Happy New Year … you’re under arrest!

Two burly, unsmiling cops barge into my office and stride purposefully to my desk. “Frances Manwaring?” the taller and meaner of the barks at me. “Er … yes,” I say a little tremulously, wondering what they want. “Frances Manwaring, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent … ” As the cop reels off my Miranda rights, I wonder if I’m in the middle of a nightmare. I pinch myself to be sure, but voice drones on…

OK, so I didn’t get arrested — just wanted to build the drama of the piece. But seriously, it was how I imagined things might have gone down if my business partner hadn’t gone to collect our mail from our PO Box on Tuesday. This is a rare event — nothing of any use comes by snail these days so weeks can go past without either of us stirring our stumps to go and pick up whatever dross has gathered dust. In this case it had been only been a relatively short gap since the last visit and that only because I’m in the middle of a transaction in the UK with an antediluvian, seemingly technophobic insurance company for whom physical mail, for some unfathomable reason, is the only way it will communicate.

Anyway, back comes John with a bundle of letters, mostly bank statements and the usual junk promos. While we’re on the subject, what is it with banks? Mine seem hell-bent on squandering whole forests by continuing to send paper statements, even though I’ve opted for digital versions more times than Kim Kardashian changes her handbags. But I digress — back to the main event. Because I’m hoping to find a reply from the annoying UK insurer, I don’t just lob the whole lot into the recycle bin as I often do. Thats an inspired decision as it turns out. Irritatingly, the hoped for insurance missive isn’t in the stack. Instead, lurking amongst the wad of bank statements, is a formal looking item with “OPEN IMMEDIATELY!” emblazoned on the envelope. How intriguing I think … how very Alice in Wonderland. Then I notice the Ministry of Justice crest and figure it must be something follow up from the Jury Service stint I did in early November. Being a complaint sort of person (!), I open it immediately as instructed without any concerns. But a brief first scan of the the short letter almost stopped my heart.

Nothing magical about this missive! Turns out it’s a summons to appear in court on Thursday at 11am. I’m reading it on Tuesday at about 4.50pm, so the imminence is pretty alarming. Has to be a mistake I think. Must have read it wrong. Reading it again does nothing to alter my first impression — it’s definitely a summons and it’s definitely addressed to me, so not a case of mistaken identity. And the heinous crime that requires my presence in court? A speeding infringement from mid-2016. The letter contains a helpful, but not very imaginative infographic (being MD of a creative agency, I’m quite up on what makes a good infographic) depicting the scary steps involved in the apocalypse triggered by this infringement. If you don’t pay the fine instantly, you get a reminder and some grace to stump up (Step 1). After continued ignoring of reminders (Step 2), the up the ante with a summons to court (Step 3). Failure to appear leads to arrest (Step 4).

Poorly rendered though this infographic is (note to self – send our credentials to MOJ and see if they need a new creative agency), I’m now more than a little freaked out. Us head girl types don’t get summoned to appear in court, it’s just not in our DNA! Anyway, it’s now 4.59pm and I panic dial the Ministry’s 0800 quicker than you can say Great Train Robbers to see WTF is going on and what I can do about it. I thank my lucky stars to find someone still taking calls (at a government agency) after 5pm and I have a very convivial conversation with this saintly person who clearly doesn’t think I’m an axe murderer. Having cleared that up, we quickly cut to the chase. The problem turns out to be a timing issue. I’d just moved house at about the time it happened, so didn’t receive the original fine notice (thanks whoever moved into that house after me and didn’t forward my mail). Then I didn’t notify my change of address to the powers that be before the reminder was sent out, so I also didn’t receive that (another heartfelt thank you to the new incumbent).

It was a little un-nerving how much information about my movements my new BFF was able to access while we were talking. I did vocalise somewhat stridently (not too stridently as I didn’t want to get offside with MOJ) my disappointment and surprise that only the one reminder appears to have been sent, and that there had been no subsequent communications until this summons to court more than two years later. In any case, I had to agree it was a fair cop as I hadn’t sent the change of address out immediately and it was therefore on me that the documents never found me. As you can imagine, I threw in a few mea culpas at this point. I’m sure youll be very happy to know that all it took to fix the problem was a credit card and $60 of creditworthiness. I certainly was! The irony of it all was that the original fine was only something like $12, the rest being penalties and court fees which couldn’t be waived because of my failure to notify change of address. However, she assures me I dont  have to make an appearance in court appearance and the long arm of the law wont be reaching out for me and we’re done. Phew!

Later, I pondered the astonishing amount of effort that goes into a minor misdemeanour when so much other big crime goes unchecked. That’s a story of its own, but there’s another side to this issue. I’ve moved several times in the last few years. I’m pretty diligent about sending out change of address notices to people like the Transport Authority, and I genuinely thought I had notified them all after that particular move. Apparently not. Some time ago I decided to get around this by using my business PO Box as my personal address to avoid all the hassle involved.

