London calling

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You may remember that my lovely friend and partner in crime Georgia is actually a forriner from the Land of the Free. I’m sorry to say she won’t be staying in this Sceptred Isle forever, so for her birthday this weekend I thought I’d make her a bit of Blightly paraphernalia to take back with her, along with the other idioms and idiosyncrasies that I am indoctrinating her with.

I looked for a crochet phone box pattern and came up blank. There is a fab one in Knit London but not being a knitter it is no good for me. In the end I freestyled it, but if anyone is interested in a pattern I could write it up.

The race that isn’t worth winning

This post was inspired by a letter that I read in the Observer a couple of weeks ago (just so you I managed to track down the author of the letter and obtained his permission to publish it. I’m sure you don’t care but I wanted to impress you with my cyber stalking abilities!).

Well, how convenient for neoclassical economics: upward mobility and socioeconomic status are not “good for you” (“Why being stuck in the same job is bad for you”, News , last week)? Promotion, higher income and status are already feted as the essential motivators to economic growth, hence justifying vast and increasing income and wealth differentials in the UK. Now those who fail this race also stand accused of being the hapless architects of their own ill health…

…If we perceive ourselves in a race, or feel compelled to join one, then, while winning might save us, we might also die in the process. A society that aspires to promote emotional wellbeing and less ill health needs to off subtle solutions, such as flatter income and status hierarchies, and cultures that genuinely value the contributions of all.

Adrian Barritt

Lancing, West Sussex

 

Mr Barritt also mentions his father, who died at 46 after moving his family for idyllic Cornwall chasing promotion. This post is a difficult one for me to write actually. I am the type of person who constantly wants more, who regularly feels like there is a better life to be had, and who measures my value in terms of success, not necessarily material success, but certainly career and status. It is a constant source of stress to me that I am the only one of my friends who does not own their own house. And therein lies the rub: would homeownership, or my lack of it, be such a source of stress to me if none of my peers owned their own homes. Highly unlikely. It’s an often quoted fact that despite the trappings of 21st Century life, iPods, laptops, mobile phones etc. we are no happier now than we were 60 years old. I think that the impact of these gadgets, designed to improve our lives, is lessened further by their ubiquity.

 

It is hard to escape the reality that we measure ourselves and our success against those around us. Things like massive HD TVs, fancy clothes, flashy jewellery make us feel happy and special until everyone around us has the same thing. Even those who think they aren’t affected by what others think, or how they compare against others still do to some extent. Did you have a shower this morning? Put on some make up or shave? Do you think you would still do that if you were on a deserted island with no one else around? We do these things because that’s what society dictates, and not following those norms leaves us feeling like outsiders. I’ve been party to discussions on Mumsnet about things like whether one should shower every day. There are some people who are content to bath or shower every few days, and some who think it is nothing less than disgusting if you don’t shower each day. And others for whom a twice daily shower is regulation. But 100 years ago no-one would have been arguing about this. Even 50 years ago, weekly baths and a quick wipe with a flannel every day satisfied most people’s hygiene desires. Yet as we and technology evolve so do our collective standards. What was acceptable 50 years ago will make you a social pariah today.

 

Trying to keep up with society’s norms is hard work. Trying to keep up with society’s extremes is even harder. Yet people still want to have the looks and lives of celebrities and other successful people. When we focus on what we haven’t got that someone else has we are always going to be unhappy, there will always be something we don’t have, unless of course Bill Gates is reading my blog. I heard he does you know.

 

It’s not just about material possessions, that is just a symptom of the wider malaise. Another such symptom, which the letter above references, is the constant aspiration for better jobs, more successful positions. Books like Screw Work Let’s Play, and other motivational tomes are all about shaking off the shackles of banality and living the life we deserve. But for some people run of the mill jobs are all they can or want to aspire to. We should applaud that, revere it. Why is it that rock stars, Hollywood actors, or footballers get to make millions by doing something they love, surely the fact that they get to spend life doing what they enjoy is reward enough. It’s not like they work harder than nurses, or factory workers. It’s not like they are necessarily more intelligent than a supermarket cashier; you only have to listen to what comes out of the mouths of certain footballers or pop stars to realise that. And they are not necessarily morally superior either. Yet they have money, status, and power. They are glorified and celebrated.

