Diary of a divorced man: 10 things that really p*ssed off my wife and what they taught me

Marriage is a funny business. Occasionally funny-haha, but mostly not. To the best of my knowledge there is no such discipline as Marriage Science, which is a pity because mastering the science might lead to a happier world.

Loyal and occasional readers may recall that I have on several occasions documented the impact of undiagnosed depression on my life, and most notably on my marriage. But that’s not the basis of this reflection. It’s just normal, everyday stuff that people stuff up.

And by people I mean mostly men; and by mostly men I mean me in particular.

It’s obvious now that during our 25 years of marriage there were red flags aplenty. Most marriages, of whatever composition, can deal with a certain number of red flags, and the number varies from marriage to marriage. But when the number of red flags starts to resemble a birthday parade for Kim Jong-un, then you’re in trouble.

In listing Ten Things That Really Pissed Off My Wife, by which of course I mean my ex-wife, I can’t be sure that my Ten Things correspond with her Ten Things (and Counting). We don’t have that kind of post-divorce relationship. There’s never been a debrief.

6 January 2020 marks six years since my marriage broke up. The break-up happened a few weeks short of our 25th wedding anniversary. Divorce came later, obviously, but I do not have the date fixed in my mind nor do I retain any paperwork related to the event.

In those six years my wife and I have met once. I could look up the date, but I’ll let a guess suffice and say that it was a couple of years ago. The occasion was Jerry Seinfeld’s Australian tour. I sent her a text asking if she’d like to see his show and she texted back ‘yes’. To say that attending Seinfeld together broke the ice of our estrangement would be a complete and utter over-statement. I possibly over-compensated in my quest to demonstrate that I was an agreeable human being again (OK, that’s a depression reference), and she was perfectly congenial. But it all counted for naught. We remain irretrievably and completely estranged.

Knowing my wife, she has obliterated our 25 years together; it simply doesn’t exist anymore. She’s always been very good at compartmentalising. For me, life is one continuous chain, an unbreakable series of links. That makes her the smart one. (For example, I understand that she still wears the beautiful pearl necklace I gave her, I think when we were courting, but possibly one of my “just because” gifts early in our marriage, and she will do so without any conflict of emotions.)

Over the past six years I have trawled through every second of our marriage. More fool I. The happy upshot is that I can be sure that despite it being a hard road for my wife there was a lot of good in our marriage, not least our three sons. The other result of my cogitation is that I have been able to square up to my failings.

My Ten Things are not big-ticket items. They are failings of the “nuts and bolts” variety, the failure to keep those little cogs well oiled; cogs seemingly insignificant in themselves, but which over time contribute to the whole machinery of marriage grinding to a halt when not properly tended to.

So here we go:

01 “How do you like the new recipe?”

My wife is an excellent cook, but she’s not one to stick to a culinary repertoire. She likes to experiment with new dishes from recipe books, which I gladly encouraged. It was my practice to buy her a selection of books for Christmas, and these selections usually contained at least one recipe book, so she amassed quite a collection. When a recipe was not to my liking I would say so – this almost exclusively involved lemon rind. Unfortunately the number of recipes involving lemon zest seemed to bunch up towards the end of our marriage, which proved unhelpful. (For the record, I only rarely cooked after my wife revealed, a few years into our marriage, that she did not like my cooking. Too much olive oil, I suspect.)

Lesson: the answer to the above question should always be: “I love this new recipe!”

02 “Why do we have to bring wine?”

I know it’s the custom to bring wine to dinner parties, but my view of the dinner party is that the host or hosts are saying to their guests: ‘Welcome to our home, I hope you enjoy the selection of food and wine we have chosen for you tonight.’ I argued that flowers should suffice. My wife generally compromised: we would bring flowers AND a bottle of wine. What my wife initially took as being an eccentric point of view eventually became very annoying.

Lesson: there is only one acceptable question, in almost any circumstance, but especially this one: “Red or white?”

03 “Just one dance…pleeeease?”

I don’t move to music. I simply do not. It’s not a philosophical or intellectual objection to dance; it’s just that no part of me moves to music. I like music, a lot, but not in a jiggly way. For some reason non-dancers seem to pair up with people who love dancing. Or maybe most people love dancing. My wife is an excellent dancer and I always enjoyed watching her dance (ie, with somebody else), but it ultimately meant that there were lots of things we didn’t do and lots of places we didn’t go because of my cultural handicap.

Lesson: It’s not easy for committed wallflowers, but dance like nobody’s watching.

04 “I prefer to eat my pizza with a knife and fork, okay?”

In any relationship there are only so many times one can gently mock their partner for eating pizza and fish & chips with a knife and fork. The result is that the mocked party either declines placing an order for take-away or disappears outside with tucker and cutlery.

Lesson: eat your pizza and shut up.

05 “She’s my oldest friend.”

I thought my wife’s best friend was as dumb as a cardboard box. (Ditto her second-best friend. What the hell, No.3 was no prize either.) I was polite and agreeable, at least to begin with, but eventually I stopped pretending that I liked her friends. (My wife also disliked my friends, but I agreed with her.) On paper they were very intelligent, but in practice they oozed stoopid. As I became more and more preoccupied with my own issues I became less tolerant of fools and in particular these fools. I can’t be sure but I suspect that I came to curl my lip at the mere mention of their names.

