Humbug

Deck the halls

It is December, let the festive season begin!

There are many parts of this time of year that I enjoy, the sparkly lights that make the darkness a little more bearable, the abundance of hot chocolate options, stodgy foods, and the fact that for many of us it’s a holiday and a chance to have a few days off with few expectations.

It is a time for friends and family, first and foremost. After that, if you are lucky enough, there is simply a few days of doing comparably nothing except staying warm and eating too much food.

This year, as we have for the last few years, my family are limiting the number of presents we buy. None of us really need anything, so the most recent addition to the family is where we focus and no doubt my wonderful niece will be spoiled rotten. Part of me hopes not too much though; is it too early to start reducing the expectation that Christmas Day is all about many many presents, and lots more stuff? Perhaps, she’s not even four years old but still, perhaps.

Mindful purchases will be made, and again I will fight the desire towards excess (I still have three bottles of Baileys from last year) but know it is part and parcel, manufactured or not, of the season.

There will be gatherings throughout this time, families will come together, friends will catch up after far too long apart, and the comfort those activities bring only adds to the sense of comfort and warmth and love.

We will get a tree and decorate it, we will string lights up to proclaim our happiness, and confess our luck all the while counting our many many blessings and all the shapes and forms in which they are delivered.

And all too soon it will be over, 2020 will have arrived we will start searching for new distractions and invariably end up back in the same routines as before.

Ohhh to find a way to hold on to the quiet joy that December holds, the gentle uplift of the soul by all those coloured lights bedecking halls, gardens, and buildings, the cheery optimism of Christmas songs.

Thoughts too for those less fortunate, and a desire to retain the awareness of those who need a little help and support throughout the year, even whilst it is keenly felt in the cold winds and frosts of our winter.

I’ve always liked December and the sense of joy and silliness it allows, adults can indulge their more childish impulses (yes, I have trifle for breakfast on Boxing Day!) whilst indulge their children even more. Pets are pampered and spoiled and everything feels a little more relaxed, almost like the relief of getting through to the end of another year is lifting from all of us.

I hope for snow to walk in on a frosty winters morning as much as I loathe the messy slush it becomes. I long for my childhoods of sneaking chocolates from the Xmas tree, and the open fire in our living room. I look forward to laughing long and hard, making the most of the short time that we all come together in one place for a while; even though the jokes are old they are ours and always raise a smile.

I realise that the mere contemplation of all of this is making me smile.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

November challenges

November is over and I no longer need to write a new post every day. It’s finished, done, finito. Looking back at what I’ve published and there are some posts in there that I’m pretty proud of, and others that I’m well aware I cobbled together even though I didn’t really have the motivation. But it was a month long challenge and I did it. Kudos and self fives to me!

It’s been a long time since I did something like this; it’s one thing blogging to a schedule as I did in 2018 (3 posts a week), quite another to do it every single day. To that end, having a list of titles provided was more liberating than I thought it would be, even on the topics I was dreading having to write about (hello religion and politics!) I found myself able to construct and firm up some thoughts that I’d normally have left pinging around my little brain as I scrabbled around to write for the topic of the day.

A few years ago I participated in NaNoWriMo – the goal of writing 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November – and managed to complete it even though that felt like a much bigger struggle as it became all encompassing, every evening I sat at the computer with the same base topic churning over and over in my head as I frantically typed and watched the word count rise. It felt like pressure and towards the middle it was a challenge to keep going, the motivation purely to hit a number count, not writing for the enjoyment of writing.

Each of the posts I wrote last month were a breathe of fresh air, given I was free of figuring out what to write about. It allowed my brain to wander and I think the posts are better for it. On the whole I wrote most of them a few days in advance, taking time over the weekends to draft the next four or five, then refining them day by day before scheduling them to appear on the correct day of the month.

And it all started somewhere else entirely.

I’ve been quietly using micro.blog for a few weeks now, mostly just to try it out, prompted by randomly browsing the archives of my own site and remembering a time where I didn’t care about the volume of each post as sometimes a thought can be captured in a few lines of text and nothing else is needed. I started following a few people there and towards the end of October, one of the people Jean MacDonald (a founder of micro.blog) said she was going to try something akin to NaNoWriMo just on a smaller scale and with a randomly generated word being used to prompt one post a day in November.

