Wednesday, 30 April 2008

W = Words

As you probably know by now, I grew up on a farm. It was not a wealthy area, but the people in the district were good people, and we grew up with strong community values: neighbourliness, loyalty and consideration of others.

Living on a farm can be very isolating. Days go by without speaking to others outside the family. Perhaps that is why, in my family at least, what we said was important. Words were valuable things, chosen carefully so as not to offend. Plainspoken we may have been, but we were never rude.

We grew up, went to university and the city, worked in offices surrounded by people, spending all day reading and writing reports, discussing issues. Words could be flung about willy-nilly, there were always plenty to spare. In the worst cases, they became office gossip, complaints about the boss. But they also formed ideas, developed into policies, were considered, weighed, kept or tossed aside, they united and divided countries. Different languages came into the mix – where pronunciation, meaning and choice of words were more important then ever.

Then I joined a company of engineers more comfortable with numbers and drawings than words. Communication was not their strong point, but they struggled to understand even that. I left in frustration, but then returned later as a consultant training them in the use of words, talking to clients, communicating.

Today here I sit, self-employed, in my office over the garage looking out at the macrocarpa trees and across the valley, watching the southerly front come in. Like life on the farm, I find it quite possible to spend an entire day without speaking to anyone other than my husband or the cats, or sometimes, to myself. But still I use words every day – the typed word - to earn money, to support others, and to communicate with friends and family around the world.

In my life, words have been tools, not works of art. I use too many, I know. Brevity is not my strong point. My emphasis has always been on communication, simplicity and clarity, tact. Rarely, if ever, have I chosen words for their beauty, for the way they sound together, for imagery. But recently some favourite authors and other bloggers have inspired me to have a different relationship with words.

So I intend trying.

But in private first.

Monday, 28 April 2008

V = Vineyards

Growing up in New Zealand, the countryside was agricultural. Paddocks full of sheep and cattle, the occasional crops. Nothing fancy.

By the late 1970s, in parts of the country, land use began to change. Grapes were being planted in the hotter, dryer, more barren provinces. We wondered if this new-fangled fad would catch on. Kiwis drank beer, not wine - though I remember my dad, always interested in new experiences, experimenting with wine one Christmas in the 1970s.

Now, driving though parts of New Zealand is not unlike driving through Chateauneuf du Pape – everywhere you look you see vines. Only an hour or so from Wellington, in a very traditional farming community, vines are rapidly replacing sheep and cows (though with high global dairy prices the cows are fighting back). A small rural village is now a trendy wine village, surrounded by dozens of country cottages transformed from shearers’ quarters to luxurious weekend retreats, nestled in the vines.

We often drive over the hill for lunch at a vineyard, or for an afternoon of wine tasting in this region renowned for its Pinot Noir. In summer we revel in the heat, eating outside and sheltering from the sun. In winter, we sit close to an open fire, but sampling the wares gives us hope that summer will come again.

I love being able to visit the vineyards, sample the wine, talk to the winemakers, and take home my favourite produce.

After a relaxed lunch at Coney Wines or Alana Estate, we always stop at Palliser on the way home, to pick up their Riesling, sumptuous chardonnay, and when it is in stock, their delicious bubbles. Atarangi is one of the most established vineyards in the region, a pleasant spot to relax, and famous for its Pinot Noir, though at $65 you pay as much for the name as for the wine. But their chardonnays are to die for and their Rose is always perfect for a summer lunch. And for a treat on a winter’s night with a chocolate dessert, we are very partial to Winslow’s Cabernet Liqueur, which fills the nose with the spices of a Christmas pudding.

Now what will we have tonight?

Monday, 21 April 2008

U = Unknown

At 45 you’d think I’d know a few things by now. But I feel as if the list of unknown things is just growing as I age.

This morning though I learned two things I didn’t know yesterday.

  1. A water contractor we use regularly has their base at the bottom of our hill. I drive past it every day, but noticed it only this morning.
  2. 25% Americans are Catholic. Never knew that. Thanks to the BBC for informing me whilst I was on the Arc Trainer at the gym.

Still, there are a lot of things still on my list of unknowns. Questions that arose this morning at the gym:

  • Is the Arc Trainer really worth it?
  • Why did I think I was fat when I was so slim?
  • Why don’t politicians know when to stop talking?
  • What is wrong with elitism?
  • Is the Tall Poppy Syndrome a uniquely kiwi issue? If so why?
  • How can America portray itself as the most civilised nation on earth yet have 3000 people on death row? (another fact I learned this morning on the BBC)
  • How come the French got great food and wine, fashion AND the sexiest language on earth?
  • Australians ... why?
  • Why do I like clothes so much?
  • Why can’t some people have children and others, who shouldn’t, have dozens?
  • Has my sister gone into labour yet?

Friday, 11 April 2008

T = Tax

It’s tax time again.

When I was employed by someone other than me, I never worried about tax. My take home salary, after tax, was sufficient for my needs. It enabled me to live a good life. Tax was something that I never thought of – my tax was paid by my employer, before I ever had the opportunity to become attached.

But I’m self-employed now. Tax is something intensely personal to a self-employed person. As a consultant, my income goes up and down, depending on the needs and holidays and distractions of my clients. I can go some months without significant income, then get huge (well … it’s all relative isn’t it?) welcome and relaxing lump sums in my bank account. I feel safe again for the next few months, and breathe easier.

But then along comes tax time. Self-employed people have to pay income tax three times a year, and our goods and services tax twice a year. So we have to be cautious, even when feeling flush. Because the tax we pay comes directly from our bank account – the same one we use to pay for our food and electricity. Sometimes we have to pay tax on income we don’t yet have. That really hurts.