Lesson: Love her, love her friends.

06 “Where’s your wedding ring?”

I took particular delight in buying my wife’s engagement and wedding rings at Kozminsky’s and they looked beautiful on her. As for my wedding ring, I could take it or leave it, but I thought it was the right thing to wear it. Unfortunately, it was slightly too big for my finger and I was forever playing with it. This can either become an absent-minded habit, in which case there is no harm done, or it drives one crazy. I was in the latter category. It took several years before I took it off and I have to admit I was surprised at how much it hurt my wife that I did so. So it went back on, and over the years it came and went and eventually my wife stopped caring. And I regret to say that the ring is now lost.

Lesson: If your wedding ring is too big, have it adjusted or super-glue it on.

07 “You never ask how my day was.”

It’s true. I didn’t. I assumed that if she had something to tell me about her day she would tell me. I also tended to avoid clichés like the plague. The whole “Hi honey, how was your day?” seemed a bit too Dick Van Dyke (although I was a big fan). But of course communication is not just about what you say, it’s the fact that you say it at all, the fact that you take the interest to ask. Communication is also about mechanics. I’m terrible at small talk, but small talk has its purpose; the first question(s) a journalist asks is very likely clichéd, or small-talk in nature, but it eases both the interviewer and interviewee into the substance of the conversation. It never occurred to me to apply the principle at home.

Lesson: Ask how her bloody day was.

08 “You don’t hold my hand anymore.”

I don’t specifically recall deciding to stop holding hands with my wife, but it is true to say that I’m not a big fan of holding hands and at some point I stopped. Some couples hold hands through hell and high water, even if on occasion it means causing pedestrian traffic jams. But I understand their resolve: they’re a couple and couples hold hands. My wife definitely noticed when I no longer reached for her hand when walking in public. Occasionally she would take my shirking hand or ask me to hold hers. Holding hands is a symbolic gesture; there’s nothing particularly rational about it. It’s a demonstration of affection. Not holding hands doesn’t necessarily mean a relationship is under strain, but it probably suggests it’s seen better days.

Lesson: some things that aren’t strictly necessary can still be important.

09 When silence is not companionable

Most young couples, perhaps when sitting in a restaurant, will whisper gleefully about the older couple eating in silence. “That will never be us,” the garrulous young lovers promise themselves. But two people comfortable in each other’s silence can be and probably are perfectly happy. Or at least satisfied. The problem is when one member of the couple does not welcome the silence. I have never been troubled by silence. If I have nothing to say I prefer to keep quiet. But a predisposition to silence was magnified many times over by depression. It must have been like being married to a rock.

Lesson: relationships need noise as well as silence.

10 When the ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ kisses stop

At some point the peck on the partner’s cheek to signify hello and goodbye becomes perfunctory. That won’t concern most people; it’s the nature of ritual, a symbol of abiding affection, a gesture of reassurance. But I’ve got a thing. (Well, many things.) As soon as I become conscious that I’m doing something out of habit or by rote, I recoil and desist, whether it’s the realisation that I’m repeatedly using a particular word or phrase, or that my wife and I are exchanging meaningless pecks because it’s the thing to do. Except that it’s not meaningless. I remember that first time when the peck was expected and, at my resistance, the proffering of faces did not occur. The chasm of that moment was palpable. Of course she was aware and of course she was hurt. I could have reconsidered my petty boycott at that moment, but I had a bug about the peck and we stopped, for the most part, kissing hello and goodbye. By the time I realised how corrosive my decision was, it was too late to rectify the damage done.

Lesson: pucker up, that peck on the cheek is more important than you think.

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I don’t sound very nice do I? So many sore points in a relationship fester because they are not seen to as they become apparent. If I may mix my metaphors – my wife hated my metaphors – our marriage was on automatic pilot. That works at the beginning. Abundant, even extravagant, love powers the marriage along. However, self-aware couples know when it’s time to man the controls and guide the maturing relationship through the inevitable obstacles. My wife and I didn’t do that; we never got beyond the automatic pilot, which did good work over quite a distance. [Metaphor Alert] But when the rugged peaks came into view we just waited open-mouthed, in silence, full of dread, for the fatal crash to happen. I say “we”, and to a certain extent it was about the both of us: the lack of communication, the failure to identify and correct wrongs, the absence of courage to confront the unpleasant. But mostly it was me. I was the selfish and inconsiderate partner. My peccadilloes, perhaps forgivable in themselves, snowballed into something much more threatening. And yes, there were times when the meaning of those approaching peaks was obvious to me. But presented with the choice of fight or flight, my default position was the latter. On 6 January, my wife called enough.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is less maudlin on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

Make way for the office turtles: they’re rude, thoughtless and dangerous

What is it about public transport that turns normally reasonable people into inconsiderate sloths? And what is it about crowded city footpaths that has made getting from A to B the pedestrian equivalent of roller derby?

I live in Macedon, on the regional fringes of Melbourne, surrounded by stately gums, an abundance of colourful birdlife and no pushing and shoving. With infrequent cause to visit the Big Smoke when I do chance to visit I rather resemble the country mouse in awe of the unfamiliar surrounds.

