Friday, 22 April 2011

Easter's majesty

In case you were curious as to the sort of company you keep, my blog has 17 official followers. An average number of 15 "friends" on facebook read the facebook links to my blog each time I post one. My blog visitor counter stats say that between 35 and 45 people visit my blog most weeks - an average of 5-7 each day. That would lead me to think that around 30 people (in the world) read each of my posts. These people may differ, from post to post, of course.

Meanwhile about 78 people/organisations follow me on Twitter. I cannot seem to break through the 80 people milestone and stay there. I pass it every few days, only to find that a day later 2 or 3 followers have de-followed me. I wonder if this is a reflection on the quality of my tweets, my politics as reflected thereby or my failing to follow them back.

It's a fickle old world.

And if those amazing stats were not enough, did you know that an estimated1 billion people around the world will watch the coverage of the Royal Wedding next Friday (superbly timed as a morning event to allow for all the Anglophiles in the far flung reaches of the Commonwealth to tune in).

Of course, if I start tweeting about the Royal Wedding things may begin to look up for me...


Instead, given today is Good Friday, I will post a few thoughts about this day.

Today is my favourite day of the year. Good Friday is a holiday here in England - from work anyway - if not shopping. The great thing about Good Friday - in most places I should think, is that the weather is good. None of the forced jollity under grey skies that is the English Christmas. Nor the stinking hot humidity of summer Christmases. April (or March) is generally mild and pleasant. But that is not why I love this holiday.

No the clincher is the reason for which we have this nice quiet long weekend - the weekend that never ends (especially when followed by the once in a generation treat of a Royal Wedding so soon after). Aside from the fact that I enjoy a holiday bereft of commercial pressure, I revel in the reminder of my humanity, the reminder that this weekend we remember that we are united in the pain and suffering of all people across the world and through the ages. Like Jesus, dying on the cross to complete his life on earth as a man, we all suffer. Today we remember the indignity, the shame, the humiliation, the self-sacrifice and the isolation that Jesus was subjected to, as a man. Most of us will face less than this, hopefully, in our lives. And yet, the fortitude and love with which Jesus faced this event, his passion and death, gives us all pause for thought - whether we believe in Him or not.

So I love this day. It is quiet, sombre, imbued with meaning. It helps me to be grateful for my good fortune. It helps me to pause and give thanks, to reflect on the suffering and hardship in the world around me. To contemplate those who suffer. To contemplate my own challenges and hardships with renewed courage and perspective.

And to look forward to a brighter day too and the triumph it will bring over evil, over pain and affliction.


That was Easter Sunday by the way - not the Royal Wedding day...

However, on a brighter note, the Royal Wedding is certainly exciting us all here in London. Union Jacks adorn the pubs walls and windows of many proprietors. The news reports tragic events abroad, smog levels that are dangerously high in the city, and great April weather that is breaking all records. Best of all is the wedding news though.

I think my next post will analyse the event, if not from a pole position on the Mall or Whitehall (where I once worked) then from a community of pleasant Londoners sharing a Kensington garden square and throwing their own Royal Wedding Garden party next Friday.

Call me an opportunist if you like. I bet my blog's popularity surges!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Holiday entertainment? It's child's play.

Now that the holidays are upon us it is with joy and excitement that I read all the postings for parents about how to entertain the kids on vacation (since a book, a bike or the odd colouring session will not be enough).

This reminded me of a chapter in Spring to Mind in which I mused over the diversity and extent of kid-oriented activities and classes on offer these days. Rather than recast those thoughts here, I thought I would just extract them for you – whet your appetite as it were (mindful that sooner or later the whole book will be republished here for the 17 of you who bother to read this...).

“...I guess the current generation of under 10s is more driven and scheduled than we ever were. I remember pestering Mrs Off-Spring until I was blue in the face to be allowed to do ballet. Every time she said “next year”, knowing I would outgrow the interest. No doubt also knowing it would not be one of my gifts.  All those fat little girls in their tutus and slippers feeling so princessy and demure...

And I wound up with three sons...

Speaking of children’s activities, I had occasion to wonder again whether I am raising backward neophytes, heralding form the 1970s rather than the 2000’s. I overheard some mothers at the gym last week discussing their children’s schedules.  I mean, who under 25, who is not at least a management consultant, even has a schedule.  These children have judo and swimming, French and art, ballet and chess, Spanish and music and cycling proficiency, drama and gymnastics. One child of our acquaintance has such a full week on school days that he has to do his Italian, pilates, rugby, mandarin and science on the weekend, between mass, swimming, lunch and 23.5 minutes free play. Something will have to give when the homework really starts, not to mention the boy scouts, altar serving and volunteerism.

