My personal MOT

It’s been six months since I decided to set up my own business – with two other partners – and to go into freelance writing. Last week, thanks to a cold that would not go away, I found myself reflecting on the months that have passed.

Sickness is a hindrance when you’re self-employed. It hampers progress and interrupts the momentum. Mornings can be difficult when I’m this out of focus. Then I think of this Charles Bukowski quote which helps kick me out of bed,

Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside — remembering all the times you’ve felt that way.

So what have I learned in the last six months? That working for yourself requires a different rhythm to being an employee. As it turned out, I discovered in the first month, I did not have a rhythm at all. All my life I have worked in offices. Used to the daily pattern of the 6.30am alarm, the rush through the morning routine: family breakfast, dress my toddler and out the door at 7.30am sharp in order to be first through the nursery doors the second it opens at 8am. A normal work day ensues, then hurry back to pick up the children for 7pm. It didn’t matter that I was less productive one day and more so the next. Nor did it matter if I took a day off sick. I’d still get paid the same. It’s a routine that can very quickly numb the senses and make one lose touch with oneself.

Over the last few months working on my own, I’ve learned a lot about myself. That I write best in the mornings, that working hard doesn’t mean sitting at your desk for eight hours straight, that when you’re working on something you’re passionate about it won’t feel like work, that work never really stops when you’re doing it for yourself.

According to Lewis Hyde (in his book The Gift), he makes a distinction between work and labour.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them.

Paul Goodman wrote in a journal once, “I have recently written a few good poems. But I have no feeling that I wrote them.” That is the declaration of a laborer…

What would I rather be: a worker or a labourer? And what about you?


A ‘what if’ story… or maybe not

There were two things I read this week which jumped out at me. Both came from very different sources. One was Moneyweek (issue 577, 24 Feb 2012) and the other was Seth Godin, a famous marketing guru in America.

In Moneyweek, one of its columnists, Simon Caulfield, wrote a piece titled ‘What if this is not a financial crisis?’ Citing Professor Bruce Greenwald of Columbia University, he explained that the terminal decline of manufacturing employment was the reason for the financial crisis.

Caulfield went on to identify the two causes of the manufacturing employment problem. Firstly, that “the value of manufactured goods has held up well. But employment has been decimated”. He likened this to America in the 30s when the agriculture industry was dying. Mechanisation and fertilisers improved productivity but it meant redundant farm workers could not find jobs. Secondly, globalisation – manufacturing jobs moving to countries with cheaper labour like China, India and Asia.

What Caulfield describes is a seismic shift in our country’s economy. The lost manufacturing jobs are gone forever. New types of jobs will have to be created. But by whom? In Seth Godin’s book Stop Stealing Dreams, he argues that our school system was created for an industrial age and our children are not developing the character necessary for our post-industrial generation.

Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

The reason so many people grow up to look for a job is that the economy has needed people who would grow up to look for a job. Jobs were invented before workers were invented.

There are two recessions going on. One is gradually ending. This is the cyclical recession. We have them all the time; they come and they go. Not fun, but not permanent. The other one, I fear, is here forever. This is the recession of the industrial age, the receding wave of bounty that workers and businesses got as a result of rising productivity but imperfect market communication. Industrial jobs no longer create new industrial jobs in our country. A surplus of obedient hourly workers leads to unemployment, not more factories. On the other hand, creative jobs lead to more creative jobs. Self-starting, selfreliant, initiative-taking individuals often start new projects that need new workers. In my opinion, the now politicized role of “job creator” has nothing at all to do with tax cuts and everything to do with people who trained to have the guts to raise their hands and say, “I’m starting.” An economy that’s stuck needs more inventors, scientists, explorers, and artists. Because those are the people who open doors for others.

A key point that Godin keeps coming back to is the importance of passion. School does a good job of silencing passion but Godin argues that it’s essential our children to be passionate about something. Whether it’s dinosaurs, computer programming or writing.

As the industrial age peters out, as the growth fades away, the challenge is this: training creative, independent, and innovative artists is new to us. We can’t use the old tools, because resorting to obedience to teach passion just isn’t going to work. Our instinct, the easy go-to tool of activating the amygdala, isn’t going to work this time.

