Living a simple life: C is for Consumer

C is for consumer (and credit cards)

This post is part of the 2017 A-Z Challenge. Woot!

Alright! We are three letters into the alphabet already, the sun is shining (it was when I drafted this post anyway), I have an enormous pot of pea soup simmering on the stove behind me… so what better time to talk about CONSUMPTION.

I have credit card debt. It’s not something I like. I have this whole plan to pay it off by the end of July. As such, I’m setting myself another April challenge (alongside blogging everyday). Namely a NO SPEND challenge.

Yes, I am buying groceries. But no take-away, no new books, no clothes, no random stuff for the house, no flowers, no over-priced cups of coffee. It means I need to plan more, think more, and oh… pay attention.

We live in a culture saturated with stuff. I do actually enjoy spending money – I love travel, I love eating out, I love new experiences. But, for April, I am going to focus on what’s free.

The #instagram life – in pursuit of perfection

I have a bit of an obsession with self-improvement, and with self-perfecting type books. I don’t watch a lot of TV, and I have an ad-blocker on my browser, so I don’t see many adverts. But I do go on instagram, I do look at the carefully curated perfect vignette, I do read ‘lifestyle’ blogs. Yeah, I am subscribed to Goop – and only partly ironically. I look at tours on Apartment Therapy. I crave the stylish, simple, super-expensive and self-described ‘minimalist’ chic.

I bought a magazine about simple living the other day, to read in a coffee shop. It was stuffed with adverts. Adverts for cute, eco-friendly, fair-trade stuff that was probably woven out of toxin-free hemp.

I want the vitamix blender, the white linens, the single vase of flowers.

I want the goddamn bullet-journal.

I want to be a different person. You know. The person who has it sorted. The person who is effortless, light, breezy and flowing. The person who only bought one thing, but that one thing was perfect.

I have yet to buy a perfect thing. I try for an organised, clean, #nofilter life, but the truth is, my whites keep going grey after I wash them a couple of times, I spilled marmalade on my floor the other day, and I killed the potted herbs I bought within about a week of buying them.

That went a bit off-piste. However, the core holds. A month without consuming extra in an effort to seek perfection that doesn’t exist. A month of enjoying what I already have. And, hopefully, a chunk of change to apply to the credit card debt.

Living a simple life: A is for Attention

A is for Attention

This post is part of the 2017 A-Z Challenge. Woot! 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog, and about my life in general. Last year was a difficult one for me: I almost certainly slipped into depression, although I did not get formally diagnosed. Still, I spent a lot of time staring at the wall with my thoughts circling the drain.

Thankfully, a mix of counselling, exercise, self-reflection, omega-3 supplements, yoga and meditation has pulled me out of it.

So what is this about, and what does it have to do with the A-Z challenge?

When I first started this blog, I did so with an A-Z challenge. The posts were short and perhaps perfunctionary, and I didn’t gain any long-term readers from it (I don’t have any long-term readers!)

I’ve been blogging in one form or another for over fifteen years. But in recent years I’ve moved away from creating, writing, exploring, and toward consuming. I lost the art of long-form journal writing in favour of short Facebook updates. Facebook updates that were, at best, a highly edited, extremely bland version of me that was both Safe for Work and Safe for Extended Family.

XKCD: Fuck. That. Shit.

So – I want a reboot. Blogging is important to me. Owning my own platform, however few readers, however little attention it gets, is important to me. I’m not going to pigeon-hole myself into a particular blogging niche. This isn’t about brand, or selling myself, or monetising. It’s not about readers (though anyone who does read this, hello, good to see you around!)

A is for… Attention

Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are. –Jose Ortega y Gasset

Look: I’m easily distracted. It’s modern life. I carry a tiny-but-powerful computer around with me in my pocket. It gives me instant access to most of human knowledge, a bewildering kaleidoscope of opinions, an endless array of cute gifs, and it’s so easy to use.

So when I emerged from my depression, I found myself blinking at the endless amount of time I had wasted — apparently trying to read the entire internet.

There’s a South Park episode about weed. Somewhere during that episode, Randy says: “pot makes you feel fine with being bored, and it’s when you’re bored that you should be learning some new skill or discovering some new science or being creative. If you smoke pot you may grow up to find out that you aren’t good at anything.

