Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Back to the future

I show it off to anyone who'll listen. "Look, it can store 50 phone numbers!" I exclaim. "One day I'll be able to set my video to record using one of these!"

I'd long been a fan of watches, but this one really was something. The year was 1992, and I, in the midst of my formidable inner circle of mildly interested schoolfriends and bemused but encouraging aunties, was proudly at the forefront of wearable technology. The phrase wasn't around at the time (npi) of course, but if Casio and I had teamed forces back then, well, who knows where we'd both be now?

But I digress (when don't I?). 

Fast-forward to 2015, and (occasionally to even my own amazement) I haven't bought a smartwatch. I've got a smartphone, a tablet and half a laptop (it's really hubby's but he graciously refers to it as "ours"), but these days I enjoy a watch that simply, elegantly, tells me the time. Just because something can do more doesn't mean that it should

That said, it certainly shouldn't do less. I recently saw the film "Mr Turner", and was impressed with the set and the costumes. I liked the cast. I smiled at the dialogue. But the fundamental component, the central tenet to any good performance (for me at least), was missing. There was no narrative! Plot, storyline, sequence-of-interconnected-events - call it what you will; it was nowhere to be seen.

So this got me thinking: implant yourself in the right environment with the right clothing, and you'll be accepted. Befriend some great people, and you'll be well on your way to a good life. Speak with authenticity and eloquence, and you shall delight those around you. But if your life has no compelling story, no tale it strains to tell, then the rest is just credits. 

I think the key lies in the "interconnected" part of the phrase I used above: rather than living from event to event and drawing often thin connections after the fact (what did we do during the week / in between holidays etc.?), the stories of our lives are so much richer when we handcraft those connections for ourselves. Or in other words, when we write our narratives in real time. One doesn't need to have a week in Spain booked to attend Spanish classes, for example - why not study the language for its own sake, and see where that learning takes you? Too old to be a tennis pro? Perhaps, but who's to say you won't enjoy it when you pick up the racquet? Not worth talking to the new person at work as you wouldn't possibly be friends? Really? Are you sure?

So poise your pen, dear reader. (Or your stylus.) I've checked my watch, and it's time to start writing.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Slow down; you move too fast

Three. That's how many sources of entertainment we typically have at the dinner table. Each other, the iPad, and the food itself. (Yes, ever since I observed our new baby boy's steady focus whenever he drinks his milk I'm classing eating as a form of entertainment.)

Now granted, aforementioned infant is barely two months old and so can only pay attention to one thing at a time, but it got me thinking: why do we (non-infants) seek out several sources of distraction at the same time? After all, it's well-known that multi-tasking isn't truly doing several things simultaneously but is in fact the frequent chopping and changing of our attention from one thing to another, lingering just long enough on each one to ensure we can afford to drop out again. So why do we cause ourselves the bother?

And it's not just a hassle for the multi-tasker: I'd go so far as to say it's sometimes downright offensive to the initial source. Sure, if the worst that can happen is that the radio feels left out while we read the newspaper then of course there is no cause for concern, but my true issue is when people - real life, 3D people - become just another channel we can flick past for a moment as we rely on the (shaky) belief that we can simply press the trusty "Back" button when we're ready to re-engage. I'm sure we all think we're never guilty of this, but consider this scenario: you're out with a friend - let's call him Neil. You and Neil are in the middle of an interesting conversation, and your phone rings. It's Dom - another friend - and you've no reason to think it's urgent. Do you answer it? I bet you do (and I do too). But if Dom were instead to approach you on the street and deliberately interrupt your conversation, you would (I hope) light-heartedly put him in his place and ask him to hang on a minute while you finish the sentence you were partway through to Neil. 

Or another one: you are sitting chatting with a group of friends, and the conversation is flowing. Your phone beeps with a text message. Do you attend to it immediately? Would you do the same if that friend had appeared and called your name? Or my personal favourite: would you start talking to the person on your left, or perhaps actively listening in to what she was saying, whilst in the middle of a chat with the person to your right - the physical equivalent of crafting a text message or checking email respectively while you're in a conversational situation?

I've been guilty of it. But having been on the receiving end and realising just how rubbish it can make one feel (I'm clearly not interesting enough / my friend doesn't care about what I have to say / this person is just killing time with me), this year I'm vowing to do my best not to dilute my focus on the people right in front of me. Friends, despite the internet getting faster please bear with me if I'm a bit slower at electronic communications from now on. The real world is going to start getting my full attention - the digital one can wait.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The space between

Trevor* and I didn't know our fates would be intertwined that day. But when I walked past him and realised he'd been abandoned, and then further discovered his home was in my direction, it seemed a little bit selfish just to leave him there.

