OFFICE LIFE

Five ideas to make Mondays work

You could be happy in your job, working in an office that is feng shui heaven or have undercover company parking so you don’t have to walk in from some remote lot with rain pelting you like frozen bullets. You could have all that and still be apprehensive about Mondays.
  Everybody is. Looking at a schedule with back-to-back meetings where you know there will be a lot of talk and no action, glancing at the pile of documents in your in-tray, scrolling through an Inbox overflowing with mails from difficult clients and demanding bosses can make Monday a dark shade of blue, like a storm cloud.
  Here are a few ideas that might help you through the dreaded first day of the week. But before we get to them, two rules. Don’t check your work messages before you get to the office – not at home, not on your cell phone while sitting in traffic. Leave it until you get there. Don’t make early business calls from the car. Listen to your favourite radio station or an audiobook instead. Commuting time is still your time, uninspiring as it might be.
  Now try some of these and see if you can make Mondays work.

1. Do you buy a coffee on the way in to the office? This Monday, make it a new one instead of the usual. Spoil yourself. The same old coffee from the same place every day starts to taste like medicine, a desperate shot of caffeine to kick-start your brain.

2. Change your desktop picture to something new – a family picture or a shot of your next holiday destination. In most jobs people stare at a screen for hours each day. You might as well make it pretty and personable.

3. Text or call a partner or friend and say how much you enjoyed whatever nice thing you did over the weekend. It will be a pleasant flashback for both of you and a little human connection goes a long way.

4. Take lunch today. Someone said if you can’t finish your work in office hours, you’re either doing it wrong or you’re in the wrong job. We all know by now that everybody from optometrists to chiropractors say you must walk away from the computer at least ten minutes for every hour. You’re doing your eyes, your lower back and your brain a favour. Lunch is a chance to get outside, a change of scenery, a spot of uplifting sunshine, maybe a brief chat with someone you run into.

5. Try not to follow the same routine when you get home today. While you’re at the office, plan something for the Monday evening. Make it something new or something you don’t get enough time for. When you get home, put the briefcase away, change out of your office clothes, find out what everyone in your home has been up to. Don’t talk about work until much later.

Maybe some of these ideas seem naÏve, but there’s no harm in trying.

Posted on 20 August 2015

writing

my battle with commas

Back in the late 80s I sent some short stories to a publisher. The professor who had to read and rate the manuscript made a passing comment that floored me: “The author should find some clarity about the use of commas,” or words to that effect. School, university, four years at a newspaper and I still didn't have a grip on commas. If only he had taken out the offending ones and added the missing, I might have learnt what I still don't quite get.
  The book was published and languished on shop shelves before the final trip to the pulp factory. Probably not because it was a compendium of catastrophic commas, but I suspect that didn't help.
  I like commas, with their round little heads and crescent-shaped bodies, curling up at the feet of letters like cuddly kittens. Their function, I've been told, is to create a resting point for the reader's eye (or a breather for the reading voice in their head), to break up sentences into civilised chunks and to prevent confusion or ambiguity. That's a lot of important work for a tiny grammatical gizmo.
  Online writing, often casually proofed or uploaded in a rush, is complicating my relationship with commas. Reading even upmarket sites or blogs, I'll trip over a comma that I didn't expect, or the blank space where I'd think a comma should be. World English, as the Oxford Dictionary calls it, is becoming more confusing as unedited writing appears online with a mash-up of British and American grammar, as erratic and inconsistent as the moods of a cat.
  For instance, it was drilled into my head that a comma has no business in front of “and”. But here comes the Oxford comma, invading the world of text via America. It appears in lists as here: one, two, and three. US writers and Oxford linguists find it essential. No idea why.
  Possibly also imported from US usage is the comma after salutations - as in “Hi,” at the start of a letter or message. Shouldn't be there, but is very often. Commas work in pairs when it comes to weak interruptions in sentences (as R.L. Trask calls them in his stern, but invaluable book Mind the Gaffe). But this morning I read a news story again which said “Mr Smith from Rondebosch, Cape Town was not present.” Introducing the appositive comma: there should be one after Cape Town.
  Mr Trask breaks down the comma conundrum quite well. It has four uses. First is the listing comma (the Oxford model) as used by some. Second is the joining comma, merging two full sentences into one. It has to be followed by a “suitable connecting word”, mind you, such as and, or, but, while and yet. Third is the gapping comma, showing words were left out rather than repeated. Most important by far (he writes) is the fourth use, the bracketing commas.
  Don't relax yet. Mr Trask follows that with a tough one: “The subject of a sentence can never be separated from the following predicate by a single comma, no matter how long that subject is.” Let me remember not to make that mistake. Terrible things might happen, as that day in grade eight when I split an infinitive.
  English, British or World, is a great communication tool. Sticking to its rules makes it easier to use and to understand. That's why I bother with them. This post has a large litter of commas and I shudder to think how many are in the wrong spot. At least you'll always be spared one thing in my writing. When it comes to punctuation, I draw the line at semicolons.Those treacherous hybrids, neither comma nor colon, are beyond me.
  So I simply don't use them.


