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Monthly Archives: September 2014

Technical assistants, technicians, tech support, IT guys (they tend to be men), techies – whatever you want to call them – they are a prickly bunch, don’t you think? (And if you happen to be one of the above, then please do read on, because I’ve got some advice of my own for you.)

There is the classic cliche that springs to mind of course – that of the arrogant, anti-social, patronising (male) individual with a raging God complex. To boot, they often throw in some unpalatable sarcasm and speak unhelpfully fast (if at all). If you’re lucky they will be into death metal, and will demonstrate this to you by wearing a silly t-shirt – annoying but inoffensive. If you are unlucky they will be obsessed with designer labels, but the only the kind of you get in Debenhams so your eyes will be assaulted by tiny men on horses and laurel leaves.

Yes this is cruel, but I am not sorry – because in my experience I have found these caricatures to be totally true and their lack of customer service skills totally frustrating and downright unprofessional. My experience of the Genius Bar, in particular, has scarred me to this day. There is not enough time, space or point for me to go into what is so wrong with the whole Genius Bar concept. But come on, the name – what is with the name?! Patronising, tick. God complex, tick.

I’d anticipate a person working as a so-called genius to be incredibly sharp, able to hold a conversation and damn clever. What I in fact received (three times) was poor customer service from an idiot who did not look me in the eye once and obviously hadn’t listened to a word I’d said about my faulty iPod. Apparently my penchant for pirate music had caused it to give up and die.

Listen, there is nothing clever about poor customer service. I do not deserve to have a pair of eyes rolled at me because of my taste in music (which, by the way, is entirely legal).
Or do I? Is it actually terrible that, considering I’m closer in age to being a digital native than a digital immigrant, I have practically zero IT skills?
I would love to have learned more when I was younger – oh, to have learned code! But in my obligatory IT ‘lessons’ in the late nineties we rolled up paper into balls and talked about boys. And now I rely on other people’s WordPress templates and young men with no manners.
I’m obviously jealous – I’d love to have a specialist subject.  A real skill, and a useful one at that. But I’ve got just one piece of advice for you, techies, to make it better for the rest of us mere mortals – don’t be so arrogant as to tell us switching it off and on again won’t work. IT DOES. I’m doing it all the time.

We recently welcomed a whole load of new technology into our lives, which is great. I’m typing on one of them now. But, inevitably, they stopped working one day – all of them, at once, stopped connecting to our (also new) wifi. After much wasted time and talking aloud and swearing we just switched everything off and on again – and lo and behold, it worked. (Well, we did this four times before it worked. And we also removed a rogue cable…but that’s a similar thing…)

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It reminded me how massively stressful it is, more so than it should be, when technology doesn’t work. We go into meltdown along with our laptop. Surely our bodies not working should deserve at least the same level of focus? We’ll happily run to the Genius Bar – queue to get in, for God’s sake – for advice, but we put off going to the doctor for weeks, months and even years.

The more I think about it, this God complex that hovers over the techie fraternity’s probably isn’t so truly ridiculous as I first argued. When you consider how reliant we all are on our technology now maybe they have a right to all this arrogance. When they save our laptop they are also, in a small way, saving our own lives. Well, restoring our mental health at least.

The techies are our new gods. Doctors for our devices. We’ll just have to put up with them.

It’s a shame, though, we can’t just turn them off and back on…*

* I’m not saying techies are robots…honest

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I always kill plants. It’s a real problem. A conundrum that genuinely boggles my mind – what am I doing wrong?

plant edited

Whenever I build up the courage to bring some plants or plowers home to nurture (this is rarely), some unconscious instinct must kick in and, despite reading the enclosed care instructions and actually following them (sometimes I even Google, just to be doubly sure), I am forced to watch the plants cruelly shrivel and die in record time. On some occasions only hours later. It’s very deflating. It doesn’t help that I name them (we miss you, Tree-bo).
We’re not talking cut flowers here – I am confident that they are notorious droopers. I mean real plants that come in pots and don’t look like much to start with.

Not only is all this very uneconomical in both money and energy spent, it is also a little worrying – what does it say about me? Am I unstable? Negligent? Irresponsible? I like to think I’m just keen – that it’s my enthusiasm that kills them (it’s fortunate I don’t want to bring children into the world isn’t it.)

