Thursday, 1 December 2011

We're not in Kansas anymore...

My apologies for such a long absence. My summer in Ghana culminated in a serious bout of food poisoning which saw me hospitalised due to dehydration and low blood pressure. In hindsight it was all a very relaxing blur - a detox, complete rest and being very well looked after by family. In another post I will share the virtues of developing-world hospitals, as well as some of the reasons why brown, taupe and dirty chartreuse are particularly well chosen colour schemes in locales where foreigners are prone to picking up stomach bugs. I will also regale you with the fantastic storylines that abound in daytime soap operas emanating from Ghana and Nigeria (initially sceptical, 48 hours in ward 3b and I was hooked!). 

Suffice to say, returning to Normal Life in London - school, work and routine - was not as difficult for me as it might have been, especially since I was so relaxed and slim. Alas, Normal Life takes a toll and I can no longer boast of such heights of relaxation or indeed such a svelte and tanned silhouette... Nevertheless, the past three months have raced by, full of school, work and routine. And the myriad highs and lows that accompany them; fatigue, homework, leaking pens, mean girls, new friends, horrible food... And that's just my set of problems. What must the off-Spring be going through? 

With the Autumn has come global anxiety too: floods and devastation, the Eurozone crisis, challenging job markets, increasing prices. 

Though it's not all terrible. The glut of good new tv shows is a silver lining this time of year (and the real reason for my long silence).  I wish I could comment on things like X factors and dancing and celebrities in forests, but I can't. What could I possibly add? I do want to recognise though, the profile and publicity that celebrities lend to causes that are important to them, such as bullying. 

I came across a very interesting article recently when researching bullying. I would recommend you read it if you or someone dear to you has faced bullying. Indeed read it in any case. As a parent, bullying looms large in the lexicon, if not the experience, of many. Yet, despite a theoretical understanding of the causes and myriad manifestations of bullying, there is nothing quite like the gut-wrenching, eye-watering sense of dis-empowerment and heartache that a parent feels when first learning that their child is a victim.

To be clear, I am not talking about playground tussles, squabbles over toys or friendly, mutual teasing. Anyone with a sibling is toughened up at home at the hands of brothers and sisters and prepared well for shenanigans such as these.

But sustained, systematic, mean and persistent victimisation is something altogether different. 

The fact that such can occur in "nice" schools, under the noses of teachers who genuinely care, is staggering. At risk of sounding like someone's elderly mother, in my day (ie when I was a child) such things did not seem to go on to this extent, with this sort of frequency or in such a prolonged and damaging way. Perhaps one forgets. I will not stray into the world of cyber bullying for now. Even a cursory glance at comments left on some of the broadsheet's web pages would indicate that common courtesy in a scarcer commodity in the electronic world than face to face. While the language and abuse I witnessed in several discussion on a writer's forum I once logged on to were so vile, intimidating and aggressive as to leave me scared to post a comment at all, let alone defend the person or point of view that was being attacked.

But returning to schoolyard and classroom bullying, it seems to me that that as Izzy Kalman suggests in his article above, there is no actual "solution". There will always be bullies and anti-social behaviour. There will always be people who enjoy excluding and oppressing others. There will always be fear and suspicion of anyone different or who stands apart. There will always be naive and seemingly innocent jokes that cut to the quick. There will always be troubled children lacking in empathy and sensitivity, desperate to fit in, to be seen as powerful or cool or a force to be reckoned with.

Worrying, there will also always be "normal" children from "good" homes who bully others, who think it's "cool" to treat others badly; to ridicule or poke fun, to put someone else down and thereby make themselves feel better. And there will be adults who tacitly encourage such by their acts or their omissions. The pages of literature are strewn with heroes and heroines who faced far worse!

So, yes, I agree, making it stop is neither a realistic nor an achievable goal.

But that is not to say one should give up.

Perhaps we can find ways of helping adults see how their behaviour, language and tone contribute to and condone bullying. Perhaps we can learn that in a pressure pot, steam must eventually escape. In other words, in hot-housing and pressuring, living through, and failing to listen to our children, we may be part, or a source, of the problem.

Sure, everyone can be mean or self-centred. We all have days when we don't want to share. There is always someone who is not really "our cup of tea", who we'd rather not have to play with. Who of us has not stood by and said or done nothing when someone nearby was being hurt, left out, teased or worse? This is the human condition, afterall.

But it also seems to be incumbent on us as humans, let alone as parents, to help and guide young people to find within themselves the courage, wisdom, heart and intelligence, not only to forgive, deal with, learn and grow, from bullying, but just as importantly, never to become a bully either.


As an aside, when I was a child, back in my day, I watched the opening moments of "The Wizard of Oz". Captivated by all musicals made before 1970 (and "Enchanted") I was very keen to find out about the yellow brick road and to where it led. The psychologists amongst you can let me know what it means that I was terrified of the red shoes and those legs poking out from  under the house. I fled in tears to my room, imploring my parents to "turn it down". Such was my fear that I never ever watched the film. Indeed, I would have to rank "Oz" as among my "top 5 scariest movies of all time" (along with Psycho, Nightmare on Elm Street and Dirty Dancing). Accordingly, until reading Mr Kalman's article last week I had no idea that "The Wizard of Oz" is at heart a simple tale about dealing with bullying. I did not realise the significance of the characters' quest. 

Luckily, (despite what you may think of me, given my penchant for US TV shows) there are other sources of information and character formation at one's disposal... We don't need an Emerald City, a Wizard or a broomstick to guide us to the courage, heart, wisdom and way home.

But I will be watching "Oz" asap!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Grass is greener

Ten days ago, the Off-Spring and I fled the London Riots, travelling to join Mr Springgirl in Accra, Ghana. A typically warm and friendly welcome awaited us as we landed at 4am in a deserted airport and a silent city. For the first time in the 13 years I have been visiting Ghana, the streets were empty, traffic was light and not a single person approached the car to offer wares for sale. It was disconcerting to be out and about and not have the opportunity to buy ones staples - toilet paper, chocolate, razors, car mats, peanuts, batteries, belts or DVDs - from the comfort of the vehicle... Thankfully the respite was shortlived and the teeming hustle and bustle of an African city was soon to be ours to explore.

And so began a wonderful and relaxing vacation.

This trip has offered, as it never fails to do, a fresh perspective on modern life. Ghana is a democratic and modern nation, rich in natural resources such as cocoa, gold, fruit, oil and natural gas. And yet despite the plenty that abounds and which ensures that the famine of East Africa is at most only the remotest of possibilities here, there is abject poverty too. This creates for me - an Australian - a confronting conundrum. For I come from a nation rich in natural resources too. My home is also hot and dry and teeming with friendly and welcoming souls. Yet, the similarities stop there.

