Friday 8 October 2021

"The Suitcase: Six Attempts to Cross a Border" by Frances Stonor Saunders - book review

Truly one of the most beautiful, poignant, heart-breaking, informative, horizon-expanding, mental border-crossing, brilliant books I have ever read. If a book can make you cry in its opening pages and again in its closing pages, it is something special. I could not recommend this highly enough. Pick up a copy now and start reading, even if you are in the middle of something else. I want to give this book to everyone I know. I'm so grateful Frances Stonor Saunders has given it to us.

Sunday 5 September 2021

My 2020 10Q answers

Wow! Work was really on my mind a lot last year. Here are my answers to a special COVID-19 edition of 10Q, a process of self-reflection that I've undertaken every year since 2010. As it has done in the past - such as 2018, when I decided I would ask Fran to marry me - these moments of stillness and listening to myself have led to major life changes: I quit my job and have been freelancing since November last year. Come back next year to find out how that has affected me and how I'm feeling now.

Here are my answers from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Here is what was on my mind in September 2020:

Day 1:

Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?

My answer:

I had another bout of deep depression. It's been brewing for some time and, on reflection, it probably started last year around October. My productivity at work really suffered but this just made things worse: I didn't realize at the time that the lack of productivity was probably a symptom. I started the year on a low ebb with a few days of flu at the end of the Christmas holidays. Then, in February, I got weirdly emotional at work and found myself crying at my desk, in what felt like mental pain and anguish. It was quite scary. One morning I woke up and just didn't feel like going to work. I knew I could probably go through the motions, get up and dressed, drive to work; but I wouldn't really be there. So I took a couple of mental health days to recover, which I felt guilty about, as if I was skiving off - even though I knew I really needed it. I also started seeing a counsellor for the first time since the end of my graduate study, which also ended and was caused by depression. I think in some ways this is my mind and body telling me that I need to make a serious change in my life and find a new job. I returned to work, intimidated by the prospect of the company ski trip a few days later. I didn't really want to go. But I did go, and ended up having a nice time. I loved the skiing and I also found a nice little group of colleagues who weren't into the heavy drinking and partying but instead liked to play board games and especially Hanabi. At the time I dismissed all the scare stories about COVID-19 as an exaggeration. I read an article in Psychology Today that reflected my views. But a week later we were sent home from work indefinitely in pre-lockdown. I had about 10 days of that until the end of March. We were on the cusp of a DEC emergency appeal launch. The company announced in a team meeting that some people were being furloughed, much to my surprise. And then, after the meeting, I was told that I was going to be one of those people: they were just unable to tell me before the meeting. I was completely blindsided. I was very cross about it at first. It took me a couple of days to come to terms with it. Then I realized it was actually a blessing: what I'd been wishing for for a few years: a break from work, a sabbatical, to collect myself, get some stuff done around the house, some life admin. I had three months of it and I didn't want it to end. It was like early retirement. As a result, I've actually had quite a pleasant experience during lockdown so far. I've had time and space to breathe, slow down. I still feel resentful about it at times and I don't think I'll ever be able to forgive my employer for treating me like I'm expendable. But there's another part of me that really appreciates this act of mercy. I'm sure they could see I needed it and would benefit from it. So, very mixed emotions. In some ways, I'm still processing it - as I'm sure will become apparent over the next few answers.

Supplemental question:

Describe an experience from before the COVID-19 pandemic that may now feel like it belongs to another world entirely. When you think about it, how do you feel?

My supplemental answer:

We went to a gig in Oxford to see the Hot 8 Brass Band. We met some friends beforehand for dinner. They hadn't got their shit together in time to buy tickets for the gig, so we went on alone. The meal was in a house-restaurant. We could hug each other, shake hands, share food, sit close. Then, in the venue where the gig was, we watched it fill up gradually. People were dancing and sweating on each other, bumping into each other, getting into personal space. It was a happy, innocent time. I think I was vaguely aware of COVID-19 because a friend from a band had visited her husband in China and had to stay in lockdown. But I never thought that would come over here. I still sometimes wonder whether we have gone wonky in our ability to assess and react to risk. But then there's also so much fear. I wonder if those days will ever return now. I'm starting to feel reprogrammed.