But my point is how easy it is to get offside with the law. Many people less advantaged than me also move a lot for all sorts of reasons, including financial or family difficulties. Many more have temporary addresses or no address. For sure, a proportion of these won’t own or drive cars, so won’t be in line to clock up traffic offences. However, I’m sure many of them do and I wonder how much of our policing time is spent arresting people who, like me, didn’t ever get the fine notices in the first place? Being generous, I’m sure most of us would actually stump up, particularly as they offer payment terms.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing with the law. Curtailing the speed at which people drive makes us all safer and I do try to stay within the legal limits. I’m sure there are recidivists who never pay and deserve to be prosecuted because they clearly don’t care about the consequences. However, from this experience it’s easy to see how quickly things can escalate and suddenly you’re in trouble. I’m sure I wouldn’t actually have been banged up, but I might have landed a criminal record if I’d been convicted. I ended up thinking there but for the grace of God go I if John had postponed his trip to our PO Box by 2 days. Timing is everything! Happy New Year indeed.

Ghosts from Christmases past #2: Hip hip hooray!

Spending Christmas in hospital would not high on my Dear Santa wish list. I apologise in advance to all those dedicated and wonderful doctors and nurses who are rostered on through holidays to look after the hapless hoardes who are ill or break themselves at Christmas. Nope, those guys do a heroic job. But hospital at Christmas – it’s just not living the dream is it? It has to be said, I have been one of the hapless Christmas A&E admissions, having snapped my Achilles tendon on holiday on Christmas Eve a few years ago and I was truly grateful (a) that it happened in the early morning so I wasn’t competing with all the drunks that clog the system later in the day/night and (b) that those dedicated and wonderful types were with great good grace (amen) to put this Humpty together again without any kings’ horses or men in sight.

Still and all, a festive hospital visit is just not anyone’s top choice as a holiday destination. And yet, fifteen years ago, it actually was. I needed what is amusingly referred to as ‘elective surgery’. Elective because you can, in theory, choose whether to have it or not, and when, as the condition doesn’t need to be dealt to at a particular time — i.e. it isn’t life threatening. The whole elective thing is laughable. Big yeah right! In many cases there is a choice, but that happens when your surgeon accepts that your pain is so extreme that you’d likely go insane if you had to bear it for a nano-second longer.

To give you the back story, I had both hip joints replaced in my late thirties. I was unusually young, but by no means unique. There were a number of things wrong with me each one of which on its own wouldn’t have been much of an issue, but collectively combined to wreck the joints. Because of my age, my surgeon held the surgery off as long as he could because he was worried about future complications — the prostheses only last so long and there are only so many times you can effectively replace the replacements because apparently you run out of femur to play with (sorry if this is a little close to the … er … bone for some). It was all about probabilities. How long the replacement joints would last, how long I would live If the first was shorter than anticipated and the latter longer, I faced seeing my life out in a wheel chair. In any case, my condition deteriorated at a rate that would have made an Apollo Space Craft seem laboured. Movement became very limited, quality of life nose-dived and ultimately the pain became so bad he relented. I had both of them ‘done’ within a year of each other. Happy days!

Anyway, the ops were a tremendous success. I got my life and mobility back, the pain was miraculously gone and I was a happy little camper. Then several years later comes ‘The Fall. Before you get worried about my state of innocence, I don’t mean fall in the Biblical sense. No, my fall was getting a bit carried away at an al fresco party and missed my footing in the dark on the edge of some concrete circle we’d turned into an impromptu dance floor. Seemed like a great idea at the time. Wouldn’t have been too big a deal if I hadn’t landed so hard that one of my prostheses came loose. Back to limping, pain and the certainty of more surgery.

This time, there was no question of the surgeon putting up a fight — the revision clearly needed to be done and it was only a question of when. Luckily for me, I have a private health care plan which meant I really was in a position to choose a time that would be the least disruptive to my life. The first slot that my surgeon could offer was just before Christmas, meaning I would be in hospital for Christmas and Boxing Day. The next option was weeks away and, once I’d thought about it and got over the poor me aspect of it all, the Christmas timing was actually ideal. The private hospital I went to was very close to my house, so easy for family visits and minimal unscheduled time off work.

In all seriousness, apart from the fact that undergoing surgery of this sort is not a walk in the woods, once I’d got over the immediate effects of the anaesthetic and the post op trauma had passed, it was actually quite fun. I had a lovely big airy room on the corner of the hospital all to myself. The nurses were a great bunch, some were old friends from previous incarcerations. I think they were grateful to swop stories with someone who was under 85 to be honest as they dropped in more than was strictly necessary and we had a lot of laughs. It didn’t stop there. I had had more visitors than I probably would have had at home, and I didn’t have to lift a finger on the festive cooking front. The food wasn’t half bad, particularly a pretty yummy (for an institution) roast turkey dinner on the big day, washed down with one of those cute little miniature bottles of a hearty red and the decorations were pretty flash. Best of all, I didn’t have to suffer through all the endless repetitions of canned Christmas music. By the way, does anyone other than me find the whole idea that Santa sees you while you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake a bit creepy and stalkerish? Anyway, I was out by New Year and well into the familiar rehab routine.

