Preparation, Inspiration

It’s November. Which means NaBloPoMo. Let’s see what happens when I force myself to blog every day for a month, shall we? 
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My grandfather’s workshop has always been fascinating. He was trained as a tool and die maker before immigrating to Canada, and spent the majority of his years as a machinist. He was also a ‘tween’ in the Netherlands during the second world war, when rations and supplies were scarce. Everything was saved, mended, repurposed or refashioned.

He’s the original lifehacker. A maker, before makers were cool. Throughout my childhood, he was constantly creating little tweaks and gadgets to improve some aspect of their house or garden. Little things, like spring-loaded door stops, or squirrel-proof bird feeders. Or that time he rigged up a contraption to bypass the safety latch on an electric hedge trimmer and put it on a pole to trim a tall tree. He always had the perfect bit of something he’d saved that he could hack into something else. It seemed like magic.

In contrast, there is  a large part of me that likes to live lightly. Nothing like schlepping all your worldly goods 1/3 of the way around the world, and then still having to pack/move/unpack them annually because you can’t get a lease longer than a year, to make you want to own much fewer things. I throw things out fairly indiscriminately. This is how I end up needing to do things like take seventeen trips to the photo place for tiny pictures.

Somewhat related, I have always been bewildered by people I call ‘crafty.’ Those who always seem to show up with a beautifully wrapped gift, or send the perfect (handmade, natch) card, or throw together a last-minute holiday-appropriate decoration or embellishment. How do they do it? Pinterest has not helped my lack of self-confidence in this area.

Then one week, I managed to actually  send a card in a timely fashion, wrap a lovely birthday gift, and bring an appropriate hostess gift to a party. 

Those things are rare enough in and of themselves. For all three to happen in a single week, in my world, is basically unheard of. I felt, dare I say, prepared, instead of frazzled. Like I was, for a short time, the person I aspire to be. How on earth did I do it? A happy coincidence of having the right things around.

And somewhere in all that, I remembed my grandfather’s workshop, and realized, having extra stuff around, sometimes, can be useful. These confusing ‘crafty people’ have a stash of things they can pull out whenever an occasion comes up and inspiration strikes. Like my grandfather’s workshop, ready for any small hack thanks to his habit of stashing any bits that might be mechanically useful, other people’s craft cupboards are apparently full of things just waiting for an opportunity to be used. They aren’t running to the craft store for a set of cutout letters, or wasahi tape, every time an occasion comes up. 

I don’t know why this never occurred to me before. Our kitchen pantry basically operates like that. We can always throw together a pretty decent meal, or afternoon tea, or drinks and snacks, out of whatever’s around. 

So now I’ve started making sure we have a few other things around to contribute to what I call (for lack of a better term) the ‘hospitality pantry.’ Note and occasion cards. Pretty wrapping papers. Small gifts and decorations. I’m not totally there yet (exhibit: Halloween 2013 – we had zero decorations. Not even a pumpkin.) but it’s coming.

More often than not now, a social occasion is cause for a tiny bit of self-congratulation that I’m equipped to handle it graciously, instead of turning myself into a crazy person or being embarrassed that I’m the one showing up to a kid’s birthday party with a gift awkwardly wedged into a leftover wine bag that someone else gifted to us (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

So now, I try to cull my possessions a little  more carefully. I still aim to reduce the amount of useless stuff around, but maybe not be quite so quick to have nothing extraneous about. I’m far from a hoarder of materials and supplies, but I do now keep some extra ‘crafty bits’ around on purpose.

Are there any occasions or situations that you’re always ready for? What’s in your stash?

Care & Feeding

It’s November. Which means NaBloPoMo. Let’s see what happens when I force myself to blog every day for a month, shall we? 
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Now that I’ve been back at work full time for about six months (time flies!), we’re really feeling the pressure at home when it comes to managing the rest of life.

Weekends end up jam packed with cleaning, errands, laundry and prepping/batch cooking so meals never take more than 30 minutes to get on the table during the week. It makes the weekday grind really feel like a grind.