It being almost six years since I last worked in the city there is much that is new to take in. Melbourne’s cabs, for example, are no longer universally yellow, as they had been since the 1990s when then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett proclaimed that it must be so. That’s a change for the better; the mandatory yellow was a bit drab.

The former Media House, on the corner of Collins and Spencer streets, which was once my place of work, sits as handsomely as ever, ‘The Age’ masthead still emblazoned across its façade. Media House was originally intended as a monument to Fairfax’s grand plans for the 21st Century. It remains a monument, but to inept management and the demise of what was once one of the world’s great publishing houses.

Media House is situated across the road from Southern Cross Station which, like the rest of the city, is teeming with impatient throngs of humanity. Anyone who makes the mistake of pausing to gather one’s thoughts will find himself gathered up by an unforgiving – and unstopping – heaving organism dressed in track suits and backpacks (more about them later).

The march of the office turtles

I no longer have cause to wear my adored Zegna and Hugo Boss suits, but I weep at what has become of the suit. The new fashion is for jackets, much too tight for my taste, sitting just below the belt line. Millennial fundaments as far as the eye can see. Those who wear ties favour featureless hues but most prefer to go sans which would seem to obviate the necessity for a suit.

While ties are optional, backpacks seem to be de rigueur whatever one’s station. These are my old enemy the office turtles, ferrying goodness knows what on their backs, as they clog city thoroughfares. In the 1970s and 80s, the busy man about town was more likely to carry a “manbag”, in essence purses with wrist-straps. In most cases, these men sported unspeakable perms, thus the office poodle was the precursor of the office turtle. The point of raising this unedifying fashion trend, which died the unlamented death it deserved, is this: what is it that needs to be stored in backpacks the size of filing cabinets where once a man-purse sufficed?

The most annoying office turtles – male and female – are those who insist on wearing their backpacks on crowded trains, oblivious to the discomfort of bare-back passengers. As it is, trains are crowded and clearly not designed for the throngs they must carry, but when half of those passengers are wearing backpacks the trial of the peak-hour commute is magnified many times over.

Despite the cramped conditions, office turtles generally keep their backpacks on, much to the discomfort of whoever happens to be standing behind them. Office turtles behave as if they are the only ones on the train. They are not only a visual blight, but a risk to life and limb.

Inconsiderate office turtles blithely take up the space of two commuters and as they make their way to their desired spot on the train seated passengers will score a backpack-biff to the bonce while those who are standing will be rudely shunted aside by the reinforced office turtle.

The backpack wearers who affect a nod to civility are in the habit of removing their backpacks with furious abandon, in the process knocking hapless commuters off their already unsteady feet. It’s the public transport version of 10-pin bowling.

Unfortunately, the office turtles are not the only trial to be endured on public transport.

Takeaway food-ferals have turned trains into troughs on wheels. No matter how crowded and uncomfortable, there is always someone, any time of the day, filling carriages with the pungent odour of Kentucky Fried Chicken, curries, dips from hell and chips soaked in vinegar. It‘s also fashionable to come on board with cups of takeaway coffee. So if the smells don’t get you, a shower of latte might.

All these travails amount to one sorry fact: commuter travel has become intolerable.

What makes public transport travel to and from work such an ordeal is not so much the overcrowding but the astonishing rudeness and lack of consideration that one daily encounters.

On a city train recently a middle-aged married couple, apparently overseas tourists, lit up cigarettes. The indignant cries of “You can’t smoke on the train!” reverberated throughout the carriage. A group of students tucking into some of the Colonel’s finest watched impassively and without hindrance. The battle is lost.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He has been known to carry a backpack but has never worn one in public. He rants on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

Marriage is a collection of things said and not said…and you can quote me on that

Marriage is, among other things, a collection of things said and not said; things that could have been better said, things that should not have been said at all; things whose meaning changed over time; things that were never said yet were; things that go without saying and things that do not; and things that cannot be unsaid.

The following six vignettes began as midnight ruminations, plucked from 25 years of marriage. Twenty-five years is a big slice of life. Perhaps it can be said that divorce is a life instalment retracted, or as our American friends might say, a life misspoken. For me, life is material. I hope I’ve chosen well:

01 My wife believed in the sanctity of the parent-teacher interview. I did not.

Parent-teacher interviews are a bit like performance reviews: there is nothing to say but everyone plays along to see if that nothing can be stretched out to a respectable five minutes. Well, mostly everyone. My view is: if there is nothing to be said what are we doing here?

When our kids were going to school my wife was a public servant (she is still the latter, but not the former) so naturally took the view that any meeting is a good meeting. That means lots of engagement, exposition and eye contact whereas I would prefer to leave, or better still, not be there in the first place.

Unfortunately, not believing in parent-teacher interviews and actually saying so is treated with the same gravity as advertising the children on Gumtree.

The advice here is not to think better of parent-teacher interviews but to look upon them as an opportunity to brush up on your social skills.

02 In marriage small talk is a big deal

I’ve never had the gift of small talk, which is not helpful in a marriage, or parent-teacher interviews.

At times when I have felt that I really needed to say something in a particular social or professional situation my brain is so shocked by instructions to pronounce on the weather or the football that it assumes it’s been hacked and the words that emerge from my mouth have been encrypted for my own protection – at least that’s what it must sound like to anyone listening.