So what if the theory is true? That the industrial age is over and we are living in a new era, where tried and tested traditional solutions no longer work and we need new ones. What does this mean, for us and for our children?

Fiction Fridays #17: Funniest storybook ever

I have a confession to make. I bought Richard Scarry’s Funniest Storybook Ever because it pleased me. It wasn’t for my kids; purely for myself.

When I was little, I had one Richard Scarry book which I read over and over again. So much action and activity happen in the pictures that every time you look at it you’d find something new which you hadn’t noticed before. It was my comfort reading as a child, the book I picked up when I tired of reading proper books. I still kick myself for not taking the book with me when I came to London. Anyway, I’m quite certain my mother had long given it away to charity.

So when I found this copy at Border’s several years ago, I simply had to have it. The book is broken up into little short stories: The Talking Bread, Absent-Minded Mr Rabbit, Sergeant Murphy and the Banana Thief, Speedboat Spike, Ma Pig’s New Car, The Three Fisherman, The Accident, Please Move to the back of the bus, Uncle Willie and the Pirates, The Unlucky Day, and Lowly Worm’s Birthday.

Oh yes, and I did check with the son if he liked the book. He gave some kind of non-committal shrug which I took as a ‘yes’. The kids have read the book and still pick it up to have a look-see every now and then, just perhaps not as often as mum.

And this is how the story begins.

Humperdink, the baker, was mixing bread dough with the help of Able Baker Charlie Mouse.
His little girl, Flossie, watched them squish and squash the dough.
After they had kneaded the dough by squishing and squashing, they patted it into loaves of all different shapes and sizes.
Then Humperdink put the uncooked loaves of bread into the hot oven to bake.

A typical day

After some experimenting, I’ve finally found the perfect solution of getting everything done in a day. That is, to split my day up into several chunks.

About three to four times a week I get up at 4am. It’s to take advantage of the quiet time before the kids wake. For years I thought I was a night owl and would work late into the night. And only in the last year did I discover that, in fact, I worked best in the morning.

Around 7am, sometimes earlier, the kids tumble out of their beds. A quick breakfast of porridge all round, and I’m back on my computer or blackberry – for emails, the day’s to-do list and jotting down ideas and notes.

After the school run, on the walk home, is a great time for ideas for features. I put it down to the fresh air and brisk walk.

Then I enter phase two of the day. Mostly it’s finessing what I wrote from earlier in the morning. Then it’s on to drafting the next piece or researching more ideas. Lunch is either at the desk or standing up while prepping the kids’ tea.

Phase three of the day, I’ve found the most difficult. Slightly sluggish from lunch – even if it’s only a light one – I go into tunnel vision. It’s one foot ahead of the other and getting on with it until it’s time for the school run again.

When we get home, that’s phase four. And this part has to be executed with military precision. The kids get their tea within 30 minutes of setting foot in the house or they go ballistics from tiredness and low blood sugar levels. While they feed, I slope off back on the computer to round up the day’s work, tie up loose ends, or there might be a conference call.

Actually, there’s no such thing as finishing up a day’s work. Working for yourself is unlike working for somebody else. Work just trickles into the next day and the cycle continues. Exactly the same as having children.

Fiction Fridays #16: Sophie and Tom are going to the museum

I went through an ambitious phase where I thought ‘my son will learn French and grow up trilingual’ – I speak Mandarin. Several years on, and my ambition remains a pipe dream. He only speaks English, thinks Mandarin is a made-up language and French, well, bof.

Sophie and Tom are going to the museum are one of several dual language books so carefully chosen for educational purposes now lying unloved and untouched on the bookshelf. Very occasionally, I still pull them out for a bedtime story. And with child no. 3 on the way, perhaps I could have another go at hothousing bringing up a linguist.

And this is how the story begins.

Aujourd’hui, Sophie est au musée avec sa classe.
(Today, Sophie is at a museum with her class.)

Le maître leur montre un tableau.
(The teacher is showing them a painting.)