communication

Talking is still an option

Ever heard the WhatsApp “wha’”? It's a common response from someone who is reading or sending messages on a handheld device. Chances are they won't even look up or hear what you're saying. And it ignores your old-school attempts at conversation.
  Especially annoying in crowded spaces is the Facebook fling. On a full train you get elbow-pumped repeatedly by commuters swiping furiously. At pace, it looks like they're playing a virtual darts game.
  You could sneer at social media junkies, though it's not so easy when you hear the Twitter titter. It can come at you from any side and cause panic. Are you being mocked behind your back? Maybe not, but the titterer is having private fun and not sharing.
  It seems like ages ago when people still asked at a restaurant table if you mind before taking a call. Now they pluck out the phone to take and post a pic of their food, check their mail or send a message. One thing there is less of, is actual phone conversations with you pretending not to hear. That's a relief on the one hand, a bad thing on the other. Texting is handy. But it also brings a comfortable distance and detachment from the receiver, which makes it easier to drop the social niceties. Bosses can be as rude as they like, friends have misunderstandings that take endless back-and-forths to set straight and even breaking up isn't hard to do.
  Only a few people on the planet live without having at least one small screen close at hand and taking it out constantly. There's even a name for a phobia of being without a cell phone. It comes complete with a list of symptoms and ongoing research.
  Have your screen time, but let it enhance your communication, not become it. Use what you need and when you really need it, not just because it's what everyone does all the time. We lose something of our human nature if we only express ourselves through likes, tags and emoges. We should talk, sometimes face to face. With eye contact. Seeing people in glorious 3-D, hearing them in full stereo, talking and responding in actual real time, is one of life's greatest pleasures. It's also a cheaper communication option with a smaller carbon footprint and can still make everyday life, running with the human herd, a lot easier.


writing

The burden of creative freedom

Two things my wife will always do when I pick my spot in a parking garage. First she'll gasp apprehensively and some seconds later she'll sigh in relief. Here's why. Even in a full parking garage some places might not be taken - the ones next to the pillars. Most people avoid them for fear of scratching their cars. I have a modest knack for judging those tight rectangles and getting in unscathed.
  But if I enter a garage with lots of open parking, I'm lost. Suddenly I can't decide where to park. There's one, my wife says, but I've gone past already. Just stop here, she says, but I mumble something about a guy on my tail making it impossible to brake and keep driving. “When have we not preferred some going round / To going straight to where we are?” asked W.H. Auden in a poem. That's me in the open. The lightness is unbearable. I need to be weighed down a little.
  Back when I wrote poetry, I worked with classic forms like sonnets, strict rhyming schemes and strong rhythms. Free verse was too free for me. I had to put myself in a tight spot before I could create something. Few things gave me as much pleasure as a line turning sweetly into the next like a sports car gliding through a hairpin bend. It had to be tight, but seem effortless. Maybe that's why I enjoy Baroque classics and electronic music from Steve Reich to any DJ with a sense of melody. It's the predetermined shapes, the self-imposed structures. A bit of order, maybe, just as in the modernist architecture I like so much.
  I read up about James Watts, who calls himself KiloWatts and makes lovely, tuneful electronica. One article mentioned he starts with a “blank canvas” every morning and is thrilled by the endless possibilities. Not me. It gets on my nerves. I wrote a few decent tunes when I had nothing but a cheap keyboard and a four-track recorder. Now I have hundreds of downloaded sounds and loops, a pile of plug-ins and little to show for it. By the time I've picked my snare and selected my ambient pad, the idea that sounded promising in my head has been vaporised by too many options.
  Creative insecurity. Is that a thing? If it is, I have it. Give me a free hand and I feel lost. I need boundaries, like a kid. My surname might be misspelt Dutch for “from the air”, but an airbender I'm not. I need form to function, even if it's self-imposed. Perhaps it's a fear of chaos. If so, José Saramago has a lesson for me: “Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered.”
  Form a human perspective, life is, among other things, a disorderly mess of permutations and variables with contradictions thrown in. Sitting at my small, always tidy desk, I try to clean up one little mental space at a time. It's the best I can do. And a little clarity is the best I can hope for.


