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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30

“Don’t be defined by what you didn’t know or didn’t do. You are deciding your life right now.”

– Megan Jay

“Tired. Depressed. Unemployed. Single. Nearly 30,” read the first line of my journal entry of three years ago. I was 27 and already fretting about the big 3-0. It’s interesting that even though turning 30 was three years away, the fear of that age had already formed part of the miserable state I was in.

Turning 30 is one of the big milestones of our lives. By 30, convention has it that we are supposed to have achieved many things, mainly concentrated on the three Ps: prosperity, property and partner. If we haven’t done so (or are not well on our way to doing so) then we are made to feel bad about ourselves.

I am 30 years old. I rent a small one-bedroom flat. I have only started to save. I do not have a permanent job. I am single. I have never been more satisfied with my life as I am today.

I was delighted to say goodbye to my twenties. When I look back at them, I can recall many happy memories of travel, achievements and of time spent with loved ones. But they were always weighed down by a heavy heart: a love lost; suppressed passions; feelings of inadequacy.

Since turning 30, I have gained in confidence (and in grey hairs). I notice that I can exercise more authority as I have some experience and wisdom behind me. I am much more comfortable in my skin and much more open to change. I also value my time more: I don’t waste it on people or things that make me unhappy. Since I do view 30 as a milestone, it instils this sense of urgency that if there are changes I want to make in my life, I better start today. I believe that the choices I make today as a 30 year old have a larger ripple effect than compared to the choices I made at 20 or 25.

In her Ted Talk, Megan Jay drums it into the heads of twenty-somethings that their twenties are their defining decade, that they should not leave decisions concerning careers or love until their thirties. Those that tend to leave it till their thirties end up being under immense pressure to achieve in a shorter period of time, settling as a result, loaded with regret. She advises twenty-somethings to start taking steps towards the life they envisage now.

I understand the talk’s message but I felt ashamed that I only began making my changes at 29, not 20, possibly having wasted many years. But then again, why should we be constrained by age? We are entitled to go at our own pace and sometimes, it takes a long time to feel unstuck and change direction, or to feel like we are on the right track. When the Velveteen Rabbit asked the Skin Horse how long it took to become real, he replied, “It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”

Hitting the big 3-0 can cause regret, anxiety or relief. But if things haven’t worked out as planned or hoped by the time you are 30, it’s not the end of the world and you can always start making changes today.

And look on the bright side, turning 30 means that we’ve seen through yet another year on this awesome planet of ours.

The flip-side to failure

“Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we’d rather avoid confronting that fact.”

– Oliver Burkeman

This week I had a job interview where I was asked if I had ever failed at anything. The interviewer had started the question on the default position that failure was alien to me. I had come across in such a confident manner that the question had appeared almost rhetorical.

“Of course!” I cried, “I’ve failed so many times!”

About a year and a half ago, I was obsessed with failure.  I had failed miserably at trying to become a barrister in London and I was beginning to accept that I was a failure. I guess I had never really “failed” before. If I failed an exam at school, I would study hard to get my grades back up. When it came to my career, if I had my sights set on something, I would strategise, manoeuvre and pester until I got where I needed to go.

Except for when it came to becoming a practising barrister. For some reason, this was a goal that I had failed to achieve. I didn’t quite understand why the Universe was really not letting me become one. I was prime lawyer material: I had a CV littered with human rights work and academic accolades; I enjoyed public speaking and arguing. On one occasion I got close to the coveted prize, but I never quite hit the mark.

After trying for three years, I decided last year to say “f**k it” and give up. It was at that point I became obsessed with failure. “What does it actually mean to fail?” I asked myself, “And why can’t we admit our failures: in careers, in love, in life? Why can’t we be honest and open about failure?”

So I went on my quest. Albeit, I focussed on my failure to become a barrister. I contacted a journalist at the Guardian who wrote about legal education and I suggested to him that he write about those people like me who would never get the chance to be one. He proposed that I write it myself. So I rose to the challenge.

If I wanted to at least try to answer my questions, I would have to begin by publicly admitting my failure. My aim of the article was to dispel – no – thrash this myth that failure is bad and it’s a sin to admit it.

I couldn’t believe the fantastic feedback I received from the article. Words of comfort and wisdom from my fellow failures poured in. The article had liberated us.

I’ve learned so many things about failure. In brief, that it’s good to fail! Because if you’ve failed at something, at least you’ve given it a go. I do believe in trying hard at something and keeping at it, but the key to well-being is to know when to quit. I also see the cosmic value in talking about failure, because by admitting failure, it makes us human, it makes us interesting, and not least we get a few sympathy votes (but don’t milk it).

