Monday, 29 April 2013

Where is my mind?

There was a time when the amount of email received in a day was paraded as the mark of a true warrior.  Ok, not the mark of a true warrior, more the mark of someone who thinks that being sent loads of stuff makes them look very important.  I will confess to having been involved in conversations with colleagues where we compared the volume of messages received and nodded gravely in agreement at how very busy we were.  Strange stuff.  You would never brag about the amount of post that you get through your letter box or the amount of conversations that you have.  Can you imagine saying "You'll never believe it, I got home to find seven letters on the door mat and that was after I'd spoken to at least twelve people on the phone and met precisely five more.  Really, the amount of communication I've had to take part in today has made me feel incredibly weary."?  No, you would sound like a pratt.  So why is it different when it's digital?

I have a long history with email, from managing the single account belonging to my workplace many moons ago to running three separate accounts today.  I would struggle to get by without it, and I do like it when it's properly used.  I have also experienced the thrill of receiving a company-wide email that says 'please delete the previous message immediately' which of course means that everyone reads it, saves it, and its contents become more interesting and explosive than the latest episode of whatever soap nobody watches together these days.  It has had it's moments.

But here's the thing.  Somewhere along the line I had forgotten that I can choose what email I receive and respond to and my email accounts were filling up with sales messages that I don't want.  Every day yielded a digital disappointment as I would miss a message from my friend in Australia because it was lost in a see of 'SHOP NOW' emails from companies I don't want to hear from.  No, Wallpaper Direct, I have no desire to re-enact last year's eight weeks of decorating this year thank you very much.  

Same goes for facebook status updates and LinkedIn discussions threads that drip into my accounts by the minute.  If I'm not 'there' then I can't properly contribute, and these endless blips and updating inboxes are distracting me from the stuff I should be doing and smothering the messages I should be seeing (like those from my accountant - sorry!) which makes me feel annoyingly disorganised.  No wonder people frown when they look at their phones.  I blame mine for the irritatingly wonky lines that are forming between my eyebrows.  

Now of course you could apply lots of lovely rules and 'sweeps' and automatic clean-ups but this makes you keep shed loads of unwanted mail 'just in case'.  You wouldn't keep every pizza flyer or double-glazing leaflet or save every voicemail you received so why store every email?  Unfortunately, as our email accounts are not like the cupboard under the stairs which will eventually burst forth if you shove even one more toy in it, we end up with years of dusty, pointless old data and I have had enough.

There's nothing for it but to be as ruthless.  I'm going on a mission to remove all the rubbish and ditch the endless offers from Debenhams (sorry Debenhams but there's only so many 'Blue Cross Sales' a girl can take) after which I shall clap my hands over my computer and chime Indian bells to get my digital chakras in order.  I'm going to detox the inbox.

Soundtrack: Where Is My Mind - The Pixies

Friday, 26 April 2013

You Down with OPP?

Despite a career in tech I'm a massive laggard when it comes to all things computing. It wasn't until 2011 that I joined facebook and predictably it is now one of my favourite things for keeping in touch with friends and family that time or distance prevent me from spending as much time with as I'd like to.  Scratch that, it's probably my favourite way of keeping in touch with almost everyone apart from a good face to face chat.  Preferably with wine involved (and there's plenty of that on facebook - by 5pm on a Friday every status I see involves having, or wishing to have a drink).

I knew on joining facebook there would be friends that post their every waking moment, those that dip in and out and those that are rarely there.  They might not be there at the same time or for the same reason but the thing they all do is post photos. Endless photos.  Photos of birthdays, holidays, 'we went to the park' days.  They document christenings, Christmas, 'christ I was a drunk-mess'.  The ability to share so much of your life with so many people without looking like a crazy-lady showing off the family album at a bus-stop (even if it isn't too far removed) is a most tantalising thing.

What I hadn't anticipated was to be on facebook you have to be ok with 'Other People's Pets' (you see, not the OPP you might have been thinking of you naughties!)  The amount of pet-based posting that goes on stunned me initially.  There's reams of it.  Streams of it.  Pages and pages dedicated to it.  There isn't a moment when my timeline doesn't have a photo or comment about someone's puppy or kitten.  And if it isn't their own they're posting a link to a photo or video of an animal that has amused them.  At this very moment I can see an image of Robert Downey Jnr's head on a cat's body...  Unexpected, and of 'niche' appeal but it's there and I have seen it.  And now, so can you.

