Stories untold

August 2, 2017 § 3 Comments

I’ve been working on the loveliest job – a grown-up grandchild wants to capture something of her grandparents’ lives while they’re still around to tell their stories, and hired me to ask the questions and compile the answers.

So, on a couple of recent afternoons, I have driven to their retirement village, taken up a seat on their sunny patio, with a view of the most beautiful gardens, and listened to them as they reminisced.

And what a delightful way to round up the working day! I’ve heard tales of derring-do: men who carried wounded battle-mates across the North African desert in World War II, rogue Hungarian taxi drivers, and a car full of nuns that sank into a river with tragic consequences.

But I’ve also heard beautiful stories rooted in the ordinary – dancing in the lounge to favourite tunes on the radio, family singalongs around the piano, bowls of dough set on a warm windowsill to prove. Young lovers park their cars at a meeting spot every day on the way to work. Mothers scold their offspring for wasting food in one moment and gather them into their laps for a spot of comfort. A father surprises a daughter with a new bicycle. People die, babies are born, children grow and move away.

This simple assignment, born out of a granddaughter’s love, has reminded me that the important things in life aren’t things at all. The fabric of life is woven from love, laughter and loss: the rest is just window dressing.

It’s also made me want to repeat the exercise with my own father, stepmother and beloved uncle. I have so many questions; they have so many answers. We take our elderly relatives and pack them away in retirement villages and forget that they were once just like us – young and vital, brimming over with hope and energy. They’ve walked a path we have yet to follow: they have advice for the journey we’d do well to heed.

Finally, it has reminded me of why I love what I do so much – because it’s all about stories. I love to write stories; I love to hear them. Most of all I love the challenge of asking just the right question to find the story buried beneath the apparently mundane surface of someone’s life.

And the best part is that you really don’t have to go far to hear one, because everyone has a story.

Won’t you tell me yours?

7 Breathtakingly Simple Ways To Create Amazing Shareable Viral Video Content

July 26, 2017 Comments Off on 7 Breathtakingly Simple Ways To Create Amazing Shareable Viral Video Content

I’m a helpful sort. I like to pass on my knowledge and share it with others in the hope that it makes their life easier or happier. So here is my foolproof guide to creating viral video content.

  1. Either find or produce a video. It can be good, sure. It can be heartwarming or it can showcase the profound stupidity of some human beings, or it can be really kinda meh. It doesn’t really matter – you make or find something that works for your purposes.
  2. Write a title, ensuring that every word is capitalised. It doesn’t matter that society has been moving away from the overuse of capital letters for decades now (Estate Agents aside, as the Guardian style guide notes). You go right ahead and capitalise everything, like some latter day mediaeval monk who hand letters manuscripts with a proper quill if that makes your little heart happy.
  3. Ensure the title makes a promise it probably won’t keep. “You Won’t Believe What Happened When…” or “It Was Just Another Wedding Until…” or “You’ll Be Blown Away When You See…” You will believe it. It was just another wedding. You won’t be blown away. Trust me. That bridegroom isn’t much of a dancer.
  4. Break the most important rule of great writing. This might be point four, but it’s the most important one. That rule is simple: show, don’t tell. Or as Anton Chekhov wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” But what did Chekhov know of likes and shares?! Pffft. You tell your little heart out, baby. Tell me what’s in the video. Tell me why it’s breathtaking. Tell me some background too, why dontcha? Tell me every damn thing you can think of to say about that video till I’ve scrolled down through your telling for at least three minutes trying to find the damn thing. And then maybe tell me some more just in case I don’t feel told.
  5. Include some screenshots of the video. These should look like they are the video, but not actually be the video link. You have to be careful with these – just enough for me to click, realise my mistake and move on, but not so many that I lose interest and click away. Quelle horreur! We can’t have people navigating away!
  6. Make sure the video is somewhere on the continuum between slightly disappointing and complete crud. Those are the ones that gain the most traction.
  7. Right after the video, have the most enormous Facebook and Twitter sharing buttons the world has ever seen, and have at least a paragraph exhorting people to share the love, pass it on, delight their friends and neighbours and Facebook stalkers. EVERYONE NEEDS TO SEE YOUR VIDEO! And it is other people’s job to make sure that happens – not yours. Use passive aggression, smarmy sales phrases, blatant manipulation – whatever you need to do to get that video going viral!

