Mind your language

January 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

I never understood that childhood chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” In my experience, names – or the negative words people use at any rate – are often far more hurtful than a physical slight. Just ask that kid at school that everyone called Four Eyes, or Brace Face, or Fishbreath.

The rise of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) in years past takes this issue to another level. In case you don’t know, it’s an approach to communication, personal development and psychotherapy that posits a connection between they way your brain works, the language you use and the behavioural patterns you’ve learned through experience. And essentially, the theory is that if we change the words we use, we can change our thoughts, and then we can achieve specific goals in life.

NLP has been largely discredited as being pseudoscience (more detail on Wikipedia), but it’s become a hallmark of a particular brand of pop psychology. It’s the reason so many people face ‘challenges’ rather than ‘problems’ today, or write ‘assessments’ rather than tests or exams – a linguistic trend that has always irritated me beyond belief. I’m the type to call a spade a spade, and that’s when I’m feeling polite.

And I don’t think that calling an exam an ‘assessment’ removes any of the stress or anxiety someone might feel about the exam in question. I can see some benefit in reframing a problem as a challenge, but sometimes, it’s just a problem, and you should be able to say so. (Also, “a challenge shared is a challenge halved” doesn’t sound nearly as encouraging as the original proverb.)

And then, a weekend or two ago, my daughter attempted to make spaghetti carbonara for dinner, having watched me make it once or twice. It turned out to be a little more difficult to get right than she’d anticipated.

Now, it should be pointed out that carbonara is a deceptively simple dish. You’ve got to time it perfectly so that the hot pasta cooks the raw eggs in the sauce and you get a perfect, creamy emulsion coating the pasta rather than scrambled eggs. She didn’t get scrambled eggs, but the sauce didn’t thicken properly, and needed some help from me.

“Well, that was a fail,” she declared, quite annoyed with herself. I baulked at that. A fail? No, not at all. The dish was almost there – I’ve made many carbonaras in my time, and some have turned out exactly the same way. Sometimes you just get the timing wrong. And yes, I know ‘fail’ is the parlance of the day; I suppose at least she didn’t brand it an ‘epic fail’.

But still – that kind of language must be harmful – to try something once, not get it quite right, and declare it a ‘fail’? It took a fair bit of coaxing on my part to persuade her that carbonara was more difficult to make than it looked, and that she just needed to practise a bit.

Words can be powerful – the reason NLP is still so popular, I think, is because we instinctively know this, although it’s probably something of an extrapolation to think we can change our life’s path by simply changing the words we use.

But we do need to mind our language when calling something a ‘fail’, for example, prevents us from moving forward, or trying something again. That’s when the names can hurt us. That’s when words really do have the power to harm.


Pet cemetery

January 23, 2013 Comments Off on Pet cemetery

My mother believed that career-wise, you could dream, but you needed something to fall back on. Simply put, follow your heart and go to Hollywood if you want to be the next Charlize Theron, but get the law degree first – just in case.

Thanks to my children – even though I now work in my chosen career – I have something to fall back on. If all else fails, I’ll be opening a neighbourhood store selling second-hand pet equipment.

Larger livestock, like our beloved dogs, have not been a problem. We’re on dog number five now, and the three who’ve passed on lived (mostly) as long as they were expected to. Other pets, however, have been more problematic.

Take the fish, for example. We seem to be pathologically incapable of keeping goldfish alive for more than three or four weeks – and those occasions were triumphs! Most don’t last the week.

Countless unsuspecting fishies have been carted home in plastic bags, goggling innocently at us through the pet shop’s magical waters, blissfully unaware of their fate. In a matter of days they will be swirling down to the place where all fish go to die in our house – that marvel of modern plumbing, the flushing toilet.

I follow all the instructions from the pet shop to the letter – really, I do – yet without fail our goldfish either begin to swim upside down, swerving drunkenly, or they die and their little bloated forms bob around the surface of the water.

Of course, I should have suspected that genetically I was programmed to become a fish murderer. An early childhood memory is my mother’s frustration at the water in our goldfish bowl, which turned lurid green at the slightest provocation. Then she had a brain wave – she dropped a few granules of pool chlorine into the water. The result? Beautiful, sparkling water, and two goldfish, bloated and floating.

But back to my household – having failed dismally with fish, we moved on to canaries, hoping that a simple regimen of birdseed, fresh water and a weekly cage cleaning would do the trick.

We came home with two male canaries (because the females don’t sing) named Albie and Sarah – at the time, my younger daughter simply reassigned gender whenever it suited her. All was well for three or four months, until we found Sarah lying upside down the cage floor. Many tears were shed, and Sarah was ceremoniously replaced. A week later, the replacement too was dead. “Third time lucky,” I thought as the next canary came home, but he too, lasted only a week.