Also, feeling like we hardly have any time to go out and do things or see people outside taking care of our basic family needs (because we’re scrambling to play catch-up every weekend) is really isolating. Which is funny to me, because I thought getting back into the working world would be exactly the opposite. Turns out, not so much.

So, it’s time to hire some help. And it was really hard to figure out exactly what – but I seem to have it narrowed down to two options.

Option 1: Mother’s Helper

Putting aside the irritatingly gendered job name (that’s what it’s advertised as here), this would be someone who could come in a few afternoons a week. The function isn’t primarily cleaning, or childcare, instead it’s a role for picking up whatever needs doing at that time – basically all the things you haven’t gotten around to – as well as being able to make or start some meals, and do babysitting, picking kids up from nursery or school, etc.

Option 2: Au Pair

The house we’re in right now has a bunch of space we’re not really using; a full guest room with ensuite, plus a decently-sized office. We certainly have the space to put an Au Pair, if we wanted to have one, and still have room for the very occasional guests we get. And after learning a bit more about what they do, it seems like we could expect the same light housework, laundry, cooking, childcare as with a Mother’s Helper, but for a lot more hours, plus babysitting a couple evenings a week (which we’ve really been missing).

What would you do?

So here, gentle reader, is where I ask if you’ve used either a Mother’s Helper or an Au Pair before, and what your thoughts are? The costs, for us, would be about even.

My biggest hesitations are that for the Mother’s Helper, I’m not sure much having someone only on certain days would work with our chaotic lives. But with the Au Pair, I don’t know how much I want another person living in the house (I feel like it’d be 80% fun and lovely, 20% stressful – would that be worth it?).

Any experiences to share?

Swanning About

It’s the first of November. Which means NaBloPoMo. Let’s see what happens when I force myself to blog every day for a month, shall we? 
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So here’s a thing I don’t think I would’ve learned had I not moved to the UK:

Swans are AWFUL. 

Not having any practical experience with swans, all I knew was that they’re fair-sized water birds. Generally associated with ideas of beauty and grace and romance. And ballet.

Clearly the people who think these things have zero experience with actual swans.

Swans, at least, the ones I encounter (Mute Swans around here), are MEAN.

Somewhere in the evolutionary process, they lost the ‘flight’ part of the ‘fight or…’ response. Swans are like that drunk guy in the bar at the end of the night who stands in your way because he really wants you to challenge him to a fight. And then, since he also has no sense of self-preservation, will come at you with zero fear and swinging with everything he’s got.

swan

Oh god. RUN!

 

And they are HUGE.

Not Ostrich Huge, but if my 90lb dog were to get into a tussle with one, I’m not sure who would win.

One morning a pair of swans with three cygnets (still fluffy grey, but already the size of geese) were blocking the bike path. There were five of us, fully-grown adults and bicycles, standing there wondering what on earth to do, because we were all too afraid to challenge them to move.

So it could be understandable that I now think of the Ugly Duckling fairy tale an entirely different way…

“…and then the Ugly Duckling grew up and turned into a STUPID, TERRIFYING ASSHOLE which is WAY worse than being ugly, so be careful what you ask for.”

Still a good lesson all around, I’d say.

How to be a Business Grownup: Rules for Autoresponders

In all the ways people can be a competent business grownup (h/t Darren), I think the most abused are communication channels. It’s like we haven’t gotten over the fact that there are Magic! Machines! that we communicate through, and we let our amazement at technology take up the parts of our brain we would otherwise use for communication competence and common courtesy.

The latest thorn in my side is the email autoresponder. It used to be that the worst offense was someone forgetting to turn theirs off after a vacation. But now, thanks to Tim Ferris (maybe? he’s at least the earliest adopter/proponent of this inane practice that I’m aware of), every self-important so-and-so who thinks they’re anybody is setting up a pingback that tells you all the reasons you are not important enough for a personal response. At least not right away, probably not ever.