leisure

A fear of free time

When I have free time, I don't know what to do. I can't be the only one with this dilemma, but most people around me — golfing execs and gym-trimmed mums, overachieving teens and toddlers with a lot of play dates — seem to know instinctively how to use time-outs. They sleep, relax or do nothing. They practice the fine art of dolce far' niente, sweet doing nothing, a phrase that emerged from dreamy Tuscany centuries ago.
  Maybe the freelance life, where too much idle time can be an ominous sign of not enough work, is the root of my problem. Managing jobs, planning schedules, putting in quality time with our kid are all fine with me. But even in freelancing there comes a morning or a day with nothing urgent on the agenda. And then…
 

Kicking back in a rented cottage outside a quiet seaside village with only bare necessities and no Wi-Fi? Can't do it.
I know cleaning out the shed or finally getting plants for the bald spot in the garden provide a modest sense of achievement and satisfaction. I bought Ableton Live to revive my songwriting hobby. That was four years ago. So far I have installed it successfully. The dormant geek in me wanted to play through games from the most recent world chess championship. I still think about that. Last week I downloaded the demo of Tropico 4 because I like strategy games. I've opened it, realised I couldn't check my e-mail while playing and closed it again. There's a darkly funny Japanese film I've been enjoying in stints of 15 minutes. Then I take off to do who knows what.
  Kicking back in a rented cottage outside a quiet seaside village with only bare necessities and no Wi-Fi? Can't do it. With few people around, I feel cut off from the world. Life seems to be elsewhere. What I can do, is watch sports on TV with the sound off while reading an e-book and listening to new music. Not that I have an almighty brain that needs to be super stimulated. I get antsy doing merely one inessential thing at a time.
  A key to making the most of free time could be to have more of it. If it weren't so limited and precious, I might not spend it spinning around in one spot, unable to decide what to do. And when the wasted break is over, I feel like an unbalanced human being.
  Free time scares me. But you don't have to be productive all the time. Can't be, either. I'm bluffing myself thinking that I am.
  Dolce far' niente. It sounds positively lyrical. I must really try to get the hang of it.


freelancing

dealing with a job lost

Among the worst moments in a freelancer's life are those when you either lose a steady job you've grown accustomed to, or hear a new one you could easily get comfortable with is not happening any more. It hits. Hard. If it doesn't, you're stronger than me and I'll humbly withdraw from your presence if we ever meet.
  For those closer to my end on the sliding scale of panic, here are some tips on how not to react when the axe drops - and some possibly helpful advice. It involves lists.

  • 1. Don't think your career is over, you're going to be broke and will have to take the first available office job. Unless you started freelancing yesterday, you've been here before. Think back. Write down jobs that came along after that previous big blow. Did things pick up? Probably, because you're still freelancing.
  • 2. Giving up bad things that cost money is always wise - and good for your health. But this might not be the ideal moment to stop. Adrenalin is shooting through your veins, your head might be spinning a little. You don't want to add withdrawal symptoms to the list. See how much you can save and decide when you're going to change your ways. This isn't procrastination, it's picking your battles. Right now you're trying to beat down the anxiety.
  • 3. Most people think they know what they spend per month, but are really making educated guesses. Those who enter every bill and cash slip on a detailed spread sheet, we salute you. The rest of us should not, right now, make big changes. First find out what things really cost and figure out how much you need them. See if what you give up will be worth what you save. Once you have your real expenses and priorities straight, make a list of sensible cuts. Put it aside and wait until the panic drops to a reasonable level.
  • 4. Don't tell the world. Everybody has problems and as people will be quick to tell you, theirs is worse than yours by default. You won't get sympathy and you'll end up feeling even more dejected. Some might suggest going for a walk or a coffee. Might work for you, but not for me. What, then? Work, actually. Do some. If you don't have anything right now, play with a new idea or a pet project. The aim is to remind yourself again what you're capable of, what you have that got you this far as a freelancer.
  • 5. If you feel better tomorrow, apply for a freelance job you normally wouldn't go for. Maybe you feel too many people will apply, or your credentials don't quite fit. Whatever the reason, you might be wrong. So find out.
And then you can tackle those to-do lists.


