Tuesday, 29 July 2008

S = Shy

A year is a long time when you’re 17. I went through a lot. It was not easy. The loneliness, the effort every day to perform, adapt, adjust. The utterly alien nature of the people, the surroundings, the life I was leading. Mentally, the stress was huge. There was nowhere I could just be me. The familiarity you have with your family and friends you’ve known for years, grown up with, allows you to just be, to mentally relax, to show your emotions, to be bad sometimes, snappy, awkward. I could not behave like that with my Thai family, my new friends, my new school. I was “on” all the time. Even when in a crowd, I stuck out as painfully different. People looked and pointed, children laughed at my size, the look of me in my Thai school uniform.

I had always suffered from an innate shyness. Going up to strangers had never been easy for me, and yet here I was doing it every day, unable to blend in. I used to watch my younger sister make friends on our holidays, playing with new kids, all of it effortless. Whilst I stood shyly by, envious that I couldn’t do that with kids my own age. I didn’t even know what to say to start. It frustrated me, I felt ashamed of the fear and trepidation that kept me from making new friends easily. I wanted to reach out.

So what was it that drove me to take on such an experience? I still don’t really know. I wanted to see the world, to do something a bit different. I was scared, but I also had my pride, and having committed to applying, I would never admit how terrified I was about what I faced. I bit my lip and went for it. Every day for a year.

I’ve since found myself in numerous situations where I’ve stepped back and looked at myself in puzzlement. Flying into the wild west city of Phnom Penh (as it was at the time) for the first time, or driving nervously to yet another appointment with a potential new client in the port area of Manila, or on the outskirts of Hanoi, I’ve occasionally thought, “I hate this. So why do I do it?”

I don’t really know. Perhaps it’s the relief I feel when I know I’ve faced my fear and survived. Perhaps it’s that I’ve never yet found a situation I couldn’t cope with (I’m sure there’s one waiting for me). Or perhaps I do it for the rewards I know are out there – meeting and learning about new people, making new friends, having amazing experiences in wonderful places, finding the humour in all sorts of situations. I would have missed out on a lot if I’d stayed in my comfort zone.

I said once to some friends I’d made in the last 10 years or so that I was basically a shy person. "YOU???” they screeched incredulously, before bursting into hysterical laughter.

Yes, me. They don’t know what goes on inside. But it’s worth it.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

R = Raisins

The chef on the radio this morning was tempting my taste buds with talk of long slow-cooked casseroles and hearty red wine – perfect when it is cold and wet outside. For dessert she recommended a tarte tatin, but made with pears instead of apples. I swear I started to drool.
Until she said that she would add raisins as “an extra bonus.”

“Raisins?!” I felt like shouting at her in disgust. “How could you ruin such a decadent, fantastic, timeless classic with raisins?!!”

As you’ve no doubt realised, I’ve never liked raisins ... or sultanas for that matter. They used to spoil those old English puddings my mother used to make (like bread pudding). I would carefully pick them out and pile them on the side of the plate, generously and thankfully donating them to my father at the end of the meal. He loved them.

It was the texture I couldn’t stand. Urrghh! That squirt of the sweet flesh into my mouth even now makes me want to shudder.

Some children at school used to have raisin sandwiches. They called them “fly cemeteries.” Perhaps that is why I’ve always felt as if biting into a raisin or sultana was like biting into a fly’s body. A culinary treat I can do without.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Q = Quest

Six years ago, I was intent on reinventing myself. Rather belatedly I’d decided I would like to be a mother, but was facing the realisation that this is not as easy as we all expect it to be. And I was disillusioned with my life as a career woman. Even though New Zealand’s Governor-General, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, and the CEO of one of our largest companies were all women, my own head was banging firmly and painfully on the glass ceiling in the company where I was working.

I had spent 16 years working in the international arena - government and business. But although I’d had had some amazing experiences and loved moments of what I was doing, I felt taken for granted and was questioning where my future lay. By now it was very definitely work. Of course, more and more you heard people talking about being passionate about their work. I thought passion was for the bedroom, and never thought of finding it in my office with my colleagues. Shudder!

So I began a quest to find out what I should be doing with my life, what I was good at, what I loved. I’m still on that quest, having learned a few things on the way, and dabbled in a range of activities.

Motherhood it turned out was not for me. I suspect I always knew that (but that’s another post for another letter of the alphabet). However I discovered an ability to nurture, advise and help others based on my own brutally honest assessments of my own experiences. I also discovered how tremendously rewarding that was.

I learned I love to paint, and more latterly to write.

