Wednesday, 31 March 2010

how to make a paper boat

So I spent my day making paper boats, to float in the bath. Hours of high quality toddler entertainment, fiddling with the half-remembered folding technique that makes a reasonably watertight gondola. Then experimenting with different papers for optimum non-sogginess (hot tip: pizza flyers, the stiff shiny ones from dodgy looking outlets on industrial estates. And glossy magazine covers. Those featuring Jennifer Aniston seem particularly water repellent).
There won't be many more relaxed days for a while. The election's no doubt going to be called next Tuesday, so bang goes the next month (I have, obviously, broken my promise to myself to stay out of it. But am MOSTLY staying out of it. Ahem).
But the paper boats were a useful reminder of two things. One, obviously, that if you're two the best things in life often really are free.
But secondly, how much harder parenting would be without the interweb. I couldn't remember how to make paper boats, so obviously I googled it. (What DID parents do pre-Net? Talk to each other? Hand wisdom down the generations? Surely not).
There are millions of variations - I picked this video at random. But almost all those I looked at were not trying to flog anything (what paper boat-associated merchandise is htere? old paper?), advertise anything, puff anybody's paper boat-related book, sucker you into being their friend, or get your bank details.
People just go to the bother of filming themselves making paper boats and posting it online for the sheer joy of - what? Maybe some origami-based sexual fetish, but more likely just because there is a compulsive human need - and one particularly strong among parents - to share stuff that might make others happy, and to teach what you know. For all the ugliness and criminality online, there is sheer altruism too.
Also please note: say what you like about online news, but you can't make a boat out of it, can you? I rest my case for old-fashioned newspapers.

Monday, 29 March 2010

why i'm a rent girl

So after about six months of househunting, I finally saw a house this morning that might work, in a pretty village with a great school. And it has a treehouse. So we could always live in that when the leaking roof gets too much.
But it's made me think again about renting. The hardest part of the downshift for me was selling our much-loved family house in London: we've been renting for six months in ruralshire, which makes us feel camped out here, permanently on the edge of flight. It's unsettling.
Unlike many Europeans, the Brits kind of look down on renting: it's something you only do when you're young or when you can't afford to buy. But it has upsides too. It's somebody else's problem when the boiler doesn't work, and it's cheaper than a mortage. We could just leave if we decide ruralshire is not for us. Why not rent for a bit longer? Doesn't look like house prices are soaring ahead any time soon.
In fact, the appeal of renting doesn't stop at houses. I read a really interesting blog by Brian Kaller recently about applying the library principle to other things. Do we all really need our own barbecue, or lawnmower, or cake tin, or anything else you use less than once a week but still feel compelled to buy and keep? Why couldn't there be neighbourhood 'libraries' for these things and we could all take turns borrowing them as needed?
Ok, maybe not the barbecue - we'd all want it on the same sunny Saturday night in August - but half the stuff cluttering up my garage is there because I might need it ONE DAY, not because I use it frequently. Think how much money I'd have saved by borrowing, not buying it.
The trouble of course is that stuff we acquire isn't just stuff: ownership of stuff is a way we demonstrate we've made it, a way we define ourselves, a source of pride even.
Ownership equals spontaneity and freedom - you don't have to book in advance, you just decide that morning you're going to have a barbecue or go for a bike ride. We're used to the convenience of ownership.
And actually ownership equals a healthy economy: it's more lucrative to get everyone to buy their own lawnmower rather than to have a central pool of it that everyone can borrow. Owning big assets like houses also makes sense because they can make you money, although the vast majority of stuff we have (from rusting barbecue to not-yet-rusting car) is actually losing value the longer we own it.
But maybe the recession is a chance to rethink renting. You can now rent designer handbags, jewellery, big-night-out dresses online - for those who want designer, but can't afford it. There are sites where you can hire your own expensive but rarely used things like ski stuff out to others who only need it briefly and don't want to buy.
We're used to timebanks letting us barter our skills: so why not neighbourhood asset banks, which would let me swap my (shamefully underused) lawnmower with you once a week if I can borrow your food mixer? It's the sort of trade that happens constantly in small villages, but not necessarily in inner cities, where people may actually own less and benefit more from asset 'renting'. It could even encourage people to talk to their neighbours.
And after all, if we buy this moneypit of a house we'll never be able to afford to buy anything else ever again. I'm going to need a communal barbecue. Swap you for a turn in the treehouse.

Friday, 26 March 2010

vegetarians, stop reading right here...