Now that we’re in the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, there’s a bit of time to ruminate about stuff. This morning, in one of those desultory conversations one has with friends and family, my mother and I somehow meandered into comparing the vintage of our artificial joints. Tragic, I know but hips seem to be our family thing. We’ve all had them done. Big difference is when they were done; grandfather (late eighties and only one), father (early eighties and only one), uncle (well into his sixties and only one), mother (both — late fifties and early sixties) and sister (mid-fifties — one so far, but counting down to the next). Then there was me in my late thirties, not sure what happened there! Anyway, my mother’s first prosthesis is a venerable 25 whereas mine is a stripling at 20. No-one really knows how long they will last because everyone’s activity levels are different. Equally the vast majority of the recipients of artificial hips are quite old and so it’s difficult to measure average lifespans as the first one generally sees them out. However, 20 is thought to be a pretty good age, so mum and I were musing how much longer ours would hold out.

We also reprised a regular foray into imagining what our parallel universes would have thrown up  if this amazing technology had not been available to us. To be honest, It doesn’t bear thinking about. If we’d been born before the middle of the last century, we’d both likely be cripples, even if either of us was still alive.Early attempts at hip replacement were carried out in Germany in 1891 using ivory to substitute for the femur head. These were attached with nickel-plated screws, Plaster of Paris and glue. Hmmmm. Not surprising this approach didn’t take off. The pre-cursor to current techniques was pioneered in 1940 in South Carolina by US surgeon Dr Austin T Moore who performed the first metallic hip replacement surgery.  A more sophisticated version – the ‘Austin Moore Prothesis’ — was introduced in 1952 and is apparently still used occasionally. Like modern hip implants, it is inserted into the medullary canal of the femur, and depends on bone growth through a hole in the stem for long-term attachment. Another apology here if this creeps anyone out!

It’s always so tempting to think about the golden age that we perceive existed in our grand parents’ eras. Apparently, every generation since the newspapers rolled off the early printing presses felt this sort of nostalgia for imagined glories past, underlined by a fear of change and what it means for the future. Every time I get caught in this sentimentality for the halcyon past, all I have to do is think about my great good luck in living now and being on the receiving end of the incredible medical science and technology that is our norm. Even with all the problems we’re facing as a species, I’m grateful from the bottom of my soul that surgical advances have allowed me to live a full, pain free and normal life. When I think of Christmas miracles, my hospital experience in 2003 would have to be one of them. If we can achieve all this, surely we clever, inventive Simians, can find the tools to figure out the other stuff. Hip hip hooray to that!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghosts from Christmases past #1: What a cracker!

Earlier in the week I did one of my favourite parts of Christmas — delivering Christmas gifts for my (Moxie’s) Wellington-based clients. While I was arranging my gaudily sequined Christmas hat as jauntily as I could and wondering whether I could still get away with this look, I had one of those incredible déjà vu moments as I remembered a ghost of myself from a Christmas past.

Thirty years ago, almost to the day, a lovely friend Daniella and I, resplendently festooned in Miss Christmas costumes, were hauling sacks of giant Christmas crackers around the streets of the City of London. We were delivering the contents of said sacks to commercial real estate agents and the crackers were a promotion to announce that the owners of one of the city’s newest tower blocks had decided to break down the floor space into smaller units for rent. Well, dear reader, what a buzz! Everyone was thoroughly into the festive spirit (some literally) and we turned heads, stopped traffic and generally had great banter with the people we passed. Lot of ‘you better be good for goodness sake’ sort of jive. It has to be said, the hats were coy, the skirts short, the heels high and the legs long. Of course, the clichéd red velvet and faux white ermine outfits had their own tacky but exotic allure. In these highly PC days donning we then this gay apparel might appear like the ultimate in objectification. Back then, we just saw it as a bit of harmless fun — it was for my business, no-one forced us and, in any case, we probably thought we looked ‘hot’ and enjoyed flaunting it. A whole topic for a different blog!

This cameo role was related to a business that I tried to help a friend’s son Ralph get off the ground. He’d already started it, but it wasn’t gaining traction beyond his immediate locale. We called it Absolutely Crackers!and the giant crackers for the city building were one of our biggest successes. In its short life span, Absolutely Crackers! really rocked the corporate promotions market — we made bespoke, weird and wonderful crackers for a range of iconic brands including Arsenal Football Club and top end chocolate manufacturer Charbonnel et Walker. Then there were the sumptuous crackers designed to match the splendour of art deco Pullman Carriages on the Venice Simplon Orient Express.  Fillers for these were white silk evening scarves for men and exquisite hand-painted ones for women from VSOE’s merchandise range. For a city broker, crackers made from the Financial Times were the perfect accessory for their annual bash.