Day 2:

Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Alternatively, is there something you're especially proud of from this past year?

My answer:

We're in the last 10 days of September and yet this year doesn't feel that old because for 6 months we've been in lockdown. I'm not sure I'm proud of this, but I'm pleased that I could see I needed help with my mental health and therefore told HR at work and went to counselling. I'm not really sure if it helped, but it gave me a focus to bide my time while I recovered. I think it's probably given me some more tools to manage my mental health and understand what my negative thought patterns are. I have a lot of negative self-talk when I'm depressed. I also learned that one of the sources of my stress was lack of job satisfaction (not the other way around).

I guess one of my regrets, and I suppose I was hamstrung by my depression, was not making a better go of the opportunity I had at work to create a new role for myself in the UX design team. I didn't grasp it with both hands and make it happen. When I spoke to people about it, I felt cringy - particularly a conversation I had with Luiza. I didn't like the way she was framing the role as she saw it from her perspective and that knocked me out. I could have been working with Ben E and Dave H with one of them as my line manager. And if I'd got that sorted before lockdown, I might still be in that job now. As it is, I feel I've regressed and burned some bridges in my own team by asking for a new line manager and explaining why it was necessary. And the opportunity for the new role has been taken away again because the company is worried that there's not enough UX work anyway.

Supplemental question:

What was your main New Year's resolution or personal goal at the beginning of 2020? What do you think of that goal now? Does it still seem relevant? Does it seem trivial? Does it seem distant?

My supplemental answer:

I guess one of my wishes or vague aims for the past few years has been to lose a bit of weight, but it was never a stated goal or resolution. I'm just aware that doctors tend to mention it to me at my annual kidney check-ups. This year, because of COVID-19, I didn't have my check-up face-to-face; instead it was conducted over the phone. The doctor mentioned towards the end of our conversation that it would be good for me to lose a bit of weight. But it was no different to previous years. This year, however, partly because we've got into a routine of exercise during lockdown, and we're eating lunch together at home, I decided to try the NHS weight loss plan for 12 weeks. This involved printing out a weekly calendar and recording my calorie intake in the MyFitnessPal app. I've done this before - notably during the build-up to the 2012 Olympics. I remember sitting in the Olympic stadium, having one of dozens of packed lunches I had that summer when rehearsing for the Opening Ceremony, adding my calories on MyFitnessPal. It never worked for me before. I always just ate what I wanted. But this year, something was different. I was going to try it for a week, just to benchmark what my daily calorie intake was; and I asked my wife, Fran, to support me. In the first week I lost 3.1kg (3% of my bodyweight)! So I just kept going. I didn't lose weight every week, but I kept at it and made sure I was doing at least 150 minutes of exercise. We did the 7-minute workout x 3 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings; 20-40 minutes of yoga on Wednesdays after work; and a long bike ride at the weekend (or on Fridays when I was still on furlough). I didn't deny myself any foods; I just recorded what I ate and stuck to the recommended portion sizes. I was much more conscious of what I was eating and when I wanted to eat. I resisted the urge sometimes to snack. I was motived by stepping on the scales every Monday morning. I didn't want to be disappointed. I think also having Fran to support me was really important. I completed the 12-week programme. I didn't record every single day: sometimes we ate out or didn't have the time or the energy to record over the weekend; sometimes we were away from home and without internet connection, which made it harder to look things up. But the important thing was the behaviour change. To date I've lost 9.3kg (9% of my bodyweight). I'm slowly working my way towards a healthy BMI of 26, which for me would be 81.9kg. My BMI is currently 27.5. I've lost fat around my waist and it feels great. I don't feel so tubby anymore. I think lockdown has generally been really good for me to form new habits: going for walks after work, exercising more, gardening, watering the garden, snacking less (particularly salty snacks). This is my proudest achievement of the year so far. I want to keep going to see if I can reach my target weight and then stay there. I've even noticed that my trousers and shorts are looser around the waist and I've had to tighten my belt by a whole notch. I've lost 10cm around my waist. I'm not the man I was at the beginning of lockdown - in a good way! I'm 91% of the man I was.

