31 May 2013
24 Apr 2013
My firm recently decided it was time to start a Social Club. We've more than doubled the number of staff in four years and such rapid growth is starting to breed the inevitable 'silo' effect of departments not communicating, cliques forming and gossip rumbling. So the bosses felt that social events would get people to meet in a non-stress environment, bond and strengthen their working relationships. Nice theory.
One of the girls in my team was put in charge of setting up said Social Club. She's about to turn 30, she's bright, vibrant, healthy, enjoys a glass (bottle) of wine, goes to the gym every day, rugby on the weekend and dressed as a Playboy Bunny or Sexy Lady Cop for at least three hen parties last year. So, after the meeting with the new Social Club Committee this afternoon..
Me: So what activities did the social club decide on?
Organiser: Oh loads! Cricket, softball, boules, rowing, sailing, hockey, football, rugby, korfball...
Me: Anything for non-sporty people, like me?
Organiser: Of course! You can come and watch!
When I (gently) pointed out that spectating was not exactly an inclusive activity for non-sporty folk, she sniffed and said 'Well, what else is there?' A few minutes later, she piped up with 'Oh, someone suggested pottery classes. GOD, I can't think of anything more boring!'
If I'm honest, I was stuck for responses at that point. Mostly because I don't actually care, the idea of spending any more time with these people than I have to makes me a little nauseous. But on the way home, I came up with: film club, book club, chess club, music night, opera night, theatre night, photography shoot day, art classes, cooking classes, sewing club, glass blowing, singing group, talent show, craft club, model railway club and hell yes, pottery classes. I considered giving her my list, but as I'm not even vaguely interested in being the one to organise such things, I'm not going to put the idea out there.
Which brings me to my point. My bosses wanted to set this up to encourage people to ge to know each other in a non-work environment. To get people to open up, share, bond. But by making the 'social' aspect entirely about competitive sport (and, as a byproduct, drinking), the people who will want to be involved are those people already engaged at work: the fit, active, extroverted, confident, competitive, socially competent ones. Those of us who are physically less secure, introverted, shy or just plain bored, are not going to express any interest in joining in and, from my point of view at least, will avoid it like the plague. And I think the rest of the sporty types could be missing out on an opportunity to get to know us.
One of the girls in my office, let's call her Mabel (not even close to her real name), is one of the great Socially Inept. She's in her late 20s, but dresses like a 50-something librarian. She is slim, but in an ironing board way, doesn't style her hair, or wear makeup. She works hard and my guess is that she's a genius at what she does. When I speak to her, I get the impression she's not really interested in small talk, but indulges me because it's polite. I'm not a finance geek, so can't engage her on that topic and don't know anything about her to engage her on other subjects. She comes across as stiff and aloof, but I suspect it's either shyness, or, like me, just plain boredom.
A couple of years ago, however, I had a brief insight into what might be going on under that tight ponytail and those dowdy print dresses. I didn't go to the firm Christmas party (never have), but saw some photos of the event afterwards. It was a fancy dress party (one of the reasons I didn't go) and the theme was animals (the venue was the London Zoo, get it...?). Mabel turned up dressed in a skin-tight leopard print catsuit. No makeup and hair in her standard ponytail, flat-chested, flat-bottomed Mabel, in a cat suit. And no-one had explained about appropriate underwear for such a tight outfit either, ouch. She's been the talk of the firm every Christmas since then.
But what made me wonder was that, even though it was a terrible outfit for someone shaped like her (I can't do catsuits either, but I rock a vampire beer wench outfit), she had wanted to show everyone that she was interesting. Exciting. Scandalous. Sexy. She was more than the person they saw at work every day.
I suffer from it occasionally too, the ego-trip of 'wait, there's more to me than pie charts and telling you the font is wrong!'. But I kerb that instinct more and more often now, as people are unnerved, confused, taken aback and sometimes downright shocked at anything outside what they consider the norm. I think about how they talked (talk) about Mabel and her catsuit and clamp down the urge to start a discussion about Amanda Palmer's (who?) latest (naked) video, how much I fancy Benedict Cumberbatch and just how badly I want to write TV shows the way Mark Gatiss does. Because that kind of talk in a corporate environment will get you Labelled As Weird.
