Good heavens, it’s December — where in the name of all that’s holy did 2018 go? It seems like only yesterday I was decking my metaphorical halls and boggling about the speed at which 2017… More
I smile a lot. You might even say I’m a positive little joy germ … I’ve even been known to sing first thing in the morning. I see this as a great way to greet the day, others find it annoying. But I can’t help it, it’s just how I am. My rellies call me Tigger after the irrepressible bouncing tiger in the AA Milne’s wonderful Winnie the Pooh stories. Hopefully you get the picture? I’m one of nature’s smilers. Or at least I used to be. Life kind of got in the way for a while there and it felt as if Tigger had bounced up one tree too many and got stuck. Happily — smilingly — Tigger’s back bouncing around on the ground searching for adventure.
But my point? Other than smiling, walking is one of my great joys in life. When I walk I think, I process, I solve problems and dream up ideas. Some people smile while they dial. Me, I smile while I walk. Weird you might say, but why not? Walking makes me feel great, all I have to do is leave my house to do it. I usually walk in glorious places which make my heart sing and, even better, it’s usually free. What’s not to smile about? So what if I look like some scary humanoid version of the Cheshire Cat to the rest of the world?
But I think smiling’s great and an encounter I had a couple of weeks ago is a perfect example of why. Picture the scene. I was striding happily along the waterfront near my home, inhaling the beauty of a glorious day and enjoying the antics of the canines on parade. I’m wearing scabby old exercise clothes, but I figure glam shades, some violent red lippy make up for that … and the beaming smile. Of course, most people scuttle away when this apparition goes past. A few manage a muted ‘Hi’ in response to my breezy greeting — usually this comes with all the enthusiasm that you might put into acknowledging a slimy thing that’s just crawled out from under a stone. Sad … as he who should not be named would say.
Why are people so afraid? That a smile is the façade for an out of control lunatic? That they might somehow get caught up in my life if they smile back? That I’m on the make?Makes me think I need to carry a placard, “Really it’s OK. I’m smiling at you because I’m having a Zip-A-De-Doo-Dah day. I’m high on the sun, the sparkly sea, all those wonderful dogs, the way the rhythms of walking make my body feel and, by the way, I would like to share my joy with you.” Don’t other people feel the same?
Imagine my surprise when I find a kindred spirit in amongst all the avoidance — another happy smiling face. I see her dog first. I love dogs (in case you missed that) but there are some breeds I particularly like and hers happens to be one of them. Patrocles (as I find out he’s called) is a liver spotted Dalmatian that would have given the leads in 101 Dalmationsa run for their money in terms of street appeal. I turn to compliment the women on the gorgeousness which is her dog and ask if I can pat him. That’s when I really clock her. She’s staring out over the water with a radiant smile that would make Julia Robert’s best look dim. I take it she’s as intoxicated by the day as I am. She turns to answer my question … our eyes meet … and we share a ‘moment’ as we acknowledge that we both get it. That whatever else is going on in our lives (and it’s not been a good year on a number of counts in mine) we’re smiling because right now, in this moment, the world is a wonderful place. Even Patrocles is smiling!
Anyway, after mouthing platitudes about dogs and the loveliness of the day, we have that conversation about why people look away when you smile at them. Then, a little reluctantly it has to be said, I walk on. But somehow, I can’t let the moment pass and turn back because I want to tell her she’s made my day with her beautiful energy. It’s the same for her she says. I pat the pooch again and continue on my walk feeling good at having had such a random and uplifting encounter.
It really did make my day and I’m still smiling thinking about it. Was such a good reminder of how much we can influence our world through the energy we bring and the simple gift of an open and genuine smile. So smile people, because nothing shakes the smiling heart and remember that happiness looks gorgeous on you. As Chris Hart said, “All the statistics in the world can’t measure the warmth of a smile.”
So get your smiley face on and dazzle everyone you meet. Tough shit if some people think you’re deranged. You’ll have a great day and hopefully also make those of of the people you cross paths with.
Happy World Smile Day!
(5 October 2018)
I read a great article the other day about a trending topic, ‘The Cult of Thrift’. The gods of this cult are minimalisation, debt-free living, frugality, decluttering and zero waste, gods I’ve been progressively bending the knee to over the last few months. In fact, it was so similar to my own experience, the article felt as if it had been written by a doppelgänger. Hadn’t realised I was part of a new wave — how advanced of me!
The main difference between us was that the writer has consciously embraced the thrift ethos whereas I’ve kind of blundered into it in a necessity being the mother of invention sort of way. In fact, after a couple of financially disappointing business investments, I’ve really had no option other than to pull my belt in big time. Thinking about it, said tightenign of belt was purely metaphorical. As the funds ran out like beer from a leaky barrel, epic levels of comfort eating kicked in meaning that I actually would have had to let out the belt a few notches … if I’d wanted to wear one that is. During this nadir, I pretty much stopped wearing belts or any other clothes with shape given the results of all the snout in trough stuff. However, I’m sure you’ll be as uplifted as I am by the knowledge that not only have I started wearing belts again, I’ve actually clawed back one of the lost belt holes and have confidence a normal waistline is in sight!
So much for metaphor! In any case, what started out as necessity quite quickly morphed into choice and I appear to be well on my way to becoming a paid-up Thrifter and feeling more virtuous by the moment.
So what has given me the keys to the Thriftdom? Unsurprisingly, given the above, a fair amount of it revolves round food and eating habits. For starters, bargain food hunting has become an obsession, if not actually a new sport. This has led to the dark art of cooking proper meals again instead of giving in to the Siren call of endless takeaways after too many stressful and long days at work. Sometimes the new me even cooks a casserole or soup or similar at weekends to stretch over several weekday meals.