Day 3:

Think about a major milestone that happened with your family this past year. How has this affected you?

My answer:

My big brother, Gregory, had a kidney transplant a few weeks ago. It all happened very quickly. He's been on the transplant list for a while (over 6 months, I think). He had a fistula put in on a Thursday to prepare him for dialysis, which he would have had to start sometime after Christmas. His kidney function was down to 13%. Then, the next day, my big sister, Laura, offered him her kidney. We were all blown away by her generosity, and it really seemed to perk Gregory up. It was an act of great love. That weekend it was Laura's 40th birthday. We were supposed to have a family Zoom call to celebrate together, but Gregory excused himself because he had to go into hospital: they had a kidney for him! (Not Laura's.) He had a series of tests that day to check he was compatible and then the transplant happened overnight. He was elated the next day. Apparently the kidney is very small, which might mean that something very sad happened to make the kidney available. But it really feels like Laura's generosity paid it forward and the world reacted and found him a kidney. In some ways, all of this has brought us closer together. But the last few weeks have been increasingly tough on the others because Gregory has slipped back into mania, the signs of which we could see from day 2 after the transplant, once the elation and painkillers wore off. We're really worried that his mania will affect his ability to take care of himself and take all his medications at the right time. It's hard enough for a person of sound mind to stick to the regime. My dad, Sandy, found it difficult after his transplant and he really needed Moira to remind him to take all his pills at the right time (some with food, some without). I also worry that Gregory self-medicates with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and probably worse. He's not sleeping regular hours and he's putting himself at risk. Part of me feels really cross at this: he's been given this kidney to save his life, but he's not protecting it and himself the way we would like to see. Someone else could have had that kidney. It's hard to say, but it's true. I hope he comes through this and takes better care of himself.

Supplemental question:

How has the COVID-19 pandemic experience affected your relationships with your family members, near and far?

My supplemental answer:

Fran and I have been great together. It's been lovely having her at home during the day so we can have little chats, I can make her cups of tea, we can hug more often. We also balance each other well. She still reads the news and is plugged in to social media; I've really distanced myself from all that stuff. So I get little trickles of news through her.

With the rest of my family, we've become a lot closer. We've got a family WhatsApp group and my mum asked us to share something happy or uplifting each day. My big brother, Gregory, until his kidney transplant, sent us a joke every single day without fail. We also had family Zoom calls every couple of weeks. I feel more connected than before and I speak to my parents more than I had been doing. We've seen an opportunity for us to help in this situation by keeping in touch with Moira and Sandy and just giving them time to talk about things that aren't Gregory and all their worries and frustrations around that. I don't know how we can help Gregory. We're geographically the closest but Moira said it wasn't the right time to visit when she was down to help him sort out his flat the week he got released from hospital.

With Fran's parents, Tom and Ros, we've continued to have our weekly calls on Sundays but we've switched to Zoom for them as well. We used to do it over the phone and it was mostly Fran who spoke to them. I did drive a bit of a wedge between us, I think, when I was concerned that they were having Uncle Nicky and Aunty Lotta to stay when that was not allowed. Yes, they think they've all had COVID-19, but I'm someone who tries to do things by the book and follow the law. We raised our concerns but they went ahead with it anyway. I think Ros, in particular, was a little offended that we brought it up. But we had a relatively civil, adult conversation about it and heard each other out.

Day 4:

Describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. How? Why?

My answer:

I've tried as much as possible to unplug from what's going on in the world. I was finding that early in lockdown the news was just so depressing and a cause of anxiety, so I've deliberately avoided social media and the news much more than usual. Whenever something big happens, I tend to just see the headlines. To get deeper insight into the story, I listen to podcasts or read the LRB. But I'm protecting myself in a bubble of ignorance, mostly. COVID-19 has obviously impacted everyone. For me, it's meant spending a lot more time at home and being put on furlough from work for 3 months. This was a signal to me that I'm pretty much done with Torchbox and need to find another job - although it's hardly the best time to be doing that - particularly if I have to take a risk and go freelance or just resign without a new job to go to.

