Thursday, May 30, 2013

Doing OK

Last weekend was a bit stressful. I spent most of it making, formatting and checking puzzles. And unlike a crossword or other word puzzle, these were basically grids full of numbers, à la Sudoku, and a lot less fun to make. On Sunday I went to Zealandia (the wildlife sanctuary) with a few other people from the anxiety group. It was the Wellington Open Day so instead of the usual exorbitant entry fee it only cost $2 to get in. That of course meant that every man and his dog made their way there (road works around the Karori tunnel didn't help matters) and a lot of the animal life sensibly decided to hide. One of the guys in our group was a big help with his knowledge of flora and fauna. It was nice to get out and get some human contact but really my mind was elsewhere.

I just had my latest mini-appraisal at work. I'm doing a bit better than I thought. When I think about it, I take more pride in my work than I did when I was getting paid twice as much (it's hard to take much pride in your work when you don't know what you're doing). I'm also much more aware of what my colleagues are doing (in my old role I rarely had a clue) so I'm able to prioritise a lot better. Although I'm generally doing OK, I know that OK is as good as things will ever get for me in this kind of work environment. I'll admit that today my eyes did glaze over at times when my boss showed me a new task. It probably didn't help that he made extensive use of the words "liaise", "deploy", "utilise" and "populate".

I spoke to my parents on the phone last night. I'm flying down to Timaru on 20th June to spend a few days with them. Dad has an exhibition in the UK starting very soon. It's a shame he can't be there for it. Dad won the singles competition at the indoor bowls club on Tuesday night, beating Mum in one of his games. He gets a trophy for his efforts and now has to play off against other club champions in some regional competition. Who knows, maybe he'll get a call-up to the national team; I think they're called the Black Mats or Mat Blacks or something. It's all quite amusing because, from what I can tell, he can't stand the game.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Life's a gas

I was back to work today, despite all the burping and farting.

I wasn't feeling well after work on Monday so didn't go to the autism group afterwards. That was a shame because one of the topics of discussion was relationships, something I'm almost totally clueless about.

A news story last week made me think a bit. In 2009 there was a huge fire in a rural area outside Nelson, destroying a home and a forest. A couple have recently been found responsible for the fire: the High Court ruled that their dumping of hot ashes started the blaze. They have been ordered to pay over $1 million (money that they haven't got) in compensation. They weren't insured. I've seen a fair bit of comment on the couple's plight. OK, you can say it was irresponsible not to take out insurance and to dispose of ashes like that, but it was also extremely unlucky that the fire spread like it did. I certainly felt sympathy when the couple were interviewed on TV. The woman made what I thought was an interesting comment (I'm paraphrasing here): "We've been left without hopes, dreams or goals; nobody deserves to live like that." It got me thinking: are hopes, dreams and goals basic human rights, like food, water and shelter? If so, I've spent some long periods of time without those basic rights; if not completely hopeless I've definitely been dreamless and goalless.

Talking of insurance, Campbell Live have done a series of programmes looking into the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes, and rightly so. As I see it, thousands of Christchurch residents have been left totally hopeless, dreamless and goalless by EQC, the insurance companies and the government (who really need to be putting a rocket up the insurers' arses). It's really not good, but having worked in the insurance industry (albeit in a different line of insurance) for several years, it isn't that surprising. By and large, the people I work with who speak to customers on the phone all day do a pretty good job. When I hear their calls, either they care about their customers or are doing a good job of pretending they care. However, none of those people make any of the big decisions that steer the company either one way or the other, and I've got a horrible feeling that the real decision-makers are too detached from their customers to really give a monkey's about them.

The earthquake goings-on (or lack of them) made me wonder why parliament was sitting "under urgency" last Saturday to approve fuel tax rises and make it illegal to protest at sea. Haven't they got more "urgent" things to be dealing with?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Needed a break

I took a sick day today, my first in eight months. I'm not that sick, but for the last three days I've had a sore tummy with regular gas emissions from both ends. I've also been feeling stressed and have been struggling a bit with work, so with plenty of sick days up my sleeve I didn't feel too bad about taking the day off.

I managed to upset Julie in a fairly big way at the weekend. I was worried I might have cut all lines of communication with her but I invited myself to her flat this morning, and after phoning her from her doorstep, she let me in, still in her dressing gown. She did a lot of talking as always. As soon as I left she got another visitor.

Last Thursday night I played badminton with the anxiety group. It was the first time I'd played that since probably '96 or '97. It was good fun. We played games which were unnecessary really; most of us would have been happy just whacking the ball, or whatever you say in badminton. My backhand wasn't up to much, I sometimes missed the feathery object altogether (surely people don't call it a cock), but I did develop a good smash. I hope we do it again.

