Thursday, 25 February 2010

Human Interest Story

This is a bit off my usual blogometer, but give me patience as I adjust to my new job, please thank you.

At work I'm going to be working on a project involving older people and social inclusion. It is a serious and compelling issue and I'm excited to be a part of it. I've worked with a government programme for older people before, and I was on the front line, speaking to (and hopefully helping) people, so I know how confusing new services and processes can be for this demographic.

I also understand a little about the loneliness that older people can feel as well. I remember reading an article (I will find and link it) about a man who put an ad in the local paper offering to pay £7 an hour for people to go for a pint with his father. It was a sad and touching story, reflective of our modern lives - the adults who are too far away or too busy to care for their parents, the longer periods of retirement as average life expectancies increase with each year that pass, and the need for companionship. The point that the article made was that older people often don't need someone to do something with - there are SAGA holidays and local meetings and other such events where people of similar age group can do activities together. No, it is the moments of doing nothing that are the loneliest. People don't need someone to do something with, they need someone to do nothing with.

It is this weird place that I find myself too. I can spend hours talking to my partner on Skype or on webcam or on the phone, but there are times for conversation and there are times when I'd rather just sit and be in a room with him, silently co-existing. People ask if I miss him. I say I don't miss him when I am busy doing things, it is when I am doing nothing that I would like to be doing nothing with him.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Those to come

I had gone through to the city for a friend's birthday drinks. It had been a wonderful evening, but depressingly grown up; it involved one full-blown argument about art and another about Chekhov. We also talked about politics, and the house that one friend was about to buy, about the teaching career another was to embark on, about my career and my new job, and about job hunting in general, which of course many of my friends are still pursuing.

"Of course, you know what you're talking about," was the comment directed at me. I suppose I do. I know as much about what doesn't work as what does. No, I know more about what doesn't work than what does. I've also spent some time considering this whole job market world, helping friends with CVs, playing with my CV, playing trial and error with job applications.

"I think, if I had a question, I would probably ask you..." which I replied "Half of it is just knowing where to look for information. I have spent a long time looking for information and now I know where to look."

Still ain't an expert though, and I don't pretend to be. But nevertheless, I'm getting a reputation for myself it seems, which is no bad thing.

Which is also my round-about way of saying that I still have a lot to say on here, so hold tight and don't think I'm deserting my blog because I found a job.

Incidentally, I'm quite looking forward to getting stuck into my new role. It's with a very interesting organisation that pursues a lot of interesting projects.

One could say that I'm very lucky indeed...

Monday, 15 February 2010

see-saw for thought

Many people use the new year as a time for reflection and taking mental stock. I use long bus journeys.

This bus journey in particular was heading towards a job interview, unexpected, but very welcome, as a result of the phone call the other week.

It is almost exactly a year since I finished (what will hopefully be) my last stint in a temp job, called up a friend and met for burgers and pints; a joint celebration/commiseration while waiting for the future to begin. Since the job market was shoddy and it looked unlikely I'd find another temp job soon, and I was already almost over-stretching in trying to balance my work/uni/life commitments, the rest of the year looked open and empty ahead of me. I had been worried about how Uni was going, about how I would find more work, worried about money and paying the rent and the council tax and the bills, worried about where I would be headed afterwards and how I was going to get a career started, I was worried about my social life and the effect that working so hard had had on my relationships with people. I was still kind of getting over a bout of flu that I'd suffered from a couple of weeks before, feeling exhausted because my body hadn't quite recovered and because the weather was dark and sharp in the cold, lingering grip of Scottish winter.

The future began the next day when I met some of my Uni friends for nachos and I met the person who was to change the course of the year and the course of my life. In the past year I have gained my degree, had language classes, gone backpacking, had an absolute blast working in the deli, gone abroad and gotten engaged. It is far beyond what I could have comprehended a simple year ago.

My partner and I often tell each other that we balance each other out. We are individuals, unique and different and sometimes polar opposites. But we are also a team, working together and pulling the best out of each other, giving each other a kick up when one of us is down. We are each other's harshest critics and each other's biggest champions. We are stronger together.

This is a new experience for me, something I have had to learn over the past year. I am still getting used to constantly thinking of someone else in everything that I consider, in every action I take. I'm still getting used to compromising and discussing and deciding as two people, not just one.

As I stepped off the bus and headed towards the office, I barely gave a thought to pepping myself up for the interview. If it didn't work out, it didn't matter. If that's one thing the past year has taught me, it's that I can pick myself up and start again.

With that in mind I talked myself through the 90 minute interview (mostly) confidently, answered (almost) every question eloquently and drew competency examples from my whole career. Afterwards, I bid good-day to my interviewers and got a bus to work, and that's when I started to panic about my performance.