If you’re not entirely sure what I’m talking about, it’s the practice of someone setting up an automated response in their email system, to reply to every incoming message with a litany of excuses and redirections.

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I happened across this piece from Fast Company today, where the featured Very Important Business Grownups share how they use their autoresponders, and what kind of Very Important Business Activities are keeping them from managing their email, as they try to keep it real, man, and not abandon the little people. All while reminding the little people of their Very Importance.

This, business grownups, is not how you ‘set expectations.’

Unless the expectation you are trying to set is that you are so fragile and insecure that you can’t possibly believe the world can function without a response from you – of any kind – for a few minutes/hours/days. Or that the vast majority of the people who email you are so incompetent that they couldn’t possibly get a response/find some information/connect with you or someone else in your company by any other means, ever.

As I mentioned, this has always been a bit of a bugbear. (aside: you can generally tell how much something annoys me by how much my vocabulary resembles an octogenarian curmudgeon) But I find it especially grating after reading this piece about Jeff Bezos and his ‘question mark’ emails. That’s right. The head of Amazon has a very public email address, and encourages customers to bring issues to his attention, without regard to the amount of useless/misdirected/spammy email he must receive.

And I am pretty sure Jeff Bezos doesn’t have an autoresponder telling people where they can find the feedback link on Amazon’s page, or the company directory, or submit speaking requests, or just to apologize for being a Very Important Business Grownup, or Maybe I’m just Playing With My Dog/Kid, So I Might Take a Few Days to Get Back to you, OK?

I bet he does, however, have some executive assistants monitoring his inbox, ensuring the garbage gets deleted, the mis-routed get redirected, and the things Mr. Bezos needs and wants to see get in front of his eyes in a timely manner. And the ignorable, ignored.

And this, Very Important Business People, is how you manage your email. By setting up your systems and resources so that the people you purportedly care about are treated like people.

If everyone who emails you is really having that much trouble figuring out how to connect with you, or who to contact from your company, maybe add some info to your website (or on your card, or some of the other hojillion places you share your email). The fact that you are this much of a keystone to your organisation is worrying. Don’t you have a competent team? A succession plan?

If you want to stop getting meaningless emails from every Tom, Dick, and Harry, maybe stop replying to them all – via autoresponder or actual email response. Every reply you send teaches them that your personal email is a viable source for that type of information.

If you think giving instant responses to email is unrealistic, then stop doing it. Patience is a virtue. And anyone who truly needs an immediate reply will probably figure out how to get it. Without the links or other contact info you’re firing back. Anyone who doesn’t, will somehow get on with their lives, shocking as that may seem.

And since you can’t talk about Fast Company without some reference to the Church of Steve, Jobs was famous for his email responses – their curtness second only to their rarity. I’m pretty sure nobody doubted his Very Importance.

So, the rules:

When is it ok to use an email autoreponder?

When you are away from the office and not replying to any email communication for an extended period (days/weeks/months – whatever is outside normal absence/delay in your world). Note I said ‘any communication’ – you are letting people know you can’t be contacted right now, not announcing your usual delay in responding.

You may even include details for who to contact in your absence, if there is a particular person handling your urgent issues while you’re incommunicado.

But what about (insert any other excuse here)?

No.

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Update: Of course, not long after posting this, I received an email autoresponse. Except, it didn’t instantly fill me with rage. Why not? It was a business email. When someone submits a sales inquiry, it’s definitely good practice to let that person know their question did not disappear into the ether, and set an expectation for when a salesperson will get back to them.

My rant is solely applied to the world of personal emails (or emails sent to a specific person at a business). They are the email equivalent of the twitter auto-DM. Ain’t nobody got time for that.  

Daguerreotype

I really hope that whole ‘soul stealing’ aspect of photography isn’t true. Because if it is, I am running awfully thin on spare soul.

I don’t know whether to blame UK bureaucracy (I originally typed ‘bureaucrazy’ there, which seems apt), the general process of moving internationally, or something else entirely, but I am fully and officially fed up with having tiny pictures made.

