managing budgets, all to have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the employment process (complete with rigorous selection criteria and three-people intensive interview panels), all in order to continue on with the work they were already doing. And they don’t even get a bloody paid day off for Christmas.

I was sitting in my open-plan office today, trying-not-to-but-not-quite-avoiding-to overhear the conversations of some of my colleagues in this same space. They were talking about the leave they were planning to take over the new year period to spend time with their kids. These same colleagues have been busy putting up displays of tinsel and decorations on their cubicle walls. Leaving their mark in this shared space. At the same time I am receiving weekly emails reminding me of the end of my contract, reminding me that my place in this sector is temporary, contingent upon me yet again jumping through the bureaucratic hoops and again proving my worthiness. There is every chance I will be continuing my job next year, mostly because I am damn good at it. But that isn’t 100%. I don’t dare pin my tinsel to the cubicle wall in case I need to again pack it away in a month’s time, put it in the boot of my car, and take it home.

I think about the plight of sessional academics working in higher education currently. It was only six months ago that I was the exploited casual. Then it happened, I got the contracted appointment I had wanted for so long, with all of its associated perks and entitlements. I was and remain grateful for that opportunity. However now that the end of the year is fast approaching I am feeling that familiar unease that I don’t know what the next year will bring. I am experiencing again the itch, the compulsion to go above and beyond, to prove time and time again that I am worthy of working in the sector, that my ideas are valuable, that I am valuable. However rather than the hot-oil immersion of casual labour (13 intense weeks of teaching followed by months of radio silence, or inconsistent research opportunities), I am experiencing the slow burn of the short-term contract employee. The closer it comes to the time of my contract expiring the more I am sweating it out, my anxiety rising, the assurance I took in my own competence not shielding me from the growing feelings of unease. I sit at my desk and write and email and make plans for the coming year, all the time thinking: “…but what if I don’t get my job back?”

Keep me in your thoughts, along with all of your professional and academic colleagues on short-term contracts. One of the people you share a cubicle wall with in the office, or see in line at the coffee shop, or share a joke with at the copier, might not be a successful applicant for their own job. They might not be successful in getting the grant money to fund their own position or might bugger up the interview process… they are probably feeling the heat right now and who knows; they might well be toast.

A Long Time Coming (My Story Part 1)

I was enrolled in the second year of my Arts degree when I decided to devote myself to the pursuit of becoming a professional academic. I was enthusiastic, well-intentioned, and devastatingly naïve. I am not sure exactly what brand of academia I aspired to, and my understanding of academia was most likely wildly inaccurate and more of a piecemeal approximation of all of the best stereotypes of what I believed academics to be. Social justice activist? Check. Ardent Feminist researcher? Of course! Book lined offices and late morning starts? You better believe it. All I know is that I wanted to devote my time to researching things I believed to be meaningful, discussing and sharing my work in an environment which fostered collaboration and collegiality, and sharing knowledge and inspiring new generations of students in the same way I had been inspired as an undergraduate. I loved writing, I loved reading, I loved researching, my marks were outstanding, and thus academia seemed at the time to be the obvious endpoint for me. From this point onwards this is where my energy went. Other careers were simply not an option for me.

I graduated my undergraduate degree with First Class Honours, and went straight from this into my PhD research. I completed a literature review and impressed my primary supervisor with my progress. It was at this stage in mid 2003 I was enlisted to become a tutor for a subject being taught by a colleague.  As a tutor starting out all those many years ago I received no training or support in this practice. As a result I chose the path many academic staff take when they are at the starting point of their career: you fake it till you make it. I stood in the front of the classroom and emulated the kind of tutor I had always responded to. I was strict with readings and participation, I had exacting standards, I didn’t tolerate excuses, and I took myself Very Seriously™. I was (and still am) a very petite female, and often felt that I was being undermined, or that my authority was being questioned within the classroom. Whether or not this was actually the case is a question up for debate, but this is what I perceived, and thus reacted to. I wore a very specific ‘academic uniform’ of clothes that I thought would make me fit the mold of what academics wore. I didn’t wear anything I perceived to be ‘girly’ or feminine, as in my mind these were trivial pursuits and would mark me as someone who did not display the proper devotion to the academic ideal. At the time I was enrolled in my PhD there were a lot of men enrolled, and I think I felt pressure to fit in with the people around me. I had very strict ideas about what academics did, and said, and wore, and gosh darn it one way or another I was going to be that person!