I met up with Phil twice over the weekend. He was down from Auckland to visit some relatives. We had some interesting discussion. He noted that the latest cost estimate of the Christchurch earthquakes - $40 billion - amounted to over $100,000 for every man, woman and child in the city. A staggering amount.

The tornado that ripped through Oklahoma with such destructive force has taken at least ninety lives, probably more. Sadly many of those in the path of the tornado were schoolchildren.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

You must be kidding

There were a couple of other things I wanted to write about yesterday but they slipped the mind. Mind-slippage has been a feature of the early part of this week. I coped better at work today and didn't fall any further behind.

On Monday one of our customers made a complaint about a premium surcharge on her travel policy due to her son's autism. The lady who deals with complaints (who does her difficult job extremely well it must be said) forwarded on the email, but instead of autism she wrote Austin, which someone else then thought was the son's name. It will be interesting to see the outcome of this (my colleague who dealt with the complaint was on the side of the customer).

There's a lot of interest at work in the American basketball play-offs. Some of the younger ones even come in on casual Fridays wearing singlets from their favourite teams. It all seems a bit strange to me. Basketball has never been a game I've got into. It might be the artificial-sounding team names (like the Heat) that put me off. For some reason naming your team after a day of the week, as a certain English football side did, doesn't seem weird to me at all.

I got an email last week with the news that an old work colleague of mine is soon to become a father. For the ninth time. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have a kid. Hard probably. Life-changing definitely. But nine of the little buggers (some of whom are already quite big buggers)? The mind boggles. I'd be struggling to remember their names. As for their birthdays, or whether they like honey or marmalade, forget it. I remember looking at UK census returns from the late 19th century, and I was amazed by all the big families; a woman would have her first child at twenty or so and keep popping them out every second year until she no longer could. Well my ex-colleague and his wife had their first child in 2000 so at their current rate they're beating those Victorians into submission.

It looks like "coat-tailing" (where a political party who wins an electorate seat can bring in extra MPs even if it gets below the 5% threshold of party votes) is here to stay, because no consensus could be reached in parliament over whether to get rid of it (or change any other aspects of the MMP system). Of course there wouldn't be a consensus. Some parties clearly benefit from coat-tailing while others don't, and what do politicians want to do more than anything else? Stay in power, that's what. Most people, of those who have an opinion at all, think it should go; that politicians get the final say in this matter seems ridiculous.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A rare post about work

It's been a tricky start to the week at work (and the end of last week wasn't much better). I haven't been able to concentrate, everything has slowed down, I've become more sensitive to light and sound, and so on. I know the drill. I'm frantically trying to find the drive or folder or button, and it just won't come to me. It got worse as the day went on today. By the afternoon I was definitely into head-banging territory but even though the wall tiles in the loo looked like some weird optical illusion involving mirrors, my head made no contact with the tiles. I've been head-bang-free for 16 months.

Our team's email inbox (which I'm supposed to be dealing with this week) has been piling up, and anything appearing in my own inbox has largely been ignored. I have a system whereby emails sent only to me appear in red. This week if it ain't red, it ain't read.

What's brought on this latest patch of fog (because that's what it feels like) I don't know, but I can take a guess. Some of our systems have been automated. Our manual tasks (which I didn't actually mind) have been replaced by other bits and pieces, so everything now seems fractured. Just about all our processes have changed recently and I'm not the best at adapting. It often feels as if I'm starting from scratch. But the biggest change of all has been people swapping desks. I'm now hemmed in on three sides by my boss, another manager and a woman in my team. They're all quite extroverted, they often get worked up about things which seem unimportant to me, and they make sexually suggestive jokes. It's fine if one of them is away or in a meeting, but when all three of them are together it's like I'm caught up in a Bermuda Triangle of innuendo (!). I have no real problem with the jokes and what have you; it's just very distracting.

The extra automation has meant I now rarely see customers' medical details and conditions. That's a shame because I found that the most interesting part of my job (even though it wasn't actually part of my job at all). I mentioned to someone that I found the medical stuff interesting and she suggested I train to be an underwriter. Oh no. Underwriting would be an interesting job in theory, but it's a career job with a progression, in a large company, and I know now that taking on that kind of role would be giving myself a death sentence.

The changes at work are nobody's fault. In fact they were supposed to be good changes. But it's happened to me before in jobs where I'm going along nicely for a few months, maybe a year, not excelling (I've never done that at work) but coping, then somebody leaves or arrives or a process changes or they bring in a new system or product, and within weeks I'm a lame duck.

