June 17, 2013


Closing the MG at the ANU, part III

At this precise moment I am getting outside of coffee number two. It is ‘pissing down’, as we say here, and the day is cold. Wind redundantly rattles the sun blind in front of my window. Many small and large birds are hunting for the worms that the rain is bringing out of the lawn; all life goes on.

I began writing this post a week ago; today I am returning to the theme of what was behind Olivia’s and my decision to close the Monkey Gym after all these years. As many of you know we took over the facility and turned it into a secure gym only four years ago, even though we have been teaching at the ANU for 26 years this year. Securing the facility had become necessary because too many of the Sport and Recreation Association (“SRA”) staff and trainers were using the rings and the ropes upstairs when we were not there. As well, no one controlled the space while we were not teaching and one Tuesday I came in to find that live blades had made multiple cuts in the mat that the teachers use—and no one in management even knew which group was responsible. Readers may know that the only time the MG is open is when there is a class scheduled or we have a supervised training session. And because the SRA has hopeless security for their own areas, coupled with the fact that the MG was up three flights of stairs and out of sight from everyone, made it simply too dangerous to continue as it was: we had visions of someone falling off the rings or off the Phat rope and we would be have been immediately liable.

Around that time the then head of the SRA offered us the opportunity to take on the lease for that space, as a means of solving what he experienced as a “serious problem”—how to turn on the air conditioners in our space. For some reason that never did become clear, the front desk staff were able to walk up one flight of stairs and turn on the air-cons in the Multi-Puspose Room (the “MPR”) for the group exercise classes, but the next flight was a ‘flight too far’: none was able to climb up the next flight to turn on the air-cons in our room. Every day for one three-month period, I called the front desk with a request for this service, and most days it had not been done. Now, anyone who understands air conditioning will know that if the temperature in a big space is not held down to a comfortable level early enough in the day, it cannot be brought down by turning them on 15 minutes before a class—the heat gain is too large, and the time it takes to bring the temperature back down is in the order of 1–2 hours. It was a constant irritation, both from the teachers’ and students’ complaints and the immense resistance from the SRA management.

So we were offered the opportunity to take on a lease (“You can put an office up there, and one of your staff members can turn on the air-cons whenever you want”) as a means of solving this ‘problem’. I agreed, on the condition that the facility would be secured with a lockable door; and I designed the round wooden entrance with the glass door as a result, and KL&A and the SRA shared the cost. Miss Olivia had been running all the administration of the classes for some time so it seemed like a logical step in a consistent direction. However, I had not sufficiently factored in the fear-based personality of the then head of the SRA and, following agreement on the operating principles, it took two years of negotiation to actually come up with a lease. We spent a small fortune taking a sample lease that he had given us (explicitly to use as a guide for ours) and converting it to one that dealt with the particulars of the use of that space. And as soon as we got to the end of that process and I delivered the lease to him he claimed that the committee that actually runs the SRA (the éminences grises that no one ever sees) decided to engage the ANU’s own solicitors to draft the lease; our draft lease was a waste of time and energy and money.

Once the ANU’s solicitors (a large local company) had drafted a lease I then went back through it and put back in all clauses that were necessary for our operation. The staff member of this legal firm who drafted this second lease was a junior and appeared to have little idea of what a lease actually entailed.  Meanwhile the feedback we were getting from our members was that Olivia taking over all the administration was seen as a 100% positive blessing because the majority of the ANU’s front-of-house staff members at the time were clueless and (worse) it was obvious that no one from middle management there gave them any overall introduction to what actually goes on in the facility. Once Olivia had taken over the administration many minor irritations from previous years ended. The lease was signed eleven minutes before the then-EO left that position.

Enlarging the context for a moment, Olivia and I have noticed that a “culture of entitlement” is emerging here, and in the rest of the Western world. By this, I mean that everyone expects things to be done for them and exceptions to be made for them as well, but nothing  is offered in return. For example, doing a make-up class (a class missed for some personal reason) has become a presumption rather than the privilege it is. Or, when someone enrols, one might say, “I’ll be away on field work for three weeks”, implying an enrolment price reduction. Both of us have noticed this change over the last ten years. The clear implication from language and content is that our responsibility is to do what these people want us to do for them. This is only a small percentage of the students but it is enough to be a significant distraction to the main game.