I finally get the joy of auction sites like eBay and Trademe although I continue to try and buy as ethically as possible. I can’t exactly claim that Upcycle has become my middle name, but I have looked at a few things and had an ‘aha moment’ about refurb rather than trash. ‘Pre-loved’ clothing shops are very much on my radar. Having moved into a much smaller apartment, I no longer get small space envy whenever I watch a George C Clarke TV programme and I feel positively virtuous for the level of de-cluttering that’s resulted. I can thoroughly recommend this tactic to wannabee Thrifties. When you have limited space, it makes you think long and hard about what stuff you actually want to shackle yourself to. Choices have to be made people! It won’t all fit! In the spirit of transparency, I have to fess up to the fact that I haven’t yet been able to get myself to offload the many boxes of books I’ve been trailing around as I’ve moved into successively smaller homes to a second-hand book seller or book fair, so my sister’s enormous garage is currently multi-tasking as my library.
Limited closet space is also a great incentive to apply some of the anti- clothes-hoarding rules. You know — if you haven’t worn it in the last two years, it’s toast. If you buy a new garment, something must be consigned to the outer darkness of the clothing bin to make room for it. If it doesn’t work with something you’ve already got, put it back on the rack. And how many pairs of shoes does anyone not called Imelda need?
In all seriousness, after the initial trauma, de-cluttering is a very liberating activity. It’s not just stuff I’ve been getting rid of either. The thrift thing can be applied across all the facets of life. I’ve shed one business and stepped back from a couple of other professional involvements so I can concentrate fully on doing one role well. I’m also training myself to say no to all those ‘should dos’ that my inner crowd pleaser sees as obligatory.
Although thrifty has been a virtue since Adam was a boy (actually since around 1300 if you read dictionaries), the Thrift evangelists are out in numbers these days. You’d have to think that’s a direct result of the all the inconvenient truths we’re facing as a society and the fear the we might be going to Hell in a handbasket sometime soon if we can’t get the lid back on our contemporary Pandora’s box. Among the evils unleashed on the world when some fool opened it in this is the spend-thriftery (extravagant, irresponsible spending) that has come to define our consumerist western lifestyle.
But how could it be otherwise? We’re literally bombarded with subliminal and not-so-subliminal messaging carefully crafted to make us dissatisfied and want more, bigger and better everything. But don’t worry, if you can’t afford it, someone will lend you the money, up your credit card limit or provide ‘interest free credit’ so you can keep on consuming and owe a bit more of your soul to the company store. It’s unsustainable on so many levels — personal, community wide and for our equally stressed planet.
Actually, it’s obscene. Or at least in my rapidly de-cluttering life, it seems so. The concept of retail therapy — when the going gets tough the tough go shopping — sits at the centre of the problem. Particularly when the results are growing mountains of recycling that can’t (yet) be re-cycled, oceans stuffed with plastic and other toxic detritus and all the rest. Maybe we should create a new mantra; when the going gets tough, the tough go … on a peace march?
Shopping as our primary leisure time activity is particularly ironic given that we humans have so much innate creativity. Less time spent shopping leaves time for things that so often go on the back boiler. I love writing this blog as it helps me sort out my priorities, worldview and values. But when I get stressed and my life and mind get cluttered, I can’t write. There’s just no headspace to think about anything other than whatever is causing the stress, and I have sometimes gone for weeks without writing anything.
It has to be noted that the cult of thrift is not a judgement on the genuinely poor for whom thrift is not a virtue but potentially a life sentence. Rather, it is being held out as an alternative for people with means who want to get off the consumer treadmill and start living within them, taking responsibility for how their actions affect the present and future. It’s not about austerity, just changing our personal values and thinking more deeply about how we live.
Taking my own recent experiences, while I’m as keen to have the good things in life as the next person, I’ve found a lot of joy in appreciating what is instead of lusting after what isn’t. In this context, less is most definitely more. Getting my thrift on has become a highly creative and engaging new way operating which ironically becomes a much more sure-fired way of being able to afford to do the things I would like to. I feel up-lifted by the challenge not deprived. There’s certainly more time to smell the roses.
On a road trip a couple of weeks ago, my playlist dished up a song by Sting that I hadn’t heard for a while — An Englishman in New York. Glad though I was to be reacquainted with this old favourite, it’s been stuck in my head since like … er … a stuck record.
The Englishman in question was the infamous eccentric gay icon Quentin Crisp, who moved from London to New York in 1981 (incidentally the year I moved to London from Scotland as an starry-eyed post-grad). Crisp – or Denis Charles Pratt as he was born in 1908 — apparently came from a fairly conventional suburban English background. How he then made the leap from that to wearing make-up, painting his nails and including items of female clothing in his ‘look’ is anybody’s guess. Well actually, that’s not quite true. His autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, which ultimately became a cult TV production starring John Hurt, made him a household name from the mid-seventies and removed the need to guess about his Genesis.
Quentin Crisp was many things in his time; a ‘rent-boy’, a professional model for life-classes in art colleges, a raconteur — his one man show filled theatres for many years in Britain and America — as well as a TV actor and personality. But it was the interviews he gave that fuelled the legend, particularly his take on manners and the cultivation of style, both of which he wrote about at length. He famously labelled himself as “one of the stately homos of England”.
I admired him hugely for his commitment to living life on his own terms in the certainty that everyone has a right to fulfil their true and unique potential. He seemed to accept that flying in the face of convention would not be a comfortable ride, particularly when you don’t evangelise the party line on divisive issues such as gay rights, and openly criticise wildly popular figures such as Diana “the people’s Princess”. While the ‘outrage factor’ certainly added to his allure, it also brought vitriolic criticism and disapproval. Whether or not this bothered him, it certainly didn’t change him. As Sting so elegantly put it, “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile. Be yourself no matter what they say.”