The downside is I struggle more at my job because I'm not 'bonding' with the other staff over Fantasy Football (really?). There are moments where I can garner a glimmer of a connection - brief opinions on the Lichtenstein exhibition at the Tate, an Oxbridge English Lit graduate noticing I'm reading Cormac McCarthy, someone wondering why I haven't been watching Game of Thrones (I don't have Sky). But for the most part, I bite my tongue, push down the passion and keep it to myself, or risk dilution, derision, confusion.
I like the work I do and I really like the money I earn from doing it, but after nearly five years in an increasingly corporate environment, I find myself questioning my reasons for spending so much of my life in an environment that's slowly excluding me. And it does make me wonder if I'm not the only one.
21 Apr 2013
I was watching Inside The Actor’s Studio this afternoon and James Lipton had Liam Neeson on and toward the end of the show, asked him the ‘standard’ questions. The last one was ‘Finally, if heaven exists (and I’m sure you have no doubt of it), what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?’
Liam responded with ‘I gave this a lot of thought James.’ He paused, his eyes filled, and his voice cracked ever so slightly as he continued…
‘Your wife’s inside… with a big chilled bottle of pinot noir’.
I’m still weepy.
2 Mar 2013
20 May 2012
Earlier today, with the prospect of photos in mind, I was getting ready to leave the house and realised I'd been preparing for my afternoon of leisure since the week before. Last night I'd charged my camera battery and computer, decided on the netbook over the laptop, based on battery life, cleared the CF card for the camera and debated with camera bag to take - would I need both the wide angle and the 50mm lens? This morning I dug through several cupboards to find the Kensington lock to secure the laptop to a mooring hook in the boot of the car and decided the purchase of a lock box for the boot might be worthwhile.
Last week, I researched (in person, with a photo on my phone as proof) the parking arrangements at the venue (and found them satisfactory) and bought a last-minute ticket for the show online (singles only, up in the nose bleed seats) which I collected a couple of hours ago by swiping my credit card through a slot in a self-service ticket machine in the foyer.
In my rucksack right now, I have a netbook with mini-mouse and mat, DSLR camera with two lenses, iPod and Sennheiser earphones (the chunky kind), smart phone, wallet, notebook and pens and the April issue of the Fortean Times. All in the name of staving off boredom. I commented to my chap as we were leaving, my shoulder groaning under the weight of all this technology, that 15 years ago I would have taken a book and maybe a pad and pen.
Technology has provided me with so many options for staying occupied and connected that a pen and a book aren't enough any more. Of course I still HAVE a pen and a book, in case of no wifi, battery death or eyesight begging for forgiveness from bright screens. But it's unlikely that I'll use them when I have the kit to take high resolution photos, tweak up the colours and contrast from the featureless grey of the London sky and upload them to Facebook, with comments and tags, so my mum in Australia can see how I've spent my Sunday. All within 30 minutes of taking them. I have my own music and thick earphones to protect me from the horrors of other people's conversations and a smart phone in case I don't want to crank up the netbook. All in the name of 'just in case'.
Is it worth it? I ask myself. I honestly don't know. Would I have taken the photos and uploaded them to Facebook TODAY had I not had the means to? They're not particularly interesting photos, and in the grey light, not even very good. My mum will probably like them, she likes most of the things I do, and I amused myself by tagging myself in a photo of the exterior of the hall - 'that's me, right now, right there!'. My chap has also posted a photo from inside the hall with his iPhone and I've commented with *waves*, as I can hear them rehearsing from where I'm sitting, so we're doing that coupley-Facebook thing that makes everyone a bit nauseous - us included.