What a great way to force myself to use micro.blog everyday and so I followed suit and you can view them all here. They’ve been cross posted to Twitter as well, garnering a few likes on that platform which was interesting too.

Quickly after that, in response to Jean setting the challenge, another person on micro.blog – Andrew Canion – said he was doing a blog challenge in November along similar lines and before I realised we were into the middle of the first week of Thursday and I was committed to completing both challenges.

Both challenges have been fun and challenging in different ways; Keeping the micro.blog posts short and succinct has led to some creative thinking and forced me to boil down what I’m writing to only the essential words, the longer blog posts I’ve published here have allowed me to roam and think about the given topic and I’ve learnt a lot about myself on the way too, isn’t it always the way?

Part of me is glad the blog challenge is over, writing a new topic every day is taxing at times, but part of me wonders if I could keep it going, if given a decent list of topics to tackle. Having that focus removes all of the writers block for me, no more staring at an empty screen and hoping inspiration strikes, as each topic was enough to prompt at least a few lines of thought that I could pull together and expand on.

Equally the micro.blog challenge offered a different approach but the same freedom to explore.

Perhaps my occasional malaise about my blog is simply lack of inspiration.

Perhaps I will look to this approach more often in the future.

Perhaps.

For now, I’m glad to be able to not have to think about what I’m going to write tomorrow…
P.S. Did you spot the one that used the first letter of the prompt word to start each new paragraph?

Politics

The UK is facing a general election, driven by a vote two years ago that saw the UK vote for something they didn’t understand, that wasn’t defined, and still isn’t. In the US, the President is facing impeachment, having lied, blustered, and stoked hatred at every turn.

And today I’ve to write about politics?

Back in the UK the current ruling party have been directly to blame for austerity and the death of those at the margins of our society, homelessness has risen, the NHS has been decimated, amongst other measures, whilst the self-serving, insufferable, uncaring, leaders of the party continue to perpetuate a vicious dereliction of compassion.

It’s hard to consider politics as it should be when these days it’s all built on a system that favours the rich and loud, invariably white, men who benefit from keeping the general public in their place. The political landscape of the UK is not based on passionate debate but point scoring and name calling, with nary a thought for those of us who have to live day to day with the policies foisted upon us.

Invariably when discussing politics it’s hard to focus on the things that matter, the manifesto promises by each party, as opposed to wherever they are trying to get you to focus. Are you a Labour voter, here’s a Rabbi saying Corbyn is an anti-semite (that he may or may not be isn’t the point here, they are making you focus on this).

As a point it is one worth consider, do we want someone like that in power? Or should we just stick with Johnson and his blatant lies (and don’t get me started on the lack of impartiality being shown by the BBC at the moment), or maybe Swinson is the choice to make even though she is basically a Tory in disguise and as supported all of their most hated policies to date. And in Scotland, even the erudite Sturgeon splits opinion amongst many, even though the SNP have more MPs in Parliament than the Lib Dems.

All I know is that there is no intelligent discussion when discussing politics with any of these people, to wed to their views, to unwilling to even hint that they would compromise a little here and there to make things better for us, the voters. We are left with a choice that offers not real alternatives and the longer this continues the more it feels like a vote we made as a country a couple of years ago.

Back then, despite not knowing exactly how Brexit was going to benefit us, the UK voted for it. It is still on the table today along with many other vague promises and, once again, we will vote not based on knowledge but on dislike.

A vote for Labour is more about a vote against the Tories than for Labour, a vote for the SNP is more about a vote against the UK Parliament than it is about what’s best for the people of Scotland (if there is no second referendum), a vote for the Tories is more about keeping the socialist lefties out of power.

Underlying all of those decisions is hatred in one form of another, at the edges of all these parties are the extremists, but those edges are widening and even the most centrist of party members start to fall into one camp or another. You are either with us or against us.

It’s almost like we’ve all forgotten that we are supposed to be one humanity, living on one planet.

I will vote in the General Election, and I will watch the aftermath unfurl in what I already fear will be a predictable mess that will further erode civil rights and lower the standard of living for those on the breadline, whilst leaving the rich richer and more protected than ever.

And this is why I don’t talk about politics. It’s a bleak place, with little hope or beauty, and sunshine does not even dare venture here. It is broken, and hurtful, yet it is all we have.

Religion

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

I can still recite this prayer, word for word, despite not having actively set foot inside a church for the best part of 30 years. I’m not sure if that is awe-inspiring (the power of the human mind!) or terrifying (mind washed chanting), but there you have it.

