Are you doing it this winter?

Are you taking the plunge this winter? Readying yourself to tap into a euphoric eruption of endorphins? Already wondering what I’m on about. I’m talking about cold-water swimming, of course. What? Did you think this might be a spicy little post about something else? Bad luck: you need to go elsewhere for your X-rated intake. 

We’re heading into winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so it’s time to consider the exercise regime of choice over the cold months. In the Northern Hemisphere, people are throwing in their cold-water towels and planning beach breaks and warm stuff. I just read a review of her second year at it by Caitlin Moran. She seems to like this what? Hobby … sport … therapy … self-inflicted act of sadomasochism? “Who needs drugs when I can get off my face cold water swimming?” Whatever you choose to call it, cold water swimming is riding a wave, as it were—I know at least two people in NZ who swear by it. Maybe in NZ, it’s worth a go. Where I live, we rarely even get frost, so it could add a bit of frisson to one’s day as winter sinks its fangs into the underbelly of autumn. But in colder climates like the UK, when you likely have to get a coast guard to chainsaw a swimming hole for you through the ice, it has to be nuts, right? 

But growing it is, and growing both in popularity and controversy. It seems to have triggered some resentments which have bubbled to the surface in its seasonal wake.  

Cold-water swimming seems like a relatively new thing. It’s not. It’s been a thing in many northern countries since … forever. In Russia, pre-Christians frolicked in ice water, and it became part of court protocol and was a custom among the ‘plebs’ throughout the Moscovian era from the late Middle Ages. Muscovy was a Grand Duchy or Principality founded in 1283, which morphed into the Russian Empire in the early eighteenth century under the first tsar. 

What’s changed is that ice-swimming competitions have sprung up like icicles after a deep chill. The establishment of the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009 formalised ice swimming as a ‘sport’. Swimmers compete in the Ice Mile (1608 metres). The water must be colder than 5 degrees Celsius, and competitors are only allowed the basics of swimming goggles, caps, and togs. There’s now also a metric 1500m version. Are they mad? To borrow from Gordon Ramsey, “Expletive me!” 

So why do people take the plunge? Caitlin says it involves “ten minutes of gasping, often agonised breaststroke through frost, sleet, hail and snow, but the endorphins make it all worthwhile”. Put like that, does it sound like something everyone should try at least once? Adherents say benefits positively affect the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems. There’s also the psychological and metabolical lift (remember all those endorphins). 

However, I would never inadvertently put my readers at risk by encouraging something that could negatively affect your health and well-being. For all the apparent benefits, detractors claim it’s pretty risky, particularly for inexperienced and untrained swimmers. So, if you’re considering it as your next wellness springboard, it’s recommended to go for a gradual acclimatisation. Dip your toe in the water, so to speak. Break yourself in one shivering inch at a time over time rather than jumping in at the deep end. While cold water swimming might be verging on a religious rite to some, this extreme version of total immersion can kill you. Heart failure brought on by extreme cold is one of the risks, as is the only slightly lesser possibility of hypothermia. 

I have tried it, though, so never let it be said that my opinions are based on prejudice and hearsay alone. One night, many (many) years ago, as an undergraduate at Saint Andrews, a few of us were having dinner at a friend’s house. Said house was a stone’s throw from the town’s celebrated outdoor swimming pool, located on a wind-blasted shore and filled by the incoming tide. Such pools used to be common in coastal resorts, but they’ve fallen out of favour. From the late sixties, we Brits deserted the bracing outdoor experience, lured by the advent of the cheap ‘bucket shop’ holiday. Cheap all-in packages allowed us to escape our dismal summer and flock in droves to Mediterranean nirvana, where we pursued the honourable pastime of frying ourselves to a crisp on a beach, falling into the bath-warm sea to break the monotony of hours prone on a sun lounger mitigated by copious quantities of lager and cocktails.

Back in historic St. Andrews, imagine the scene, if you will. About six of us are in the post-dinner alcohol-infused bravado stage that tends to herald trouble when you’re a student. At some point, someone (history doesn’t relate who) said, “Let’s go for a swim”. It’s February, in the middle of the Scottish winter, but we’re pretty drunk, and it seems like a great wheeze. Our host somehow rustles up towels for everyone. We lurch over to the pool, which is as wind-swept as ever, black as Hades, and we could just make out the white tops on the not-inconsiderable waves. Some brave soul sheds most of their clothes and jumps in, provoking the rest of us to follow quickly—no one wants to appear a wimp. 

John McMillan / St Andrews sea swimming pool

Gordon Ramsay’s ripe vocabulary applies here, too. It was beyond cold. Eskimo Pie cold. The sort of cold that makes your lungs want to collapse to avoid it. I doubt we stayed in for more than a nano-second as the freeze factor sobered us up, and we grasped how insane it was. I don’t imagine the current practitioners get in a wild sea pool at 2am at least five sheets to the wind. You’d have to hope not. How we survived without succumbing to hypothermia, I’ll never know. They’re right about one thing, though. The endorphins are incredible – once you’ve convinced your lungs to start functioning again and the blood starts flowing back to those important muscles, like your brain. As the chill receded along with the blue flesh and chattering teeth, the big-noting began, and a saga was born. 

A very long-winded way of saying that cold-water swimming isn’t new. But it’s spawned a new, highly divisive fashion accessory—the dryrobe. Ever ready to get on a new bandwagon, the fashion industry has seen this predominantly middle-class pursuit as a potential gold mine. Ergo, we now have the dryrobe as the accessory of choice for the dedicated cold-water swimmer. In case, like me, you’d missed the arrival of this seminal new garment, they’re huge coats with towelling lining. They break all the prevailing fashion rules, which require a garment to render the wearer less, rather than more, bulky. Dryrobes also apparently achieve the sleight of drape that makes wearers look triangular.

Nonetheless, swimmers love them so much that they’ve started popping up in the most improbable places— supermarkets, football stadiums, and even workplaces. It won’t be long before someone decides to discard their ball dress for one. Their popularity now goes way beyond the original purpose of post-dip warmth and modesty.

But in parallel, dryrobes have become a weapon in the class wars. Google and ye shall find headlines like Too Cool for the Pool: How the Dryrobe Became the Most Divisive Thing You Can Wear. (The Guardian) and Don’t Humiliate Anyone You Spot in a Dryrobe, Especially When It’s Me. (The Times). There even is (or was) a Facebook Page, The Dryrobe Wankers, with more than 80,000 followers. Let the games begin!

I live a hop, skip and a jump (or a slide, skate or slush trudge in winter parlance) to a waterfront. Once I’ve saved enough money for the eye-wateringly expensive, must-have dryrobe accessory, perhaps I’ll give it a go. Perhaps. If the tides are right. If there’s a full moon and I can see hair growing on the palms of my hands. If Hell starts freezing over. Wait, it seems to me that cold water swimming actually is Hell on Earth, so why opt to get there early, even equipped with a dryrobe? I like my swimming holes to be like the velvet warmth of the Mediterranean mid-summer or the waters inside the reefs in the Fijian Islands, where you can bask like a lurking shark for hours on end without getting cold. Without the sharks. Or the rip currents. Or even any waves when I think about it. I’m sorry, Caitlin, but you can keep the big chill, endorphins notwithstanding. I’ll take a long soak in a hot bath every winter.

Do the (Side) Hustle

Remember the 1975 disco hit The Hustle by Van McCoy and the Soul Symphony? The ‘song’ made No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Soul Singles charts during the summer of 1975 and on the Canadian RPM charts. It peaked at No. 3 in the U.K., No. 5 in New Zealand, and No. 9 in Australia. It only made 38 on the French Singles Chart, confirming (in case it needed to be) that the French are different. The Hustle won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance early in 1976 and sold over a million copies. 

But wait, there’s more. This catchy but annoying ‘song’ has been featured in films including Stuck on YouVampires Suck and The Lorax, T.V. programmes— Shark Tales, That ‘70s Show, American Dad! and Futurama, amongst others. You’d have to say it was a whopping success despite only having three words—Do the Hustle! 

According to wikiHow, The Hustle is a “fast-paced partner dance, related to swing, and commonly danced to disco and modern pop. The dance involves four basic moves: stepping, twirling, chicken dancing, a move called ‘The Travolta’, and turning.” Then it was rinse and repeat until you drop. 

If you want a walk down memory lane and the chance to brush up on your hustle moves or try them out for the first time, you’ll find instructions in this incredibly cheesy short video. You’ll love it … honestly. Despite my cynicism, listening to it brought a fun flashback to my mid-seventies teenage disco queen. 