Spring is sprung in ruralshire, and everywhere you look is new life: lambs gambolling in the meadows and - thanks to our local farm shop and their willingness to let small children rampage around the farm - piglets too.
Ah. The farm shop. The flipside of all this rural idyll stuff is the link you can't avoid in the countryside: the one between animals in the field and animals on the plate. When we were townies, meat came shrinkwrapped from the supermarket: now, you can buy it a few yards from where it was previously living. And even the boy has started to work it out.
It started with 'Where does chicken come from?' one teatime. Um, from chickens. Yes, like the ones outside the house down the road. 'Why don't the chickens need it any more?' Um, well, because it sort of IS the chickens. Ones that are sort of, um, er, dead. 'Why are they dead?' Weelll, they had a very long and happy life, and then when they got very very old, and had finished being chickens, well, um, er....
I have made a complete hash of it, obviously. I was expecting to tackle the big metaphysical questions sooner or later, obviously: but I was thinking expired pet goldfish, not dinner.
Yet I've been surprised on two counts. Firstly, the boy has taken it all rather matter of factly: small children aren't sentimental, possibly because the towering ego of your classic under-3 does not allow for empathy with chickens.
Secondly, I'm also less squeamish about this than I thought. Perhaps because I was brought up in the country myself, getting closer to the source of my Sunday roast hasn't put me off it.
But it has made me care more about where our meat came from, and what sort of life it had before: we now eat meatfree once a week and more fish too. It feels appropriate that meat should no longer be a daily thing. Unlike those lambs, whom we see every morning.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

because im worth it (um, sort of)

It's nearly the end of the financial year, and so I've spent the afternoon reading baffling letters from HMRC all of which contradict the previous one. Ah, the joys of being self-employed.
But it made me realise: this blog has dwelt on the emotional ups and downs of working for myself, but the financial ones? Not so much. Yet it's part of any honest reckoning.
First, looking back over my earnings since going freelance, the good news: it's more than I expected. Hurrah! Though admittedly, the bar was set on the pessimistic assumption I'd sink into a pit of unemployabliity.
But secondly, it probably could have been more. Going freelance has exposed my financial Achilles heel: like a lot of women I am rubbish at negotiating my own pay.
Some years ago, I was headhunted by a rival newspaper: I wavered, nearly took the job, and when I decided to stay my husband suggested I negotiate a payrise from my employer as a reward for loyalty.
I'm not really sure what happened inbetween me striding into the managing editor's office with a watertight case for a rise (surprise surprise, asking male colleagues on other papers it turned out I was paid less than all of them) and slinking out emptyhanded. But as my husband groaned halfway through my version of the meeting: "Just tell me you didn't volunteer for a paycut."
Let's just say the rest of my Fleet Street career was not a shining advert for industries where you mostly negotiate your own salary. And I don't think I'm alone. Too often, women don't earn what they could because unlike men they don't ask (the other reason, of course, is that when they ask they don't get: this extract from the book Women Don't Ask is worth a read).
Too often we blithely assume everyone will nobly pay us what we deserve, when actually businesses are wired not to spend money if they don't have to. Too often we're satisfied with approval from our bosses, where men demand cash (this blog from WhereTheBrightWomenAre is brilliant on why women get suckered into doing stuff at work that doesn't count).
Well, self-employment has been painful but liberating.
Now, I have to negotiate fees for every new project, and to be honest: I hate it. Because I've always had a salary rather than a per-hourly rate, I had no idea initially what to charge for my time: I was far too quick to say yes without even asking the fee, or just accept that what people offered was the going rate. At the back of my mind is always a tiny, insistent voice questioning whether I'm worth whatever I'm asking for.
Yet it's been illuminating having to calculate exactly how long it takes me to do any given piece of work, and so how much my time should be worth. It's made the money I earn seem more real: finally there's a direct link between the hours I put in and what I get back, which there wasn't on a salary.
And it has been liberating, on the few occasions I've rejected a job because the fee was too low, to discover that magically the fee then usually rises. Rather cheeringly, it turns out I am (sometimes) worth it. Wish L'Oreal would make an advert about that.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