I had to conclude that Albie was killing the others, either by pecking them to death, or depriving them of food – Albie the killer canary was very fond of his food. And so I declared a moratorium on canaries and decreed that Albie would be a shared pet. Predictably, about six months later he died too, and the birdcage and its accoutrements joined the goldfish bowl in the shed.

And so, we progressed to hamsters. Charlotte came first, and was well taken care of by my eldest, but any mother who looked at the cage knew my husband had bought it. Only a man would buy a cage like that – it was a plastic jungle gym for hamsters, uncannily similar to the play areas for children in fast food restaurants. Of course, the hamster loved it. Cleaning it, however, was a nightmare, so I put my foot down – he bought the cage, he had to help with its cleaning.

But it wasn’t well made, and several crucial little plastic bits broke off. I despatched my husband and younger daughter to buy a simple wire cage; they returned with two simple wire cages – one containing Rosie, hamster number two.

Rosie, however, was problematic. She’d been in the pet shop too long and – I kid you not – snapped at you if you tried to pick her up. A snapping hamster is a rather unpleasant pet. And so, given that her owner was only four at the time, we swapped her for a baby hamster – who was very sweet, but had aspirations of doing long jump at the next Hamster Olympics, not to mention the 100-metre dash. We never managed to catch her.

A week or two later, however, we realised that the hamsters weren’t very happy in their very boring wire cages. It was entirely understandable, given the jungle gyms they’d had before. So the wire cages joined the bird cage and fish bowl, and we acquired wire and plastic cages that were a little easier to clean.

Of course, in time, they died too, and those cages were dispatched to the shed. Charlotte actually lived an unusually long time for a hamster, thanks to a vet who was prepared to operate on her, and yours truly, who had to play hamster ambulance for a week so she could have a daily antibiotic shot. But I’ve declared a moratorium on anything that isn’t canine when it comes to pets.

Years later, our shed still looks like a second-hand pet supplies shop. With a lick of paint, I’m sure I could transform it into just that. But at least, I tell myself, if journalism doesn’t work out, at least I now do have something to fall back on – although with my luck, it’s likely to be one of the dogs.

Back to school

January 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’ve just come from a little pity party on Twitter – one I participated in willingly. Today, you see, was the first day back at school for my children, and my elder daughter’s first day in high school.

I have an ambivalent attitude towards my children being at school. As someone who works from home, and enjoys her own company, when my kids are at school I have the freedom to do whatever I want with my time, without interruptions, and without someone yelling “Mom!” whenever they need something. I revel in the silence, and do impromptu hops, skips and jumps down the passage, with only my bemused dogs as an audience, just because I can.

On the other hand, I have worse separation anxiety than my children do, and when I know they’re heading into unknown waters – HIGH SCHOOL – I want to be there to hold their hands while they settle in. I want them to yell “Mom!” if they need help with something.

That’s ridiculous, of course. If I was there I would only do what Oprah calls the ugly cry. Knowing that the ugly cry was likely, I’d also be there without make-up – can you imagine the mass psychological trauma I’d inflict? I couldn’t afford to pay for all those people’s therapy. And I am aware, of course, that there are some things they have to learn to do alone. Or so I’m told – can you say ‘helicopter parent’?

And so, not because I’m a coward or anything (pfffft), I did what I always do – I stayed home. I confess I didn’t even drop my girls on their first day in Grade 1. My husband takes them to school every morning, so why should the first day be any different? Huh? Huh? And it’s not like I stay home and cry or anything (pfffft again). I just have things to do. Like work.

Has anyone seen my tissues?

Wednesday is blogging day

January 9, 2013 § 2 Comments

Why Wednesday? Because I decided this morning I needed to blog more often. I was going to give a daily blog a go, but then I remembered I’m not good at remembering to do things daily. And since today’s a Wednesday, and I was born on a Wednesday, it seemed as good a day as any.

I’m not sure what I’ll write about – hopefully inspiration will strike. I got some good ideas from Twitter friends this morning, including this one – which is to blog about what inspires weekly bloggers. The idea came from Rams Mabote, a friend and former Sunday Times colleague (Twitter handle @ramsmabote if you’d like to follow him). The truth is, I have absolutely no idea.

So, these will just be my usual ramblings, but hopefully, shorter. Because as I look back over previous blogs, I realise I’ve been far too verbose. Rookie error, I suppose. I hope you’ll forgive me.

I’d love to hear from other bloggers who are good about meeting their self-imposed deadlines – what inspires you? What compels you to sit at the computer and type away until that post is up? How do you decide whether what you are writing is worth reading? Or do you just write for yourself?

I write partly for myself, and partly in the hope that I entertain someone out there. And as my last post suggests, I sometimes blog to vent. Big time. I’m entirely non-confrontational in person, but sit me down at a keyboard when I’m angry and I can spew invective with the best of them. I’ll try to restrain myself, I promise.

So, the parameters are – blogging at least once a week, by Wednesday at the latest. (Although hopefully more often.) No more than 500 words. About anything I fancy. Feel free to nag me.

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