I’ve never much liked weed. But I do like my smartphone, and I use it a lot. I use it multiple times a day. It’s like a tic, during any moment of quiet, any pause, any brief lull in the rhythm of the day – out comes the phone.

Endless gratification. I can post a picture to instagram and tag it with a hashtag and almost immediately get a couple of likes.

Endless entertainment. I can open a dozen websites that feed me news, opinion, how-to articles. I can graze wide and far on information, none of which I’ll retain (and much of which isn’t relevant).

Meanwhile, the seconds of my life tick away.

Calvin & Hobbes: Never not relevant

So this post is my declaration of a reboot. I am going to use this A-Z challenge to force myself to blog daily. To help me explore and figure out what’s important to me. To help me balance my consumption of content with the more creatively satisfying creation of content.

I am going to use this A-Z challenge to remind myself to pay attention.

Sun Ray

other people write of
broken edges, sharp lines
blood soaked linen and
gutters overflown with tears

i want to remind you
of sun-rays through leaves
scattered drops of gold
in the blue edged shadows
of a beautiful world

there’s bloody suicides,
poverty and starvation
murder, war, and rape within
cities of smoke and steel

i just want you to remember
the laughter and the smiles
magic kisses, sweet reminisces
the joy of a good book, and
music running wild

people talk of razor edges
cold faces, icy caves
frozen into endless sorrow
locked into endless tomorrows

but here’s my silver lining
here’s the diamond of my life
an orgasmic, emphatic, fantastic
erratic, dramatic, ecstatic
limitless ray of light

Getting healthy

So, as part of the whole ‘re-starting my life’ deal, I’m going to get back into the healthy habits that I lost somewhere in the past six months.

For me, getting healthy starts with food. Now, to be clear, ‘going on a diet’ is a terrible approach to getting healthy. Diets, particularly those that are restrictive — no carbs, no fats, whatever — are pretty much going to stress you out. They contribute to overall unhealthy eating patterns, and — assuming you take up a diet to ‘lose weight’ — are going to fail.

Food underpins my health, both physical and mental. Food is something to celebrate; good food brings me joy. And food connects me with friends and family. Life would be far less fun if I couldn’t share a meal out with P. or gift a friend some cupcakes.

My focus when it comes to eating well is nutrition (as opposed to weight loss/calorie restriction). I strive to eat lots of vegetables/fruit, whole-grains, and good fats. I try and eat a varied diet, throwing in random different items and trying out new recipes as much as possible.

My food challenges tend to revolve around adding things in rather than taking things away. Drink more water, eat more vegetables and so on. Focusing on adding good foods means you don’t stress about ‘forbidden items’. Drinking more water automatically means you start drinking less soda, eating more veg means you eat less junk food almost by default.

My favourite food tracker is cron-o-meter, because it lets me track nutrition. Most trackers put way too much emphasis on weight loss/calories, but cron-o-meter comes more from the nutrition/optimum health end of the spectrum.

Nutrition is interesting. I am not an expert (more curious amateur) and I have read many many articles and blogs over the years, ranging from vegan-raw-food ‘vegetables are everything’ to the club-swinging, ketogenic loving, paleo offal-is-key.

Again: I’m not prescriptive. There are many routes up the mountain, and many diets that can work to make us happy, healthy and fulfilled.

So, today kicks off day one of me trying to eat more mindfully, and to make more healthy choices. I started the day with roasted tomatoes, asparagus and a poached egg (verdict: delicious) and then made a huge batch of pea-and-vegetable soup (pork stock, dried green peas, onion, garlic, celery, carrot and celeriac) and for dinner I shall be eating some left over chicken and dumpling stew.

I did also eat a cupcake, because cupcakes are good 😉

Performing a U-Turn (pretend like you knew where you were going all along)

We all have plans.

Those plans, the big ones, become part of our identity. “I’m the science-type who’s going to make a career in bio-tech.” “I’m the self-sufficient sort who is going to build my own eco-friendly house from scratch.” or “I’m the kind of l33t player who is going to be a World Champion in World of Warcraft.”