Smarter and better informed minds than mine will no doubt have answers to my questions and solutions to the problems. All I can do is paint a picture with my words and convey, I hope, a sense of the richness of culture, the depth of community and the spirit of hospitality and humour that transcends daily life.

Imagine a place where everyone who greets you does so with a smiling: "You are welcome". Imagine reading psalms and theological wisdom on the back windows of dusty 20 year old vans (tro-tros) packed full of people, luggage, supplies for market and livestock. Contemplate a high street choked with honking taxis and hawkers all roasting together under an equatorial sun burnished with the aroma of fried fish and boiling palm oil melded with the heady scents of diesel oil, raw sewerage and salt air. This is Accra.

Five minutes from the melee is a tranquil oasis of green and bougainvillea blossoms where behind high walls, lush lawns are tended and German cars are polished, satellite tv is watched and the latest in modern convenience and comfort is enjoyed. This is Accra.

Meanwhile, in a village less than 50 miles from here, we were welcomed by the incumbent King and his Queen Mother and court. The Chief in his palace accepted our visit, arranged by our friend his cousin and explained the role of the chief. He described the ceremonial as well as day to day meaning of his post. Negotiator and lobbyist, philanthropist and judge, arbiter and father to his people. It was poignant for us used to a diet of Grazia and Tatler, The Telegraph and Hello, to see real royalty at work. The Off-Spring were a little concerned at the absence of chandeliers in the palace - a simple house and courtyard set back from the street. But the King sat on a carved wooden throne, wearing special cloth and surrounded by his advisors - his linguists, his philosopher, his wife. The warmth of their welcome and their interest and delight in meeting the visitors from Australia and London was unforgettable. The value placed on family, ancestors and tradition is clear. So too, the ties with the land, the ceremonies and key events of life (naming events, engagements, funerals, memorials). While all around there seems a hustle and bustle, a clog of cars and a thronging of people, there is also order and structure, process and protocol, purpose and productivity.

Against this backdrop of unwritten rules and modes of conduct, expats (and I too, now) joke about "Ghana time". This means come late, stay long, take your time. But it also means - in good time, in God's time and in a word - "chill".

Leaving a city torn apart by looting and rampaging thieves and muggers - albeit only briefly and in disparate areas - to come here, is a journey filled with irony. For here, living on a few dollars a day, dollars made through hard and hot labour, thousands still smile and hope for more. Not rioting for trainers and TVs. yet who would blame them if they turned to violence to secure running water, a toilet or a pension, or to protest for basic healthcare, immunisations or electricity. Church, family, prayer and the belief that "By God's Grace" all is well, seems, miraculously, to be enough. Which is not to suggest a simplicity or lack of sophistication. Ghana is a safe haven in West Africa and as such a beacon, an example and a destination in its own right.


But how is this of interest to you? Perhaps it is not...

Perhaps as a mere travelogue? If so, I will continue.

Mr Springgirl. on our arrival, typically likes to take us for a drive with the windows down to help us acclimatise to the smells and the humidity. The senses are assaulted all day in a way that they rarely are elsewhere. From the rooster crowing and the wind in the leaves to the burnt out and obsolete mufflers roaring on the dusty and potholed roads beneath the roar of departing planes flying over the house, we are confronted by noise. Bats squeak in the mango trees. I awaken to the sounds of switch brooms at work and the gardener clearing his throat - with vigour. While English is the official language, hundreds of dialects are spoken proficiently and fluently. The language is musical but to me, unlearnable, with idiomatic expressions that leave me staggered. For example, at Christmas the locals in what sounds like five words proffer a wish "that the year will go out and come back to greet you".

And that is just the sense of hearing.

Visually the strong contrast between the red dust and the dark green of the trees and the steely blue grey of the ocean is dramatic. There are no rolling patchwork hills here, nor azure seas or cornflower skies. Yet the haze belies lush plantations of bananas and palms, seaside coconuts and hills of cocoa. And the local tie dyed fabrics and woven kente cloth offer the fullest of spectrum for the eye to savour. Choosing a table cloth can take all morning such is the choice of pattern and colour.

Meanwhile the olfactory sense is taking its own beating. Not one to miss a day's exercise I was keen this trip to take to the streets to maintain my fitness (such as it is) - the weather being milder and more permissive. However, even if I could manage the absence of pavement and the constant beeping of taxis alerting me to their presence in the strongest of terms (white lady should not be running around the streets like this - here take a ride), I could not endure any real distance in the humidity. Even in the cool weeks it takes one's breath away. The sweat literally pours off one if attempting outdoor exercise in daylight! And the smells? Well, given one's own sweat production levels (ditch the Dukan diet and come here to detox, I say) and the more than occasional pedestrian relieving himself roadside, the freely grazing sheep and goats, the oozing gutters and scant supply of rubbish bins, one is assured of a very rich and "ripe" running (let's be honest, strolling) experience.

But it's not always so. Picking a pathway across a nearby field, over a small stream in which goodness knows what flows to the Atlantic, to watch a local sharecropper tend his rocket and spring onions, I enjoyed a brief diversion. Under a tree off the track was a small soiree of locals enjoying their own crop - one they could smoke. The citronella lanterns and candles offer a sweet respite and the ripe mangoes, pineapples and bananas at the Fruit Lady's stall never smell this good in Tesco (or Waitrose!).

The senses of taste and touch also get a good going over in Ghana. Tantalising tropical fruit, seafood galore and tomato and nut based stews abound. Anything savoury - from beans to rice - is laced with pepper. Though the newly arrived KFC chain may provide an alternative for the western palate... As an aside, the eldest Off-Spring is convinced all the chicken shops (the only non-local form of "fast food" here) portray the chooks looking terrifically, and indeed, unnaturally, happy as they march to the counter to be eaten.

I should also note that my skin has never looked better. The humidity seems to remove all trace of wrinkles and fine lines (my Ghanaian mother-in-law looked younger at 70 then I did when I first got off that plane all those years ago to meet her). The tropical formula DEET (mozzy cream) is working wonders on my limbs - very moisturising. Indeed, who would bother bringing cosmetics here at all, given one is covered in repellent all day for fear of malaria, even with the daily dose of anti-malarial. The mosquitoes are prolific and bite anything not covered, despite screens, nets and sprays.

My only complaint would be the dearth of book stores. Hardly a problem in this era of e-books though, as I discovered to my delight - the new Andrea Camilleri Montalbano Mystery is waiting for me on this very laptop at a fraction of what I would pay in Waterstones! And it took me coming to Ghana to give up the so-coveted tactile experience of reading an "actual" book.

Speaking of which, I have made good headway on my new novel. There is something about holidays in Ghana, but one always finds the time and space to think here. Could be the large garden full of hammocks and balls entertaining the Off-Spring, the charming husband and staff tending to the chores (freeing one from all domestic responsibility), or maybe there is something in the (non-potable) water...

I swear this is the only place to holiday. If only one could provide sanitation, health care and a basic wage for the population by doing so...