I get that small talk has a purpose. I really do. I’ve written columns about small talk; I’ve even talked to my therapist about my inability to engage in small talk.

I used to watch my in-laws do small-talk with each other and it would always be the same script: pater-in-law would kick off with something about the weather, usually involving northerly winds. Back and forth, back and forth until something takes and a conversation would begin.

Pater-in-law would kick off with something about the weather, usually involving northerly winds.

My mother-in-law in particular placed great reliance on small talk (and presumably still does). She abhors silence between two or more people. Even the millifraction of silence between crisply enunciated words is a challenge. The result could be a panicked non sequitur on embalming techniques in ancient Egypt or a selection of her great aunt’s favourite soup recipes. Not infrequently she would muddle competing gambits and the result would be either transfixing or fathomless, and sometimes both.

My wife was of the “it’s only weather but it would be impolite not to discuss it” school. Which is to say, if two people, particularly two people married to each other, are sitting in silence, why not break the ice with a commentary on the prevailing humidity or the El Niño effect.

I was and remain of the “if you have nothing to say don’t say it” academy. This made for some very quiet moments in the marital bathroom, over breakfast and in any situation involving unavoidable proximity. Unfortunately, no small talk tended to mean no big talk, which in a marriage can be a problem if only one of you is into companionable silence.

 03 Did I say that? Actually, no, I didn’t

It was a parent-teacher interview that gave rise to a risible canard (by which I do not mean a corgi).

Sitting with my son before his English teacher, apropos of an essay that my boy had written to less than popular acclaim, I suddenly found myself being lectured on the secrets of successful writing. Hoping this was a passing reference I merely smiled at the advice that ranked somewhere between clueless and clichéd. But on she went, and on.

Was the teacher aware that I was a man of letters (which should have been evident from the freshly stamped mail I was holding) and that I was going to miss the 6 o’clock collection? But that’s an aside. I wondered if she knew that I was a journalist, in which case her twee lecture on the “power of words” was surely superfluous. Or did she not know? Don’t teachers make it their business to know what their students’ parents do? Or did she in fact know and was trying to make some barbed point about journalism today?

These are the kinds of rumination I reported back to my wife that evening, whereupon the legend was born that I had thundered to the harried teacher, “Don’t you know who I am!” I could think of few things that would embarrass me more than people believing I had said such a wanky thing.

I’m thinking of having a t-shirt made that says: “What do you mean you don’t know who I am?”

04 When yesterday’s banter becomes tomorrow’s fighting talk

As the delicate flower of marriage withers the grapes of grievance grow with unseemly vigour.

By the time separation occurs the prosecuting partner has such an exhaustive catalogue of faults that not only does one struggle with the specific cause of the breakdown but one has to justify to friends why the marriage ever took place at all.

Fortunately, friends understand and will generously confide that “we never did like him/her” by way of support. Let’s not be shy, “him”.

No wonder divorcees seldom reconcile. By the time a divorce has been granted the warring parties are frothing at the mouth and/or organising divorce parties.

“No wonder divorcees seldom reconcile.”

An indicator of a failing marriage is that observations once greeted as markers of wisdom, intellect or comedy genius suddenly become grating reminders of everything you hate about your once adored partner. One doesn’t see these transitions in real time and by the time one does one realises he has been hoist with his own petard; no matter that your petard had until recently been much admired.

I could cite many instances of finding myself in this situation, but I shall reflect on a particular favourite.

When I would return home from a speaking engagement my wife would ask how the engagement went. I would remark that it was “a triumph” and she would laugh at my immodesty and I was happy to be part of the gag. At some uncharted point my wife came to hate my declaration of triumph even though it was a self-deprecating boast. (Although, as the old saying goes, “many a true word is spoken in jest”.)

Initially I thought it was simply a change in the routine. And then another dynamic came into play. When I realised that she really did hate me saying my speaking gig had been a triumph, that it made her angry with me for being boastful and arrogant, rather than change the routine (say, by having a real conversation) I wilfully scratched the blackboard.

05 Silence is not golden, but some things should be left unsaid

Spouses have to exercise some discretion when it comes to unflattering observations or assessments about their mate. In a successful marriage, or even just a plain old fashioned enduring one, some things are best left unsaid.

If, for illustrative purposes only, telling your spouse that one ear is bigger than the other is unlikely to prove endearing, is it really worth it? If your deliberations include the words “I’m going to say it anyway” or “what’s the most he/she can say?” stop your mouth now.

There will be times of abandon when a spouse may think it’s worth the roll of the dice. One might be angry about something else, or just bored, or just not thinking straight, or just thinking about Declan and/or Daiquiri in Accounts, but bugger it, this has to be said: “You know, I’ve never liked your cooking.” Or, “I don’t like it when you put your hand on my knee when I’m driving.”

Alas, I received both of these not so glad tidings, in situ as it were. The former was said on a belated “need to know” basis and was taken without (prolonged) offence; the latter was intended to wound and did.