Thinking about this concept of being yourself, no matter what they say, it’s always been one that’s been very dear to my heart. While I’m no rebel, like Crisp, I’ve always rated individualism and done my best to foster my own. Our human DNA seems to be infused with deep-rooted tribal instincts. In my own case, despite many years as an ex-pat, I still identify strongly as a Scot. But this only goes so far. Much as I like being around my own kind, I’ve never wanted to be one of the pack. For as long as I can remember, I had a highly developed sense of my own individuality which has always seemed to me to be a precious thing that made life fuller and more interesting.
Very early on, I found my own sense of style which I’ve built on through the years. I can remember teetering around the cobble stones of my alma-mater, Saint Andrews University, in the depths of the Scottish winter wearing outrageously precarious shoes and a moss green corduroy pencil-line skirt and jacket which I made myself. That was one of a number of similarly outstanding, if impractical ensembles in my wardrobe. I mention this only because it was a time when most of my peers were content with uniform blue jeans and Guernsey jerseys.
Moving to London post grad was like diving into a cornucopia of opportunities for self-expression. I found my spiritual home working in international media where anything goes, and idiosyncrasy was par for the course. With the natural advantage of statement hair of the blonde cork-screw variety I was the right fish in the right pond. Of course, I hated my hair with a passion when I was a violin-playing nerdy kid, but it became a real asset during those years for its sheer ‘out-there-ness’. I used to festoon this riot of tresses with all sorts of bows, bands and ornaments.
Coming back to Quentin Crisp, it takes courage to keep your faith. It’s much easier to wear the uniform, join a tribe, embrace the jargon. Several times in my life I’ve tried very hard to contort myself into being something I’m not — to conform to the expectations of a partner or to succeed in a job — with all the success of a gaudy tropical fish trying to survive in the freezing waters of Southern Ocean.
I’ve lost my way badly on a couple of occasions, somewhat ironically coinciding with a compulsion to straighten my hair! At one point I took a job in the Masters of the Universe realm of venture capital and attempted to become a ‘suit’. But even on the conservative end of my spectrum while I was trying to be one of them, my clothing selection was severely career limiting. I remember being sat down by my then boss for a talk about dressing for success a little like parent broaching the topic of sex education with their teenage daughter. He underlined his point by giving me a very chic and very suitable briefcase for Christmas the first year. I tried to confirm. I really wanted to. If nothing else, the financial incentives were very compelling. But after three years (I’ve never been a quitter) I did both of us — me and the firm involved — a sanity returning favour by understanding that Corporateland was not my natural habit and I’ve never ventured back.
I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige. That was the best articulation I could find of my belief in the need to embrace our own uniqueness. It seems that as we grow up we’re conditioned out of liking those sparkly jelly shoes and garishly colourful ensembles most kids revel in. After all, they’re tawdry gewgaws that should be consigned to the dress up box as we grow up aren’t they? But who is the ‘they’ that impose the boundaries on our self-expression and creativity? If my sense of self says I lust after purple boots with fringes, what’s stopping me? That would be the crushing tyranny of good taste and what’s appropriate for my age and stage. But seriously, who cares? If a visual cacophony is what does it for you, why not? After all, girls just wanna have fun … even vintage ones like me.
I’ve just returned from another multi-year walk in the ‘who am I?’ wilderness. Every time I come back to my senses and remember the answer, I’m reminded of the Ivy Compton Bennett quote, “A leopard does not change his spots, or change his feeling that spots are rather a credit to him.” Unsurprisingly, my hair’s curly again and I’ve regained the feeling that it’s still rather a credit to me.
Be yourself, no matter what they say!
Late on Friday night I decided to do something I should have done months ago and put an end to a situation that’s been causing me anguish. This has been a trap largely of my own making and one which my sense of obligation has held me hostage to way beyond the call of duty. A number of small things combined as the straw that broke this camels back and forced me to finally take action. Nothing changes if nothing changes!
After this liberating decision, I’d love to say I then slept like a baby. I didn’t! Had one of those terrible, wakeful nights full of churned up thoughts that went nowhere. Eventually drifted off near dawn and slept fitfully for a couple of hours. Late in the afternoon, I took myself out for a walk along the waterfront. The sea was as still as serenity and sparkling like silver-dust. On my way back, in the gloaming, the last of the sun glimmered with such beauty on the mountains at the back of the harbour I stopped to drink it in. A tiny grey warbler landed on a bush next to me, closely followed by a chittering fantail. I stood transfixed for long minutes smiling at the antics of these two little creatures. It was delightful and I finished my walk with renewed spring in my step and warmth in my heart despite the encroaching chill of evening.
Earlier in the day, someone close to me, understanding my distress and the dichotomies involved, reminded me to look for the little joy things when life feels bleak. So true. I slept like a baby for 10 wonderful hours that night.
Thanks to the New Zealand birds website for the stunning cover photo.
A couple of weeks ago I joined a panel discussion after the screening in Wellington of the documentary She Started It as part of NZ Tech Week 2018. The film’s been around for a while but it remains an insightful production that is pretty much a ‘must see’ for women in the tech startup scene. I thought it a riveting piece of journalism covering a range of scenarios that are uncomfortably familiar having co-founded one myself. I was grateful to the organisers Xero because it made me look at my own journey in a whole new light.
She Started It takes a film camera inside the lives of five young female entrepreneurs over a two-year period as they go through the set pieces that are fundamental to any ambitious founder — pitching to Angel and VC investors, building teams and finding ways of getting their products to market. Some of them succeeded, some failed. The film captures their reactions to unfolding circumstances — the tears as well as the laughter. It’s an intimate, sometimes verging on voyeuristic invitation to walk a mile in their shoes.