The jewel in our crown was creating the invitations to CBS Records (now Sony Music) Christmas party in 1988. I don’t recall how we got in front of CBS — might have been via my then husband who was involved in music sponsorship — but we put together a very ambitions proposal for they invites which they, somewhat amazingly, accepted. In retrospect, they probably went for it because we ludicrously under-priced the whole gig.

The theme for the party was ‘Old English’ and, let me tell you, these weren’t just any old crackers. No, no, no, these were masterpieces of ingenuity and engineering. What we proposed, and they ultimately got, were individually boxed crackers — we designed a sleek triangular box to make them easy to post or courier to the who’s who of the musical world that were on the invitation list. In keeping with the theme, the crackers themselves were made from a beautiful burgundy and gold paisley patterned paper and the gifts were boxed miniatures of Glen Fiddich. Nice touch we thought even though Glen Fiddich is clearly not English. Nor is it even that old, having been founded in 1886, but good luck getting boxed miniatures of mead! Anyway, CBS seemed to agree that the single malt met the spirit … hem hem … of the occasion.

So far so good. The glory of the piece was the invitation which was hand-written by a calligrapher using medieval ornamentation on the lettering and then reproduced on parchment style paper. Most sane people would simply have rolled the invite up inside the cracker. Not us! No, we figured that to be authentic, they needed something else. So the invite was rolled, tied with red satin ribbon and then sealed using a custom designed CBS seal and traditional red sealing wax. The scroll this made was glued to the top of the cracker and the finished articles looked amazing.

And that’s where the wheels fell off. We had to assemble 350 of them. Anyone like to hazard a guess how long it takes to hand seal 350 parchment invitations? What calibre of satin ribbon can withstand the heat of the sealing wax being dripped onto it? No clue? We didn’t either. I can remember sitting at home at my kitchen table, the ceiling paint slowly blackening with the somewhat greasy smoke from the melting wax, my fingers progressively covering with Band Aids as the skin reddened and blistered, and the frustration grew as each ribbon sample melted down. I think we finished them off in the Board Room of my day job. (Happily I had a great boss who thought the whole cracker madness was great fun and might even have been the genius behind a device that got created to allow us to make about 10 ribbon seals simultaneously.) Anyway, the crackers were a huge hit even if we made no money out of them (on account of never having done anything like this before — has anyone?  — and not being able to price them effectively). But hey, luminaries like Mick Jagger and George Michael got our crackers … and what price a few first degree burns between superstar friends!

But how did crackers get incorporaed into the Christmas lexicon in the first place? It’s not like Matthew’s Gospel told us of wise men bringing gold, frankinsense, myhrr … and … er … crackers. You can sort of understand where Christmas trees and all the Easter paraphanalia like eggs and bunnies got adapted from the pagan festivals the Christian ones replaced. But crackers were unashamedly commercial. Wikipedia (bless) tells the story of how one Tom Smith was first to market.  He apparently created crackers as a development of his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper (the origins of the traditional sweet-wrapper). But the novelty wore off, sales of bon-bons slumped, and Smith sought new promotional ideas. Apparently, he added the “snap” when he heard the crackle of a log he had just put on a fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by trinkets. This new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (i.e. Cossack), but quickly morphed into the onomatopoeic “cracker”. The other elements of the cracker we all know and (many of us) love —the gifts, paper hats and mottos — were all introduced by Walter Smith (Tom’s son) to differentiate their product from competitors who’d grasped the opportunity and got on the cracker bandwagon.

Back to Absolutely Crackers! Despite the genuine success of some of our promotions, the cracker empire never eventuated. Behemoth’s like Tom Smith still dominated the retail market and made it pretty much impossible for us to succeed. Without cracking (sorry couldn’t resist it) the retail market, relying on promotions was too random as they didn’t happen evenly during the year. Our vision was to make the cracker a ubiquitous part of the corporate party circuit, not just at Christmastime. Instead we coped with high stress peak times during October – December which, fun though they were … and they were … were also unsustainable. In any case, as with CBS, we didn’t really know how to price the jobs properly and lacked the confidence to just think of a big number and double it, then double it again, so we didn’t manage to build any reserves.

We did try quite hard to get into the ‘high end’ retailers like Harrods, Fortnum and Mason and Asprey but other independents peddling top of the line product, had got to them first. Asprey in particular offered eye-wateringly expensive crackers at around fifteen hundred quid for a dozen. Think gold plating and diamonds designed for wealthy Saudis! We didn’t have the working capital to really get stuck into this level of ostentation. In the end, we decided to throw in the towel and, with extreme regret, closed our little factory unit outside Hereford. I re-focused on my day job which likely pleased my long-suffering boss, and Ralph went off to study drama.

