Remembrance and remembering

August 28, 2013 § 82 Comments

In the last couple of weeks I’ve attended two funerals: one was of someone I knew very well; one not so well, and at both I’ve wondered whether it would be particularly ghoulish to write eulogies for my parents now, while they are still very much alive.

People are often outraged to hear that newspapers already have obituaries written in the event of certain prominent people dying – Nelson Mandela comes to mind. Or that television stations have news teams and ready-made tribute documentaries that just need updating, for example. But of course, it’s simple pragmatism – they can’t afford to be scrambling for words or footage when he dies.

And I feel the same way about my parents. I don’t want to be penning a tribute to people I love when I’m blinded by grief and overwhelmed by the long list of practicalities that the death of a loved one inevitably brings.

I want to recall the time my dad lost his keys on a huge sand dune, and I, aged nine or ten, proudly found them after an extensive search. I want to remember the time we were in Cape Town in a downpour and he scooped four-year-old me up in his khaki raincoat that smelled just like him, and scarpered for the car while I giggled and bounced in his arms.

I want to write down now how much I loved listening to the Goon Show with him in the kitchen, or jogging with him in the early mornings, both of us built for comfort, not speed, neither of us containing even an ounce of athleticism in our DNA.

I want to be sure to tell people how lucky we were to have an awesome stepmother who was brave enough to marry not just my dad, but three children aged 17, 14, and 10 who were still reeling from the death of their beloved mother.

How, before she and my dad were married, we loved going to her house for Sunday lunch where she served such delights as upside-down pineapple cake, or a triangular cheesecake – wonders we had never beheld before.

And how we noticed our dad changing back from a grey-faced, shrunken version of himself to the punning, jovial joker he’d been before. How the light returned to his eyes; the smile to his face.

Every semester when I set off for varsity, she baked me biscuits and helped me pack; today she is a wonderful grandmother to my own children. And she has been the best thing that happened not only to our family, but especially to my dad, who really wasn’t designed to be alone. She has loved my dad – and all of us – for two and a half decades already, and we have loved her for it, and for herself.

I don’t want to do all of that when I’m sad. I also don’t want to forget to tell both of them now, while I still have them, how much I love and appreciate them. Because if I’ve learnt one thing in my 44 years so far, it’s that life is short and death is often unexpected.

And if you don’t tell people that you love them today, you may not have the opportunity to do so tomorrow.


Oh, the places you’ll go

August 21, 2013 § 6 Comments

Journalism will take you places, but it won’t always be the places you expect. Pull up a chair, and let me tell you a tale – one that starts in the murky underbelly of personal finance.

Earlier on in my freelance career, I wrote consumer finance articles for the Mail & Guardian. They were the usual suspects – advice about saving and retirement planning or medical aids. And then, one day, they weren’t.

All it took was one phone call from my editor – let’s call her Anna – to make consumer finance seem really, really interesting. There I was, just minding my business in my little home office, when the phone rang one morning.

Anna: Hi, Mandy. I’d like to try something a little different for us this week. Could you write us a story about porn shops?

Me: (a little surprised) Um, well, yes… what exactly did you have in mind?

Anna: Well, no-one really writes about them, so I thought we should.

Me: Uh huh.

Anna: So many people use them, but we don’t know a lot about them. And I think they use an interesting financial model.

Me: Really? Okay… I hadn’t considered that. But actually, now that you mention it, there’s a porn shop up the road from us with a sign outside that says “We deliver.” That’s always puzzled me – how does that work, exactly?

Anna: Oh? Well, I think you should go in there and talk to them. And find out what kind of things people ask for; see if they have any interesting anecdotes just to lighten things up a little.

Me: (confused and wondering if this will really fit the section) Um, okay. I’ll get on it right away.

Anna: Great. I’ve also got some contacts for other shops. I’ll email them to you.

Me: Perfect. Thanks, Anna – I think this is going to be fun.

About half an hour later the email arrived: “Hi, Mandy. You can try Manny’s Pawn Shop on 011 123-4567 or Prestige Pawn Shop on 011 234-5678.”


How to work from home

August 14, 2013 § 10 Comments

working from home

I realised this morning that I’ve been working from home for nearly 16 years. That makes me an expert, I reckon. So here are some of my thoughts on how to survive if you’re considering doing the same.

1. Work in your pyjamas, just because you can. I get a secret thrill from interviewing someone on the phone, or putting out a very businesslike email while dressed in my Hello Kitty pyjamas with my hair scrunched up on top of my head and my teeth still unbrushed. I feel like I’m thumbing my nose at all the corporate clones. In related news, I need to get out more and find some actual thrills.

2. Never work in your pyjamas. On the days you decide to work in your pyjamas, you can be sure one of the following things will happen: someone will drop in to deliver something to you unexpectedly, your presence will be required at an impromptu meeting or someone will want to Skype you. On video.

3. Read the whole internet before you begin work. Yes, it’s hard to read everything, but you should at least give it a try. Imagine what brilliant ideas, inspiration and time management tips you might miss out if you do? It’s not wasting time – you need that information to make your business or work more successful. And just imagine if you miss the one piece of information that could make you rich and/or famous? The horror!

4. Don’t even open the internet before you begin work. It’s just going to distract you. And if you don’t actually put some of those time management and other tips into practice at some stage, fame and fortune will never be yours. Unless you don’t want fame and fortune, in which case I can’t help you.