I was really fascinated by the cycle proficiency class.  I think I borrowed a bike from a kid up the road and rode around the cul-de-sac over two Sundays and became proficient that way in those heady, sepia days in the seventies. I was 8 and clearly under achieving since I was not at Cantonese or Pottery at the time, but actually had Sundays available...

Having said all of that, I am not scoffing at the desire to enrich and broaden and expose one’s offspring. Goodness, no. There are clearly a few holes in the market though, which is where I need to step in. Just imagine if we could enhance skills in negotiation, face-to-face communications, street smarts, rapping, tidying up, pocket money budgeting and for the younger ones, bottom wiping.  There is no doubt demand for maximising the effectiveness of the tantrum  - a session on style, another on timing and another where we really hone in on more sophisticated manipulation.

Maybe I could offer sibling packages and cover all the age groups as well as the nitty gritty of sibling rivalry. I could really make a difference in the holiday camp market place.

And for the mums? And dads! Well I need to be pretty strategic about catching the interest in that discerning sector, but couples classes could work, or coffee mornings with a twist, where we workshop some issues of concern. Maybe a series of classes, free latte included in the fees. Topics could include:
How to say “no” and mean it.
I know my child is average and that’s ok.
How to dress you child for their body shape.
Restaurant voices.
Boundaries are cool.
Play doesn’t have to be hard work.

I could have fridge magnets made with little thoughts printed on them, so that whenever the parents glance at the activities schedule for the term or the good behaviour star chart upon which they would magnetically reside, they would be reminded of something useful, such as “if it walks and talks like a child, it must be a child”.

My one-time nanny, Helga, was a big fan of the star chart. She was struggling to get the boys to do as she wanted so we decided the chart might incentivise better behaviour.  It really needed to go in a spreadsheet – there was so much detail. There were at least 10 categories for each child, based on their age (then just 2, 4 and 6) and abilities. And it was a bugger to administer. For example, walking home from nursery, rather than riding on the buggy board, warranted a star. Eating with implements was rewarded with a star. And "please" and "thank you"? Yes - a star. Half the hoped for actions were already mastered and long since acquired habits; the other half were not desirable from any one’s point of view; for example, chopping with Mummy’s scissors.

One day Helga took me aside to say that she was very concerned about Off-Spring Number 1’s maths skills?  He was apparently unable – at age 5 - to do subtraction sums such as 15 takeaway 23 or 9 minus 17.  I had to explain that the negative integers were possibly a little beyond the year ones just yet, maybe in second term.  Fearful that we in the UK were backward and all of the ex-soviet Eastern European children are racing ahead (explains things like arms wars, if they can master the old trigonometry and trajectories early), I did explain that there are numbers less than zero and that they are useful for measuring things like temperatures.  Also handy if you go under the sea and you want to work out your depth in relation to the surface of the water.  He was able to then extrapolate the concept and suggest – “or like if someone is really naughty, they get a negative star on the chart”. 

Maybe Helga is on to something after all.

The learning for me, is that the real world context really aids with knowledge retention and learning.  To that end, I was telling the Off-Spring about a time when I was about 9 and a strip of purple flowered wall paper was ripped off the toilet wall and Mrs Off-Spring had to employ strong arm tactics to break us down and force a confession out of us; culminating in my brother confessing in order to get our TV privileges restored.  

This was by way of explaining the meaning of criminal investigation to the Off-Spring.

Anyway, the star chart was a little unwieldy. There were so many stars on that chart by the end of the first day that I started to fear that local stationery shops would be unable to keep up with demand. While well-intended, the chart was not capable of operating as an incentivisation programme at all.  Maybe in communist regimes star charts operated differently. Certainly, the purpose behind Helga’s was never clear.  It did excite them as they begged for more and more multicoloured stars though, every evening.  I still find one or two in the washing machine every now and then. And I think Helga probably enjoyed ruling all the lines and writing in all the boxes and sitting as judge and jury all afternoon. Star charts are generally baffling I find.  The year one class chart a few years ago may have confused me.  Miss Finucane explained it well though – Off-Spring Number 1 had very few stars because he was a quiet student who was no trouble and got on with his work beautifully.  It seems then that I have had it all wrong. Maybe I need one myself.”


