Getting old is not pretty

Last weekend I visited my aunt in hospital. She has been diagnosed with cancer and given weeks to live, so she is very focused on tying up loose ends. She’s very accepting of her lack of future, but is struggling mightily with financial concerns. 

Money has been a lifelong obsession: she has never, to my mind, been able to adjust her lifestyle to her means but I suspect that’s only the visible tip of a large iceberg of not understanding money and making decisions based on fear. 

Now she finds herself at the very end of her life requesting help getting a lawyer to sort out some property issues that have been a problem for 25 years. 

I’ve done what I can,  arranged a lawyer to visit her in hospital, and I’ve fielded several calls from her in a state about some aspect of money. I’m doing this mainly because I’m close to my cousin and this is a practical way to support her through all this stress. 

But I am gobsmacked that it has come down this close to the wire. I cannot understand how she could leave this to the end of her life to sort out when she’s had years to address it and get things in order. For her own peace of mind, I’d think she would have resolved all these issues years ago. I can’t believe she doesn’t even have a regular lawyer who knows her situation. 

It reinforces for me how important it is as a single person with no dependents to sort my own shit out. When there’s only you, you have to get a grip on your finances, your assets, your legal rights and responsibilities, if only for peace of mind. Believing it’ll all resolve itself without active management and decision making is naive at best and irresponsible at worst. 

Why I am not a lawyer

This past week I got to spend some time in Court. I was there observing, for a project I’m doing at work. 

I attended two mornings of District Court. The first day was for case review hearings, where prosecution and defence are supposed to put forward an agreed summary of the arguments in the case to the judge who then can give early indication of whether there is an argument to be heard and if not what sentence is likely. This theoretically gives the defendant an opportunity to plead guilty, avoid the trial before the judge, and get bonus points for an early guilty plea leading to a discount in the sentence. 

When the process is followed, this is frequently an efficient way to proceed for all parties. Except of course there is endless pissing around on all sides leading to further hearings being scheduled and cases dragging on for months. This probably doesn’t bother the defendant but for the victims and witnesses, it’s a real cost having to come back to court time and again. 

The second morning was list Court where everyone arrested overnight appears including a large number of traffic related offences. This moves through pretty quickly as people are either bailed or remanded and a hearing date set down, or fined and discharged. 

Never having had occasion to be involved in the justice system in this way, I found it all quite illuminating and sad. But more than anything I was struck by how boring the whole process is. A lawyer has to show up for half an hour to represent someone who has made an obviously bad decision, usually while under the influence of alcohol, then try to present some kind of case for leniency or mitigating circumstances or denial of the events. This seems like a deadly mix of repetitive and detail oriented work. Likewise for the prosecutor, worse since there was only one of them whereas at least the lawyers only had to represent one or two clients. For the judge, it has to be mind numbing sitting there listening to one story after another with only minor variations from day to day. The registrar who was managing an endless stream of paperwork as well as scheduling court dates and keeping the whole process moving seemed to be the busiest of the lot. 

If anyone chooses a career in law and especially criminal law based on what they see on TV in shows like The Good Wife and whatever legal dramas are current now (I was going to write “LA Law” then realised that’s decades old!), I fear they’d feel sorely misled.  The same is true of NCIS-type crime shows as a representation of investigative and forensic work. Most jobs are a good deal more boring and mundane than they are on TV. Intellectually I know this, as do most people, but I was still a bit shocked to realise just how much reality differed from drama. 

It makes me realise that my own job is actually pretty interesting. 

Being my own client – badly

I’m in danger of becoming a bore or a sinner – a single issue nutter. Or a multi issue nutter perhaps. I have detailed conversations with likely looking colleagues about rainwater tanks: in ground, partially buried or above ground? Above or partially buried. Plastic or concrete? – definitely plastic. 20,000litre or two 10,000l? Two tanks are better. And that’s just the water. Solar power systems are occasions for even more detailed conversations with infinitely more variables to debate. And then there’s the issue of household appliances and how much power and water they use and energy star ratings and low pressure suitability. 

This is all important of course to ensure that what I build works, lasts the distance, and doesn’t leave me literally high and dry. But I know it’s way too soon to be looking at appliances. I’m not going to design my entire kitchen around a 4-star dishwasher that’s on sale right now when it’ll be out of warranty by the time it’s installed. 

All my design training flies out the window when I’m my own client. I know I need to start big picture and work in to the detail, but find myself latching into a detail and mentally committing to it without really meaning to, then finding myself constrained by it. 

Partly this is because there are so many factors to balance, and it becomes progressively easier to make decisions for every decision that gets made: when you’ve decided where the kitchen goes, other things logically flow from that. Constraints are the generator of good design – you don’t get innovative problem solving happening when there aren’t problems to solve. When there aren’t enough constraints, it’s very difficult to decide because there are no obvious downsides or upsides to any one option. 

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even got a decent topographic map of the land yet, and I’ve only spent a total of about 3 hours there so far.  I’m well short of what I’d have considered a decent site survey back in my professional design days. 

I think I’ll rent a GPS unit suitable for surveying, and spend a day walking round the land, recording as I go. Not only will I have got to know the land, I’ll have gathered the topo data I need to build a 3D model of the site, draw an accurate base map, and ponder the options for building sites and access. 

Once I have that, I can start to make some informed decisions about where to build. The main constraints will be access, sewage and views. In that order probably. 

Then it’ll be time to start calculating the size of my water tanks and the number of batteries I require for my solar power. At that point my inner bore can have free reign, for a while at least. 

A visit to the farm

I took my father up to see my new land. He was quite taken with it. It’s hard not to be: it was late afternoon when we got there and the light through the clouds was quite magical. 