The real power of the documentary lies in not shying away from the soul shrinking tough times when other people don’t get your vision and you are quite literally living on the smell of an oily rag. She Started It doesn’t pull any punches about the sheer grit it takes to get a new product off the ground. I was glad the directors weren’t tempted to sugar coat the message. It’s said that 99% of new business fail — even the best ideas, from the most determined, visionary and capable people are not guaranteed to make it. Caveat ‘wantrepreneur’ huh?!
As a secondary theme, directors Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed explored the nitty problem of female under representation in entrepreneurship, and the gender-based issues women entrepreneurs have to overcome. That too struck a strong chord with my own experiences. A co-founder of my business was told by a key player in NZ’s investment community not to bother even trying because she couldn’t make it as a woman in tech! When we started pitching the angel networks in NZ eight years ago, there were hardly ever any women in the room, investors or founders, and I believe from the bottom of my soul we would have raised more money initially if we had different chromosomes.
As the film played out, the story that caught me most was that of Thuy Trurong who had made her mark in her native Vietnam founding and running a chain of frozen yoghurt outlets. This intrepid twenty-eight-year-old Vietnamese woman moved herself and her team from Vietnam to Silicon Valley at a week’s notice to join the iconic 500startups program. Her company at the time, GreenGar, produced mobile apps including Whiteboard, a collaborative drawing application. Whiteboard achieved over nine million downloads in its first four years, was used by school students in more than 100 countries and achieved profits greater than a million US. Despite its seeming success, the team failed to bring in the capital required to scale it and the writing was on the wall. Ultimately, she had to go back to Vietnam and compose, “the hardest email I’ve ever written” to GreenGar’s loyal base telling them they were closing down. It was incredibly poignant, and I was drawn into her disappointment, but also her steely determination not to be ground down by the experience as she started thinking about her next venture.
Facing that terrible, gut-wrenching moment when you have to accept that the thing you’ve poured your lifeblood into is just not working is horrible. Really and truly and viscerally horrible. My sister and I launched a satirical magazine in the early 2000s. It was written for women like us who were looking for an alternative to the usual drivel dished up by the ‘glossy’ mags and it sent up the whole genre of outrageous cosmetic claims and superficial crap that they peddle. We called it SHREW Magazine. Conceptualizing and researching it and building the stratospheric business plan which depicted a worldwide SHREW membership spending whopping amounts in our SHREW Shop. It was the most fun I’ve had in my career.
Throughout, we worked like demented beings — I think was writing something like 25,000 published words a month — and my sister and insanely talented (sometimes just plain insane) friend were cranking out idiotic spoof ads and other glorious send ups from our crew of invented and totally outrageous Op Ed contributors. I remember editorial meetings when we were quite literally crying with laughter as we brainstormed things like how you would create the graphic representation of You Really Are What You Eat and Drink. OK, I know, you had to be there. But for us, it was glorious and funny, and we were on the mission we seemed to have been born for with our combined skill set and slightly offbeat take on the world. Of course, we crammed way too much content into each edition, so we would have likely burnt out if money wasn’t a factor, but the inspiration and ideas flowed like ‘Bolly’ in an episode of Ab Fab, and the joy of creation fueled the energy to keep the frenetic pace up.
The day the boxes of our first edition arrived and we were able to see our posters in our stockists’ windows was beyond exciting. And the launch party? Well, that was a night I will never forget. We expected people to be mildly amused but were totally floored after we handed out copies to our guests when the entire theater (we had the party on stage at an opera house) went silent as people started to read … then the laughter erupted, and we knew we’d created something incredible. It wasn’t just us founders who loved it. Our printers raved, the team at the distributor said they couldn’t wait to get at the next edition when it arrived from the printer, and our readers and subscribers … laughed on cue.
So, what went wrong? For a start, our timing was poor. I strongly believe that timing is everything and we were a couple of years too early with our offer. Thinking about it, we also could have been a decade too late. Either way, our timing sucked and the wrong time is the wrong time! If we’d launched even a couple of years later, we’d have created it as an online product and then been able to amp it up through the emerging social channels like Facebook. To us, SHREW was as much a club as a magazine. It would have been incredibly effective in an online environment where we could, with a bit of additional investment, have created the SHREW World that lived in our heads. Taking it online would also have made it a tech startup at a time when angel funding for such things was starting to be available … even on occasion for female founders!
Lacking this scenario, it came into being as a MOFO of a full colour 60-page magazine. We relied on hard-hitting content to and the club-like atmosphere to speak for itself and quickly build a cult following. We believed we could achieve the Holy Grail of the publishing world — a rapidly growing, loyal subscriber base that would remove the need for us to sell our souls to get advertising dollars that might have compromised our editorial freedom to tell it like we saw it. The issue here of course was lack of working capital to promote the bejesus out of our magazine. Not much point having a genius product no one knows about!
This wasn’t quite as random as it sounded. There have been some great publications that have worked on a model like ours. Most of the memorable ones have been primarily targeted at … er … men. And what’s wrong with us women that we’re so spot-welded to celebrity gossip, superficiality and the outrageous claims of pseudo-science? Anyway, we emulated iconic and commercially successful alternative publications like Private Eye and Viz in the UK. We even approached the publishers of Viz to seek backing as we figured our SHREW Magazine would be a perfect stable-mate. They pretty much laughed at us saying women would never go for it. Depressing though that was, it didn’t in any way damp our enthusiasm because we passionately believed there were like minded others out there who wanted something different, if only we could find them. As it turned out, we weren’t delusional in thinking this, we just couldn’t get to enough of them, quickly enough. The monthly print costs were unsustainable and, after five incredible editions — we had the sixth finished ready to roll — we had no choice but to call time because we had run out of runway.