My childhood was dominated by time spent in the church and in the church halls. Sunday School before the main service on a Sunday morning, Saturday clubs, and the Boys Brigade, all meant that for a while I spent most of my ‘organised’ leisure time there. It was great fun, aside from the boring God stuff of course.

I also joined Scripture Union sessions when I was in secondary school, even going to a week long SU camp on Arran a couple of times. Again, a lot of fun, and some wonderful memories, but again, there was that boring God stuff…

Except the God stuff isn’t all that boring, certainly not as I got older and started to actually READ the bible properly, to understand the stories better both in terms of their underlying messages but in some of the visceral imagery used. There are some wonderful stories in the bible, perfect for a young mind to latch on to and absorb.

But at some point, probably when I got to an age where I was allowed to make my own decisions as a young adult, I stopped going to church, the Boys Brigade ended for me too as I was no longer a ‘boy’, and God took a back seat in my life, easily written off as a bunch of stories written by men to influence and control other people.

I look back on my childhood, and those religious specific memories with nothing but fondness now, and can see it was good for me to be there, to be socialising, and learning how to be a kind person, even if that kindness was only viewed through a specific lens.

Unfortunately, and particularly as we attend Church of Scotland services, the older I got, the more bored and disinterested I became. It’s an area the church has definitely struggled with, staying relevant in modern times, and looking at the average age of those Sunday morning service attendees – which was already pretty high when I was still going – and you see why.

For a long time I just steered clear of the topic of religion, happily ensconced in my agnostic atheism (yes it’s a thing), but as my awareness of the world grew, so did my view into other religions.

What is it about religion that can bring such fervour?

To be clear, I’m not anti-religion, there are elements of what they aspire to that are good, it’s just unfortunate that many people who claim to be religious are really only interested in the aspects of a given religion that works for them. To my basic understanding, of the most populist religions at least, none of them suggest anything other than compassion for your fellow human, regardless of their circumstance. Yet wars have been started because of religion, individuals have been targeted, vilified, and killed because of religion, so remind me again why religion is a good thing?

I believe in science. I do not believe there is some omnipotent deity overlooking us. And yes, I’m aware that I hold a position of atheism and am talking in terms of the here and now, and that those of a religious persuasion will hold the view that there is more to life than what we see in front of so… well that’s a discussion that will never end.

There’s a reason that I’ve never really discussed religion on this blog, and this is it. I’m not anti-religion per se, just anti-religious factions that instil hate. I’m not anti-God per se, just against the use of a view of the world that inflicts pain and suffering on others.

I know many people who are religious, and by and large they are good people, who care for others, have kindness in their hearts, and understand that the world isn’t two-tone, that there are levels of acceptance that their religion may not have right, but which in their day to day lives they find a way to balance.

I’ve sat with Muslims who go to prayers every day, and have the occasional bottle of beer now and then. I’ve gone drinking with Jews who scoff down bacon rolls the next morning, I’ve lunched with devout Christians who swear and commit blasphemy more than many other people I know.

Life is a spectrum, and my problem with religion is when it forgets that fact. We are not all the same, one person is not the same as the next person, they are different by genetics, by social standing, by upbringing, by education, by nutrition, by the colour of their skin, by their abilities. Yet many of the religious writings and scriptures and studies don’t even knowledge these things, let alone give them any attention. And, given that all of the historic writing on religion was done by men, it’s easy to start to see how it has been easily used as a way to keep the ‘people’ in their place.

With all of that in mind, I look at the power that religion still wields today and the fanaticism that it can generate, and it’s just not something I can agree with or follow.

Finally we should tackle the entire notion of faith. It’s already a fallacy, given that I don’t have any faith in any God of any sort, but when I see this behaviour exhibited in other people who I consider to be smart it always baffles me (which, those who have it, will argue is why I don’t have it in the first place, circular logic is also something that baffles me when exhibited by those I consider smart, but I digress).

Faith: The assent of the mind to the truth of a proposition or statement for which there is not complete evidence.

And there you have it. Whilst I cannot completely prove there is not any God, you cannot completely prove to me there is and, as Stephen Fry once said, if there is one at all then looking at the world they built, it is clear they are a maniac; “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”.

I’ve yet to see an answer to that question that would give me faith.

I’ll let you know if I do.