And so on we walked, me padding along in my trainers, him rattling away. We got a few looks I'm sure, but I didn't mind - once we got into a rhythm it was quite nice to have the company. At one point I nearly left him at a petrol station, but luckily for him they didn't have what I was looking for so on we went.

In the end, I was almost sad to say goodbye. And I must say, it felt a bit odd to dock a trolley before going into a supermarket, but really when I only needed one thing it was a bit ridiculous to parade him up and down a single aisle just to prolong our farewell. So I gave him a friendly cheerio tap as I parked him with his friends and that was that.

You know me well enough, dear reader, to expect a point to come round about now. And it's this: I nearly didn't stop for Trevor. I did, I'm ashamed to say, walk right past him at first, and double-backed only a good eight paces or so later. Eight paces before I checked myself: I was brought up to be helpful, not selfish, so what on earth was I doing?

I've explored moments of hesitation on this blog before - it seems something of a recurring theme. What interests me this time is the vivid awareness we have whilst processing our decision in this space in time, the space between the call and the answer, to steal a phrase from a beautiful song. Sure, today's example might be somewhat trivial, but on too many occasions a similar opportunity has subtly suggested itself - and I've chosen poorly. Complacency is a new theme I'm starting to dwell upon: I'm slowly realising that it's no longer acceptable to only respond to situations that put themselves directly in our paths. We have to look for those which nestle in the sidelines - often it will cost us nothing to bring them along on our journey, and who knows: we might even enjoy it. XTC talked about making plans for Nigel. It's time I started looking out for Trevors.


*The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Hi honey, I'm not home

To text, or not to text: that is the question:
Whether 'tis better for the relationship to refrain from immediately imparting
The slings and arrows of the day's fortune, 
Or to take thumbs to type the sea of troubles, 
And by composing send them?*

"Shoop, shoop-ba-doop, shoop-ba-..." goes the ringtone. "It's the [wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend]," you think, recognising the dedicated melody. What's happened now? What's the emergency that's merited today's daily distress call? Pret** out of chicken avocado sandwiches again? 

Now of course there are always times that we will call our nearest and dearest during the working day. I'd wager these are usually aligned with two measures: 
a) extremely important (I'm being made redundant) or 
b) highly time-sensitive (The plumber can squeeze us in this afternoon: can you leave work early?). 

But every day? I know some people for whom this is reality, so it makes me wonder not only what on earth do they talk about in the evening, but more importantly: what do they (we) lose by choosing to communicate what must surely be semi-important news in a manner other than face-to-face? Facial expressions, body language (and even tone of voice if texting or email is the chosen channel) - all lost in transmission. As the speaker, we deny the listener the opportunity to truly sense the full impact of what we are saying. And in return, we make it impossible for ourselves to witness the immediate reaction of the listener. I've been quite dismayed in the past that a telephone message to my ear-worn beloved hasn't met with the excitement I felt it should, or empathy it deserved - but how can I blame anyone but myself as I was the one who insisted on emotionally handicapping the communication from the start? 

And even if the actual message isn't even semi-important, while the counter-argument could be that touching base with a partner during the day (and also perhaps precisely because it happens via an alternative medium) adds a level of connection, I instead believe the absence of contact, and therefore anticipation, is more valuable for the relationship. (I refer to the context of the working day only; when one person is away for an extended period of time I do believe that adopting alternative channels of communication, however limiting they may be, is important.)

You may of course entirely disagree with me, dear reader. Or you may already be immune to this behaviour. This post is merely to suggest to all those daily sharers that sometimes, just sometimes, it might be fun to come home and say, "Hi honey, I'm home. You'll never guess what happened to me today..."


* A somewhat uncouth play on Shakespeare's original elegant text:
"To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?"
-- Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

** As in Pret A Manger, a British lunch shop popular with city folk.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Pushy people

Twice. Twice now this year already I've said "No" and the salesperson heard a different version of "Yes." "Yes, but not now." "Yes, if only circumstances were different." As a result, I've come away with freebies both times, and both times I've written glowing reviews which the companies' PR people will have read with glee. Is "No" secretly the answer a canny organisation wants to hear?

(To further strengthen this I should say they didn't just get one-off praise: the law of reciprocity kicked in and I very swiftly spent more money with both brands, be it directly or by recommending to others. So perhaps it is all very clever sales strategy - move over Jordan Belfort; the new sales geniuses are in town.)

Both times I've meant what I said. I didn't need the expensive make-up. I truly didn't have enough room for the dessert. But both times I genuinely appreciated the gesture - and that's really what I 'got' out of the exchange, not the object freely placed in front of me. Even after a "No", the salespeople did me a good turn. They actively wanted to make me happy - it wasn't all an act! They like me! Hurrah!