But please, whatever you do, don’t ever create something simple and elegant that speaks for itself, and doesn’t need any preamble whatsoever other than a short, sharp, intriguing headline. We can’t have that kind of thing circulating on the internet.

Dear Teacher

July 17, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Teacher,

Every time you tell my daughter that her well-argued opinion is incorrect because it’s not on your marking memo, you teach her that her opinion only counts if it conforms.

Every time you tell my daughter she may not wear a legitimate part of her school uniform to be warm, because you believe she won’t look smart enough, you teach her that looks are more important than health or self-care.

Every time you hold my daughter to a standard you are not prepared to uphold yourself, you teach her that hypocrisy is part and parcel of being the stronger one in the power relationship: that there’s no need to lead by example.

Every time you punish the whole class for the misdemeanours of a few, you teach my daughter that justice is an illusion.

Every time you admonish my daughter for not being ‘ladylike’,  you reinforce the notion that she will by judged by her gender rather than her contribution to society.

Every time you expect my daughter to do a pile of school work in the holidays, but are quick to point out that you don’t want to do so, you teach her that double standards are permitted if they’re held by those in authority.

Every time you flounce out of the class in frustration at work not done, you teach my daughter that throwing a tantrum and walking away are appropriate ways to deal with conflict.

Every time you decide a test or assignment is ‘not for marks’ because the whole class underperformed, you teach her that results may be manipulated to create a particular image, and that it’s not okay to fail sometimes.

Every time you fail to enforce consequences for serious infringements like plagiarism, you silently condone it.

It’s not just about homework and assessments, or finishing the syllabus. It’s not just about passing and failing.

Every time you do any of these things, a classroom full of impressionable young minds is learning how to lead and be led, how to make one’s way in the world, how things really work.

Every parent knows that children learn far more what their parents do, than from what they say. Someday, dear teacher, your charges will forget how to factorise, and identify the passive voice; how to titrate a solution, or name a cloud formation.

But they won’t forget the way you behaved; the way you made them feel. That’s where the real learning happens.

How to be a good patient

July 5, 2017 § 3 Comments

I have dealt with a lot of doctors in my time. It’s not that I’ve been particularly ill, but I was married to a doctor for two decades, and I’ve been a health journalist for about the same length of time – although one had nothing to do with the other, coincidentally.

This has given me a unique vantage point, and when I interview doctors for the stories I write, the same things come up over and over again: a kind of wish list that doctors have when it comes to their patients. So here’s a handy how-to, in the interests of fostering good doctor-patient relationships.

First, resist the urge to google your symptoms. A few weeks ago I went to a braai [barbecue] and came home with a bunch of symptoms, feeling decidedly unwell. “I’m a health journalist,” I thought. “I can figure this out.” By the time 1am arrived, I had added anxiety and insomnia to my symptoms, as I’d convinced myself I was going to die from smoke inhalation with a side order of salmonella. It turned out I had a bad flu, twhich morphed into pneumonia. I’m pleased to report that I am still alive, several weeks later.

As the epithet on the mug on my doctor’s desk says: “Don’t confuse your Google search with my medical degree.” Your doctor has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the human body – trust me on this. I’ve seen the books; I know how much doctors need to know to get those two degrees. And then there’s a whole lot of experience on top of that, which adds to their already impressive knowledge. The good ones know what they know, and they also know when they don’t know and it’s time to send you to a specialist. Find yourself a good doctor – there are many out there.

Once your doctor has made a diagnosis, by all means go to a reputable site like mayoclinic.com or webmd.com and read up some more on whatever you have. But don’t google symptoms and expect a sensible diagnosis to pop out. The diagnosis is everything – you can only treat an illness properly when you know what it is.

Second, accept that you may have to wait sometimes. Doctors don’t like running late any more than you do. Believe it or not, they have spouses and families and other commitments just like you do. (And please be considerate – they are also entitled to time off to rest and spend time with their loved ones. Don’t pester them after hours if they’re not on call.)