I have wanted to move to the USA since I went there as part of a University exchange program. It didn’t matter that I went to a podunk town in the middle of rural Ohio. I loved the place. I loved the wide-open vistas, the idea that I could go into a real wilderness, the way everyone was so open and friendly, and even the food — venison, steak, ranch dressing, refried beans (not all on the same plate!).

When I met P, I fell in love and we agreed to get married. Initially, he had to come to the UK as I had a better paying job. We decided he would get his British Citizenship (two-three years) and then we would move to the USA.

For the next seven years that was the plan. We shifted priorities, but that was always the end game. I would move to the USA. We delayed it when I got my breakthrough job as Digital Communications Officer (until that point I had nothing that resembled a ‘career’), as I knew I needed at least two years experience.

But, at long last, I filled out my visa application. I let my employer know I would be leaving in a few months. And… I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Delays can mean legal immigrants (yes, even those married to an American) sit on a waiting list for months and months. In our case, I had already been separated from P  for most of the previous two years due to ‘life reasons’.

A year of waiting for the visa slipped by.

Our relationship, until that point incredibly strong, began to suffer. Both of us were ‘living in limbo’, waiting for a decision that could come at any point. Both of us were struggling alone, dealing with loneliness, the difficulty of communicating across different time-zones, and (in my case) the impossibility of planning your life when you have no idea if you’re going to be around for a week or another year.

Then I got a new job. A great job, part-time, that would give me time to write and still leave me with enough money to cover our living expenses.

Friendships I had formed in the UK were reaching ten and twenty year anniversaries. The thought of leaving them behind became devastating, especially as I leaned on them more and more in P’s absence.

But this was the plan. We had to stick to the plan. We had invested years of our lives and thousands of dollars into the plan. No matter that we were unhappy, lonely, and that I was less and less sure about the benefits of moving to a place with little work and no public transport.

Until, one day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had a bad week. I was sick, and then I got food poisoning. As I threw up, alone, I realised I was done waiting and being alone.

The realisation was both terrifying and a relief at the same time.

The realisation that we could just stop.

Of course, it would be difficult. Giving up on anything is hard. We had spent the last couple of years ferrying suitcases of possessions across the Atlantic. P. had put a lot of work into trying to create a home for us in the USA. Our families had to be told. It was emotionally difficult.

It meant giving up on a dream we had held for a long time.

But giving up was less difficult, and less devastating, than trying to hold on.

Sometimes, you have to change direction.

Maybe that is giving up on a long-term relationship.

Maybe that is giving up on a career you’ve invested years into building but that isn’t making you happy any more.

Maybe it’s giving up on the idea of becoming a World Champion WoW player, because, hey, you need to focus on your job.

And maybe it’s giving up on the idea of living in another country.

 

Farewell 2014

This has been a strange year.

  • I left my job and went to America for 3 months, where I survived on goodwill.
  • I watched my visa get further and further away.
  • I experienced an emotional roller coaster of goodbyes and hellos.
  • I made money from freelancing.
  • I wrote several flash fictions and two first drafts of novels.
  • I read 64 books.
  • I lay for hours in the sun.
  • I made new friends.
  • I lost old friends.
  • I celebrated my sixth wedding anniversary, but spent only 3 months in 2014 with my husband.
  • I waited for my life to start, and meanwhile my life kept happening all around me.

Tomorrow I will write about my hopes for 2015.

 

Impostor syndrome, women in tech, freelancing

When I was seventeen or so you would find me staring at lines of code, resolutely programming a custom CMS in PHP or designing yet another layout for my blog. I was that kid, the one terrified of speaking to people. Who had a bizarre fear of the telephone. Whose social circle was limited to playing D&D and who truanted from just one class – Physical Education.

By all rights I should have ended up a developer. Maybe a designer. The place I actually ended up was… communications and marketing.

It seems bizarre now, looking back on it. The kid who once let a store short change them rather than risk making a scene ended up managing relationships with people for a living.

The reason I didn’t study computers or programming at University is probably down to a combination of things. Neither of my parents went to Uni, I had a vague idea I wanted to create comic books for a living, my career advisor was crap. I ended up doing English & Creative Writing. It was a good degree. It even had a web design module, which taught us how to use Dreamweaver. (I sidestepped it and just wrote my code directly.)