Despite this, I loved Christmas crackers  long after Absolutely Crackers! went to the big Christmas party in the sky and have re-prised my cracker making skills for family and friends on many occasions over the years. To me, specially designed crackers are like icing on the cake of my table setting themes. I also found them to be a very personal and loving way of wrapping carefully chosen gifts. I guess my feelings about table settings and crackers were akin to the way others offer love through food. However, it’s increasingly hard not to be sickened by the overt consumerism of this time of the year. All the advertising for too many things we don’t need and there’s no place to hide behind the knowledge of the damage we consumers have wreaked on our environment.

Apparently there’s a memorial water fountain to Tom Smith and his family at Finsbury Square in London. Perhaps this is another monument that ought to be removed? Crackers may well be a beautiful augmentation of the Christmas table and add some fun to the moment. But it is only a moment and they are just another layer of landfill when it all comes down to it and we need more of that like we need to colonise Mars. Well actually, we probably will need to colonise Mars if we don’t stop creating landfill like crackers, but I’m sure you know what I mean. I’ve stopped making or buying them even if I have to psyche myself to step away from the tantalisingly presented boxed sets in stores and mourn the creative opportunity loss for my table decorations.

Having said all that, all that remains is to wish you a cracker of a Christmas and a very happy New Year full of peace, joy, hope and love.

Thrift — the new black?

I read a great article the other day about a trending topic, ‘The Cult of Thrift’. The gods of this cult are minimalisation, debt-free living, frugality, decluttering and zero waste, gods I’ve been progressively bending the knee to over the last few months. In fact, it was so similar to my own experience, the article felt as if it had been written by a doppelgänger. Hadn’t realised I was part of a new wave — how advanced of me!

The main difference between us was that the writer has consciously embraced the thrift ethos whereas I’ve kind of blundered into it in a necessity being the mother of invention sort of way. In fact, after a couple of financially disappointing business investments, I’ve really had no option other than to pull my belt in big time. Thinking about it, said tightenign of belt was purely metaphorical. As the funds ran out like beer from a leaky barrel, epic levels of comfort eating kicked in meaning that I actually would have had to let out the  belt a few notches … if I’d wanted to wear one that is. During this nadir, I pretty much stopped wearing belts or any other clothes with shape given the results of all the snout in trough stuff. However, I’m sure you’ll be as uplifted as I am by the knowledge that not only have I started wearing belts again, I’ve actually clawed back one of the lost belt holes and have confidence a normal waistline is in sight!

So much for metaphor! In any case, what started out as necessity quite quickly morphed into choice and I appear to be well on my way to becoming a paid-up Thrifter and feeling more virtuous by the moment.

So what has given me the keys to the Thriftdom? Unsurprisingly, given the above, a fair amount of it revolves round food and eating habits. For starters, bargain food hunting has become an obsession, if not actually a new sport. This has led to the dark art of cooking proper meals again instead of giving in to the Siren call of endless takeaways after too many stressful and long days at work. Sometimes the new me even cooks a casserole or soup or similar at weekends to stretch over several weekday meals.

I finally get the joy of auction sites like eBay and Trademe although I continue to try and buy as ethically as possible. I can’t exactly claim that Upcycle has become my middle name, but I have looked at a few things and had an ‘aha moment’ about refurb rather than trash. ‘Pre-loved’ clothing shops are very much on my radar. Having moved into a much smaller apartment, I no longer get small space envy whenever I watch a George C Clarke TV programme and I feel positively virtuous for the level of de-cluttering that’s resulted. I can thoroughly recommend this tactic to wannabee Thrifties. When you have limited space, it makes you think long and hard about what stuff you actually want to shackle yourself to. Choices have to be made people! It won’t all fit! In the spirit of transparency, I have to fess up to the fact that I haven’t yet been able to get myself to offload the many boxes of books I’ve been trailing around as I’ve moved into successively smaller homes to a second-hand book seller or book fair, so my sister’s enormous garage is currently multi-tasking as my library.

Limited closet space is also a great incentive to apply some of the anti- clothes-hoarding rules. You know — if you  haven’t worn it in the last two years, it’s toast. If you buy a new garment, something must be consigned to the outer darkness of the clothing bin to make room for it. If it doesn’t work with something you’ve already got, put it back on the rack. And how many pairs of shoes does anyone not called Imelda need?

In all seriousness, after the initial trauma, de-cluttering is a very liberating activity. It’s not just stuff I’ve been getting rid of either. The thrift thing can be applied across all the facets of life. I’ve shed one business and stepped back from a couple of other professional involvements so I can concentrate fully on doing one role well. I’m also training myself to say no to all those ‘should dos’ that my inner crowd pleaser sees as obligatory.

Although thrifty has been a virtue since Adam was a boy (actually since around 1300 if you read dictionaries), the Thrift evangelists are out in numbers these days. You’d have to think that’s a direct result of the all the inconvenient truths we’re facing as a society and the fear the we might be going to Hell in a handbasket sometime soon if we can’t get the lid back on our contemporary Pandora’s box. Among the evils unleashed on the world when some fool opened it in this is the spend-thriftery (extravagant, irresponsible spending) that has come to define our consumerist western lifestyle.