Some friends profile pictures have morphed into pictures of their pets and in one instance my friend's pet has her own page.  Her own page AND 31 FRIENDS!  If ever proof were needed that the British are soft about animals this is a classic case in point and I rather like it.  But I did feel a bit left out.

We had come to the conclusion that we would be a 'pet free' family after being scarred by the experience of a cat that made regular and vigourous dirty protests after our children were born (turns out she was more of a 'prefers to be fussed by a kindly old lady' than 'kept awake / on high alert by children' feline).  Our village has more puppies than pushchairs so whether I am at the school gate or on-line I am never more than a minute away from a loopy Labrador or a charming King Charles but we resolved to stay firm, our house is not ready for a pup that will eat its way through our furniture.  Even if they do look at you with adoring eyes or give you a level of obedience that your children never will we are not getting a dog.  Yet.  

But we have caved, just a little bit.  Because children don't forget when you make them a promise years before that you will bring something small and fluffy into the house for them to love.  So now a corner of our garden is given over to four very funny, slightly naughty, fabulous egg producing hens.  Within the space of two hours I had gone from 'meh' to 'mine' and.....posted their picture on facebook.  

As unimportant as it no doubt is, there are times when it feels vital to observe an animal to improve the quality of your day.  I hope I can now return the favour to my friends who have lifted my spirits with pictures of their furry-faced companions.  Even if they do have Robert Downey Jnr's face superimposed on them......

PS:  If you're interested to know quite how important animals are to the Internet age, might I suggest you watch this video

Soundtrack: O.P.P. - Naughty by Nature - definitely not about pets.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

I Get So Emotional

I took the children to see The Croods at the cinema yesterday.  A visual spectacular with a plot line that involves a cave-family realising that they have must change or die because 'the end is coming'.  Volcanoes erupt, the land parts, mountains shake and their cave is decimated.  We crunch through popcorn and I am wistful for the days of my youth where going to the cinema was about queuing outside the 'ABC' in a state of near hysteria at getting to see the latest film but I am grateful that the seats today are massive and nobody smokes or throws Mint Imperials at the back of your head.  

And then towards the end 'Mr Crood' is separated from his family and his daughter starts crying, and so do I.  For goodness sake!  I am crying at a children's film.  Not heaving sobs of heartache you must understand but more than a couple of tears slid their way down my face at the sight of the cave-girl's massive tear-filled eyes and trembling bottom lip.  This was not a one off either - since having the children there aren't many programmes, songs or news stories that don't set me off.  That's why mums always have a tissue up their sleeve, not for bogey-noses, but in case a baby smiles at them or a dog whimpers or a song that contains a piano comes on the radio.

You might think that I shouldn't be so emotional but it's programmed in.  From having a parent's-eye-view of terrible two's and wild boys, to remembering my own teenage angst (and really, really hoping that my children somehow magically skip that) to the wonder of reproductive hormones I'm inclined to believe we're designed to be emotional from the minute we shout our way indignantly into the world.  Having children aside there has been enough activity to keep things interesting for years and when it all gets too much, I am thankful to have found my 'fix' in running.  Magical stuff.    

And then I'm talking to a friend who utters the words 'peri-menopausal'.  I'm wondering if this is a new type of Nando's flavour but no, she tells me it is the time before you are 'pre-menopausal' which is before the menopause after which you become 'post menopausal'.  I think the life-span of a man is generally taken to be as Morrissey so succinctly put it in Cemetary Gates; 'they were born and then they lived and then they died'.  Quite why women's lives are being sliced into ever tinier sections to be labelled and treated I don't know.  The cynic in me says it's because the drug companies would like to find new reasons to sell us gallons of evening primrose and anti-ageing pills when we all know that a glass of wine and good company has a significantly greater impact on your mood.  Or maybe they are really run by mega-hippies that want to help us all 'chill-out man' as we reach middle-age.

I don't know, so until the point that I am peri, piri, pingy, poingy or whatever it is that I am to be labelled I shall carry on crying at kids films, and if all the terrible things that my friend described really are on the way, I'm going to need a new pair of running shoes.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

You Want to Live Like Common People?