My first ‘proper’ job after University — after a six month stint in a call-centre — was working for a Video Game start-up. I was super-excited! They hired me because I said I wanted to work in something that would use both my writing and my tech skills.

I used my writing skills. My tech skills were limited to copy&paste. Somehow I got pushed more and more into the marketing and PR side of things. I organised LAN sessions — but I didn’t play in them. I wrote peppy news-posts and managed the forum.

At some point, I got the chance to write a fiction blog detailing the lives of two ‘background characters’ caught up in the video game’s universe. I developed a character: an older woman, struggling with arthritis, a missionary in a strange land. The artist did a fantastic job drawing her.

Then our lead designer came back: “What is this shit? She looks sick! We need her to be SEXY.”

I quit not long after. For lots of reasons. I wasn’t getting paid even minimum wage, I was expected to be on call at 7am and 11pm. And I had realised I would never be much more than the peppy female face of the company, not someone who had any real input into the games.

All the designers, developers, programmers were male. The PR staff were mainly female.

After that I ended up in a part-time admin job, and decided to set up a freelance web-design business on the side. I worked pretty hard, coding up around twenty websites over the first year or so. I even built another custom CMS, this being before WordPress and its like had really taken off. I developed e-commerce sites. I learned Magneto’s templating system.

Then my part-time admin role went full-time. I couldn’t really afford to say no. I kept the freelancing up but on a very ad-hoc basis.

After three years or so doing the admin job, I eventually landed a new job. Digital Communications Offer for an environmental charity. Some of the essential skills included HTML, CSS, experience with Drupal, even Flash. There was to be a core coding component to the role.

But it was still a marketing role, not a tech role. It was the most ‘tech orientated’ of any of the jobs I have had. I built internal sites, including custom php scripts to manage an internal bulletin system. I built a localhost site for a touchscreen. I managed a linux server. But day-to-day? Producing fun graphics and running social media. Writing newsletters. Managing bloggers.

Don’t get me wrong. I have come to enjoy that side of my job — and I’m good at it. I tripled web traffic and increased conversion rates. I launched our social media strategy. I gave presentations to rooms full of people. But the days I really enjoyed my job were the days I spent picking apart php code.

I struggle with impostor syndrome — the feeling that I’m never good enough, that I’m out of place. When I meet ‘real’ developers I stay silent, unable to contribute.

Whilst working for this charity I liaised with a web development agency that managed our main website – one of the top London agencies, charging £750 a day — and discovered that many of their coders were no better than me. I frequently suggested solutions to the bugs I found. We had many problems that I ended up working around with code over-writes (a terrible solution, by the way).

I left that job, to try and move to the USA, and in the last couple of weeks I’ve launched myself as a full-time web developer.

I do know my stuff. I’ve been reading tech blogs for fun my whole life. I love learning about UX principles. I can solve css issues. I’m not up to speed on things like Ruby on Rails, but I can build a damn website.

But the voice that says I’m not good enough doesn’t go away.

Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I’d ever managed to get one of those developer jobs at an agency that I applied for. I applied to so many of them! Was it my skills that weren’t up to par? And yet my social skills, my marketing skills, they really were not ‘up to par’ when I started my career, and that’s where I ended up.

I guess I will never know.

 

 

 

 

Home sweet… home?

We can sometimes overlook the importance of friendship and (dare I say it) community. In a world where people are uprooting themselves, travelling further and further, taking opportunities in other cities, countries, continents… we should remember what we lose when we travel far from home.

It’s something I lacked in the USA. I went out and about with my partner’s friends and family, of course. But friendships that have lasted five, ten, even fifteen years are impossible to replace overnight.

Coming back to Towcester — my childhood home — felt strange. I know all the streets, can wander easily around the water-meadows, and the fields behind Belle Baulk. I run into people I haven’t seen since I worked as a bartender and they wave and say hi. A decade has passed, but they still recognise me. I have friends here, and in the nearby cities. People that did not ‘run’ as far as I did.

I worked here, built relationships with fellow writers (Hi Miss Write! Hi Matt Holland!)