Every time I need to complete some sort of official process, I need to submit the paperwork with between 1-3 copies of a ‘passport-size’ photo.

It started with our initial settlement visas. Which we renewed our passports for (because having a passport that expired well before the visa did seemed like a recipe for annoyance). Which required another set of photos.

Say CheeseAnd then they took a photo at the document drop-off appointment (hilariously called an ‘interview’), to prove it was us dropping off our documents.

Then came the residence permits. We had to bring in more photos for those. And also have our photos taken at the appointment (for verification? biometrics? good luck? who knows).

Somewhere in there we also had to send passports and a set of tiny photos away for visas to visit India, which I know isn’t part of this, but adds to the general photo-weariness.

Now I need to exchange my BC Driver’s license for a UK one. Which of course means I need to submit ANOTHER set of photos.

In fact, I have had the paperwork for the license exchange sitting on my counter at home for a month. I just haven’t gotten my act together enough to get yet ANOTHER set of tiny photos taken. Every time I think I’ll finally do it, I run out of time in the day, or something else comes up, or I just plain forget when I’m running other errands near the photo place.

Worst of all, I have probably chucked out just as many photos as I’ve submitted, because the photo place that’s nearest only does them in sheets of four, and I never need to send in FOUR, and who needs extra clutter around?

I do, apparently, because along with death and taxes, there is a certainty that at some point soon, SOMEONE ELSE will want a 2″ likeness of my not-shiny-not-obscured-not-smiling face-on-white-background.

Part of it is, I think, the fact that in the UK most of these things are done by mail. With the exception of my Canadian passport, every time I needed an official document card created or renewed in Canada, they took the photo in their office. Here, the civil servants are all conveniently separated from the public by the postal system wherever possible.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure which I prefer – because standing in line at the BC Driver’s licensing office, or in the NEXUS offices, and dealing with disenchanted-slash-power hungry provincial and federal employees is no picnic either.

Nevertheless, I am still annoyed (and photo-less).

I might be less irritated about the whole thing if I hadn’t see how damn easy it was for Neil to get his UK Driver’s License. As a UK Citizen, he filled in a form online, entered his passport number, and the powers that be in the UK Government used that single data point to verify his identity, pull up the one copy of his likeness that they have on file, and 10 days later, he received his official document in the post.

Contrarily, I, who have no fewer than FIVE separate photos of myself drifting around various UK government divisions, still have to fill out a paper form, submit it, along with my BC Driver’s license and my Canadian Passport (which they will hold for up to THIRTY DAYS, DO NOT EVEN GET ME STARTED ON THAT ONE), and of course the required tiny photos, so that I can legally drive in this country again.

I have high hopes that I will actually remember to get out of the office at lunchtime this week sometime and hit up the photo place to get it all sorted. And this time, I’ll keep the spare tiny photos around. Probably guaranteeing I never ever need to submit another photo again.

Can we talk about the SPIDERS!?

England is a really buggy place.

I was surprised at first, but considering the humidity, it’s not really all that shocking. There’s an amazing assortment of creepy crawlies here, 98.5% of which I am totally OK with.

Except all of them seem to want to be in my house. In everyone’s house, really. And who can blame them? Outside, between September and June, is pretty gross.

Truthfully, I’m not even that fussed about the bugs that make it into the house. Sure, I’d rather not have to include ‘vacuuming cobwebs off every godforsaken corner’ in the list of weekly chores, but it’s not actually that big a deal. Most of what we see day to day are the humble woodlouse, daddy long legs spiders (which hardly count as spiders), a species of mosquito that only bites cows, some misguided wasps (which are actually quite bad this year) and the occasional crane fly when we’ve left the windows open too wide at night.

But there is one thing which I CANNOT ABIDE.

THE AWFUL FUCKING TERROR THAT IS THE EUROPEAN HOUSE SPIDER. 

Do not google that.

I told you so.

Please stop screaming.