Supplemental question:

Have you been recording your thoughts and experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, how?

My supplemental answer:

Not in any organized or structured way. I’ve started using interstitial journaling at work sometimes to help me transition between tasks and projects. This is sometimes a way for me to vent what's on my mind. I've become quite irritable at work and feel a lot of resentment and disgruntlement. This process of 10Q will also be a good record of my thoughts and experiences. It's very difficult to write an answer that doesn't touch on COVID-19 in some way.

Day 5:

Have you had any particularly spiritual experiences this past year? How has this experience affected you? "Spiritual" can be broadly defined to include secular spiritual experiences: artistic, cultural, and so forth.

My answer:

I can't think of any. I feel a bit drained, to be honest. Life has been so simplified and limited for the past 6 months. We went to the Antony Gormley exhibition at the RA last year. I love his work. I think what I enjoyed the most were his sketches and sketchbooks where you can see his ideas in development. There was one motif that I really liked of a horizon line running through a head - a bit like a hat. I could have spent hours looking at those sketches. His tiny figures are very moving sometimes. Humanity and the human body in its purest, simplest form.

Supplemental question:

Has the COVID-19 pandemic led to any spiritual moments of significance for you? ("Spiritual" can be broadly defined to include secular spiritual experiences: artistic, cultural, and so forth. Something that brought you a sense of Awe.)

My supplemental answer:

One of the most moving moments, for me, has been having a few calls with my dad. He was going through a rough time of it with sciatica: pretty much constant pain and discomfort. One of the ways I thought I could help was just keeping him company, giving him something else to think and talk about. We watched a few old rugby matches and then had a call afterwards to discuss them. We also watched a documentary about the time that Llanelli beat the All Blacks in the 70s. It was amazing that a club side - admittedly with a few Welsh internationals in it - could beat the All Blacks. I felt really close to Sandy. It was nice finding something to enjoy together. And it's strange for me to be in the position of carer, encouraging him to do his exercises and take his fitness seriously.

Day 6:

Describe one thing you'd like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?

My answer:

I'd like to be happy at work. This could mean having the bravery to quit Torchbox and find a new job; or it could mean overcoming my feelings of resentment, boredom and general disgruntlement and finding a way back to having pride in my work. It's important to me because how I feel about work has such a big impact on my life, and our life together. It affects my mood when I'm not working. I want to be happy and fun around Fran; not feeling sorry for myself and trying to fight through yet another bout of depression.

Supplemental question:

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, what is one thing that you find yourself reassessing in terms of the future? (For example, personal relationships / your relationship with money / with Work / with technology / the media / body image / with your kids / family members.)

My supplemental answer:

I feel much better about my body image and I want that to continue. Losing weight and doing more exercise, as well as getting Birkenstock tan lines on my feet from spending so much time in the sunshine in the garden, have all made me feel better in my own skin. I enjoy the way my body feels when I'm doing yoga and the 7-minute workout. I feel stronger and fitter. My waistline looks so much better than it did a few years ago, when I felt decidedly chubby. It shows that I do have control over how I look and feel: I just need a little discipline. But I also need to be aware that I can't let bouts of low mood push me back into comfort eating. That won't make me feel better and it will do me harm in the long term. I'm now more confident that I can hit my target weight and find a way to stay there, or thereabouts. There are parts of my body that I genuinely like: the way my feet look when I'm doing yoga; my strong and shapely thighs and calves; my freckled forearms.

As my previous answers also show, I'm also seriously reassessing the future of my work. I'm building up to making a decision to get me out of my lethargy. I went through a similar depression that led to me quitting academia. I'm pretty sure it's my body telling me I need to make a pretty serious change.

Day 7:

How would you like to improve yourself and your life next year? Is there a piece of advice or counsel you received in the past year that could guide you?

My answer:

I want my work situation to be better. I want to get rid of some more of my bad habits and replace them with good habits. I want to mute my negative self-talk, complain less (particularly about other people), and feel more comfortable in my own skin. I want more of the house to be unpacked and finished, with more things in their rightful long-term place. I want to reduce clutter. I don't want my life to be too full. I want to read more. Don't know about the good advice or counsel. I am changing and aware of my habits and behaviours. I've certainly made a dent in some of them. I like forming new, good habits. I want to sleep better and more. I want to have fewer nights fuelled by caffeine and white light from glowing rectangles.

