My mini-oven

To say that trifles make up the happiness or misery of human life is to voice a cliché no less true for being one, and no less worth remembering.”

– A.C. Grayling

I’ve decided to cook more. I could make a decent chicken curry, an ok spaghetti bolognese, and a pretty fluffy omelette. But, I was really scared of cooking. Inviting friends over for dinner was always quite a fearful prospect. I would dread the thought of what to cook, how to cook it and whether it would taste any good. So I would normally opt for my chicken curry and stir-fry vegetables for one dinner and then spaghetti bolognese for the next. I didn’t have many dinner parties.

It’s not that I was a bad cook; my fear meant that I just didn’t particularly like cooking. And the thought of making dessert was even scarier. I had in the past tried to make a Curly Whirly cake, a cake of such unimaginable sweetness from tonnes of sugar, chocolate and vanilla essence that what resulted was a dewy, gooey consistency with the vanilla icing being absorbed into the sponge. It looked awful and one teaspoon of it sent you into a psychedelic trip that would last at least three hours. I had made it one Christmas for the family. It couldn’t be saved nor turned into something else. It was left in the fridge for days, with me trying a little bit every day in the hope that it would taste that little bit better, as beef bourguignon tends to. Despite my wishful thinking and sending positive vibes to my Curly Whirly cake, it was still awful and hence abruptly discarded.

I spent my early childhood living in Malaysia. In Malaysia, it was fairly common for middle class families to have maids who did all the household chores: cooking; cleaning; washing and ironing; not to mention the child care. Our maid, Kakak, came with us when we moved to England back in the early 90s. I never cooked nor was I ever bothered to want to try. I took some cooking classes during secondary school. I remember making a clementine cheese cake of which the taste reminded me of a fridge – cool and sterile, with a slightly pongy whiff.

Looking back, I sort of wonder how I’ve managed to live a pretty healthy lifestyle after leaving home considering my deficiency in the cooking department. My repertoire (including the bolognese and it’s variations – shepherds pie, cottage pie, chilli con carne – and the curry and its variations – vegetable curry, beef curry, mushroom curry, prawn curry, egg curry) has served me well. But I really envied people who could whip up dishes pretty easily. My best friend would often invite me over for dinner. I both marvelled at and felt intimidated by her culinary expertise. But to her, it was nothing extraordinary, “Since I’m cooking it anyway, you might as well come over,” she’d say and would then summon up a sumptuous butternut squash and goats’ cheese risotto. Simples.

Last Thursday, as I perched my newly-bought brand new mini-oven against the ledge in the metro station, waiting for the metro, looking out over the car-park of a Carrefour hypermarket; the grey, drizzling, over-cast day did little to dampen my spirits. I was awash with emotion. It felt like my mini-oven was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle to my happiness. I bought it – with my own money. I carried it – by myself – to my flat, a flat which I furnished myself, which I pay for – myself. With that oven, I would continue to learn how to cook well – for myself.

The previous paragraph probably sounds terribly melodramatic but I was brought up in an environment where many things were done or provided for me. Kakak was always there, cleaning up after me. When I was starting out my career in London, I lived in a house furnished by my parents, who were also my landlords. It is not easy to write about this without feeling some sort of guilt for my privileged upbringing. But I remain ever thankful and grateful to Kakak and my parents for the help, support and care they gave to me.

One of the first books that introduced me to philosophy is The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life by the philosopher A.C. Grayling. The book is based on his former weekly column, ‘The last word‘, in the Guardian. He divides the book into three parts: ‘Virtues and Attributes’; ‘Foes and Fallacies’; and ‘Goods and Amenities’. The last piece in the last part is called ‘Trifles’. He writes, “There are at least two senses in which something can count as a trifle: one, by being small and unobvious, and the other, by being ordinary, familiar or mundane. In both cases it takes observation to single it out and see it for what it is.” He says that we should not lose sight of the importance of the small things because then we understand better the significance of the big things.

My mini-oven is in relative terms, a small thing. It’s a mundane and ordinary good. But it’s significance has much greater worth. My mini-oven is my trifle. What’s yours?

P.S There will be no post next week but Living room philosophy will be back the week after.

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The importance of being idle

Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

– Winnie the Pooh

In between changing jobs, I am fortunate to find myself on a two week break. At the beginning of last week, I was humming and hawing as to what to do with all this spare time. Friends suggested booking a city trip, or visiting friends and family. Some suggested going to museums or catching the latest exhibitions. I had my own ideas, mostly focused around getting up early, finally doing my neglected chores,  and catching up on reading and writing.

It was in the middle of my chores last week when I had a few epiphanies. First, no matter how many chores I get done, there is always something else left to do. Secondly, there are not enough hours in the day to do all the stuff that I want to do. Thirdly, I am not physically able to get out of bed early when I don’t have a job to go to.

I decided therefore that on Saturday, I was going to be idle: I would not have any targets, or plans to make. I wouldn’t set my alarm. I would laze around, meet up with a friend or two and just go with the flow.