Failing that you might enjoy some of what Ghana has to showcase...

Trashy Bags
Global Mamas

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Giving voice to the "Inner child"

Earlier this year I published a novel - "The Inner Child Journal of a Neurotic Parent" - a hilarious antidote to self-help overload and a seminal work for women everywhere who struggle to keep up with the domestic goddesses at the school gate and the perfect parents at the princess parties. Thankfully, some objective readers have read and enjoyed the book now, so pushing it again seems to be a reasonable thing to do - loathe as I am to hide my light under a bushel. 

The Inner Child Journal is an ideal holiday read. It will entertain and amuse, enthral and delight. And live long in your memory afterwards. Here is an extract to whet your apetite:  

This week my inner child has been feeling rather despondent.  It’s my week to staff the Montessori Tuck Shop and I’m dreading having to go there tomorrow. The nutritional content of the foodstuffs sold is appalling. I decided last year after a bitter argument with the then president of the Parents’ Association – Jeff - to stop upsetting the applecart – pie cart in this case – and simply ban Gracie from buying anything apart from fruit at Tuck Shop. I then went silly and volunteered to work there every few weeks hoping to influence the children to buy the healthier offerings. I was overcompensating for being so critical and convinced myself it was in Gracie’s interests for me to meet new people, curry favour with the movers and shakers in the upper classes and get to know her playmates. It’s been disappointing in every respect.

First, I’m rostered to work by myself – a frightful bore that leaves me run off my feet – and a punishment for speaking out, I suspect. Second, none of Gracie’s classmates have Tuck Shop, so just exactly who I think I’m cultivating is still unclear – fat kids with parents who can’t make sandwiches? Finally, try as I do, I can’t ignore the saturated fat, salt, preservatives and emulsifiers, not to mention E numbers and carcinogenic additive values in the meat pies, baked goods and hash-browns. The only almost health giving option is artificially coloured and flavoured pink milk. What sort of parent sends their children to school with money to buy this toxic rubbish? It’s worse than feeding them supermarket own brand pet food.

Freddie calls it Duck Shop and George has a less kind work for it.  I want out! George’s sister, Sophie, was actually the person who got me thinking about the ethics of school canteens. Living in the UK where school dinners have been “revolutionised” in the interests of improving the health of school children and reducing the incidence of childhood obesity, Sophie is an expert on school dinners. She’s an expert, per se, actually. Her children are anything but obese and she’s a health nut and a know-it-all, so I can take some of her remarks with a grain of salt, but even so, a salad sandwich or a tub of yoghurt wouldn’t go astray.

I offered to swap my Tuesdays at Tuck Shop for Helen’s Thursdays in the library. Helen’s an earth mother. She gardens, grows her own fruit, herbs and veggies and embraces moderation in all things.  Accordingly, she sees the merits of a little junk food from time to time. She’s expecting her fifth child and has an insatiable appetite for carbs at the moment. Since she can’t eat while on library duty, she’s very amenable to a swap with me.  I love seeing at her at school and hearing her views. Time spent with Helen is a wonderfully refreshing experience. She’s outspoken, yet loveable. She’s brave and warm and emotional and getting to know her has been one of the highlights of Montessori.

Helen was single-handedly responsible for affecting the anti car-bullying campaign last term. Three Year 2 girls (daughters of dentists) were making life hard for some children who had joined the school mid-term. One family relocated from California and the mother rode to school on a scooter – a large green one. The girls teased the son of this woman venomously about his mother who “only had a scooter”. This was the tip of the iceberg. After all, Scooter Mom was leaving her children open to some comment with that sort of behaviour. The bigger problem was that a number of girls were picking on children whose parents drove small, older model cars from Japan or Korea.  The mean girls didn’t actually know the brands of the cars, they just knew they were old and small and not very prestigious (no doubt hearing their mothers comment from the luxurious leather seats of their air-conditioned behemoths).  The taunting and ridiculing transcended the car prejudices of course, with taunts directed also at girls with healthy appetites and shy boys, but it was the car taunting that opened the huge can of worms – far more serious than mere teasing about size and smell ever could - as it seemed to constitute an attack on the parents, as well as the child.

In response, Helen initiated a campaign to get more children walking, scooting or cycling to school. The opportunities to compare cars became few and far between as many parents jumped on the bandwagon in the hopes of being environmentally friendly – or being seen as such. Hey, I drive an SUV too, but I’m not a hypocrite. It’s a hybrid. I personally don’t think I need to green up my school run, even though I applaud Helen’s ingenuity in overcoming the bullying by driving forward an eco-friendly agenda. My own approach is to park a long way from school and walk in to collect Gracie, rather than drive up to the gate and wait there ostentatiously with my engine running and carbon emissions mounting up in my notional balance sheet of carbon crime.  A number of parents now follow my example rather than face the car-bully backlash. I’m not sure what I think of all of this. I got swept up in the momentum, at the time, and supported Helen, but I think the girls in question are a product of their homes and it’s their parents and their attitudes that really ought to be chastised not the rest of us who drive German or Italian cars. There endeth the lesson.


Go on - buy the book. Find out what happens! And have a great holiday.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Piggy in the middle

The past few weeks have been very full. And yet compared to this time last year I feel as though I have been doing very little apart from chasing my tail and turning in circles. Last year I was engaged in enthralling conversations with myself about "voom" and motivation.

This year - my PTA chairmanship has me contemplating lucky dips or face painting at the school fair.

It's just not the same somehow.

Mindful of these altered preoccupations and ambitions, and the attendant alteration in my energy levels and sense of personal "voom", it is with a mixture of pride and resigned regret that I announce my stepping off the line and over it. 

What line? You ask.

Oh - just a notional line really, not a real line. More a metaphorical construct. The line dividing the young people from the middle aged.

As those of you who stop by and read my musings would recall, I entered a new decade last year. Late last year. At that time I lamented the passing of youth. One feels one ought to doesn't one, even though one feels in most respects much as one did at 23 or 28, anyway, or maybe 34. One looks back over the years - the blur of time - and wonders where it all went and why the trip to Antarctica got overlooked, where that nice fellow from Law School is now and whether those girls from school who post their pictures on Facebook realise they look 40. But all the time, for several years in fact as the thirties trickled, or perhaps gushed, too quickly past, one was filled with incredulity. How can one be 40? In cosmic terms it is barely the blink of an eye - and yet in real terms one feels so young and vital. One feels as if one's whole life is before one. One wonders what on earth one has been doing with one's time.

And then gradually the inner deeper recesses of the soul begin to make peace with and accept the reality - not that there is anything new to accept. There is just a slow and steady dawning of awareness. The denial subsides. One is no longer really young.

Despite a little too much conscious thought on the matter (most of which I attribute to a morbid preoccupation with mortality that has afflicted me for many years), the actual acceptance phase has come along quite quickly and calmly.