06 A brief tale about middle-aged men in Speedos

One of my long-time peeves is middle- and codger-aged men in speedos. It is an abiding distaste which I have tapped into on several occasions in my columns, from warnings to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott that a politician who lives by his little red speedos will surely die by them, to horrified recollections of the boss who decided to wear speedos (once seen, never unseen) at his staff pool party. For the cantankerous humorist speedos are the eyesore that keep on giving.

My family generally spent our annual summer holiday in Merimbula, on the coast of southern NSW, where as a Fairfax employee I had access to a wonderful beachside apartment at very agreeable rates. Most years my in-laws joined us, they taking a separate apartment in the same resort. (My marriage broke down in the first week of January, one week before our scheduled Merimbula holiday. My wife and kids and her parents went anyway: discuss.)

“My wife must have heard my lip curl”

One afternoon, me, my wife and my father-in-law (a sweet and gentle man) were sitting on a mostly deserted stretch of beach when in the distance a solitary figure, a man in his 50s or 60s wearing speedos, appeared. My wife must have heard my lip curl because she was moved to remark on my disdain for middle-aged men in speedos, which I dutifully took as my cue to expound on the subject, borrowing liberally and at length from my own columns.

My father-in-law, who did not read my work, must have thought me quite obsessed on the matter and made do with the terse rejoinder that it was fortunate he decided to wear his board shorts to the beach. Later that afternoon I was volunteered to collect our clothes from the communal clothes lines.

The few items of clothes belonging to my in-laws included a pair of speedos.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Sex at home may be on the wane, but the office romance is alive and well

A recent “sexual health study” – the Australian Study of Health and Relationships – found that Australians are having less sex at home. University of NSW sexual health researcher (nice work if you can get it) Professor Juliet Richters believes she has the reason for that.

“We think it might be the intrusion into people’s home lives of work – checking your work emails last thing before you go to bed [and] taking your laptop to bed,” she explains.

Sounds plausible. The scene is easily imagined. “Sorry dear, it’s an email regarding the Henderson account; I’d best deal with it, my promotion is riding on this.” Sex versus the Henderson account? The Henderson account it is, especially if you’re a self-important tosser.

But perhaps there’s another reason why Australians are more interested in their laptops than their partners’ laps when at home – and at this point it should be stressed that the survey concerned itself with heterosexual couples. Which either means that homosexual couples are banging away like gates in a storm, or they’re going to be part of a separate study.

So, back to John and Betty. Perhaps it’s not so much about the intrusion of work as work is where the action is.

Whatever else may be happening at home, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, the office romance is alive and well.

The office romance is very much part of the office furniture. And very often between or on the furniture. Which might be the only thing going for clean desk policies. It saves a lot of packing and unpacking for those amorous colleagues who like to give true meaning to “hot desking”.

For as long as there have been workplaces, so too have there been office trysts. The modern workplace is arguably even more conducive to runaway passions. People are spending longer at work and working under intense pressure. It’s hardly surprising that colleagues working in close proximity to each other for such long periods will eventually find themselves moving from spreadsheets to bedsheets.

At it like public servants

The public service is a particular hotbed of industry. Of a sexual kind, that is. Real industry is a little less common. Our tax dollars still mostly go to funding meetings whose primary purpose is to decide on more meetings, reports that conclude further study is required, and workshops aimed at increasing productivity while keeping bureaucrats away from their desks for days at a time.

Public servants generally like to marry public servants, so government departments are like dating services with lunch breaks. And never let it be said that public servants don’t know the meaning of the word efficiency: bureaucrats find that the workplace is not only a useful place to find a life partner, but an illicit lover as well. It’s what is known as a “one stop shop” in the private sector.

The interstate or overseas conference is a boon to workplace romances. If the PITs – partners in tryst – are senior enough, there is the happy and regular coincidence of both needing to attend the same conference.

Even when there is no conference, it is an easy ruse to claim to one’s partner that there is, thus conveniently explaining one’s absence from the spousal home.

The risk inherent in any office romance is being caught out. Not that there is such a thing as a secret office romance; it’s simply understood that nobody is supposed to know and generally everyone plays along. Whoever coined “open secret” must have had the office romance in mind.

The following delicious yarn no doubt has many variants in workplaces across the land, but it will illustrate how easy it is for office romances to come unstuck.

A middle-ranking “team leader” who was having an affair with a female colleague, a member of his team, decided it was time to step up, and spice up, his office romance. That’s when he hit on the idea of the bogus conference.

Whenever he wished to spend the night with his office consort he informed his wife that he had to fly interstate for a meeting.

The subterfuge extended to him arriving at work with an overnight trolley bag, a matter of derision for all those who knew the score. The scheme unravelled when the philanderer’s wife rang one afternoon to enquire which hotel he was staying at. Unfortunately, one of the few people who did not know about the deception – or more likely she did – informed his wife: “Oh, I can see him at his desk now, I’ll put you through.”

Office romance bingo

People involved in office romances go to great lengths to keep their relationships secret. Everyone knows, but the charade plays on: the meaningful glances across the partitions, exaggerated attempts to keep a po face when passing in the corridor and, for public servants, the furtive brushing of cardigans in the tea room.

The elaborate secrecy can be tiresome but it can also be entertaining in its absurdity. The carefully staged separate arrivals and departures, the angry disagreements at meetings to demonstrate their professional objectivity, the cunning small talk: “Did you have a good weekend?”