So I take tax very personally.

I am very happy to pay tax to go towards our health and education and social welfare systems. That’s what taxes are for. I am the beneficiary of a free education, which gave me opportunities I would otherwise never have imagined. I have had the misfortune to appreciate the benefits of a free health system, and more importantly, I have seen my parents cope with old age through the universal government pension payments.

I am less happy though for my taxes to go to the expanding government we have here. The opposition party states that the fastest growing sector in the economy since 2000 has been government administration. I am unhappy about this. Unhappy about my taxes going to unnecessarily high government salaries, and padded departmental budgets. I have worked in government, and in private sector. The people in government think that they would get much higher salaries out in the private sector, and think the private sector has money slushing around, waiting to be used frivolously. But they have no direct experience of this.

But when I moved from the public to the private sector, I was struck with the difference in the attitude to money within organisations. I have seen government officials figuring out how much extra money they can make by manipulating the system regarding travel allowances. Government servants who on principle object to being paid on the basis of performance. Allowances, expenditure, salary increases – everything is theirs “as of right.”

In the private sector, by comparison, profit and performance was the motive. If the company didn’t perform as well as expected, no-one got a salary increase or bonus, whether or not there was inflation, or that they had personally performed well.

Now, as a company director (another role I hold), I see my company suffer because competition is removed and responsibilities are put in the solely in the hands of the overpaid bureaucracy. (I feel qualified to comment – I know many of the individuals involved. I have personally done some of the jobs that now require 8 or 18 people to do, when one or two of us used to be sufficient). This bureaucracy is not as skilled, and definitely not as prudent with my money, my taxes, as the private sector. In Wellington, the centre of government, I see our office rentals skyrocket as the government expands, greedily gobbling up premium office space. I see our small company struggle to recruit or retain qualified individuals at a reasonable market rate, because government departments pay 30-50% more.

And I object.

So Helen. This is my money. And if this is how you are going to spend it, I’d like some of it back please.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

S = Screwed

Is there anything quite like the romance of that soft pop of a cork from a wine bottle? The sense of anticipation, then the whiff of pleasures to come, and sometimes the formality of the wine waiter placing the cork on the table for your inspection?

But about 5-10% of all wines are corked. Spoiled by that romantic stopper, with its ancient history. And let’s face it – how many of us actually send back 1/10th of the bottles we order in a restaurant? Or pour down the sink 1/10th of the bottles we drink at home? Not many of us. No we tend just to say “I won’t buy that wine again.” So not only is there the danger of paying for a wine that is corked, but ... oh the shame ... of serving or drinking it, not recognising that it is corked, or worse, of missing out on a really special wine and not knowing it!

And so the wise wine producers of New Zealand began to introduce screw-top wine. Traditionally used for cheap wine, or by airlines for those tiny individual serve bottles, screwtops now protect my favourite New Zealand pinot noirs, sauvignon blancs and chardonnays. And I for one am not bothered about saying goodbye to tradition and romance, if it means my wine is better preserved, and most importantly, will taste better. Especially given the price I pay lately!

Besides, it’s an awful lot easier to screw off the top of a bottle of sauvignon blanc and pour a glass when I’m busy than to stop, find the corkscrew, peel off the cap, and uncork the wine … dangerously easy some might say.

Not me, though.


Friday, 4 April 2008

R = Relatives

I grew up in a rural district surrounding a small town. All our cousins on my father’s side lived within about 15 minutes drive. Two of them went to our tiny school – Gavin was in my year, Stephen in my sister’s. We grew up together.

Family gatherings were big and busy. Perhaps that was the way of an Irish Catholic heritage, or perhaps just the way of farming families in those days. The men would get together for a drink (some enjoyed it too much, a family failing it seems, that Irish heritage to blame), the women provided the food, all the while gossiping and sipping on a sherry. The children were invariably outside, regardless of the weather – playing tag, cricket or softball, hide and seek. It was, usually, happy and carefree.

But as we grew up, we grew apart. I started noticing differences. I remember asking a very young cousin how she liked school, as she had started only a few months earlier. Her mother answered for her. “Oh Becky hates school, don’t you Becky?” I was shocked three ways. Why was she not allowed to answer herself? Did her mother want her to dislike school? She seemed to encourage or even create that dislike. And anyway, how could anyone not like school in the first place?

My father died almost three years ago. The funeral was, as these things tend to be, something of a reunion. I realised I had not seen most of my cousins for 20 years. About half attended, those still living in the region. The two I wanted to see most, Gavin and Stephen, had not been able to make it. Whilst it was good to see my cousins, in most cases conversation quickly dried up. I lived in the city, and had lived and worked extensively overseas. I was the first in the family to go to university, let alone graduate with a Masters degree. They had stayed in the district, built farms and businesses and families. Good lives. Productive lives. But very different lives.

I was hurt that (with the exception of Gary and his lovely wife) they didn’t make the effort to catch up more. There is a lot we had shared, after all. Actually, I think I was more disappointed they didn’t see it as an opportunity to pay their respects to my father, who as the oldest had done a lot for the wider family.

When I was writing my x365 blog, I found it extremely hard to write about most of my relatives. I couldn’t write too many in sequence - I found it depressing. I’m just not sure I like that many of them. That is hard to write.

So I wonder when, or if, I’ll see any or all of them again. I wonder if that will bother me. I wonder if it should bother me.

Is blood really thicker than water? Does our shared childhood, our shared bloodline, mean that I should make a point of seeing them more? Is that why it seems to matter to me?