Now it was a couple of years ago, that I wrote that..

Things have changed in many ways since. For a start all of the Off-Spring developed cycle proficiency without lessons - in the old fashioned way - spurred on by each other and the neighbourhood children. I run classes for adults and children now. Communication and negotiation being just two skills we work on (listening and resilience and tolerance prove to be more urgent needs, actually). We have also abandoned star charts some time in the past two years in favour of a points system that allows for demerits as well as merits and which allows for the accumulation of points for behaviour going above and beyond the expected. It works very well. I am currently top of the leader board....

Should anyone like further particulars do drop me a line. 

Best of all, developing, designing and implementing points systems and having the kids describe and present arguments in favour of their preferred one, is a great source of holiday amusement and entertainment. So too is Scrabble, my own favourite, "Writeathon" (to raise money for your school. favourite charity or cause or mother), or just taking it easy for the first time since New Year (the joys of which we will explore in the next post).

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Love is in the air...

They say in Spring that love is in the air. I haven't seen much of it this year, I have to say, but I suppose the hoopla and excitement surrounding the imminent Royal Wedding is so grand and all-encompassing as to be sufficient for all of us. Thankfully.

I read with interest a headline in a tabloid yesterday concerning a "new slimline Kate". I was not sure to whom the article referred at first. Kate was once Kate Winslett. Or God forbid, Katie Price. Say no more. 

Imagine my surprise to discover that they were referring to none other than Kate Middleton. Seriously, was she ever anything but slim? Guess what - a "femail" journalist wrote the article and managed to find an 8 year old picture of Kate looking slightly more puffy in the face - ie glowing with teenage good health. A page was thus filled with pathetic drivel about brides and nerves and weightloss and slimness generally. Poor Kate. As if she did not have enough on her very royal and gilt-edged plate.

What could be worse than being compared for ever to the mother-in-law you never knew? Having your clothes, body and hair commented on for the rest of your life, I should imagine. Still, married to a prince, there may be some compensations. Well I should hope so.

Meanwhile the Telegraph, inspired by Wills' and Kate's example, extols the virtues of inviting some "exes" to your nuptials. How many exes can a couple of twenty somethings who met in college have? I ask. But I am a tad old fashioned, I grant you. Westminster Abbey is a bloody big church. I'd have found a few exes too if I had been tying the knot there with an unlimited budget and a public holiday for the nation as well. And let's not forget that the All Black Captain graciously declined an invite - being too busy winning world cups or some such macho nonsense...

The things is, they are a lovely young couple. They are lifting all our spirits. Kate's outfits are super. Who cares whether she has the style of Moss or the panache of Blanchett. One day she will be queen and clothes will not be her only claim to fame.

Mind you, my dear friend Mara, in Australia, has asked for as much Royal Wedding Memorabilia as I can get my hands on. Tea towels especially. Goodness, where does one shop for that sort of thing. The online business ideas are almost overwhelming... I have visions of myself queuing alongside various women of a certain age in Home Counties towns. And those coffee/tea cups that are too hot to hold, and some of those layered cake plates. No doubt a very big hit at the next charity morning tea in suburban Brisbane.

Despite the general excitement - street parties (or in our case a garden party, with scones, tea cake, sandwiches and bunting) and lining the route of royal carriages aside - I have to admit that explaining the idea of a monarchy to the Off-Spring was not easy. The idea that nice, normal people more or less like us, are born into the role of king, or queen, was not easy to justify. It was particularly difficult to explain why Prince Philip is not a King. The relevant rules reflecting an attitude so antiquated and sexist as to be almost anachronistic in today's society - or so I tell myself, until I read that outfits, weight and hair styles trump intellect, ideas and gravitas, anyway, as far as women are concerned. 

And yet, I read that Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw have no place in the lives of twenty somethings, whose ambitions run to intellectual self-improvement, rather than securing husbands. Elsewhere that same group classes parenting as more important than the relationship they might have with a romantic partner. 

Isn't slimline Kate in that group?

It's very confusing. I can think of many women over 35 who share these views, to a person, and yet... 

So I can only think that it's all posturing, no?

Love is a timeless commodity. We'll take what we can get, within reason. But, we'll fight for a career as well. Til biology gets in  the way and the good old employer can't manage the whole part-time equation...