There are people here that would take me in if I became homeless, that share their wifi with me when my internet breaks down, that recommend my web-development skills to people they know. A network, some people close friends, and some people just to wave at me in the street. But I am known.

It takes time, so much time, to build a group of friends and colleagues like that. And the benefits go far beyond someone to have a drink with. Those people have found me work, helped me move, kept me sane. They don’t call it a ‘support network’ for nothing!

Of course, it’s easier now. Emails, blogs, facebook, skype… they all help keep you in touch with people far away. But the truth is: nothing beats face-to-face, and nothing beats that web of favours given and received.

It’s good to be back, although I hope it is temporary.

No trouble

Another week, another terribleminds flash fiction challenge! This time the prompt was bad parents and we had 1,000 words. I really wanted to stay away from the whole ‘starvation, drunken rage, cigarettes getting stubbed out in painful places’ kind of story. Not because those things don’t happen, but because there’s only three ways for those stories to go. It either ends in tragedy (kids die), triumph (kids escape and/or kill parents) or stasis (isn’t it dreadful).

At the end of this post I’ll link to a few of my favourite stories that other authors have written in response to the prompt.

No trouble

I throw the slivers of chicken into the pan with the onions and stir. The pink meat turns white, the oil hisses and spits

“Sarah?” Her voice, thin and scratchy, crackles over the baby monitor. I bite my lip, stir the chicken and add a splash of stock to stop it from burning.

I go upstairs and open the door to my mother’s bedroom. She lies there, propped up against her pillows. Thin, skin translucent, crazed with wrinkles. You can see all the veins in her hands, wrapping up and around those knobbed knuckles. I stare at her hands and avoid looking at her face.

“What is it, Mum?”

“I’m thirsty.”

“Would you like a glass of water?”

“A tonic water,” she says. “With a slice of lime. A thin slice. I don’t want the lime to overpower it.”

My heart sinks. “We don’t have any lime.”

“Can’t you go to the shop?”

“The corner shop won’t have them. I’ll need to drive to Tesco, and that’s fifteen minutes there and back. I’ll go after I finish lunch, okay?”

Silence. I stare resolutely at her hands.

“I don’t want any lunch,” she says. Her voice quavers.

“You need to eat. It’s almost done. I’ll get the lime as soon as I’m done cooking.” I try to make my voice firm.

“If your father was here—“

“But he’s not here,” I cut her off. “I’m in the middle of cooking. If I leave now it’ll be ruined. I’ll go after lunch. Do you want a glass of water?”

“No.” Her voice is sulky.

She starts to sob as I close the door.

While the chicken and carrots finish cooking, I take a separate pan and make the gravy. Butter, flour, stock, herbs, a slosh of white wine. I add pepper, hesitate, then add another shake of pepper. Last time she told me there wasn’t enough pepper, that it made the meal bland. I take her plate, the special china one with the blue swirls around the edge. I shape the carrots into a pyramid and place three pieces of chicken in a fan shape next them. I use the back of a spoon to swish an arc of gravy on the other side of the plate and stand back to scrutinise my handiwork. I add a garnish of fresh parsley, dropping it onto one of the chicken pieces.

I put the lid on the pot to keep the heat in, then put her plate on the tray. I take out a tumbler and pour some tonic water into it. I’ll take it up to her, and then go and buy the lime.

When I open her door the sobbing starts again, little hitches in her throat.

“Please don’t work yourself up, Mum.” I carry the tray over and put it down on her lap.

“No lime,” she says.

“I’ll go and get you one now.”

“Don’t bother,” she says. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

“It’s no trouble. I just didn’t want to go while lunch was cooking, and—“

“I know how hard it must be, looking after your old mother. I remember how hard it was for me, when I had to look after you.”

“Mum—“

“Oh! I slaved over your food, and you wouldn’t eat a bite. I tried everything, organic baby food, pureed dinners, I spent an hour once making a special soup out of roasted squash and you just threw it on the floor.”

“I was a baby.”

“You were always as good as gold for your father. He’d come home and you’d eat any old rubbish. You never really loved me, of course.” Her voice cracks. She knows I can’t stand it when she talks like this.