Anyway, despite a cursory search into the background of the dance, I couldn’t find anything specific. Presumably, it was a nod to the need to hustle to succeed or survive in the hustle and bustle of the seventies. It’s become much more sophisticated these days—it seems everyone has a side hustle—as a cheeky ‘must have’ accessory to one’s working life. Side hustles are flexible work that you do over and above your primary job to bring extra cash, get your creativity flowing or add purpose to your life. It could be taking up a new hobby, learning a new skill or using an existing one you want to ‘monetise’ at some point. Could even be volunteering for a non-profit you rate. 

As professional speaker and coach Alissa Carpenter says, “We all know Millennials love a good side hustle—to fuel their passions and wallets”. But it’s not just Millennials. It seems we’re all at it, including me; you’re no one if you don’t have a side hustle. It’s the ultimate put-down of our contemporary world: “What, no side hustle!”. I exaggerate, but the concept of the side hustle is endemic. 

I feel we need an updated version of The Hustle—Do The Side Hustle. What a pity Van McCoy died in 1979, shortly after the hit’s success, so he can’t do a side hustle of his own by remastering the original and raking it in. Clearly, it’s a great opportunity for some keen hustler.

Of course, it isn’t new. People have been forced or opted to take up additional burdens to make ends meet since Adam and Eve were ejected from Eden without notice. I’m sure they hadn’t had time to build up a rainy-day nest egg. People bandy the words around like membership of an exclusive club, but for people living on the margins, it’s always been an unwelcome part of their reality—the only way they can feed their families and survive. There’s also always been the darker side. I’m thinking black marketeers during war and rationing when fortunes are made by offering consumer goods that couldn’t be bought in conventional shops at exorbitant prices. The side hustle all too often comes wrapped in the trappings of despair, manipulation or holding people to ransom.  

While this type of side hustle is still shamingly very much part of the human condition, the trendy contemporary version seems pretty harmless. Side hustles, after all, make us better, more rounded, more connected, or simply wealthier people. Where’s the harm? Who suffers if you decide to set up an Etsy Shop as an outlet for your creativity? Or if I use all my waking hours outside work trying to become a best-selling author? Surely, it’s good to pursue the paths that make our hearts sing beyond the 9 to 5 grind. Why not use our ingenuity to make money on the hoof?

I’m a side hustler with the best of them, but there are issues. I’m about to publish a new book, and I’m running on fumes, trying to keep all the plates spinning. Side hustles can be hungry beasts sucking up all your best energy. In my day job, I run a design studio, which I own. As my book launch date looms, I’m not entirely clear which is the side course, and which is the main one as I scramble to keep all the plates spinning and keep my business dynamic whilst doing everything it takes to give my book its best shot. I’m blessed with high energy levels, but they’re not infinite, and I’m conscious of the risk of burnout if I keep the candle lit at both ends. I live alone, so it’s my call how I use my out-of-office time, but side hustles can short-change friends and family, stealing time that should be theirs. 

I’m all for putting time into hobbies and gaining new skills. You meet new people, expand your horizons, and potentially earn a bit of welcome extra dosh. I’ve met a wide range of like-minded people through mine, something I didn’t even consider when I started my indie publishing business with my sister. However, the statistics show that side hustles as a necessity are on the rise. According to CNBC’s Gilli Molinsky, “44% of people with a side hustle think they’ll always need it—and more are picking one up”. According to an April 2023 Bankrate survey of 2,505 U.S. adults, more than 39% have a side hustle to help cover living expenses rather than for discretionary spending. Half of the Millennials surveyed and over fifty per cent of the Gen Xers have one. 

The tragedy behind these stats is that too many people are going backwards financially, often underpaid, and coping with eye-watering costs of living hikes. Inflation at least seems to be under control (for now), but that only means commodities stay at the same high rates; they don’t revert to their more affordable pre-inflationary levels, so the cost-of-living hike is hard-wired in even though the curve has flattened (again, for now).

Anyway, I’m sure you get my point. Side hustles can be fun and richly rewarding on many counts for those of us lucky enough to follow our dreams because we can. They shouldn’t be a survival mechanism for people who have no choice.

P.S. Sorry if I’ve given you an earworm. If it’s any consolation, I can’t get the pesky Hustle thing out of my head either.

Fun with flatpack furniture

How hard can it be? Seriously. Putting together a bunch of pieces to make an item of furniture? Child’s play, you might think. I certainly did, as I pressed Buy on a stylish mini-drawer set from IKEA, which looked perfect for my new home office. I live in an apartment, so space is always a consideration, and this baby offered bountiful bang for my buck in its miniature Scandi magnificence. 

Flatpacks, AKA knock-down furniture or ready-to-assemble furniture, are very popular. The concept is seductive—go to the online or physical store, buy the item, haul it home or get it delivered, and, after a bit of assembly time, voila, you have the perfect artefact for your home or garden or whatever. Right? Sort of.

But what a great wheeze flatpacks are…for their makers. Imagine the eureka moment when some eager beaver middle manager thought of an innovative way to make truckloads more money. Picture being a fly on the wall as said manager makes a presentation to their senior team, which might have gone something like this:

“I’ve been thinking outside the box to bring a major paradigm shift—or is it a pivot?— to the table here for your consideration. Thank you for the opportunity to run this game-changing idea up the flagpole. The central theme of the premise going forward is to let the customers assemble products themselves. Think what that will save us,” he/she/they enthuse as they rip through a PowerPoint full of quadrant graphs, up arrows next to dollar icons, etc. 

“We get them excited about affordability, convenience and the whole DIY bandwagon that’s kicking off—they’ll love it and won’t notice we’re selling them a pup. Next steps? Whiteboard a go-to-market strategy, take a deep dive, unpack the possibilities, and shift the dial. I’ll reach out in a couple of weeks to touch base and see if it’s in your wheelhouse.” 

In addition to being a walking cliché, our manager was clearly the identical twin of the towering genius who believed self-checkouts were a giant leap forward for civilisation. 

But love them we did—flatpacks that is, not the suits responsible for them. IKEA, the spiritual home of the flatpack, was founded as a mail-order retailer in 1943 by Swedish entrepreneur Ingvar Kamprad. By the early 2000s, IDEA was the world’s largest furniture seller, with three hundred-plus stores and infinite online buying options.

Anyway, in the same way, time heals all wounds—or wounds all heels, if you prefer—it also cauterises past flatpack traumas. I’m not a flatpack virgin—I’ve given a few of them a go since the London IKEA opened to much excitement in 1987. It’s brutal—every time. But if you leave it long enough between purchases, the scars fade, and you forget how awful it was. Your inner recovery mechanisms dampen any trigger warnings, and before you can say, “Flatpacks suck”, you’re back in that magical thinking place where hope triumphs over experience. In my experience, hope has always been the loser.

Returning to last Friday. My new flatpack duly arrives at my business and, with it, my first challenge. It’s heavy. When I bought it, I thought it was made of lightweight wood or MDF or something. Oops. It’s metal. The box itself is pretty small, but I can barely lift it. How to get it to my car and home without breaking myself? My business partner gallantly lends me his fold-up trolley, and, home from work, I’m feeling optimistic and light-hearted as I start unpacking. Until I look at the instructions when buyer remorse kicks in big time. There are 20 different steps involved. Surely, that’s overkill for a box with six dinky drawers. Realising this might be more than a two-minute job, I put it off until Sunday as I have more fun things to do on Saturday.

The next day dawns bright and sunny, but I’m a bit groggy, having got home at 3am and woken up at my usual first sparrows ludicrously early timeslot. Despite the lack of sleep, I know it’s now or never—if I don’t tackle the beast immediately, it will stay in its box for all eternity. It’s summer and already about 30 degrees. By the time I’ve got to Step 12, I’m sweating like a dyslexic on a spelling bee as I realise I’ve made all six drawers with the runners on the inside. Unlike Intel, which is a good thing to find within your computer,  for drawers, the big virtue is runners on the outside. OMG, kill me now. I unravel all six drawers, mashing my fingers with the out-of-control screwdriver and swearing like a trooper. You get the picture, I’m sure. 