5. Make sure you emphasise often how working from home means you get more done in less time. It’s true, you know. There’s no gossiping at the water cooler, far fewer meetings, and no colleagues leaning on your office door frame or perching on your desk to tell you about their latest relationship drama. Those distractions disappear when it’s just you and the four walls.

6. Never expect to get more done at home than you do in an office. Because no-one takes people who work from home as seriously as they should. Children interrupt, friends call for long social chats, and it’s all too tempting to pop out and do all of those household errands your former boss wouldn’t let you do during office hours. And then there’s the internet. (See point 4.)

7. Revel in the fact that you are paid for the work you do. There’s none of the exploitation that goes on in offices when you are just expected to absorb the work of the colleague who leaves and is never replaced. Here, if you do an hour’s work, you’re paid for an hour. If you do two hours of work, you are paid for two. The harder you work, the more you get paid – hurrah!

8. No work, no pay. There’s a flipside to point 7 – if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. Working from home means no maternity leave, no sick leave, no paid leave. If you’re going on holiday, the week before you leave and the week after you return will be a complete and utter nightmare. If you’re sick you’ll be taking calls and sending emails from your sickbed, or at your desk coughing over the keyboard. There’s no-one to cover. Also, expect to spend a lot of your time chasing after money. The client who wants something produced in half a day, and begs and pleads you perform a minor miracle will only pay after half a year, and only because you chase them with the single-minded tenacity of a Staffie stalking a squirrel.

9. Delight in your flexible hours. Go to coffee with friends, attend the matinée of your children’s school play, or go to a movie in the middle of the day. This is the joy of working from home. The world is your oyster! You can do your work when it suits you, not when some guy in a suit tells you to do it – as long as you meet your deadlines.

10. Keep regular office hours, and stick to them as far as possible. If you don’t, ‘flexible hours’ will mean working every week night and weekend to catch up, and that is no way to live. Besides, the rest of the world still operates on office hours and you will be expected to be available at its convenience, not yours. That’s the reality, and it bites, baby.

The bottom line? Don’t even consider it unless you have an iron will, enormous self-discipline and the ability to roll with the punches and survive endless feast-and-famine cycles. Learn to turn the alerts off on your phone and computer when you need to focus. Make sure your family and friends understand that you are at work, even though you’re at home. Put all of those time management books you’ve read into practice – you’re going to need them.

And most importantly, invest in a couple of pairs of really chic pyjamas .

Getting things done

August 1, 2013 § 5 Comments

One of the things I’ve wanted to be from the moment I first clapped eyes on Julie Morgenstern on the Oprah show, is a professional organiser. At the time, I didn’t know such a thing existed, but I was instantly entranced. Because I like nothing more than to climb into a room, space or filing system and get it sorted out.

This is not a passing passion for me – I’ve considered doing a professional organiser’s course through Get Organised, I wrote a column on the subject for many years for Your Family, and I’ve even written a book on the subject (which is languishing somewhere on my computer hard-drive, and probably needs a complete rewrite).

In short, I am the sort of person who likes to Get Things Done.

But I’ve not been very organised for most of this year, as I’ve been having a quiet little rebellion, which I won’t go into here. What has happened, though, is that as a result, the clutter has started to build. My life has been very disorganised, and I’ve forgotten things and missed deadlines, and double booked, but it was all okay while I was rebelling. Now the rebellion is over, and I’ve been getting irritated by the mess, and with myself. But over the past couple of weeks, slowly, but surely, I’ve been taking back my organised persona, and it feels great.

And then, yesterday, I decided to tackle my To-Do list with a vengeance; turn it into a Ta-Da list. By 10am, I had ticked six tedious tasks off; things I’ve been procrastinating about for ages, purely because they’re as boring as hell. And, as is my custom, I tweeted something to that effect using the #GTD hashtag, which is a known productivity hashtag. Within a couple of hours someone had responded offering me a trial of their productivity app. I was not amused.

Here’s my take on all these productivity apps. They’re a bunch of codswallop. Call me an old-fashioned fart if you like, but no app is ever going to make you productive. Only you will make you productive. You can set reminders and carve out time for things until you are blue in the face, but unless you actually get off your butt and do whatever the task is, the app isn’t going to help you.

Take this blog, for example. I have a reminder set up on Outlook to remind me that it’s Wednesday, and that I need to blog, and like clockwork, it popped up yesterday morning. Did I blog? No. Because I was busy doing other things. When it reminded me to blog again last night, I was too tired (and a little tipsy after rather a lot of sherry) so I decided to put it off until today.

I didn’t need an app for that. I just needed to sit down at my laptop and start typing.

It’s like writing. You can go on a creative writing course, follow writers on Twitter, read their top writing tips, buy books on plotting or dialogue or character or whatever and read those, but until you sit down and face the blank page head-on, you ain’t never gonna write no book, chile…

And just as a book is written by a) starting and b) stringing together words one at a time, being organised and productive is a matter of starting, eating the elephant one bite at a time, and keeping at it till it’s done.

If you want to get things done, you don’t need an app. You need just three things, that anyone, anywhere can access. A piece of paper and a pencil to write down what needs doing, and the ability to get started. That’s all. There’s no secret. Just pick something do-able on the list and get going, and don’t stop till you’re done.

Stop reading about productivity, and make like Nikey. Just do it.

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