Apparently we are now into the time of year where they come inside in search of a mate. We have so far had four come out into the open and make themselves known. Scuttling out from dark corners or underneath cabinets.

And they are HUGE. I had to deal with one the other day that was too big to step on – its legspan was bigger than the width of my perfectly average-sized foot. I ended up throwing a magazine on top of it, and then stepping on *that*. Ugh.

I had started to control the awful panic by convincing myself they were confining themselves to the ground floor, until last night. We were up on the first floor watching TV, minding our own non-spidery business, when I saw  movement out of the corner of my eye.

One of those motherfuckers was making a b-line straight across the living room toward us. I screamed and leaped up onto the couch. Neil screamed (because I screamed), spilled his tea, then valiantly bludgeoned the thing to death with my slipper.

Apparently nowhere is safe.

So if you happen to be driving around Oxford, and catch a glimpse through a window of a terrified-looking woman tromping around indoors in welly boots (very effective spider squishers) with a crazed look in her eye, that’d be me. Please send help. And insecticide.

lol-cat-spider-32

Anti-Social

Did you know Anti-social means something entirely different here? I much prefer the UK definition.

Here, anti-social behaviour is something that actively goes against society. Something that disturbs the peace, and negatively affects the neighbourhood. Noise complaints, public drunkenness, vandalism – anything that blights the quality of individual and community life.

I’ve been trying hard to figure out a way to explain one of the key differences between life in the UK and life in North America, and the huge difference in the interpretation of the term ‘anti-social’ pretty much sums it up.

Because in North America, anti-social doesn’t mean ‘against society,’ it means opting out of it.

There isn’t really a great catch-all term in the US or Canada to describe what people here would call anti-social behaviour.

But there are, sadly, so very many ways to talk about opting-out of society.

I’ve just finished reading Emily Matchar’s “Homeward Bound: Why women are embracing the new domesticity,” which manages to put into words everything that was irritating me about parenting in Vancouver, that I couldn’t quite articulate:

  • My intense annoyance at the zealotry around homemade food. Homeschooling. ‘Natural’ products & methods.
  • When I railed about the stupidity in calling parenting ‘a job,’ bothered by the increased trend for women my age, and most importantly, social bracket, to opt out of the workforce.
  • The little pieces of my brain that are still left on the walls from the many times my head exploded after yet another person I assumed was a reasonable human being started seriously questioning vaccinations.
  • The self-important re-labeling of ‘egg-money‘ (which Matchar finally gave me the words for) to ‘side-hustle’ or the cringe-worthy ‘mom-preneurship’; conveniently overlooking the fact that it’s almost always made possible by a professional partner’s ability to support his (almost always ‘his’) family on a single income.

It’s all very academically obvious, when you look at charts like this one from the Pew Institute, that show how different Americans are to Europeans when it comes to how individualistic they are as a nation, and how much of a role they think the social safety net should play.

homeward_bound_rev3And of course, when America sneezes, Canada catches a cold. So many of the same attitudes prevail North of the 49th. Or at least, my experience was that they certainly did in ultra-crunchy Vancouver.  

But I can actually feel the difference between there and here. There is so much less group anxiety.

There are still loads of complaints to be made in the UK about the food security system (horsemeat anyone?), family-friendly workplaces and access to daycare (compared to the rest of Western Europe, that is – it’s still miles ahead of the US, and quite a lot better than Canada), the school system, and the current state of the NHS (which, again, is still nothing short of a miracle compared to the US, and much better than what I experienced in BC).

But that’s the thing. People here do complain. To their friends and neighbours, to their councillors, to their colleagues, to their MPs.

Something needs to be done. Change needs to happen. The English have certainly earned their reputation as a nation of moaners. But they seem to agree that if you’re compelled to spend effort because of a broken system, it would be unthinkable to spend it all on dropping out of the system. It should be fixed, not abandoned.

At least, I hope the attitude that I’ve experienced here so far is the one that prevails. Because the fact that, despite living in our little socialist paradise, the book is resonating here as well, is pretty fucking terrifying.