how i got the needle

This week it has been, occasionally, a bit sunny. Which triggers the usual end of winter panic: realising that I haven't got anything to wear. What the hell did I wear last summer? Why does this happen every summer? I can't have spent the entire season in the office.
This time, however, retail therapy is not an option. I am supposedly downshifting, for god's sake: I am meant to rise above material things, not lie in the bath reading fashion magazines wondering if cutoff grey tracksuit bottoms are someone's little joke.
So instead I spent an afternoon foraging at the back of the wardrobe and in what I euphemistically refer to as the 'sewing box' (ie stuff that's been waiting to be repaired/ altered since approximately the 1980s).
And this is what I found, to my surprise. Who knew?
Exhibit 1: long pale blue shorts that I never liked. Chopped short, rehemmed et voila - reasonable knockoff of £95 pair in this month's Elle.
Exhibit 2: silk combats, not worn since last time they were in (not sure, but I was definitely single) yet by bizarre cyclical fashion logic now deemed v spring/summer 2010. Though I learn they are called 'the silk cargo pant' this time. Love that fashion singular.
Exhibit 3: One pair muchloved jeans with rip in knee (from years of changing nappies on the floor) + scissors = denim shorts. Very Kate Moss. Obviously as worn by her older, fatter sister, solely in the privacy of her back garden.
Exhibit 4: Grey TopShop jacket that I loved so much I refused to stop wearing it when pregnant, despite a bump so huge it was visible from space. The seam split and I never got round to mending it. Five minutes with a needle, and it's back.
Exhibit 5: Pale blue Diesel trousers, not seen since drunken sailing holiday in Croatia, feared drowned. But no! scrunched up in the sewing box, it turns out. Now reinvented (well, rehemmed) at 2010 just-above-ankle length. To wear with heels, in the unlikely event I ever go out again. Which brings me to
Exhibit 5: After counting shocking number of pairs of heels, firm resolution not to buy any more. Especially if, like the teetering orange pair bought for a friend's book launch which make me look like a lapdancer, I can't cross the road unaided in them. Let the fashion mags claim it's now 'all about the kitten heel'. Last year it was all about the lapdancer heel, and I know how that ended up: in an undiginfied heap on the pavement in Clapham, that's how.
I'm not saying I'll never darken the doors of Selfridges again. But the joy of being thirtysomething is finally seeing fashion turn full circle: from now on, pretty much whatever the trend, you've probably got one stuffed at the back of a drawer from last time round. If that's not God's consolation prize for ageing, I don't know what is.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

time and the (half)working mother

I am having trouble with my time zones. Not in the way I used to (husband fogbound at Washington airport, me in London at overrunning meeting, ergo nobody home for bedtime). But I have three different sorts of time now, all moving at different speeds.
First, there is toddler time. This is not time as the laws of physics would know it. Toddler time can go backwards, forwards and sideways: it can take half an hour to walk a few steps (if there's beetles on the ground to investigate, or things that need poking with a stick, or just because I DONT WANNA!!! WAAAAHH!). But it can take a fraction of a second to grab a knife out of the dishwasher when your back is turned.
Toddler time responds badly to being organised, or attempting to achieve anything specific. On rainy, badtempered days an hour of toddler time can last forever. Yet the years between babyhood and disappearing off to school can somehow flash past in an instant.
Second, there is housework time. Initially I thought this worked to the toddler clock: that it basically involved wafting around, pegging out washing in the sunshine, inbetween playing. But wafting does not get stuff done. Wafting leads to everyone running out of socks. Domestic time actually needs to be organised, methodical, linear: it means shopping lists, schedules, and making packed lunches the night before, and it's therefore not brilliantly compatible with toddler time.
Third, there is work time. In an ideal world, this would be on the same latitude as housework: structured, efficient, running to a strict timetable. But for me it's another time zone again: short, creative bursts of being absorbed in what I'm doing and making sudden leaps forward - mixed with long hours of faffing about eating biscuits. It goes in slow motion for days, when I can't summon any kind of urgency about the task ahead, and suddenly speeds up to a frenzy about three hours before deadline.
Switching between these three time zones isn't so easy. I keep having to remind myself when I'm with my son to slow down and forget the idea of getting anything done: no sooner have I got the hang of that then it's time to kickstart myself into organised mode, or work mode. I finally understand now what people mean about part-time work involving more frequent gearshifts.
I'm not moaning: I prefer all three of my new timezones to the old never-enough-time one. But I do think I've got jetlag.

Monday, 8 March 2010

I'm not a feminist, but...