Supplemental question:

As society reopens and you reemerge, how would you like to see society shifting in the coming months? Or would you like it simply to go back to the way it was pre-COVID-19 pandemic?

My supplemental answer:

I really hope that society becomes kinder and more considerate of others. I certainly don't want things to go back to the way they were! I like that life has slowed down, that we travel less. I like that we've got to know our neighbours a little and explored the local area. I'd like the government to be humble. I'd like to be more selective about how I spend my free time. Stop surrounding myself with people I don't like and would rather not spend time with.

Day 8:

Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in the coming year?

My answer:

I want to become an expert in conversion rate optimization. I want to learn from the best by working with the best. I want to learn how to do things the right way; work efficiently with finely honed workflows. I want to remove bottlenecks. I want to be able to identify useful information from data. I want to see recommendations tested and implemented. I want to work in an organization without fiefdoms and hierarchy. I want to experience another workplace culture. I want to see if working remotely by design can work.

Supplemental question:

Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

My supplemental answer:

Nothing really springs to mind. This question usually stumps me. I don't see how COVID-19 would make a difference here, in my situation. I guess I'd like to investigate myself more fully. I'm definitely a work in progress. I haven't lived up to the potential I feel I used to have. I've been taken down a peg or two. I've failed. I've let myself down. I'd like to explore what my potential is now. How have I changed? What are my strengths? I'd like to change the narrative I tell about myself. That's why leaving a job is so hard: because it has become part of who you are, part of the story you tell about yourself. I want to change that story. It's stilted and boring. Having three months away from work has made me realize that I go on when the work stops. I am replaceable, expendable, undervalued, under-performing. I want to slough off a few old skins, recycle myself, reuse, refresh, reinvigorate. I want to feel fresh like I've just come out of the shower. I want to see myself anew through new people's eyes.

Day 9:

What is a fear that you have and how has it limited you? How do you plan on letting it go or overcoming it in the coming year?

My answer:

I'm afraid of quitting my job. It has limited me because I've been mostly unhappy at work for 5 years: half the time I've been at this company. That's not healthy. It has worn me down. Shown me a side of myself I don't like. Shown that side to other people. I will not be in that job this time next year; or if I am, I will have changed. But I think I have to quit. I'm afraid that I won't find other companies to be as good. But then this company has trundled off the pages of my good books. It is no longer the company I wish to keep. My relationship with it has soured. I do not want to include some of its employees in my average (there's a theory that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with: I want to change who those five people are). I could just let it go now: resign and hope that I fall on my feet or at least sustain an income with freelance work until I find my next job. Or I could wait for a more stable transition and have the new job lined up. There's a part of me that isn't worried about being able to earn enough from freelance work. My attitude towards freelance work would change if that was my only source of income. I also wonder if I need a more extreme change of direction in my career. I've thought about using the university careers service to help me think this through. But I'm also waiting to hear from a job application I did in June, that I invested a lot of time and energy and thought into. I don't want to move on from that yet until I get a definitive answer one way or another about whether there's a place for me in this new company: if we are right for each other.

Supplemental question:

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began what is your greatest fear? What is your greatest hope?

My supplemental answer:

I don't actually feel that afraid. I'm cautious and I try to follow the guidelines on social distancing. In some ways, I'm afraid that life won't return, that it will be changed, limited, and hampered forever. I'm also afraid that things will return back to the way we were and, collectively, we won't learn the lessons that this pandemic has been trying to teach us. I hope that it will have changed us like I can feel it is changing me. I hope we don't lose patience with this project. I also hope it will change society for the better: make us more active in politics, turn out to vote in the next election; vote for progressive politics, vote to care for the more vulnerable in our society; vote to improve our environments, curb our travel, reduce our consumption. I hope we look back on this period as a turning point. I want us to bear the scar and be reminded that life can be different.

