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Archive for the ‘Blogging with Friends’ Category

#1of Blogging with Friends

When I was growing up, style was a thing that other people had. It was a thing that adult women living in the city possessed, not schoolkids (or even their families) in a farming community/small town. School and sports was our social life – so many of us travelled to and from school on a bus that we just didn’t meet up outside of school or special events. There was nothing much to do in our town anyway. So we wore school uniforms during the day (or sports uniforms on the weekends when we playing sports). There was no competition amongst my schoolmates – we all looked and dressed the same. There was a freedom in that.

When we were at home we had hand-me-down or basic homemade clothes that were made for warmth and endurance in our lives on the farm. Functionality was key. Style was irrelevant. My sisters and I would get one or at most two outfits for “good” – for going out or special events. And seasonal casual outfits for going to town on the weekends to visit my grandmother, or as we got older, to meet up with friends on a rare, non-sport or non-school related event. Because of the sheer scarcity of my clothes, I can remember many of them as a result.

My mother was a sewer. In New Zealand in the 70s, pretty much all mothers were! She had to be, as in those days, locally produced clothes were expensive, protected by the high tariffs and import restrictions that I would learn all about on my first job, and that were dismantled in the mid-late 1980s. In the 1970s/early 80s, it was cheaper to make our own clothes – sewing AND knitting.

My first purchase from my work as a university tutor was a sewing machine. I still have it. I made my own clothes, I remember making Christmas presents, and even as I began work, many of my clothes were personally made. Poring over Butterick, Style, Simplicity and Vogue pattern books were my version of going clothes shopping. (Even for my wedding dress.) Gradually though, as imports were opened up in the 1980s, clothes became cheaper (which was necessary for those struggling) and more varied, and sadly but inevitably, many NZ manufacturers went out of business.

So as a teenager, I didn’t have much practice in developing a “style” at all. 95% of the time, I wore clothes that fitted, were cheap or quick and easy to make. I was aware of some fashions, and had my likes and dislikes. But oh, I dreamed of beautiful clothes and shoes. I dreamed of looking good, of a bit of glamour. Very occasionally, I got to make something special, but there was huge pressure in that one garment. I remember one or two skirts when I was 16, that I was particularly pleased with. And my mother made the dress I wore to my School Ball at 17. I chose the pattern and fabric. When I think about it, it reflects the style I maintain to this day. It was a simple but elegant design – a little different, but not boring. The colour scheme was dark, jewel colours.

I remember making one significant clothes purchase with some money I had saved from a holiday job. I went to the one “modern” shop in our small town (other than a very boring department store), and sifted through all the tops and jerseys, hoping to find the right combination of price, style, and colour. Of course, I found and fell in love with what turned out to be one of the most expensive tops there. Sadly, this trend of expensive taste has continued, but these days it is rarely satisfied! It was a beautifully soft pale brown (mohair?) knitted cowl neck top. It was the 70s, people! It suited my green eyes, and was the right shade for my skin. I loved it. It was my “date” top. Not that I had too many of those!

Between school and university I spent a year in Thailand. Again, school uniforms dominated. I was tall, and buying clothes there – even if I had had the money – just wasn’t an option! Nothing new for me.

University years were filled with jeans and T-shirt variations, and I remember only a couple of basic outfits from those days. A boat-necked jersey I had knitted when boat-necks were all the rage, and jeans tucked into ankle boots when I was a graduate student. I felt so cool in that! I also remember a strappy yellow print date dress. I don’t think I’d wear that colour now, but I also made a buttercup yellow dress I wore for an interview. At the group interview in Wellington, we were shown around the organisation, and C gave a brief presentation to my group. Four months later, I started working there and one day wore the same dress. She saw me, and exclaimed, “congratulations, you made it!” That was in 1986, and we had dinner out together about ten days ago. Thanks, yellow dress, for getting me a friend for life.

Finally, living and working in the big city, my style began to develop. My first purchase with my first full-time pay packet was a delicious emerald green woollen dress. I loved that dress – the colour looked great on me, despite having avoided anything green previously (perhaps because our school uniform was a deep forest green – though looking back, that colour suited me too – and my mother also hated green, though I’m not sure why). It was so soft, but elegant too – long lined, which I could get away with because I was both tall, and slim. (Those were the days!) In that dress, (I think) I looked like I wanted to look. It was a rare feeling.