People in the startup community talk glibly about the virtues of the ‘fast fail’. While it’s logical and eminently sensible to remove the life support when the condition is clearly terminal, it completely trivializes the emotional impact of doing it. Like Thuy, pulling the plug on GreenGar, closing our magazine was one of the hardest things any of us ever had to do. We did revisit the concept a few years later and try to take it online but the moment had passed. We were no longer the same people who’d tapped into the sparking, pacy narrative of the original — it was a mistake to exhume the corpse because the magic our earlier selves had conjured up had died with it.
In common with the women in the film, I seem to have some deep-rooted and obsessive need to bring new ideas to the world or to forge my own destiny. I’m not sure which. Maybe both. Since the magazine venture, I’ve been co-founder of two tech startups. One wasn’t commercially successful, but spawned the other . Eight years on, the jury’s still out on this one.
The truth is that most entrepreneurs don’t find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow even after ‘serial’ attempts. The Big Buck outcomes we read so much about, which entice and tantalize and keep you in the game busting stupid hours, sucking up shitloads of stress and sleepless nights are rare. Statistically, most of us are lucky if we make any more than we might had done if we’d stayed in regular jobs, likely less.
So why do we keep on keeping on? I believe it’s not uncommon for successful entrepreneurs to became so hooked on the adrenalin of growing a global business that they resort to gambling as a substitute when they exit their ventures. I understand that. Making something that’s never existed before is one hell of a blast. That burst of creative energy it takes to get it off the ground delivers a better high than any substance I’ve tried. Better even than the endorphins from a good work out. It has to, to make up for the frequent times along the way when you stare into the abyss wondering if you’re really prepared to lose not just one shirt, but your whole wardrobe.
The stakes are most definitely high, but the compulsion to see your dream start come alive holds an allure it’s hard to describe. Of course, if you do achieve the big pay out you’re a visionary and completely vindicated in taking the risks. If you don’t make it … well … you can always sell your soul and resort to dressing it up as a fast fail!
Watch She Started It
Cover Image from Are Female Entrepreneurs Set Up to Fail — great article and worth a read.
As I shivered getting up this morning, I thought about something from my childhood that always managed to bring some warmth on raw winter days in the Scottish Highlands where I grew up.
My family were all fans of the wonderful Peanuts cartoons by Charles M Schultz and we had several books. By a long way my favourite was called Happiness is a Warm Puppy. We were a family of dog lovers and that naturally extended to loving the Snoopy character. I remember someone saying once that anyone who said they didn’t know what happiness is could never have seen a puppy. I’d have to say that has always been bang on the money for me. I don’t currently have a dog but I’m teetering distance from a foreshore walk which is nirvana for our all manner of hounds, their owners and dog obsessive voyeurs like me.
Before you get to thinking I’m totally weird, I actually can’t help myself according to a wonderfully liberating article I just read in the Telegraph archive. Apparently it’s all to do with the hormone oxytocin which spikes in both human and canine brains when a dog is gazing at it’s owner. According to the writer, Sarah Knapton, “Oxytocin is known to play a strong role in triggering feelings of unconditional love and protection when parents and children look into each other’s eyes or embrace.So the findings suggest that owners love their pets in the same way as family members, and dogs return their devoted affection.”
Back in the day when my friends were having kids and I couldn’t join in those endless conversations parents have one-upping each other about the undoubted virtues of their little darlings. Stuck for any way of contributing meaningfully to such conversations, on one occasion, I resorted to referencing my amazing and hugely talented ‘fur baby’ and how well his training was going. I realised quickly and viscerally, as someone handed me my head in my hands to play with, that dogs are just not up there with human children to their parents, however incredible us owners think they are.
All these years later, I feel totally exonerated because it’s proven … by scientists no less … that we humans really can love our dogs as much as our children, something Cat Stevens recognised way ahead of science in his song 70s classic I Love My Dog as Much As I Love You!
If a Martian landed anywhere in the Western World this minute, he or she could be forgiven for believing that “love is all there is”. Bombarded by headlines full of “luvved-up” celeb couples, best-seller lists heaving with love-stories and radio-station play lists top-heavy with “love is in the air” lyrics, the hapless alien could be forgiven for not noticing much else. Love’s young — or not so young these days given the prevailing divorce rate — dream is all around us and we can’t seem to get enough of it. To our Martian, it could well seem as if love really does make this world go round. It is after all, the age-old human obsession. As some wag once said, ‘that old devil called love — if I could find him I’d probably kill him’.
I can just about remember the feeling … you look innocently into a stranger’s eyes, fall hopelessly in love and, in a heartbeat, your life is no longer your own. It’s like you’ve been flattened by a runaway train. One minute you’re your own person, happily putting one foot serenely in front of the other, emotionally un-encumbered and working on a satisfying life plan. The next you’re a quivering mass of lust-infused, hormone-driven confusion, carrying on like some tragic heroine in a third rate bodice-ripper. A force of nature has taken over your life, dominating every waking moment (and most of the sleeping ones too), striding around the windmills of your mind like a colossus on speed.
But is love good for us? According to an article I read recently, apparently the jury’s out. For sure, we talk about “lovesickness”, but this is generally tongue in cheek when we’re taking the piss out of stricken friends or rellies who are moping around and sighing a lot. However, there appears to be growing recognition from the medicine and science that it actually isn’t a joke. As with so many other human afflictions, this isn’t exactly news. If you asked any self-respecting medieval person, they’d be astonished at our cavalier attitude. To be honest they’d also be astonished at Disney’s take on Princesses!
Prior to the 18th century and as far back as written records were kept, lovesickness was accepted as a genuine, common and sometimes fatal condition, on a par with any other self-respecting mental illness. Medieval doctors thought that it was a disorder of the mind and body similar to melancholia, and their training typically included checking for symptoms of love such as the patient’s pulse quickening at the mention of the loved-one’s name. Apparently, obsession was the principle symptom and cause. Treatments varied; baths, good food and wine and sleep were all considered efficacious. Distractions such as as business and sports and games which could take the mind off the obsession were also thought to be worth a go. “Therapeutic sexual intercourse” was the ultimate remedy! But wait, there’s more. If there was no-one in the get-your-leg-over frame, paying for your therapeutic sex was recommended.