But how could it be otherwise? We’re literally bombarded with subliminal and not-so-subliminal messaging carefully crafted to make us dissatisfied and want more, bigger and better everything. But don’t worry, if you can’t afford it, someone will lend you the money, up your credit card limit or provide ‘interest free credit’ so you can keep on consuming and owe a bit more of your soul to the company store. It’s unsustainable on so many levels — personal, community wide and for our equally stressed planet.

Actually, it’s obscene. Or at least in my rapidly de-cluttering life, it seems so. The concept of retail therapy — when the going gets tough the tough go shopping — sits at the centre of the problem. Particularly when the results are growing mountains of recycling that can’t (yet) be re-cycled, oceans stuffed with plastic and other toxic detritus and all the rest. Maybe we should create a new mantra; when the going gets tough, the tough go … on a peace march?

Shopping as our primary leisure time activity is particularly ironic given that we humans have so much innate creativity. Less time spent shopping leaves time for things that so often go on the back boiler. I love writing this blog as it helps me sort out my priorities, worldview and values. But when I get stressed and my life and mind get cluttered, I can’t write. There’s just no headspace to think about anything other than whatever is causing the stress, and I have sometimes gone for weeks without writing anything.

It has to be noted that the cult of thrift is not a judgement on the genuinely poor for whom thrift is not a virtue but potentially a life sentence. Rather, it is being held out as an alternative for people with means who want to get off the consumer treadmill and start living within them, taking responsibility for how their actions affect the present and future. It’s not about austerity, just changing our personal values and thinking more deeply about how we live.

Taking my own recent experiences, while I’m as keen to have the good things in life as the next person, I’ve found a lot of joy in appreciating what is instead of lusting after what isn’t. In this context, less is most definitely more. Getting my thrift on has become a highly creative and engaging new way operating which ironically becomes a much more sure-fired way of being able to afford to do the things I would like to. I feel up-lifted by the challenge not deprived. There’s certainly more time to smell the roses.

 

 

 

 

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!

 

Take your shoes off when you’re wiping your feet on me!

At a dinner party some years ago the host came up with a provocative challenge which I’ve subsequently put to many others in the intervening years. Imagine the scene. We were still sitting around the table after dinner and and had got to that mellow point — i.e. belt-looseningly full and well wined —  where you get stuck into the really good conversations. The challenge was what would we call our autobiographies. “Great question” we all agreed.

As you can imagine, silence descended on the table for some time as we all tried to think of something suitably impressive, witty, challenging, ironic or, frankly, all of the above to impress each other with. Unfortunately, I can’t actually remember any of them because there were somer crackers, and we spent a couple of hysterical (serious LOL stuff) hours reviewing peoples’ choices against what we collectively knew about them.

Being known as Frankie to that group, I think I opted for something frivolous like Frankie’s Follies. “Not bad” was the verdict of my fellow diners as they considered the chapters that might make up this clearly racy little number. The ‘they’ at the dinner being people who know me quite well rather than the faceless ‘they’ who are generally cast as the common enemy. It was an eye-opener to understand from their comments that my fellow diners saw me as something like  Bridget Jones meets Barbarella!

Even at the time, I interpreted ‘not bad’ as ‘could do better’. Frankie’s Follies just felt feel a bit frivolous and try hard as a life story, and I’ve been on the hunt for an improved one every since. But I hadn’t been able to come up with a better option — try it, it’s really hard — until recently when I started writing this blog and now I’m spoilt for choice. The title of one of my recent pieces — @shit creek #no paddle — was a contender for a while. This was getting close I felt. Whether or not it could be the perfect moniker for MY book, it would certainly be a fab one for A book. Ultimately, I ruled it out  as I’m determined that the next part of my life will be shaped to avoid any more time wasted in the waiting room for the Shit Creek Express.

But while I was writing it, I did a lot of soul-searching about my life trying to find re-curring themes, good and bad, that underpin my story.. One of the big ones was loyalty. I’m extremely loyal person to people I care about. On too many occasions that has strayed into loyalty beyond reason where I’ve given too much — personally and professionally — putting other people’s interests way ahead of my own. Typically I’ve ended up with my head in my hands to play with; a financial loser with broken heart. That piece of navel-gazing prompted a post that’s been in the hopper for a while but, like Shubert’s majestic last symphony, remained mockingly unfinished — Take Your Shoes Off While You’re Wiping Your Feet on Me! I love this title. It’s got everything really … drama, bathos, victimhood, irony, insight … except authenticity for me now. Like the cast off @shit creek persona, the door mat who allowed too many people to wipe their feet on her is also banished from the narrative these days.

As you might have guessed, the search for the definitive title for my autobiography has become something of mission. At sleepless moments other people count sheep, meditate, name cities … whatever … I start thinking about autobiography names. Maybe this is not for everyone but, for someone who loves words, it’s the perfect way of passing time. You know the deal. When you’re sitting in a cafe or restaurant trying not to look like Jonnie-no-mates whilst waiting for friends who are running late? Or whiling way and hour or too on a cold, dark winter Sunday afternoon at home when there are no fires to fight?