It took me three hours. THREE HOURS! The miserable hours. But I have to say, broken nails and bruised hands and all, I am very pleased with myself and my wee drawer set. Here are some handy tips to consider as your mouse hovers over the BUY button:

  1. Understanding flatpack instructions is a near impossibility. Sometimes, you have to discern a build path from screeds of written instructions, typically in a font size requiring more magnification than the Hubble Telescope achieves. The IKEA people had helpfully reduced the one in question to mostly large pictures. Despite this, at most stages, I was still none-the-wiser and resorted to trial and error…which rewarded me with …mostly error.
  2. Putting the wrong pieces together or the right pieces the wrong way around is a certainty, and hours disappear like clouds driven by a gale-force wind as you undo it all and start again. 
  3. It’s easy to miss something in any given step. I’m unsure that the back of my drawer set is securely attached. But it’s the back, so who cares? Twenty-four hours later, it hasn’t fallen off. I’ll take the win.
  4. Think of a number, double it, then treble it, and you might end up with an approximation of the number of hours you need to allocate to this rewarding endeavour. 
  5. If you are a quitter, don’t bother. You need a backbone of Titanium— wait, make that Tungsten—and the determination of a terrier up a drainpipe after a rat to put this sucker together. 
  6. If you have high blood pressure or a heart condition, don’t bother. 
  7. On no account, try it alone. Even if the other person is as bewildered by the entire thing as you are, you need—nay must have—moral support, or you’ll risk insanity. 
  8. Flatpacks are a new level of pain, even if you’re a legend at DIY. I’ve done a fair amount of DIY in my time—hanging shelves, painting rooms, etc.—with reasonable results. Well, apart from that one time when I nearly electrocuted myself trying to wire up a small chandelier. Even this shocking experience had nothing on yesterday’s ordeal.  
  9. If you thought you were a ‘potty mouth’ before you started, you’ll discover profanities you didn’t know you knew before you finish.
  10. The opportunity loss is immense—so many other things you could be doing instead of breaking your hands and mental equilibrium, grovelling about on the floor, perspiring and cursing the gods of convenience as your body curses your choice. 

While researching for this post, I came across the previously unknown concept of flatpack assembly services. I felt immensely vindicated because if there are flatpack alchemists who can come to your rescue and transmute the base parts to furniture gold, that means flatpacks are impossible to put together—it’s not just me. How I wish I’d known. But OMG, the irony of paying someone to do what the manufacturers have offloaded—you pay less for the convenience of buying it in bits only to pay someone to put the bits together. Is the affordability thing, therefore, a delusion? Have we been suckered?  

Unless you are a DIY Wizard or professional carpenter (why would you need a flatpack item in the first place), my best advice is to buy the made-up version, get help from someone who knows what they are doing or even bring in a paid professional, however much it hurts to do so. In my case, note to self: never buy another flatpack. 

So, you want to write a professional book?

Every seasoned professional should have their book, right? I read that in Forbes Magazine article back in the mists of 2016. For a moment, I was tempted to give it a go, but it wasn’t the right moment, and I wasn’t very filled with get-up, let alone go at the time, so I filed the idea in my rainy-day basket and got on with my life.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago. My get-up gene was flexing its muscles, and I was ready to have a go at something new. I have always loved writing — I’m an essayist at heart — this blog has provided the perfect vehicle for a bit of wry self-expression. I’ve written a swag of other stuff over the years, some of which has been published, some not. I had one of those ‘aha moments’ in this go-getting Renaissance.If life gives you lemons, make lemonade,I thought, closely followed by I’m a writer and know a thing or two about branding, why don’t I write a book about brand development

By way of background, as co-owner of boutique creative agency for nearly 15 years, I’ve worked with people and organisations of every type — start-ups, small businesses, corporates, leading charities, local and national government entities, and social enterprises — to help them create and manage standout, impactful brands.

I’ve also been on the other side of the equation. At the start of my career, I worked for two dynamic start-ups that became global brands. Their trajectory instilled a deep understanding of the role of a strong brand as a springboard to success. I’ve experienced first-hand the competitive advantage standout brands bring and the value at each stage, from business planning and development, capital raising and growth, to exit.

Combining this with my writing and comms skills, I figured I had the chops to give it a go. These combined lemons would surely make a lot of lemonade. My vision was to take what I know and create a practical, hands-on resource to help people shape their brand thinking and maximise their brand’s value.

I tried the book idea out on a few clever people, including my business partner and a trusted adviser. Not only did they encourage this rush of blood to the head, but Paul (adviser) with a love of brands and a lot of experience in developing them, offered to help review and shape the content. I also identified and tested the concept with target audiences, who seemed to think this could fill a gap in the market. Game on! In a tsunami of creative energy and determination, supported by a how-hard-can-this-be approach, I started scoping the structure of this new creation.

 Seriously, you start with a proven brand development process that’s worked for people and organisations of all sorts and you re-tread that into book format. A walk in the park you’d think. Think again. In some ways it was easy because I already had a structure for the book from the steps in our process. I’ve done loads of brand workshops in my time and a lot of reading around the subject so I wasn’t starting from ground zero. Despite my initial confidence and my starting knowledge base, it was remarkably difficult to take that and make it into a book. In my agency’s branding work, we do all the heavy lifting, whereas the book had the different focus of supporting people to do it themselves.  

Although I thought I had a lot of content, when it came down to it, there wasn’t much. At least not much that was usable — I couldn’t ethically include client case studies, so I had to find relevant examples that fit the narrative through the book. Luckily, I was able to draw on my experiences with branding the start-ups I’ve co-founded as examples and my varied career has kicked up a wealth of anecdotes and insights. Creating meaningful exercises that would push people’s thinking was a whole new world of pain, although once I got into my stride, I enjoyed compiling them.

Even for someone who enjoys writing, this was a beast. I struggled big time with the opening and rewrote that entirely many times. Paul was a rock throughout, reviewing each chapter as we went along — his feedback was on the money every time and kept me putting one word in front of another. I had some other very useful feedback from a couple of other people who offered to be ‘tame readers’.

Two years on, what can I say? It was hard. There were days when I viscerally understood the old maxim: the only way out is through. I bled time. Thinking about it, sometimes I just bled. I stalled a couple of times when I realised the latest rewrite didn’t cut it. But I come from a long line of brace-up and get on with it types, so I braced-up, got on with it, and the result is Brands with Moxie: Eight Steps to a Winning Brand. I was and still am thrilled to have finished the writing — it was one of the biggest challenges of my life, but in terms of my own standards, I nailed it.

 Writing it, of course, wasn’t the end of the story. It needed to be professionally proof read, designed and laid out. How convenient to have a creative team in my orbit! Even so, we had to find a creative direction for the design and overall look and feel of the book. Ultimately we went with a complex option which included a hand-painted illustration style. Nothing like making a rod for your own creative back.

Then there were other BIG decisions to be made. The first — and it was a doozie — was whether to go it alone or try and find a publisher. I did a lot of research into the pros and cons of each. Getting a name publisher to take you on has its appeal in terms of third-party endorsement and overall credibility. Publishers take many practical issues away but also take away a fair amount of control and earning potential. Many publishers also expect the authors they take on to have an ‘author platform’ — i.e. a ready-made, online following to boost the marketing.

These days, ‘Going Indie’ doesn’t have the stigma it used to — many leading authors self-publish, and no one is shrieking ‘vanity’ at them. Self-publishing on Amazon and or the other platforms is seductive. You’re instantly in the publishing business once you’ve got a complete manuscript in the proper format. The downside is that all the promotion and marketing is on you. Theoretically, you do better financially from any sales, but it’s not a level playing field.

Ultimately, what tipped me into the Indie camp was time. I don’t have much of it at this stage in my career, and waiting a further, possibly three years or more, after the two I’ve already sunk into writing and production, just seemed ludicrous in these days of convenience and instant everything—that’s if you even get accepted at all. It seems so random and a game with rules known only to insiders. So, Indie it was.

That decision made, I had to consider which platform to go with. I decided to launch on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, which is still the biggest and then add others once I’d got the hang of it. Next, what format was going to work best? Kindle only? Kindle and paperback? Hardback as well? Coming out of a creative studio, the book needed to be visually exciting, so a paperback version was a ‘must have’. I also opted for a simpler Kindle version. It’s ended up at 280-pages, so I ruled out a hardback version as it would have been too big and too expensive. Kindle and paperback are quite different propositions, which meant creating the book in two formats because the designerly paperback wouldn’t work in the Kindle world of ePub and the need to be responsive to different reading devices — each one needed discrete sets of skills to produce.

Then how would I sell it? Another curve ball and another war chest to find. I got help and took on experts to set up the launch campaign on Google and social media because these aren’t my bag.

Even with help, a lot of the publicity and promotional activities are on me. Shameless self-promotion doesn’t come naturally to everyone. I’m no exception. The brace-up conditioning I mentioned earlier walked hand in hand with the self-deprecating British thing. But for the Indie Publisher, it’s just part of the deal and I accepted that I would have to move out of my comfort zone and into this competitive arena to succeed. It’s also another time sink hole. 

What else? Well, for anyone who believes they have a book in them, here are my outtakes.

1.     If you know your stuff, you can write a book. Even if you don’t think you have anything special to say, you likely know more than you think, and your thinking and insights are different to anyone else’s.

2.     Although challenging, writing a book is a great way of reinforcing what you know and building confidence and self-belief. If you’ve ever suffered from Imposter Syndrome — I certainly have on occasion — it’s a great antidote.

