My Own Private Mediscare

Labor supporters at a Medicare Rally as part of the 2016 election campaign in Townsville, Saturday, June 25, 2016. Shorten addressed supporters at a local Townsville park, telling them a win in next week's federal election is possible. ((AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

(AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Anyone within earshot of this year’s Federal Election couldn’t escape the kerfuffle surrounding the Labor Party’s dirty tricks with what was dubbed “Mediscare”.

I’m pretty sure I just had my own personal Mediscare experience.

You’ll recall that the Liberals accused Labor of contacting some of our most “vulnerable” citizens in the lead-up to election day in July to feed them all kinds of cock’n’bull stories about how Medicare would be sold off if a Liberal Government was returned to power; it remains to be seen exactly how cock’n’bull those stories were (or weren’t), although there’s no sign of them actually doing anything else any time soon, so why should this be any different?

But based on the results of my own private Mediscare, I don’t see how selling the thing off could be in any way bad for anyone. There are so many old-fashioned turns of phrase that immediately spring to mind: the one about how you can’t polish a turd, or the other one that says you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

On the fifth of this month I attended a medical appointment, at the conclusion of which I paid the consultation fee—a not insubstantial $500—in full. I was reliably informed by the office assistant that the Medicare claim had been successfully submitted and she duly provided me with a printed receipt showing as much.

I’ve had more than my fair share of old man ailments and medical appointments over the years so, as sad an admission as it is, I’m intimately familiar with how all this stuff works. So when by the end of that week my ‘benefit’ still hadn’t arrived in my bank account, I knew something was amiss.

Now, in anyone’s books, the idea of actually having to phone Medicare, as with any Government department, is a nightmare scenario that’s to be avoided at any cost. So I went to the new(ish) myGov service, a wondrous all-in-one online hub for accessing Department of Human Services functions—these include Medicare, Centrelink, the NDIS, Aged Care, Child Support, Veterans’ Affairs, the ATO… you name it, and if it’s an excessively inefficient, paper-heavy, under-resourced and generally unpleasant place of employment for thousands of sour-faced, jaded bureaucrats, and oft-visited by a colorful cross-section of the great unwashed, then it’s somewhat accessible via myGov.

After what felt like hundreds of clicks, navigating endless pages, unclear labels, misinterpreted links and some of the world’s longest options lists, all the while dodging multiple attempts to convince me to self-serve using the online facilities, or to dissuade me from any form of contact at all, I finally located a link.

Contact us, the page header says, Get in touch, invites the middle column. You can contact us online, in writing, by phone or by visiting us at one of our service centres, it declares, reassuringly. All well and good, if I could actually work out where and how.

Eventually I arrived at a page headed Email us, which included, among yet another list of endless options, the following enlightening detail:

If you have a general question that you can’t find the answer to, and it’s not urgent, you can make a general enquiry by email. Don’t include sensitive information in your email enquiry as we can’t guarantee the security of information sent by this option.

We’ll aim to respond to your enquiry within 28 days via telephone. If we try to call you in response to your message, it’ll be from a private number. To protect your privacy, a voicemail message won’t be left unless you are clearly identified in your voicemail service.

Hmmmm. Well, all I wanted to ask was how long I should expect to wait for a rebate to appear in my bank account. Based on what I’d read, I foolishly, and perhaps a tad naïvely, didn’t feel that providing my name, my Medicare number and a copy of my ‘paid-in-full’ receipt would be considered “sensitive information”, much less cause for not answering my question at all. Besides, I didn’t want account-specific information. I only sent that detail so they’d know who and what the email was about. It really was just a general inquiry about timeframes… wasn’t it?

But almost immediately the email was sent, up popped the auto-generated response which, in part, told me:

We will not respond to your enquiry if it contains or requests any personal information as we cannot guarantee the security of this information.

‘Shit. I’m gonna have to call them, aren’t I?’, I thought to myself. I read it again and continued to ponder the situation. ‘Yep, they’ll consider all that as personal information and, regardless of what I actually want to know, they just won’t respond, so I’m gonna have to call them’.

Oh crap.

After waiting on hold for 47 minutes, I was finally answered by a lady who was, ostensibly, efficient, knowledgeable and pleasant, if not entirely helpful and, indeed, totally lacking any empathy whatsoever. “Oh… I see what’s happened”. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me, or to herself. “The girl pressed the wrong button”. I sought clarification. “The girl pressed the wrong button when she processed this, she’s marked it as having not been paid in full, but I can see you have”. Some recognition of what’s actually happened. Maybe a promising sign?

“A cheque has already been issued, but it’s been made out to the provider. So you’ll need to either take it to them and they can work out what’s owing to you, or you can take it to a Medicare office and they’ll adjust it and put the money into your bank account straight away”.

A Medicare office!?!? No!!!! That’s the next-worst option after calling them!

OK, so it wasn’t ideal, and I’d had not a hint of apology offered, which was also a bit rubbish. But the situation hadn’t exactly left me below the breadline. And, besides, if a cheque’s already been issued, how long could it possibly take?

If only I’d asked myself “what could possibly go wrong?” at that point, I might’ve foretold how this was going to pan out.

A week later, I received a reply to my email. The email they weren’t going to respond to. For the security of my information, you understand. Not coz they just didn’t want to.

Accessing personal information from an email is restricted to protect your privacy and the integrity of Medicare records. 

Our phone line is also open Saturday and Sunday to assist you.

If you are enquiring about a Medicare payment you require, please call the Medicare public line on 132 011, 24/7 and, subject to a security check, a service officer will assist you with your enquiry.

Aha. Like I hadn’t already done that. Just a tad inefficient, I would’ve thought? If they say they’re not going to respond, perhaps they should just stick to their guns and not respond.

That same day, after noting that the cheque hadn’t arrived, I decided—against my own better judgement—to call Medicare again. As with the last call, I was sitting at my desk working on something at the time, so the 34 minutes I spent being deafened by their looped classical music didn’t really put me out. True, it generated a tinnitus-like ringing in my right ear which may cause some inconvenience in the long-term, but at least I didn’t experience any short-term inconvenience. And I’m sure Medicare will cover me for any tinnitus-related treatment I may need in the future. If it hasn’t been sold off.

“Oooooh… yep yep yep… OK… yep, I can see what’s happened”. Must be part of their call centre scripting. Positive reinforcement. I’ll feel better about my interaction with them if they clearly affirm that they know what’s going on. “So… no, a cheque hasn’t been issued yet, I’m not sure why she told you that”. You and me both, love. “Yeah, providers get this wrong all the time, it’s so annoying”, she went on to lament. Oh really? Annoying for who? No doubt you haven’t noticed, but it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs for me either. Have you ever thought that the problem could be with your process and not with the providers? “OK, so if the cheque hasn’t been issued,” I went on, hoping against hope, “can you just cancel it and do an electronic transfer into my bank account?”.

“Ummmmm…. noooooooo”, says she. “it’s already on the report and the report will spool any day now and it just wouldn’t be feasible for us to put through requests to remove random cheques from the report every time someone asked us to, you know what I mean? I mean, it just wouldn’t be feasible, you know? I mean, we’d need to get someone to put through the request and then someone would have to do something at the other end and then… you know?… yeah”.

And then she went on to provide the most bizarre explanation for any mishandling of a customer service issue I’ve ever heard: “It’s like driving a car. If the car stops working, you don’t blame the driver, you blame the car. Well it’s like that with situations like this. It’s been processed incorrectly by your provider, so you can’t blame Medicare for that, you know what I mean?”