Work came to me in unexpected ways, and I became a consultant based on my expertise in working internationally and marketing. I learned I liked to teach, and was good at it. I established a new career as a company director, which has been stressful and crazy and satisfying.

I also established a small business planning travel itineraries. When friends would visit a place I had been I would ask them if they did X, tasted Y or bought Z. They would often say “I wish I could plan my trips like you” or in the case of my sister-in-law “I wish my husband could plan trips like you!” I would plan itineraries for people visiting Bangkok or for friends coming to New Zealand. I think it is best described that if your travel agent is your architect, I am the interior designer. So why not make a business out of it I thought? Unfortunately my consulting work took all my time, and I ended up neglecting my business badly. If it had been a child, I would have been charged with failing to provide the necessities of life and locked up. I haven’t given up on it, but it needs some serious resuscitation.

So here I am, in my mid-40s, I still don’t know what I should be when I grow up. Whilst I enjoy the balance in my life right now – volunteering, consulting, company director and blogger – I know the quest is not yet over. But the quest itself is endlessly fascinating, and maybe that is the point.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

P = Piano

I never met my great-grandmother - Grandma Grant as she was known. She was by all reports a wonderful housekeeper, strict disciplinarian, and very organised and respected lady. Sadly I didn’t inherit that. But I did inherit her piano.

Her daughter, my maternal grandmother, was a very different personality. She was not interested in housework, sick often as a young woman and therefore struggled to raise her family. My mother tells of having to fend for herself as a child and look after her younger siblings when my grandmother was ill. She relied a lot on Grandma Grant for support.

But my grandmother was a social butterfly. When well, she loved to drink and smoke and go to dances. And she was a wonderful pianist. She would go to dances on a Saturday night, and play the piano all night. On Sunday she would be at church, playing the organ, for the love of the music rather than from any spiritual interest.

My memories of her are as an old woman in her 70s, living alone, largely housebound from wonky knees and illness. Occasionally in the summer we would collect her and bring her out to the farm. On those days I remember playing in the garden with my sister, or lying under the plum tree in the shade with a book, hearing the wonderful music my grandmother was making on the piano float and fly and twirl out the windows. She would play for hours. She did have a piano herself, but it was a poor one, badly tuned with a tinny tone. To a pianist like my mother, it would have given her little pleasure. I have to admit that I don’t know why, but Grandma Grant’s piano had gone to straight to my mother, and my sisters and I were all taught to play on it.

My older sister was a competent pianist, and my younger sister also learned to play. But I was the one who seemed to have the touch, who could sight read easily, and who enjoyed playing the classics. From age 6 when my mother started teaching me to play until I left home, I spent time every day on the piano. I was lucky (again). I had my mother’s enthusiasm, my grandmother’s talent, my great-grandmother’s piano.

I love that piano. It is simply beautiful. Walnut with decorative inlays, brass candlesticks (which need polishing). The keys are no longer ivory – after about 60 years they were so damaged and yellowed, some missing, that my mother gave in and had them replaced. The piano was my mother’s most prized possession. We were never allowed to put anything on the piano except sheet music. There are one or two small scratches, but generally the polish is unspoiled and the piano still gleams. But for me it is the tone of the piano that sets it apart. There is a mellow richness, a soft beauty of tone which is rare to find. I can safely say that of all the pianos I have played, I’ve only found one – an orchestral grand piano – that could honestly compare in tone to Grandma Grant’s piano.

Of course I might be biased. But I do have a very good ear.

The piano now sits in my lounge. It doesn’t really match the rest of my furnishings, which are contemporary in style, but it has a place of honour, and will not be moved. My mother gave me the piano when I first moved north, in my early 20s. We had been chatting about her favourite television programme. Someone had died on Coronation Street and the family had been fighting over her possessions. She said she hoped we wouldn’t do that. I said very honestly that I thought the only thing we might fight over would be the piano. “But that’s going to you of course,” she said. And she made immediate arrangements for me to get it before I crossed the Strait leaving the island forever.

In 1990 just before we went to live in Bangkok we made our Wills. They now badly need updating. Our parents are older, my dad gone already. We have assets now. I’d like to leave money to my favourite charity, maybe support a scholarship. But the main thing that stops me is the question “who will get the piano?” (This question is one of the sadnesses from not having my own children). It needs to be someone who would love it like me. My older sister’s daughters never really took up the piano. But my new tiny niece might. I think I’d like her to grow up with the piano in the corner, using it every day and caring for it, thinking of the women before her who played it and loved it.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

O = Ozone

I live on an island in the south of the South Pacific, where the winds blow fiercely. On a fine day, our country sparkles with clarity. The quality of light here is unsurpassed. Photographers love it. I am frequently disappointed when I travel to other countries, expecting to see grand vistas but only finding haze.