Since I’ve “failed” so many wonderful things have happened, one being the creation of this blog. I enjoyed writing my story so much that it gave me the confidence to write more and tap into my creative side. I became more honest about where my talents lay best and what I really wanted for my life.

And once I started delving more deeply into failure, I discovered some wonderful insights, such as some of the most iconic people of past and present having failed at something. Martin Luther King scored below average on his test scores, Abraham Lincoln suffered many failures, Colonel Saunders had a thousand rejections before he got a partner to go into business with him. Failure was common among these success stories too.

Yet, for every failure-success story, there are probably more failure-failure stories (visit the Museum of Failed Products for example) and that is nothing to be ashamed of or scared about. It is just a fact of life. Or one of probability: the more things we try, the higher the likelihood that we will fail at them (certainly at the beginning). But once we start realising that failure is part and parcel of life, perhaps then we will stop fearing it in such a way and become friends with it. Failure and I have become good pals.

In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman explores emerging studies on how too much positive thinking may actually do us more harm than good. By blocking out the negative: failure, uncertainty, fear, loss, loneliness, we actually make it harder for ourselves to deal with the inevitable failures in life.

Failure not only makes us healthier, more creative, innovative and resilient, but by being open about it, it makes us more likeable too, as no-one likes a show-off. And perhaps we can view someone who is a failure (I use this term affectionately) as a role model: you learn from their mistakes and you take encouragement from their courage.

To perhaps go against Oliver Burkeman’s anti-self help stance, I will end this post with my favourite quote on failure by the late Queen of self-help (who also failed by the way), Susan Jeffers of ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’: “I am not a failure because I didn’t make it, I am a success because I tried.”

When he’s just not that into you

Menthey say they’ll call; they never do.

Grace, ‘Grace Under Fire’

We walked together along the bank of the river, the sky an indigo-orange hue as the sun was setting. What had turned out to be an introductory cup of coffee turned into a leisurely three, followed by a stroll along London’s Southbank. We mused over interests (we both loved musicals and valiant causes); he laughed at my jokes. We marvelled at the vibrancy of the riverside: the bars brimming with rambunctious laughter; live music ringing out over the Thames; interactive art displays inviting Londoners to recklessly abandon inhibition.

Suddenly we were across the road from Waterloo train station where he had to depart. He told me had a great afternoon and that he would see me soon. He gave me three sweet pecks on the cheek.

That was three years ago and I am yet to hear from him.

This is a hard post to write. It’s hard because I try to keep my blog quite gender neutral – as in I think the lessons I’ve learnt have universal appeal and application. But this post – and I’m sorry male readers – is about men who are just not that into the women they date. Now, I know there are women who are just not that into the men they date as well, and blow them off in similarly spectacular fashion, but I think the effect on the rejected party is different. I believe this is true from experience: my own and that of my friends; from reading Dear Mariella, Private Lives, Baggage Reclaim; from watching talk shows; films and Oprah. Unlike men (and I know there are exceptions), women tend not to take these rejections easily. In fact, sometimes they take them quite badly.

When I was 25, I told myself that things had to change. I had just fallen for another guy who was just not that into me. He gave me scraps of his time. He was always too busy to call. When I called (and it was almost always invariably me who did the calling) I tried to be cool: “So what if he’s not calling me, nor making a solid arrangement to see me?” I’d assure myself, “He’s really busy: he’s just started a new course, he’s in a different city. He’s a guy – they can’t multi-task. Besides, I’ll be that cool girl that doesn’t bother him. I’m breeeeeezy!”

The truth is, I wasn’t that cool girl. I couldn’t be breezy. Because deep down, I was hurt. I was hurt that the person I liked didn’t really like me that much. So instead of walking away and letting him be, I tried to make him like me more. And guess what? That didn’t work.

It was shortly after this episode that a friend lent me the book, ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. I decided that if I had any decent chance of finding a great relationship, I would have to start separating the wheat from the chaff (figuratively speaking) and figure out pretty quickly how to do this.

The book made me laugh and cry because it was so true. Every man I dated who was just not that into me was an example in it: the guy that was just too busy to call; the guy that I asked out first and then he went cold on me; the guy who couldn’t do long distance; the guy who didn’t want to call me his girlfriend; the guy who was still into his ex-girlfriend. They were all in there (sometimes they were the same person). I made excuses for them all: they’re scared; they’ve been hurt before; they are going through a difficult time at the moment; they are intimidated by me, blah blah blah.