As this period of time is over a decade ago my memories are hazy, although I know a few things to be true. The mistreatment of casual academics is not a recent phenomenon. For example, I remember going into the store room after hours to smuggle away my overhead projector slides, so as to avoid the ‘evil eye’ of the administrative staff who might not have known who I was. I hoarded whiteboard markers as they ran at a premium, and seemed to disappear from the supply closet as soon as they were restocked. I remember being questioned while waiting for the printer to spit out my copies (some things never change). I never felt part of the broader academic community, and even then was not included in any of the events that marked the academic calendar, but in my mind I think I saw this as part of the process of ‘paying my dues’, somewhat of a rite of passage that I would need to experience in order to become like the people I aspired to be. This treatment may have been shoddy sure, but it had an endpoint. When I graduated and joined ‘their’ ranks then things would be okay. My supervisor had warned me about the PhD drop-outs, the failures, the dreaded ‘non-finishers’. I was aware of that as a risk but I knew for certain that wouldn’t happen to me. I was different. Academia was my calling!

And for a while things really were pretty great. My PhD ran smoothly until my second year, where the long-term relationship I had been in came to a sudden and dramatic endpoint. The mistake I made and regret to this day was that my research focus was tied up in a community that my partner was loosely involved in, a community that shut its doors to me once my relationship had ceased, and a community I no longer felt comfortable being involved with at this point anyway. Within a six month period I lost my relationship, and my PhD stalled, before breaking down entirely. I moved out of the apartment I had shared with my now ex-partner and moved back in with my parents in disgrace. I was 24 years old and had spent the previous five and a half years preparing to become an academic. All of my time and mental energy had been spent working towards this goal. There was no plan B. I had never needed one, I was the exception to the rule remember.

Which is why I was as surprised as anyone when I had to line up at Centrelink in order to receive income support payments. I was even more surprised that despite having these years of study behind me, the first and only job I was offered 6 months out of my disastrous PhD was in a call centre. It was every bit as soul sucking and demeaning as it sounds. I was 24, miserable, and blamed myself for every event that preceded this point in my life. Graduate outcomes are pretty shit now, and let me tell you from experience, they weren’t that great in 2004 either. I was underqualified for the academic work I had aspired to, but grossly overqualified for anything else. The worst part was, I only blamed myself.

After a six month hiatus I ventured back into casual tutoring, which I combined with other casual and part-time employment to supplement this unreliable and irregular source of income. Knowing the alternative at this stage in my working career was working in a fucking call centre with recent high school graduates I was really happy to still have that opportunity afforded to me. I had always intended to return to my studies and complete my PhD, although likely in a different topic and area, however I still felt like a fraud. I internalised any negative treatment I was on the receiving end of as being what I deserved, and I even felt vaguely guilty about being given the opportunity to tutor at all, given that I was not enrolled in a PhD and was not likely to enrol in the near future due to personal circumstance.

Years passed. I worked many different jobs including a government position, got married, had a child, bought a house. When my child got older I returned to tutoring, seduced by the perceived flexibility of sessional teaching. I think I have always liked to hover on the edges of academia, flirting with the calling I once aspired to. This devotion to the academic ideal came at a high cost however. All the time I was “only” the casual, no permanency, no stability. Over the years as a sessional academic I have experienced increased responsibilities, decreased pay, and worst of all no acknowledgement from the broader community that the contribution my casual colleagues and I make even exists. Yet I hung in there, as have many of my friends and peers.

While many things about casual teaching have stayed the same (and if anything the conditions have worsened), I have changed a lot as a person. My outlook on teaching has softened a lot since I started a decade ago. I love interacting with students, learning from them, seeing what they bring to the table. I enjoy so much watching a class discussion where people are invested and engaged, where you can see they have been exposed to ideas perhaps for the first time. The upside of having dropped out of my PhD, and having made a complete balls-up of my academic dreams, was that I decided to take myself a little less seriously. I combined tutoring with youth work for a few years, where I worked with kids who had been kicked out of high school and were unable to complete their studies. My job was to find them work, or training, or something to do to get them off the dole essentially. For a few years these kids were everything to me, and that job bought so much satisfaction. It also taught me to meet people where they were, not where I think they should be. Helping these young people attain their goals was some of the most meaningful work I have ever been paid to do. The money was shit, the conditions were horrendous, and I will never go back, but it taught me so much and it is an opportunity for which I am grateful. Because of this experience I empathise with both the students and staff within higher education so much more than I ever did, all students, not just the super high achieving ones like I was. I have fun with teaching, I don’t let my fear of other people’s perceptions dictate my behaviour in the classroom, or outside of it for that matter. Here I am, I am a good tutor damn it, or at least well intentioned. As the saying goes, hell is paved with good intentions.

This brings me to today.

(Part 2 coming soon)