Hope

Isn’t the world a wonderful place? Aren’t these trees, that grass, those bushes and flowers, amazing in so many ways? Is there anything better than a baby smiling at you? Or the perpetual joy with which your dog greets you when you get home, every night?

It’s very easy to look at the world we live in today with negativity. It’s overwhelming at times, a constant barrage of awful news, or pain and suffering, of disease and decay, of natural disasters, and man-made catastrophes. In the UK the headlines serve only to inform us of the corrupt and dishonesty that our political system is built upon, in the US a white nationalist moron is President, and round the world evil and hatred are in evidence and in power.

It can be hard to retain empathy and love, to find compassion and happiness in the midst of all this darkness. But more than ever it is essential that we find a way.

In the past I’ve talked about finding moments of beauty in your day, and invariably they rely on nature; either from the natural world or from a good deed by someone. Ultimately anything that makes you smile and distracts you for a fleeting second, taking your mind away from negativity and towards happier thoughts.

It doesn’t take much, but I find myself seeking them out more and more these days, building them up in an effort to staunch the tide of darkness that seems to be sweeping the globe. I’m lucky to have a happy home, and find myself gazing at our dogs as they sleep, snoring away without a care in the world, utterly content. What a wonderful state to be in.

I’ve been slowly getting back into my meditation habits as well, which is helping no end. A 10 minute pause and reset is all it really takes to let my brain calm and for some perspective to enter. The world isn’t as bad as it seems, that’s just how the media portray it, and if you look elsewhere on social media there is kindness and care to be found in abundance.

I hope that things will change and it won’t always seem as bleak, and I hope that as I continue to take note of the love around me that my view will remain as it is today, and that love and compassion will win out over hatred.

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

I hope.

Loss

The hurt of loss, the longing of one, the distance from those, the untouchable.

I wrote those words a long time ago.

Time is a great healer yet those who have lost loved ones will know, all too well, that it only takes a tiny moment to bring memories snapping back into vivid view in a heartbeat, all to remind you once again of the gap they have left in your life. It hurts, and while that hurt softens it never leaves you.

I can’t really remember all that much about my Grandpa passing. He’d been ill most of my life, suffering a number of strokes that left him in a wheelchair and able to speak. He remained a presence in the room though, and my earliest memories of him veer from the happiest as he laughed along with the rest of the family, to the darker ones. As he couldn’t express himself verbally he got easily frustrated and would bang the table loudly, it was frightening for a young boy to see.

I was sad when he died, he was still my Grandpa, and that meant something to me, even if I wasn’t sure what.

I was sadder when my Gran died. She looked after my Grandpa for the remaining years of his life, but still had time to look after me on occasion, and she was always happy to spoil her only grandson with ice cream and a toy from the local shopping centre. Towards the end, as she lay in a bed in her room in a local hospice, I would visit and tell her about my day and do my best to make her laugh, I usually managed it and I would leave slightly sad but comfortable that she was in the right place and knew that I cared for her. Her death is still keenly felt and, as my own mother has been in and out of hospital over the past few years, I find myself thinking back to my Gran.

Grief and loss felt very isolating. My approach to grief has been to lock it away from others, almost as if I’m trying to protect it from hurting anyone else, and most definitely because loss is a very personal thing. I know the things that I missed when my Gran died will be different to those the rest of my family felt.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, just as there are no right and wrong emotions when that moment comes. I can remember a sense of relief when my Gran passed; seeing someone you love dearly lying in a bed in a care home in her final days are not how I want to remember my Gran. So in a strange way it was, alongside the sadness, a weight off my mind. Now I was free to remember the Gran I knew as a small boy, spoiling me with ice cream and toys, and in later years as I grew older, telling stories of how she and her friends would dress up in their finest and deliberately wander past where the American soldiers were camped out during the war!

Loss is unique, and overwhelming, and natural, and sad, and an opportunity to remember the good things, and the further we get from the moment of loss itself, the more I find solace in the happy memories, the laughter and love that I still carry in my heart.

Shoes

There is an old joke that goes: “Before you judge a person, walk a mile in their shoes. After that who cares? They’re a mile away and you’ve got their shoes.” Badummtshhh!

It is, of course, a riff on the idiom that is typically stated as “Before you judge a person, walk a mile in their shoes” the idea being that you shouldn’t judge people until you better understand their life experiences, the challenges they carry every day, and how they view the world. It’s about developing empathy and perspective or, to put it another way, it’s about learning to manage your own emotions.