Overall, my unsuccessful foray into gardening makes me feel incompetent, and embarrassed about my lifestyle generally. How embarrassing that I have managed to grow up into an adult who goes about life totally devoid of any skills, knowledge or real consciousness of the natural world.
I live very much indoors. As a self-confessed urbanite I am uncomfortable with ‘the outdoors’ unless it is pre-arranged, meticulously planned, not too sunny, and doesn’t last too long. I much prefer if I am enjoying it from the comfort of a car or boutique hotel. I hate this about me. My heritage has clearly gone to waste – my granddad was a keen gardener, and I have wonderful memories of the amazing garden he kept. Still to this day, his peas are the best I’ve ever tasted. My mom follows in this tradition too. My boss is a renowned horticulturalist for God’s sake! So – either I’m unwilling or unable to learn from these artisans. Which is it?
Well, I’ve certainly noticed I am becoming more interested in gardening and growing in recent years, in the cliched way that people do as they get older. Whilst I’m not going to rush out and buy the box set of The Good Life, I do find I care much more about what I eat now. Where it has come from and how it was grown. I am conscious about taking care of the world I live in, too  I find I want to make things (although I am yet to make anything at all from Kirstie Allsopp’s Craft book, nearly 12-months on…)

Perhaps it’s just my desire to produce kicking in, with an alternative (to children) version. The fact I’ve created this blog is already evidence of that shift in me http://booksbywomen.org/coming-back-to-writing/

So, while I am showing willing, it’s maybe time to strike while the iron is hot and get tips from these experts I have at my disposal. I should follow the lead of the men in my life, actually. My Dad is a vegetable grower now. And my boyfriend is growing chillies in the flat.
I’ll give it a shot. Not that we have a garden… I’ll grow basil or something. Make some space on the windowsill (bye, weird Ikea glass orb that is definitely not the vase I thought it was but in fact a totally useless object).
Wish me luck – or rather, wish the plants luck.

PS: One thing I do know about gardening is that I talk aloud to myself regularly, and so with the plants in earshot it is clear that the old wives tale can’t be true.

Something out of the ordinary happened the other day – I lost something.

I never lose things. I am just not one of those people. I am organised. Boring. You can rely on me in a scrape – I will have that emergency tissue in my handbag; I’ve got the map to the hotel; yes, I’ve got some suncream you can borrow; yes, I have the last train time written down in my pocket notebook.

I do not lose things. Well…apart from the time I lost my passport. Life lessons learned: 1. Don’t take your passport to a festival, even a non-camping one, and 2. Hairdressers are good people (one from the Regis salon in Debenhams found said passport and returned it to me. I went back there recently.

Ok, so I lost something once. Although, hang on…there was also that time I left an amazing paid of vintage driving gloves on the bus. I cried. Really (turns out there’s a helpline you can ring).

Ok, so I am not quite as organised as I thought I was three paragraphs ago. But I’m pretty ‘together’ most of the time. So you can imagine my anger and disappointment when, on the last short hurdle of my commute home – the number 50 bus, I realised…I had gone and lost my house keys.

It’s horrible that moment, isn’t it – you must have felt it at some point? That sinking realisation that your treasured possession is not in your pocket, at the bottom of your handbag, on the floor. This is an organised person’s worst nightmare – how could I be so careless, so unlike myself?

You see, I will freely admit that I am a control freak – I think all truly organised people are. We cannot escape from ourselves. Which is why I was so unhappy when, in that moment I knew my keys were gone, I surprised myself with how careless and unreliable I could actually be. The last thing I want is to be surprised with the hidden depths of my character –  I want to be in control of me.

But if we were to rewind to seven years ago, to when I lost the passport, it is a bit of a different story.

Of course, in that first moment of realisation there was the familiar panic / terror / rage-at-self for being so stupid. What if I had to leave the country? Or, more realistically, buy alcohol? But then once I knew my passport was safe in Debenhams, I let go a little and actually felt a bit pleased with myself. Proud, even.