Is it all about vindication by acceptance? We all like to impress other people, typically by appearance, talent or intellect - but by sheer personality? That's something much harder to shape, or contrive, and therefore only worth doing on significant occasions (in which I wouldn't include browsing a beauty store or midweek dining with friends). So on any normal day, when our unfiltered nature results in the physical manifestation of a hitherto stranger pushing the "Like" button - well, what a compliment.

I've taken this inspiration from sales encounters, but it can just as well apply to any interaction. And so I leave both myself and yourself, dear reader, with this challenge: as I go about my day and cross paths with several strangers, could I be attentive and selfless enough to warm to someone, hear the negative in their voice but continue to do them a good turn anyway? Could I do in real life what's so easy to do in the digital world (with the impact to the receiver being equally, and therefore dramatically, proportional): could I push someone's metaphorical "Like" button?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Holiday reds

Given that the bottle was now enjoying its third day, I didn't expect it to be amazing. The over-excited rush of the competing fruits from day one wouldn't be there. Nor would the mellowed out smoothness from day two, washing over you like the gentle strum of a guitar in the early hours of the morning at a party nobody's in a hurry to leave.

The best I could hope for was drinkable really. After my first uncertain sip I acknowledged the merits of a fair trial and started to go back for a second opinion, when all of a sudden: BAM! There it was. The signature farewell of a quality red: the sumptuous, lingering aftertaste.

As I scurried around our little campervan to locate the cheese and thereby placate my tastebuds (is it only mine who oftentimes beg for the combination?), I realised that our latest holiday, like those before it, had much in common with my liquid friend. At first, the new experiences are wonderfully overwhelming. With a gasp of awe, or a yelp of excitement, we welcome the assault on our senses. Then softly, quietly, the breathtaking view begins to fade in power as we become accustomed to its presence. Or the thrilling crocodile swim-past a mere metre away becomes a relaxing boat trip, our thoughts idly drifting to what's next on the agenda, photos (as opposed to limbs - fret not, dear reader) safely snapped.

We may think the experience is diminishing, but the delightful truth is that the real splendour is in the memory. How many times will we recall these moments and smile? Or recount them to friends and family, and watch the smiles multiply? And can we even begin to quantify how much closer it has brought me and my campervan companion, my husband of five years, partner of ten, to behold these beauties side by side, our experiences morphing with each recollection into some sort of joint keepsake?

And so on this note, as my glass drains, it seems fitting that I should propose a toast: to life's glorious aftertastes. Drink up friends; this is the stuff smiles are made of.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Heads down, thumbs up

... was a brilliant primary school game. You'd sit at our desk, forehead resting on your crossed arms, thumbs defiantly standing tall. Nervously you'd listen for the footsteps approaching, and when they got near enough you'd strain a peek at the shoes (if you could) as the cold, clammy fingers pressed down on yours. Always a dead giveaway, if you could see the shoes. (And by the way, it's wasn't cheating. The game name started "Heads down", not "Eyes closed", so you could get off on a technicality. Aye, we were all lawyers in those days.)

Once all those who were "it" had chosen their victims and returned to the front of the room, the "Heads up" call announced that it was time for the flattened thumb owners to guess their perpetrators. Who did it? Who tiptoed up? Who put your thumbs down?

Sometimes I wonder if I'm still playing the game today. And I see other people playing it too. We're all merrily going about our lives, thumbs metaphorically up in that widely recognised symbol of positivity, when all of a sudden, someone squashes our happiness. It could be a direct hit, or it might just be a gentle nudge, but whatever it is, we come out of the experience with our outlook tarnished, standing a little less tall, bearing a slightly smaller smile.

Who did it to you today, dear reader? Who skulked close enough to get to you and change you for the worse? Did you get a good look at their shoes? It's quite probably not who we think it is. Very often we're quick to call out the unfortunate straw that broke the camel's back, when the real culprit was the person who wore us down earlier in the day, for example. Or the colleague who failed to support us in an important situation. Or the permanently needy friend who drained our energies by bringing the mood down and offering nothing in return for the fifth time in a row.

Look for the shoes. Really look for those shoes.* Then you have two choices: kill the behaviour outright (if the person's worthy of your trust they'll listen; if they're really worthy they'll act on it), or else get that person far enough away that they can't put your thumbs down again.

It really is that simple, folks. I've heard it said that you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Make them people who rejoice in seeing your thumbs up, and you'll find it very hard for those proud, upstanding digits to be any other way. And how great would the world be then, eh?

* It's not cheating, remember.