26 June 2011

Once more unto the breach…

A while back, I wrote about going through a fallow period. My contract had finished, which wasn't unexpected. Truth be told, I enjoyed the first month off. I'd been working a lot of overtime, so I enjoyed the freedom, and sleep, and I knew I had enough money to keep me going so the wolves didn't seem all that close to the door.

By June, though, I was panicking. The savings had dwindled at an alarming rate. I had about enough to keep me going for another month, and then, frankly, I was screwed. I was lying awake with my mind going, as minds do at night, to the worst-case scenarios. People called me a “lady of leisure”, as though I were swanning off to day spas and lunching on champagne with my friends rather than fretting about whether I'll be able to pay the mortgage, and avoiding hassling phone calls from the credit card company (who, incidentally, ignored every letter I wrote to them regarding a managed payment plan while I was unemployed, choosing instead to bully me – thanks, Nationwide, for increasing my stress level tenfold).

I'd been unemployed before so none of this was uncharted territory. I'd also ended up suffering from depression and anxiety disorder, though, so I knew the signs to watch out for, and to be frank, there were days when it took a huge mental effort to fight off the black dogs, especially as time went on.

The unemployed are somewhat demonised by the current government – as though we're all happy to live high off the hog on our massively generous Jobseekers' Allowance. (have you ever tried living on £67.50 a week, when you have a mortgage and bills? Don't bother. I'll tell you now – you can't. Even if you're one of the great ignored: someone who isn't a family but just a single person, trying to make it on her own.) Well, believe me, I'd rather be working.

Being unemployed, for me, meant social isolation. I could go days without talking to anyone. When I am in social situations, I've noticed that I find them much more difficult and a little bit scary – it seems that social skills need to be exercised like muscles, or they atrophy.

Not that I've sat around doing sod-all for three months. I've already written about the volunteering work I did, which was hugely rewarding. I painted the spare room and the kitchen. I started this blog.

I even stopped smoking. Family members reading this, who live a long way away, may be surprised to hear that in the past 10 years or so I've become a heavy smoker, smoking 30–40 cigarettes a day. I added up how much I was spending on them, and that wheezing cough, to my list of worries, and decided it was time to kick it. It's been difficult, and I'd be lying if I said I don't miss smoking sometimes, but it's an achievement I'm happy to add to my list of stuff I did while unemployed.

I didn't tick off everything I listed in my “To Do” list – the front door still needs painting; the garden's still a tangled jungle of weeds – but I'm proud of the things I did manage to cross off.

I did everything I could to keep busy and keep my chin up – although as the savings have dwindled and the rejections from employers multiplied, that's become increasingly difficult.

Please can someone remind me what these things are?
Well, good news. I start a new job tomorrow! I'll be honest: I'm a tiny bit terrified. My rusty social skills, and work skills, need to be polished off and re-oiled. Self-doubt about whether I can do the job or have just bullshit myself into a nightmare plague me.

But I'm also excited. I'm going to be a useful member of society again! I won't have that embarrassing moment when people ask me what I do and I have to say “nothing”!

I hope I don't repeat what I did on the first day at one of my jobs, when I got stuck in an underground car park and then in a hallway, and couldn't get out because of the intricate security system. I hope I don't delete the entire home page of the website, the way I did once when trying to get to know the new content management system at a new job. I hope I don't make a prat of myself, generally, and I hope the job is as exciting and enjoyable as I thought it would be when I applied.

That “first day” feeling we all remember from school never goes away. But after three months fallow, I'm ready to start breaking ground again. Wish me luck!

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

22 June 2011

No big society, just a little dog

About two years ago – the last time I was out of work (it's a recurring theme in my patchy career) – I decided to register as a volunteer with a charity called The Cinnamon Trust. I had the spare time, and it was a cause that I could identify with. It's a charity set up to help elderly people who have pets – from taking a pet to the vet, through to regular dog walking, and up to the commitment of fostering.

I have two very beloved pets of my own. I know how important the bond is, and I would hate to think of being forced to give up my companions because of infirmity. It seemed like a perfect way to marry my love of animals and my desire to do something productive and useful while I wasn't working.

As it happened, at the time there were no volunteers needed in my area. But then, with perfect timing, just as my last contract came to a finish, the Cinnamon Trust contacted me. An elderly man who lives in the town about 5 miles from my own had a dog that needed walking. I leapt at the chance.

And so I met this fella. This is Teddy, a 5½-year-old English cocker spaniel. My childhood dog was an English cocker spaniel so it's a breed with a special place in my heart. They're a bit nuts but utterly gorgeous.

Teddy's owner is a gentleman of some 91 years. He has a degenerative spine condition, and suffers from shortness of breath, so walking an energetic dog in its prime is too much for him. I was more than happy to step in and help.

