For me, life is all about small, iterative improvements at the moment. Big plans are shelved, for obvious reasons. I'm oddly lucky in this regard, because I've had this happen to me before: when I was very ill at the age of 17, I similarly had to just turn off the future as if it was a tap to tighten because there was no way of knowing what I would be fit for in six months' time. That was perhaps harder than this, because it affected only me. Apart from my immediate family, everyone else's plans remained largely intact, leaving me feeling like I'd involuntarily dropped out of the world.
It was my mother who devised for us a new way of thinking about what was to come. She zoomed right in, concerning herself only with this afternoon or the day after tomorrow. She showed me that while there needs to be something to look forward to, in a pinch it doesn't have to be a month's holiday to the destination of your dreams. It can be surprise scones for tea today or the arrival of soft new pyjamas. I've been trying to replicate this for myself since Christmas, as I've glowered my way through the longest January of my life, which brings me to what I really wanted to write about here: my prized collection of helpful plastic things.
I have five so far. Each is the product of lengthy research and much reading of online reviews. I go in search of them because I have a small and annoying problem and because I have hope that an inexpensive solution exists. Each one has individually provided a small measure of improvement to my days. In case you are also irked by these same things, I will list and link them:
- This silicone head massager*. I've done a not terrible job of trimming my own hair in the last few months, but my head always hurts at the end of the day and I powerfully miss the aggressive head massages you get when they wash your hair at the hairdresser's. This device provides a similar sensation if you grind it repeatedly into your scalp and when very tense, it feels amazing.
- This pill box*. I have medication I'm supposed to take every day and I often find it difficult to remember if I've done it or not. This problem has completely gone away now that I own one of these week-long organisers, which has a labeled compartment for each day so once it's empty, you know you've already taken the medicine. Filling it up on a Sunday evening is also an easy task that makes me feel productive and accomplished.
- This bath plug thingy*. If you have a bath similar to mine, ie a standard depth domestic bath with an overflow drain let into the side under the taps, then you will be familiar with this issue. You run the perfect bath, get into it, and then the crucial two inches of water that keeps your chest warm immediately starts to drain away because it is "too full". This circular plastic device suctions onto the side of the bath over the overflow and gives an adult who isn't going to splash too much just enough extra water height to have a nice full bath. Just in case, it does also have a hole in the top so that if you fall asleep with the tap running you won't flood the room.
- This wrist rest*. I had to get a new laptop last spring because my beloved 2014 model couldn't cope with all the Zooms and I immediately started getting terrible wrist pain because of the cramped way in which the trackpad was designed. I solved this eventually by getting an external mouse and this squishy cushion to rest my wrist on while I use it. The pain dissipated and I enjoy poking it when I'm bored.
- These stylus attachments*. I recently got a refurbished iPad and I'm finding the handwriting recognition option brilliant for taking notes from books. I no longer have to juggle laptop and book on the desk, I can just scribble straight onto the tablet and it turns into searchable text (I will write more about this process another time if anyone cares, I have strong feelings about handwriting notes in the digital age). However, the design of the first generation Apple Pencil is not brilliant, with lots of little detachable parts that are easily lost. Rather than forking out for the shiny new one, I got the cheaper original but bought this inexpensive set of tethers for its cap, charging converter and so on. The same company even makes a magnetic grip that sticks it to the tablet so you don't lose the pencil itself.
These* are Amazon affiliate links, I should say. I don't especially love supporting the Bezos empire, but unfortunately it is the most reliable purveyor of this kind of small plastic device that I've found. I'm not interested in profiting off your purchases, either — if you do buy something through these links, my account is credited with about three pence for referring you — but I thought it might be fun to see how many people also need a bath plug cover. I'll be matching any money that results from this newsletter and adding it to my regular monthly donation to my local foodbank, which is delivering food parcels to people in need during lockdown.
I really enjoy Nigella Lawson's Instagram. Mostly this is because I like her recipes and it's a good source of culinary inspiration. I recently made her take on minestrone soup after seeing a picture of it that she posted and I would recommend it. Very hearty.
However, there is another reason that keeps me going back to her account, and it is her constant struggle with people who don't grasp how to get from the picture of the food to the recipe. This is mostly Instagram's fault, because for some reason probably to do with wanting to keep you on the app they don't allow working links in photo captions. Nigella (or her social media team?) therefore do what lots of people do, which is have one link in her account's bio that goes to a landing page from which you can then navigate to the photo/recipe that you want.
I think this has become the standard workaround, with the phrase "link in bio" prevalent as a shorthand to tell followers where to look. In my experience of the app, anyway, it is used so often that it doesn't merit a longer explanation. Except on Nigella's account, that is. Her every caption includes a step by step breakdown of how to access her bio and click the link there, and yet her every post also has multiple comments from people asking some version of "this looks great but how do I get the recipe??". I have no good guess why she is singled out like this — perhaps lots of people join Instagram just to follow Nigella? But for some reason, I enjoy observing this phenomenon and always scroll down on every post to see it in action.
I've been trying out a to do list variation this week called time blocking, which I think I first heard about in Cal Newport's book Deep Work* — a book, by the way, that I have started reading or listening to at least half a dozen times and have somehow never finished, more on why that is another day. I do this on paper, but there are various apps that offer it — the Todoist app website has a good primer on how it works. My own version involves writing a quick list of everything I want to do and then drawing a little timetable for the day that allocates an amount of time to each task.
I have found it useful so far. Of course, I don't stick to it rigidly — lunch usually takes longer than I give it! — but it makes me feel less anxious about which order to do things in. I think Newport recommends this technique as a way of allowing yourself to do one thing at a time without interruption, but the main attraction for me is that it forces me to be realistic about what I can do in a single day.
My list of tasks is always too long, but by mapping them onto the working day in priority order, I know from the start which ones just aren't going to fit and I can immediately bump them from my expectations. As a consequence, I get to the evening feeling fairly satisfied that I achieved what I set out to do, and without any guilt hanging over me about the things I meant to get to but didn't manage to address. It's a feeling I like.
My friend Cal's book Islands of Abandonment* has just been published and I'm enjoying reading it so much. It's always lovely to consume the final version of something that you've heard about in its various unfinished forms — like seeing a film after watching the DVD extras first — and this is no different. She writes gorgeously, which I was expecting of course, but I've been pleasantly surprised by how upbeat the whole argument is when it comes to the consequences of our changing climate. I've been listening to the How To Save A Planet podcast recently as well, and although there's only a little overlap in subject matter, the show and the book share a clear-eyed yet non-gloomy take on our environmental situation. I didn't realise how much I needed that.
We've been watching a French-Belgian crime drama on Netflix this week, La Forêt (minor spoilers follow). It's very obviously influenced by Scandi series like The Killing and The Bridge, as seen in the damaged female protagonists and the overhead shots of the wilderness (in this case, the forests of the Ardennes). The story is fairly gripping even if the characters are forgettable, but the aspect that keeps striking me is the cultural differences when it comes to policing.
The investigators in this show are constantly hamstrung by judges reluctant to grant search warrants or permission to examine phone records. The police captain is always explaining in the early episodes that even though two teenage girls have gone missing and a third has already been found dead, the authorities want more evidence that they have been abducted or harmed before they will be allowed to track their phones to aid the search.
I don't know much about privacy legislation in France and Belgium, but even in this fictional form it's such a contrast with UK and US dramas where detectives seem to be allowed to comb through a person's entire digital footprint the second they are connected to a case. I'd need to know much more about the relative real world legislative positions to have a proper opinion, but on screen I found it a refreshing and intriguing limitation on the modern detective.
Until next time,
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