Many years ago, I went to a press conference involving the two then government women's ministers, Tessa Jowell and Margaret Jay, and their colleague Helen Liddell, launching some initiative on women I now forget. I asked all three of them whether they would define themselves as feminists. One by one, they all squirmed and wriggled and said something along the lines of, ooh, well, er, no I wouldnt say a FEMINIST exactly, but....
This is daft. I knew all three well enough to know that in private that's exactly how they'd describe themselves (in fairness, I guess they'd now be happy to do it in public: this was back in the late 1990s, the Labour government was new and very nervous, and I was working for the Daily Mail.)
But it's also very common. "I'm not a feminist, but..." is a mad thing for any thinking woman to say. (But what? But on the whole, I'm in favour of having the vote? But ideally, I wouldn't stone women to death for adultery? But I'm not a total idiot either?)
The problem is with feminism's image. To many women it equals killjoy, man-hater, harridan: it equals not being allowed to shave your legs, banned from appreciating fashion or fun, lacking a sense of humour. This American poll illustrates the problem nicely: 70 per cent of American women wouldn't call themselves a feminist, but when feminism is defined for them neutrally (and accurately) as 'someone who believes in social, political and economic equality of the sexes', suddenly 65 per cent of them are feminists after all.
Similarly while over a quarter think the women's movement made their lives worse, when asked what made their lives better, the answers - equal pay, or more choices in life - lead straight back to the scary old women's movement. We just don't like to give it the credit.
So for anyone still hesitating, here are some myths about feminism laid to rest.
1. It's rubbish that stay at home mothers can't be feminists. Yes, Germaine Greer argued that economic independence from men was the foundation stone of women's freedom. If you rely solely on a male breadwinner for the longterm, you need to know you're gambling your economic future on the risk of divorce, bereavement or male redundancy.
But feminism is also about the right to make your own intelligent choices: it's about saying that nurturing other people shouldn't be regarded as 'lesser' than paid work, just because it's women who more often do it. Feminism can be about attacking the way working life is organised (to suit men with a wife at home) rather than about forcing women to fit into a male pattern of work.
2. It's not compulsory to hate men. Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century philosopher and early feminist, said she did not wish women 'to have power over men, but over themselves'. You can live with and love someone without having to be completely subservient to them.
3. Feminists do wear lipstick. They just do it knowing precisely who they're dressing up to please (could be men, could be themselves, doesn't matter) and they don't torture themselves to unnatural and/or ruinously expensive degrees trying to meet some loony vision of female attractiveness (corsets so tight you faint, cosmetic surgery that leaves you maimed, a size zero figure that means you can't actually eat).
4. Stuff doesn't happen by accident. If you enjoy having the right to vote, to get a mortgage in your own name, to get contraception without requiring your husband's permission, to be paid the same as the man sat next to you, to get pregnant without getting sacked, to an education, to say no - then you should give credit where credit's due. Happy International Women's Day.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

the truth about homeworking

There is very little I won't actually read,when I am at home and meant to be working. Scanning the newspaper headlines, obviously, is allowed: that's part of my job. And I can sort of get away with opening the post.
But when I catch myself reading the Lakeland catalogue that fell out of last weekend's papers from cover to cover, it's time to face the fact that I'm doing absolutely anything to avoid starting work.
There are plenty of people who are fantastically productive working from home: on the rare occasions I managed it in my Proper Job I got more done than I ever did in the office, because there were fewer interruptions. But now I'm entirely my own boss, it's different.
Last week I had two days' childcare and more than two days' work to do in it. The first day was surprisingly productive, basically because I was out of the house: interviews, a long meeting of a taskforce I'm sitting on, lunch with my agent about the book proposal I'm supposed to be writing, sorting out a blogging project.
The second day, I was at home, with nine solid hours in front of the computer ahead of me. Ha!
Let's just say by the end of the day I'd hoovered the entire house (I hate hoovering), walked the dog, made endless lists, faffed about on Twitter for hours, spent an inordinate amount of time making lunch, and...oh, and then it was time to pick the boy up from his childminder.
My biggest worry about working from home was that I'd get lonely. But I'm surprised how much I love having time to myself (an odd way to describe work, perhaps, but I like writing so much that's how it always feels to me).
In fact, it turns out the biggest hurdle is that I'm a deadline junkie. Years of working in newspapers means I can't really take anything seriously until I've got less than half an hour to do it: give me a whole day, and I'll wander about making endless cups of tea until I'm right up against the clock, where it feels comfortable. Having always thought of myself as driven (and having always behaved that way at work), I'm surprised to discover that all along there's been a procrastinator inside me trying to get out.
Or actually not trying to get out. More likely reading the Lakeland catalogue, and telling itself it'll definitely get out later. Sigh.