 

What about the checkout person who is still smiling and polite after 8 hours of bleeping groceries through the checkout? What about the family who live in an overcrowded council house on minimum wage yet manage to bring up happy well rounded kids? What about the person going into their minimum wage job each day, their whole lives, working so as not to be a burden on anyone else? These people, who are satisfied and happy with their lives, should be celebrated, and their jobs should be valued and not demonised. I’d like to see a book released called “Stop wasting your time trying to be another entrepreneur and get a real job helping someone”.

 

Chiumento, a “talent management agency”, recently conducted some research into what motivated staff. Using their results they grouped workers into 5 categories  based on what motivated them in their work, with factors ranging from organisational culture to company reputation. The full paper can be found here but there are some pertinent facts relating to this post. 41.3% of staff surveyed were categorised as Socialisers. For them the important factors in their jobs are a warm friendly environment, stability and a good work-life balance. Pay was is one of the least motivating factors for this group, as long as they feel they are being treated fairly. 19% are classed as Protectionists; they crave security and certainty, and while they want to be rewarded, they are willing to make sacrifices to get the security they need. Their career path and development are relatively low in importance. For the last three groups, Achievers, Materialists and True Believers, motivation is more likely to be drawn from the status of the company, the rewards and the need for personal development and advancement. It is both telling and gratifying to see that for about 60% of people just having a job that treats them well is enough. All these books trying to encourage people to chase riches are unnecessary for this 60%, they are happy already, thank you very much.

 

But despite these interesting figures, I feel we still need to change our society to value more than wealth and the trappings that come with it. Why should we feel a constant need to strive for more, a better job, more money, more stuff. We should be striving for more happiness, more creativity, more compassion. But not more than our neighbour, I’m not talking about swapping one race for another. I’m talking about getting out of the race and using all the free time we have when we aren’t stressing over our position in society.

 

I blame the Olympics. And Euro 2012, the Oscars and all these other competitions that glamorise winning, with no consolation prize for the runners up and the also rans. It may be that winning the race is a positive experience, and the sense of achievement good for your health, but what are the prospects for the majority of ‘losers’? I don’t doubt that being in a rubbish job is soul destroying and bad for your health, but maybe some of that is just a response to the way society views such jobs. We need to measure success in different ways, both in ourselves and in others.

 

I mentioned that this post is hard for me to write. I am a naturally ambitious and aspirational person, and put a great store in my own personal success. Unfortunately my dilettante ways and difficulty in seeing projects through to the end means that I rarely meet my own goals. In one of the books that I read on personality it said that people of my personality type often go through life never feeling completely satisfied. Before I would have thought that was a good thing, that it showed ambition and drive. Increasingly I’m finding the feeling rather sad and exhausting. With the finish line nowhere in sight I think it is time for me to think about getting out of the race.

Learn to live in the moment

Last week DH bought home a book from the library that I forgot I had ordered, Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in frantic world. It comes with a CD with guided meditations. I should point out I haven’t actually read it yet.

This morning, instead of reading the book, on a whim I decided to browse through the brochure for the last day of the Cheltenham Science Festival to see if there was anything to go to. I had completely forgotten it was on. I often moan that all the good things happen in London (I keep moaning to the people at Psychologies magazine that all their cool events are in London, which puts them out of reach for me – too far and too expensive to get to). But in my whining I forget about the multitude of festivals that are on in the nearby town, and we rarely go to see anything due to finances and childcare. But today I flicked through the brochure on the off chance and found that Professor Mark Williams, author of the above book, was speaking about the very same subject, along with the BBC Arts Correspondent David Silitoe. So I bit the bullet and booked it, and thought that we would take the kids along to the free events that are always on.

