One week in

I go back to work on Monday after a pretty decent break. Here, we get 2 public holiday days for Christmas and two for New Year so for 6 days of annual leave I got a break of 15 days. Nice.

It’s now the end of the first week of 2018. So how is it looking so far?

About the same as last week, truth be told. But this is no criticism. The promise of New Year is that we can transform our lives into a more perfect version through the act of wishing it to be so. Unsurprisingly this doesn’t work. If it were the case, we’d have wished it so a lot earlier and we’d no longer be in this imperfect place.

Transformation is jolly hard work and mind numbingly boring, tedious and uncomfortable. This morning I went for a run — I’m easing back into training again now that my medication side effects are better controlled — and it was horribly hard work. I kept needing to stop and walk, my lungs hurt, my legs felt like lead. I thought to myself, “why is this so hard? It wasn’t before, I used to be able to run, maybe I shouldn’t even try” (because of course there is a Rule that if you’re rubbish at something you have no business doing it, right?) But of course it’s hard: I’m starting from square one. I could run 21.1km before because I’d spent months running regularly before I reached that goal, and I have simply forgotten how painful and tedious and frustrating and occasionally miraculous those “learning” runs were.

We all do this, focusing on the end goal we want to achieve and glossing over the hard yards required to get there. I know I’ll forget this repeatedly throughout the year but I hope I can remember it just often enough to keep going no matter how hard it is and how rubbish I am. As someone wise wrote,

Practice isn’t for those who know how, it’s for those who don’t.

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The satisfaction of small things

Odd jobs are strange things. They’re always small, and they hang around for a long time because they are inconsequential. Nothing bad happens if you don’t do them, and the benefit of doing isn’t great enough to drive action. So they hang around, on the margins of consciousness.

Occasionally I get all David Allan (he of Getting Things Done fame) on myself and empty my mental list of odd jobs onto paper. This is both a relief and completely disheartening because the list is so long, and so full of trivial things that I should have taken care of.

I look at these incidental things and think, that’s a 1 minute job, why on earth haven’t I done that? But instead of just doing it, I either ruminate on what has led me to not do this job for so long (answer? Ruminating on why I haven’t done it) or I realise I’m missing some vital bit for the job and put it off until next time I am at the appropriate store.

Today I knocked off one of the jobs on my mental list of minor repairs needed around home: my letterbox. Ever since I moved in (and Facebook tells me it was 6 -six! – years ago), the letterbox has lacked a latch. I have at various times used a twig or a wodged-up bit of paper to wedge it shut but clearly this has been a low-rent solution.

So yesterday I decided I would do the job. I put the drill on the charger and by morning it was charged. It takes 5 hours according to the sticker on the charging unit. Next, I drive to the hardware store, a 5km round trip, to get a single nail. I suspect this reinforced every stereotype they hold of women and DIY (men would probably buy a box of nails even if they only needed one) but God love them, they gave it to me for free.

I returned home and got the right size drill bit, measured the relevant distance and drilled the requisite hole. This took maybe 10 seconds. I inserted the nail and the letterbox is now latched shut.

This is typical of odd jobs and explains why they never get done: it required a car journey and charging the drill for 5 hours to do a job that took 10 seconds to complete. And what is the benefit? My bills no longer fall out of the box and blow away. Which they didn’t do when the paper or twig wedged it shut either. So really, it’s just a more permanent solution if a completely inelegant one (a nail through the side of the box into the flap, which I simply pull out to open).

But for all of that, I feel like I’ve Done Something this weekend, and when people at work ask what I did over the weekend I’m going to say proudly that I repaired my letterbox.

Am I losing my marbles?

I lost one of my good kitchen knives the other day. It's about a 25cm long chef's knife so we're not talking small paring knife size: fairly hard to lose.

At first I thought my Monday guest might have used it and put it away in a drawer instead of in the knife block. I searched every drawer: no sign.

I checked the dishwasher in case it was there or had fallen through the racks. No sign.

In desperation I decided to systematically go through every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen. Including the trash, which is where I found it.

I am completely baffled by how it got there. I have no memory of putting it there, and can't think how I could have accidentally swept it up along with vegetable scraps without noticing and dumped it in there.

Look, I realise this is a completely trivial event in the scheme of things. I didn't even have to buy a new knife. But what really bothers me about it is that I have no memory of doing this.

Other worrying things in the past few weeks: I left the oven on for hours after removing the baking; and I left a gas burner on for about 45mins after taking the pan off it.

This is the stuff of old age. It's my nightmare of becoming That (Old) Person who does weird random stuff, hiding keys in the fridge and getting paranoid that people are breaking into my house and stealing my socks just because I can't find them.

And of course, fear of Alzheimer's.

Realistically what I think happened was that I was talking to my Monday guest and absent mindedly tossed it away without paying any attention to what I was doing. At least I hope that's what it was.

It's more proof that I just cannot talk and cook, or do any two things at once. I'm thinking I might just need to pay attention to what I'm doing. The stove and oven events were the same problem, thinking about something else altogether and not paying attention to what I was doing.

More evidence that mindfulness matters. If only to stop me from burning down the house.

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. 

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. 

Underestimating what others do

Walking home the other day I passed two women deep in discussion and caught part of their conversation. One woman said “once she explained it, it was just common sense really”. 

It got me thinking. Aside from the cliché that common sense is apparently not very common, I was struck by something that has bothered me professionally for years. 

A large portion of what I do at work is explain things: I make complicated stuff easy to understand. The problem with this is that once people understand the thing that was previously opaque, they no longer perceive its complexity. Nor do they recognise that the reason they now understand it is not because they suddenly just “got it” in a flash of self-generated insight, but because someone else worked hard to make it clear to them. 

It’s a peculiar bit of mind warping that goes on inside our heads at this moment of understanding. We congratulate ourselves on our cleverness at understanding and attribute it to our own brilliance. We completely overlook the person who has led us unobtrusively along the path to insight. 

Next time someone explains something to you and it seems really clear and straightforward, instead of congratulating yourself on your ability to grasp complex concepts quickly, congratulate them on their skill in communicating complex concepts simply.