There’s a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Ozone is a protective canopy over the earth, keeping out the harmful UV-B rays from the sun. So close to Antarctica, New Zealand has had a hole in over it for a long time. In summer, when the sun is high, we (and other southern hemisphere friends at similar latitudes) are particularly vulnerable. The combination of the clear air and the ozone hole mean that you can get sunburned in record time here.

Of course, sunburn is dangerous. When I grew up in the 70s, we didn’t really know that. People thought a suntan was healthy. I remember my mother sending me out to sit in the sun to try and get a tan gradually. She thought it was protection against sunburn. She was naturally olive-toned, and tanned easily. I had my father’s skin, classic Irish colouring, pale skin, green eyes and dark hair. When we were little, and on our summer holidays, my father would put on shorts for the only time in the year. My sister and I would run competitions to see if we could see a man with legs whiter than Dad. One year we did – I can still see that man. He was very fair, with ginger hair and freckles. Unfair competition really.

Dad spent his life in the sun as a farmer. His face was a ruddy tan, his hands a deep brown. But the colour ended at his neck and wrists. After he retired, as old folks do, he started getting spots on his hands. He visited his GP, who would generally examine them and burn them off with liquid nitrogen. He started doing the same on his face. The spots were skin cancer, but as they weren’t melanoma, the scariest of the skin cancers, he was relaxed about treating them. But there was a persistent cancer on his jaw, and eventually, after many attempts to remove it, he saw a specialist. Invasive surgery followed as the cancer was found to be more than skin deep, and radiation treatment was required. He recovered well, but a year later was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. He had none of the risk factors for it, and the doctors seemed to think that it was likely a secondary cancer from the nearby skin cancer. I can’t afford to think otherwise. Oesophogeal cancer has a poor prognosis, and is a nasty way to die. Dad died only 2 ½ months after diagnosis. I was at his side.

I love summer. I love the feeling of the sun on my back, being warm through to my bones, the freedom and joy of a warm sunny day. But I fear it too now.

I am an expert in wearing suntan lotion, and always wear makeup with a sun protection factor. I get regular mole checks from my doctor. I wear hats too, despite the difficulty in finding one that looks good on me. In New Zealand now school children have big floppy hats as part of their school uniforms, and have to wear them when they’re outside playing at lunchtime. They wear swimwear with long sleeves to protect their beautiful pale perfect skin from sunburn.

For years, there have been advertisements on TV reminding us to Slip Slop Slap (Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat) when out in the sun. I believe there’s a similar campaign in Australia. The newspapers, radio and TV report the daily burn time during the summer. There are articles and documentaries about the dangers of sunburn and its relationship with skin cancer. But it surprises me how many people still live in ignorance, or worse, denial, of the dangers. I met someone a couple of years ago who still uses baby oil to try and give herself a tan. Frying herself. Some friends ask, when I’ve returned from beach holidays, if I got a tan. Others look at me as if I’m mad when I say I won’t sit outside for lunch unless I’m in the shade. Quite aside from the aesthetics (my skin is nice and smooth but sun worshippers start turning leathery and aging in their 30s), don’t they know the risks? They should.

Maybe I need to move someone where there is no ozone hole. There are reports that it might be healing as CFC use drops. I hope so. I need it. We need it.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

N = Now

A Buddhist friend of mine in Thailand gave me a book about mindfulness, about how to appreciate the moment, about how to wash the dishes not to get them clean, but to simply wash the dishes.

My mother had a more simple version of this. When I used to get gloomy or grumpy, I was told “it’s time for you to read the Pollyanna books again.”

Sometimes this is easier than others. It’s not hard right now. The sky is clear but dark, it will be cold tonight, but there won’t be any wind or rain. I am comfortable and warm in my office, my fingers are typing my words as I think them, and the radio is telling me the news of the day. I can hear the ruru or morepork (night owl) calling in the trees outside my window. My husband will be home from work soon, when we’ll open a bottle of pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, and I’ll pop the tiny lamb roast with garlic and rosemary in the oven with the kumara and parsnip and pumpkin, and steam some broccoli and peas. Oops. I’m anticipating. See, it’s harder than it looks.

Deloney is the master of celebrating the now. He’s my Pollyanna, my Buddhist monk. My daily reminder to love what I’m doing. To be glad.