I left DH queuing with the kids for the Lego Tent with the kids, and went to the EDF Energy Arena. I was seated in the Gods due to my very last minute booking. Professor Williams and David Sillito were introduced by one of the festival directors. She mispronounced the name Sillito which wasn’t a great start! Fortunately the questions that she asked at the end suggested she had done a bit of research at least. David Sillito began by showing a video that he had made for the BBC, which is a bit of a cheek if you ask me, we want new content for our £10! Anyway, you can see excerpts of the film here and here (hey, if they can cheat, so can I!) The film showed David and his friend Fiona, who suffers from chronic pain as a result of lupus, undertaking an 8 week mindfulness course.

MRI scans taken before and after the course showed a marked attenuation in brain activation in certain areas. For Fiona the part of the brain associated with pain reception was much less active than it had been before the course, and Fiona reported a corresponding difference in her perception of the pain. It wasn’t that the pain had lessened per se, but she had learned to disassociate from it somewhat. For David, the part of the brain that reduced in activation was the bit that is associated with the ego and self-centredness. He didn’t say what part that was, and that is beyond my neuroscience training, but it will be somewhere in the frontal lobe. Incidentally, it is an area that is vulnerable to head injury, and self-centredness and lack of empathy quite common after a brain injury.

After the video David went on to describe the after effects of his mindfulness course. He described it at being able to remove yourself from your own feelings and look at them, to determine an appropriate objective response, rather than the initial emotional reposes we often feel that we can’t control during times of stress.

Mark Williams then took the metaphorical stand. I have to include my completely uninteresting fact here that I have actually stayed at Mark William’s house. He was good friends with my aunt when he lived in Cambridge. He then went on to become a very important academic at Bangor University, my alma mater. When my aunt heard I was applying to Bangor to study she insisted I go and stay with Mark. There, that’s my incredibly boring claim to fame.

Professor Williams spoke a little about the history of mindfulness. It has come full circle to its secular origins, though most of us will associate it with the Buddhist practice of meditation. It literally means “non-forgetfulness” but was originally a way of trying to relieve suffering by concentrating on understand what was causing the suffering. Prof. Williams used an excellent analogy to describe our need for it. Imagine a gazelle in the Savannah, they have to be on ready alert for any lions preying on them (or film crews, he pointed out, as where there is a film crew there is probably a lion not far behind!). When a lion attacks the gazelle flee, and the fortunate ones escape. But within about 5 minutes of the danger passing the gazelle are busy grazing again, they need to graze to live. If they sat there analysing what happened after each attack, assessing all the other gazelle for PTSD, consoling each other for their loss and fretting about the next attack, well, they’d die of starvation.

Humans on the other hand have not only present lions to run from, we have future lions that we worry about, we have imaginary lions running through our heads. The amygdala, controlling the fight or flight mechanism doesn’t recognise that the actual threat has disappeared, and that what we are mostly worried about are hypothetical lions. It doesn’t switch off. Mindfulness can help it switch off, and can stop us worrying about hypothetical lions, and when the lions do come, it can help us manage our emotions, and as Fiona showed, manage real pain.

As more and more studies on mindfulness emerge with positive findings even the medical establishment is beginning to see its benefits. NICE include mindfulness as recommended way of preventing depression in their clinical guidelines.

The festival session moved on to questions quite swiftly, fortunately as there were a great many. Among them was a query about the use of mindfulness in children. Mark (you see, I’m calling him Mark now!) mentioned a programme called Mindfulness In Schools which offers courses in mindfulness to teachers for the benefit of the pupils (and no doubt the teachers).

One brave woman spoke up and said that she suffered from depression and tried the “Body Scan” CDs that came with a mindfulness book (I think that is a technique that guides you through different parts of your body and gets you to focus on each in turn, a common relaxation technique). This lady said that being in the throes of depression she didn’t really want to focus on her big toe, she just wanted to feel better. I imagined the answer that Mark was going to give was to give it a chance to work etc. But being a far more insightful person than I am, with years and years of experience study clinical depression, his answer was to leave it for a while. It’s not compulsory, he said, and doesn’t replace many other well regarded techniques for treating depression. Be kind to yourself, he told her, come back to it when you are ready.