Day 10:

When September 2021 rolls around and you receive your answers to your 10Q questions, how do you think you'll feel? What do you think/hope might be different about your life and where you're at as a result of thinking about and answering these questions?

My answer:

I think I'll notice how preoccupied I was with work. That seems to have been the main theme of this year's answers. I hope I will be in a better situation at work: probably in a new job. I'll be quite surprised if I'm still at Torchbox. Similar to the way I set myself a deadline of asking Fran to marry me a few years ago, I seem to have set the clock ticking to quitting my job. It's certainly something I keep thinking about and talking about. I hope I'll feel proud of myself for making a big life decision and that it turned out to be the right one. No regrets.

Supplemental question:

Six months from now, do you think that you'll look back on the time before the COVID-19 pandemic and feel irrevocably changed, or do you think you'll return to the person you were before? Which changes do you hope remain? Which do you wish will disappear?

My supplemental answer:

Yes, I think I will feel changed. Being at home has changed some of my habits. I hope my healthier eating and weight will continue: that those habits will have stuck. I also think COVID-19 has triggered me to rethink my working life and reassess my values. I don't think I'll return to the person I was before. I wasn't in a particularly happy place: counselling, mental health days off work, unproductive, unhappy, sometimes tearful. Why would I want to go back to that? I exercise more, together with Fran: that has really helped our wellbeing. I've also started doing yoga and really enjoy that. On the whole, COVID-19 has been good for me. We've been so lucky.

Day 11:

What are your predictions for the coming year?

My answer:

New job, happier, Gregory is OK.

Supplemental question:

What's Your Six-Word Memoir on Life during Coronatime?

My supplemental answer:

Furlough, garden, shed, garage, work change.


Record your own answers this year at

Thursday 10 June 2021

How to get a refund for PAYG mobile phone credit

I'm in the process of switching my UK mobile phone provider from Three to SMARTY. I'm on a Pay As You Go (PAYG) tariff. I had £9.39 of credit left on my account. Annoyingly, you can't get a refund for PAYG credit. I don't want this money to go to waste.

I could donate it to charity via a text to donate number, but I wanted to see if I could find another option.

How to top up your Apple ID balance with mobile credit

I discovered that I can add my mobile phone as a payment option on my iPhone and transfer most of my PAYG credit to my Apple ID balance. To do this, go to Settings, click on your name at the top to access your Apple ID. Then click "Payment & Shipping" and "Add Payment Method". You will then see this:

How to top up your Apple ID with mobile phone credit.

Select "Mobile Phone" and "Use This Mobile Number". This option is available in the UK for customers of EE, O2 and Three (via Three Pay).

I then removed any other payment methods so that I could be sure any payment I made would be taken off my mobile phone credit. (I added my other payment methods back later.)

Then click back to your Apple ID settings and select "Media & Purchases" and "View Account". Then click "Add Funds to Apple ID". I was able to add £8.80 of my £9.39 credit, leaving only £0.59 behind. You have to transfer whole pounds and it seemed like I had to leave at least £0.50 credit on my Three account. It's actually quite useful to have a small amount of credit left just in case I need it while I'm waiting for my mobile number to be transferred to my new network.

I'll use my Apple ID balance to pay for iCloud storage, but it could also pay for any subscriptions, such as Strava or Bear Pro.

Why I'm switching from Three to SMARTY

I'm switching to SMARTY because, in lockdown, I barely use my 4 GB of data, which I get from a monthly £10 add-on. Ideally, I'd use giffgaff, but they still don't support wifi calling, which is essential in my highly insulated eco house, which destroys mobile reception indoors. On SMARTY, I expect to spend £6 a month, and could even be refunded up to £1 if I don't use the 1 GB data allowance on the data discount plan. Any additional data costs £1 per GB, so I won't be paying for data that I don't use and can't roll over. I also found Three annoying because my older SIM card wouldn't let me set up auto-renewing payments each month.

Switch to SMARTY and get a free month

If you think you're spending too much on your mobile phone bill and want to try SMARTY yourself, you can get a free month if you sign up with this referral link. You'll be treating me to a free month, too. (Thanks!)