Last Friday I gave a customer an extra $100,000 of life cover for an additional four cents a month. I had to ring up this lady, and when I looked at her policy a message flashed up on my screen telling me that she could have a lot of extra cover for no extra premium. Or even a lot of extra cover for a reduction in premium. If that sounds ridiculous, well it is, and it's because of our crazy and illogical premium rates that work as in the graph below. On Friday I worked out how much extra cover I could give her for the same premium, then added four cents to make her cover level a nice round number. There was some discussion that I might have done something "outside the best interests of the company" but my colleagues agreed that doing anything else was unethical, and they had done the same thing themselves in the past. I know we're not the only company who have such a bizarre system, so if you have life insurance it might be worth ringing your provider and asking whether you can have an extra hundred grand of cover - I'm sure you'll be able to scrape together those extra four cents a month.

The good news for me is that when it comes to work, the puzzle stuff has given me a second bullet to fire. At this rate I might need it.

The now ex-National MP Aaron Gilmore has been in the news a lot lately. Too much, in fact. I'm not a psychiatrist but it would appear Mr Gilmore has some sort of personality disorder, perhaps narcissism.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Feel-good factor

It's been a funny sort of weekend. My mood has run pretty much the whole gamut, which is unusual for me - I don't normally have much of a gamut. In my last year of university I'd sometimes wake up and feel I'd beat Agassi if we were to play in the final of Wimbledon. I don't mean thrash him - I'd have expected to go at least four sets - but I'd have still felt pretty good about the situation. That was a long time ago now, and I haven't felt like that since (nor did I ever feel like that in my earlier years at university).

I haven't been off the phone long. I talked to Julie for over an hour, or rather she talked to me. If you need your feel-good factor boosted, Julie isn't the best person for the job.

This morning I had walked to the top of Mt Victoria, down to Hataitai and back home through the tunnel. It was a fantastic day, and it's a great view from the summit of Mount Vic, seeing planes take off and land and boats out on the water. Being such a nice day there were heaps of other people wanting to do the same thing. I must make sure I go for a decent walk every weekend, pretty much rain or shine (the trips I go on with the tramping club don't happen all that often).

On Friday night I hardly slept so I didn't get up till ten yesterday. Ugh. I went to the market in the pouring rain, worked on my puzzles (that made me feel much better) and attended a meet-up group at the Ballroom (a pool hall on Courtenay Place). About a dozen showed up; we were quite a motley bunch. Also present, at the opposite end of the scale from our anxiety group, were a mob of rowdy beer-swilling 100-kilo-plus blokes, getting tanked up before watching the Warriors league game. After the pool, when I really felt like going home, we ate at a Mexican place on Cuba Street. I had a beef quesadilla. We sat at a table covered with marker-penned Spanish swearwords; I was surprised how many of them I recognised. After that we had a coffee at Espressoholic - that was probably my favourite part of the evening. I had an interesting chat with a woman who had emigrated from China two years ago.

At the back end of last week I struggled to concentrate at work. I also felt stupid because of the "mistakes" I made when entering data into what I think is an appallingly designed and totally counter-intuitive system. The best way I could describe the system would be to compare it to an online flight booking. Imagine you book a flight, you pay, you get one of those six-letter codes telling you that it's gone through fine, then you arrive at the airport and they won't let you on the plane because you entered your credit card expiry date with a dash instead of a slash. What really gets me is how some people find the system perfectly intuitive when I don't know if I'm Arthur or Martha. It's a recurring theme for me: ever since day one of my first job working for a large company, I've been trying to make sense of the nonsensical, and failing miserably.

I've signed up for another meet-up; on Thursday I'll be trying my hand at badminton. I don't think I've played since I was sixteen. I wasn't much good then (at least when they stopped me from serving overarm) and I don't expect to be any better this time, but it doesn't do you much harm to try these things.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It's a me problem

I'm making some progress with the puzzle stuff. It's given me - for the first time in years - a reason to want to get out of bed in the morning, even if I can't work on the puzzles until the evening.

I went to the autism group again on Monday. I keep asking myself, should I keep going? I haven't had a diagnosis, and have no real intention of getting one, so part of me feels like a fraud. But it gives me the chance to meet people (I haven't done much of that lately) and hopefully, in a very small way, even help one or two of them.