Because when I was a teenager, being the organised one in my circle of friends always felt rather lack lustre, predictable. Dull. How I longed to be as carefree as they driving around late at night with boys they’d just met at MacDonalds, running off to the Welsh seaside on a whim, bunking off school, walking into an exam having done zero revision. It all came so naturally to them. It made them so appealing – sexy. There was nothing natural about me trying to climb onto a yacht late in the evening in Sandwell Valley Park, when I’d only (begrudgingly) agreed to go on a short walk.

And so as a young woman I found myself fighting against the organised streak in me, wishing I could be more like my more un-together, dishevelled friends.

But I’ve found that as you get older the tables turn. It’s funny – people actually want to be like you. Those same free spirits want to know how you manage to get through life with few dramas and disasters. “I don’t know how she does it.” You feel brilliant (until you are inevitably asked to organise a hen do.)

You find your opinion changes, too. No long longer is the total disorganisation of your friends endearing or jealousy-inducing – it is f***ing annoying. Even they are annoyed by it, too.

This, reader, is a certain sign you have become a ‘grown up’.

At the end of the day, that organised streak runs through you like a stick of rock. And if you break it, you breakdown. Having to sit outside your apartment building on a step like a cat, waiting for the other (responsible) key-holder to get home, is a low point in life.

It is no shameful thing to be the boring, organised one. But losing my keys has reminded me that I am indeed human, and still capable of surprising myself – even if I don’t like it.

P.S. A few days later I found the keys – in my desk drawer at work. I think I can actually remember placing them in there…thinking I lost something else last week – the plot.

Forget golf. My name is Gemma and I am a cycling widow.

bike bold cropped plain

Cycling is just everywhere now. It is the sport du jour.

Even my parents are suddenly into it. Between them and my long-time-obsessed boyfriend there really is no escape. I realised this when, a few days ago, I found I had willingly paid to sit through a 90-minute documentary on the bicycle. On a Sunday night.

It’s official – I’ve been brainwashed.

Look – I haven’t got a problem with cycling in theory. It’s jolly to watch (NOT as a spectator. That is a little dull. From the sofa – fine). The jerseys are pretty. It’s good to have on in the background – quite relaxing if you ignore the (often) hilarious commentary, and the occasional screaming at TV from the man next to me on the sofa.

But the thing is – cycling doesn’t sleep.

It is ALWAYS on, even when it isn’t on. (I’m continually told the season is ending…then I find we are watching more cycling…am I missing something?)

If it’s not on the TV, it’s on podcasts – stealthily consumed, like an addict, from the shower or at the kitchen sink.

If it’s not the podcasts, it’s Twitter. Constantly.

Then there’s YouTube. Hours and hours of YouTube.

On top of all this audio-visual consumption of cycling, there’s actual cycling. On the daily commute to work and back. Up at the crack of dawn on the weekends for longer trips. Timed, presented in graphs, analysed. It’s a real commitment. To be honest, I’m mostly impressed that I have a boyfriend who can demonstrate such a commitment to something.

The bone of contention isn’t so much the mental space it requires from my boyfriend, but the actual space it takes away from me.

We have three bikes in our tiny flat. There’s no garden or anything – they live in the spare bedroom. Then there’s the equipment, tools, shoes, giant bag, weird padded Lycra, helmet etc. Cycling just comes with so much paraphernalia.

It really is exhausting. And I don’t even ride a bike.

But I’d rather this than golf. Or worse, football. As far as sport goes cycling is pretty non-offensive. And full of passionate European men, so naturally entertaining.

After nearly 5 years of cycling widowhood I have absorbed quite a bit. I could pick out Alberto Contador in a crowd. And, although it pains me to say it, I did feel a rush of pride during all the trendy London 2012 cycling fever when I was able to spout off obscure to (impressed?) friends.

Now with my parents donning the Lycra (well not quite yet, but its only a matter of time, right Dad?) at least I can hold a conversation about their new passion with them. That can only be a good thing.

So while I may gripe, and while I do wish we actually had a spare bedroom, this cycling widow is happy (I recognise I am not actually married). I have other reasons to be happy too, according to recent research.

Cyclists are, apparently, better in bed.

They are also less stressed than the rest of us.

So, cycling is good for your health, mind and sex life, and it’s (kind of) free. Great.