Lady with treats, why it rain? Me all wet. :-( I can has treat?
The walks have become something to look forward to and a genuine pleasure. Walking Teddy helped keep me from slipping into despair, which is always a risk when not working. It kept a routine and structure to my day, and without being too dramatic about it, it was a reason I had to get up and get out of my PJs every day. It was fresh air and exercise for us both, and anyway, it's impossible to feel down when you're looking after a dog who's beside himself with joy at life. Every day he burst through the door and barrelled towards me with an unbridled frenzy of delight at the prospect of a walk, never dimmed by repetition, and that always put a huge smile on my face. Even when the weather wasn't so great…

One day when we came back from our walk, Teddy's owner invited me in, telling me he had something to show me. This was a photograph of him and his wife, taken in the 1940s, he looking handsome in an RAF uniform and she looking glamorous and lipsticked in the way that women in the 1940s seemed to manage so effortlessly. He told me that he and his wife had been married for 65 years, and she had passed away about 5 years previously – judging by Teddy's age, he arrived on the scene around the same time as his owner's wife passed.

Still, he said, gesturing to Teddy, I have him for company.

I walked out of there with a lump in my throat. He'd just demonstrated just why, exactly, the work the Cinnamon Trust does is so important. The bond he had with his youthfully exuberant dog, and the company that dog provided, was so important – but without help, he wouldn't be able to keep him, and the flat would be silent and lonely. Some days when he opens the door he looks in fine health, but other days he's unshaven, still in his dressing gown at 10am, wincing in pain. His children – presumably near retirement age themselves – live nearby but Teddy is always there for him.

As desperate as I've been to return to work, watching my meagre savings deplete at an alarming rate, it was with huge sadness that I emailed the Cinnamon Trust today to tell them that I won't be able to take Teddy out anymore. The endorphins of daylight and exercise, the feelgood factor of helping someone else, and the infectious joy of a happy mutt have been as good for me as the practical help has been for his owner.

Several times Teddy's owner has presented me with boxes of chocolates “from Teddy and me”. It's flustered me. I feel it's a privilege to help out, and don't need that kind of thanks. I feel I should be thanking them.

There's a lot of talk in this current government about Big Society. My own personal feeling is that it's farcical, and a back-door way of getting cheap or free labour as more and more people become unemployed. This isn't a political blog – there are far better people out there covering the politics – but I will say one thing: I can't see that forcing the unemployed to volunteer in order to keep their benefits would work. Volunteering takes heart, and commitment, to work, and I'd imagine if I'd been forced, I would have found it counterproductive and depressing.

However, volunteering because I wanted to has turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I've ever done while out of work, and didn't feel like a chore or a commitment at all. If there were a way to carry on when my new job starts, I would, but doing a full-time job and also committing eight hours a week regularly to the dogwalking just wouldn't work. It's clear that Teddy's owner isn't an early riser so I can't do it before work, and I can't guarantee I'll be available every night after work. Those extra eight hours a week will be too hard to find. I'm sad that I can't carry on. Teddy might not know it, but he helped me as much as I helped him and his owner.

19 June 2011

Dad and daughter day

I know not everyone's been as lucky as my siblings and me, so I'm not going to go all misty-eyed about how Fathers (generic Fathers) are brilliant. But here's a little about mine.

Dad and me way back in the summer of '69
It's Father's Day and in its honour, I dug through my disorganised boxes of photographs (which stop in about 2005, when I got a digital camera) and found the photo you can see to your right. I think it was taken at Edaville Railroad. Looking at the date stamp – August 1969 – I realise that my mother must have been about to pop with the next in the brood, my little sister, born at the beginning of September. I don't know the story, then – did Dad venture out with my two brothers and me to give Mom a break? Or was she waddling around with us in the August heat? I don't know. But I love this picture. How relaxed I look, precariously balanced on his arm. That's my Dad. I'm safe.

I remember being convinced that Dad was Mister Rogers, because at the moment Mister Rogers' Neighborhood finished, Dad would walk through the door. That kind of magic is possible when you're a kid. Off of the TV, into the living room. Especially when it's your all-powerful Dad.

I remember waiting on the doorstep for him to come home. And come home he did, at 6 on the dot, every night. He never worked late. He always came home for all of us to sit around the table for supper (eating dinner in front of the TV was strictly forbidden). First, though, he and Mom would go into their room, close the door for five minutes, and just catch up in what must have been the only quiet, private five minutes of their days.

Unusually for a man of his generation, he always helped Mom with the clearup and getting us all off to bed. I'm one of six children – this was no easy feat. If we were kicking up, he'd stand at the bottom of the stairs, threateningly snapping his belt. In all my life I don't think Dad laid a finger on any of us. I only found out as an adult that as we scattered in terror of The Belt, he and Mom were stifling their laughter downstairs.