Until a few hours passed, and I received the phone call, and I received the job offer.

Needless to say, my partner is also ecstatic for me. It's a win for the team, after all!

Unfortunately my partner did not receive the same kind of news from a job application he'd been waiting on, and that news absolutely broke my heart. I would rather that he had had the good news, over and above myself. I wanted to make it right, to balance the see-saw, even push it to his favour.

So it's been a bittersweet week for our team, a strange combination of jubilation, heartbreak, and determination.

But we're riding it together, and when you balance it out, we're doing alright.

Monday, 8 February 2010

PAW for thought

"What's your post-apocalyptic skill?" My mum asked.

"Uhhh... I can knit. A bit. But not that well. I don't think I could knit anything useful."

Knitting is mum's skill. She once knitted me an Amy Winehouse doll. No pattern or anything. It was featured on the Heat Magazine website and everything. Okay, so that's not so useful either, but she knits all manner of clothing and toys. She's also a great seamstress and makes clothes...including wedding dresses.

"I can't shear a sheep or spin wool either, so that's useless. Anyway, all the clothes shops would still have clothes in them, for a while, until they all got looted."

"Looting might not happen," my mum pointed out. She'd obviously thought about this. "We're talking about an abstract situation here. There might not be any power or many people, but it doesn't mean shops couldn't open for a time, or that people couldn't function normal lives. In the short-term things might be okay, we'd have food and clothing and structures. It's the long term that we would need to plan for."

"Riiight. Ok." I wasn't quite sure mum was still being hypothetical, and I was also too engrossed in an online flash game.

"So what's your skill then?" She asked again.

"I don't know. I'm really good at this sushi game."

"That's your skill? Playing a sushi game?"

"It's really hard! You have to memorise the menu, make the dishes, keep an eye on all the customers, make sure they are all being catered for, make sure you never run out of ingredients and that you're making enough money..."

Actually. It's just like my job making sandwiches at the deli.

Damn. I pushed my laptop away. I suddenly didn't want to be playing at my job on my day off.

"Well, I know about politics. I can get discounts in taxis apparently."

My mum rolled her eyes and started a new line of knitting the complicated scarf she was working on, "I meant a useful skill. Think about it. In a post-apocalyptic world, you don't know how many people have survived, and what their skills will be. We'll need doctors and medical experts, we'll need farmers and horticulturalists, engineers and electricians, communications experts and teachers to pass on skills to the next generation. The next generation will be really important, and how would we decide which children learn which skills?"

"Well, it'd be a throw-back to early economics. The children of the craftsfolk would take on their parents' trades, most likely. Learn from an early age." I added.

"But is that the best way to do it?" My mum pressed. "Because, in the post-apocalyptic era it'll be vital to have the best people possible learning these skills in the shortest amount of time. What if the doctor's son is better at cooking? At what age would they decide to choose their vocation? Is it truly fair to dictate to them what they should do?"

"That's not really different from now. Capitalism. The best people become successful in their chosen field."

"But it will be more imperative if there are fewer people and survival is the aim, to choose the best skilled people to fill these roles, in a short space of time."

"That could be a democratic decision..." I led.

"Depending on how big the post-apocalyptic community would be, we'd need to be organised and assign roles accordingly so that we could pull together and survive."

"And in order to organise the community you'll need people who are skilled in organising and who know the principles of leading communities..." I continued.

"Well, it'd have to work on group decisions, like community meetings to make these decisions," my mum pondered.

"And you'd need people who knew the best methods for making group decisions, or who knew the theories and difficulties in creating good and fair systems for effective control of groups of people."

"I suppose so."

"So you'd need people who knew about politics then. And had experience in administrating groups of people." I smiled, wide-eyed.

"Well, I suppose so," my mum conceded.

"There you go. Not so useless after all." I grinned.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Payment in Kind

I'm not great at smalltalk. I'm okay with customers, and I enjoy chatting to them, but I'm certainly not the best one in the team for in-store chatter. I'm useless at taxi banter. I either have nothing to say, or I can't think of anything to say, or I'm too tired, or I'm too focused on getting from A to B. I'm just not very good at it, and that is a bit shameful to admit. However, I recently found myself in a taxi on the way home from work.

"So how are you this evening?" The taxi driver asked in a friendly manner.

"I am good," I said, anunciating and emphasising each word positively. "How are you?"

"I'm good thanks. Exams right now?"

"No, no, no. I work at the deli, actually." I smiled. Smart coat, well spoken, getting a taxi: He thought I was a student. I lament each time I have to admit that I'm no longer a student. I miss the days of student discounts and the connotation of youth. Nah, I'm a "real" person now. It's quite an honour really, some of the female students in this town are very beautiful. Exquisite. But I'm not one of them, sadly.

"Oh really, that's a nice place! In town, yeah?"