It’s only in relatively recent times that the concept of lovesickness lost its currently. The advent of ‘scientific’ psychiatry blew a scientific raspberry at such a foolish notion, and lovesickness was chucked into the medical dumpster in the ‘enlightened’ age that followed. Nowadays the pendulum has swung again; an increasing body of credible research suggests that our ancestors did know a thing or two after all. The belief that many people cannot cope with the intensity of falling in love, or suffer severely from their love being unrequited is experiencing something of a Renaissance.
Symptoms are said to include mania (mood swings, higher than usual self-esteem, extravagant gift giving), depression (tearfulness, insomnia, loss of concentration), obsessive behaviour (preoccupation with checking text messages/emails) and psychologically created physical symptoms (upset stomach, change in appetite, insomnia, dizziness and confusion). A recent Italian research programme concluded that the drop in Serotonin levels in a lovesick person’s brain were similar to those found in people with serious health problems such as compulsive disorders or drug addictions. The good news is that sufferers are not deranged, just madly in love, and love is quite literally making them sick.
Of course, the burning question is what to do about it? The current cure of first resort is counselling. Doesn’t seem a very romantic solution for such a delicate problem. But don’t despair! Now that we know our ancestors weren’t entirely clueless about the illness, maybe we should take their remedies a little more seriously. I’d say long sleeps, bathing and chowing down copious medicinal doses of great food and wine would be a pretty good anti-dote to any sickness, love induced or not. In any case, if all else fails, there’s always the “therapeutic intercourse” option! Alternatively, just grab yourself some good old Love Potion Number 9.
Cover image Lovesick by Canadian artist Keight MacLean — buy here at Saatchi Art.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a glass at least completely full kinda gal. My rose-tinted glasses perch pertly on my aquiline nose as I ignore inconvenient truths that don’t sit with my world view. This is particularly true when it comes to my own self-image. As I’ve got older, I’ve become adept at a sort of cat and mouse game with my credulity which allows me to accept the ageing process with, if not unbounded joy — who’d believe that? — with the sort of equanimity you’d expect from a seal lazing on the rocks in the sun. If that sounds like denial, yup, guilty as charged.
Seriously, it’s not like my inner person feels any different. It’s only the wrapper that’s showing signs of dishevelment. On the contrary the — whatever one calls it, inner goddess? — is mostly (I have my share of ‘bad hair’ days like everyone else) in good shape. She’s timeless and I see her as something like a cross between Virginia Woolf and Wonder Woman. A sort of ‘blue stocking’ superhero; clever, gorgeous and most definitely fresh from the fight. I’d say that’s not a bad combo to draw on at times of self-doubt and uncertainty. And she’s a great chick to party with when the good times roll. I admire flamboyance and flair in women. She’s all that … on speed!
Which brings me to my point. Over the last few years, I’ve had on-going conversations with women in my orbit about the whole invisibility thing that many women experience as they age. It saddens me to know that a wide variety of women think this is inevitable and there’s nothing they can do about it. “It is what it is,” they say. “It’s as certain as a cluster of Khardashians appearing the minute a red carpet is rolled out.” For sure there are exceptions — clearly there are an enormous number of middle-aged or older women in the public eye who can’t be said to be invisible. But even the most successful and famous women are likely to be fighting a rear-guard action against the impact and perception of age on their value as people and overall bankability as commercial prospects.
This acceptance of invisibility is something I take strong issue with because I don’t believe it is inevitable. I think it’s a received wisdom that many of us turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So why do we do this? Given how society rates, or more accurately under-rates women in pretty much every way imaginable and how ‘hot’ we are figures largely in which doors open for us. In this context, as our ‘pulling power’ diminishes with age it becomes progressively harder get over the bar of beauty stereotypes. This is particularly true as great swathes of people … er … men that would be … start to look through us or around us as if we have no further contribution make. It becomes all too easy to pull on the cape of invisibility rather than having to run the gauntlet of society’s preconceptions and stereotypes about middle aged and older women.
I have a wonderful collection of humorous greetings cards I put together in my early thirties. My group of close friends and I were going through that “all men are bastards, who needs one anyway?” disillusioned-with-love phase. Something of a contradiction as the one thing most of us wanted to have in our lives was the extremely illusive Mr. Right. At the time, most of us were divorced or had recently been spat out of a reasonably long-term relationship. We solaced each other by sourcing cards with such pithy philosophical statements as, If they can get one man up on the moon, why can’t they get them all up there? and You’re not alone honey, my shampoo lasts longer than my men. We’d fax them to each other for comfort — this was the era before e-mail forwards were endemic and scanners were still only found in Accident and Emergency Wards.
Recently, I re-discovered this collection whilst looking for something else. Flicking through them, one card jumped out at me as if it had a life of its own: Wrinkled wasn’t one of the things I wanted to be when I grew up. I have to say my brain responded to this statement as if it was a direct quote from Revelations. Of course, back in the day, the discovery of even one facial wrinkle was a drama which made headline events like the deconstruction of the Berlin Wall seem like a Teddy Bears’ Picnic. We were at the peak of our physical beauty, so it was all a bit of an affectation. But there is a real dichotomy in the aging process and an interesting review this week about the movie I Feel Pretty prompted some in depth navel-gazing. I haven’t seen this movie and I probably won’t on the basis of the reviews, but friends who have found it to be just what it says on the tin — a humorous, laugh-out-loud romp. The reviewer looked at it through a darker lens.