3.     The first draft of anything is generally sh1t … so are the next xxxx … but digging deep gets results, and the satisfaction from finally landing it is immense.

4.     The ability to ‘slash and burn’ will become a top skill worthy of inclusion in your CV.

5.     However long you estimate it will take, quadruple it, then quadruple it again and don’t expect to have a life as your new obsession takes it over.

6.     It’s like living through a lengthy illness — you don’t realise how sick you are until you’re not, and it’s done.

7.     Procrastination doesn’t qualify as writer’s block. I dedicated a two-hour block early each morning and great chunks of my weekends to keeping my book moving. That worked for me because I’ve long been an early bird, and I could get stuck in before my colleagues arrived, and the business day took over my headspace. It really is a question of JFDI, baby!

8.     Loading a fancy paperback book into the Kindle Direct Publishing portal might make you lose the will to live. We’re experts at producing high-quality print publications, and it took us about six stressful attempts over a week to crack it.

9.     You need a great team around you and understanding friends and relation. Without expert help it would be a la big mountain to climb and I am eternally in debt to my team of understanding cheer leaders who offered unconditional support no matter what.

10.  When your new ‘baby’ is finally born — the Amazon stork delivered mine yesterday — all the stresses and sacrifice melt in a surge of love and awe at the achievement. My colleague Katie Williams , who created the gorgeous design, and I were the proudest parents on the block, I can tell you. 

Seriously, it was an amazing voyage of discovery, growth, and affirmation and I’m so glad I stuck with it. It’s opened fresh thinking and reinforced the best of the old. If that weren’t enough, according to the Forbes article I referenced at the beginning, having a book makes you more cool at cocktail parties. That, of course, makes all the difference. 

Would you trust this man?

I was amused to read that Tinder and other dating apps intend to make it possible for users to get ‘verified data’ (i.e., run background checks) on their romantic prospects. The available data will include any arrests, convictions, restraining orders, harassment, and evidence of violent crimes. For an, as yet, unspecified fee, this will “empower users with information” so they can protect themselves. 

I was amused to read that Tinder and other dating apps intend to make it possible for users to get ‘verified data’ (i.e., run background checks) on their romantic prospects. The available data will include any arrests, convictions, restraining orders, harassment, and evidence of violent crimes. For an, as yet, unspecified fee, this will “empower users with information” so they can protect themselves. 

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?. After all, an unbelievable number of people are on the receiving end of gender-based violence — about one in four women and one in nine men have experienced it at some point in their lives. And I understand that platforms like Tinder have been slow to act on complaints about abuse by people listed on their site. 

The big problem with certified data as far is that it’s not unknown for someone without any ‘previous’ to be saddled with the rap sheet of someone possessing a similar name or some other matching data. Mistaken identity can see some people lose out on potential jobs, houses, and now possibly love through no fault of their own. Employers are not allowed to ask about stuff like this in interviews in the interests of fairness. Certainly, there is the option to request a police check, but the usual starting point is to give the candidate a chance to tell their own story. 

I have often wondered if we shouldn’t approach relationships with the pragmatism and rigour employers take in screening prospective employees. Over the years, I’ve employed a fair number of people and I’ve made my share of poor choices — no system is failsafe. But I’ve tried to stack the odds through running a thorough selection process and by checking references. 

Writing letters of reference for former employees is something of a dying art. Some still want them, but they’re a potential minefield. On the one hand, you can be prosecuted by the new employer if you over-represent the person’s capabilities. On the other, you have to risk the ire of departing employee if they disagree with your summing up of their performance. Hence the blandly handy and non-committal Certificate of Employment. This bald statement of job title and time served, possibly including an invitation to call for more information, gets you off the hook. It’s all you are legally obliged to provide if there are reasons you don’t want to do more.

In the employment context, seeking and providing character references is a big part of the deal and acceptable on both sides of the negotiation. For candidates, protection lies in the fact that it’s up to them whose names they give as referees — you’d hope they’d pick fans. But even the most enthusiastic fan cannot always defend their idol across the spectrum of topics that might come up. I’ve become good at reading or listening between the lines. It’s easy to hear the slight hesitations before they answer difficult questions and to spot the careful phrasing to avoid being untruthful where there is cause for concern. Frankly, I’ve been amazed at times what people have been prepared to tell me.

The last reference check I gave had its challenges. It was for someone I mostly rated very highly and liked, but aspects of their attitude and approach were quite tricky to manage. When asked, I gave a measured response that made it clear I had reservations in this one particular area but then stressed I didn’t think it would prevent them from succeeding in the intended role. You don’t want to limit the prospects of someone you broadly feel is a good thing, but the issues had caused a few problems in my business, and I don’t think it’s fair to a potential new boss to gloss over stuff like that. I take the approach of raving (in a good way) where I can and keep the negatives short and as sweet as I can make them, honestly. 

Coming back to Tinder et al., consider how differently we would view the dating game if people took up reference checks from one or more former partners before they ever agreed to a date. What would your exes say about you?  More to the point, what, if asked, would you say about them? 

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

Re Barlow Brinksman

Barlow and I cohabited for nearly a decade, during which time he held the role of my Life Partner, a job title for which he ultimately proved unfit as the life bit didn’t work out.

Despite his excellent qualifications for the role — alpha male status, top job in industry, large asset base, physique holding up well for age, brooding raptoresque looks and impressive intellect — he somehow never entirely fulfilled his potential. Barlow is not a team player, being over-competitive and doesn’t like sharing other than with his children to whom he’s obsessively attached.

I couldn’t fault his commitment in some areas — he demonstrated an enthusiastic, somewhat obsessive approach to the more physical aspects of the job. I also couldn’t complain about his earning power, although what was his remained his. Barlow was always punctual and could be highly sociable when he felt like it. He communicates exceptionally well on some levels; I never had any difficulty understanding his basic needs, but he has trouble expressing himself on a more profound emotional level. While he carried out complex duties with competence and on time, he could not be relied upon when the opera season coincided with Super Fifteen Rugby’s later stages.

He is entirely capable of working without supervision but rarely uses his initiative at essential times like birthdays and Christmas. His alpha-male status also makes him something of a bully, and he doesn’t take it well if he doesn’t get his way.

In my opinion, despite his many fine qualities, he has changed partners too often during his career and is unlikely to settle in any Life Partnership position permanently.  Moreover, he left me without serving out an acceptable notice period. In my opinion, it would take a massive mental shift for him to embrace the qualities required in this demanding role: commitment, sharing, nurturing, listening and compromising.

While I would possibly recommend him to anyone looking for an Associate Partner or perhaps a Transitional Person, I would have to say pass if you’re looking for your forever person, and I would not personally re-instate him if hell were freezing over.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me should you require further information.

Yours faithfully etc.

If the above were a letter of reference for a potential employee, it would likely be severely career limiting. But what if it were from a previous partner of a person that you’ve already started to fall for?

Realistically, the concept of romantic reference checks doesn’t have legs, entertaining though I find it. I doubt it would make people behave any differently during relationships and going back to previous partners for a reference would likely dredge up any residual biases or bitterness, which tend to distort the good things. It’s true; some couples manage to maintain close ties after their romantic relationship is no more, and perhaps those types would be good referees? Perhaps not. If you’re the person who left, generally, that is because your partner has had some behaviours or values that you don’t share or find difficult and providing a candid reference would bring these out. If you’ve been unceremoniously dumped, your feelings toward that person are likely to be skewed negative. 

In any case, a person that is a disaster for me really could be The One for you. There are always two sides to any story, and what I perceive to be the truth – or “my truth” as it has become — can be very different to what an ex sees. It’s pretty subjective, and a reference from me would likely be pretty meaningless. So, I’d pick that most people wouldn’t bother to take up emotional references even if they were available or pay any attention to them if they were. 

After all, what would their last partner know? Once you start to get romantically involved, common sense, discernment, and logic exit stage left with the speed of a caged bird set free. Few of us have no skeletons of any sort in our closets. Mostly, they’re pretty anodyne, but they’re the sort of thing you’d like to fess up to once a degree of intimacy has been built, not in a fact-checking exercise before you’ve begun. For the would-be-dater, the internet and social media already provide extensive opportunities to ‘stalk’ people for insight into who they are. But what does it tell us? It’s not as if anyone’s going to advertise that the pinnacle of success in their life to date has been to be banged up for beating the living crap out of their partner. 

As a species, we do play fast and loose and take enormous risks with our hearts. Perhaps Tinder’s proposed screening service will provide some basic safety protections, so its users don’t end up on the receiving end of some psycho’s crazy mind. Whether or not they do, it still won’t protect people from the heartbreak of knowing love don’t live here anymore.

Statements of the bleeding obvious #201: Nice doctors really do make a difference!

