Being alone with a friend, in a good way

Being alone with a friend sounds like either an oxymoron, or “friend” really means wanna-be partner. However, in this case, it’s neither.

Last weekend was the end of a long and and tiring week and I had reached the bottom of my battery. In an effort to recharge I spent most of Saturday in or on my bed trying to feel like doing something vaguely productive or interesting, and failing. Sunday was looking like it was heading the same way.

And then I got an offer I couldn’t refuse, from my friend and former colleague Ingrid.

Let me tell you a bit about her. We worked together for about a year, and we hit it off straight away. We worked really well together, swapping work back and forth and handing things off seamlessly. We knew we’d honed our craft when no one could tell the difference between our work.

Ingrid is far more artistic than me. She’s had a long history of design and craft, draws and paints well, makes all kinds of things, is a dab hand with power tools, and has a whole large room dedicated to and set up for making things.

One day we were discussing our idea of fun activities and I learned that she routinely packs her car with essentials of various kinds (varied according to the activity du jour) and drives somewhere with a view, preferably without too many people, sits in the back of her car and eats her chosen food and does her chosen activity – be that read, do a cryptic crossword, draw, paint, photograph, collect shells, knit, write, whatever.

I thought this was the coolest thing I’d heard. I immediately wondered why I’d never thought to do this as a regular thing.

Ingrid left work, deciding that 9-5 was not for her, so we arranged to see one another for Elevenses every week on my work-from-home day to keep in touch and just because that’s what you do with friends.

We missed the previous week’s Elevenses because I had something on, so instead she suggested we do something on Sunday. She proposed a car trip. How perfect.

We drove to brunch, then out to a nearby rocky bay she had recently discovered. We bought some cakes for afternoon tea, and parked on the foreshore to watch the waves and the birds. We went for a walk to collect shells and interesting things to draw (including two crab ‘skeletons’). We sat in the car and did two cryptic crosswords. Then we drove home. It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Solo car picnics might be my new favourite thing.

Being alone with a friend is like being by yourself but better because you’re doing what you like doing but you’ve got someone there who enjoys it as much as you. You’re not at odds, one person feeling restless and bored (them) while the other (me) feels like they’re getting pressured to race around and Do Things just for the sake of it.

It was fun, relaxing and interesting, and I felt like I had Done Something with my weekend that had recharged me. A win all round.

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I’m alone, I’m not lonely

Every so often, an article appears on line about loneliness, and many refer to the UCLA Loneliness Scale (here from an NIH article). The survey questions are careful to distinguish between ‘lonely’ and ‘alone’ and don’t treat them as synonyms, although I’ve seen variants of the survey that do confuse the two.

Lonely is a feeling; alone is a state. They may co-occur but there is nothing automatic about their co-occurrence. How lonely you feel hasn’t got much to do with how alone you are.

Although most people understand the difference between the two conditions when it’s pointed out to them, they routinely conflate them in daily life. If I am alone, people assume this is an undesirable state and take measures to ‘relieve’ my aloneness. This is of course kind-hearted of them – they believe they are relieving my suffering – except it’s not what I want.

I am aware that the health consequences of loneliness are serious and alarming (in one article I read, the equivalent of a 15-cigarettes-a-day habit). What bothers me is the leap from “x% of people are lonely” to “people are social animals and no-one should be alone because it’s bad for them”. Therefore, anyone who is alone should be forcibly socialised for the good of their health.

Except I’m not lonely: I’m alone and I’ve chosen to be alone because I enjoy being alone. Humans may be social creatures, but that doesn’t mean we all have to socialise all the time. For me, the consequences of forced socialisation have as harmful an impact as the consequences of loneliness: stress, fatigue, and physical symptoms like upset stomach.

I like sitting in a cafe on my own, enjoying the break from conversation and people.  At a party, I’d rather stand around the fringes and watch people than be part of a circle of people talking and laughing.

So in the nicest possible way: please leave me alone. You’d be doing me a favour.

Elections and choices

It was Election Day yesterday. I voted in the morning and in the evening kept half an eye on the results as they came in, although I didn’t wait up to see who won. There was likely to be some horse trading with minor parties to get a majority to govern and that’ll take a few days to resolve.

I was hoping for a change in government but it’s unlikely. I think it’s unhealthy for any one party to be in power too long. They get complacent and arrogant, and start believing their own hype. Although it gets messy at Election time and figuring out who won can take days if not weeks, the MMP system we use for voting does make for a far more interesting selection of candidates and wider representation of views.