Oh yes, dear, I know full well what you mean. I know that you’re trying to deflect blame away from Medicare and onto my Doctor’s assistant, as if she’d pressed the wrong button when she submitted my claim, despite the receipt generated by the Medicare online claim service showing that this absolutely wasn’t the case. I also know that the blame you’re so eager to deflect was blame that I’d neither apportioned nor considered apportioning, mostly because it was clear to me that it was an error made by someone at Medicare, so it was a bit obvious where the blame lay. I also know that I don’t care whose fault it was, I just want the situation sorted. I also know that finding a way to sort the situation is just about the farthest thing from your mind. And I know that detailing the inefficiencies of your own internal processes is far from being the best way to win over an inconvenienced customer. But, most of all, I know that you don’t really give a shit about any of this.

And so, I resigned myself to there being no hope of achieving a resolution any time soon. She couldn’t have the cheque removed from the file. She couldn’t have the cheque cancelled (you don’t need to work for Medicare to know that that’s a load of rubbish!). Nor could she have the payment processed any more quickly than the time it was going to take to process the file, print the cheque and send the cheque via post. So, she told me, I might be waiting another week, or two, or maybe even three… “you know what I mean?”. I know what you mean, alright: this one’s for you, and this one’s for your horse.

That night, I sent Medicare some generic feedback about my experience and their processes generally. I made sure to confirm that I was neither providing, nor seeking, any kind of personal information, and that my only purpose for emailing them again was to provide generic feedback about my recent experience and the ways in which I felt their processes could be improved.

Meanwhile, the cheque finally arrived two days ago—only three weeks after the consultation to which it applies, so I suppose it could’ve been worse. I took it to my nearest Medicare office (they’re pretty thin on the ground these days) which, conveniently, is only 8.2km away… although, in Sydney there’s rarely anything convenient about having to drive anywhere, let alone somewhere that’s 8.2km away.

On arrival, troubling signs abounded from the off. The first was the queue of people stretching beyond the inner-most of two sliding entrance doors. This was a tad off-putting, but I wasn’t in a hurry so it didn’t overly concern me.

Inching forward with the glacial advance of the queue, I noticed the second troubling sign: an armed security guard standing just inside the inner door. What den of iniquity is this? What kind of inglorious hell-hole have I entered?

Oh. I see. Troubling sign number three: it was one of those Medicare/Centrelink combo places. Oh hurrah. Surrounded by the sick and the unemployed, knowing that my taxes are paying for all of them. What a dream come true this was turning out to be.

As the queue continued to edge its way forward, once beyond the inner door the fourth troubling sign became apparent—literally, a troubling sign: AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOUR WILL NOT BE TOLERATED!!!

I’m totally going to die in this place, I thought to myself.

mediscare3The painfully slow ebb of the queue was explained once I eventually saw the little man with the iPad, resting on a curious-looking iPad-sized lecturn, at the head of the line, listening to people’s reasons for visiting and punching at his screen, one finger-style, to enter their personal details. This, presumably, is intended to be the more efficient, humanised version of the old school “go to machine, press button, take ticket and wait” process. I appreciated the intention and it certainly made sense—if it had worked. But it patently wasn’t effective here. It was taking four times as long to process each customer’s initial inquiry, with no discernible benefit in processing time once they were finally seen by someone. And there was a constant line of people out the front door—clearly, the humanised approach wasn’t working. At least, not with only one person there to provide it.

And then there was the 45 minutes I sat there, waiting to be seen. 45 minutes. No TV. No music. Not even a screen showing the ticket numbers to call you to a counter. At least they provide a distraction of sorts, if not pure entertainment.

Occasionally the din of sickly coughs and kiddies computer games and cries of restless infants and the  almost ceaseless cussing of social security recipients was punctuated by one of the variously accented staff members, badly mispronouncing the name of one of the waiting unfortunates from some unseen location, sufficiently distant from the massing hordes.

Frankly, it was impossible to avoid having Hilary Clinton ‘deplorable’-esque thoughts. No, I didn’t know anything about these people, but I could sure as hell smell enough of them and I wanted out of there at the earliest opportunity.

As I waited, suffocating myself through eight layers of handkerchief to avoid the aromatic blend of body odours that was presently enveloping me like a thick fog, I flicked through my inbox and noticed that I’d only just received a response to the generic feedback I’d sent to Medicare eight days earlier.

Accessing personal information from an email is restricted to protect your privacy and the integrity of Medicare records. 

Our phone line is also open Saturday and Sunday to assist you.

If you are enquiring about a Medicare payment you require amended or changed,  please call the Medicare public line on 132 011, 24/7 and, subject to a security check, a service officer will assist you with your enquiry.

I trust this information will be of assistance.

…oh go away!

When my name was finally called, it took all of two minutes, possibly even less, for the consultant to take the cheque, take my receipt, have me sign a claim form and send me on my way. “That’ll take two to three days to process the funds to your account”. As she spoke, she almost smiled. Probably because I’d been pleasant, and didn’t smell bad, and had a name she could pronounce without thinking about it, and didn’t yell at her and had a really simple issue.

Prior to a couple of years ago, I had the option of being paid cash. Immediately. Now I have to wait two to three business days for the transfer to be processed. This is because of an efficiency improvement initiative that saw all Medicare payments going electronic in 2014. Efficient? Not for me it isn’t. Improvement? Not for me it isn’t. 

Someone of a fragile disposition might’ve gone postal after this. But not me. For me it was a case of, ho-hum, what can I do about it? I smiled, thanked her and took my leave. To be fair, I couldn’t get out of there quickly enough; however long I’d waited, however ridiculous the outcome, nothing was worth staying in that awful place for a moment longer.

So let’s break this down:

  • Medicare mistakenly processes my claim
  • The Contact webpage says they’ll respond to my general enquiry by telephone, but they never do
  • I call them twice, waiting a total of 81 minutes on hold
  • On neither call is any empathy shown, nor an apology offered
  • On the first call I’m allegedly provided with (more) incorrect information
  • On the second call I’m given a whole lot of crap and lies about who not to blame and how stupid Medicare’s processes are
  • I wait three weeks to receive the incorrectly issued cheque
  • I wait 45 minutes in a dirty, smelly, inefficiently-run Medicare office
  • Then I’m told I have to wait another three days to actually get the money that I should’ve gotten three weeks ago.

If I hadn’t spent most of my working life in customer service, of one form or another, maybe I wouldn’t notice so many of the gaping holes here. Maybe I wouldn’t care so much. My blood’s not exactly boiling—I’m a calmer person than that these days, plus I wasn’t really negatively impacted—but, as an end-to-end customer experience, this was pretty appalling.

And I’m only one person. How many other times is this shitty service provided? How often has a Medicare representative received genuine feedback, provided to them in all good faith, and disregarded it out of hand? How many other people, who have no option to go anywhere else for this stuff, have to put up with the same total lack of empathy, no apologies for mistakes, delays or inconveniences, and a barrage of excuses, provider-bashing and finger-pointing?

Mediscare? I’ll give you Mediscare…

230 Days Sober And My New Normal: Confessions Of A Depressed Alcoholic

Here’s a string of words that, until quite recently, I never thought would ever fall out of my mouth: not a single drop of alcohol has passed my lips for 230 days.

W… T… F!?

Despite the temptation to sound like a preachy reformed alcoholic, I want to talk instead about the crossroads that got me here. Because it’s important. Because everyone should know about it and everyone should be able to talk about it.

Because sometimes in life, we arrive at the kind of crossroads that demand a choice, rather than just offering one: turn left or turn right, get up or get down, stick or twist, should I stay or should I go—music’s been telling us so for years. However you choose to phrase it, at some crossroads there’s no leave to remain, nor to turn back. To do nothing simply isn’t an option; something’s gotta give.

I recently arrived at that crossroads. And quite unexpectedly, what I’d always assumed would be a difficult decision turned out to be a no-brainer, even though the outcome seems to be… well… frankly, pretty dull.