It’s amazing how many times what’s billed as breakthrough new research really just confirms what we already understand from experience. Stuff like the fact that singing is good for us and can prolong our lives. That dogs and other animals lift the spirits of long-term hospital patients … as well as mostly everyone else. That laughter is infectious. That lovesickness is a genuine state.

OK, so we’re in an era where it’s possible and considered desirable to research esoteric and non-fundamental subjects. I’m cool with that — non-fundamental subjects like these actually make a lot of difference to our daily lives bringing cheer and happiness, often in dark times. So providing evidence that they really do achieve what  we intuitively feel they do is fab … even if the headlines they provoke seem more like statements of the bleeding obvious than radical insights into the  human psyche.

It most definitely is good to know that singing regularly could prolong my life — I do enough of it after all. It’s a bonus to know that, as well as the immediate buzz from   opening your larynx and letting rip, it’s a gift that keeps on giving in the all-of-life context. Also great to know empirically that my love of animals — near obsession it has to be said — is healthy. That bringing animals into hospitals is genuinely therapeutic and can bring comfort to people in pain or despair. Who hasn’t ever listened to a friend break out into a great belly laugh and  been been compelled to laugh too? Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone … so true. And love sickness? Well, it’s been a while since Apollo fired an arrow into my tender  heart and catalysed all the turbulent symptoms I described in an earlier blog You Make Me Sick! But I haven’t forgotten the visceralality of it all — there’s no question in my mind, it’s a lurg just as debilitating as a fluey cold.

At the weekend, I read another about one of these completely unsurprising research findings. Can A Nice Doctor Make Treatments More Effective? Well dear reader, if you were in any doubt on this count, according to new research by Stamford University in the US, having a doctor who is warm and reassuring actually improves your health. REALLY? Who knew? Most of us I would have thought. I found this astonishing non-news in weekly round up of good news from the New York Times. It’s full of great stories and I love it.

Last week comes Romeo the Sehuencas water frog to my inbox. Romeo is a very rare creature. He was thought to be the last of his type. No Juliet to be found anywhere, let alone on ‘yonder balcony’. Day after endless day, sad Romeo croaked out “Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou Juliet?” from his home in a Bolivian museum. Actually what he said was, “ribbet, ribbet, ribbet …” but where’s the poetry in that? Cutting to the chase, biologists had pretty much given up their search in the remote and inaccessible areas of Bolivia where said Juliet might have been found. Then behold! There she was. Juliet the miracle frog — a potential mate for our lonesome hero. Being the only two Sequencas water frogs in existence, it was set to be a fine romance and I’d love to be able to say, “and they both lived happily ever after”. But even for a frog with only one possible mate, the chemistry still has to be right. Imagine the pressure! Without mincing words, would you be prepared to shag some random stranger to preserve our species? Fine if it’s George Clooney.  Not so fine if … well, the list is endless. But then again, unlike Romeo, no one I know is faced with the decision to take one for the future of our species and it’s easy to be precious when we’re in no imminent danger of extinction … unless we keep  messing with our natural habitat that is. All joking aside, a lot is riding on our precious frog prince. Let’s hope the chemistry is there and they soon start producing copious numbers of wee froglets to perpetrate their froggy line.

But back to nice doctors. Apparently the simple things a doctor says to you can have an impact on your health outcomes. Even a brief reassurance can relieve symptoms faster. The reassurance is more efficacious when it’s said in a kindly manner rather than barked out as a “you’ll be fine” afterthought when you leave the surgery. You can’t quite get away from the fact that the doctor has to be skilled and competent as well as nice. However, most of us have been on the receiving end of one of those grumpy types whose you mistake me for someone who cares demeanour is more likely to cause you to lose the will to live altogether than get well. Their cool indifference renders you as articulate as … well .. a frog .. when you try to describe the pain that was giving you hell until it magically disappeared nano-seconds after you made the appointment..

Anyway, the conclusion of the research was that doctors who don’t connect with their patients my risk undermining a treatment’s success. Apparently doctor-patient rapport is much more than the sum of it’s feel good parts. It’s a important aspect of medical care that significantly affects a patient’s physical health. Are you kidding me? It really does feel like a statement of the bleeding obvious that someone who is kind and sympathetic as well as good at their job is likely to achieve a better result.

The article ended by questioning what this means in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. AI opens the possibility of not having to go to the doctor for minor health issues. If interacting with a human being and hearing words of encouragement is part of the cure, this begs the wider question of whether our increasing isolation is actively bad for our health. As the opportunities and need for actually connecting with a fellow human in many aspects of our lives become progressively fewer, what collateral damage are we setting ourselves up for. Romeo the frog couldn’t help his plight. We can, and yet we continue to write people out of the script of our lives. When us humans humans actually get together face-to-face is, we open up the possibility for  laughter and  love. For conviviality and banter. We get to share the good and help each other through the bad times. You don’t need to be a Stamford luminary  to recognise that gentle and kind connections with other people — Doctors and the rest — are seriously good for our health and unkind, cruel ones are not. Comforting to know this is now “proven by scientists”.

 

Smile … an everlasting smile

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)

 

 

 

Be yourself no matter what they say

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!

 

Stranger in a strange land?

My sister and I launched a satirical magazine for women a few years ago. 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.

As part of this, we created frankly ridiculous quizzes for people to complete, spoofing the absurd ones in some mainstream women’s media. You know the type — Which Disney Prince Is Your Soul-mate? Can You Tell The Difference Between A Designer Handbag and A Cheap Knockoff? Does This Sexy Body Part Belong to Luke, Liam or Chris Hemsworth? While it’s actually tempting to linger over the Hemsworth hiatus (Chris for president I say), my point is, it’s all such utter bollocks.

Ours were so much better… Is My Mummy The Queen of England? Should I Wage War On My Neighbours? Are You Wonderwoman? Flicking through these old mags again recently, the one I liked most was Is My Partner An Alien? In fact, I liked the idea so much I found myself burning to find out. Then I remembered the inconvenient truth; I don’t currently have a partner. Undeterred, I decided to answer the quiz from my own perspective to see if I myself was an alien (forgetting for a moment that we had invented the quiz and therefore it was as much bollocks as the ones in the other magazines).

Much to my astonishment, my answers provided conclusive evidence that I was, in fact, an alien. I was quite taken aback by this. If true, clearly I’ve been suffering from whopping amnesia about why I’m on earth amongst humans — some sort of deep under-cover operation? If so, I have no sense at all of the otherness that I figure I should be feeling as a stranger in a strange land. Most of all I wondered where the space ship was parked.

In all seriousness, in the current international climate, the question “Is your partner an alien?” is no joke. Setting aside for a moment the Close Encounters extraterrestrial type of alien in our quiz, down here on earth, in law, a human alien is a person who resides within the borders of a country and is not a national of that country.

We all like to belong. To fit in. To identify with others. Be recognized by our kind and recognise others like us. We like our tribes. Us humans have a prime-evil, almost visceral need to identify with kindred spirits. Unfortunately, looking at the world scene right now, for many this goes beyond the simple comfort factors of a sense of belonging to  issues like identity politics, fanaticism, bullying and terrorism against people who are different or believe differently.

I’m an expat, but an expat by choice not circumstance and living in a place with a lot of similarities to the country I left. Even after more than two decades, I still miss aspects of my previous life deeply but there are no barriers to going back and I can visit as often as I wish or, more realistically, can afford. In some ways, I’m lucky enough to have two countries that I think of as home. I can only imagine the anguish of people who have no place. Refugees running in fear of their lives, forced to leave everything precious and sacred behind. What must it be like to have lost everything you hold dear? Then there are ‘over-stayers’ who’ve built lives that are as fragile as butterfly wings in a gale. Living lives that force them to be constantly looking over their shoulders, stalked by the fear of being torn away from their friends and families and deported.

Particularly at this time of year, my heart goes out to the people all over the world for whom life turns on the whim of others and who feel alien on a daily basis. I just read a heart-rending article about the atrocities suffered by Rohingya refugees who’ve fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh with whole villages burned after soldiers butchered the men, raped the women and girls and mutilated and burned babies. And yet despite their horrendous ordeal, there is no happy ending in sight for these ‘aliens’. Bangladesh doesn’t want to take them. Nor, apparently, does anyone else and there are even suggestions that the best option would be repatriation!

From the bottom of my soul I believe we should treat such people with the milk of human kindness. But it’s complicated. I watched as my birth country, the UK, absorbed waves of aliens, many arriving with religious belief structures as their guiding stars and for whom adherence to religious law was more important than adherence to the law of our land. We lived in a duality where everyone knew there were places — whole cities even — where the law’s writ didn’t fully run. The clashing cultures of nationality opened up deep divisions and dislikes. Un-crossable Rubicons flowed where political correctness enabled and then tacitly ignored horrors in our midst like ‘honour killings’, where there was often no justice to be had for many and discontentment bred the shame of home grown terrorists.