I had a question too. Of course I did. I’m well known for this at work. I can’t pass up an opportunity for my own input. But despite doing my best Hermione Granger impression, I wasn’t picked out from among the many other people with their hands up.

This was my question. The video and the talks all made it seem like mindfulness was such an amazing thing, a panacea in a difficult world. But if it is so good, why aren’t we all doing it? Why are there so many books telling us how to do? And as I have noted in previous posts, everything comes at a cost, even good things, so what are the costs to mindfulness, what are the obstacles to overcome? I suspect I can come up with the main one, time. But with books like Headspace promising effects from just 10 minutes a day, time isn’t really an issue. In fact I have a very good half read book (you know me, of course it’s only half read!) called Buddhism for Mothers which is all about carving time out of non-stop days, for example, by practising mindfulness even as you are washing up or feeding your baby.

Another answer may come from a point that was made by a member of the audience. He said why should we try and be mindful and calm when there is so much to be enraged about. The mess the bankers made, politician’s mistakes, without anger, surely there can be no action. There wasn’t really a direct response to this by the speakers, but from what I understand about mindfulness it is not about suppressing any emotion. In fact the traditional “smile through it” approach to a problem whereby you ignore the bad and focus on the good, is thought to be more damaging. By trying to suppress a thought you are more likely to focus on it. After all, ever tried not to think about orange penguins? Go on, try not to think about orange penguins. Stop thinking about them. Difficult isn’t it?

We did a short mindfulness practice in the talk, and Mark said clearly several times that if your mind wandered from what it was supposed to be focused on, your breathing or body or whatever, that was ok, don’t beat yourself up and just draw your mind back. Doesn’t matter if it happens again and again either. The aim is not to clear the mind, but to let the thoughts flow through you, acknowledging them, but not focusing on them.

You’re still thinking about them aren’t you?

All in all it was an interesting hour. I’m not sure I learned much that I didn’t know before, or couldn’t find in a book, but I did feel inspired to give it a go. I don’t think there is a magic key to mindfulness or meditation, just practice and perseverance. And with practice you could be almost as happy as the “Happiest Man in the World”.

Happy Father’s Day

In our house, to my friends’ amusement, Mother’s and Father’s Day involves absolving yourself of all parental responsibility. After all, every day in reality is Mother’s Day or Father’s Day; the continual drudgery of bottom wiping, cooking and cleaning is never ending. It’s nice to have a day off for a change. And a nice present too. Yes, I know I should be helping the girls to make something nice or taking them out to pick something, but really, life is busy enough. In fact, DH got his present last week when I took the kids away for the weekend to Grandma’s. He had two whole nights of child free bliss. I won’t embarrass him by publically revealing what he watched all weekend Gilmore Girls.

I still wanted to get him a present. I originally wanted to make him this lens cap case. I love the camera print fabric, but it is about £16 a metre and I only wanted one square. I don’t love DH that much so I had to come up with an alternative solution.

I’d been admiring this polaroid cross stitch by NerdJerk for a while, but when I looked into it I realised she is selling it as a kit, and it is in the US so too expensive to send to the UK and not enough time for it to arrive. So I tried to construct my own one. Now using someone else’s idea is Not Cool, and really, if you want to do a similar one yourself and you are in the States you really should buy her kit because it is ace. I hope she forgives me for copying her by directing you all to her cool etsy shop.

I got my fancy gridded paper out and a picture of a Polaroid camera in order to devise my own pattern. Here, I’m a regular Da Vinci, right?