On Saturdays, he piled us all into the Tardis-like station wagon to go to the supermarket and the library, giving my poor frazzled mother a break from looking after six children who were all close in age. Those library trips were pretty special to me, as I've already said.

He had two brothers. One of them, Robbie, was severely mentally disabled. I was slightly frightened of Robbie as a kid, because of his slurred speech, and his shaking hands (the medication they gave him for his mental illness caused Parkinson's), and just that he was different. He lived in a home but he came to visit sometimes and Dad treated him with infinite kindness, tolerance and love until Robbie passed away.

Most men of his generation just saw it as their job to bring home the bacon, but Dad's always been more than a provider for us. He and my mother set a standard of parenthood that I've seldom seen replicated. Truth be told, he's set a standard for fatherhood that I've never seen in the boyfriends and husband I had, which is one reason why I'm not a mother.

So he was more than a provider, but boy, did he provide. He somehow put six children through university and for most of us, post-grad study. With a B.A., I'm the least educated of any of my siblings. In America, with its tuition fees, that's pretty incredible. With the self-centredness of youth I just accepted this in my late teens; now I know what it must have taken.

Dad gave me a work ethic. I started babysitting at the age of 13 and immediately began putting money aside to save up for a bike – I was only earning a dollar an hour, so it took a while, and eventually Dad rewarded me for understanding the principle of working and saving by paying off the balance for my beautiful shiny blue bicycle. I hadn't asked for it or expected it, and I understood why it was a reward. It was one of the proudest moments of my young life.

As soon as I was 16, I was frogmarched down to the local shopping mall to get a part-time job. And I've held jobs ever since, throughout school and university as well as in adult life – except, of course, when I'm “between jobs” as I am now, due to either redundancy or fixed-term contracts. I know how much it distresses him when I'm not working, and the work ethic he's given me drives me to jobhunt with pigheaded determination and a reluctance to give up.

Of course as I grew up I began to see his annoying habits, his flaws, his human frailties and his vulnerabilities. He's set in his ways. He's conservative. He still treats me like I'm a 13 year old kid and this triggers a strange reaction where, um, I act like a 13 year old kid.

And he's already survived cancer twice – the latest, quite recently. Because I only go home every few years, each time I see him he looks more like the old man that my head knows he is but my heart won't accept. When he asks me to go to Mass, or say a prayer, I say I will. I don't believe in God or religion or the power of prayer, but I say it as a comfort to him. It's the least I can do for him.

I can be pretty rubbish sometimes about phoning my parents, or remembering important dates. I'm not a very demonstrative person so I don't gush with love on the phone; a quick and slightly embarrassed “Love ya” to Dad before he hands me back to Mom is as far as it goes. I won't send Dad a link to this because I have other blogposts on here with rude words in them that he wouldn't approve of. I'm sure, though, that he still remembers the girl in pigtails waiting eagerly on the doorstep for his return.

10 June 2011

Alice, bucket lists, and benevolent viruses

This week I found myself near the centre of a bit of a viral storm.

On Tuesday, I saw this tweet from Michael Moran via India Knight:

Tweet from Michael Moran about Alice's bucket list

I clicked and I found Alice's bucket list. Alice is a brave, articulate and sweet 15 year old girl who is, infuriatingly and utterly unfairly, dying of cancer. I was struck by her brilliant attitude, and the simplicity, and achievablity, of most of the “bucket list” she had created – the list of things she wants to do before that utter bastard, cancer, cuts her life too short.

I know I have media types, journalists, and high profile professionals on my Twitter follower list. I know that I have people with showbiz connections, or music business connections, or who work in PR, or who have creative careers such as photography. I knew, when I saw Alice's list, that I could reach people via Twitter that could help her. And so, I sent this tweet:

Tweet from me with a link to Alice's bucket list

Things started to go a bit nuts after that.

My tweet was retweeted hundreds of times. And my own timeline was inundated, with offers from photographers, beauty therapists, and many others, trying to find out how to help Alice. Repeatedly I had to explain – never begrudgingly, always touched – that I didn't have a personal connection to Alice, and that I couldn't help them get in touch with her; I was just passing it on.

Some people – despite the evidence to the contrary provided by the photo of the decrepit middle-aged woman in my avatar – misunderstood and thought I was the 15-year-old girl with terminal cancer, and I had misguided but sweet messages urging people to help me meet Take That or design an Emma Bridgewater mug.  (Both of those are things I wouldn't mind doing; where Alice and I part ways is in the whole “swimming with sharks” thing…)

A Hollyoaks actress tweeted me offering her help. People were contacting me asking what hashtag we should use to make the tweets consistent and to trend. Somehow a lot of people thought I was a lot more than the messenger. I didn't get annoyed by the flood of confused tweets, though; they all came from good hearts and best intentions.