Those in the know can amuse themselves with Office Romance Bingo at meetings. Furtive glance across the table: tick. Knowing smile when the other speaks: tick. Double entendres, “That’s a good idea, Malcolm… maybe we should suck it and see”: tick. Or yick.

There is something about furniture that office romantics find irresistible. The boss’s desk is a favoured after-hours pit stop, likewise desks of unpopular colleagues.

The growing popularity of open-plan offices means that those who prefer to be surrounded by four walls – rather than 40 partitions – when interfacing with a colleague don’t have as many options. The meeting room is always a favourite. Here the boardroom table becomes the office furniture equivalent of the king-size bed.

The executive and his PA who decided one fateful night to use the boardroom table as their place of congress thought they were safe from prying eyes but alas were caught in flagrante delicto by a colleague who happened to drop by. Mutterings about working late were exchanged and no more was said. Except for the giant love-heart that appeared on the meeting-room whiteboard the next day.

For three people at least, attending meetings around that table would never be the same again.

As long as there are offices, the office romance will continue to blossom. Unfortunately the office is an endangered species. As companies increasingly shrink their workspaces, preferring employees to work “off site”, the office romance may go the same way as the filing cabinet and the tea break.

Researchers may find that’s when “sexual health” in the home stages a remarkable recovery.

Commuter trains from hell: another morning of backpack warriors, office turtles and hamburgers with the lot

Common courtesy is not so common anymore. Certainly not on public transport. And as for trains – troughs on wheels – you will only find manners, courtesy and consideration if you google them on your mobile device.
Commuter travel has become intolerable. Any day now I expect some passengers – or “customers” as they are now known – to come on board with a couple of chooks and a kero stove to make fresh eggs for breakfast, and perhaps a goat for a lovely glass of organic milk afterwards.
At their worst, modern train travellers are (in alphabetical order) boorish, illmannered, inconsiderate, loud, vulgar, selfish and may or may not have their own teeth.
While the authorities can justify placing considerable effort and resources into apprehending fare evaders, the operator of Melbourne’s train system, Metro, appears helpless to stop the vandals, graffiti gangs and takeaway food-ferals from turning train carriages into aftermath scenes from Glastonbury.
Trains are crowded and clearly illdesigned and illequipped for the throngs they must carry.
Granted, the crush of public transport travel is simply a reality of a busy, growing urban population. Unfortunately, most of our fellow travellers choose not to observe certain norms of behaviour that would make travel as comfortable – or at least tolerable – as possible for all concerned. That’s where the public transport experience falls down. Most commuters couldn’t give a stuff about anyone else.
What makes public transport travel to and from work such an ordeal is not so much the overcrowding but the astonishing rudeness and lack of consideration that one daily encounters within the heaving, graffiti-laden walls of public conveyances.
The rudeness starts when the train stops at the platform. Instead of waiting for people to get off before boarding, unthinking passengers desperate to secure a space charge into the bulging carriage. The ensuing contest of opposing forces resembles a cross between the Battle of Beersheba and World Championship Wrestling.
Occasionally one will hear a warrior-passenger cry: “Would you mind moving down the carriage please, there’s plenty of room!”. Those on the train hanging on for dear life will be wondering exactly where that room might be.
But it’s also true that there is the territorial passenger who manages to occupy a strategic standing position, as near the door as possible, who will not move to make way for oncoming passengers come what may.
If there does happen to be an unoccupied seat, usually a corner island of torn, tattered and food-encrusted upholstery located within a heaving mass of humanity and their possessions, there will always be someone who makes it their mission to claim it. Usually it’s someone of considerable mass, carrying enough hand-held and strapped-on baggage to resemble a one-person Burke and Wills expedition, with the force, determination and rudeness to burrow through any throng. It’s the commuter equivalent of Taz the Warner Bros cartoon Tasmanian Devil getting from A to B with maximum disruption.
I have observed more than once somebody cause considerable mayhem and upset to claim a seat, only to alight one or two stops later.
Meet the Office Turtles
Once on board, the carriage is mostly populated by office turtles. They are instantly recognisable: business attire incongruously offset by backpacks, giant white sports shoes and a flurry of wires.
The office turtles are not a generational oddity, nor is the phenomenon defined by gender. One of the regular turtles I used to encounter was a woman of approximately 60 years, prim and proper in outwardly appearance, neatly attired in grey, lips pursed, most likely a secretary – she was almost a caricature of the no-nonsense PA: except for the giant white runners and a backpack the size of Townsville. Anyone who stood between a seat and Miss Daisy was about to have their morning ruined.
Despite the cramped conditions, office turtles generally keep their backpacks on, much to the discomfort of whoever happens to be standing behind them. More than once I have been in danger of being smothered by a burly backpack. When I dare to push them aside, it’s I who get the look for being rude.
And who knew that Chanel makes backpacks? The tossers who wear them still look like office turtles, but very posh turtles. And they don’t look as if they’re moving house because Chanel backpacks are very dainty. It’s only a matter of time before Chanel produces commuter sports shoes.
Office turtles behave as if they are the only ones on the train. They are not only a visual blight, but a risk to life and limb.
Those few who are considerate enough to remove their backpacks on the train show no such courtesy when, with great exaggeration, they swing their backpacks back on as the train reaches their stop. Many a time have I received a full-force blow by an airborne backpack – and never a murmur of apology. There is no such thing as backpack etiquette on public transport: it’s every turtle for himself.
Basic passenger etiquette is a thing of the past. It is no longer the norm, for example, for people to cover their mouths when yawning. Scores of passengers doing their best imitations of somnolent hippos are not a pretty sight. A young person once looked at me with some curiosity as I yawned, and then I realised that she had probably never seen somebody cover their mouth when yawning before.
Cracking one’s knuckles is another popular sport on trains. Few sounds are more disgusting than somebody methodically cracking their knuckles one by one. Some do it with a bit of a flourish, like that swipe of the keyboard that some pianists favour when they complete their bouncy number. But it’s still noisy and disgusting.
Feeling peckish for a peak-hour snack
More than any other breach of consideration for others is eating on the train. No matter how crowded and uncomfortable, there is always someone, morning or late afternoon, who feels the urge to tuck into a hamburger with the lot, a bucket of KFC or very often, by the sounds of it, bags of gravel.
I have stood next to someone on a crowded train, eyeball to eyeball, who munched away merrily on carrot sticks. The unseemly experience was not only noisy, but pungent. Somehow he was able to negotiate a bag of carrot sticks and a tub of exotic dipping sauce while maintaining his balance.
Construction workers enjoying takeaway curry, office girls with bottomless bags of nuts, university students and office workers with steaming bags of McDonald’s, and there’s always someone with a juicy, crunchy apple.
A few days ago an office worker got on the train and proceeded to pour milk and cereal into a bowl and crunched away for the next several stops, right down to the tap-tap-tapping of the bottom of her plastic bowl to ensure every last morsel was devoured. Unspeakable.
It ‘s now fashionable to come on board with cups of takeaway coffee. These people really can’t wait until they get to their destination to have a cup of coffee? Or have it at home? Apparently not. So, on crowded morning trains people are nursing cups of coffee, avoiding swinging backpacks as they take furtive sips. I know that one day I’m going to end up wearing somebody’s morning brew – sooner or latte.
Worse than passengers rude enough to eat on crowded trains is passengers who insist on devouring each other. I refer to young newbie lovers intent on demonstrating their undying love for each other, oblivious to the delicate constitutions of others, most notably mine.
One of these days some idiot is going to get on his knees and propose marriage to his one true love. He best not be too close as there is every chance he will find himself at the receiving end of a technicolour yawn (apologies to Barry McKenzie).
On top of these outrages against good taste is the scourge of interminable mobile phone conversations and the audio pollution of invasive “personal” music devices, which emit the dubious musical tastes of their owners.
All of this is not just about trains. The crowded trains are a microcosm of wider society and its preoccupation with self. Perhaps the lack of consideration for others and the primacy of individual comfort is a coping mechanism for the pressures of life in the new century.
Such onslaughts against civility – the overcrowding, the selfishness, the boorish excesses – will only get worse as populations climb. There’s always something to look forward to on public transport. And watch out for goats.