Would I have had more value in a book and a pad and pen? I wrote this post sitting here, took some photos in less than ideal light and had a look over what my friends were posting on Facebook. I probably could have read an entire book in the time I've spent on tech today. Or written someone a letter. Or started that young adult novel series I've been promising I'd write.
Would that have been a more valid choice? Should I see posting photos on Facebook as 'connecting' with people? Should I have stayed home and Hoover'd? Does it really matter? Other people spent their afternoon at the football. Or watching TV. Or at the pub. Or weeding the garden. Or, in the case of people at other tables here, doing physics homework till that got boring and ended up watching rap videos on YouTube.
Choices aside, what I find really interesting about my own behaviour today is that I would rather haul over 10kgs of stuff around with me, fretting quietly about their safety when I leave them in the car, so I can take and edit photos and get online to write about them, then write about hauling 10kgs of stuff around to do just that. The clichéd part of my brain is humming with phrases like 'sign of the times', 'addicted to technology and validation', but the short answer is, I have the means to do this, so I am. Reading my book can wait for lunchtime tomorrow when I hide from the people I work with and letter writing can wait for those evenings I can't bear to look at a computer screen any more that day.
Taking photos today showed my friends and family on the other side of the planet what I'm seeing, in almost real time, and many of them will never see those things in person. Taking photos in bad light gives me another opportunity to learn about taking and edit photos and writing a blog post is always practice, even if it's as long and rambly as this one. But most of all, I enjoyed taking photos and writing this post. Which I think is the best validation of all.
18 Feb 2012
Recently, a friend of mine reposted one of those Facebook/email stories stories about violin virtuoso Joshua Bell busking in the New York subway and how all but two people and a few small children ignored him. It was paraphrasing an article called 'Pearls Before Breakfast', a 'social experiment' engineered by Gene Weingarten and the Washington Post in 2007. Weingarten won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Interestingly, his second Pulitzer was for a (very insightful and moving) article about the deaths of children left in their cars by forgetful parents - I suggest you read them both, not just for the quality of the writing, but also to understand the common point he is highlighting.
Most people I've heard react to the Bell story with 'oh yes, isn't it terrible how we just rush through life and don't enjoy the beauty, we must stop and smell the roses more often, it's so sad, we've become such automatons and slaves to the modern industrial world' - Weingarten compares the video of Bell's busking performance to that of Koyaanisqatsi ('Life out of balance'), an 80s film illustrating our descent into robotic antdoom, becoming cogs in the great wheel of progress and industry, the loss of beauty, art, music, self in the layers of urban consumerism.
Weingarten, Bell, the Washington Post and the makers of Koyaanisqatsi make a good point. There should be space for art, music, beauty, peace in everyone's life. But I resent the implication that because I work 9-5 as part of The Great Corporate Machine, I am ignoring the opportunities for beauty in my life.
For the record, Weingarten's article is not judgemental. He presents the facts and statements from the people interviewed and allows us to draw our own conclusions - as a journalist should. What I resent is the way his objective view has been regurgitated into chain emails and Facebook posts, with the obligatory 'oh it's too sad', inviting similar comments lest you be one of the unenlightened, the spiritually void, the Tin Man without a heart.
I work 9-5.30, five days a week. I travel 75 minutes each way to reach my office so I can live in a three bedroom house with a garden instead of a studio apartment. My office is in a modern high rise building made of glass and steel and I have a desk in a cluster of six other desks in a giant room that I share with 150 people, computers, phones, printers and photocopiers. My firm provides financial services and I am the sole 'creative' on staff, providing branding, formatting, application support and layout design for pitch documents, presentations, client reports and process flowcharts. I like my job, but it's not what I dreamed I'd do - I tried that for 15 years and got tired of being broke. Ten years ago I made a conscious decision to work 40 hours a week and get paid enough to be able to spend my evenings and weekends filling the parts of my life I don't spend at work with things that made me happy.