At the same time, of course, Michael Moran's tweet, and India Knight's retweet, were spreading as well. Everyone was telling everyone. Soon Alice's blog was flooded with responses from incredibly generous people.

By the next day, Alice had gone global. Celebrities and journalists were talking about her, and to her. She was mentioned in Prime Minister's Questions, and covered in the news.The hashtag #alicebucketlist was trending. In a strange game of Chinese whispers, people were saying that Alice's dying wish was to trend on Twitter – which of course wasn't the case. What she wanted was for people to sign up for bone marrow donation, and to sponsor her sister in a run to raise money for cancer research. If I was overwhelmed by the response I was getting from the small part I played, I can only imagine what things are like for Alice and her family.

Lots of people signed up to the bone marrow register. Her little sister raised £10,000. Hundreds and hundreds of people have visited her blog and spoke of her inspirational attitude and offered whatever help they can to help her cross things off her bucket list.

Obviously, I'm not solely responsible for drawing everyone's attention to Alice; Michael Moran's tweet to India Knight was retweeted over 50 times, and who knows where else it came from, but it spread like wildfire, and I was one of the people who helped fan the flames. I don't know where Michael Moran found out about the bucket list. So who knows how many directions this came from. All I know is that I'm kinda proud that I helped. I'm so happy that people have registered as bone marrow donors as a direct result of my tweet, and that I helped Alice with at least one of the items on her list.

Social media sites are often regarded with suspicion. It's easy to climb on the wrong bandwagon, to get swept up in something that turns out to be wrong or goes too far. When things go viral, they can also go in a malicious direction. People get flamed; people get bullied; people get ruined. But this week, I saw the enormous benevolence it can offer, and the incredible generosity and goodness of a lot of people out there. On a purely selfish note, in a week that was personally not too great for me, I found something that gave me the grains of hope and optimism that I needed. And I'm pretty sure it helped Alice a little bit too. I hope it did. Rock on, Twitter.


UPDATE 19th June

It seems that Alice's sudden fame has been something of a poisoned chalice, judging by her more recent blog posts, and by some of the comments made to me on Twitter. This makes me feel unspeakably sad. I hope that positives – the increase in donors, and Alice meeting Take That amongst them – keep her and her family feeling positive about the whole experience.

3 June 2011

Bathing beauty

Running hot and cold
Ah, bathtime. We may have dreaded it as kids, but as an adult, a bath is the ultimate at-home self-indulgence after a long day…isn't it? A chance to close the door on the world, put on some soft music, and relax in a warm, fragranced watery cocoon.

So we're led to believe.

For me, this is what bathtime is generally like.

  1. Run the water. Wander off while the tap runs. Forget I'm running a bath until the water is near the overflow.
  2. Step into the bath. Get a little insight into what it's like to be a lobster at the moment it's dropped into a pot of boiling water. With a shriek, withdraw red, scalded legs. Drain some water out and turn on cold tap. Wander off while the tap runs. Forget I'm running the bath until the water is near the overflow, again.
  3. Step into the bath. Feel the icy currents flowing through a tepid pool around my legs. Shiver, step out of bath. Drain some water out and turn on hot tap. Wander off while the tap runs. Forget for a third time that I'm running the bath until the water is near the overflow.
  4. Step into the bath. The water is lukewarm. Fuckit, it'll do. Ease self in. Realise I've forgotten to add any product. Pour bath product in and turn on shower attachment for fast frothing into some semblance of a bubble bath. Accidentally spray everything in the bathroom when I drop the shower head. Resolve to deal with sodden toilet paper later.
  5. Step into bath once more and ease back. Here at last comes the relaxing bit! Close eyes. Feel rasping sensation on leg. It's the cat. Licking any part of my limbs that have emerged from the water. Spend the next 5 minutes trying to keep limbs away from cat, and cat away from the bath, which she seems to regard as a gigantic bowl full of warm, soapy water for her own delectation.
  6. Lie back again. Realise I've left my book on the bed. Step out of bath, and, shivering and attempting not to slip and fall over, or trip over the startled cat, retrieve book. Return to bath.
  7. Drop book in bath water.
  8. Abandoning idea of reading, attempt relaxation. Close eyes. Begin to contemplate that I'm lying in a tepid, expensively scented soup of my own filth. Feel icky.
  9. Attempt to wash hair. Realise that I'm just adding shampoo and, I don't know, hair dirt to the soup. Fail to rinse all product from hair. Give up, knowing all the while that my hair will be lank and knotted until next shampoo.
  10. Wish I'd just taken a shower.

Ah, yeah. That's self-indulgence for you. More trouble than it's worth.

Image: Idea go at freedigitalphotos.net