No. They just weren’t that into me. Or they may have been. But either way, the outcome was the same.

I want to return to what I said above about how women tend to take this type of rejection hard. Blame evolution; blame living in a patriarchal society; blame our body clocks; blame absent fathers. There could be a whole host of reasons as to why we take it badly. But, whatever social or scientific reason may be the cause, the sole consequence of it all is this: we don’t love or respect ourselves enough. It’s because of this deficient self-worth that we are made hostage to accepting very little.

What I’ve learnt from both this book and experience is how to read the signs, accept them and move on. Most importantly, I know that it’s not personal. That these men are human. They are somebody’s friend, brother or son. They are not evil, nor arseholes. They are just trying to get on in this world just as much as I am. And once I realise that it is not a reflection on me, I am able to let go.

In the big, bad world of dating, it can be exhausting not to feel upset when another guy is just not that into you…again. Yet, I must strike the balance of following dating etiquette and putting myself out there. So yes, sometimes I’ll ask the guy out, sometimes I will buy the drink, sometimes I will make him a French mix tape. And I don’t regret it! But as soon as I get that feeling: that sinking pang of disappointment when I am waiting for his call because he said he would, or when I don’t hear from him after three days and I end up texting him, or when he says he really cares about me but does not love me; then I know. I always knew but now I’m braver at admitting it, and faster at moving on.

So here I am, just me and my standards. Of course, the better person for me may not come regardless of me and my standards. But, perhaps by breaking the status quo, by expecting more and not accepting less, I am at least nearer to finding him than I was before.

And surely, I cannot ask for more than that?

Being Eva Peron

When I was about four years old, I was cast as Snow White in my kindergarten’s summer concert. I had to wonder around on stage for a bit and then have a bite of a cheese sandwich. When the big moment came to take that bite, I declined. I was too shy. Under any other circumstances, I would have had no problem eating it, but not at that moment, in front of the crowd of proud parents. I was so off piste that my teacher had to come up on stage and coax me to the plate. I recall the “awwws” and the laughter from the audience. I still declined.

My shyness ruined my stage debut then and it has pervaded my life in one form or another ever since. I remember auditioning for the school musical and being too shy to dance my socks off because the boys were watching me. At University, I did not have the courage to join the drama society or the debating societies. Even in my first jobs, I was too scared to ask questions at the beginning because I was too intimidated by my superiors. Shyness, fear, intimidation: same feeling, different packaging. Sometimes I overcame it, other times it held me back.

One of my childhood dreams was to star in a musical. So when the amateur musical theatre company here in Brussels recently held auditions for Evita, I set myself the goal of auditioning for the main part: Eva Peron. This time, I was determined not to let my shyness get in the way.

I am part of a small choir at work. A couple of days before the audition, my choir teacher rehearsed the audition pieces with me. As I performed them, I began to feel out of my depth. I kept apologising for my voice, my lack of expression, my awkward rhythm. There were moments when I felt like quitting. He calmly said, “Gemma, leave your fear at the door. You go in there and be Eva Peron. You are not Gemma; you are Eva.”

Before my audition, I watched this brilliant Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School. Her message is mind-blowing: that changing your body language can have a powerful effect on your behaviour, and consequently on your outcomes. She recommends that doing just two minutes of power posing (ladies, think “Wonder Woman”; gentlemen, think “Wall Street”) can immediately change your behaviour because your stress levels go down whilst your testosterone levels go up. In other words, the real you can come out and shine.

With her and my choir teacher’s advice in my head, I knew that my chance of getting the part of Eva Peron lay in actually being Eva Peron, irrespective of whether I believed it or not. On the day of the audition, I dressed, accessorised and made myself-up like her. Before being called up, I went to a quiet spot and stood there in a power pose for two minutes, breathing deeply.

As I began my audition, Eva’s hunger for Buenos Aires and her desperation to escape poverty became mine. I danced, I shimmied, I swaggered; I belted, I pleaded, I mourned. With each song, I was a different Eva: arrogant; naive; redeeming; helpless. What I lacked in vocal range, I made up for in body language. When I finished the audition, I looked at the judges. They looked a bit shell-shocked. Whether it was out of amazement or horror, I couldn’t say.

Looking back, I think the reason why I was so shy being Snow White was because I didn’t believe I was her. In contrast, for one afternoon twenty-six years later, I was Eva Peron. I just wasn’t the Eva they were looking for.