But they are also aware that they have a duty to be thorough in taking a history and examining you – both of those things are part of the diagnostic process, and help them to decide if further tests are necessary or if they can simply send you away with a prescription.

In fact, you should be wary of the doctor who doesn’t take the time to listen to you and examine you properly, but runs exactly on time. If your doctor runs late it’s probably because they examined the patients before you properly, and gave them the attention their malady deserves. When it’s your turn, you’ll get the same care and attention. If you don’t – find another doctor.

Then, go back to the doctor if you’re not improving. It’s a bit much to expect your doctor to be psychic too. They can’t tell that you aren’t getting better unless you tell them! There are very few conditions with only one option of treatment, and every body is different. Some people respond well to one method of treatment, and some don’t – so go back and say, “This isn’t working,” or “I’m not feeling any better,” or “I’ve noticed that I have this or that side-effect.” Work with your doctor and you’ll get better treatment.

Which brings me to my next point: take the treatment as prescribed. Too many people only take some of the treatment, or do some of what is suggested and then mutter about how useless the doctor is. You’ve asked for their expertise, so use it! Comply fully with the treatment and if it’s not working, then go back to them so they can try a different tack.

Finally, take responsibility for your own health. Partly that means living a healthy lifestyle – eating well, exercising, not smoking, drinking moderately and getting enough sleep. But it also means asking any questions you have – about what is wrong with you, about your treatment, about how you can support the prescribed treatment. Your doctor wants you to be well. You want to be well. If you work with your doctor instead of against them, you’ll have a much better experience overall.

  • A postscript: if you find yourself at a social occasion with a doctor, it is not okay to start asking them about your medical conditions. If you want their opinion, make an appointment during consulting hours.

The L word

June 7, 2017 § 2 Comments

I remember how I cringed the first time I overheard my one of my teenage daughters and her boyfriend saying “I love you” to each other.

I cringed because I grew up in an era where you didn’t tell a significant other that you loved them until you were sure. Very sure. You had to know that this person was The One before you used the L word. And you could be almost guaranteed that the expression of love would be followed by a proposal.

This idea was so well entrenched that I remember whole story arcs in books and movies where characters agonised about whether or not this was the right time to say, “I love you.” Those three little words weren’t just sprinkled around indiscriminately. The right to say them had to be earned.

In the last year or two, however, I have revised my opinion. Because I don’t know where this idea of holding back came from. Perhaps it’s the fear that the person wouldn’t say it back – or that they would, but only because they felt they should.

And actually, that’s all balderdash. Because the person’s feelings about you are none of your business. How they feel about you shouldn’t change whether or not you love the person – that’s expedience, not love.

Love is a one way street. “I love you” is a straight line of love from my heart to yours. No detours, no hairpin bends, no potholes or speed bumps. Just love, flowing from me to you.

So I think we need to tell people more often that we love them, not less. And I’m not just referring to romantic love – we should be telling everybody! Our family, our friends, the cat, the dog, the hamster – if you love someone, just tell them already, dammit.

And stop feeling uncomfortable about saying it, or having it said to you – what is that about?! I think all of us could do with hearing more often that we are loved; the world in its current state of crisis could certainly do with a whole lot more love.

Because here’s the beautiful thing about love – it’s not depleted by being shared. Give it away, and it grows and overflows.

And why wouldn’t you want a little more of that in your life?

 

PS. I love you guys.

 

 

Thinking about overthinking

May 24, 2017 Comments Off on Thinking about overthinking

I went to bed at 8pm last night, so tired I was almost in tears, and fell into one of those deep sleeps where you wake up and feel like you haven’t moved a muscle. It was 2.07am, and as is my wont at that time of the morning, I began to think.

Thinking is one of those things that is underrated in today’s world, I fear. Certainly, a day spent on social media will probably convince you that thinking is on the brink of extinction. At 2.07am, however, it’s highly overrated. If your mind latches onto an idea that carries even the smallest shred of anxiety with it, you can be assured that your sleep is about to be severely interrupted at best, and over for the night, at worst.