Indeed if this is like the stages of grief we hear about, then I am not sure that I really went through the anger or bargaining...

Nevertheless, the acceptance phase has been a walk in the park - so far.

Shall I tell you what happened?

Nothing cataclysmic mind you - this was a slow dawning - remember.

1. I cut off a lot of hair and looked and felt younger even though I suspect I looked less attractive. The youthful carefree nature of the "do" trumped the need to look attractive.

2. The youngest "Off-Spring" turned five and finally gave up his pushchair. He now scoots to school leaving me gasping and panting in his wake as I try valiantly to keep up with him and his brothers.

3. In interviewing for jobs I found myself apologising for my age.

4. The glossy weekly and monthly magazines one scans in the queue at the supermarket - and the online versions thereof have never been so appealing - everyone worth photographing is my age (apart from Wills and Kate).

5. My knees hurt.

6. The charming and gregarious caretaker at the Off-Spring's school told me he that he guessed he and I were the same age. (I guessed, wrongly, that he was older than me!)

6. The idea of camping is no longer anathema to me.

7. Yet, I love nothing more than being at home.

8. I worry more about avoiding dementia than wrinkles.

9. The mere mention of the word "club" (of the night variety, not the fitness or health sorts) gives me palpitations.

10. I bought a wheel along shopping trolley thing to carry my stuff around in (a chic one!) despite the remonstrations of the Off-Spring before I bought it that I was never to buy one on the grounds that only old ladies use them.

The truth is that even though middle age is the new "second youth" and 40 is the new 30, it is called middle for a reason - and not the obvious and depressing one about the actual middle of one's life. 

No the middle I refer to is more about how one feels. Caught in the middle of friends and relationships. Interrupted in the middle of a conversation (all the bloody time). Between a rock and a hard place far too often. Too far along to turn back. Not far enough along to cruise. Far enough in to know what's going on. But also stopping, treading water and gasping for air now and then...

And according to at least one US newpaper full of photos of happy, botoxed, silver foxes, middle age lasts until well into the 60s. By the time we reach that milestone the names will have changed though.

So in order to be ready for all of that, I am preplanning my knee and hip replacements, signing up for bridge and bowls now and spending a lot of my gym time on balance exercises. I am doing all I can to keep the synapses firing and the system working efficiently.

Don't worry - most of the time I still feel 23. Just a grumpy, tired, wise and a little haggard, 23.

Moreover, I don't mean to suggest that interesting conversations with oneself are not the domain of the mature. Quite the contrary. Rather, it is with the wisdom that comes with middle age that I realise that lucky dips are wasted on the young, and the enthralling conversations are only going to get better.

Or - to be blunt - chairing the PTA ages one terribly!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Of maelstroms, tides and harvests

Here in the UK, volcanic ash once again disrupts air travel as the Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland erupts for the first time since 2004. The notion of an ash cloud slowly billowing across the planet at an invisibly high altitude wreaking havoc on air travel so far below and so far away is quite surreal; poetic almost. One does not wish to make light of natural disasters - of floods, tsunamis, landslides or tornadoes. Nor would volcanic eruptions seem poetic in Iceland now. But from a distance or from the perspective given from an arm chair in a safe, dry, sunny place far away, the workings of nature are breathtaking. Like the best music, art, or literature.

Perhaps it's the metaphor that resonates most with me. Words describing nature at work best describe states of mind, emotional and interpersonal interactions; best conjure the image of what we mean or feel.

Floods of tears
Depths of despair
Heights of emotion

We stand on precipices and brinks, fall into abysses and jump off cliffs, we scale pinnacles, weather storms, overcome maelstroms, fight the tide, go with the flow, paddle upstream, tread water, have the wind at our back - all without leaving our offices or homes.

Some days seem like uphill battles. Or the quiet before the storm. Some days we feel as if we are caught in a rip and no one can hear our cries for help over the sound of the waves pounding on the shores of our lives.

And some days there is a life preserver right there if only we could see it through the salt and sand, the spray and even the volcanic ash in our eyes. On those days we feel our way to safe harbours, trust our instincts and somehow know where we can turn for the buoys we seek.

And on those days, despite the exhaustion and the heartache, when we sense or find the solace we need, the relief and the gratitude that follows is so deep, so palpable, so real, that it makes so much that we concern ourselves with seem small and trivial.

By and large, in its simplest terms, the road we hoe is essentially a solitary one. We surround ourselves with others, with noise and distraction, clutter, stuff, experiences. But basically, we're all just hoeing a bit of dirt, more or less alone. Sure, we're all out there seemingly together, tending our crops in one way or another, hopefully reaping what we have sown, or not, in some cases. Some of us have our noses down, some have our ear to the ground to hear what is coming. For some it is the zephyr that will herald the news we seek. For others the clouds. For we are all tending different crops. For some it's wheat, potatoes or rice - nourishment for many, for others sweet fruit and pretty flowers will bring joy and beauty. Still others will give their life to rare cacti or allow noxious weeds to take over their patch. And others will cultivate great forests and provide shelter and protection. And some will seem to reap it all.

And yet others will throw down their tools and wander off to some other man's field to steal some manure perhaps, to break a shovel or perhaps to help out after a drought.

There may be tough times out in those fields, but ultimately if we know what we are sowing, can the harvest be a surprise?


The youngest Off-Spring once said  - "Some days (walking) feels like just pushing the world back."

At three, he was describing a physical sensation (I hope).

But his simple metaphor was profound and memorable, for some days that is exactly how it feels.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Impossibility of Failure

We all have a recurring dream - or two or three - which no doubt represents a fear, a state of mind or a phase in our journeys. One of mine is that I am due to sit a final year law exam in something tricky like Restitution or Conflicts of Law. In the dream I am unprepared; chronically and desperately unprepared. The remarkable thing is that even with the semi-conscious awareness that the sleeping brain always has that this is a dire situation, my dreaming persona is never as panicked as my awake mind would expect. In my dreams I never feel the desperation that seems to be almost a necessity in cases of not being ready to go on, to step, to speak. It's as though a part of my sleeping mind knows it's only a dream and that in the end I will wake up and all will be alright. Perhaps my sleeping brain remembers that I passed that exam 18 years ago. And even rudimentary dream analysis would tell me that the dream is a way of processing a fear or anxiety about being unprepared for something important.

What is fascinating too, is the degree to which the unconscious mind believes it can overcome the hardship or the challenge in each case. In the dream I am committed to getting to that exam, to working, rushing, pushing on, striving to overcome the obstacles, never so deeply perturbed or worried that I give up.  The dream usually ends before the exam is sat or the results handed out, but in those moments when one can cram, choose whether to attend the exam, consult the campus map or not (so as to find the right room), pack the pens, one does all of those things. Is this a reflection of a persevering personality or something else? Is it true of all of us - that we dream of possibilities, even if our conscious self would drop out of the race, give up, cry off? The dreaming self is so optimistic and confident, unsullied by all those gremlins and limiting self-beliefs that the awake self has to deal with.