And as I began figuring out what to wear at work, I started developing my style. I knew what colours suited me. I can’t remember if “having your colours done” was a 1980s or 1990s fad, but when I learnt about it, the basic ideas about it seemed natural to me, and I used the principles to check whether a colour was right for me or not. (So I never felt the need to “get them done.”) I always gravitated to those jewel colours, colours with a blue base. I knew that orangey-reds looked bad on me, but blue-based reds looked much better. I knew which rich browns would bring out my green eyes, and which would make me look washed out. In fact, other browns, yellowy-greens, olives, or mustardy colours generally aged me by 30 years. I would take a colour, drape it in front of me, and could tell if it suited. So colour has never been too much of an issue for me.

I liked tailored clothes too, and the 1980s was the era of the power suit, complete with shoulder pads. I had my fair share, even though I have broad shoulders as it is! I sewed my first suit for work, and deliberately chose a pattern that was a little different, with extended front panels of the suite jacket, down into a sharp point. I don’t think I have a photo, and the suit itself is long gone. I never liked boring clothes – I wanted clothes that would be just a little different, whilst still being appropriate. But I was never brave enough to wear something truly wacky. I never coloured my hair pink, or wore grunge (too much of a throw-back to my farm clothes perhaps). I blended in, but not completely. I remember a colleague calling me a fashion-plate when I was wearing a simply outfit of pants, a soft t-shirt type top with a high neck, and an unstructured knit jacket I’d managed to pick up in Sydney on a business trip. It was not a particularly fashionable or outstanding outfit. It was just a little different. But it was one of the first compliments I ever got on clothes, and made me feel so good.

In many ways, that reflected how I wanted to be seen in life too. I wanted to be just a tiny bit different, whilst still fitting in. I wanted to be a little bit sophisticated or interesting – perhaps fighting back the farming background – but never fussy or too ornate. I wanted to remain grounded, down-to-earth. I wanted to be approachable. And I wanted to look good. None of that has changed.

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#18 of Blogging with Friends

“What is the scariest thing you’ve ever eaten?” one of my blogging friends challenged us to answer last week. I assumed she didn’t mean the overcooked schnitzel my husband made once, and so my mind immediately went to Asia. I specifically didn’t eat a bowl of huge (it seemed to me at least), grey, rubbery-looking octopus tentacles in Taiwan, breaking all diplomatic rules by refusing this offering, but delighting the Taiwanese men around me by sharing my uneaten tentacles with them. I also specifically didn’t eat from the buffet of bugs in a Filipino restaurant, when I was taken there by some of my local staff members on a project. The most unordinary thing in the buffet were brains or offal. The bowls of bugs  – big ones, and small ones – were not sufficiently appetising to either me, or Phil, yet we had both spent years living in Asia, and were not usually too squeamish (despite this post) about foreign foods.

As a student in Thailand, I went out with my host family to restaurants quite a lot. (I should note that before I went to Thailand I was not a particularly adventurous eater – mainly perhaps because I simply never got the opportunity to eat a variety of food. And I was quite picky too. I lost that almost as soon as I joined my host family and fell in love with Thai food.) My Thai father, in particular, liked Chinese food, Bangkok was renowned for having great Chinese food, and I suspect there was an elevated status in being able to eat at and host meals at these restaurants. Even when we coincidentally were in London at the same time about 30 years later, we met at a Chinese restaurant. So we had either bird’s (or is it birds’?) nest or shark’s (sharks’?) fin soup, and always Peking duck (my favourite, and that of my Thai host siblings), and other stuff. I discovered then that if you don’t know what you’re eating, it is always best not to ask. The black slimy stuff on your plate? Just eat it! At a different seafood restaurant once, instead of the copious numbers of prawns the siblings and I always devoured, I was given sample after sample of food I couldn’t identify, and didn’t want to. One of the dishes was sea urchin. The others shall remain unknown. And that’s fine by me.