The central tenet of the movie is that looks don’t matter, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. No argument from me with that. That it’s lack of confidence that holds women back professionally and personally, not discrimination or how we look. That for today’s thoroughly modern Maleficent it’s all about feeling better, not looking better, although looking better is a likely bi-product. It’s this bit the reviewer was taking exception to and I’d have to agree because it seems as obvious as the balls on a tall dog (if you’ll forgive the crudity) that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer have never been higher.
But the insidious thing is that it’s becoming taboo to acknowledge this — beauty standard denialism is gaining traction. This is said to be fuelled by cynical corporates re-packaging standard beauty lines as health and wellness products, blatantly ignoring the continued pressure on looks. Fine, if women really are embracing their inner beauty and only starve themselves, work out obsessively and fork out small fortunes on appearance enhancements because they want to and because it makes them feel a deeper sense of self-worth. Not so fine if they’re being duped. I’d say there’s a fast one being pulled here that we should start wising up. We may live in the ‘post truth’ world, but there are limits!
As BBC film critic, Will Gompertz observed, “The greatest shame is how the movie misses the chance to really skewer the serious issue it attempts to address, namely the debilitating and isolating mental health conditions such as body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression, which are made significantly worse by the relentless objectification of women by the media and business. In fact, bafflingly, the film ends up pandering to exactly the same fascistic thinking that promotes the fallacy only people with a certain body type will be successful and admired.’
I’d say this is particularly true for older women. As things are going, there will come a time when, if we decide to age naturally, we risk being marginalized somewhere in our thirties and be fighting a war of attrition against increasing invisibility from there until we drop. Jobs and potential partners will be the sole preserve of our younger-looking contemporaries. And heaven help the less affluent as they age and can’t afford to join the young-old elite!
Despite the need to suspend disbelief and a serious question mark about its writer’s grasp on reality, I like the premise of I Feel Pretty. I believe strongly that, like Intel, most of the good stuff should be on the inside and that inner beauty, strength and resilience are the bedrock of happy, healthy lives. We most definitely should take care of ourselves because we want to and because it’s good for our health and wellbeing. Wonderful, if this also makes us feel pretty and helps us stay visible as we age … because we really are worth it.
Well it’s Mothers’ Day again and I’m very happy to be spending another one with mine. I could write a whole heap of smoochy stuff about how much I appreciate my sainted mother — and I do — but, to be honest, I do have some ISSUES with Days of this type.
For one thing, while it’s a nice concept that, on at least one day a year, children should really think about and nurture their mothers, it’s as clear as the crystal waters around the Red Sea reefs that Mothers’ Day should be every day of the year. Being respectful, loving and kind to people shouldn’t need a dedicated day for heavens’ sake! For what it’s worth, I also feel the same degree of party-poopery about Fathers’ Day and the whole shebang of themed days that now litter our calendars for the same reason. Many of them are about causes or issues that should at the forefront of our thinking and behaviour if we can in any way lay claim to being civilised. But I’ve singled out Mothers’ Day because … well … it’s today.
Before I take this diatribe any further, let me say immediately that I have absolutely no issue with mothers. In fact, some of my best friends are mothers. Nor do I have any overt gripe with children. It’s just that I believe the little possums should be eternally grateful for your gift of life, not to mention the sacrifices you have endured to love, nurture and care for them and keep them in designer toys, food and princess parties.
Of course I don’t have kids, so I get that what I’ve just said kind of screams of sour grapes. But I can justify my comments because I haven’t entirely missed out. For several years in a row I did get a Mothers’ Day offering from my late and loopy Springer Spaniel. It was incredibly sensitive and thoughtful of him even if I wouldn’t have necessarily put a handful of dog biscuits high on my wish list, however exquisitely gift wrapped! It was a wonderful arrangement. He was never in the slighted offended when I didn’t scoff his carefully chosen biscuits instantly. Nor did he sit and watch me with a rapt expression on his face until I did. If anything, he was seemed rather pleased when I offered to share them with him or, better still, just lobbed them all on the floor for his sole and very happy consumption.
In all seriousness, I really don’t have a gripe per se with Mothers’ Day other than with the overt consumerism it spawns which makes me shudder ecologically. I’m thinking all that unnecessary additional landfill. Oh and there’s the issue about all those people who are separated from their families by wars and dirty regimes who can’t be together etc. etc. But those are not my gripes-du-jour.
No, my gripe is where’s the day for us childless people? You know the ones who take all the difficult shifts and work through holidays so people with kids can spend time with them? The ones who don’t have access to state benefits to help bring up their children? The many, like me, who’ve worked relentlessly all through our lives and delivered on-going tax contributions to the exchequer, helping to ensure the aforementioned benefits? Who (somewhat wistfully) help step-progeny create suitable outpourings of love for their real parents each year? Us un-childed do a lot of stuff that never gets mentioned in dispatches and is usually just taken for granted. So, where’s the day for us? Surely, in the interests of equality for all, if there’s a day for mothers and fathers, there should be one for the rest of us?
But what to call it? I started with Global Un-childed Day (like un-waged), but that’s just plain horrible and lacks the required level of mawkish sentimentality that Mothers’ Day achieves. International Childless Day is a little better but still sounds pretty drab. More fitting for a charity perhaps and the name needs to inspire respect and gratitude, not pity.
If only I could think of a great and grabby name, I’d write a strongly worded letter, maybe get up a petition even, directed at the Godhead person who decides which things get allocated a Day. I’d demand a new one for all of us unsung non-parent types. In the meantime, I’m arbitrarily selecting 25 December for International Childless Day. Oh what … there’s a clash? You bet there is! But there’s method in my madness — it would get us all out of lifting a finger on Christmas Day!
In any case, happy mothers’ day to all you moms out there … particularly to my much-loved mother and sister and niece-in-law and my dear friends who are mothers.