To wit, the shoes in question don’t really matter (history suggests the idiom originates with native Americans so likely they’d be wearing moccasins or some such), so perhaps these days it’s probably fair to say that with the astonishing designs, prices, and sheer volume of the range of shoes available to those who can afford them, it might be a more apt phrase than ever.

The other day, as I left work, I saw a long queue of people waiting outside a store. It’s not a store I’ve ever stepped foot in, but I’m pretty sure it’s a clothes stor… sorry, “fashion boutique”. It’s 4pm and there is a security guard in attendance at the front door, with a long queue already standing in orderly… er.. fashion.. behind a red velvet rope cordon.

It’s not something you see ever day so with my curiosity piqued I altered my route to wander past.

The queue is largely made up of young faces, teenagers and twenty-somethings, their faces lit by the screens they bow to view. As I get closer I peer inside the shop and can see that the red velvet ropes extend into the store, where there are more people waiting in a queue that snakes round one side of the store and up to the rear where there is a tall clear glass display cabinet, spot light in dazzling white, that contains two pairs of trainers set at jaunty angles as they rotate slowly on a pedestal. Each pair look identical in design and only differ in colour; one is a shade of olive, the other a light salmon pink. There are no other discernible factors or uniqueness and, from a distance, they look like they could be any other pair of trainers, render into these colours. In the queue of people waiting inside, most have their phones raised as they capture their latest Instagram, or Snapchat, or TikTok, or [insert latest fad].

I’ll admit that, as I walked past, I made judgements about those people. I judged them based on their age, I judged them based on their clothes, and yes I judged them because they were queuing to buy a pair of trainers at what I could only presume was an exorbitant price or, as I’m sure the designer would suggest, at a ‘premium’.

Part of me feels ashamed at that. I don’t know any of them, I don’t know if this is a purchase for them, if it’s the only thing they are treating themselves to this year, I don’t know if they don’t have any other hobbies and this is part of their social life. The other part of me wonders what on earth the world has come to when people will queue up to buy a pair of, to my eye, fairly non-descript trainers at what I’m presuming is an inflated price and which, again I’m presuming, have been endorsed by a celebrity whom I’ve never heard of.

Wow, listen to me, the out of touch and angry old man, raging against a world he doesn’t understand.

Sometimes it’s hard to gain perspective, or at least hold it, when you are seeing things that fundamentally just don’t seem right and definitely don’t feel relatable to your own world view. Admittedly this is a terrible example to use but the point stands, I only see the world from my own perspective, through my own experiences. I am applying my own morals to others and that isn’t right or fair.

Learning to put all that aside requires a lot of effort but it is possible. Emotional labour, as Hannah Gadsby recently said, is something that many millions of people do, multiple times, every single day. Those people are mostly women, so I think it’s about time that men took a turn.

It can be easy to start too, honestly, you just need to fight a basic urge. The next time you want to voice an opinion, ask yourself this, did the person I’m talking to ask for my opinion in the first place?

Simple. Right?

And it’s from there you realise that un-requested opinions tend to come from one place, with one point of view in mind, one perspective. Moving that view can be hard but it is possible.

Then, when you have walked a mile in another persons shoes, you’ll understand why their feet hurt, how sore their blisters are, and realise that your legs are aching.

‘How on earth did they manage to walk in these things?’ you’ll wonder.

And then you’ll realise.

These aren’t your shoes, and whilst you now have some aches and pains you’ve never had before, you’ll maybe start to appreciate that the way other people walk, and the shoes they were, aren’t wrong, or bad, just different.

Money

I don’t like talking about money. I find it similar to discussing religion or politics, it’s can be a very divisive topic and you can soon find yourself dragged into the long grass as emotions start to kick in.

I mostly don’t like talking about it because I’ve not been that great with money for a long time and, whilst I’m lucky to earn a steady wage, there is always an element of shame in admitting this. Over the past couple of years, and especially in the last year, I’ve wisened up and gotten a much better handle on both my spending habits (top tip: start here!) and started to reduce my debt, debt I’ve been carrying for a long long time.