All that representation means many more choices to make. It’s a lot of work to read up on parties’ policies and decide where you think money should come from and where and to whom it should go.

There’s been a bit of misinformation passing around, but nothing like the epidemic of ‘fake news’ (or as we tend to call it here – bald faced lies) seen in the last US election. It’s bad enough trying to decide between policies let alone trying to figure out if what you’re reading is true or not.

I’m not a hugely political person. I take an interest because work demands I maintain a level of awareness, and because I believe in the principle of democracy, which to me means being not just a voter but an informed one.

So I did my reading, made my choice, and instead of going to an election night party I stayed home nursing sore hands, elbows, and hips that have been giving me grief all week. I overdid it last weekend (travel on top of a heavy week of work) and I’ve been paying the price all week.

As an aside, this year marks 125 years since women got the vote here. We’re proud of the fact we were the first country in the world to give women the vote. My great grandmother was a signatory to the petition. It seems disrespectful not to vote.

Land visit

I just got home from a visit to the farm. I met with the farmer and drive around with him, discussing grass, cows, politics (he started it – our election is next week and water and farmers are hot topics), fencing and other suitably agricultural topics. He’s a nice man and clearly loves land and loves watching healthy animals grow.

The land is looking lovely, green and lush. The cows are happy and getting fat. The weather was sunny and much warmer than here, and it really was a glorious place to be.

I’ve pretty much decided where the house will go now, and I’ve discussed new fencing and planting the gullies with the farmer, who agrees it’s a good plan. So now I have to set various balls in motion.

But right now I need sleep. It’s a lot of driving, there and back in a weekend, and I was dead on my feet on Friday as it was.

A restorative sleep, then on with the planning.

Keeping things simple

My oldest friend Tracy is walking through Albania at the moment. She’s with a group and I’m not entirely sure where they’re headed or when they’ll get there, and I’m not even sure I could identify Albania on a map.

I’m following her on Instagram. She’s a good photographer, she posts frequently and it’s really fascinating to see what Albania looks like.

What strikes me in the photos is how beautiful the countryside is, and how old-world the life is. She has lots of photos of donkeys carting loads of hay, women and men looking like every peasant photo you’ve ever seen, horses and carts in the roads, and tiny stalls on the side of the road selling a handful of cucumbers, some grapes and a few tomatoes. It’s very picturesque, but it’s also real life for Albanian villagers.

I live about 10 minutes’ walk from the central city. I walked into town this morning to meet a friend for coffee, then decided to go shopping.

While walking home carrying my branded shopping bags, I got to thinking about the Albanians in Tracy’s photographs and about the purpose of life (as you do).

Something in those photos made me reflect on what life consists of, the myriad activities that constitute daily life for each of us. It’s not the economics of it that got me pondering (although I don’t know how you make enough to live on when your daily income derives from the sale of three cucumbers and a kilo of tomatoes, and your customers are whoever walks past your gate on a given day). It’s more to do with an engagement with the business of life.

What I saw when I looked at those photos was a life driven by ambitions different from mine. So much of my world is implicitly or explicitly about “getting ahead”, going up in the world, making it, keeping up with the Joneses and every other cliché you can think of. There’s not much room for simply enjoying life.

I’m not trying to romanticise the life of an Albanian peasant here. I’m pretty sure it’s hard work, uncertain and at times grim and depressing. Nor am I suggesting they enjoy their lives, struggling in the aftermath of communist rule. This is about me, not them.

But they are immersed in the activities of their daily life. I haven’t learnt how to be that immersed. I am always living in the future (or the past, when I get in those moods). It’s always about the next thing, what I need to do, to achieve, the goal to reach or the plan to make. I’ve read, and believed, too many productivity blogs and books.

I suspect this sense of frustration at feeling dissociated from one’s own life and therefore finding little joy in it is what drives people to embark on “Eat, Pray, Love” adventures. The Italians, the French, maybe the Albanians, all seem to know how to enjoy the day to day of life: meals, a glass of wine, dancing, talking, being with friends and family.

What if I’ve been doing it wrong all this time? I’ve got a house, my land, retirement savings, a good job, new shoes. What if all of that is beside the point?