Challenging other people, like my long ago host did, to name their autobiographies has produced some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking conversations I can remember. Last year when I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige I think I finally nailed it! The whole idea of not succumbing to beige has  become a personal metaphor for always being who you are, despite the pressure to conform to all manner of often uncomfortable societal norms. It represents my commitment to the ideology “to thine own self be true”, even if that true self is more bling than Ming. It captures the desire to not give in. To get back in the saddle again after falling off. To be indomitable and bounce back after the proverbial shit has hit the fan. It’s also an enduring reminder of the  husk I become during my last and very damaging long-term relationship. Most of all, imagine the epitaph it would make, ‘she never succumbed to beige!

Seriously though, how do you frame your life story? After all, what’s in a name? Does it matter? A life’s a life isn’t it? Should be. Nonetheless, I think names do matter. When you name a child it does seem that their name help shape their personalities because of some deep-rooted need to live up or down to whatever they’re called.  Someone named Storm is likely to be a very different person from a Daisy for example. You’d be a laughing stock if you were a scaredy-Storm cat. Daisy? Well … er … I’m thinking … all those dairy cows.

Parents-in-waiting agonise over what to call their embryonic children. Any one who’s started a business will have agonised in equal measure over what to call their commercial ‘baby’ because the one they choose will shape the perceptions of every person who engages in any way with the business. I think equal dedication should be put into naming our life stories because it helps identify the values by which we want to live our lives, our primary vision and mission, and distill to its essence how we see ourselves as human beings.

We can choose to do this retrospectively when the story has already been long in the telling. This is the time when we are moving towards its ending and the denouement is becoming clear. Or we can name the story early on and allow it to shape how our plot develops and ultimately the conclusion we wish it to have. Of course, we can only stack the odds — life throws all sorts of curved balls at us which, without a crystal ball or other psychic assistance, we can’t possibly factor in from the beginning. This likely will result in a least one, if not several revisions or tweaks. But that’s a good thing, in the way that a quality business plan should be a living document evolving as circumstances change and understanding deepens.

If I had my time again, I’d take great care to more pro-actively shape my life by thinking about the story I wish to write. I don’t think for a moment I’d choose the schematic that would be required in the Take Your Shoes Off When You’re Wiping You’re Feet on Me version! If I’d started out with the Never Succumb to Beige ethos, I wonder how my life would have differed? While there have been shades of both through the years, giving a positive name to my journey earlier could have saved me from going down a lot of unnecessary rabbit holes along the way. The good news is I feel like I’m tracking pretty well against my chosen epitaph!

Thanks to College Artist for the perfect cover photo.

 

 

A dystopia of demagogues?

Over a drink last night, a friend and I ended up talking about THAT MAN. Well, it’s pretty much inevitable really isn’t it? What would a meeting of friends in today’s world be without a little Trump-bashing?

Once we’d got the hand wringing over and there was no more air left to suck through our teeth as we exhausted our daily outrage quotas, we got into a much more interesting discussion. about the man’s curious penchant for the world’s current crop of “strong men”. Let’s call them, for the sake of argument, Trump’s Posse. And what a band of merry men they are to be sure. I’m thinking al Assad, Jung-un, Duterte, Jinping, Erdogan, el-Sissi and Uncle Vlad Putin and all. They’d likely make all the horrors of the world that Pandora unwittingly unleashed look benign!

As individuals, Trump’s Posse are are called many things. Some of the more polite moniker’s include dictator, autocrat, despot, occasionally even oligarch (I’ll leave you to ponder the long, long list of  less polite options). My own favourite is the deliciously arcane “demagogue” — a leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices and makes false claims and promises in order to gain power. Perhaps more Trump than Duterte, but that might be splitting human rights abuses.

But what to call them as a group my friend and I wondered? Surely they have enough commonality to merit a collective noun of their own we thought. After another glass (or two) of wine and much hilarity (if you don’t laugh you cry right?), we came up with what we thought were some crackers … a doomsday of despots … a deception of dictators … a dystopia of demagogues …  an abomination of autocrats … for some reason we got stuck in the semantic seduction of slick alliteration.

Any better ideas?

I’m in with the in-crowd

Well actually, I’m not really, but it felt like an attention-grabbling headline and I could do with some more followers! Before anyone feels aggrieved, let me say quickly it’s not completely ‘fake news’. I do know a few people who know important people and in my life I have rubbed shoulders with the odd great or goodie from time to time; junior ministers, MPs, TV/radio types, musicians, sports celebs, poets and scientists laureate etc. After 13 years in London and now 12 in the capital of a country like NZ with a population of only 4.7m, you’d have to be some kind of hermit for this not to be the case. In any case, to justify the title, I did once sit at a table next to the glorious Mr. In-Crowd himself, Bryan Ferry, in an Indian Restaurant in Kensington. Pity I didn’t know I was sitting next to him at the time!