"Yes, it is, it's a great place to work too. Bit quiet though, what with the students being away. Has it been quiet for you?" Students here are quite known for their use of taxi services.

"Yeah it has. I mean Christmas and New Year are busy, but it's a quiet time of the year, January."

"It's funny," I added, "residents complain about the students, but without them, the local businesses suffer."

"I wouldn't have thought that many students went to your place though." Taximan pondered.

"There are lot of wealthy students round here," I replied knowingly; he would have first hand experience of this too.

"Aye, you're right there. So how long have you worked there?"

"Just since I finished Uni, really. Moved back home and I'm saving up money at the moment."

"Oh, very good. What did you graduate in?" He seemed genuinely interested.

I lowered my head. My answer is a potentially dangerous answer to give to a taximan. It could open a can of worms. But I know I can play it right. I laugh at my self and reply in a self-depricating manner, "Politics. Nothing interesting."

"Oh wow, that's great. Now I don't know much about things, so maybe you can give me your expert opinion on the whole MP expenses scandal."

I considered my words for a moment and replied "It was out of order, it was totally out of order, but their claims were allowed under the system so I think it was unfair that they had to pay back money retrospectively. And I know MPs make the system, but I think a culture of abuse grew over the years. I don't know if the MPs who abused the expenses were being malicious and deliberately stretching the system, or if they are the kind of folk who are so removed from ordinary people that they thought it was genuinely acceptable. And I can't decide which is worse."

"Well, if they are that removed from ordinary people, should they be in power, really?"

"Exactly. MPs are members of the House of Commons...'commoners' allegedly."

"Aye. So what do you think of David Cameron?"

This is a difficult question to answer, though probably easier to answer than being asked what I thought of Gordon Brown.

"I don't know," I sighed. "He reminds me of Tony Blair at the beginning. He certainly seems to have a similar PR campaign: He's fresh, he's slick, he's promising something different. But that makes it hard to see if the Tory party really are different now."

"I think I agree with you there about being slick like Tony. But it's his background isn't it?"

"Well, yes, how many 'commoners' go to Eton?" I then argued that it doesn't mean you have to be out of touch, if you've got what people call 'life experience'.

"Aye, I don't know much about the politics side of it, but I was in the military 29 years, so I know a bit about 'life experience.' Do you think he is out of touch?" It was more an insightful question than a leading question, but still, I couldn't answer. I genuinely don't know. I didn't learn that bit at uni!

"So what do you think of Tony Blair then?" Again, a question out of genuine interest. I got the feeling he was really trying to get some light on the subject, rather than trying to get an opinion, or to share his opinion. This was interesting to me.

And it's not that I'm an expert in all of this. But I do know how to frame an argument or two.

"He promised a lot at the beginning, and I think he probably did a lot of good, changed the direction of the country in a way it needed to go. We needed to change, desperately. However, he probably damaged his reputation with the whole Iraq war thing."

The taximan seemed to agree.

"It's not my area of expertise I'm afraid," I added. "I think it was wrong to use 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan as an umbrella for the war in Iraq. I think that was entirely misleading. I'm not an expert in that region though." I felt ashamed. I should know more. I am very clued up on certain areas, and extremely weak on others. That ain't great, I know, but at least I admit it.

"So what is your expertise then?" he asked.

I laughed at myself again, "uuuh, Europe, So I know a lot about the EU!" I nodded shamefully, "Another controversial area!"

He laughed. "I only know about what's in the papers, about bendy bananas and stuff. What do you think of the EU?"

"It's a great idea in theory. Look at it - it makes countries cooperate when they had previously been at war with each other, opens up markets and make trade easy. But in practice it's a mess.

"UKIP MEPs could be claiming much crazier expenses than our MPs did, from an institution they allegedly want to dismantle. But we don't even know, because the system is so clouded.

"Even the new President was elected behind closed doors. That certainly doesn't engage people.

"The media and MPs blame the EU for unpopular decisions, which doesn't help. There is a culture of misunderstanding about the EU and it's completely unproductive.

"And it's so, so complicated. I studied it for years and still don't understand the EU. What hope do ordinary citizens have of understanding it?"

And we arrived at my house. I tailed off..."well, that's just what I think."

"Thank you," the taximan exclaimed, "it's been a pleasure talking to you. It's opened my eyes. Always good to talk to someone who knows how to think. I'll give you a discount."

"No no no no, not at all," I replied. And there was me working out the tip as I rifled for my purse.

"No way. I insist. It's been a great ride. Have a good evening."

I hope it doesn't make me a bad person for accepting his discount, but he did insist. I'd like to think it was a mutually beneficial journey. I might "know how to think" but I can't drive, and he can. And he definitely seems to know how to get someone talking...eep.