Good for people all round. No argument there. Or is there?

Conservative District Councillor Deirdre Alden caused recent controversy in the cycling community (so I am told) when she openly criticised a £23 million scheme that would provide 2,000 Birmingham cyclists with free bikes, saying that cycling is a “discriminatory form of transport.”

Her reasoning was that “the vast majority of cyclists on our roads are young, white men.” Also adding that cycling is too dangerous for old people. And that, to round things off, modest women wouldn’t cycle either.

… What a bloody ridiculous thing to say. Is she just making up statistics?

I can’t believe I need to say this, but obviously cycling is no more discriminatory than alternative transport methods – are cars, trains or buses free? No. Is cycling free – mostly, yes. Totally – for those lucky enough to receive support in the form of a free bike.

Anything that improves people’s health, wellbeing and mobility – particularly for those people facing economic and other disadvantages – is a good thing. Surely? If anything, cycling can help to combat transport discrimination. It means people can get to work, friends and family, the doctors and other services without having to shell out a minimum of £2.10 for a bus trip.

And it will get people having great sex.

http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/news/regional-affairs/cycle-city-birmingham-scheme-blasted-7750763

Recycling. I think we can all agree it is a crucial and moral act we must all make some effort to incorporate into our daily lives, however small.

Whether it’s putting your empty cardboard coffee cup into the correct bin at Pret A Manger.

Or donating that Steven Seagal DVD to your local Age Concern, brother, hated work colleague etc instead of just throwing it away.

This is all our duty, right? Apparently I was wrong.

I will admit upfront that I am not exactly a recycling evangelist – I am very aware that I could and should do a whole lot more saving-the-planet-wise.

I do wash all my clothes at 30 degrees. However, I buy most of said clothes from the High Street, and not often from the pricier sustainable organic cotton range…not that organic cotton actually is all that sustainable anyhow…but more on that later.

But I’ve got my basics covered. Paper (no matter how small, scrappy and incredibly irritating when you’re trying to shove into the recycling bin), appropriate plastics, tins and cans all get recycled, and I make sure to donate any of my unwanted stuff.

I’ve done so since childhood and as a result it is ingrained in my psyche. Recycling is in my code.

So I just cannot believe it when I see people throw their newspaper in the bin, or worse, on the floor (aargh littering! Separate issue).

I just can’t believe every other person on earth wouldn’t make the effort to put something in the recycling bin instead of the regular bin. It’s not even an effort now, is it? It is so damn easy to recycle with facilities available in the street, in shops and cafés, at your home – you almost have to go out of your way to not recycle. There really is no excuse.

Which is why my wrath knew no bounds when, last year, the recycling facilities were withdrawn from our apartment building.

Why the hell would they do that?! I hear you ask. Can they even do that? I don’t know. But it happened and, a year later, I am still having to travel three and a half miles (in the car – sorry Earth. It’s too much stuff to carry and I’m not sure travelling with rubbish on the bus is acceptable. Even on the 50) to use the recycling bins in the car park of the Asda supermarket I used to shop in when I actually lived in that area.

The apparent reason for this outrageous removal of services was because the recycling bins were being abused by residents.

Now bear with me here because I can imagine why you’d struggle to understand how and why a recycling bin could be abused, but I’ll try my best to explain.

People – grown men and women – were dumping their normal rubbish in the recycling bins for paper, glass and cans.

I know of other residents who would argue this is actually an improvement on alternative behaviour witnessed, which is to simply leave the rubbish – not always even secured in bags – right there on the floor, just next to the perfectly acceptable bin. Sometimes, not even in the designated bin area at all – just out in the street. A number of times in the hall. One time even in the lift. But I digress.

Unfortunately this confirms for me that I am forced to share my living space actual idiots. Here we have grown adults, who have worked hard enough to be able to afford to buy or rent a city centre flat, who are unable to dispose of their waste in a socially acceptable manner. How can they go about the world with such little pride in themselves and their surroundings? Life shouldn’t have to be like this.

It is, of course, frustrating when others do not share the same standards and vision of a happy social balance as you. I suppose it is one of the common problems of modern life in the city. Sharing your space with ever increasing numbers of people. Increasing numbers of whom are leaving their manners behind when they leave home. You just have to become resigned to it. Accept thy inconsiderate neighbour – otherwise, you may just kill them.