I don’t know where the answer lies, but I don’t believe we can just shut our borders and lock out any and all outsiders. I hate the ‘Little Englander’ mentality that spawned BREXIT or the isolationist America First thinking that is gaining ground in many western countries with its underlying shades of white supremacy. We need to be better than that and find ways of getting over our tribal affiliations with their deep-rooted prejudices.

Maybe salvation will ultimately come from the intervention of some as yet undiscovered but highly evolved extraterrestrials who’ve found the answers! Perhaps said ETs could helpfully start by removing for scientific experimentation fanatics and cavemen leaders like Trump and their offensive Banyonesque henchmen who fan the flames! Particularly at this time of year, I’m reminded of the age-old and still highly valid concept of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

Carpe Diem Baby!

Sometimes I feel that my life is shrinking before my eyes. I’m nearly sixty — how on earth did that happen? I don’t feel old and we live in the world where 60 is the new forty don’t we? So, clearly I’m not. In any case, my soul or whatever you want to call the internal entity that feels like some sort of mini-me remains obstinately and happily oblivious to the passing of the years. Seems there’s a reason why they’re referred to as our ‘inner children’! I think of mine as my inner-Barbie because — like Peter Pan, she seems to inhabit some sort of Neverland where she is forever young. However, unlike the redoubtable Pan who remained a child, my Barbie seems to have cleverly arrested her growth at that beguiling mid-thirties stage. That wonderful place where chronology hasn’t yet won, the body is still beautiful and the spirit is beyond the myopic self-obsession of earlier ages and stages.

Just for the record, I do know I’m not stuck in a time warp circa 1995. I kind of get that every time I’m called to the dark side and consider buying a pair of flat shoes. (Instead of the gorgeously impractical and increasingly hard to walk in high-heeled varieties I have been seduced by all my life.) In recent years two schoolmates and a couple of dear friends have died, among them my first love. That’s certainly chucked a bucket of very cold water in Barbie’s youthful smiley face I can tell you, and accounted for a fair amount of the feelings of shrinkage. But I’m now also facing that old clichéé where time is speeding up. When you’re young the minutes pass like hours and there is a constant feeling of boredom because time stretches out to infinity. Now, I’ve got to that place the young can’t understand where the hours, days, weeks, months and years speed by like the counter in HG Wells’ Time Machine.

Time to carpe diem I say. Grab each day firmly by the throat and make it count. So much better than being subsumed in a myopic obsession about some much desired future state. Whether this state is a new job, a palatial home, a more exciting partner, a super-yacht, some publisher discovering you, winning a career changing award, the in vitro treatment delivering the longed-for and almost given up on baby, running away to live on an Ashram or joining the crew of the Sea Shepherd, putting everything else on hold until some new state arrives seems to be just plain dumb. Let’s face it, scenarios like the current Trump’s/Jong-un brinksmanship play merry Hell with all of our aspirations. But I’m still loving that it’s a gorgeous winter’s day and I’m free to sift through the Op-eds and indulge myself in writing this post. No fires to fight, no ferryman to pay. The future can go hang. I’m happy in my moment. After all, WTF can I do about the mine’s bigger than yours thing that’s going on between those two equally unappealing and childish so-called men?

The carpe diem aphorism comes from Book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes written in 23 BC. Carpe diem has long been used as a standalone phrase which people like me think of in terms of living in the now. But the context from Horace is carpe diem, quam minimum credula poster — “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow (the future)”. Horace’s point being we can’t see what the future will bring, but we should do everything we can today to stack the odds. Not to trust that everything will randomly fall into place.

When I thought about it, the gnarly problem of retirement planning sprang to mind. This is something of a sensitive topic for me at the moment as I’ve taken some significant risks with my financial future by treading the path of an entrepreneurial wannabe. The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow has yet to materialise and was looking frighteningly empty for a while. Putting all your financial eggs in the startup basket is a genius strategy if your name happens to be Bill Gates, but not so flash if you’re a John DeLorean and the expected high returns turn out to be little more than surf breaking on the rocks of hubris and self-delusion. While my investments are currently looking a bit healthier than they were a few months ago for a number of reasons, I still have anxiety dreams about becoming an ageing bag lady wheeling my few possessions round in a shopping trolley — pretty certain that the amount I’ve paid into my pension fund won’t cut it on it’s own.

In all likelihood, Horace’s contemporaries weren’t agonizing about whether their KiwiSaver contributions would see the distance. In those days, apparently if a baby made it through its first year, it could expect to live to the ripe old age of 34. Reaching your fifth year delivered the heady possibility of making relatively ‘old bones’ at 48. That’s a total of 17,520 diems to carpe if you want to get granular. Just as an aside, I wonder what went wrong between the Old Testament expectations of three score years and ten and Roman times? Must have been something to do with all that endless wandering around in the dessert as opposed to stagnating in the stews of Rome. Of course there’s also the thing about being God’s chosen people…

Anyway, in Ancient Rome, it’s thought that less than 5% of the population at any one time would be over 65. What a sensible arrangement!  All those lovely younger generations oozing tax denarii into the exchequer leaving no question about the state’s ability to provide for its aged and infirm. Not that Rome was exactly a trailblazer in the realm of social welfare, so this line of thinking is somewhat pointless. But the Roman equations are interesting in comparison to our ageing ‘Boomer’ reality, which is leaving many people angsting about their financial futures. The upside is that this is a temporary blip. Assuming that the militaristic fat boys step away from their nukes and stand down from the standoff, with the rate at which birth rates are levelling off of or falling in the west, we’ll be back to the healthy Roman proportions of youth to age before you can say “climate change is killing us”.

All joking aside, there’s a balance between living in the moment and leaving the future to chance. In the context of financial planning, for sure there are many variables such as how long we’ll live, how much money will be needed to achieve the twilight years lifestyle we aspire to and what environmental factors will kick in to derail it all, not to mention the whole Pandora’s Box of our health. But that doesn’t means there’s no point. Yay, this is where I get to use all those cliches like failing to plan is planning to fail (Alan Lakein after Churchill and Franklin).  Like, if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable (Seneca the Younger — and didn’t those ancient Greeks knew a thing or two BTW? Bet their life expectancy was higher than the Romans). Then there’s, it does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if you live near him (Tolkien). For decades business gurus have been preaching the gospel of vision, mission and values as the foundation to success. Rightly so. Businesses are much more likely to achieve more, do better, make their shareholders wealthier, trade ethically etc. if they have some inkling of what they’re aiming for. It’s no different for us as individuals. Visualising what we want is much more likely to deliver than chasing a series of shiny new things down rabbit holes.

I used to have a friend who was obsessed with spontaneity. She didn’t like being tied into commitments or rules and regulations, preferring instead to live her life on ad hoc terms. We often used to argue a lot about this. Apart from anything else, it was deeply irritating that her need to be spontaneous resulted in her total inability to get anywhere on time. This fed my position which was that I don’t think you can actually be spontaneous unless you live within a structure from which you can break out. If spontaneity is your life mission it’s got to lead to chaos because nothing can ever be achieved. In a similar way, having no life plan invites chaos in. Seizing the day is not only  about visualising and working towards a desired future but also about enjoying the journey no matter what the outcome. As Robert Burns knew so well, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.’ Pity to get to where they’ve gone agley and there’s only disappointment and a black hole which sucked in time passed in waiting. The best bit is that with a vision, the whole concept of retirement planning becomes moot because we already know which port we’re sailing to. That we want our days to end in a Disney Castle or an Indian ashram or somewhere in between. Clearly circumstances do frequently rain on this planning parade, requiring regular recalibration, but to me that offers better odds than relying on a Lotto win.

In terms of feeling that my life is shrinking before my eyes, I’m determined to make better use this precious and diminishing time resource that once seemed a commodity. Stop bleeding out on things that don’t matter. Letting time slip away like Dali’s Melting Watch in the featured image. For sure, I need to do what it takes to get some decent returns from all the time I’ve invested in my businesses so the ageing bag lady scenario remains simply a bad dream. But I’m visualising as I write and my scenario always includes enough money to see me out in style and allow me to do all the other things I have factored in.