PS let me know if you’d like to sign the petition …. and also if you have any clue who the mighty dispenser of day is that it should be sent to J
The well known feature image of vomiting hearts is by the irrepressible Banksie — if you’ve been there, done it, why not wear the tee-shirt.
At a dinner party some years ago the host came up with a provocative challenge which I’ve subsequently put to many others in the intervening years. Imagine the scene. We were still sitting around the table after dinner and and had got to that mellow point — i.e. belt-looseningly full and well wined — where you get stuck into the really good conversations. The challenge was what would we call our autobiographies. “Great question” we all agreed.
As you can imagine, silence descended on the table for some time as we all tried to think of something suitably impressive, witty, challenging, ironic or, frankly, all of the above to impress each other with. Unfortunately, I can’t actually remember any of them because there were somer crackers, and we spent a couple of hysterical (serious LOL stuff) hours reviewing peoples’ choices against what we collectively knew about them.
Being known as Frankie to that group, I think I opted for something frivolous like Frankie’s Follies. “Not bad” was the verdict of my fellow diners as they considered the chapters that might make up this clearly racy little number. The ‘they’ at the dinner being people who know me quite well rather than the faceless ‘they’ who are generally cast as the common enemy. It was an eye-opener to understand from their comments that my fellow diners saw me as something like Bridget Jones meets Barbarella!
Even at the time, I interpreted ‘not bad’ as ‘could do better’. Frankie’s Follies just felt feel a bit frivolous and try hard as a life story, and I’ve been on the hunt for an improved one every since. But I hadn’t been able to come up with a better option — try it, it’s really hard — until recently when I started writing this blog and now I’m spoilt for choice. The title of one of my recent pieces — @shit creek #no paddle — was a contender for a while. This was getting close I felt. Whether or not it could be the perfect moniker for MY book, it would certainly be a fab one for A book. Ultimately, I ruled it out as I’m determined that the next part of my life will be shaped to avoid any more time wasted in the waiting room for the Shit Creek Express.
But while I was writing it, I did a lot of soul-searching about my life trying to find re-curring themes, good and bad, that underpin my story.. One of the big ones was loyalty. I’m extremely loyal person to people I care about. On too many occasions that has strayed into loyalty beyond reason where I’ve given too much — personally and professionally — putting other people’s interests way ahead of my own. Typically I’ve ended up with my head in my hands to play with; a financial loser with broken heart. That piece of navel-gazing prompted a post that’s been in the hopper for a while but, like Shubert’s majestic last symphony, remained mockingly unfinished — Take Your Shoes Off While You’re Wiping Your Feet on Me! I love this title. It’s got everything really … drama, bathos, victimhood, irony, insight … except authenticity for me now. Like the cast off @shit creek persona, the door mat who allowed too many people to wipe their feet on her is also banished from the narrative these days.
As you might have guessed, the search for the definitive title for my autobiography has become something of mission. At sleepless moments other people count sheep, meditate, name cities … whatever … I start thinking about autobiography names. Maybe this is not for everyone but, for someone who loves words, it’s the perfect way of passing time. You know the deal. When you’re sitting in a cafe or restaurant trying not to look like Jonnie-no-mates whilst waiting for friends who are running late? Or whiling way and hour or too on a cold, dark winter Sunday afternoon at home when there are no fires to fight?
Challenging other people, like my long ago host did, to name their autobiographies has produced some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking conversations I can remember. Last year when I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige I think I finally nailed it! The whole idea of not succumbing to beige has become a personal metaphor for always being who you are, despite the pressure to conform to all manner of often uncomfortable societal norms. It represents my commitment to the ideology “to thine own self be true”, even if that true self is more bling than Ming. It captures the desire to not give in. To get back in the saddle again after falling off. To be indomitable and bounce back after the proverbial shit has hit the fan. It’s also an enduring reminder of the husk I become during my last and very damaging long-term relationship. Most of all, imagine the epitaph it would make, ‘she never succumbed to beige!
Seriously though, how do you frame your life story? After all, what’s in a name? Does it matter? A life’s a life isn’t it? Should be. Nonetheless, I think names do matter. When you name a child it does seem that their name help shape their personalities because of some deep-rooted need to live up or down to whatever they’re called. Someone named Storm is likely to be a very different person from a Daisy for example. You’d be a laughing stock if you were a scaredy-Storm cat. Daisy? Well … er … I’m thinking … all those dairy cows.
Parents-in-waiting agonise over what to call their embryonic children. Any one who’s started a business will have agonised in equal measure over what to call their commercial ‘baby’ because the one they choose will shape the perceptions of every person who engages in any way with the business. I think equal dedication should be put into naming our life stories because it helps identify the values by which we want to live our lives, our primary vision and mission, and distill to its essence how we see ourselves as human beings.
We can choose to do this retrospectively when the story has already been long in the telling. This is the time when we are moving towards its ending and the denouement is becoming clear. Or we can name the story early on and allow it to shape how our plot develops and ultimately the conclusion we wish it to have. Of course, we can only stack the odds — life throws all sorts of curved balls at us which, without a crystal ball or other psychic assistance, we can’t possibly factor in from the beginning. This likely will result in a least one, if not several revisions or tweaks. But that’s a good thing, in the way that a quality business plan should be a living document evolving as circumstances change and understanding deepens.
If I had my time again, I’d take great care to more pro-actively shape my life by thinking about the story I wish to write. I don’t think for a moment I’d choose the schematic that would be required in the Take Your Shoes Off When You’re Wiping You’re Feet on Me version! If I’d started out with the Never Succumb to Beige ethos, I wonder how my life would have differed? While there have been shades of both through the years, giving a positive name to my journey earlier could have saved me from going down a lot of unnecessary rabbit holes along the way. The good news is I feel like I’m tracking pretty well against my chosen epitaph!
Thanks to College Artist for the perfect cover photo.