I talked more than usual at Monday's session, maybe because some of the louder ones were absent. We talked about the rules of the group: no religion, no politics, and now no sex. And no "inappropriate" interruptions, a rule which one bloke, who's been going since last September or so, had difficulty with. He seems to have problems that go beyond just the autistic spectrum (and his unibrow). Out of nowhere he'll butt in to talk at length, in his staccato style, about some bad childhood memory. He often talks about "unfinished business" from his childhood, even though he's now 38. He reminded me of the movie Eagle vs Shark where Jarrod is desperate to get back at the kid who bullied him at school. I should also mention that he has an obsessive fear of contamination.

Our previous facilitator is about to return from maternity leave; this meant that her temporary replacement was there for the last time. She was in tears; she'd become quite emotionally attached to her role at Autism NZ and the people at the group. When she started she had a bad habit of treating people on the spectrum as if they were kids, but she's improved since then. It was sad to see her have to make such a reluctant departure.

John Key's recent comments that Wellington is dying (which were tongue-in-cheek I think, but still not clever) have made Wellingtonians stand up and think, shit, we're pretty lucky to be living here. For a city of under half a million, there's heaps going on. It sure as hell ain't dying. OK it hasn't all been beer and skittles for me in the two years I've lived here, and I haven't made a lot of friends, but that's mostly due to a me problem, not a Wellington problem.

We had an earthquake on Monday afternoon, a short sharp shake that only lasted a second or two. It was a 3.6 but felt bigger to me.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Is delusion healthy?

On Wednesday I met up with Danielle and a friend (or acquaintance) of hers, a bloke who I'm guessing was 45 or so. He was a short, stocky man, whose eyeballs looked like they might pop out. Like Danielle he had problems, but like Danielle he got by; he had a job in the education sector I think. The three of us sat in the food court in the Reading cinema complex and didn't say a lot. Danielle remarked that she hadn't been to the movies for years. She said can't concentrate for the duration of a film, and loses track of the storyline. I'm better now but I used to have the same problem (and maybe still do to some extent, depending on the type of film). Danielle and I went to the tramping club but only stayed five minutes and didn't put our names down for anything.

Yesterday my cousin and her family came over to my flat for fish and chips. The boys were quite loud, and in the absence of toys in my flat, they had to make do with cardboard and sellotape, which provided no end of entertainment for them. I ordered too many chips and must have eaten at least half of them myself, between last night's tea, today's lunch and today's tea. As Mum would say, at this rate I'll turn into a chip.

It's been another mild day here (although as I type, we're in the middle of teeming rain and a rare thunderstorm). People's complaints about Wellington's weather seem laughable when you think that today is the equivalent of November 5th in the Northern Hemisphere. I remember how cold that day could be when I was growing up.

I've started reading a book called What Is Madness? So far it seems to be pitched at a level above me. Perhaps if I'd studied Freud or any of the other famous psychoanalysts it might make more sense. However one thing I've found really interesting is the idea that a certain amount of delusion can actually be healthy, and that being too in touch with reality can cause you to go mad. As an example, some of my workmates are keen football followers; in particular they follow the top Premier League teams. The way I see it, football at that level is pretty much meaningless. The clubs with the most money buy the best players, and guess what, they usually win. A player might represent Chelsea, say, but he comes from South America! What does playing for Chelsea, a small part of London, even mean? My work colleague will watch "his" team on telly, shout at "his" Brazilian midfielder, possibly even thinking he can influence the outcome of the match from his sofa 12,000 miles away. That's sheer lunacy, surely. But maybe having these delusions (and this is just one example) brings meaning to one's life that prevents you from going mad.

If delusion is indeed healthy, then (as with most other things) it must only be healthy up to a point. A couple of weeks ago I got a birthday card from my aunt (Dad's sister). She's certainly exhibited delusional behaviour at times, and she's also had severe depression and been dependent on alcohol. When I saw her in 2008 she came out with "Some people get all the help; others, like me, are always helping everyone else." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. She's shown a distinct lack of care for just about anybody, all through her adult life. That includes her mother and her children. Her comment was entirely delusional, and instead of being a harmless sanity-preserving delusion such as the football example, it was a more serious delusion that seemed to be a result of losing her sanity. My aunt appears to be more sane now. Strange as it might seem, the death of her mother last year probably helped her mental state, and I don't think she's drinking as much. The fact that she sent me a birthday card is a good sign. But she's 65 now, and it's sad to see a life with so much promise (she was blessed with good looks and was highly intelligent) largely go to waste. I could write a lot more about my aunt and maybe I will some other time.

A final word about football, which I just said was meaningless. The last games of the Championship season (that's the second division) were played overnight. I was amazed by how tight the final table was. Leicester made the play-offs with just 68 points while Peterborough were relegated on 54 (a huge total to go down with). Birmingham, who were my team back when football was meaningful to me, finished slap-bang in the middle of the table with 61.