In this vision, when the bell tolls for me, I plan for it to interrupt something amazing. To continue the annoying references, I will be living my days rather than counting my years. Go to India and Antarctica. Take the sentimental journey home to Scotland and write my memoirs en route. Get therapy for the rampaging arachnophobia that makes any attempt at gardening feel like a journey to Mount Doom! Actually turn up at my orchestra having done more than one cursory run through of the music. Or better, stop beating myself up if I don’t! You get the picture I’m sure? Carpe diem indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About that albatross round your neck

I had a great start to this year. I was on fire with certainty and focus, personally and professionally. For the first time in many years, I’d actually said no to a couple of things, leaving room for a number of pet projects that kept getting side-lined. Following a lengthy drought, I started writing again. Ideas blossomed like desert flowers after rain, some pollenating this blog. I was on a roll at work, striding through business planning like a Colossus on steroids. Quite the little joy germ I can tell you. And then, a few months ago, the wheels fell off and I picked up a business load that someone else had laid down and I’ve been staggering under it’s weight ever since. Throughout, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to see the very large albatross slung round my neck?

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, having an albatross round your neck is a peculiarly English language idiom that has come to refer to a heavy burden of guilt that becomes an obstacle to success. The original guilt-induced burden was toted by a hapless sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of The Ancient Mariner written in 1797-98. Although the idiom is widely used, I would imagine for most of us, the poem that spawned it is only a blurry memory from long ago English classes if it’s known at all. I for one had the vague recollection of a cautionary tale of a dead bird and a lot of bad shit that went down during some sort of voyage somewhere, sometime resolving into some sort of darkly redemptive ending.

Well, that wasn’t really very insightful, so I sent up a prayer of thanks yet again to the Gods of the Internet for Google and Wikipedia and for the ease with which I was able to satisfy my curiosity. The Rime of The Ancient Mariner — let’s call it TROTAM for brevity and because acronyms are so fashionable — relates the experiences of a sailor who has just returned from a long sea voyage. In the words of the author (and what better source could there be really?) it charts the story of “How a Ship having passed the Line was driven by storms to the cold Country towards the South Pole; and how from thence she made her course to the tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean; and of the strange things that befell; and in what manner the Ancyent Marinere came back to his own Country.” Still not getting it? Then (to use an expression I loathe but which I think is allowable in the context) let’s take a deeper dive …

The narrative begins with a mariner (presumably an ancient one) stopping some random who is on his way to a wedding in the street and regaling this hapless individual with his story. It’s not actually revealed why he picked this particular man or indeed how he knew the man was on his way to a wedding. The poem wasn’t well received at the time. Perhaps the 18th century reading public was as keen on continuity as contemporary filmgoers who notice things like Storm Troopers hitting their heads on bulk ways. Anyway, I digress. The wedding-guest’s reaction turns from bemusement to impatience to fear to fascination as the mariner’s story progresses. Think I might have felt the same. It’s kind of Night of the Living Dead meets Pilgrim’s Progress. At one surreal point our hero is sporting a massive dead bird strung round his neck on a ship sailed by reanimated corpses. Nowadays of course we would have called them Zombies, but Coleridge was happily unaware of this hugely successful genre. The first known use of the word Zombie in English wasn’t until 1819 in a history of Brazil by the poet Robert Southey, Perhaps if he’d called it TROTAM … with Zombies, it would have taken the world by storm instead of bewilderment. Clearly he was ahead of his time or already the opium addict recorded in the last couple of decades of his life.

Oops digressing again … back to the action. Despite initial good fortune, the ship is driven south by a storm, eventually reaching Antarctic waters where it gets stuck in an ice jam. Serendipitously, an albatross soars by and seemingly guides them out of the ice. Quite understandably, the crew is pretty happy about this believing the albatross brought the south wind that led them out of the Arctic. So what does our hero do? At about the time the crew are congratulating themselves for their good fortune, he grabs his crossbow and shoots the bird dead. What was he thinking? Didn’t he know albatrosses are protected? Predictably, his shipmates are a tad irked with the murdering mariner. However, as they sail on, the weather becomes warmer, the mist disappears and all is temporarily forgiven.

Not for long! Killing the albatross appears to bring the wrath of some unspecified and malevolent spirits down on their heads and they transit from “the lands of mist and snow” to uncharted waters near the equator where the ship is becalmed and it’s frankly, hot as Hell. This prompts the one memorable and often quoted line from the entire gruesome load of anarchic tosh, “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink”. (If you’re a purist, it’s actually “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”).

In anger, the crew forces the mariner to wear the dead albatross about his neck to show his guilt. Two points here. (1) Why did they still have the dead bird onboard? (2) What a great idea — maybe activist organisations like Sea Shepherd could take on board (as it were) when they encounter idiots doing vile things to marine life!

Anyway, this is all getting a bit long-winded. To cut a (very very) long story short, next they encounter a floating hulk where Death (a skeleton) and Nightmare-Life-in-Death (a deathly pale women) are playing dice for the souls of the crew. Death wins the lives of the crewmembers and LID (Life in Death doh) wins the life of the mariner who … er … yup you got it … must endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross. Even the Sea Shepherd stalwarts might consider this a little extreme? Anyhoo, the crew die, but the mariner lives on for seven days and nights seeing the curse in the last expressions in the eyes of their corpses.

Ultimately, the mariner’s curse is lifted after he appreciates the sea creatures around him, which he had earlier cursed (lot of cursing in this work) as “slimy things” — he suddenly sees their true beauty — “a spring of love gush’d from my heart and I bless’d them unaware”. Abracadabra, the albatross falls from his neck and he is partially redeemed. Good spirits possess the corpse crew and they help steer the ship to safe harbor. Trancelike by this time (and who can blame him after all the trauma) the mariner hears two of the spirits discussing his fate which is to wander the earth driven by guilt, forced to tell his story over and over and passing on his cautionary tale to those he meets.

On finishing his story, the mariner leaves, and the wedding guest returns home, and wakes the next morning “a sadder and a wiser man”.

THE END

And don’t you wish it was darlings? But suck it up because I haven’t quite done yet. As I said earlier, responses at the time were muted, even from his poet buddies like William Wordsworth. Apart from the fact that TROTAM is written in highly laboured ‘olde englishe’, it’s simply not a very pleasant story … all those dead things!

Whether or not there’s any merit in the poem — I’ll leave you to make your own mind up on that score — the sad thing is that Coleridge’s story gave the albatross such a bad rap as a guilty burden to bear. NZ is home to 14 species of albatross, including one of the two biggest, the Royal Albatross with an average wingspan of 3m (9.8ft) some more than 3.5m. I was lucky enough to visit a colony outside Dunedin at the bottom of our South Island a few years ago — they are truly glorious birds that can live up to 70 year apparently. Check out our Department of Conservation’s RoyalCam which follows a Royal Albatross nest. OK maybe it’s not as dramatic as some of the other better-known cams like this TigerCam, but hey, we don’t have any large predators on our shores, just this very large squid-eating bird so we have to take our wins where we can.

Coming back to the albatross currently decorating my own somewhat fragile neck, I’m pretty close to having completed whatever self-inflicted penance was required to achieve my own arc of redemption although my story was more one of taking responsibility than guilt. In any case, there is now light at the end of this particular tunnel. As I write, I can feel my albatross slowly re-animating and flexing its wings. I know that very soon it will soar off back out to sea in its element, tirelessly gliding over the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean.

Sing long and prosper!

I love to sing! Like Barry Manilow, music was my first love and it’s still way ahead of some of my subsequent loves I can tell you! (By the way, where is Bazza now … and does anyone care?) When I was a kid, I used to drive my sister insane by warbling away in the morning from the moment I got up — what a happy little songbird I must have been, trilling away in my own little dawn chorus! To be honest it wasn’t just my sister I irritated. This compulsion to sing has gone on to irritate flatmates, partners, workmates and basically anyone within my orbit in the early morning! I live alone at the moment and I even irritate myself from time to time. But none of this has ever stopped me and I expect, again like the aforementioned Manilow, music will be one of my last loves.

OK, you get it, I really do love music in general and singing in particular. Over the years, I’ve sung in festivals, backed a band (that didn’t make it), formed a duo for music at functions as well as being a member of a number of different choirs. At the moment, I sing with the Orpheus Choir of Wellington. Orpheus is a symphonic choir. That means there are enough of us — up to 150 at any given time — to credibly sing some of the biggest choral works that exist. I’m no Maria Callas, but I’m truly grateful to be able to perform at this level. In the year since I joined, we’ve covered the sublime (Mozart’s seminal Requiem Mass) to the ridiculous (nonsense verses by Ogden Nash set to music), and everything in between. I’ve sung music I didn’t know existed (Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony) as well as life-long favourites (Beethoven’s oh-so-famous Ode to Joy, the finale to his towering Ninth Symphony). We’ve performed everywhere from concert hall to cathedral, from Zoo to street festival.

Last weekend, we staged a couple of the most spectacular and difficult of all choral works; James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross and Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. In the astonishing acoustic of Wellington’s cavernous Art-Deco cathedral, my friend who attended reported that it was a visceral and moving couple of hours.