At the end of the day, people are people. This generation will have different challenges and opportunities from those that came before, but at a fundamental level, we are still the same - keen to hear about happy endings, hoping for the best, wondering "what if", dreaming and aspiring, and in the Spring - overjoyed to know that for some - Love is in the air.

And that is just as well, for the pollen count is high. 

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Well Beings

There was a time when one would pick up a newspaper or magazine and be inundated with stories, gossip and news about celebrities and diets, romance and shoes. These topics are still of great moment, of course, but they are buried now. Not in the women's glossies, I grant you. After all, that stuff sells. It's timeless, riveting and very important. But, in the mainstream press the trend has shifted subtly in these recession and budget cutting days to focus less on the acquisition of stuff, luxury holidays and the wanton consumption and disposal of more, towards other issues; war, tsunamis and economic strife. And on the ubiquitous "Lifestyle" pages, the emphasis is shifting from diets to domesticity, from hedonism to happiness, from making more money to making more out of less.

There is even a trend that suggests that well-being is more than just having good hair, heels and handbags.

This is great. The Zeitgeist is for once simpatico with my own interests and beliefs. The last time that happened I was perhaps 8 and my interests were the Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Holly Hobby and tennis...

Anyway, perhaps in terms of column space and words printed nothing is very different, but they say one notices what one is noticing - and on that basis it seems every man, woman and their dog is jumping on the happiness bandwagon.

Google it and see.

Three years ago when I began running workshops for professionals in transition aimed at helping them identify and play to their strengths, align their values and interests with their work and hopefully achieve a greater sense of purpose and happiness, I coined the phrase "Spring to Mind Spa". Thinking I was onto something I even bandied the word around in the City. Then I waited for the in-house bookings to overwhelm me.

I admit, I am still waiting.

You see, the key selling point of coaching or learning interventions had to be geared around success and helping clients to meet their potential. Senior, successful and respected coaches advised me not to use words like well-being or happiness in pitching to law firms or corporate clients - to be sure to leave such concepts strictly to the new age life coaches working in the suburbs or the communes, the retreats or the workshops for crystal loving pottery and bead types. Wake up Springgirl, executives and their employers do not need, want or care about happiness and well-being! You will not win business if you even mention the word "spa" at work!

Now, not so much. Times are changing. This is the era of pay freezes, unemployment, price rises and middle class families who thought three holidays a year and private school was their entitlement, forced to move house to access state schools. Over the long, usually not very hot summer we now learn the tedium/beauty of the "staycation". Just as well we have a government that propounds a "Big Society", eh? Though just who will wind up footing the bill for housing, illness and education is anyone's guess.

So there was never a better time to champion the virtues of simple living, a sense of community, altruism, spending less. It's just as well money cannot buy happiness, 'cos there isn't any money to spend.

Employee wellness is not a strange idea. Indeed in the US tax incentives help to bring the idea to the threshholds of many small and medium size businesses. The US?!

One day the weird and crazy notion that a happy and engaged person is also a productive person may take root.

That day is coming. Watch this space!

Check out these resources if happiness and well-being are of interest to you:

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Stocktake and samples

I recently came across a discussion in a Linked In Group that I belong to, about marketing one's books, and the importance of blogging and social media for generating a followership and book sales. The accepted wisdom is that authors need to tempt readers with snippets of their work, samples of their style and tidbits of wisdom and perspective. I've been doing that for a year now - sales are steady - but I need to put more out there, clearly.

A bit like those little plastic trays and faux forks set up in the supermarket to lure us into making different and unexpectedly satisfying purchasing decisions. I was in my local Waitrose just yesterday and I witnessed the very savvy and well-engineered process of determining what to offer for sample and tasting that afternoon. Setting - toilet paper aisle as three members of staff chatted about the weather and the display. The discussion went as follows:

Slim Attractive Female in Management Role (Manager): "Oh and we should do a tasting today. What do you think?"
Young Partner (this means shop boy in other stores): "Yes, let's do one. What will we be sampling?"
Older Partner (another young man): "Fruit, maybe. Or crisps?" (Obviously someone was a bit peckish...)
Manager: "Yes, there are some fruits out the back near the bins that taste a bit weird. We could chop them up and put them out."
Young Partner: "Yes. I know the ones you mean. They taste sort of sweet and also a bit bitter."
Older Partner: Grinning, snickers. 
Manager: "Seriously. Sweet and bitter at the same time?"
Young Partner: "Yes, exactly. People should taste it."
Manager: "Maybe something else."
Older Partner: "Ice-cream? The weather is good today."
They walk to fridge area. I follow.
Manager: "I know - the Creme Egg ice-cream. Put some of that out. It's a new line. Looks disgusting."
Young Partner and Older Partner: Grimacing. "Maybe not...".
I grimace too.