I'm so glad we have him.

Monday, 7 July 2008

M = Mmmmmmm

The clouds hung low and ominous, it was cold and windy, and as I scuttled down the street towards my destination, the first large drops of rain landed on my head. I ran quickly up the stairs, took a deep breath, then entered. It was calmer here, oils scented the air, soft music played. The world outside faded almost instantly.

I was ushered into a small room, dimly lit, but made cosy with the warm glow of a heater in the corner. I took off my clothes and with them, folded all my worries, thoughts and tensions away. This is not a place to be thinking about what has just happened, or what needs to be done. It is a place to be in the moment. I was conscious of the rain pelting down and the wind whipping up the streets outside, but was happy to be safely cocooned in my cosy haven.

She gently closed the door, and I could hear her pouring oil into her hands, and rubbing them together to warm it before she started to spread it on my back. I’m long, with broad shoulders. She needed more oil, but soon her hands got down to work, starting gently but firmly, and gradually increasing the pressure, employing her fists and elbows to work the muscles around my tense spine and stiff neck, injured several months ago but still not quite healed. The knots were tight, and probably needed a few more hours hard work, but even in that short time my neck relaxed and lengthened under her attentive hands.

An hour on a massage table goes too quickly. What can be more decadent than lying on a bed in a dimly lit room with soft music playing, swathed in towels and having sweet oils massaged into your skin? Feeling the knots being worked out of your body, focusing on releasing all the tension that you don’t know is there until it’s gone. Concentrating on what you’re feeling at that moment, making the most of every stroke, every pressure. I don’t understand people who can fall asleep during a massage. Do they not pay attention?

I’m particularly fond of hand and feet massages. Appendages so taken for granted and over-used that I never expected the pleasure you can feel when they’re pressured and moulded and stroked.

The worst part of a massage is when it is over. Even when it hurts it is worth it.

I’ve had massages in many places. A foot and calf massage from a blind man in Singapore that hurt so much I wanted to cry. A back massage by a woman in Wellington who said if it didn’t hurt it wasn’t doing any good (she was right, so I groaned out loud for the whole hour). In Bangkok, hand massages whilst getting my hair cut were a routine service. Head massages at my hair salon here that make me want to cry when they stop. A woman walking on my back in Bali in my first ever massage. A tiny Thai woman manipulating my back, click, groan, click, groan, click, aaaaaahhhh, perfect. The Fijian girl who had just set up her salon at the Cook Islands resort and had a rough piece of skin on her hand which scratched, but the sound of the waves on the beach made up for it. The massage therapist who has such slow long relaxing strokes every millisecond is pure bliss.

I wish I could afford a massage once a week. Two hours minimum. It would be time and money well spent.

Friday, 4 July 2008

L = Luck

I don’t believe in miracles. I believe in luck. Chance, the randomness of the world, odds, whatever you want to call it. To me, miracles are just being on the good side of the odds, a million (or so) to one chance. Someone has to be that one. Nice for them. But in my view, if miracles existed in the divine sense of the word, then miracles would only happen to worthy, deserving folk. But they don’t. They’re pretty much random. Right place, right time.

The same with bad luck. If everything was planned, surely only evil axe murderers would be on the other end of the odds. But that’s not the way the world works. So when I have bad luck, I try not to take it personally.

I heard of one guy who apparently once won the big prize in a lottery. He said how unlucky he was because he had to share the prize with another ticket holder who had the same numbers. He’d just won more money than he had ever expected, and said “I’m unlucky.”

Some say I’m unlucky because we can’t have children. It’s not what we planned, and that puts us on the outer edge of our society, but I know two things. I know that it isn’t a punishment. And I know that my life is pretty wonderful without children. Different, not worse. I can sleep in on Sunday mornings, and go out at night on impulse without worrying about babysitters. I could drive a racy two-seater red convertible (if our climate and my finances permitted.) I don’t have to childproof my house, I can take holidays to adults-only resorts during the school term, and I can get drunk at night and forget to feed the cats and it doesn’t matter.

I’m lucky in other ways too of course:
  • I was born in the late 20th century.
  • I was born and grew up in New Zealand.
  • I have the intellectual capability to know I can always support myself - health willing - and live in an era and a country where women can do so.
  • I have always enjoyed relatively good health
  • I’ve always been pretty good at whatever I’ve tried, physically and intellectually. (Though I can’t write poetry or curl my tongue, and whatever I try it mustn’t involve heights.)
  • I have a husband who seems to love me and has stuck by me through difficult times, who is warm and generous and makes me laugh.
  • The cats did me the courtesy of waiting 15 years 1 month before they started puking and peeing and pooping on the carpet (last week)
  • I have had had both opportunities and funds to be able to travel the world, experiencing things beyond my dreams.
  • I have good friends and family.
  • There are people who seem to want to read my blogs and comment on them.