And as a ranty old man blogger, of course I’ve written it all down, although this post is definitely more catharsis than rant.

Before I begin: this thing I’m doing right now is absolutely not to be described as a “journey”. Not ever, under any circumstances. Every sodding thing’s a “journey” these days. The word’s been so overused for so long that whatever limited metaphorical value it once had is long since lost. So whatever this thing I’m doing actually is, for the purposes of further discussion we’ll just refer to it as a process I’m working through, and definitely not as a “journey”.


A wise friend once told me, “we all drink for a reason”. For the longest time, I truly believed there were multiple reasons why I drank and it was easy to put a positive spin on all of them: socializing with friends, a refined appreciation for my poison of choice, I quite liked the sensation of being pissed—all harmless positives, surely.

For the longest time, I had myself convinced that there was nothing more to it; for at least some of that time, it’s even possible that there wasn’t.

Our modern western culture is built around alcohol. From a young age most of us are surrounded by opportunities to over-indulge in the stuff. But despite the bad rap that Australia’s drinking culture gets, the reality is that most people know when to stop. Most people don’t go too far or get into trouble. Most people don’t have a problem with alcohol.

Some people, though, are less proficient in the art of self-discipline and, for whatever reason, they never manage to call time on, or even acknowledge, their own excesses.

Who can say why problem drinkers drink in the first place? There are so many potential reasons, though I’ve no intention of psychoanalyzing everyone who ever drank a bit too much. This is about me and why I drank too much… so why did I?

There’s a school of thought that would probably argue it was a slippery slope from the first time I drank alone. I don’t entirely agree with that view, though neither do I entirely disagree. But it goes back further than that. Something must’ve triggered it.

Some people are lonely. Some people are shielding themselves from a reality they don’t much care for. Some people drink because they just prefer being drunk. Some drink to self-medicate—it’s quite amazing how quickly alcohol dulls all manner of physical and psychological ills. That’s how it started to become a problem for me, by self-medicating to push through the pain of a serious back injury, although, in truth, by then I’d already been drinking far too much for years anyway.

The sad fact is that some people drink every day and I became one of those people. It gets easier. We appear to function (relatively) normally. The superficial effects of alcohol gradually lessen. Two glasses become four, one bottle becomes two and, before you know it and without ever meaning for it to happen, you have a problem.

There’s probably another school of thought that would say I became an high-functioning alcoholic. God knows I’d employed it as a jokey throwaway line often enough over the years. But I never really thought of myself in those terms and I’d never seen myself as a candidate for AA. Maybe that’s just my arrogance, coz seventeen online surveys told me I probably had cause for concern.

If you’re very lucky, getting that kind of feedback just about dovetails with your arrival at the crossroads. And if you’re even luckier, you know the best decision to make for yourself and you somehow muster both the courage to make it, and the conviction to stick to your guns.

And I knew full well the decision I had to make. It was simple: I needed to stop drinking and I was confident that I had the psychological wherewithall to handle it myself. The idea of walking into a parquetry-floored community centre and affirming to a bunch of complete strangers “Hello, my name’s Matt and I’m an alcoholic” was never hugely appealing. I’ve seen it so many times on TV and in movies that it seems almost like a cliché, so trying to say it with 100% sincerity would probably just make me laugh.

Plus, I was already depressed enough when I was sober. I didn’t need to be in a room full of crying people, all moaning about their addictions to booze and drugs and eating disorders as teenagers, blah blah blah… I’d start watching reality television again if I wanted to immerse myself in that crap! And besides, I didn’t really believe it was a statement of fact anyway; without a doubt, there was a problem I had to do something about, but I certainly didn’t want the contrived melodrama of signing up to AA when I knew I didn’t need to.

It’s hard enough admitting to a mental illness, without having to fess up to some pathetic addiction as well. And I knew, in my heart, that that was what was going on; I knew that that was the real issue that needed tackling. The drinking was just a by-product, a symptom, if you like, of something bigger and potentially more harmful.

When you’re still young enough to bounce back without feeling it, it’s easy to believe there’s never too much. It’s easy to find positives when it hasn’t become habitual or problematic. But when you stop noticing the hangovers because you’re almost permanently hungover, dehydrated and run down, it’s an entirely different story. Particularly if you’re happy to stick with the situation because that story is far more palatable than the truth.

But when the fact that you almost never feel well becomes, all at once, both the reason for drinking and the reason you feel less inclined to drink, the choice becomes very simple: reign it in, or ignore at your peril.

Maybe there’s such a thing as too much change all at once, though. Maybe it wasn’t wise to give up alcohol, nicotine, sugar and carbs all at the same time? But that’s what I did—not at exactly the same time, but close enough to it. And I swear, for much of the first month and a half, I actually had withdrawal symptoms.

I think everyone expects reformed alchos to only have stories of happy outcomes to share. But when you’re actually one of the aforementioned people who use drinking as a shield against a reality they’d rather avoid, there’s really not going to be much good to come from it. Not initially, at least. The truth will out. And believe me, when this happens our bodies remind us, with relentless vigour, of exactly how badly we’ve been treating them and precisely how much reality we’ve avoided.

Before this, aside from the occasional mild craving during ten-or-more previous attempts to quit smoking (which really don’t count), I’d never truly experienced withdrawal symptoms of any kind, so it’s entirely possible that whatever I was feeling was something else altogether. But after some online research and ensuing self-diagnosis, it seemed almost inevitable that having quit alcohol cold turkey—particularly the volume of it that I’d been consuming—would result  in some level of withdrawal.

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months, but the ‘withdrawal symptoms’ sensation never eased. It just moved from place to place. My back, my muscles, my head, my foot, my hands, my kneck, my wrists, all of my joints, my jaw, my knees, my lower legs, my upper arms and shoulders, basically anything that could ache, or swell, or experience a burning nerve-like pain, did.

But I’m doing something good for myself, dammit! Not smoking, not drinking, better diet, losing weight, exercising… so why don’t I feel great? Why don’t I feel like running along a beach wearing flowing white linen head to toe, with the wind in my bouncy thick hair and my perfectly white teeth reflecting the sunlight? Why don’t I feel like going to the gym and pumping iron? Why don’t I feel like running a half-marathon, like everyone else apparently does these days?

And while I’m at it, why am I still avoiding phone calls? Why don’t I ever want to go anywhere any more? Why am I always so snappy and grumpy and irritable, most of all with those closest and dearest to me? Why don’t I care about work any more? How come I’m not enjoying anything at all?

I couldn’t avoid the question for a moment longer: why have I felt so fucking awful for so fucking long?

Then, all of a sudden, it stopped. Over a period of a week or so, I began to feel… I don’t know… ‘good’, maybe? Something like the way I used to feel when I didn’t feel awful. I was talkative, I was moving faster, I felt physically well; I was laughing, I was socialising, I got my creative edge back and re-started writing and making music; I was engaged with the world again. I felt good about the future. I could see positivity stretching out before me in a way that I hadn’t seen it for so very long.

I was hardly sleeping, but it hardly mattered. If I felt tired at work the next morning, I’d just guzzle some more coffee. And whoever said there was anything wrong with 7-8 coffees a day, anyway? Even if there is, I’m so happy that I don’t even care. I’ll just laugh it off because that’s how funny I find it. Then I’ll write a blog post about it. Then I might even write a song about. Then I’ll go out with friends and rejoice in my sobriety by proving that I can have a perfectly good time without alcohol, however much they choose to swill and however addled their brains become.

If you’d given me a big old ship, doubtless I would’ve run to the front and, even without anyone standing there to support me, I would’ve climbed up on that railing, hands outstretched, and proclaimed, I’M KING OF THE WOOOOOORLD!