Or is it that a some level we know it isn' real - that it is only a dream and no matter what happens we cannot fail?

Imagine living that way? Imagine believing you could never fail?

There are fleeting glimpses of this fearlessness in conscious life. Last night was the Off-Spring's school Dinner Dance and Auction fundraising event. Together with a wonderful committee of mothers, I and my co-chair arranged the event. Safe in the knowledge born from experience that the night could not be an unmitigated disaster but rather, some version of a success, I was quietly confident that it would all go well. I hoped we could match previous years' funds raised. If we could just create a nice atmosphere and a convivial evening of socialising and merriment, then we would have something to be proud of.

Well we did all of that. And we raised a lot of money - almost three times more than I hoped we might raise (pitching expectations low being a great source of gleeful surprise and smiling in so many things one does). The school now has an even lovelier fund on which to draw for various initiatives for the children as well as much needed building restoration work. We were blessed to have received 30 donated items that were both sought after and valuable. Strong interest, good ticket sales, delicious food, generous and supportive parents and an inspiring and dedicated staff and headteacher contributed to the rest. It was a great event. Every person who contributed to it in any way should feel proud to have been part of it's success.

Running a PTA is voluntary work, charitable giving, community work, if you like. Many of us do it or something like it at some point in our lives. But why? Some say that acts of giving make us happy. Some say that we do such things for recognition, or out of guilt or a sense of obligation. For some it is a way of giving back. For others it is to use skills that we might otherwise not have a chance to use during years of parenting or retirement or when we are not engaged in paid work. It may be to please someone, to impress or to persuade, to gain leverage or to buy good will, to learn something, or to teach something.

Whatever the reason, and there are a probably several in combination on any given day, we do it. Perhaps the why is not so important, in the final analysis, but it weighs on my mind, for there is the question as to whether to stay on for another year as Chair person. In order to decide, understanding my rationale or purpose is important - at least to me.

Part of that means one has to work out why failure on the part of some to acknowledge a success holds a sting. One has to know one's limits, one's priorities, one's values. One has to be candid and authentic about how best one can play a role and the potential conflicts that the roles one plays can create in one'e wider life and circle. One has to understand that whether one is motivated intrinsically or extrinsically, or perhaps both, one would not do it if one thought in terms of merely success and failure.

Which leads one to value perhaps the best part of any challenge; the overcoming of an obstacele and the learning that goes hand in hand - particularly about oneself, but also about others. And the knowledge that there really is no such thing as failure, just opportunities to learn, to grow, to give (and to take) and above all, to wear a pretty dress now and then!

Monday, 2 May 2011

Ordinary People

I promised that my next post would cover the Royal Wedding. Rather than disappoint you, I will deliver on my promise.

Here in London the magic was palpable that day. For the first time in several days the air was clear and cool. There was a cloudy sky, the first in weeks that morning, and the high pollen count had abated somewhat. Consequently for the thousands who descended on central London to catch a glimpse of the wedding party the atmosphere was very British - very Wimbledon - very amenable.

For me, a hayfever sufferer, the day could not have been more pleasant. Watching the wedding from home and then the gym, enjoying the company of my neighbours at the Royal Wedding garden party, feeling united with my English brethren in a proud and historic celebration of love, community, majesty and family.

But in hindsight I think the truly amazing thing about the event - and indeed - perhaps the reason for my malaise over the next three days - was the almost story book quality of perfection around the occasion (not unlike my own wedding day...). Everything was just lovely.

For me, the fact that someone really quite ordinary snared the future king of England is though, one of the most profound aspects of this happy tale. And by "ordinary" I do not mean "common" as the British press and establishment love to call her. Nor do I mean to be disparaging - for ordinary is truly what most of us are.

No - the really wonderful thing is that unlike so many elements of monarchy, this wedding seemed charmingly democratic and accessible. Kate, by all accounts, is a sensible and poised woman. Unlike some pundits and posters who have comments to make about make-up and social climbing, her weight and her hair, I really can find nothing to criticise her for. Isn't she the sort of girl one would have been friends with? The sort of girl one would like one's daughter to be? A nice, ordinary, straight forward, committed, dedicated, sweet person?

Ok, so those qualities may not be entirely "ordinary", after all, but I can't help wishing and hoping that they were or could be.

But the magic lies in the fact that this young couple are so discreet and polite and measured. Unlike the B and C grade celebrities (and A as well, let's be honest) that festoon the headlines most weeks, there is no controversy, no tawdry gossip, no drugs or indiscretions.

While they may be royalty the very fact that she shops on the high streets and does her own make-up and that he plays a little bit of football in the public park on the eve of his wedding, makes this couple, this very famous  duo, breathtakingly regular and indeed - ordinary. She has worn the same thing more than once for the cameras!

This is not to say that their lives are ordinary, by any means. Nor is it to suggest that any ordinary Joe or Jane could or would swap places with them and assume their roles with even an iota of the dignity and aplomb with which they seem to carry off every public appearance.

All I mean is that it is refreshing and a little bit magical to witness a commitment and love outside one's circle of ordinary people that is just so nice and normal (despite the guest list and the budget for the wedding, the helicopter pickup the next day and the titles...).

The other thing that is so lovely and fresh, in this age where everyone has a website, a blog, a point of view, and in which so many mediocre and extraordinarily damaged and strange people harbour a yearning for fame and fortune, notoriety or celebrity, is that this couple to date has really said very little.

So yes, less is more. Silence is golden.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Easter's majesty

In case you were curious as to the sort of company you keep, my blog has 17 official followers. An average number of 15 "friends" on facebook read the facebook links to my blog each time I post one. My blog visitor counter stats say that between 35 and 45 people visit my blog most weeks - an average of 5-7 each day. That would lead me to think that around 30 people (in the world) read each of my posts. These people may differ, from post to post, of course.

Meanwhile about 78 people/organisations follow me on Twitter. I cannot seem to break through the 80 people milestone and stay there. I pass it every few days, only to find that a day later 2 or 3 followers have de-followed me. I wonder if this is a reflection on the quality of my tweets, my politics as reflected thereby or my failing to follow them back.

It's a fickle old world.

And if those amazing stats were not enough, did you know that an estimated1 billion people around the world will watch the coverage of the Royal Wedding next Friday (superbly timed as a morning event to allow for all the Anglophiles in the far flung reaches of the Commonwealth to tune in).

Of course, if I start tweeting about the Royal Wedding things may begin to look up for me...


Instead, given today is Good Friday, I will post a few thoughts about this day.