Luck. I have more than my fair share.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

K = Kissing

New Zealanders have always been reserved people – thanks to our predominantly Anglo-Saxon heritage. Though I sense too that our isolation and the hard life of early immigrants contributed to a culture that values stoicism and has a distaste for overt shows of emotion.

So the arrival of the social kiss on our shores has disturbed a lot of people. Those of us who like to think we are more cosmopolitan have embraced it, but we still don’t understand it. Unlike the European cultures that habitually use the social kiss, we have no rules to guide us.

The Maori community, with its close-knit society and customary hongi greeting (a touching of noses and “shared breath” ), is more comfortable with being physically close to others. Maori men and women frequently greet members of the opposite sex with a kiss on the cheek.

But the rest of us grapple with the issue of to kiss or not to kiss, especially in the business context, but also socially.

Last year I was on a long business trip with several other people. After two weeks, and a successful conclusion to a very stressful negotiation, H flew out. At the airport, where we had all gone to have a final debriefing and to farewell him, I shook his hand and congratulated him on a tough time and a good result. That evening, chatting over a drink, one of our team commented that she thought Hone would have kissed me farewell, and was surprised he didn’t. I on the other hand was not surprised. I explained that our relationship was a professional one, I was his boss essentially, and that – however friendly and at ease in each other’s company we might be (we had conducted an early morning meeting with me in a sarong in front of the mirror straightening my hair only a few days earlier) - ultimately we had to keep things on a business level. At the very least in front of his staff!

This though is representative of the confusion that surrounds the social kiss in New Zealand. I recounted the story that I had once travelled with another colleague in another company – we had drunk champagne cocktails together and snuggled down into our seats on the plane side by side. But it was not until I had left the company, and ran into him again, that he said to me “now you’re not a colleague I can give you a kiss!” And I reciprocated gladly.

I should add that the next day at the airport, when it was my turn to leave, D grabbed me and said “well I’m going to give you a kiss whether you like it or not!”

It’s a minefield, even socially. Many of my peer group now seem to kiss on meeting. There’s an awkward moment, that first kiss with male friends (or the husbands of friends) you’ve known for years.

Even when we’ve dealt with the issue of whether or not to kiss, and we lean in for a kiss, there are pitfalls.

Fortunately, most people automatically go to your right cheek first. So there are not too many broken noses as a result of poor directional judgments.

With Charles, we have had the occasional clash of eye-glasses. (There’s a lot to be said for contact lenses if you’re a nervous social kisser). Even if you navigate the inward movement successfully, there is always the danger of your glasses hooking his on the outward movement, or vice versa. We kiss each other awkwardly and carefully, breaking free with relief and getting on to more interesting things, like what wine we’re drinking and what gossip needs to be told.

There is of course the issue of “one cheek or two.” It can be terribly awkward - you start to pull away after the first manoeuvre just as the kisser aims at your other cheek, then you feel terribly gauche and go back to complete the kissing, just as they give up on you. Hopefully you can laugh about it, making it much more relaxed. Last week, as I said farewell to Joe who was going home to Canada, I kissed him on both cheeks. He was startled. “Oh! A double kiss!” he said, looking relieved that I wasn’t going in for a third!

Then there’s the confused “is this a kiss or a hug” gentle colliding of bodies, and finding you’re kissing the back of someone’s head as they grab you in a bear hug.

It's a pity blowing kisses wouldn't catch on. But it's not really acceptable to do that to a member of the opposite sex over the age of about 6.

There’s a lot to be said for the Germans, the handshaking champions of the world, keeping a seemly distance with everyone with a handshake. Simple and clear-cut. Confusion-free. Unfortunately, New Zealanders have a relatively informal culture, and so the formal, business handshake hasn’t really caught on in social situations.

The Thais have it right.

They wai, and bow the head. We could do that. We like our personal space.

Whilst I am all for a good hug with close friends and family, I shudder to think that we will ever adopt the custom of hugging complete strangers or professionals (eg dentists and doctors or interviewers) that we see on American TV shows. My US friends, please tell me you don’t hug your doctors in real life?

Of course, in written form, I’m very relaxed.

So hugs and kisses, handshakes and hongis to everyone!