There is a level of shame attached to debt. As a grown-up you are supposed to be knowledge about these things yet it’s one of the things they don’t teach at school which still baffles me. Given the first few years of secondary school is really more about HOW to learn, than WHAT you are learning, surely a “Life Studies” course could feature? Cover the basics of how to manage your finances – how to budget, how much to save – and then move on to other things you only learn as an adult; why voting is important, perhaps.

However, once I plunged in to my own finances and started tracking what I was spending it quickly became apparent that my month to month existence was barely sustainable. It’s fine whilst I’m working, but as soon as I stop I’ll be in quite a bit of difficulty. Worrying but as I looked more at how to better manage my money, it became manageable and not quite as scary.

Right now I have a three year plan to get debt free and every chance I get I throw a little more money at the debt, sometimes only an extra £20, knowing it all adds up. Being a geek I, of course, manage all this using a spreadsheet. One tab for the standard outgoings across my own bill payment account and our joint account, and another tab for tracking the debt (which allows me to adjust the amount owed, interest rate, and minimum payments). This second tab is where I’m gaming myself to reduce the time to ZERO DEBT, every penny paid against my debt helps, and in the past six months I’ve managed to squirrel away a little extra and brought the end date in four months. Go me!

It also means I’m always looking to reduce my regular outgoings. This is always a balance as while I could easily live without things like Netflix, there is a quality of life that I want to maintain a semblance of. Ultimately if needed I could quickly cut a few subscriptions, but they are last resort items.

Part of this focus means that, next month we get a new car. It’s bigger than the one we have now, has more bells and whistles, and is costing me about £100 a month less. I’m quite chuffed with this deal, and while part of me knows I could’ve gone smaller and cheaper, and shaved another £100 a month off my outgoings, this car is a way of future proofing the next four years as best I can; no MOT, we have very low mileage so probably only one service, means lower running costs than my current car. Equally, I’m leasing it so if, for whatever reason, I can’t afford to pay then I simply hand it back.

I should also mention Monzo (apologies to those whom I’ve already bored with this topic).

When we decided to move in together we agreed to get a Joint Account into which we would both contribute our share of the household bills. A quick search brought me to Monzo and as I had a vague memory of some friends using it, and saying good things about it, we signed up. From discussion to confirmation took an evening, it was remarkably simple and since then I’ve switched to using Monzo as my own personal account.

Monzo is simply a bank account, but it is app-only (no branches) which means they are focused on making the features available in the app better and better. So, not only do I get instant notifications whenever I spend anything – something that I thought would be annoying has actually made me much more mindful as you are aware every single time you spend and quickly realise how often you buy coffees – but the app includes the idea of Savings Pots where you can store money. In an ‘out of sight out of mind’ way of thinking it offers just enough friction to help you build up little savings to soften the blow of future outlays. Better yet, you can set up scheduled payments into these pots and build them slowly over time. I have a Pot called ‘Gigs’ into which I put £5 a week. Every time I buy a gig ticket, I can simply move money from that Pot back into my account to recoup the cost of the tickets.

And for the geeks amongst us it also has an IFTTT integration, meaning you can automate transfers to Pots based on the day of the week, the weather, if you’ve posted to Twitter (a social media tax kinda idea), and more.

You can easily split bills with other people who use Monzo, a few taps and they can settle their share, ohhh I could go on…

Oddly this micro-focus on money has helped me more than I realised and since moving to Monzo back in February I’ve gotten a handle on my pensions (and moved them to Pensionbee (use that link and we both get a £50 bonus if you sign up!)), I have a separate Marcus savings account, and a separate Plum savings (again, referral fee applies) and investments account as well. Again, having these other accounts means I can’t readily see the money in the bank account I use daily and it’s made such a difference to have those backups; during our American holiday this year we ended up wanting to stay an extra night in New York, without the savings in Marcus account it wouldn’t have been possible but, because it’s out of sight and out of mind, it was easily manageable!

Plum is an interesting one, as once it’s linked to your bank account it will ‘trickle’ savings based on a set of criteria you control. It’s a set and forget kinda thing, and will grab a few pounds here and there and move it out of your account. I’m past £100 since I signed up in June, and I’ve barely noticed it. Similar apps exist, Chip does the same kinda thing, I’d give them a look.

Sure my total savings isn’t all that much, but it’s enough of a buffer and it’s something I didn’t have in place at the start of the year. It all feels very grown up in theory, but I’ve found the apps, like Plum, make it much more understandable and oddly less serious, it’s almost fun to save some pennies each week this way.