Hmmmmmm. Shoulda kinda seen it coming, I guess. There was something distinctly not right about all of that. It just wasn’t me. Even when I was (for want of a better word) ‘normal’, I wasn’t like that. Indeed, the only other times I’d ever felt like that were many years ago and always under the influence of illicit substances.

My mind was constantly racing. My ceaseless enthusiasm and boundless energy had kept me more-or-less awake for nearly four weeks. I couldn’t stop thinking and it was kinda starting to hurt. I was worn out. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. The thoughts that kept going around and around in my head had become little more than a jumbled mess of nothingness, that I could no longer make any sense of. I pleaded with my Doctor to make it stop.

And that’s when I was given the initial diagnosis of Bipolar.

Finally, it had a name. Finally, I had something concrete to attach to all this shit. Finally, something that I could work with, a condition that I knew to be eminently treatable. Finally, I could begin to understand the way I am and how my life had panned out.

Honestly, if you’ve never known anything like this before—and trust me when I say, if you haven’t then you’re really not missing anything!—you can’t know what a relief it is to finally have a diagnosis that tells you, yes there is something going on here, you’re not imagining it, you’re not going crazy. To finally hear someone say those words to you… well, let’s just say it’s a suitably emotional moment.

Then, almost as soon as I had the diagnosis, the manic stuff stopped. As quickly as it had arrived, it went away again. And I went back to how I’d been before, which only felt worse, given how ‘up’ I’d felt for weeks on end.

You’d think it would’ve been better, right? You’d think I would’ve felt some relief. But, even having pleaded with my GP to make it stop, after such a sustained period of feeling so well, positive, creative and engaged with everything, to go back to how I’d felt before was just cruel. It probably felt little different to how I’d felt five or six weeks earlier, but after what I’d just experienced it now seemed so much worse.

Cue a bit of pressure and a handful of less-than-positive incidents in the office, and BOOM! Matt: welcome to Meltdown City.

It was the perfect storm.

I think it might’ve been described as a “nervous breakdown” in the olden days. Essentially, I lost it. I had to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. It didn’t matter where, as long as I wasn’t there.

I’m so lucky to have the best Doctor in the world. He’s never done me wrong or led me astray or given me one scrap of bad advice in the decade I’ve been seeing him. I trusted him implicitly with my situation and, as I knew he would, he immediately recognised what was happening.

Long story short (…. whoops, too late!), for the first time in my life I’m on medication to resolve and, hopefully, to stabilise my mood. This was a significant back-down for me. When I was originally diagnosed with Clinical Depression about five years ago, I’d steadfastly refused to resort to meds. “Fix it with diet and exercise and the power of positive thinking!”, I said to myself at the time. And, blow me down, if I didn’t do just that! I think I even surprised myself—especially how I came to actually enjoy exercise.

Maybe it all felt a bit unreal last time. Maybe I thought resorting to medication was over-the-top. But with this recurrence—and with the formal diagnosis of Bipolar II Disorder attached—it seemed the only sensible course of action.

For now, it all feels a little bit guinea pig-ish, given that the meds I’m on aren’t actually anti-depressants, which I’ve never wanted to take anyway. In fact the meds I’m on were never even intended to treat depression; the discovery that they could be used for this purpose was, apparently, just a happy coincidence. But my shrink (yes, I have a shrink—I feel so American!) thinks it’s the best thing ever; he’s so enthusiastic about me using it and so confident that it’ll set me right again, in time.

Meanwhile I’m exercising again. Fourteen hours of my week are spent in the gym at the moment. That’s not sustainable in the long term, but it certainly seems to be working for now. I’m almost back to enjoying it. Actually that’s not true. I’m back to feeling good about doing it and feeling energised and positive afterwards. And if my gym routine is ever disrupted for whatever reason, I get itchy feet to get in there and get going. I guess that’s a good sign?

Since I gave up drinking, friends have often said to me, “Please have a drink… Drunk Matt was more fun”. Drunk Matt certainly felt more fun than the first months of Sober Matt. I used to respond by saying that I might take it up again some day. But I don’t really think I can. I don’t believe anyone with a predisposition to depression should ever knowingly and voluntarily over-indulge in anything that will inevitably bring them down. It’s just stupid and pointless.

But for me, it’s not even a question of over-indulging; I don’t think I can indulge at all, ever again. I know what I’m like. I now have a better understanding of my addictive personality and, at least to a limited extent, why it’s there and what it can do. Now, when people share ‘fond’ recollections of Drunk Matt, I just smile.

I’m smiling a lot more these days. Even to myself. I caught myself literally stopping in my tracks the other day, when I realised that I was concurrently humming and grinning after hearing something on the radio that I thought was really sweet. That’s when I realised that, finally, after so long, my life, my existence, the world, everything around me, seemed just that little bit brighter, and the weight on my shoulders just that little bit lighter.

I used to only ever cry if I was drunk. And as I drank more, I cried more. Always in the wrong places, with the wrong people, for the wrong reasons.

Now I cry when I watch a sad movie, or when someone dies on tele, or when I hear an especially poignant song, or when a baby’s born; actually, I cry at the drop of a hat. And afterwards, it feels so good. I wasn’t crying out of sadness for no apparent reason, or out of anger or envy or jealousy, or in frustration at my condition, or despair over how my life’s played out. It’s just a good old cry, while I’m sober, coz something was sad. That makes me feel so healthy. And so very normal.


It Ain’t What You Say (It’s The Way That You Say It)

It’s amazing how many ways there are to say the same thing. As a lover of language, and someone who’s gotten around a fair bit over the years, I find it endlessly fascinating.

Setting aside indigenous dialects and simplified variants, which is a different and more complex discussion, there are so many ways for speakers of stock-standard English to express exactly the same ideas, ranging from differences between countries to state-by-state regional variations here in Australia.

When I was a kid, my family lived in four Australian states and one off-shore territory in only ten years. Even as a child, each time we moved I was always fascinated by the new ways I had to say certain things.

For example, when I went swimming in New South Wales, I wore my ‘swimmers’; when I went swimming in North Queensland, I wore my ‘togs’; and when I went swimming in Victoria—not that it’s often warranted down there—I wore my ‘bathers’.

When I went to school in NSW, I took my ‘case’ (yes, back in the day, it was an actual case—we didn’t even know what backpacks were); when I went to school in North Queensland, I took my ‘port’ (even when I was nine, I never understood why they called them ports); and when I went to school in Victoria, I took my ‘bag’ (and not just any bag—our primary school had its own funky single-strap over-shoulder affair, much like a 60s airline travel bag, unlike any schoolbag I’d ever seen).

In NSW back in the 80s, if I went to a Fish & Chip shop and ordered a flattened round of battered deep-fried potato, I’d ask for a ‘potato scallop’, but in Victoria if I wanted the same thing I’d have to ask for a ‘potato cake’. Pasties were also popular in Victoria at the time (and, quite possibly, to this day); anywhere that sold pies and sausage rolls also offered an impressive range of pasties—pronounced like ‘pastel’ in Victoria (as well as in the UK) but, elsewhere in Australia, pronounced like ‘past’. And in case you’re wondering, nobody pronounces pastie like ‘pasty’, a lesson I learned very quickly.

People in Queensland, NSW and Victoria tend to refer to locations and people in other states as being ‘interstate’. Perhaps understandably, our island cousins in Tasmania tend to use the more blanket term ‘the mainland’. South Australians and Western Australians also take a blanket approach, applying the term ‘the eastern states’ to any location beyond their respective eastern borders. Meanwhile, given that the majority of the Northern Territory’s population lives in and around the country’s northern-most city, Darwin, they tend to refer to virtually anywhere else in the country as ‘down south’ and to those who reside there as ‘southerners’. (As an aside, it’s fair to say there’s always an element of derision—if not outright venom—in any reference to southerners or those from the east.)