Being idle tends to get a bad reputation. When it got it’s bad reputation isn’t so clear. Certainly in the UK, being idle is particularly looked down upon. One possible reason is that it goes against the remainder of the Protestant work ethic. In an interview with French philosopher Pascale Bruckner on happiness, it was shared belief that to be a good Christian, you had to be in pain. Even in Catholic Europe, people were not allowed to have fun. Work was delivered by God as punishment for what Adam and Eve did. Clergymen often told worshippers that the only ways to achieve salvation and go to heaven was to work hard, to feel pain and to suffer. He states that it wasn’t until the era of Enlightenment when advances in medicine and production meant that the standard of living was higher and that pain was not necessarily a punishment from God. Collective happiness came to be seen as important for the well-being of society.

Being idle brought about the potential of evil, or at least mischief. I often heard my Mum say, “idle hands make for the devil’s work”. There are many variants of this expression, whether it makes the devil’s work, workshop or playground. Being idle could alternatively bring about insanity or depression. As the 18th century English poet William Cowper wrote, “Absence of occupation is not rest; a mind quite vacant is a mind distressed.” This poem was written some time after he had been committed to an asylum, so he may have had a point.

But what does the term ‘idle’ mean? If I am idle, I am considered lazy. If I am being idle, it usually means I am doing nothing, or I am bored. If something is idle, it is not significant nor worth of any importance. Or, it is not in use (like idle machinery).

On Saturday, I was idle. I got up late. I then spent a good half an hour, sitting on my couch, with a cup of tea in hand and a piece of chocolate, staring out of my window. Was I doing nothing? Perhaps on the face of it I was. But actually I wasn’t. I was enjoying the quiet time, illuminated by the bright sky, listening to the hustle and bustle of the city, savouring the chocolate as it melted in my mouth, feeling refreshed after each sip of tea. I was thinking: about past events; about my future. Sometimes, I was not thinking at all; just enjoying the moment.

Even if we are being “idle”, our brain is still stimulated; it switches to some kind of resting state. During this ‘resting-state activity’, blood flow to the brain is surprisingly only 5-10% lower than when the brain is active. The networks that the brain engages during the resting state are similar to the ones it engages when active. It’s not yet clear what this activity is for, but neuroscientists’ suggestions include memory consolidation: putting things that you’ve just learnt into your long-term memory; helping to organise or direct the flow of information to the different areas of the brain; or priming the brain for processing future information.

Creative minds will tell you that daydreaming is a productive activity and that great inspiration has come from being idle. Meditation is probably idleness in its highest form since one is completely relaxed, the mind just observes the thoughts that flicker across its screen until they fade. The mind and body do absolutely nothing. Herein lies the paradox: meditation is increasingly considered valuable for our well-being and mental health, and yet it means being idle.

If we use another term to describe being idle, such as being lazy, what exactly is being lazy? Being lazy for you may be to go for a walk instead of your usual jog, whereas a walk for me is activity. It’s all subjective isn’t it?

One can say that being idle is the opposite of being busy. “Busy” is a term that has been inflated to be something of great significance. It’s seen as “good” to be busy. Busy means you have a life, you have friends, you have very important things to attend to and most things seem so darn important. But for me being busy all of the time provides me with a poor quality of life. When you are busy, you don’t have the time to stop, think or not think, wonder, be open or flexible, or merely enjoy the present.

So the next time you feel like being idle (whatever that may mean), be idle! Watch the sun as it sets, or the rain as it trickles down your window pane. Watch TV, read, lie on your couch, listen to the things you can’t hear. Don’t feel guilty about it because let’s admit it, we are naturally lazy, just as the English writer (and great idler himself) Samuel Johnson remarked in his series of essays ‘The Idler’, “Everyman is, or hopes to be, an idler“. Enjoy this precious time of being idle because there will be many times when you cannot be idle. And you will wish you had been when these glorious missed opportunities had presented themselves to you.

In case you needed further convincing, seek guidance from another great idler, Winnie the Pooh: “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.

Living room letters: office gossip

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.

– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I have my first Living room letter! Depending on how often I get letters, I will try to respond to them on my blog. Before I begin giving my thoughts on this week’s letter, I just want to put out a few disclaimers. I’m not a counsellor nor a psychologist so I can only give suggestions or my take on things. If you need expert advice, go seek it! I accept no responsibility for your decisions or actions on the back of my advice. It is your life and my wish is that you live it in the most informed and best way you can. Now, onwards to my first letter!

Dear Gemma,

Lately I have been reading up a lot about the subject of office gossip. I have discovered that gossiping is in the end a part of social behaviour which we all engage in more or less. But, what do you do when such gossip is damaging your reputation and even your future because you are the subject of mean and untrue observations? What do you do when you cannot approach the person who is spreading these untruths nor talk to those people that are hearing this gossip and tell them that it is untrue?

– NIMB

Dear NIMB,

First of all, thank you for writing in and congratulations on being the first Living room letter! I am honoured that you chose to write to me.

Your letter encouraged me to research what gossip is. We tend to think of gossip as harmful and negative talk spread between small groups of people about someone in particular, whether in the office or outside of it. However, as you say, it is part of social behaviour. Thanks to evolution, gossiping forms an essential part of who we are.