Now I give 48 hours a week of my life in exchange for more money than I've ever earned in my 23 years of working. And that money means that in the last 12 months, my partner and I were able to afford to go to the theatre a dozen times, visit art galleries, museums, travel to Australia for two weeks, spend a week driving around the island of Ibiza, eat out at nice restaurants and buy so many CDs and DVDs we had to buy more shelves to accomodate them. I also bought a camera. A good one, which meant I could finally start working on photography, a hobby I've been interested in since I was child.
Working for 'the man' also provides me with private health insurance, life insurance and a pension I'd never get if I'd stayed working in the arts.
Yes, the commute gets frustrating. Yes, the workload can get tedious and open plan offices are noisy, distracting and tiring and yes, I could fit all the work I do in five days into three - but that's not how the system works. You're required to spend a portion of your 40 hours chatting to colleagues about fairly irrelevant topics, offering cups of tea if you're making one and showing an interest in other people's holidays and photos of their children - if you don't, you don't 'fit in'. Apparently 'fitting in' is key to getting the work done. And getting the work done is key to getting paid.
Once, a delivery made to my home had to be left on the front porch and I asked my boss if I could go home to ensure it wasn't stolen. It was 11am and my firm provides me with remote access to our systems, so I offered to work from home for the rest of the day, rather than waste three hours of my work day making the round trip. But my boss asked me to come back to the office as 'it looked better' for me to be present in the office. For a time, I worked at home two days a week when we were commuting from further away, but was relieved to give it up when we moved closer, as I was forever being asked 'Now, you're not in tomorrow are you?' and explaining that while I wasn't physically present in the office, I would be performing the same tasks and often working harder to justify that fact.
I have no illusions about how 'pointless' my job is in the greater scheme of the universe, but I work a lot less hours and make a lot more money than I ever did in the theatre. I also have a lot more time for myself.
Long distance commuting was one of the most stressful experiences I've ever had. And it wasn't about how much time I was spending travelling to and from home. It was about the physical and mental abuse of the public transport system. In a city like London, and I'm sure this applies to New York, Washington and any other city with a mass transport system and sprawling suburbs filled with people who work in the city centre, there are more people than the system can cope with. Trains are expensive, crowded, dirty, smelly and aging at an exponential rate.
We used to position ourselves on the platform where we knew the door would be on the incoming train and arrive 15 minutes early to grab that spot so we'd at least have a chance of getting a seat. It was that or end up standing in the aisles for 90 minutes of creaking, jerking, juddering into London, only to pile off and be shoved about by people made late for work by signal failures, overheating rails in summer, frozen points in winter, or my all time favourite - llamas that had escaped from a farm and were wandering over the tracks.
The result of this is that more often than not, I was rushing through the station, either late for work, or, worse, late for the train home, meaning I could be standing on the platform for another half hour until the next one. And I was one of a couple of million people in exactly the same situation, sardining ourselves into overcrowded train carriages, weaving through platforms fill with people, jostling for a place in the queue for the escalator, hoping we didn't end up pressed up against someone with body odour, bad breath or the tinny screeching of pop divas through plastic earphones. This is not an environment for appreciating art, music or culture.
A few year ago I heard about an organisation called 'Slow Down London' whose mission statement is 'to inspire Londoners to challenge the cult of speed and appreciate the world around us.' They went to the papers with a campaign stating they would be walking the streets of London during rush hour, stopping people and encouraging them to slow down. I am here to tell you that if one of those people had stopped me rushing on my way to catch my train home, which, had I missed, would mean 30 minutes less of my evening at home, I would have punched them in the face. I challenge any of them to match my record of cultural experiences over the past 12 months - all done because I can afford to do so - because I work a 40 hour week in The Machine.
So I say, not so much to Gene Weingarten and the Washington Post, who performed the experiment in what I hope is an unbiased piece of reporting, but to everyone who has ever forwarded that email, reposted that Facebook article or commented with a 'oh I know it's so sad' - you try commuting through a metro system with a million other people on a daily basis and see how keen you are to stop and listen to a guy playing the violin. Experiencing beauty like Joshua Bell playing the violin is one of life's imperatives. But you cannot tell me that experiencing that beauty when I have time, space and energy to actually enjoy it is not just as important.