In the summertime, if I wanted a frozen sweet treat in NSW I’d ask for an ‘iceblock’ (which they call an ‘ice lolly’ in the UK and an ‘ice pop’ or ‘popsicle’ in the US and Canada). But in Victoria I’d ask for an ‘icypole’.

‘Ice lolly’ is the perfect segue to international differences in how we describe sugary snacks of the not-frozen variety. Here in Australia, we tend to refer to them as ‘lollies’. In the US, they call them ‘candy’, while in the UK they’re ‘sweets’. There are even differences in the way the terms can be applied. Here, it’s generally one ‘lolly’ and two or more ‘lollies’. It’s similar in the UK, where it’s typically one ‘sweet’, or two or more ‘sweets’. In the US, however, while there’s the singular ‘candy’ and the plural ‘candies’, the singular term can be applied to one or more sugary delights.

And staying on the theme of unhealthy stuff, assuming we don’t name specific brands, in Australia we generally refer to sugary carbonated beverages as ‘soft drink’ which, in the US, is typically referenced as ‘soda’ or ‘soda pop’ and, in the UK, simply as ‘pop’. And when we go to a fast food chain and order a horribly unhealthy meal, here in Australia we’re generally asked, “eat in or take away?”. But in the US, it’s “for here or to go?”. To the untrained ear this can be quite off-putting, if not entirely unintelligible, depending on the speed of delivery and the relative enthusiasm of the ‘server’ asking the question.

Internationally there are other obvious differences that Australians have long been aware of, thanks mainly to TV and movies. For example, we call it a ‘lift’ and so do the Poms, but Americans and Canadians call it an ‘elevator’. Worldwide, a moving staircase is generally known as an ‘escalator’, but many years ago Americans called the first escalators ‘inclined elevators’. And what we Aussies generally refer to as a ‘shopping centre’, Americans tend to call a ‘shopping mall’ or, more frequently, simply a ‘mall’—which is the same word applied, in Australia, to a street that’s been closed off to vehicular traffic, then paved and restricted to pedestrians.

What Aussies call an ‘esky’ and our Kiwi cousins across the ditch call a ‘chilly bin’ is usually known, virtually everywhere else, as a ‘cooler’; the Australian usage is actually based on the trademarked brand name of the first such portable cooler manufactured and sold in this country. It’s not the only example of this happening, either.

In most parts of the world, we suck accumulated detritus out of our carpet using a vacuum cleaner, with the act of doing so broadly described as vacuuming; but in the UK, you’d almost always get out the hoover to hoover the carpet. Of course there are other brands of vacuum cleaner on sale in the UK, but evidently Hoover was the most common (or possibly the only) brand available, for long enough for it to become not just the colloquial name for ‘vacuum cleaner’, but also the colloquial verb form.

Americans mostly go to ‘theatres’ to watch ‘movies’. In the UK, you’d go to the ‘cinema’ (with a long ‘a’ at the end, so it sounds like cinemaar) to watch a ‘film’, while you’d typically go to the ‘theatre’, such as those in London’s West End, to watch live performances of stage plays and musicals and such. In Australia, we also go to the ‘theatre’ to see shows performed live on stage; Americans enjoy the same spectacle at the ‘theater’ or the ‘theatre’, depending what side of the country they’re on. Australians also go to the ‘cinema’ to watch ‘movies’, although, for clarity and simplicity, we’re more likely to use the broad colloquialism ‘the movies’ (or ‘the pictures’ in the olden days) than to say we’re going to ‘the cinema’. It’s all very confusing.

Speaking of confusing, what we (arguably, incorrectly) call a ‘burger’ in Australia, Americans call a ‘sandwich’. In fact Americans call virtually anything involving any kind of filling between a bun, panini, toasted bread or muffin a ‘sandwich’. Interestingly, other than in New York City, you have virtually zero chance of getting some filling between two slices of bread—which, funnily enough, is what Aussies and Poms call a ‘sandwich’—anywhere else in the USA.

We Antipodeans and those from our former motherland have something else in common: we call the thing that goes over the engine of our cars the ‘bonnet’ and the lid over the back-end ‘the boot’, while Americans and Canadians call them the ‘hood’ and the ‘trunk’ respectively.

Then there are all the international variations on fruit and vegetable names! What Australians know as ‘capsicums’ are known as ‘peppers’ in the US and the UK; what Australians, Americans and Canadians call ‘zucchini’ and ‘eggplant’, the Brits know as ‘courgettes’ and ‘aubergine’ respectively; what we call a ‘cos lettuce’ Americans call a ‘romaine’; and let’s not even get into all the variants of orb-shaped orange-coloured citrus fruits—’clementines’, ‘mandarins’, ‘satsumas’, ‘tangerines’ and, of course, ‘oranges’ to name just a few of them.

It’s not just words, labels and names that attract regional differences. Sometimes, entire turns of phrase are different—in some cases, inexplicably so. One example, in particular, even begs the question: why would anyone knowingly use a phrase that says the opposite to what they actually mean?

Most Australians would be familiar with the phrase, “I couldn’t care less”. We often say and hear it and it means precisely what it says—i.e., with regard to the topic of discussion, it would not be possible for me to care any less about it than I presently do.

The equivalent American phrase is “I could care less”. It’s typically used in exactly the same context as “I couldn’t care less”—i.e., whoever says it is actually suggesting that it would not be possible for them to care any less about the topic of discussion than they presently do.

Problem is, the American version clearly states that the exact opposite is true—that, in fact, while implying they really don’t care about the topic at hand, it would be possible for them to care even less about it. But if you could not care less about something, why on earth would you say that you could? This is, patently, nonsensical. It would be like saying “I could eat another thing” after a huge meal, when you’re actually full, have no remaining appetite and, quite literally, could not eat another thing. And why would anyone say that? It would just be silly.

There’s also a difference with difference. Or, rather, with ‘different’. In Australia and in the UK, we tend to compare concepts or objects that aren’t the same by saying that they’re “different to” or “different from” each other. e.g., Subject A is different to Subject B, or Subject X is different from Subject Y. In the US, they typically describe dissimilar objects and concepts as being “different than” each other. e.g., Subject C is different than Subject D. None of the three is wrong, per say—they’re just different to/from/than each other.

Even the way we all say ‘ice cream’ has its subtle differences of inflection: Australians typically place the emphasis on ‘ice’, while Americans and the Brits tend to emphasise ‘cream’. Neither emphasis changes the meaning; ice cream is ice cream, wherever you are. But it’s fascinating that the way the English language has evolved over many centuries has seen subtle variations like this (along with variations of accent) popping up all over the place.

How did it happen? How did such subtle variations come to be? How did different accents develop, when most English-speaking locations were formed from much the same stock? The answer to those questions, my friends, is a passion, not a rant. And, besides, it’s far too long and complex for here.

The Pitfalls Of Morning Radio

radio-flip-clockMy long relationship with morning radio has been quite the chequered affair.

I’ve never used those appalling buzzers or shrieking alarms to shock me out of my peaceful slumber in the mornings. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always elected to be gently awoken by the radio, just loud enough to rouse me without causing me to snort/yawn my way out of a where am I?/what’s going on? daze.

I’ve always been one for waking on the hour (or the half hour), so it’s provided the perfect opportunity to catch up on the day’s news, before eventually hauling my lazy arse out of bed.

For many years, turning the kitchen radio on was one of the first things I did each morning. Then, six years ago, I got into the nasty habit of tuning in to morning television… yuk! What a lot of vacuous rubbish. I never enjoyed any of the commercial offerings but, eventually, even the ABC’s News Breakfast became too much to stomach. Schmaltzy hosts and their awkward, semi-scripted and sick-making conversations, throwing to repeated readings of exactly the same news every half hour, or to interviews and so-called ‘reports’ on topics that they scarcely disguise their complete lack of knowledge, if not outright disdain, of. Frankly, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.