For sure, this type of music is not to everyone’s taste, but there are so many alternatives to enjoy. Who’s never sung in the shower? Believe me, if you haven’t you’re missing out big time! If that’s not your thing, you can get your armchair rocker on with the help of software like SingStar, hit a Karaoke bar and astonish/amuse your friends or simply let rip to your favourite playlist whilst driving. You don’t even have to be any good at singing to enjoy it. As Henry van Dyke so beautifully put it, “the woods would be a very silent place if no birds sang except those that sang best.”

But the greatest thing about singing — and this is something all singers innately understand — is that it’s not just fun, it’s incredibly good for us. There’s a growing (and credible) body of evidence about the physical and psychological benefits derived from singing; stress relief, better sleep, improved heart and lung capacity, possibly even longer life. Apparently, like eating a bar of chocolate, singing releases those much vaunted feel good endorphins, so beloved of exercise fiends … but without the calories! Singing in a group is thought to be particularly beneficial because of the increased sense of community, belonging and shared endeavour it brings. That’s certainly true for me. Singing is also considered to increase mental awareness, concentration and memory.

While it’s early days for this sort of research, it not difficult to believe. Experts in early human history believe that people sang out their feelings long before they were able to speak their thoughts. This was not singing in the sense that we know it. The fist human utterances were limited to mimicry of the sounds people heard in nature — birdsong, the roaring of animals and the crooning of babies. This early ‘singing’ would have been an individual thing with the individual having no thought of communicating ideas and feelings to anyone else. It’s not known when the singing of meaningful, communicative sounds began, but it was likely a key step in the evolution of language.

Even after the development of language, song retained a central place in building and strengthening communities and societies — I don’t believe there is any race or culture on earth, even the most remote or cut off, that doesn’t sing. Singing is ancient and universal. It’s a means of invoking the gods with prayers and incantations, celebrating rites of passage with chants and songs, and recounting history and heroic feats. Some cultures even have creation myths where they were sung into existence. To this day, song has much more importance in our lives than simply for entertainment. We still lullaby our babies to sleep, hum under our breaths when walking in scary places in the dark, get together and lift up our voices in praise of whatever we feel is worthy of praise, create anthems to imbue national pride and support our sports teams, schools and other social groupings.

As I said at the start, I love to sing. I couldn’t agree more with Marty Rubin’s sentiment, “walking alone I sing to myself and am content.” I love it even more now that science is confirming its connection to my on-going health and wellbeing. Or, as Kathleen Long put it in Chasing Rainbows, “In your life, you either chose to sing a rainbow, or you don’t — keep singing.” That’s what I intend to do and I hope anyone who’s reading this will too. If so, to borrow from the Vulcan, we should all sing long and prosper.

Post Script

We don’t get fooled again?

There it was, a compelling subject in my boring list of emails pulling my eye towards it with the compulsion of a $100 note lying unnoticed on a pavement.

Beware car-jackers in parking lots — read this now!

So I read it …. well you do, don’t you? 

“Imagine: you walk across the parking lot, unlock your care and get inside. Then you lock all your doors, start the engine and shift into reverse. You look in your rear view mirror as you prepare to back out of the parking space and notice a piece of paper (some sort of ad?) stuck on the rear window that’s obscuring the view. You put your car in neutral or park, jump out to remove the paper (or whatever it is). When you reach the back of your car the waiting car-jackers appear out of nowhere and jump into your car and take off. Your engine was running, your handbag is in the car and they practically mow you donw as they speed off. 

BE AWARE OF THIS NEW SCHEME

 Just drive away and remove the paper they’ve stuck to your window later … and be thankful that you read this email and that you forwarded it to your friends.”

Well reader, I was concerned I can tell you and I nearly fell for it. I nearly shared a bogus email and worried all my friends sick for no reason. Apparently this is a hoax that has been doing the rounds since 2004.

Man, we’re guillible as a species! But, they’re so credible these emails or social media shares, and you feel so puffed up with the responsibility of keeping not only yourself safe, but also everyone else you know. Well, you do, don’t you? Your finger hovers on the send/share button for a moment. Maybe it’s a hoax? But it can’t be … can it? No, damn it, it sounds like something I heard on the radio sometime, somewhere … I’ll press send just in case. What harm can it do? If it’s true, I’ve done what I can to alert others, if it’s not true … well … so what really? A few of my circle might momentarily think I’m a plonker, but they’re busy and the moment will pass. More likely, they’ll just hit ‘share’, like me , without questiontioning anyway. It’s not exactly a crime against humanity of the type that got Hermann Göring in front of the Nuremberg Trials.

But on reflection, it’s plain irresponsible to share stuff that’s not true. Along the lines of the bored shepherd boy who cried “wolf” once too many times to get attention and then wasn’t believed when there really was a wolf. Particularly questionable are ones that are partially true, which can have serious consequences. A recent example is the much promoted concept of ordering an Angel Shot if you’re a woman in a bar feeling threatened or unnerved. Bar staff then summon an Uber cab to whisk you to safety — oh the irony of a woman feeling safe in the Uber-verse! While there is some merit in this new form of SOS, it relies on bar staff everywhere knowing the signal and knowing what to do. Being widely publicised also means the perps are likely to have decoded this signal rendering it pointless.

As I said at the beginning, these shares are so very credible and it’s so much easier to hit forward and be done with it, than actually take time our of out of our time poor lives to do a bit of sleuthing first. Particularly when there’s some sort of guilt quotient or not meeting the expectations of friends’ involved in not sharing  In our current reality, many of these fall into the category of fake news, intentionally or not. My sister will kill me for writing this as she’s our family’s expert on not getting fooled and I’m stealing her thunder. (Also, she is a life long and passional fan of The Who and might be annoyed by my hi-jacking the title of one of their greatest hits for the piece.) However, in writing this I’m continuing her crusade with the key message being, ‘help is at hand’. If you’re not sure about something, have a look at one of the fact checking sites like www.snopes.com.

Of course, that assumes that the fact checkers themselves are unbiased in their assessments. When I googled on this point, I came up with a recent cautionary tale in Forbes magazine casting some doubt about Snopes and the processes it uses to make its calls. Snopes is the fact checking site that is partnering with Facebook as its arbitrer of truth, which is a bit of a worry to say the least.

True or false, it really does seems as if a lot of us prefer to awfulise and believe there are horrors lurking round every corner, than check the facts and spoil the story or break the chain! Sadly, it seems we will always get fooled again … because we like being ‘in the know’ and the fake news brigade are past and present masters of playing on our fears, biases and incredulity. As the old saying goes, don’t believe everything you read!

Never succumb to beige!

On the off chance that anyone ever asks me my views on life, my advice would start with ‘never succumb to beige’.

I have been tempted, I can tell you. On more than one occasion to be absolutely honest. It’s so fashionable (although beige has sort of morphed into that  ubiquitous mushroom colour so beloved of interior designistas). I’ve even owned some beige stuff — a jacket, a throw (which I actually did love), maybe event a couple of pairs of shoes over the years. And why not? After all, beige is the darling of Taste. The hero of Conservative. It has its place for sure. But why would you choose  beige when there’s so much vibrant colour to be had? It’s just so … well … tastefully boring!

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 . To thine own self be true I say, even if thy true self is more bling than Ming. Quite apart from anything else, imagine the epitaph it would make, ‘she never succumbed to beige!’

Pondering the meaning of beige set off a bit of a navel gazing moment while I figured out what else I would offer up to this hypothetical seeker of Frankie’s advice. So here it is, the sum total of my wisdom to date (aggregated through a number of spectacular prat falls, a lot of sticking plaster and a naturally sunny outlook):

  • The world really is your oyster
  • If you’ve got lemons, make lemonade — then get innovative
  • Always have at least one foot off the ground
  • Money may not buy happiness, but it surely does help in our material world
  • Unless you’re an ostrich, don’t behave like one
  • You really are what you eat and drink
  • Love is all you need … once you’ve taken care of the tangible assets
  • It’s probable the geeks actually will inherit the earth
  • The road to Hell most definitely is paved with good intentions
  • Eat, drink and be merry … because it’s fun
  • If you can’t put up, shut up. In other words, put your money where your mouth is
  • The answer’s much more likely to be blowing in the wind than that at the bottom of a bottle
  • Rose tinted glasses have their place
  • Stay in tune with your inner Barbie, you’ll need her as you age
  • Sometimes say never
  • Doing as you would be done by is better than sleeping pills
  • Anyone who doesn’t know what happiness is has never seen a puppy
  • Sorry doesn’t always make it right … but it helps
  • Don’t climb every mountain — choose strategically
  • There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover — if you can visualise well enough
  • Love IS the sweetest thing
  • If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it
  • Shit Creek is not a terminus!

If you take all these on board, I’m sure your life will soon be as perfect as mine J