Today is my favourite day of the year. Good Friday is a holiday here in England - from work anyway - if not shopping. The great thing about Good Friday - in most places I should think, is that the weather is good. None of the forced jollity under grey skies that is the English Christmas. Nor the stinking hot humidity of summer Christmases. April (or March) is generally mild and pleasant. But that is not why I love this holiday.

No the clincher is the reason for which we have this nice quiet long weekend - the weekend that never ends (especially when followed by the once in a generation treat of a Royal Wedding so soon after). Aside from the fact that I enjoy a holiday bereft of commercial pressure, I revel in the reminder of my humanity, the reminder that this weekend we remember that we are united in the pain and suffering of all people across the world and through the ages. Like Jesus, dying on the cross to complete his life on earth as a man, we all suffer. Today we remember the indignity, the shame, the humiliation, the self-sacrifice and the isolation that Jesus was subjected to, as a man. Most of us will face less than this, hopefully, in our lives. And yet, the fortitude and love with which Jesus faced this event, his passion and death, gives us all pause for thought - whether we believe in Him or not.

So I love this day. It is quiet, sombre, imbued with meaning. It helps me to be grateful for my good fortune. It helps me to pause and give thanks, to reflect on the suffering and hardship in the world around me. To contemplate those who suffer. To contemplate my own challenges and hardships with renewed courage and perspective.

And to look forward to a brighter day too and the triumph it will bring over evil, over pain and affliction.


That was Easter Sunday by the way - not the Royal Wedding day...

However, on a brighter note, the Royal Wedding is certainly exciting us all here in London. Union Jacks adorn the pubs walls and windows of many proprietors. The news reports tragic events abroad, smog levels that are dangerously high in the city, and great April weather that is breaking all records. Best of all is the wedding news though.

I think my next post will analyse the event, if not from a pole position on the Mall or Whitehall (where I once worked) then from a community of pleasant Londoners sharing a Kensington garden square and throwing their own Royal Wedding Garden party next Friday.

Call me an opportunist if you like. I bet my blog's popularity surges!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Holiday entertainment? It's child's play.

Now that the holidays are upon us it is with joy and excitement that I read all the postings for parents about how to entertain the kids on vacation (since a book, a bike or the odd colouring session will not be enough).

This reminded me of a chapter in Spring to Mind in which I mused over the diversity and extent of kid-oriented activities and classes on offer these days. Rather than recast those thoughts here, I thought I would just extract them for you – whet your appetite as it were (mindful that sooner or later the whole book will be republished here for the 17 of you who bother to read this...).

“...I guess the current generation of under 10s is more driven and scheduled than we ever were. I remember pestering Mrs Off-Spring until I was blue in the face to be allowed to do ballet. Every time she said “next year”, knowing I would outgrow the interest. No doubt also knowing it would not be one of my gifts.  All those fat little girls in their tutus and slippers feeling so princessy and demure...

And I wound up with three sons...

Speaking of children’s activities, I had occasion to wonder again whether I am raising backward neophytes, heralding form the 1970s rather than the 2000’s. I overheard some mothers at the gym last week discussing their children’s schedules.  I mean, who under 25, who is not at least a management consultant, even has a schedule.  These children have judo and swimming, French and art, ballet and chess, Spanish and music and cycling proficiency, drama and gymnastics. One child of our acquaintance has such a full week on school days that he has to do his Italian, pilates, rugby, mandarin and science on the weekend, between mass, swimming, lunch and 23.5 minutes free play. Something will have to give when the homework really starts, not to mention the boy scouts, altar serving and volunteerism.

I was really fascinated by the cycle proficiency class.  I think I borrowed a bike from a kid up the road and rode around the cul-de-sac over two Sundays and became proficient that way in those heady, sepia days in the seventies. I was 8 and clearly under achieving since I was not at Cantonese or Pottery at the time, but actually had Sundays available...

Having said all of that, I am not scoffing at the desire to enrich and broaden and expose one’s offspring. Goodness, no. There are clearly a few holes in the market though, which is where I need to step in. Just imagine if we could enhance skills in negotiation, face-to-face communications, street smarts, rapping, tidying up, pocket money budgeting and for the younger ones, bottom wiping.  There is no doubt demand for maximising the effectiveness of the tantrum  - a session on style, another on timing and another where we really hone in on more sophisticated manipulation.

Maybe I could offer sibling packages and cover all the age groups as well as the nitty gritty of sibling rivalry. I could really make a difference in the holiday camp market place.

And for the mums? And dads! Well I need to be pretty strategic about catching the interest in that discerning sector, but couples classes could work, or coffee mornings with a twist, where we workshop some issues of concern. Maybe a series of classes, free latte included in the fees. Topics could include:
How to say “no” and mean it.
I know my child is average and that’s ok.
How to dress you child for their body shape.
Restaurant voices.
Boundaries are cool.
Play doesn’t have to be hard work.

I could have fridge magnets made with little thoughts printed on them, so that whenever the parents glance at the activities schedule for the term or the good behaviour star chart upon which they would magnetically reside, they would be reminded of something useful, such as “if it walks and talks like a child, it must be a child”.

My one-time nanny, Helga, was a big fan of the star chart. She was struggling to get the boys to do as she wanted so we decided the chart might incentivise better behaviour.  It really needed to go in a spreadsheet – there was so much detail. There were at least 10 categories for each child, based on their age (then just 2, 4 and 6) and abilities. And it was a bugger to administer. For example, walking home from nursery, rather than riding on the buggy board, warranted a star. Eating with implements was rewarded with a star. And "please" and "thank you"? Yes - a star. Half the hoped for actions were already mastered and long since acquired habits; the other half were not desirable from any one’s point of view; for example, chopping with Mummy’s scissors.

One day Helga took me aside to say that she was very concerned about Off-Spring Number 1’s maths skills?  He was apparently unable – at age 5 - to do subtraction sums such as 15 takeaway 23 or 9 minus 17.  I had to explain that the negative integers were possibly a little beyond the year ones just yet, maybe in second term.  Fearful that we in the UK were backward and all of the ex-soviet Eastern European children are racing ahead (explains things like arms wars, if they can master the old trigonometry and trajectories early), I did explain that there are numbers less than zero and that they are useful for measuring things like temperatures.  Also handy if you go under the sea and you want to work out your depth in relation to the surface of the water.  He was able to then extrapolate the concept and suggest – “or like if someone is really naughty, they get a negative star on the chart”. 

Maybe Helga is on to something after all.

The learning for me, is that the real world context really aids with knowledge retention and learning.  To that end, I was telling the Off-Spring about a time when I was about 9 and a strip of purple flowered wall paper was ripped off the toilet wall and Mrs Off-Spring had to employ strong arm tactics to break us down and force a confession out of us; culminating in my brother confessing in order to get our TV privileges restored.  

This was by way of explaining the meaning of criminal investigation to the Off-Spring.