Well, I’m quite sure it IS all beside the point. It’s nice, it’s comfortable, and it provides me the luxury of sitting round pondering the meaning of life. But it’s not the point of life. It’s a means to an end, and the point is surely happiness.

And the way to happiness? Not sure. But it’s not buying new shoes, nice though they are.

Cooking for one

Most people who like to cook will tell you that cooking for one is their least favourite type of cooking. I get that: if you’re a foodie and proud of your kitchen efforts, having no one to appreciate them must be dispiriting.

I am not a foodie by any stretch. I can and do cook, and not just for myself. But I’m not adventurous, and I avoid expensive ingredients especially anything out of season (why pay top dollar for flavourless produce?)

Lately I’ve been trying establish better food habits. I’ve started taking my lunch to work every day instead of buying it, saving probably $200 a month that is going to pay for door handles for my new house on the estate.

In order to establish this habit, I’m removing the impediments to doing it. Which in my case means having things ready to assemble in the morning so I don’t have to think or decide. I have the same thing every day for a week, which means cooking something on the weekend that I can use during the week. Last week it was falafel, made into small flat cakes that I put between slices of a chunky wholewheat loaf spread with hummus to glue it all together. This week, its fried tofu with roasted red peppers, beetroot hummus, and wholewheat ciabatta.

I’ve discovered I quite enjoy this food preparation as one of my new weekend activities. It’s really satisfying having a fridge full of food that’s been made by me for me, and knowing that during the week I don’t have to think about what’s for lunch.

Obviously this approach would drive some people crazy. I, however, am a creature of habit and I value not having to decide over variety. The nice thing about cooking for one is that the only person I have to satisfy is me.

Bad things come in threes

I fear I angered the insurance gods.

I decided a couple of weeks ago that, as part of my plan to save money for building on my estate, I would review my insurance cover and see if I was getting a good deal.

I called another company and got quotes for car, house and contents. He asked if I wanted the optional windscreen insurance ($69 extra). I said no. I’ve had a car for almost 30 years and never had to replace a windscreen. The house and contents insurance was a few hundred dollars cheaper and I made a note to call my insurance broker and switch the cover over.

About two days after I received the quote, we had a big storm blow through, the kind where the weather service puts out alerts about minimising travel and tying down the trampoline. It was very windy and very noisy and at some point during the night I was woken by a very loud bang. I didn’t get out of bed to investigate.

The neighbour is in the midst of replacing his windows, and for some days a rather large window frame with three sash windows (minus glass) has been propped against his front wall. It was this frame that had blown over onto the footpath and created the midnight bang.

My car was parked outside his house. The frame had missed it by about a centimetre. I left the frame where it was, checked over my car, it was unscathed so I went off to work. I returned to find the window frame restored to its previous position against the wall.

A day later I went to drive it and discovered that the side of the car was scratched, and the windscreen had a long crack in it. I was very annoyed about the scratches as no one had left a note but it was clear they’d done it when lifting up the frame. The crack could have been done by anything. So I called my broker, got the okay on the windscreen replacement and took the car in.

Two days later I came downstairs to find a pool of water on the kitchen floor and more dripping from one of the recessed light in the ceiling. There is nothing worse than finding a leak inside because it’s such a Pandora’s box: you never know what horrors will be revealed as you open things up to find where it’s coming from.

Not having a regular plumber I called my builder instead, who, god bless him, came over within the hour, recommended a good plumber (who miraculously appeared about 30 mins later) and between the two of them they traced the water back to its source – mercifully not the toilet as originally feared but a cold water inlet pipe to the handbasin.

I now have a series of holes in walls tracing what looks like the destructive path of a giant rat in search of the fountain of youth. To mix metaphors. The siding is off the house to let it all dry out (luckily no rot: the water can’t have been there for long) and we’ve had four days of nice weather.

I called my insurance, the wall repairs etc are covered so it’s just a question of whether it’s more than the excess.

What did I take from all this? Three life lessons:

  1. A tradie who you trust and can call on in an emergency is worth his or her weight in gold particularly when you live on your own and have no one to turn to in moments of crisis
  2. Bad things do come in threes – I’m counting the windscreen, the scratches and the flood
  3. Insurance is not to be messed with

I have abandoned my attempt to save money on my insurance. I have good cover, I pay good money for premiums, and I’ve never made a claim before this past week. But I’ve also stared into the abyss of what can happen after a major catastrophe like the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, so I know the value of a good policy.

And I can take a hint from the universe.