Trolley tossers, mobile phone poseurs, security scares and frequent flyer snobs: just another day at the airport

There is no more pretentious a place than airports, and no greater snob than the frequent flyer, and airlines are only too willing to appeal to their egos – and wallets – with business class travel, special privileges and “exclusive” clubs.

Even Virgin has shed its egalitarian inclinations in pursuit of the business traveller. In recent years it has successfully grabbed market share from the struggling Qantas which not so long ago had a near monopoly on the lucrative frequent flyer market.

I’m an infrequent flyer these days, but when I do take to the skies I prefer to fly Virgin – Qantas’s corporate arrogance long ago lost my custom – but it’s with some sadness that I note that Virgin has picked up some of the Limping Kangaroo’s habits.

I was shocked recently to see how many passengers were shoe-horned into a 6.00am flight from Melbourne to Sydney. No longer the leg room that once acknowledged passengers as human rather than pinstriped cattle.

It’s just as well I chose to read the Financial Review rather The Australian because there is no way I would have been able to negotiate a broadsheet. Even a tabloid was a challenge: by the time I finished reading the paper it was an unruly ball not even fit for fish-and-chip wrapping.

As is my preference, I was sitting in the aisle seat. At one stage I attempted to retrieve my satchel from under the seat in front of me – and when I say in front of me, I mean in front of me. This took some time, and some manoeuvring, almost knocking the glasses off the man next to me, and causing him to elbow the man by the window seat. It was the airline equivalent of the Mexican wave, only with bruises.

I was so tightly packed into my seat that if I sneezed I would have punched myself in the nose.

That was in mob class. Presumably things were less fraught in business class. Passengers are considerably more relaxed at the front of the plane, and no wonder.

Virgin business class passengers, like their Qantas counterparts, “enjoy priority check-in, priority boarding and access to the Virgin Australia lounge”.

“Onboard, stretch out and relax in your luxurious leather seat. Start your flight with a complimentary newspaper and pre-flight drink, and in-flight enjoy premium food and beverages from our exclusive onboard Business Class menu designed by renowned Australian chef Luke Mangan.”