Are plain basic good manners an abnormality now? Not even good manners – just ok ones…

It may just be me getting older, and a city dweller to boot, but I can’t see what hope social responsibility has if a person will spit in the street, leave a used nappy in a public lift, or dump their general waste in a paper recycling bin before they will swallow, or before they will remove their child’s nappy in their own home a matter of feet away. Before they will use a recycling bin.

I hope the cynic in me is wrong. Maybe as soon as people start recycling old-fashioned manners, the rest will follow.

We all have to face up to the fact that we can’t go on living in and with such waste. We can’t get away with it forever. Something has to give. People have to give. Even if we won’t be here to see the impact we make, and it’s our old curtains that are getting taken away by end-of-life recyclers.

And on the subject of fabric, I must take this opportunity to mention The Ecologist Guide to Fashion, one of an amazing series of books WHICH YOU MUST READ. You could be forgiven for considering the fashion world simple and frivolous and a world that plays no impact in your life – but it is a complicated business that affects us all. This book will open your eyes to the real cost of the clothes you buy and wear.

Something big and important has happened.

I am now the proud owner* of a landline. I have an actual home phone. Yes. Two phones, actually.**

I can now confidently complete the Home Tel. No. section of official forms, which is great. For years I have felt somewhat off the map, dodgy even, not having a home phone number to provide to the authorities – whoever they are.

It’s like I legitimately exist now.

This silliness aside, it really does feel like a momentous event in our household (for me at least) having a landline. I’ve been trying to work out why. I mean, it’s just a bloody phone – right?

I’ve had a home phone before, of course, as a child.

Plus, I’ve already got my own phone – a mobile one, constantly glued to my hand (more on that shortly).

And to complete the equation, I’ve had my own home before also.

But up until now, I’ve never had my own home with my own home phone in it. It all feels very grown up and proper. I feel accountable, more responsible.

However, thinking so much about phones in one go has also reminded me of the rage that I normally try and ignore – does anyone else not buy into this total reliance on devices?

Devices – ugh. Makes me think of surgery. And aliens.

Lately my hand always seems to have a phone in it. Especially so since my introduction to Twitter. It’s genuinely frightening. Will I wake up one morning to find I no longer have hands, but phones?

Remember the old days? When having a landline was essential – literally. Short of posting you a letter, coming round to your house (God forbid) or pinning you down in your local pub, if you didn’t have a phone you didn’t get contacted. Remember how you answered the home phone? With the last four digits of your number?

It’s not like that at all now, is it? Just ‘Hello’ if you’re lucky. ‘Yeah?” if you’re not.

But look – I am aware that I’m doing a lot of romanticising here.

The reality of the landline – well, I hated it as a child and still do now.  I just hate speaking on the phone. Full stop.

There are the awkward silences, the extra protracted explanations you have to throw around because the listener can’t see what you see, and can’t read emotional cues from your face. It’s painful. Worse than making conversation at the hairdressers.

Writing this blog post I am experiencing massive flashbacks to when I was a teenager. My best friends, two of them in particular, would phone me – pointlessly – almost every weekday evening, despite the fact we spent the daylight hours of every weekday in each other’s company. And we would be on the phone for hours. I mean HOURS. I wouldn’t even be saying anything.

I was essentially forced to listen to them going about their family activities, grunting every now and again to show I was still awake for this torture.

All I wanted to do was watch Home Front and Changing Rooms.

You’d think then, considering my adverse reaction to the general concept of telephony, that I’d quite appreciate the control offered by the mobile. You can see who’s calling, and choose not to answer. You can just bloody text.

But no – I hate it. It all feels back door and shady. Criminals use mobiles don’t they? It’s a bit too anonymous for this fussy phone user.

To boot, mobiles just encourage people take advantage of you, imposing on your life in new ways. They expect you at the drop of a hat, make pulls on your time any hour they see fit. It’s just not on. There’s no hiding from people when you have a mobile.

I just hate all phones.

Unless they are used as a means for watching the internet on the TV. (The only reason we got said landline in the first place.)