Luckily I managed to distract my brain with a book, but it did get me, erm thinking. About overthinking. Because I do try to remind myself of that lovely line which only appears in the movie version of The English Patient, where Caravaggio says: “You get to the morning and the poison leaks away, doesn’t it?”

And that’s certainly true. Something about the sunrise makes all those anxieties in the “wee small hours of the morning” seem a lot less important – if you can even remember what you were worrying about in the first place.

But there’s another form of overthinking that is just as debilitating, and that’s analysis paralysis – where we spend so much time plotting and planning and perfecting that nothing ever happens. “I’ll do it when it’s ready,” we tell ourselves. “When I’ve done X and Y and Z.” And the list of all the things that have to be in place gets longer and longer, and we never do the thing.

I’ve been trying to change that recently. Because there are oodles of people out there who don’t do all the planning – they just do the thing and make up the rest as they go along. Those people are my heroes. They’re also often pretty successful. And I really admire these kinds of people – people who aren’t risk averse, who can throw caution to the wind and themselves into everything they do without stopping to tick off a myriad to-dos first.

In both cases of overthinking, I think, the cure is action. I treat my anxiety wakefulness in two ways now. If I’m lying there worrying about something I can do something about, I get out of bed and do it immediately, regardless of how ridiculous the hour is. Because sorting something out is the obvious way to stop worrying about it.

If it’s not something I can sort out straight away, I make a note of how I’m going to fix it and when, so that I don’t lie there worrying that I’ll forget to do it. Out of my head and onto the page – that’s my mantra.

As for the analysis paralysis, the answer is also action, I think. Because I know that it’s just a form of procrastination, which almost always stems from fear – fear of failure, fear of success, fear that I’ll be found out, fear of looking like an idiot, fear of boredom.

So I tell myself to be brave and I try to think of one thing I can do – actually do, not plan – to move myself forward. It can be tiny, but it has to be an action. And often one small action leads to another, and you’re doing what you’ve been saying you’d do for so long. And you can’t for the life of you remember where you put your to-do list but things are getting done regardless, and no one has yet exposed you as the impostor you’re convinced you are.

I know so many super talented people caught in a downward spiral of thinking they’re not good enough or cool enough or experienced enough to do X or Y, or in that downward spiral of impostor syndrome that can leave you curled up in the foetal position in a corner of your mind, hiding from the world. I know, because I used to be one of them.

But I’m not anymore. Certainly, I’m not as bad as I used to be. I’m not cured yet – it takes time to reverse half a lifetime of faulty thinking – but I’m working on it, one small action at a time.

Too much

May 17, 2017 § 6 Comments

More and more these days, it feels as if the world is too much with me, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth.

Between the woes at home and abroad, as you scan the headlines and timelines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world is ready to implode, right about now. You wouldn’t be wrong. Just the projections about global warming are enough to bring on major depression, and that’s without all the warmongering and posturing and lack of respect for human rights that characterises large parts of global politics.

And yet, and yet. If I walk way from social media, ignore the newspaper posters, and click off the radio’s marketplace patter, I see the world differently.  Because every morning when I turn into my street, the security guard on the corner and I exchange enthusiastic hand-waving and thumbs-upping. In the supermarket, a few blocks away the man at the till next to me regales both the teller and everyone within earshot with his ribald, good-natured jokes. A small girl waves at me as we pass on the street, beaming up at me with doe-eyed, gap-toothed innocence. The fruit vendor at the traffic lights smiles a greeting. My neighbours and I rush into the street to see if we can help when we hear the unmistakable sound of two cars colliding.

I know I can’t bury my head in the sand. But I also know that in this always-on, always-outraged, always-informed world, we are rich in knowledge and poor in wisdom. There’s a lot to take in, and most of it isn’t quality. And if it bleeds it leads – so it’s always going to be bad news.

So sometimes, it pays to withdraw from that cycle altogether. Because believe me, the truly important news will get to you. Log out, switch off, disconnect, and reconnect to your fellow human beings in the tiny moments that make up an ordinary day.

It’s the only antidote I know – reminding yourself that it’s not the whole world that’s gone mad. There are many, many decent people all around us, every day. We just have to stop to look them in the eye sometimes, and say hello.

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