Red carpet treatment

Priority check-in lanes make me see red, and I’m not just referring to the swish carpets.

Business class passengers in a hurry to get to their seats bypass the regular queue at the departure lounges and get to walk down exclusive red carpets. Frequent flyers are always in a hurry; somehow a purposeful, brisk stride denotes importance. This excludes those who get to swan in from the airline club at the last minute; in this instance, it’s important to take your time and be seen to be a cut above the rest. It’s like the parade of the nobles at the opening of the British Parliament.

Even if I qualified for priority check-in, I would feel foolish poncing down a red carpet. And what is the advantage of the red carpet treatment anyway? Getting to your seat a few seconds before the economy schlubs? If airlines really valued their passengers, why should a favoured half-dozen walk down royal row, while the poor people and Collingwood supporters gather in an unseemly throng on the drab grey carpet?

Is it really so much to ask business-class worthies to wait in the same line as everyone else?

Regular air travellers are a breed apart and the airport is their stomping ground. You can see it in their smug, self-important demeanour. This is their world: trolley bags in tow, mobile phone permanently affixed to the ear. And they love airport ritual.

This is most evident when lining up at the security station, particularly at peak time. They take a peculiar pride in whipping off their belts, shoes, watches and cufflinks and ostentatiously placing them in the security tray.

And any greenhorn foolish enough to set off the alarm will earn themselves searing glares of disdain.

My travelling companion was unfortunate enough to bring the security assembly line to a halt as the officer at the x-ray screen announced an object in his travelling bag that could not be identified. A burly, obviously senior officer took the bag, placed it before my bemused friend, pulled out a toilet bag, and with exaggerated care removed an aerosol can of deodorant.

With a sombre and reproachful countenance he lectured the transgressor – who might as well have been wearing a t-shirt declaring “9/11 Rocks!” – that this was a banned item. My friend remonstrated that the item had passed airport security before. “That’s not possible,” said the stern officer, who appeared something of an aerosol himself. The deodorant was duly binned and a potential terrorist breach was averted as men without belts tut-tutted.

Theatre of the absurd

I find the airport security ritual offensive, demeaning and, above all else, pointless. Nobody believes that the elaborate screening makes flying safer, but for regular business travellers this theatre of the absurd, and their world-weary compliance, marks their status as seasoned travellers.

As I walked through the gantry in my new “airport friendly” shoes – can you believe there is such a thing? – I surveyed the suits like pigs at a trough retrieving their possessions, while others were busily putting their shoes and belts back on. Are we really winning the war on terror?

Security ceremonies observed, the chosen ones seem to spontaneously disappear into thin air to magically reappear at their airline club. The lesser beings, meanwhile, commence their journey, earnest of countenance, phones at the ready, mobile trolleys in tow, to the departure lounge, like a herd of wildebeest.

Negotiating those wretched trolleys – which we all know contain, at most, a David Jones catalogue and a banana – in airport peak-hour is a major undertaking. About the only positive I can attribute to this mayhem is that it does wonders for my Gene Kelly dance routines.

Most annoying are the Trolley Tossers who insist on dragging their banana-crates-on-wheels into the boarding queues. On this particular morning, as we inched towards our plane, I found myself on several occasions having to brake suddenly to avoid crashing into the trolley before me.

Finally, I accidently on purpose sank my “airport friendly” boot into the offending conveyance. When its owner turned to complain I challenged him, pointing at the trolley: “Do you mind?” Pride dictated that he waited a couple of more steps before assuming the enormous sacrifice of picking up his bag. My companion remarked: “You’re not a morning person, are you?”

The return flight to Melbourne that afternoon was equally trying for anyone impatient with modern air travel.

The plane was packed, the space cramped and the economy-class throng had lost its morning reserve. It was like being on the 6.00pm train to Frankston.

To my immediate left, across the aisle, a 30-something businessman was eating what I took to be a chicken wrap. The smell was unspeakable. How could someone even think of bringing such a festering abomination onto a plane? Why not allow passengers – or “guests” as Virgin prefers – to bring kerosene cookers and livestock on board?

Next to me on my right, in the middle seat, was a little man who bore a remarkable resemblance to Hans Moleman from The Simpsons. I wanted to take a closer look, but if I turned my head I would have planted a kiss on his desiccated forehead.

On the afternoon flight they served a snack of biscuits and cheese, which came in plastic packaging that must have been difficult to open because for the next 20 minutes the crinkling of plastic packaging, one of my favourite sounds, filled the plane.

I opted for a vodka and tonic and it was $10 well spent. I was prepared to go to $100 for that drink.

Hans Moleman obviously enjoyed his snack. The sound of his enjoyment was the only thing that could be heard above the packaging concerto. He devoured his fare with gusto. Imagine an electric saw cutting through a piece of timber and a stream of sawdust filling the air – that was Hans.

Alas, time did not allow for a second drink, but it was good to hear those words, “Welcome to Melbourne”. By the time we arrived on terra firma, my back was sore with economitus cripplitis and I was covered in Hans’ sawdust, but I didn’t care. I knew my next column had all but written itself. Happy flying.

And Virgin; don’t become another Qantas – a little respect for your passengers please. You can start by getting rid of that bloody priority-boarding nonsense.