Anyway, the star chart was a little unwieldy. There were so many stars on that chart by the end of the first day that I started to fear that local stationery shops would be unable to keep up with demand. While well-intended, the chart was not capable of operating as an incentivisation programme at all.  Maybe in communist regimes star charts operated differently. Certainly, the purpose behind Helga’s was never clear.  It did excite them as they begged for more and more multicoloured stars though, every evening.  I still find one or two in the washing machine every now and then. And I think Helga probably enjoyed ruling all the lines and writing in all the boxes and sitting as judge and jury all afternoon. Star charts are generally baffling I find.  The year one class chart a few years ago may have confused me.  Miss Finucane explained it well though – Off-Spring Number 1 had very few stars because he was a quiet student who was no trouble and got on with his work beautifully.  It seems then that I have had it all wrong. Maybe I need one myself.”


Now it was a couple of years ago, that I wrote that..

Things have changed in many ways since. For a start all of the Off-Spring developed cycle proficiency without lessons - in the old fashioned way - spurred on by each other and the neighbourhood children. I run classes for adults and children now. Communication and negotiation being just two skills we work on (listening and resilience and tolerance prove to be more urgent needs, actually). We have also abandoned star charts some time in the past two years in favour of a points system that allows for demerits as well as merits and which allows for the accumulation of points for behaviour going above and beyond the expected. It works very well. I am currently top of the leader board....

Should anyone like further particulars do drop me a line. 

Best of all, developing, designing and implementing points systems and having the kids describe and present arguments in favour of their preferred one, is a great source of holiday amusement and entertainment. So too is Scrabble, my own favourite, "Writeathon" (to raise money for your school. favourite charity or cause or mother), or just taking it easy for the first time since New Year (the joys of which we will explore in the next post).

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Love is in the air...

They say in Spring that love is in the air. I haven't seen much of it this year, I have to say, but I suppose the hoopla and excitement surrounding the imminent Royal Wedding is so grand and all-encompassing as to be sufficient for all of us. Thankfully.

I read with interest a headline in a tabloid yesterday concerning a "new slimline Kate". I was not sure to whom the article referred at first. Kate was once Kate Winslett. Or God forbid, Katie Price. Say no more. 

Imagine my surprise to discover that they were referring to none other than Kate Middleton. Seriously, was she ever anything but slim? Guess what - a "femail" journalist wrote the article and managed to find an 8 year old picture of Kate looking slightly more puffy in the face - ie glowing with teenage good health. A page was thus filled with pathetic drivel about brides and nerves and weightloss and slimness generally. Poor Kate. As if she did not have enough on her very royal and gilt-edged plate.

What could be worse than being compared for ever to the mother-in-law you never knew? Having your clothes, body and hair commented on for the rest of your life, I should imagine. Still, married to a prince, there may be some compensations. Well I should hope so.

Meanwhile the Telegraph, inspired by Wills' and Kate's example, extols the virtues of inviting some "exes" to your nuptials. How many exes can a couple of twenty somethings who met in college have? I ask. But I am a tad old fashioned, I grant you. Westminster Abbey is a bloody big church. I'd have found a few exes too if I had been tying the knot there with an unlimited budget and a public holiday for the nation as well. And let's not forget that the All Black Captain graciously declined an invite - being too busy winning world cups or some such macho nonsense...

The things is, they are a lovely young couple. They are lifting all our spirits. Kate's outfits are super. Who cares whether she has the style of Moss or the panache of Blanchett. One day she will be queen and clothes will not be her only claim to fame.

Mind you, my dear friend Mara, in Australia, has asked for as much Royal Wedding Memorabilia as I can get my hands on. Tea towels especially. Goodness, where does one shop for that sort of thing. The online business ideas are almost overwhelming... I have visions of myself queuing alongside various women of a certain age in Home Counties towns. And those coffee/tea cups that are too hot to hold, and some of those layered cake plates. No doubt a very big hit at the next charity morning tea in suburban Brisbane.

Despite the general excitement - street parties (or in our case a garden party, with scones, tea cake, sandwiches and bunting) and lining the route of royal carriages aside - I have to admit that explaining the idea of a monarchy to the Off-Spring was not easy. The idea that nice, normal people more or less like us, are born into the role of king, or queen, was not easy to justify. It was particularly difficult to explain why Prince Philip is not a King. The relevant rules reflecting an attitude so antiquated and sexist as to be almost anachronistic in today's society - or so I tell myself, until I read that outfits, weight and hair styles trump intellect, ideas and gravitas, anyway, as far as women are concerned. 

And yet, I read that Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw have no place in the lives of twenty somethings, whose ambitions run to intellectual self-improvement, rather than securing husbands. Elsewhere that same group classes parenting as more important than the relationship they might have with a romantic partner. 

Isn't slimline Kate in that group?

It's very confusing. I can think of many women over 35 who share these views, to a person, and yet... 

So I can only think that it's all posturing, no?

Love is a timeless commodity. We'll take what we can get, within reason. But, we'll fight for a career as well. Til biology gets in  the way and the good old employer can't manage the whole part-time equation...

At the end of the day, people are people. This generation will have different challenges and opportunities from those that came before, but at a fundamental level, we are still the same - keen to hear about happy endings, hoping for the best, wondering "what if", dreaming and aspiring, and in the Spring - overjoyed to know that for some - Love is in the air.

And that is just as well, for the pollen count is high. 

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Well Beings

There was a time when one would pick up a newspaper or magazine and be inundated with stories, gossip and news about celebrities and diets, romance and shoes. These topics are still of great moment, of course, but they are buried now. Not in the women's glossies, I grant you. After all, that stuff sells. It's timeless, riveting and very important. But, in the mainstream press the trend has shifted subtly in these recession and budget cutting days to focus less on the acquisition of stuff, luxury holidays and the wanton consumption and disposal of more, towards other issues; war, tsunamis and economic strife. And on the ubiquitous "Lifestyle" pages, the emphasis is shifting from diets to domesticity, from hedonism to happiness, from making more money to making more out of less.

There is even a trend that suggests that well-being is more than just having good hair, heels and handbags.

This is great. The Zeitgeist is for once simpatico with my own interests and beliefs. The last time that happened I was perhaps 8 and my interests were the Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Holly Hobby and tennis...

Anyway, perhaps in terms of column space and words printed nothing is very different, but they say one notices what one is noticing - and on that basis it seems every man, woman and their dog is jumping on the happiness bandwagon.

Google it and see.

Three years ago when I began running workshops for professionals in transition aimed at helping them identify and play to their strengths, align their values and interests with their work and hopefully achieve a greater sense of purpose and happiness, I coined the phrase "Spring to Mind Spa". Thinking I was onto something I even bandied the word around in the City. Then I waited for the in-house bookings to overwhelm me.

I admit, I am still waiting.