My one big busy life #1: Mitzi Lorenz

Kicking off my One Big Busy Life series is the legendary stylist Mitzi Lorenz. Mitzi was one of the ringleaders of the Buffalo collective – led by her good friend and partner-in-crime, Ray Petri – in the 80s. Buffalo, combining street trends and high fashion, was a groundbreaking style that still inspires many today. I caught up with Mitzi, who has a 15-year-old son, to find out how she juggles her creative life with motherhood.

My work has always blended into my personal life, so it was inevitable that my son would grow up being part of that too.

1. What’s a typical day in the life of Mitzi Lorenz like?
I work on various different projects within Photography/Art/Fashion and financial investments. I’m quite an irregular person, so balance is very important to me. Sometimes it’s quite intense concentrated work, other times breezy lunches.

2. Your work’s very creative. How does home life fit into such a schedule?
I’ve managed to teach myself to flip rather well from one task to another. My lawyer once said I wear many hats; I agree and I have to change these many hats constantly!

3. Do you work in a studio that’s separate to home?
I have an office/studio in my home on a separate floor to my living space.

4. What do you find most challenging as a working mum?
Time! Trying to stretch it as much as possible. Then the domestics. I’d led quite a charmed life before being a mum and managed to avoid it, but now I’m an expert! I have to say the school run was one of the toughest things for me to adjust to.

5. How do you juggle work and family? What’s your secret?
A holistic approach works well. My work has always blended into my personal life, so it was inevitable that my son would grow up being part of that too.

6. What do you do to relax?
Hot baths in winter, swing in the hammock in the summer, and a glass or two of wine and a good gossip.

7. Why and when did you decide to train in corsetry?
I trained just before I had Oscar. Corsets are so beautiful and wonderful to make, like sculptures. I also trained in pattern cutting around that time. Then I became pregnant and got busy working on my book [Buffalo]. I’ve attempted picking corsetry up again a few times since – it’s such a large project to do. Some day I’d like to design a full collection, but for now they sit floating around in my mind along with oil paintings and novels.

Mitzi's corsetry.

8. You styled Boy George’s “Move Away” video, is that right?
Yes, it was at a very destructive time in George’s life, not long before Culture Club broke up.

9. How did you start working with Ray Petri?
We started working together from the very beginning, before it was called styling. We were just doing what we loved, which became our career.

10. Buffalo created its own agenda outside the fashion system. Do you see that happening today? What with the recession.
Yes, even more so. We were creating our own work during Thatcher’s Britain, we were the disillusioned youth fighting for our rights. Imagery was our voice. It was through that we gained a following and respect.

11. When you see the youth today, do they remind you at all of your Buffalo days?
My friends’ kids do for sure, so many are bright and talented. But not what I see on the news so much.

12. Could you tell me a little about what you did post-Buffalo?
The Buffalo book and exhibition. Marriage, child and divorce followed pretty soon after. I home-educated my son until he was 8 years old. Having been left short financially from divorce, I started investing in property, stocks and shares. I’ve continued to work quite selectively on styling, books and exhibitions.

13. What would you say is your biggest achievement?
Having a bestselling book with an exhibition at the V+A was pretty great; I’ve had holy communion by Pope John Paul; being fashion editor of the coolest mag [The Face] in the world at 21 was up there. But Oscar, my son, has to win the trophy!

SAHM is hard work

This weekend, while looking after the children, it hit me that being a SAHM is much harder work than working. On Saturday, while older had his tennis lesson, younger was throwing the mother of all tantrums and refused to stand down. At that moment, I thought, “Gosh, this is much harder than working.”

After a weekend of family time, I always feel like some recovery time is necessary. Work gives me that space. It’s nice to drop the kids off at school and nursery, watch them skip off into their classes, happy to get away from mum for a change.

If younger stayed at home with me, I’d worry that she’d turn feral. I’d never be able to give her the stimulation that nursery gives her. Socialising with her little mates, clear behavioural boundaries, set meal times, a variety of stimulating activities. A mother’s love is wonderful, but from the ages of 2 to 5, I think my younger needs much more than that.

She’s only at nursery from 10am to 4pm, so we still have plenty of quality time together. Through years of experimenting (my older is now 7), I’ve found that a mix of flexi-work and nursery is the healthiest option for my kids and me.

My conclusion: Hats off to all SAHM. I could not do what you do.