As further cuts came into force through the Government's Welfare Reform, Iain Duncan Smith says "I could live on £53 a week if I had to".  A petition has been set up to see if he would like to prove it but of course he could live on £53 'if he had to'.  We all could, because in a situation where you have no choice, where you have little income and are reliant on the state to support you to some extent, or totally, then you just get on with it.  Many families already do.

This is not about to become a tirade against people who rely on benefits, nor a lengthy defence.  What it is about is requesting a little more understanding of how bloody hard it can be to work your way out of that situation.

When I was growing up, both of my parents had low-paid jobs.  Dad got home from work in the late afternoon and was immediately handed the parenting baton so mum could go to work in the evening at a shampoo factory.  Our family was 'dual income' but we had bugger all to show for it.  No holidays, just hand-me-downs and great smelling hair - thanks Alberto Balsam!  We did, however, have an appreciation of the importance of work because during the short periods when my dad didn't have a job it massively impacted our household budget.  This was to become permanent however due to my his ill-health and subsequent death.  Without the benefits system as it was in the late Eighties / early Nineties I have absolutely no idea how my family would have survived. 

Now, when you are poor and a teenager, and wishing that your dad wasn't dead, and that you had enough money to get the bus and not have to walk three miles to town, and that you didn't have to wash your clothes in the sink because the washing machine is broken, and that you didn't have to keep asking the neighbours for bread and sugar, and all the other stuff that goes along with living on almost nothing and everybody knowing about it you are in quite a precarious position.  You really are only a couple of choices away from being reliant on benefits for the rest of your life.  But, if you can see through the grief and the shame and the sick and tired feeling that comes from relying on hand-outs, it might light a fire underneath you that makes you work like a bitch to do everything you can to get out.  Which is what I did.

And because of that I know how hard it is to move away from home at eighteen with nothing to fall back on, to leave behind friends, family and siblings that need you, to end up spending 90% of your wages on rent and train fare which means you have to live off beans and marmite sandwiches (not together of course, that would just be wrong).  I understand the difficulty in making friends when you've moved to a place where you don't know anybody, the feeling out of place, lacking confidence, not having the right social skills and struggling to shut away the part of you that thinks you don't belong.  I know what it's like to rent a room in a house that seems fine then the landlord turns out to be very weird indeed so you don't feel safe and end up jamming your bedroom door shut by putting a chair under the handle.  It is far, far easier to not do this stuff, to 'stay put' where you feel more comfortable and are among the people you grew up with. 

But I'm so glad I didn't go back because every minute of effort was worth it to reach the evening in the Bull & Chequers when I was introduced to the man that is now my husband.  Loads of other great stuff has happened; the career and material things have worked out well, and my teenage self would be jumping for joy at the life I now have but without him it wouldn't mean quite so much and of course, we wouldn't have had our children, little smashers that they are.  So thanks 'the B&C', I owe you one.

So far, so very lovely and heart-warming; see kids - getting 'on your bike' works! But my point is this.  Finding the strength to invest that kind of effort and cope with the moments of loneliness, 'being broke-ness', and generally feeling like you're dragging Eric Pickles uphill on a sledge is just about do-able when you're young, single, healthy, positive to the point of naivety and have a couple of A-levels.  But to find yourself in that position in your forties, with a family, or because your partner has died, or because you are ill, or if for whatever reason you came out of school with nothing.  How much harder is it then?

The Government wants people less reliant on benefits and more inclined to work and yes, I agree.  There is pride and fulfilment in going to work, bringing home a wage and feeling that you have made a contribution.  It gives you confidence when you have your own money and feel in control of your circumstances. It feels incredible to achieve things in our professional and personal lives but what if something happens that takes those things away or knocks you so far back that you wonder how you'll recover?  Could you just 'snap out of it' then?

So yes Iain, help people to make changes, find a way to bring more work into families and make more choices available to young people who aren't starting out from a solid foundation.  But do it with a little more understanding and perspective and don't think that platitudes like yours work when delivered by someone earning over £130,000 a year.  We could all live off £53 a week if we had to, but we sure as hell wouldn't choose to. 


Soundtrack:  Common People by Pulp