If I sound a little zealous about all of this, then I apologise, I’m as wary as the next person of those who try and convert people to things just because they worked for them.

But it’s really hard not to sing the praises of things that made a material difference and which have helped you turn a corner that always seemed out of reach.

I’m a contractor, and the other day I had my usual catchup call with my accountant. Every year we chat through any changes and see if there are other things that I should be looking at. The past couple of years I’ve not really paid all that much attention as I didn’t have these plans in front of me, but chatting last week and I realised that I’m actually more on top of things than I realised and that the next phase of my ‘money life’ can start.

That means ISAs, Life Insurance, Mortgages and more.

I think back to my upbringing and realise that I’m not wholly to blame for my lack of money education, it’s just not something that people talk about openly which makes it all seems like a bit of a dark art. Yet, shedding a little light on these things has reduced my stress about them and makes me far more comfortable, and knowledgeable, about them moving forward.

Even now, writing this post, I feel awkward and vulnerable knowing that others will see this, and that’s part of the struggle, removing the stigma of money and realising it’s ok that I’ve not been great with it in the past, it’s the future that concerns me more now and I feel in a much better place to tackle that with optimism.

It’s taken a fair bit of hard work to get me to this point but where there’s a will there’s a way, ohhh that reminds me, I need a will…

Infrastructure

Invariably I find myself looking for ways to streamline things. I seem to be wired that way, and if I can find a quicker and better way to do something, even if it means bending a rule or two then that’s fine by me. Of course, sometimes better means slower, and that’s fine too, it’s not about speed, it’s about better results. In that age old metric of work, you can only control three things, resource, speed, and quality, so it’s always a balancing act.

Now, I should point out that this was all borne back in my childhood. Our family home had two flights of stairs – the toilet was on the half-landing – and frequently items that needed to be upstairs were left on the bottom step. The maxim was ‘never go upstairs empty handed’. It’s something that has stuck to this day (and once again living in a place with stairs I find myself foisting it on my partner!) and was probably the first little life hack that I used, and that was WAY back before they were even things called life hacks, or hacks for that matter.

For example, for a few years now I have made sure to have a staging area near my front door (not so near that nasty people can sneakily hook car keys or the like through a letter box though!). It means my house keys, my work pass, my headphones, the car keys, all have a place to live so when I am leaving the house I don’t need to go searching for them. I have a similar area in our bedroom on top of my chest of drawers, on it is a small wooden tub into which I empty my pockets at night so that, in the morning, I know where to find my wallet and any spare change I wish to carry. My phone and watch are on chargers nearby so that helps streamline my morning. Little gains that make my life easier

Really it’s all about removing as many decisions as possible. The most famous recent example is Barack Obama who spent his presidency with two choices of colours of suit, black or dark blue. Anything else meant he had to make a choice and, as President, his entire day was built around making decisions so the fewer he had to make the more emotional energy he would have available to make them, and to make better decisions. A reasonably crucial piece of thinking for a President I’d have thought…

Ahhh but let’s not open that (orange tanned) kettle of (rotting and putrid to the core) fish. Obviously I’m not making Presidential decisions (can you even imagine!) but the basic premise stands true for everyone, if you can streamline your day a little it’ll has the potential to go better and leave you with more energy at the end of your day. This is just one example of the little things I’ve done to build my own little infrastructure to help myself.

Sometimes I have taken this too far, but that can be half the fun of trying something new. I didn’t always leave a bag hanging from the handle on the back of my front door to remind me to take it with me, and for the most part it worked except that one time I was tired, and rushing, and forgot that the bag had a bottle of wine in it and… well you know that moment when something happens and time slows, and the horror of what is happening descends, and you can’t do anything about it, and so you watch and hope and cringe and… thankfully the bottle didn’t smash but I took it as a sign to reconsider that idea.

There are many ways you can build your own systems, a quick google for life hacks will give you enough reading material for years, and all I can suggest is to pick the ones that solve something that irks you. That’s where it usually starts for me, a (very) minor annoyance is all it takes.

Recently, one of our dogs had an evening of unrest. Clearly had an upset stomach and so we were in and out with him for most of the night. We don’t have a back garden so every time he wanted out I’d get up, put on my jacket, take off my slippers and wrestle my feet into the shoes I keep by the front door for such an occasion. He was in and out almost every hour of the evening, and by the end I was fed up wrestling with the shoes. The laces were quite loose but couldn’t be undone any more or the shoes would fall off my feet.