Why don't they put out some exquisite chocolate truffles, I thought? Some organic biscotti? Some ripe and juicy berries? Some gourmet cheese (not yet past it's use by date)?

Truth is - the episode burst my bubble. And it is strange that I have a bubble with regards retail. I worked for a retail chain at one time. My skills were diverse - I mastered the cash registers, the photo development suite/lab, the kitchenware and lighting departments and even (due to my close friend being a fixture in DIY) paint mixing and gardening. And you only need read a few of my posts to see how much I love dealing with the general public. I know about waste, shrinkage, theft and bag checks, ugly uniforms and the tension between the full time day staff and the casual student staff. Nevertheless the idea that only the disgusting, hard to sell stuff would be displayed for taste testing and sampling never occurred to me...

Suffice to say I will never try another orange kiwi fruit dipped in soya something or other in Tesco again!

I'm losing my touch.

Nevertheless, I think the book publishing forum had other things in mind. In tempting readers to buy my books I can see that it is self-defeating to only reveal my disgusting or less delectable prose. By the same token, I don't want to reward the cheapskates who don't want to buy a book with my best work either...

Though, I can admit to having written plenty of things that are bitter and sweet...

It's tricky. I can see the conundrum. One can hardly ask shoppers to try the toilet paper before buying it, but French Champagne may be overdoing it. Hence the 10 minute discussion in Waitrose. I pictured similar dialogues across the globe, each day. It was sobering.

So in order to tempt you to buy my books, contact me for some coaching or just mention me in casual conversation at the water cooler, the gym or your next supper club gathering, I give you an except from Spring to Mind's Self Coaching Toolkit. This is one of three stocktake exercises to help you assess where you are in your life. Don't worry, it's not too confronting, won't take long and won't necessitate any change, commitments or expenditure on your part. You may need a scrap of paper though.

I will tell you now that I have taken this exercise myself. I drew a cloud. And my film is "Chocolat".

Stocktake - Exercise 2 (Extracted from Spring to Mind - Self Coaching Toolkit)
If you:
a)    Hate questionnaires and quizzes;
b)    Refuse to write down your feelings and thoughts;
c)    Resent being held accountable;  
d)    Got nothing out of Exercise 1; or
e)    Tend to buck the system, pooh-pooh authority and disdain order and structure;
then this exercise may be useful for you.
Describe in as few words as possible how you feel about your life.

List at least two things you enjoy or like about your life right now. What do you have or what do you do that gives you happiness?

List at least two things you enjoy or like least right now.

List at least two things you would like more of or to do more often.

If the writing is getting you down, why don’t you try to draw the feeling you have about your life right now. If you could, what would the picture show?

Pictures paint a thousand words... come on.

Ok, fine. Can you describe this feeling in terms of a film (or a book) you are familiar with?
Here are some ideas to help you:
Forrest Gump (you never know what you will get)
The Godfather (your family runs your life and you feel death is imminent)
27 Dresses (always the bridesmaid never the bride)
Wall Street (greed is good)
The Man who Knew too Much (busybody gets comeuppance)
Fight Club (weird hobbies keeping you away from real world)
Clueless (at any level)
Gladiator (warrior, hero, fighter, death defying maverick – to a point)
Knocked up (say no more)
Unforgiven (speaks for itself)
The Great Escape (so now what?)
The Mirror Cracked (time for a new look)
Enemy of the State (on the run, alone)
Sex and the City (it’s all about the shopping and the men)
The Good Girl (no fun)
Alice in Wonderland (no idea where you are)
Le Divorce (it sounds better in French)
Liar Liar (you or someone you know)
The Mummy (not yet dead)
An Inconvenient Truth (so what are your options)
A Bug’s Life (oohhhh...)
Hair (really?)
Friends with Money (must you keep up)
So? Name a film or book:

Ok. Hopefully you now have a better handle on how you feel.

List anything good, satisfying or positive in your sense of where you are.

List what you would like to change?


Anything? Sweet? Bitter? Disgusting? Sickening? Tasteless? Pointless?

Well, it was your life so ....