Then phones are great.

So on the one phone-clad hand I do feel more like a proper grown up since this landline.

But, on the other hand, if you decide to take the risk and call*** me on it…I’ll panic and run away.

*Disclaimer: Ok, well technically I’m not the owner. Technically my boyfriend is. Strange, half-existence demonstrated through living arrangement… perhaps rendering this whole blog post void. Sorry.

**Neither phone actually works

***No-one can actually contact us should the phones eventually work – we haven’t given our number out

What would be your Mastermind subject?

I was thinking about this in the shower the other day, as you do. And it occurred to me that I no longer have a subject that I can honestly say I specialise in.

The revelation made me genuinely sad. Have I let myself down?

mastermind_chairImage courtesy of bigissue.com

I don’t really specialise in anything any more – I just generalise, badly. It’s not the end of the world. I’ve managed to get through life so far. But over the last few days I’ve been asking myself the question – what exactly do I know?

It’s generally acknowledged that you’re supposed to know more things when you get older, right? But in reality while (some of us) become wiser, cold-hard-facts-knowledge is something we just end up forgetting. Life takes over and we stop practicing – getting on with daily life doesn’t leave an awful lot of time for knowledge pursuits. Not unless you’re doing it as part of your day job.

I’d say that my knowledge peaked at 22 and it’s all been drip dropping out like a leaky tap since.

Does part of us stop caring? I’d argue that most of us get to a point where we’re not trying to prove ourselves to the world anymore. You start to relax.

I was quite happy with this relaxing, until the other day in the shower. Now I’m worried – should I be learning more stuff?

You forget what it is like to learn. The confidence it brings. When I was at school, absorbing all that information was effortless. Natural. So much so that I took it for granted. But now as an adult, well – it’s a totally different, scary slog of a story.

Last week – before the shower – I was told that my punctuation is all over the place. At the age of 31 and owner of a Bachelor’s Degree in the English Language this bombshell was hugely shame inducing.

Handily, for some reason I’ve had the Penguin Guide to Punctuation in my bookcase for who knows how many years. So, I thought I’d spend ten minutes reading through that to refresh my ageing memory…

Eight days later, and I still have not grasped the functions on the comma. *At this point I will take the opportunity to apologise for the offensive and incorrect use of commas riddled throughout this blog post.

When the weekend arrived I was at my wits end. I thought I’d give my poor brain a break. Do some relaxing, something I am confident I am good at.

We walked into town. Loafed around the library. Got tired from all that hard work. Sat down in said library for a break. We looked up and realised the square outside was packed. Positively teeming with throngs of over-excited small children literally running, throwing themselves at whatever was going on.

I’ll tell you what was going on. Science.

The British Science Festival had come to town, and my word was it going down well.

Some children were blowing bubbles bigger than the London Eye.

Some children (and grown adults) were running barefoot through a bowl of custard – which held solid under the weight of those who ran quick enough.

But the biggest hitter – and most entertaining to watch – were the mini canisters which, when filled with two reactive elements, exploded.

The sheer glee on each child’s face as the canister propelled itself into the air as if by magic, and the rapt fascination as they were shown how this had happened was really was heart warming. And a little inspirational.

That thirst for knowledge is something I wish I had made more of an effort to hold on to.

But of course, it’s easy for kids. They have tons of time to dedicate to learning. They don’t have any worries about money, work or getting the washing done.

Perhaps the answer is to stop being so damn lazy. Just take up a hobby. REALLY take up a hobby. (Not just buying Kirstie Allsopp’s Craft book and leaving it there next to the TV.)

Because despite it being hard work – and I already have enough of that at actual work – learning new things really does make you feel better about yourself. Helps you feel as though you can go about the world with some confidence – even if you don’t want to take it over any more.

Being a specialist in something – no matter how trivial or obscure – is a small way of demonstrating to the world, and to yourself, that you’re still here. In a small, relaxed way.

So, I think after I’ve conquered commas I will release the inner child with me, and learn something. Perhaps I’ll start by taking out a science book from the library. Who knows, maybe this time next year I’ll be the one showing small children how to walk over custard.

And if John Humphrys invites me over to the big leather chair, I’ll have the confidence to say yes.

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