It was very boggy underfoot though as it had been raining hard for the past 48 hours. We got stuck driving up the access road. So that’s my first priority: grade, drain and gravel the road so it’s passable. 

We wandered around a bit, seeking out views and possible building sites and found a lovely one with views to the ranges and down a gully to the river flats. 

The gullies are a lot steeper than I remembered – too much Google mapping and its pseudo 3D had led me to a false view of the terrain. 

It’s a lot of land. No question. I have moments of panic when I realise just how much land there is, because I have no idea what to do with it all, except that I don’t have to worry about that because that’s what the farmer tenant is for. 

It’s all very exciting. It’s as lovely as I’d remembered. It’s also slightly terrifying as it’s so far outside my comfort zone. Although really it’s more of a return to a zone that I am no longer comfortable in because I’ve been out of it for so long. I’m sure I’ll get used to it again. 

So much to think about and plan for. I’ve never really had a five year plan before and now I really do need one. 

Making the most of waiting time

I’m a sucker for productivity blogs and life hacks. Not that I routinely follow their advice, but I do like reading them. I keep reading them because I keep thinking one day I’ll stumble on The One Thing that will transform my life and make me super productive and ultra efficient.

The fact is, though, and without bragging, I am already pretty darn productive and efficient. I get stuff done. A lot of stuff. In spite of periodically having a day in bed because fatigue has overtaken me.

I’m something of a machine at work. I have well-honed powers of concentration, and can tune out most of the noise from around me when I need to get things done. (Worth nothing, though, that this comes at a cost: tuning out noise and distraction depletes mental energy, a total waste of it.) I work from home one day a week and usually devote it when I can to ‘deep work’, the kind that requires uninterrupted immersion for serious thinking.

Reading those blogs and life hacks makes me realise that I have a lot of good productive habits already. No real surprise there. But there is one oft-repeated tip that I totally disagree with: that is the tip that advocates doing email or making phone calls or checking whatever on your phone when you are waiting.

I believe this is counter productive to the pursuit of greater productivity. Instead, waiting time is best used as “free-range thinking” time. Don’t check or respond to email, don’t make calls, don’t run through your to-do list: spend this precious time thinking about nothing, daydreaming, just letting your mind wander. Take a break.

We can’t work in a focused way all the time. Half of the other tips in your typical “how to be more productive” list are about chunking work, using things like the Pomodoro technique to concentrate work into 90 minute blocks. Crucially, techniques like that work because in between blocks of work you take a break. The breaks are vital. They are what make the technique work.

The point of the breaks is to give your brain a rest. Switching from reading up on constitutional law in the 1800s to checking your email is not the kind of break your brain needs. Take a proper break. Go for a cup of coffee, stand in line and just look at the coat of the person in front of you, or out the window at the passing cars, or the rain, or the sun, or the leaves, and give your brain a rest. Stop beating it to within an inch of its life.

THAT is how you make the most of waiting time.

The importance of doing things

Like many (most) people, I look forward to my weekends. I don’t often have social plans, preferring to enjoy the solitude of home after a week of talking to people at work. 

There’s a downside to this though: not having plans can turn into lying on the couch watching reality tv. Especially when I’m feeling less than average. 

This weekend, however, was a good mix of time alone and time with people. On Saturday morning I did a blitz on the kitchen, cleaning the bench, sink, cooktop and microwave thoroughly and even getting half of the fridge cleaned properly (as in, emptied out and washed with hot soapy water, as distinct from the once-over-lightly wipe with a sponge and a spray of something). I managed to work up quite the sweat doing this. Makes me think our (great-) grandmothers were probably very fit and strong from the housework and cooking. If you don’t believe me, try making a cake and creaming the butter and sugar until fluffy by hand. 

Doing housework can be satisfying because it’s physical work and you can see the results of your efforts. I believe more and more that something that we’ve lost with our automated and outsourced lives is the satisfaction of practising physical skills. 

In the afternoon I took my ladder to a friend’s house to help her hang a blind from a height. Not the kind of job one should tackle alone because falling would be serious. Again, there’s great satisfaction in completing a job like that, seeing the blind that she’d made (double satisfaction for her) hang straight and to the perfect length, hearing the bite of the screws as they secured the batten. 

This morning, friends came over for coffee and I made muffins. I thought about going out to the bakery to buy something, but decided to bake instead because it felt like I was making an effort for them. I like baking, and there’s nothing so welcoming as the smell of fresh baking when you walk into someone’s house. 

So I end my weekend feeling surprisingly content, because I have done things. Not big, brag-worthy things, but practical, constructive things. Things that required a bit of skill and know-how, and that yielded results. It feels good. 

Taking things as they come

I thought I was getting the hang of pacing myself, but RA has a way of constantly reminding me that it’s really in charge. I had major pain in my hips and ended up in bed for three days, with pain and overwhelming fatigue. 

That passed as inexplicably as it arrived. I woke, the pain had dulled to a faint presence, and I had enough energy to get up, showered, dressed and out the door. Sometimes that is an achievement.  

Three days later, a beautiful sunny day and my friend Geoff invited me to go walking. Geoff has RA too so some portion of our walk is consumed with conversation about drugs, side effects, and our latest symptoms. 

I wasn’t sure how much I could manage, but we picked a place with multiple routes of varying lengths to allow us to turn back at any time. 

So we set off. Eleven km later we were back at the car. 

Today I’m pretty sore and tired, as to be expected. I’m also feeling really pleased that I could do that distance. I just wish I knew why one day I’m flat on my back and the next I’m hiking the hills. It makes no sense. There’s no rhyme or reason, and that’s the hardest part about living with this disease. 

I just have to learn to take it as it comes.