The word gossip originates from the Old English word godsibb. Godsibb referred to the godparents of a child or peers similar to godparents to whom one was particularly close. The term then evolved from a person who enjoys idle chat (normally a woman) to the actual topic of conversations, which is what we mostly use the term for today.

Gossip evolved as a result of language. According to research, before we could communicate through language, we tended to do so via one-to-one grooming (tending to, caring for or touching one another). We would form groups to protect ourselves against predators. As the risk from predators rose, the groups would start to expand. Since communication through grooming was becoming inadequate as this took a lot more time and could only be done one-by-one, language started to develop. As groups got bigger, people would have to figure out who to trust and who not to; who was a better mate or hunter-gatherer. Consequently, those who had an interest in the lives of others had an advantage. They were the ones who survived and thus “gossip” survived with them.

Gossip is seen to have positive functions. It can be a useful and powerful way to transmit information about rules and social norms. It can curb the free-rider problem: it makes people more aware of others who are exploiting our good nature for their selfish gains. It allows us to avoid mistakes or uncalculated risks, knowing the unpleasant consequences that have fallen on those who have made them. Thus gossip can help us navigate better our own lives.

So far, gossip doesn’t sound too bad and it has been argued by the psychologist Robin Dunbar that it is an intrinsic part of human nature (as a result of natural selection), and that our societies would not be as sophisticated as they are, nor would they be able to function as well, without it.

But what actually is gossip? In the broad sense of the word, it is conversation about social and personal topics. But our contemporary understanding of gossip tends to have negative undertones. It is harmful for the person who is at the centre of the gossip and it is done with self-interest of the gossiper. One such definition of gossip states: “Gossip tends to be talk that gains attention for the speaker. The speaker will often adopt a confidential tone and is using the information about somebody else to be the center of attention and will impart the details in a way that tries to undermine the credibility or likability of another person. The details may be given with moralizing undertones and character assassination may be the top of the gossiper’s agenda. Often you are told more personal details than you care to know about. The motivations behind gossip include attention-seeking, self-inflation, exaggeration and a me-versus-them mentality;”.

Before I give my thoughts on your letter, I want to lay down a few findings about gossip, which you may find useful or helpful. First, that the emotional response of the person who hears the gossip relates little to how the person views the target of the gossip. How strongly the person reacts to the gossip is more to do with how much it resonates with them as a useful life-lesson. Secondly, people tend to be interested in gossip concerning those that are of the same (or higher) social status, age and gender as them. Women in particular are more obsessed with gossip about other females than men are about other males. Thirdly, people tend to prefer hearing about the misfortunes of their peers rather than of their fortunes (although this differed if it concerned family and friends). Finally, people that engage in gossip regularly are seen as having less social power and are less liked.

Having considered all of the above, if I was in your shoes, the first question I would ask myself is, “Is it worth confronting the person that is telling these rumours and the people who believe them?” To unpack this question a bit more, I would also ask myself, “Will anyone remember this gossip in a year’s time?”

I do not know what the gossip about you is but it sounds serious if you say that it is damaging your reputation and possibly your future. Saying that, I think it is important to take a step back and really think about the consequences of confronting the gossiper and the believers of the gossip. What are you hoping will be achieved by confronting them? And will such confrontation realistically achieve it?

Since evidence shows that a regular gossiper is not really liked, I would also consider what type of person the gossiper is. If they regularly engage in gossip, then chances are that people don’t take them seriously and merely pay them lip service. On the other hand, if the gossiper is actually someone who is well-regarded then I think it would be possible to speak with them in a non-aggressive and clear manner about how these rumours are making your professional life uncomfortable. If the gossiper is of good standing then I assume that they would welcome the rectification. I wonder however whether such a person would engage in malicious gossip in the first place.

If I was going to confront the gossiper or the believers, I would have to be certain that they are the right people to confront in addition to being certain as to what actually was being said. If I got these wrong, it may make matters much worse.

For workplace advice, I regularly turn to the Guardian’s Dear Jeremy. In one such scenario, a cruel joke at work was made about the letter-writer. The writer wondered whether it was best to make a formal complaint. Jeremy advised, “The thing to hang on to, I suspect, is that stories of this kind – like most things in life – do, over time, naturally decay. As children probably still say dismissively, “That’s stale buns”. If left alone, unrefreshed, rumour and malicious gossip gradually lose their ability to capture anybody’s interest and attention. So your guiding principle should be: do everything you can to avoid giving new legs to an ageing lie.

By confronting such gossip, one may run the risk of adding fuel to the fire, causing others to believe that there is some truth to it. Whilst it is hard to say nothing at all and hurtful to endure, it is even harder for the gossip to sustain its momentum, or for anyone to discern to any extent what is fact from what is fiction.

If you do feel that this is something worth confronting others about then here are some possible tips on how best to do it. Whatever you decide to do, please make sure that you are fully informed of your decision and of the ensuing consequences.

I hope that my take on things has assisted you in some way. I wish you the very best of luck whatever you choose to do. On a lighter note, imagine working in an environment which banned office gossip altogether, as one workplace did.

Best wishes,

Gemma