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I used the tutorial linked above to finish off the pouch. Now I’m an intelligent person, I’ve got a Mater’s degree. I’ve passed visio-spatial reasoning tests, I can ride a bike, I can drive. But for some reason it took me three goes to put the pouches together in the right right way. Ok, four goes. That’s after sewing them together. For reference I also took three goes to pass my driving test. Ok, four. Anyway, eventually I managed to put the inner and outer pieces together in the right inside-out/right way combination. I managed to procure an unused lanyard from work from which I recycled the clip. The idea is that DH can clip the case to his camera or his camera bag instead of invariably misplacing his lens cap. The linked tutorial recommend either a magnetic clap fastening or elastic. The magnetic clasp looked a bit too difficult, and I wasn’t sure the elastic would work with the aida, so it currently doesn’t have a closure, but I’m not sure how much of an issue it will be. If it is I might try Velcro. And here is the finished product:

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I’m pretty pleased with it. Hope DH is.

Also this week I managed to remember that I didn’t only have DH to think about, but my own dad too. I don’t see him very often so I find buying him a present really difficult. I struggle to find the balance between cool, pointless and childish. I know for a fact he has the same problem with buying presents for me but he gets around it buy giving me money, which is great for me, but you can do that when you are a dad. As a daughter it’s just weird. So I settled for a homemade card instead. I already know he likes it despite drafting this post on Saturday night because he is incapable of delayed gratification and already opened it!

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He is an excellent juggler and can juggle with lit clubs you know [proud smiley]!

So, after a lie-in and breakfast my wifely Father’s Day duties will be disposed off and I can settle down for the long wait till my own day off next March!

Retro print cushion

Last year I bought a couple of funky pillow cases for 20p each, with the intention of doing something fabulous with them. Today, while DH took the kids to his mum’s, I had a bit of time to do whatever I pleased, so I finally managed to do something with one of them. I made a cushion cover for a cushion I got at a charity shop last week. The pillow case was the exact width for the cushion so I was hoping I could just do something with the top but in the end it seemed easier the unpick the whole thing. The cover is just a simple envelope type cover, no need for messing around with buttons or zips. Though even with this simple pattern I had to unpick one side where I hadn’t pinned the seams properly. I’m afraid I’m too fast and slap-dash for any decent and complicated sewing!

Pink Holiday Blues

I should start this post by warning you that I am quite grumpy. And that is mainly because I hate Bank Holidays. A heinous crime, I know. Bank Holidays are a gift of a day. A day off work, a day to spend as you chose. Well, that is not quite true, as since I’ve had children most days involve early starts and more Peppa Pig than is recommended, which isn’t really of my choosing.

Bank Holidays, for some reason, send me into a state of paralysis. They make me feel like I should Do Stuff, and there is so much stuff that I want to do that I feel overwhelmed. I buckle under the pressure of trying to make the most of this gift of a day. As a result I get almost nothing done, but instead of feeling relaxed and rejuvenated I feel like I haven’t achieved anything, and have wasted a day. This Jubilee weekend means there are two of the damn days, just taunting me with their freedom and possibilities, while smugly knowing that I will do almost nothing of use.

Today, though not a Bank Holiday, was a taster of what is to come. Most of our days revolve around Iris’s sleep, which is inconveniently slap bang in the middle of the day. We pottered around this morning, and the plan for the afternoon was to pop out and get comics and magazines all round. I know I have previously reported on my distaste for magazines, but that is reserved women’s fashion and lifestyle glossies. I have succumbed to the lure of Psychologies Magazine, which is actually slightly more intelligent and credible than the usual women’s magazines (incidentally I didn’t buy it today as it didn’t look that interesting this month).

While we were out we popped into the Early Learning Centre to get a birthday present for my nephew. It was in the process of closing down, which is a shame, because as much as I do my shopping online, I usually go into actual shops for the kids toys. Actually, I get most of them at NCT Nearly New Sales, but the rest I often get from the ELC. Admittedly the ELC has gone down in my estimation recently due to its insistence in peddling pink versions of all of its toys, for girls one must assume.

But that was nothing compared to the hideousness that I found whilst queuing for comics for the kids in WHSmiths. Ladies and Gentlemen, pinkification has officially taken over the world:

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Clearly the concept of the sea being blue and land being green is too much for girls, whose brains are full of too much sugar and spice and all things nice.

That just was just the pink icing on the cake for this Bank Holiday weekend for me.