I managed to shake off the morning television habit but, sadly, over time morning radio became as unpalatable as morning television. Thankfully, though, at least there’s real choice when it comes to morning radio.

Maybe it’s just something that comes with age but, over the nearly sixteen years I’ve lived in Sydney, it’s fair to say I’ve been something of a radio station whore. Most recently, I settled on one of the higher-brow local offerings, yet I’m still not entirely satisfied.

Years ago, it was commercial FM radio all the way for me. For much of the 2000s, Nova969 was my station of choice. I’d wake up to a generally relevant news bulletin, followed by one of Sydney’s most popular breakfast programs, hosted by two (or sometimes three) largely inoffensive and occasionally amusing hosts, playing the current Top 40 pop music that I tended to enjoy.

Over the years, though, things changed. For one thing, the news bulletins between 6-7am got shorter and shorter, with an ever-decreasing content of actual news—as opposed to celebrity gossip and references to social media posts. Briefly, as my interest in the Top 40 also waned, I made the switch back to the ABC’s ‘alternative’ youth-orientated offering, Triple J.

Triple J had been my station of choice during the mid-to-late 90s; my hope, in 2007, was that it would reintroduce me to new and somewhat more ‘substantial’ music and other enlightening programming. But the time obviously wasn’t right. It just wasn’t the same station I’d last listened to seven years earlier, so after not very long I switched back to where I’d come from.

Then, one day about a year later, stuck in an eastern suburbs traffic jam on my way into the office, I suddenly realised I’d become my own grandmother. “That’s absurd!”, I found myself thinking, following yet another supposedly hilarious prank call by the hosts—grown men who, afterwards, sounded as if they were literally ROFLMAO-ing. The next song came along and, suddenly, my dear departed grandma was speaking through me again. “That’s not music, it’s just noise!”. And, with the song that followed shortly afterwards, “It all sounds exactly the same”.

This was greatly unsettling. Of course I could tell the difference between one song and another, but the sound-alike nature of virtually every other Top 40 hit of the day was such that I either disliked, or at very least was disinterested in, the majority of what I was hearing. “How did this happen?”, I wondered to myself. I’d been a diehard fan of Top 40 schlock since the day, when I was three years old, that I first sung ABBA’s Dancing Queen into the hose of our mustard-coloured barrel vacuum cleaner, which of course was my makeshift stage. How I’d come to dislike pop music was a mystery to me. I was genuinely shocked by this turn of events.

So I made the switch again. This time, I defected to WSFM. Yes, the former “Hits and Memories” 2WS from the AM band back in the day, now “Classic Hits” 101.7 WSFM, had become my station of choice. The hosts were older, the music was older, the news was serious and I even won a weekend away, just by calling in and correctly answering some very early morning (and fairly simple) quiz questions—what wasn’t to like?

After about a year, I knew exactly what wasn’t to like. Despite having 40 years worth of classic hits to populate their playlist with, I came to suspect that 101.7 WSFM only had 101.7 songs to play—and they played them over and over and over and over. Week in, week out, 52 weeks a year. If I never hear Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees or Midnight Oil’s Power And The Passion again, it will still be too soon.

Radio2And so, I made the switch back to Triple J. This time, I found the format, the hosts and the plethora of new music refreshing. By now, they’d taken to including many more ‘classic hits’ into their playlist, though still of the alternative/indie variety, as opposed to Top 10 hits from the 80s (WSFM) or the 2000s (Nova). But, as I’d seen happen so many times before, eventually the Triple J breakfast show started getting on my nerves too.

When I’d initially tuned back in, the two hosts of Triple J Breakfast were really into their content. They knew the music intimately, they knew the artists and bands they were interviewing and they were able to talk about pretty much anything of relevance. They were old school friends too, so they also bounced off each other really effectively, even though one of them was a little over-enthusiastic with his commercial radio-bashing. There was also a decent range of other programs on offer, many of which I enjoyed and, often, found quite enlightening.

Inevitably, though, as tends to happen in radio, there was a change of host and with that change came an entirely different vibe. While one of the original two hosts remained, the new guy—allegedly a stand-up comedian by trade—knew very little about any of what the old host had been so well-versed in. Plus, there was an ever-increasing focus on music festivals, legalising illicit substances, university fees, dole payments, student accommodation and 14-year-olds calling in while doing their homework—none of which grandpa here was remotely interested in. Not only had Triple J become the ABC equivalent of a commercial radio station, but I was now old enough to be the father of the vast majority of its target demographic.

So, what to do? Where to from here? Was there even anything left for me?

As a kid, there was always a ‘wireless’ in our kitchen, generally set to an AM station; the AM band was the only option for many years and was certainly what my parents’ generation was used to listening to. Our radio was almost permanently on and Mum would lock onto and loyally listen—intermittently at least—to whatever AM station was topping the ratings at the time (not because of the ratings, just because she liked the station). Dad, meanwhile, would move up and down the dial listening to whatever station was broadcasting football, cricket or horse racing, or to the ABC—options which, more often than not, weren’t mutually exclusive.

Despite the fact that FM radio had existed in Australia since the late 1970s, I’m not entirely sure either of my parents knew what it was, or, if they did, what it was for or how to get to it. As one AM station after another made the switch to the FM band during the ’90s, I think Mum still didn’t know how to access it, so she just kept switching to other AM stations, until she, too, finally settled on the ABC’s local station, 1233 ABC Newcastle.

They say all daughters turn into their mothers. Clearly some sons do, too, coz once I was done with Triple J—and still determined never to return to commercial radio—I made the switch to my own local ABC station, 702 ABC Sydney. It was the first time I’d voluntarily elected to listen to a station on the AM band in nearly 25 years. The difference in sound quality only really occurred to me while listening in the car; on my kitchen radio, with its tiny tinny speaker, it made no difference at all. Plus, ABC Local Radio is mostly a talk-fest anyway, so FM-quality sound is hardly a prerequisite.

ABC Radio prides itself on top-quality journalism, so they generally try to make it all sound fairly hard-hitting and serious. 702’s breakfast program is no exception. In between interviews with self-serving politicians, business leaders and local councillors, though, they briefly digress to other topics.

Finance reports involve some unknown ‘expert’ rattling off detailed stock exchange numbers, which I’m convinced most listeners don’t actually understand while, during daily sport reports, the only role the host serves is to interject with clearly scripted questions, while the sports reporter could otherwise more than effectively present the entire thing without the faux conversational exchange.

Occasionally, they also present fluffier fare like (often comically scathing) movie reviews, as well as the ubiquitous traffic updates from someone allegedly in a helicopter somewhere over the city, mumbling into a microphone that’s far too close to their mouth.

Then, at 8:30 weekday mornings, the pace is relaxed somewhat, with a program hosted by a woman best known for decades of stand-up comedy. Between babbling about the weather, parenting, children or cooking, all the while drumming up parochial outrages about local councils and schools, she spends most of her time variously losing callers, accidentally cutting callers off or being unable to find the line a caller is waiting on—and, throughout, constantly blaming her tools. “Oh…”, she says, with surprise that somehow sounds genuine, “I don’t know what happened there… obviously our switchboard is playing up today… obviously <caller name> had very bad reception where they were… I don’t know what our system’s doing to me today…”. And on and on it goes.

“Oh FFS, get it right you idiot!”, I found myself grumbling one morning. And, with that, clearly I had to ditch 702 as well. But what on earth was left for me? I’d gone from ABC youth radio (when I actually was youthful), to contemporary commercial radio, to old-school commercial radio, back to ABC youth radio and on to ABC Local Radio… clearly, there was only one choice left: “RN”—aka, Radio National.