It’s hard to get away from the sheer, unadulterated joy in having bragging rights on an in-crowd moment. My personal best story undoubtedly is the time I swam with the All Blacks (New Zealand’s legendary national rugby team and current world world champions). Think about it. Most people only aspire to swim with dolphins. This wasn’t a sort of sponsored event to raise money for the team. No one took me out on a boat seeking a pod to cosy up to. It was much more prosaic. I was a member of the gym at the Intercontinental Hotel in Wellington for several years and used its pool most lunchtimes. Said hotel is where the ABs (when you’ve swum with them, you’re allowed a bit of familiarity I’d say) stay when in Wellington. Imagine if you will. You open the doors to the pool and there they are. A posse of glorious young men rotating between the sauna, the ice bath on the edge of the pool and the pool itself. You can imagine, dear reader, the flight impulse and unwillingness to unveil the then fifty something body was very strong. But I toughed it out and took the plunge … as it were. In the end, it was a lot of fun. They were utterly charming to everyone there. A story to dine out on forever.

But there’s also the in-ness of knowing someone who knows SOMEONE. The whole concept of reflected glory. A few years ago, the brother of a good friend dated a very (VERY) famous woman who was the ex-wife of an even more famous man … and at least one other not quite so famous one before him. Nearly wrecked the brother’s life, what with being followed and spied on and generally paparazzied (if that’s not a verb, it should be). Not altogether surprisingly, the relationship didn’t flourish and the very famous women somewhat predictably went on to marry another notorious A Lister. Don’t think my friend’s little brother was either famous enough or rich enough to cut it as a permanent fixture, although he certainly was a little of the former by the time his wonder woman jumped ship, and he wasn’t exactly a pauper to begin with. He just wasn’t in the same league as her hat trick of celeb spouses.

It was mind-boggling hearing about the media frenzy that surrounded their affair. My friend’s family was described very patronisingly as ‘socially anonymous’. They weren’t super-wealthy or super-successful or super-anything other than, to my mind, super-nice, but nice doesn’t sell column inches and so they were of utterly no consequence to the editors of prurience. It wasn’t an uplifting experience for any of the family or friends. I was reminded of this story whilst watching the endlessly repeated footage marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana in August. Love her or not — my jury has always been out — it has always seemed a cruel and pointless waste of two lives to end up in the mangled wreckage of a Merc in the small hours of the morning because your drunk driver has smashed into the wall of a Paris tunnel speeding to evade a baying pack of papps.

While my friend’s brother was able to retire to relative obscurity when his relationship ended, his experience at the time was yet another example of the collateral damage accompanying the cult of celebrity that’s endemic in our western societies. The Princess Diana story is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of the high price of fame. Even though she was alleged to have manipulated the press big time and was therefore something of a poster girl for the ‘be careful what you wish for’ cautionary tale, no-one deserves the obsessive stalking that she endured.

It’s not just the stalking, there are also all the expectations to be lived up to. How do you retain self-esteem when every inch of you and everything you do is examined and picked over by the media on a daily basis? Having a barrage of cameras shoved in your face every time you venture out is unthinkable to anyone who values a degree of privacy. There’s also the fact that if you in the public eye, you have to compete with your Photoshopped publicity look. Great to be displayed on bill boards and front covers at your air-brushed best, where blemishes have been evened out and even the contours and proportions of your body might have been changed. But how would you ever leave home as the real you?

It’s not surprising people under this sort of scrutiny succumb to diet fads and eating related disorders including bulimia and anorexia. Again Princess Dianna is the poster girl here, but there have been so many others. People who are convinced that 40kgs is the ideal body weight are on the slippery slope to long-term health complications if not pointless and premature death. Then there’s the Siren call of the party scene that’s been a trap for many of an unwary in-crowder and I’m sure the sex, drugs, rock and roll lifestyle is a blast … until it destroys you.

For many, achieving any hall of fame can entail making some unpalatable choices. It’s become all too apparent over the last few weeks that the Weinsteins and Moores of the world use their power base to pray on the wide-eyed people trying to get ahead in their orbit, generally women, who are further down the food chain. It’s a sad right of passage if you have to run the gauntlet of sexual predation from powerful men whose fame and commercial bankability has, at least until now, protected them from being outed. How many aspiring women have had to put up or shut up to rise through the ranks? Worse, how much talent have we missed out on as women have walked away from promising careers to avoid conflict?

For sure the rich and famous seem to have everything anyone could ever want, but conditions most certainly apply. I know no-one promised famous people a rose garden and they chose to go down the path that led to the red carpet, winning on the international stage, awards, unimaginable wealth and similar. But looking at the price of admission, who in their right minds would want to be in with the in-crowd? I’d much rather be socially anonymous and free to lead my life as I wish. Having said that, I like to have a bit more of the rich bit in my relative anonymity — Croesus levels sprint to mind. It’s the fame bit you can keep!

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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