You see, the key selling point of coaching or learning interventions had to be geared around success and helping clients to meet their potential. Senior, successful and respected coaches advised me not to use words like well-being or happiness in pitching to law firms or corporate clients - to be sure to leave such concepts strictly to the new age life coaches working in the suburbs or the communes, the retreats or the workshops for crystal loving pottery and bead types. Wake up Springgirl, executives and their employers do not need, want or care about happiness and well-being! You will not win business if you even mention the word "spa" at work!

Now, not so much. Times are changing. This is the era of pay freezes, unemployment, price rises and middle class families who thought three holidays a year and private school was their entitlement, forced to move house to access state schools. Over the long, usually not very hot summer we now learn the tedium/beauty of the "staycation". Just as well we have a government that propounds a "Big Society", eh? Though just who will wind up footing the bill for housing, illness and education is anyone's guess.

So there was never a better time to champion the virtues of simple living, a sense of community, altruism, spending less. It's just as well money cannot buy happiness, 'cos there isn't any money to spend.

Employee wellness is not a strange idea. Indeed in the US tax incentives help to bring the idea to the threshholds of many small and medium size businesses. The US?!

One day the weird and crazy notion that a happy and engaged person is also a productive person may take root.

That day is coming. Watch this space!

Check out these resources if happiness and well-being are of interest to you:

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Stocktake and samples

I recently came across a discussion in a Linked In Group that I belong to, about marketing one's books, and the importance of blogging and social media for generating a followership and book sales. The accepted wisdom is that authors need to tempt readers with snippets of their work, samples of their style and tidbits of wisdom and perspective. I've been doing that for a year now - sales are steady - but I need to put more out there, clearly.

A bit like those little plastic trays and faux forks set up in the supermarket to lure us into making different and unexpectedly satisfying purchasing decisions. I was in my local Waitrose just yesterday and I witnessed the very savvy and well-engineered process of determining what to offer for sample and tasting that afternoon. Setting - toilet paper aisle as three members of staff chatted about the weather and the display. The discussion went as follows:

Slim Attractive Female in Management Role (Manager): "Oh and we should do a tasting today. What do you think?"
Young Partner (this means shop boy in other stores): "Yes, let's do one. What will we be sampling?"
Older Partner (another young man): "Fruit, maybe. Or crisps?" (Obviously someone was a bit peckish...)
Manager: "Yes, there are some fruits out the back near the bins that taste a bit weird. We could chop them up and put them out."
Young Partner: "Yes. I know the ones you mean. They taste sort of sweet and also a bit bitter."
Older Partner: Grinning, snickers. 
Manager: "Seriously. Sweet and bitter at the same time?"
Young Partner: "Yes, exactly. People should taste it."
Manager: "Maybe something else."
Older Partner: "Ice-cream? The weather is good today."
They walk to fridge area. I follow.
Manager: "I know - the Creme Egg ice-cream. Put some of that out. It's a new line. Looks disgusting."
Young Partner and Older Partner: Grimacing. "Maybe not...".
I grimace too.

Why don't they put out some exquisite chocolate truffles, I thought? Some organic biscotti? Some ripe and juicy berries? Some gourmet cheese (not yet past it's use by date)?

Truth is - the episode burst my bubble. And it is strange that I have a bubble with regards retail. I worked for a retail chain at one time. My skills were diverse - I mastered the cash registers, the photo development suite/lab, the kitchenware and lighting departments and even (due to my close friend being a fixture in DIY) paint mixing and gardening. And you only need read a few of my posts to see how much I love dealing with the general public. I know about waste, shrinkage, theft and bag checks, ugly uniforms and the tension between the full time day staff and the casual student staff. Nevertheless the idea that only the disgusting, hard to sell stuff would be displayed for taste testing and sampling never occurred to me...

Suffice to say I will never try another orange kiwi fruit dipped in soya something or other in Tesco again!

I'm losing my touch.

Nevertheless, I think the book publishing forum had other things in mind. In tempting readers to buy my books I can see that it is self-defeating to only reveal my disgusting or less delectable prose. By the same token, I don't want to reward the cheapskates who don't want to buy a book with my best work either...

Though, I can admit to having written plenty of things that are bitter and sweet...

It's tricky. I can see the conundrum. One can hardly ask shoppers to try the toilet paper before buying it, but French Champagne may be overdoing it. Hence the 10 minute discussion in Waitrose. I pictured similar dialogues across the globe, each day. It was sobering.

So in order to tempt you to buy my books, contact me for some coaching or just mention me in casual conversation at the water cooler, the gym or your next supper club gathering, I give you an except from Spring to Mind's Self Coaching Toolkit. This is one of three stocktake exercises to help you assess where you are in your life. Don't worry, it's not too confronting, won't take long and won't necessitate any change, commitments or expenditure on your part. You may need a scrap of paper though.

I will tell you now that I have taken this exercise myself. I drew a cloud. And my film is "Chocolat".

Stocktake - Exercise 2 (Extracted from Spring to Mind - Self Coaching Toolkit)
If you:
a)    Hate questionnaires and quizzes;
b)    Refuse to write down your feelings and thoughts;
c)    Resent being held accountable;  
d)    Got nothing out of Exercise 1; or
e)    Tend to buck the system, pooh-pooh authority and disdain order and structure;
then this exercise may be useful for you.
Describe in as few words as possible how you feel about your life.

List at least two things you enjoy or like about your life right now. What do you have or what do you do that gives you happiness?

List at least two things you enjoy or like least right now.

List at least two things you would like more of or to do more often.

If the writing is getting you down, why don’t you try to draw the feeling you have about your life right now. If you could, what would the picture show?

Pictures paint a thousand words... come on.

Ok, fine. Can you describe this feeling in terms of a film (or a book) you are familiar with?
Here are some ideas to help you:
Forrest Gump (you never know what you will get)
The Godfather (your family runs your life and you feel death is imminent)
27 Dresses (always the bridesmaid never the bride)
Wall Street (greed is good)
The Man who Knew too Much (busybody gets comeuppance)
Fight Club (weird hobbies keeping you away from real world)
Clueless (at any level)
Gladiator (warrior, hero, fighter, death defying maverick – to a point)
Knocked up (say no more)
Unforgiven (speaks for itself)
The Great Escape (so now what?)
The Mirror Cracked (time for a new look)
Enemy of the State (on the run, alone)
Sex and the City (it’s all about the shopping and the men)
The Good Girl (no fun)
Alice in Wonderland (no idea where you are)
Le Divorce (it sounds better in French)
Liar Liar (you or someone you know)
The Mummy (not yet dead)
An Inconvenient Truth (so what are your options)
A Bug’s Life (oohhhh...)
Hair (really?)
Friends with Money (must you keep up)
So? Name a film or book:

Ok. Hopefully you now have a better handle on how you feel.

List anything good, satisfying or positive in your sense of where you are.

List what you would like to change?


Anything? Sweet? Bitter? Disgusting? Sickening? Tasteless? Pointless?

Well, it was your life so ....