RadioRN is the ABC’s nationwide broadcast. All I wanted was a radio station that wasn’t 90% politics, but I also had three specific requirements: I wanted to learn something, so it had to be enlightening, informative and educational. On a road trip across America in 2014, I’d stumbled across NPR, which is basically the US equivalent of RN—and I loved it. That format was exactly what I was now looking for locally. I wanted to hear stuff that I wouldn’t hear anywhere else, about books and theatre and science and the arts. I wanted to hear music that I might not otherwise ever hear. I wanted to listen to interviews with interesting and/or intelligent people who I might otherwise never know about. All very high-brow stuff, you see.

For the most part the switch has been a success. But, perhaps predictably, it’s still not entirely satisfying.

RN’s breakfast program (as well as its midday and early evening programs) seemingly has almost blanket access to our politicians and its host—a very experienced, serious journalist—asks the tough questions, even at 6:30 in the morning. In fact RN Breakfast has so much access to our politicians that it often feels like there’s little else but politics between 6-9am weekdays; it’s virtually all they talk about, every single morning, over and over and over.

And they just love harping on about of-the-moment topics for weeks at a time, before inexplicably deserting them, with nary a single word spoken of them ever again. Another politician, another interview, another transient controversy and more tough questions to the point of it being cringeworthy.

On weekends, RN’s news bulletins cover exactly the same items, every half hour, for two solid days. Then, to rub salt into the wound, they continue to cover much of what was repeatedly covered over the weekend throughout most of Monday morning’s news bulletins too, as if it all only just happened. It’s like they believe that either nothing of any newsworthiness happens on weekends, or else that Monday morning listeners have no idea of anything that’s happened anywhere in the world since Friday afternoon; obviously, in respect of news and world events at least, RN’s demographic only cares (or listens) during corporate business hours.

Otherwise, my search criteria has, I think, been largely fulfilled. RN is unlike any other local station I’ve ever listened to. Never before have I found myself quitting iTunes, avoiding the TV or stopping what I’m doing to listen to something on the radio so frequently, or with such attentiveness. Never before has any local radio station left me feeling so enlightened, informed and educated—remit achieved!

When I switch to ABC Classical in the mornings, I’ll know it’s time to retire. Judging by the speed of the cycle to-date, I’m not sure I’ll have enough Super by then.

…you called your kid *what*?!

StupidKidsNames“Lara and Sam’s cute family outing with Rocket Zot”, the headline on the entertainment page gleefully announced. Not sure why I was looking at it, to be fair. I’m not much of a fan of celebrity, so I had no idea who they actually were.

Notwithstanding that the photo might just as well have been captioned “celebrity parents push newborn in pram”, the article (more of an ‘articlette’ really) got me thinking. Then it made me a little bit cranky. I might’ve even twitched.

But seriously, why do they do it? I honestly don’t get it. Why did they have to call it Rocket Zot? What did the poor kid ever do to them?

(And p.s., if you’re more miffed about me describing the child as “it” than you are about its parents tarnishing it with that appalling name, your slavish attention to political correctness is noted. Please don’t let me detain you further).

I wonder what possesses ostensibly intelligent adults to burden tiny just-borns with ludicrous names? Their defenseless bundles of joy can’t even voice intelligible objections, which only makes it worse. The kid’s already going to have a tough enough time of living up to its parents’ many unsolicited and unwarranted expectations for its future—now it’s also gonna have this dumb tag as the monkey on its back throughout the most sensitive years of its life.

Is any kind of damn given by parents about the impact that these wacky labels could have on the future psychological well-being of their offspring?

Truly horrifying baby names make me wonder about lots of things, including the apparent connection between famous people, bogans and folk who live in ‘regional’ or ‘rural’ locales. There must be a link of some kind, because a statistically significant proportion of all three groups is well-practiced in the art of criminally awful baby names.

Famous people are the worst offenders where downright nonsensical names are concerned. It’s as if they’re too wrapped up in their own mythology to be arsed with the bog-standard naming conventions of plebeian types. Such things apparently have zero relevance in the self-serving, egocentric world of celebrity. It’s all about ensuring every single aspect of their lives—including the name of their offspring—is fascinating, with a healthy dash of quirk. The child, clearly, has no say.

StupidKidsNames2There’s no shortage of examples of celebrity baby name crimes: Apple Martin, Blue Ivy Carter, Soleil Moon Fry, Bronx Mowgli Wentz, Bear Blu Jarecki, Seven Sirius Benjamin, Moon Unit Zappa, Jermajesty Jackson, Kal-El Coppola Cage and North West to name but a few, along with all the other innocent victims of Jamie Oliver’s, Paula Yates’ and Michael Jackson’s procreation. I’d go on, but my eyes are bleeding.

Meanwhile, ‘bogans’—and, to a lesser but still significant extent, people who live outside of our capital cities—rule the roost when it comes to new and unusual spellings of existing names, and completely made-up names. Arguably it’s because many of them couldn’t actually spell the name they thought they were choosing in the first place and believed that what they were proposing was, in fact, correct. The examples of this cruel and unusual punishment, mercilessly inflicted on a generation of children, are almost endless:

Roselyla, Shakayla, Taleisha, Allierra, Antwonet, Milla, Beberly, Anfernee (somefink tells me that mum or dad had a general issue wiv any word containing ve ‘th’ sound), Maffew (see previous comment), Taylah, Kaylaa, Jaylah, Jett, Coopa, Jazabel, Abrielle (looks like the leading “G” was lost in transit?), Aayden, Kayden, Shayden, Bayden, Jaydenn, Raiden, Haidyn, Zaydan, Taydon, Graydon, Brayden, Blayden, Braxten, Jaxxson, Saxon, Zaylen, Daylon, Baylen, Rybekkah, Micaylah, Jayke, Aleczander, Alixzander, Ty, Jai, Jhamasyn, Peyton (apparently now a girls’ name, previously a place name, a TV series name and an American footballer’s name), Lokhlan, Jazzmyn, Keyarnie, Bentlee, Aleece, Cristel, Jaymez, Kymberleigh, Brandun, Nevaeh (reverse it!), Tyffaneeh, Pricillia, Nayomey, Harmonee, Courtnee, Hollee, Phelicity, Mishelle, Melissah, Jessykah, Kael, Cyder, Ayva, Mhavryck, Aliviyah, Khobi, Maddalyn, Chloee, Danyelle, Djcynta, Kruze, Jhorjha, Harisyn, Genisis, Eirriinn (why didn’t they just duplicate every letter for good measure?), Eighmey, Ebonni, Baeley, Cyennah, Aliesha, Allesia, Alaysha (can’t you just hear mum leaning out the back door, bellowing ‘Alaaaaayshaaaa!’)… the list goes on. And on. And on.

A while back, I was flicking through Facebook during the morning commute (I was most likely near-comatose from all the previous day’s narcissistic trivialities, involving public transport, exercise, kids, plates of food and selfies) when I came across a friend’s unexpectedly amusing post. Underneath it was a series of ever-more amusing comments. But my amusement was interrupted by an observation from someone who’d otherwise sounded intelligent, rational and well-rounded—until she referred to her daughter. “Storm”.

Jesus Christ on a hoverboard! What the fuck kind of name is that!?

Does Storm sound more like a character from The Bold & The Beautiful, someone from a Marvel comic, or a pole dancer? Please, someone tell me, coz I can’t decide. I have it on good authority that even Storm’s grandmother can’t fathom her own daughter’s choice of name for the poor child.

And don’t even get me started on her poor brother, “Dash”. Actual names. I kid you not.