Up until then, of course, this hadn’t been an issue. A very very minor moment of inconvenience a couple of times a night, but that night was the proverbial straw and off I headed to find a solution. The internet quickly provided me a solution which, as it happened, I already had at home. A few months previous I had gotten a new pair of running shoes in the vain hope of getting back to being able to jog more than the length of myself without dying. I used to jog frequently and when I did one of the best investments I made were elastic laces. I have wide flat feet so getting the lacing right was always an issue, but elastic laces sorted that out for me.

Cue me heading upstairs to confirm that I had, because I am indecisive, ordered two colours of elastic laces for said running shoes and so I had a spare set; a ready made solution to my ‘dog walking shoes’ issue.

Today all I need to do is slide my feet into the shoes and the elastic laces take care of the rest. Simple. It’s just another little thing but, when you add them up, and consider that over the years I’ve dealt with pretty much all my every day annoyances in this way, it means that the sum is far greater than the parts; the infrastructure that supports how I live my life won’t ever be complete (all part of being happily imperfect), but it works for me

Until it doesn’t. Thankfully I don’t live my life within some rigid, automaton, set of processes. Life, for me, is about happiness, joy, and so the occasional mishap isn’t that big a deal. The infrastructure is not critical. Just imagine if it was though, imagine a creaking infrastructure of roads, or IT systems, and everything that goes into them. How many individuals strands are tied together at crucial points; anyone stuck in a traffic jam knows how little it takes to break these things, one little rupture is all it takes.

Ruptures ruin the flow, and everything breaks down.

End times.

Toast

It’s the simplest of things.

Take a slice of bread, put it in the slot, drop the lever and wait. After a short time the lever POPS! and there you have it, perfectly browned toast, yours to adorn it however you wish, and ohhhh the choices are myriad.

My usual toppings for a breakfast slice or two involves butter and whatever sweet condiment I have to hand, most often it’s honey, occasionally it’s jam and if the mood has taken me as I wander the supermarket isles, there may even be the option of a lemon curd or bramble jelly. But it all starts with butter, and sometimes that is all that is needed.

The bread is, of course, important, and again the mood and circumstance dictate. A few years ago, with a hangover looming over my day, I ventured to the shop across the road, purchased a loaf of fresh sliced white bread and retreated home, there to consume it, slice by delicious buttered slice, through the rest of the day.

These days I tend to treat myself a little better, and love nothing better than thick cut seeded loaf of some sort. We also get responsibly sourced heather honey from a Scottish producer which, along with a smear of butter, brings a little bit of luxury to my weekend mornings.

Eating out is a different matter and I recently bemoaned the distinct lack of choice when it comes to some of the places we visit, with any form of brunch or breakfast invariably served on toasted sour-dough which, whilst not a bad choice most days, is becoming so ubiquitous it’s getting a little boring. I like a nice sour-dough loaf as much as the next person, but c’mon folks, let’s mix it up a bit!

A few years ago I went through a spell of making my own bread which is as simple as it is therapeutic, even if living alone meant I’d end up consuming the entire thing myself, with the first half usually gone during the ‘fresh from the oven’ phase… oops.

Be it plain, white, brown, or any of the myriad of regional variations, whether it originated in the British Isles or hails from over the sea (I do love a brioche, merci la France!) the simple act of toasting bread and adding butter remains a simple and underestimated pleasure.

So, next time you pop a couple of slices in the toaster, take time to marvel at what is going on. The chemistry involved in the baking of the bread, with that wonderful soft flesh inside that is rendered new into a warm, crispy, deliciousness, by what very well may be the invention of the century, which is only further heightened simply by applying butter.

Toast, it really is the breakfast of champions.


And for those of you of a certain age, have an earworm…

Morning all. I’d like to tell you about when I was a young boy. Must have
been three or four months old at the time. I didn’t really know what I
wanted, and if I did, I wouldn’t have been able to tell anybody, ’cause all
I could do was gurgle.
So, I sat there in me highchair, thinking one day, looking at me tray and
thinking what I’d give for a meal on there.
So, I started looking round to see what I could have.
I was rubbing me eggy soldier in me head, trying to think, and I looked in
the corner and there’s a little breadbin with its mouth open, just staring
at me, like.
Toast by Streetband (and yes, that’s Paul Young)