For me now (and getting to the heart of the matter) coincident with this long process of getting the lease signed was the attendance at the advanced class by the teachers. In short, unlike the old days where almost all of the teachers attended the advanced class almost every time it was offered, now most of the teachers had other things that they chose to do on the Tuesday night. It is written clearly in both of my books that the advanced class is my laboratory and that part of being a teacher in this system is the requirement to attend this class. I remember once about eight years ago deciding to take three of the then-current teachers out of the forthcoming semester’s schedule to give them a break to think about what their priorities were. One of them took great umbrage at this and left the system forever, to my deep regret.

The ancillary effects of infrequent attendance is not obvious to the teachers but let me try and describe some of them. When an insufficient percentage of them do not attend one loses the entire “water cooler” communication channel: when all the teachers are present, there is a rapid and efficient sharing of information that is immediately relevant to them during the warming up period. And this also gave Olivia the opportunity to disseminate any critical and time sensitive information too. This process, though, requires a critical mass of teachers to be present and it requires them to be present regularly. The last thing I want to be is any kind of policeman in my life. But without the teachers there, the running of the facility becomes both more difficult administratively and teaching there was far less fertile for me in the laboratory sense. My present workshop schedule exists in stark contrast: these are the occasions where the best ideas emerge. As a creative person, I need to stress that one does not ‘sit down and think up’ new solutions to old problems: these emerge in the frisson of actually working with people and their problems, although there have been many times when doing a Yoga Nidra, solutions have literally popped in to my mind.

And coincident with teacher attendance dropping off was the increase in my overseas workshop exposure. Although the administration of the overseas workshop is the responsibility of the local host, the fact is nothing can be scheduled without some overview of where I’ll be and what time during the year. And that burden also falls to Olivia—the upshot is that the only conversation that happens in our house is to do with work. Further, the actual workload she has is massive. It is completely normal for us to work seven days a week and sometimes quite long days as well. And what is not explicit in this brief account is how much the government’s and tax office’s reporting requirements have also increased during this critical 10 year period. We spend a significant fraction of each week simply satisfy these requirements: business activity statements, GST, workers’ compensation, insurances of a wide variety, superannuation, and 10,000 other small things that contribute absolutely nothing to the body of work.

We had a four year lease and an option to renew for a further four years only. When Olivia and I had a meeting with the current head of the SRA it became clear (slowly) that exercising the option might be more difficult than expected. As an aside, the SRA work to an interesting and completely conflicted set of principles: on the one hand they claim to be a commercial enterprise but on the other  they will always defer to their presumption/interpretation of what the university would actually like done in respect of any particular question. And my long experience with this organisation shows me that either one of these perspectives will be selected for purely local reasons. And in the drawing of the lease we signed, the previous Executive Officer insisted on their right of refusal over the option to renew and this is written in the lease explicitly. I had to push the current EO to be clear about this but finally he acknowledged that it was their preference to resume the space. As an aside, let me remark that they have no idea that a world-standard offering is available within their own facility and none attends any of our classes. In the entire 26 years I’ve been teaching, not one of the other teachers or presenters has published anything—we are unique in this regard, but because none of the middle or senior management has any idea of what we do, in most discussions it has been easier to simply say no, in respect of whatever it is that I might want to do.

I want to emphasise that absolutely none of this is any kind of problem for myself or Olivia. As we like to say, the universe seems to be pointing in a particular direction and I  stopped pushing against these indicators many years ago. So, Olivia and I sat down and we made a clear decision to end the facility at the ANU so that we can concentrate on where the universe is pointing and that is workshops, both locally and internationally. It might even lead to a better quality of life for both of us—certainly that is our hope.

A codicil: readers will know that the recent MG workshop ended last weekend; I wrote the bulk of these comments above over a week ago. We moved out all of the rest of our equipment yesterday, and today are preparing for our end-of-lease party, this evening. The MG workshop cemented my feelings about the necessity of enthusiastic co-presenters and teachers: the four days were excellent and a number of new ideas emerged or were shown to me by either the other teachers or the attendees—and this is the atmosphere I want to work in from now on.

And today we handed over all (except one, on its way by mail) our 25 keys to the secure facility. We had a perfectly amicable meeting and handover with the present EO, and we wish him well.

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