The choice of name says so much about parents and their hopes and dreams for their kids, doesn’t it? Only someone with a stone cold heart and two glass eyes would claim never to have felt that gushy swell of emotion on learning a newborn’s name—you know, that reaction that virtually has you saying aloud, “oh, what a good strong / sound traditional / interesting [in a good way] / pretty name”, before casting an eye over the child’s executive producers and thinking, almost unconsciously, what great parents they must be. What’s in a name? Quite a lot, apparently.

StupidKidsNames3What, then, does a questionable choice of name say? How does the selection of a truly absurd name, that’s only likely to attract the kind of attention a child absolutely doesn’t need during its most emotionally vulnerable years, reflect on mum and dad? Good taste notwithstanding, some name choices certainly reflect an astounding lack of good judgement, suggesting that ma and pa gave approximately zero consideration to their baby’s sanity or physical safety in later years.

Children can be both the cruelest and the most emotionally fragile of beings. You can just imagine the veritable field-day his classmates will have with Rocket Zot’s name during primary school. And if he turns out to be a bit socially awkward, introverted, a little geeky, if he has a unique style about him, suffers with acne or has a limp, pain and torment will almost inevitably follow during adolescence. Gods help him if he’s also gay, ginger or, even worse, left-handed.

Of course, from the moment of conception most parents imagine their progeny to be flawless—attractive, talented, outgoing, popular, confident, high-achieving in every possible way, without a struggle to speak of in any aspect of their future life. Cue the effects of having a dodgy name inflicted upon them by the very people who were meant to be looking out for them. They’ve simmered just below the surface since childhood and the now-adolescent kid’s had years and years to wonder why his parents decided to punish him with such a ridiculous name. Good luck dealing with that particular adolescent tantrum, mum and dad!

Just as with name choices we approve of, when we see a choice of name that we feel is utterly preposterous it’s difficult not to pour scorn on the parent(s), even calling into question their very ability to provide a stable environment for poor little Rocket Zot.

As he gets older, Rocket Zot’s life will be one request after another to either spell and/or explain his name. Did Lara and Sam give any consideration to the giant chunk of time he’ll lose from his life to said spellings and explanations? I think not.

At any rate how, exactly, does one explain away the dubious choices of one’s own parents? Today, Gen-X can usually blame an unusual name on the fact that their parents were pot-smoking, tree- hugging hippies in the 60s. All Rocket Zot’s generation will have to fall back on is that their parents were either bogans, celebrities or pretentious wankers. Or they were just idiots. And who wants to talk about their beloved parents like that, however truthful it might be?

Recently, I happened across Mia Freedman on the radio (I swear I wasn’t actively seeking her out). She was discussing children’s names with numerous panelists, one of whom commented that there was generally a sense of middle-class scorn towards the naming conventions of those in lower socio-economic bands. One listener called in to suggest that less financially well-off mothers were prone to giving their children uncommon or unusual names in order to give them “an edge” in life that they otherwise might not have. The next caller suggested that anyone who believed it was a positive thing to attach ridiculous monikers to already underprivileged children was more stupid than their name choices had already suggested they might be. Ouch! A harsh comment… but I couldn’t help nodding and muttering “aha” in agreement.

Let’s not forget, though, that naming conventions—like language generally—are fluid and have been evolving for centuries. Some flower and fruit-inspired names, that are either commonplace today or already old-fashioned, probably seemed just as ridiculous 100 years ago as some of today’s celebrity baby names. After multiple generations of Matthews, Marks, Lukes and Johns, Amandas, Melissas, Kates and Michelles, since the turn of this century parents have gravitated towards names reminiscent of our great-grandparents’ generation—William, Thomas, Jack and George, Lily, Olive, Charlotte and Ruby. Folk with, perhaps, a more confident or creative bent are calling their sons Sebastian, Hamish, Oliver, Jasper or Hugo, while the well-to-do—particularly in the UK—embrace previously ridiculed ‘toff’ names like Tarquin, Crispin, Tristram, Woodrow, Bartholomew and Digby.

Let’s face it: even Tarquin is better than Rocket Zot. At least Tarquin is a ‘real’ name with some actual history behind it, derived as it is from the name of the last BC-era king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.

But Rocket Zot’s certainly not alone in his parents’ choice of laughable names. There are innumerable variations on the same theme. One of my most favourite types is the existing name with an alternative spelling arbitrarily, if not unintentionally, applied to it (many examples of which were listed earlier). The unfortunate infant recipients of these mostly bogan names won’t just need to spend the rest of their lives spelling and explaining their name, each and every time they have to say it, but they’ll almost always need to clarify its pronunciation as well.

StupidKidsNames4Oh to be a fly on the wall when some of the world’s great intellects discuss whether their proposed spelling of dear little <Abbigayl / Johnythen / Khrystyna / Maddissynn / Qristyl / Viktoriya / Rach’elle>’s name is ever likely to become more of a curse than a blessing to their beloved child, who they’d never intentionally damage. Of course, that’s a wholly pointless wish on my part—parents who intentionally adorn newborns with names like that are clearly too stupid and too self-interested to ever stop to consider potential impacts on the child; they’re so dumb they probably don’t even realize the damage they’re about to inflict with such a woefully awful name.

But wait: there’s even worse! Simply making up a name that’s never been heard before, either using an existing word or place-name, or by creating a completely new string of letters which, more often than not, wouldn’t cut the mustard as a word, let alone as a name. There’s some potential for this to be a beautiful thing, but it rarely is. Examples: Adorabelle, Fyntyn, Guinessa, Hashtag, Mackson, Shardonnay, Skyy, Twyce, Brogan, Baacardee, Autumm… all, apparently, actual names given to actual babies born in recent years.

I appreciate individualism as much as anyone else, I truly do. Being unique and original and creative is all well and good—but whose originality and uniqueness and creativity are we talking about? Whose originality and uniqueness and creativity is a child’s name meant to represent, or enhance? Why not let the child decide for itself whether it wants to be unique, original or creative? Why not let the child develop a personality of its own which is entirely separate to and independent of any self-fulfilling quasi-personality, built up solely around its bizarre name?

What if the child turns out not to be intellectually gifted in any way? What if the kid ends up being the shyest person ever to walk the earth? Or, worse, a crushing bore with no confidence, minimal personality, few interests or hobbies and without a single creative bone in its body? Oh come on, enough with the horrified, shocked gasps and faux-outrage! We all know it’s possible. Everyone’s different. And every single uncreative crushing bore in the world who ever existed started out as a child, who probably wasn’t much different.

In recent years there’s been increasing acknowledgement of the damage that silly names can do to children. In 2011, the New Zealand Registrar of Births, Death and Marriages reported a crackdown on the registration of stupid baby names, recalling that a nine-year-old child had been so traumatised by her name, “Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii”, that she applied to have it legally changed in 2008. In accepting her request, the presiding Family Court Judge said an odd name “makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap”.

So where’s the duty of care that inherently comes with parenthood, when the first thing they do to their child is impose a name that’s likely to be a social and/or psychological handicap? And who’s meant to benefit from a ridiculous (or, at best, a ‘somewhat unique’) child’s name anyway—the child, or the parent(s)?

There’s ‘unique’ and then there’s just being different for the sake of it. “But we don’t want our children to have the same name as everyone else”, some soon-to-be parents might say. Apparently they’re somehow unaware of the hundreds and hundreds of names they can choose from, the majority of which wouldn’t leave their children mentally scarred, having to spend their entire lives in a world of name-spelling and name-explaining pain, or wanting to change their name to ‘John’ or ‘Jane’ as soon as they’re old enough to legally do so.

There’s enough pointless chit-chat in the world as it is. I can only despair of a future where all that noise will be nothing but the spelling and explaining of absurd names—24/7, 365.

Oh dear.