“I love you Mum, you know I do.” I pat her hand awkwardly. “Look, just eat your lunch. I’ll go to the shop now, you’ll have your lime slice as soon as I get back, okay?”

She heaves a deep sigh. I head for the door, but before I can reach it there is a clatter and crash from behind me. I spin round.

She’s knocked the tray onto the floor. Gravy, carrots, chicken, all over the carpet. The tumbler rolls across the floor until it knocks into the leg of her bedside table. I bite my lip.

“Oops,” she says. Smiles.

I don’t answer. I pick up the tumbler and the broken bits of plate and put them on the tray. The food goes in the bin. I get the vacuum cleaner and suction up the rest. There’s a gravy stain, but I can deal with that later.

I go downstairs, put on my coat. I’ve worn through one of the elbows.

Tesco is busy. I don’t see anyone I know. Most of the people I went to school with have moved away. Sometimes I see Kate, but she’s always too busy running after her toddler to see me. She isn’t here today. I buy the lime, smiling tentatively at the woman behind the checkout. She gives me a blank smile in return.

When I get home I stir up the remaining carrots and chicken and give it a quick blast of heat to bring it back up to temperature. I take out a new plate, build the pyramid of carrots. I fan out the chicken, swirl the gravy.

I pour the tonic water, slice the lime nice and thin. The tonic fizzes when I drop the slice in.

I carry the tray upstairs. She smiles as I bring it to her bed.

“Oh, you sliced it just right. And look, you made such a pretty gravy swirl.”

“Thanks, Mum.” Happiness blooms in me at her words.

She cuts a tiny piece of the chicken, puts it in her mouth, chews. “It’s a little dry. You left it standing too long. And there’s too much pepper.”

“Sorry, Mum.”

“Don’t be silly. I don’t expect you to take any trouble over your old mother.”

Some other stories about bad parents

These were my favourite stories written in response to the ‘bad parents’ prompt.

Beneath One Wall, Inside Another by JP Juniper. Great sense of time and place in a short word-count, and just enough detail about the children to whet your imagination.

No such thing by Chris White. Such a fantastical story and original setting. I would love to see this world developed further.

Deals with the Devil by Alex. A sharp toothed story about the way society regulates women’s bodies, especially those of mothers.

Old Man Goriot: 100 novels

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about Old Man Goriot. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels. This review will contain spoilers.

Old Man Goriot

Old Man Goriot focuses heavily on three characters: Rastignac, a young student determined to break into Paris high society; Vautrin, a jovial criminal who takes Rastignac under his wing; and the titular Goriot himself. Despite being the title character, we get very little from Goriot and see his tragedy play out mainly through the eyes of Rastignac.

The novel is one of those rich, meandering tapestries full of mesmerising detail. Indeed, Balzac is generally credited with founding realism in European literature. The book is not stylised or romanticised in any way, but rather depicts the thoughts and actions of people who may as well be real.

As such, it makes for a depressing read. Goriot’s story is not a happy one. A hardworking small businessman, he makes enough money to ensure his daughters are ‘well married’ and they enter a higher social strata. They quickly snub their father, except when they need more money. Goriot sacrifices more and more of his own well-being to try and help his daughters with little reward. Eventually, penniless, he suffers a stroke and dies slowly – but his daughters are too busy attending an important high society ball and do not visit him before he finally dies. They also do not attend his funeral, choosing instead to let a medical student and Rastignac (his fellow boarder) organise a paupers grave.

The way this desire to ‘go up in the world’ and achieve greater wealth and fame corrupts people is played out again in the character of Rastignac. From a poor rural area of France, he has high ambitions but quickly realises you need wealth and connections to even be noticed. He takes money from his family, that they can ill afford, and even contemplates becoming an accessory to murder.

Despite the fairly horrible actions of the characters, they are well-fleshed out and surprisingly sympathetic. Poverty is shown to be a grim and horrible thing, and it is no surprise that people are desperate to escape to the glittering world of wealth and good fortune.

Indeed, with our own inequality of wealth rising, this book has some surprisingly poignant moments. The poverty of the boarding house, the desperation of most of the characters to escape, and the prejudice the wealthier class has against the poorer ones – even to the extent of daughters turning against their father – all feels sadly modern.

Buy Old Man Goriot