working from home

how to defend your space

Last week our incontinent cat peed on my work desk, flooding the keyboard. No surprise to hear Mac technicians say it can't be repaired. Luckily I've been holding on to my old indigo iMac for sentimental reasons and now I'm using its keyboard. It's a trip down memory lane, looking at the fossilised snack crumbs under the see-through back and banging on the keys like it's 2001.
  Cider the ginger is a remarkable 15-year-old veteran who has seen action in two taxi bus wars. He lost a hip joint, a length of intestines and several teeth in the process, but lived to meow the tale. He also systematically cleared our plot from feline intruders and rules unopposed.
  None of that, however, prepared him for the sheer terror of an overenthusiastic two-year-old who suddenly wants to pull his tail, poke fingers in his eyes, sit on him and tug at the nick on his left ear. He's retreated to the window sill behind my desk where he spends his day and forgets to go outside at night when a full bladder wakes him up.
  Cider with his loose water cannon is only the latest threat to my freelance office at home. My desk is a loose white-washed top resting on two trestles. Very cool a few years ago, but now there's our kid yanking at it. He also likes the look on my face when he switches off the Mac at the wall.
  The next worry is the matching bookcases that our boy now climbs. He's made it to the second shelf. The third might be the one where his 15 kilograms tips the scale in gravity's favour. As I stare out the window, over the fence and into my neighbour's dining room, I wonder where the next intrusion will come from. Ah, wait. An overflowing basket of clothes for ironing was hidden behind the door last night since we had friends over. Something tells me this arrangement will become permanent.
  I love our kid and our cat. I enjoy freelancing and prefer my space to the oxymoron of a cubicle in an open-plan office. But if you're about to start working from home, let me suggest a check list for your office.
  Check the noise levels and try to get in some natural light, since even the most eco-correct bulbs tire the eyes. Pick a venetian blind that you can tilt for some privacy without losing all sun. Get a solid table and a good chair to save on chiropractic bills, keep your router and speakers out of reach, get child-proof locks for drawers.
  Believe the feng shui principle that sitting with your back to the door is bad: you don't want someone suddenly yelling “Daddy!” behind you while you're halfway through typing the perfect intro. You could close the door, of course, but I have next to me on the desk an antique brass knob and no idea how to put it back on again. Call it a privacy malfunction.
  Just as bad as invasions of your work space is “office creep”. Don't let your work spill over into the rest of your home. That's where you spend time with really important people like family and friends, remember?


writing reviews

Don't kill the author ...

You could almost hear the thwacks as truckloads of Dan Brown's novel Inferno, were offloaded for its worldwide release. No sooner had the echoes faded than they were followed by a flurry of thuds — critics hitting the author until he let out a very public cry of pain.
  Brown told the BBC he seems to get his worst reviews in Britain, where “it seems to be sport to kick me around a bit”.
  Edinburgh professor of linguistics Geoffrey K. Pullum said “Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.” Jake Kerridge let rip in The Telegraph with “As a stylist Brown gets better and better: where once he was abysmal he is now just very poor.”
  Of course it's hurtful, the author admitted to The Guardian. “I've learned that universal acceptance and appreciation is just an unrealistic goal... The best thing to do is just put on the blinders, write the book that you would want to read and hope that other people share your taste.”
  Not as simple as it sounds. Some years ago I was on the receiving end of a scornful review (“these short stories are worth less than the paper they were printed on”). When I got promoted to a job that included reviewing movies, music and some books, I remembered that roundhouse. I didn't want any creative blood on my hands, so I drew up some ground rules for my reviewing. Maybe they'll work for you as well.
  Don't forget who reviews are for: not other critics or even the author, but the readers. They want to know if the book is worth buying. So save the dazzling metaphors and learned references for another time.
  A review isn't a title fight against the author. Don't try to show you're cleverer or a better writer.
  Review the book, not the author or his body of work (if he has one already).
  Consider what kind of book the author was trying to write. If it's simply for entertainment, rate it that way. If it tries to be profound, have a look at the deeper meaning.
  Don't say the book reminds you of some other title. If your reader doesn't know the book, the comparison isn't helpful.
  Say the good things first and motivate the negative very carefully. Writing is hard. It takes forever. You get lonely doing it. And you have to keep believing it's worth the effort, which might be toughest of all. Show some respect (or compassion).
  Be clear on the difference between what you rate and what you like. You should be able to give top marks even for a book that isn't your kind of thing. Otherwise you should rather be a reader, not a critic.
  The bottom line: write the review you would like to read if you ever get around to finishing that semi-autobiographical debut novel so many critics have on their hard drive.