15 Jan 2011
Earlier this week I came home to find a dead pigeon on the glass roof of the little porch over the front door to our building. I’m guessing it flew into the glass windows that front our building and broke its stupid neck. It stayed there for three days before I decided I would have to be the one to call the building maintenance company to bring a ladder and a bucket of disinfectant. I took some photos and emailed them as evidence, but it’s been three more days now and the bird carcass is still there. I’ll spare you the day-lit ones, but thought this one was worthy of a bit of gruesome fascination.
Disclosure – I hate birds. The thought of little bags of tiny bones covered in soft, slightly oily, seed-scented feathers creeps me out on some deep biological level. Pigeons occupy a special place in my scale of loathing, for their lack of navigational skills and capacity for crashing into innocent humans on their way back from the bus stop (the humans, not the pigeons, pigeons don’t take the bus as far as I’m aware).
The bird on our porch roof is not yet rotting, but the corpse is starting to flatten out as gravity overrules the muscular structure. One of its feet is curling into talons, more like a Poe-style raven than an idiotic flying rat. But I find myself oddly intrigued by the fact that this creature, living earlier in the week, is now formless, inert, at the mercy of the elements and helpless. In a word, dead. And I wonder about humankind’s preoccupation and fascination with death. Funerals, cremations, burials, religious and otherwise, Halloween and festivals like Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). I wonder at my predilection for horror films and novels, for vampires (before it was decided they ‘sparkled’ and drove Volvos *grits teeth*), for Frankenstein and his monsters and just how much I enjoyed Christopher Golden’s recent undead anthology Zombie.
I’m sure studiers of human nature have better explanations than I, but I’m assuming it’s because it is the final Great Unknown. Because we really don’t know what happens after death, because, well, we’re dead and no-one’s come back to tell us (I’m not talking about people who die for a few minutes and are revived by the way, I mean properly dead like my six-day-old pigeon-corpse buddy). Humans aren’t good with unknowns. We don’t like to have unexplained mysteries, we like certainties. Uncertainty is frightening. So death really pisses us off. So to deflect that anger and fear, we make stuff up. We hand out stories of tunnels of light and angels with harps on clouds, or fire and brimstone to keep the kids in line. Or that you’ll come back again, in another body (but conveniently won’t remember your past lives). Or that you won’t die at all, you’ll simply change form, into a ghost, a vampire, or a spirit, floating in the ether around your family and friends, protecting babies from falling out of their cribs.
But I look at ol’ pigeon here and I’m not convinced. His feathers are limp in the wind, his insides are now his outsides, his eyes are glazed over and he’s a soft, damp toy without any batteries. He’s not coming back, he hasn’t moved on, he’s just stopped. He’s not aware of the rushing traffic. He’s oblivious to polite behaviour in public, he won’t hear his pigeon buddies taunting him about his choice of ankle cuffs, the daily food shop is no longer required. He doesn’t have to pay his rent to sit on a lion in Trafalgar Square and his wife won’t nag him about coming home late after a night out on the seed with his mates. He won’t have to go into his boring job sitting on ledges outside office windows. Everything is quiet in his world.
People might be frightened of death as a Great Unknown, but I think they’re more frightened of not getting everything done, of not following through on those childhood dreams, or parental expectations. Lately, having been in a romantic relationship for nearly six years, I find myself frightened of what my death would mean to my partner, but my fears about what death means to me lessen as I grow older and my life is fuller of memories and adventures. No, I don’t want to die yet, but I’m not as frightened of my mortality as I used to be. Because in my noisy, busy, adventure and information-filled world, the finality of death seems like the best, last chance to sit down and have a rest. Peace. Solitude. Tranquillity. The ultimate quiet time.
Then of course my chap suggested that it would be cool if the pigeon turned into a zombie. Thanks babe.