But probably the most adventurous and scariest thing I ever ate was at a party in Thailand with a big bunch of other AFS exchange students. Nicki, a fellow kiwi AFS friend, and her school, hosted an AFS Weekend. A large group of us converged on her remote town in north-eastern Thailand for several days of fun, and after a long bus trip to get there, we were billeted out with different families. It was a poor town – few cars, or telephones amongst the 3000 inhabitants. Nicki’s host family was a single mother who survived by making kanom (sweets) to sell at the markets, and her older sister. So the arrival of a group of conspicuously foreign teenagers was a big event for them.

On our last evening, the local Police Chief – who had, I think, been hosting one of the students – put on a farewell party for us. The highlight of the meal was the wok filled with stir-fried grasshoppers (or were they crickets? I’m not sure). It was compulsory, our host declared, to eat at least one. They had a large wok heated over hot coals, and it was full of these large insects (about 5-6 cms long) which they stir-friend quickly. I don’t remember who ate the first one. I know for certain it wasn’t me! But my friends tried them and declared they were okay, and I knew there was no backing out. I didn’t want to be the last to eat either, so I took one. The key was to pull off the scratchy back legs, which would rip up the inside of our mouths, before eating. I dreaded the squish of the body between my teeth; it’s one of the things I don’t like about sultanas, the way their little bodies (well, that’s what they feel like) burst in my mouth! But there was no “squish”. They were crunchy, and tasted of oil, and were not at all offensive, if you forgot what you were eating. I don’t really recall any other flavour. In the end, the reality of eating the grasshopper/cricket was a lot less scary than the idea of it.

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#17 of Blogging with Friends: Something about a job you have done that other people don’t (or didn’t) understand

For about 11 years, I was on the Board of Directors of a government-owned subsidiary company. For much of that time, I was Chair of the Board. (I didn’t like Chairman or Chairperson, and I thought Chairwoman sounded awkward, so I became the Chair!) Our shareholders were government entities, and a number of their CEOs sat on the Board. Needless perhaps to say, I was the only woman on the Board, although we had women in the senior management group, and I was one of only two company directors who had direct experience working in the same field and with some of the same clients as the company.

It was a small company, with great growth potential – and in fact, great growth during my time in the position. That meant that I worked very closely in supporting the company’s CEO and senior management, at a level of detail that would not have been possible in a much larger company. I had already done the same work as many of the staff members and contractors, had managed client relationships, and reported on risk and business development and growth. I was now on the other side of that, in a governance role, checking on financial and other risks, and was the employer of the CEO. I learned a huge amount about the differences between management and governance, about when it was appropriate to step in, and when I needed to step back and not interfere. It was an interesting and rewarding role, especially seeing my inputs bear fruit.

Friends saw me working on the board a few days a week, and thought it was an ideal, post-full-time-career role. I think they thought it was well paid. It was not well paid at all! But that’s not the topic of this post. What they didn’t think about was that, in New Zealand (as I am sure many other countries), company directors have legal responsibilities under the Companies Act. We were/are required to act honestly, in the best interests of their company, and with reasonable care at all times. If we ignored these duties, didn’t ask the right questions, or behaved recklessly, we could be personally liable and face prosecution. Therein lies the aspect of this job that my friends and family, and many other people, don’t think about. Fear.

Even when I knew we were dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, that we were financially rigorous about risk, and that we were taking every possible care for our staff and contractors’ health and safety (we were sending people to work in Asia during the first SARs and swine flu outbreaks), I occasionally (perhaps more often than occasionally) felt fear. It didn’t help that, unlike some high profile prosecutions around the time I was chairing the board, our company did not take or use the public’s money (unlike, for example, financial institutions), and – unusually for many businesses – we were not even in debt. So the prosecutions of directors that were in the news could not even have applied to us. Still, that fear was always there. Maybe it was a result of a lack of confidence, or a form of fraud syndrome? Maybe it was simply my level of diligence in the role? I don’t know. But I felt it regularly.

When I stepped down as Chair after six years, I felt some relief, though legally I was still just as responsible for my actions and decisions and, perhaps most importantly, my questions as I had been when I was chairing the board. A year or so later I resigned from the company to go overseas, and the relief was palpable. And not because I no longer had to deal with egotistical men who liked the sound of their own voices and had been promoted beyond their capabilities! Finally, that fear that came from such a level of responsibility was lifted. Even if the directorships boys’ clubs shutting me out of future roles were not still in operation, I admit that I would not be in a rush to invite that fear back into my life.

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