Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour by the light of the Dark Side of the Moon

Vote Earth! Switch Off Your Lights For Earth Hour - poster by Shepard Fairey. Oh boy! That was soooo cool!

With about half an hour to go before Earth Hour I realised I needed candles, so I spent a frantic few minutes scraping old bits of wax out of my 24-tea-light candle holder and putting in new tea lights. Got it all done just in time, and went racing round the house switching everything off, and then lit the 24 candles with great ceremony. Pretty!

The first 10 or 15 minutes of Earth Hour was spent wax-proofing everything around the candle holder - covering the bench seat, window sill, storage area and carpet with newspaper because the tea lights kept overflowing with hot wax which would then cascade down through the sculpture and onto the floor/window sill/bench seat. Doh! Bit of a breeze going on round there I think!

At one point I went out for a cigarette but in the dark I'd rolled the paper the wrong way round so it came unstuck and I was too nervous about those crazy candles to leave them alone for any length of time, so I gave up and sat in front of the window instead, watching the flickering candle flames in a kind of a trance. It was quite nice actually.

I tried to figure out if any of my neighbours across the valley were taking part - at first I didn't think anyone was, because there seemed to be a whole heaps of houses with all lights blazing away merrily (boo!) - but of course it's much easier to see houses where there are lights on than houses where the lights are off, so I wasn't really sure. I reckon, by the number of lights that came back on again after it was all over, maybe a quarter to a third of the homes I could see were taking part. Not bad. Could have been better, though.

Anyway - once I had calmed down with the whole candle/hot splashing wax/ohnoit'sgoingtosetmyhouseonfire thing I decided that Pink Floyd's Dark Side of The Moon would be a fitting accompaniment to my musings about the perilous state of the planet, so I allowed myself to switch on one electrical item - my stereo - plugged in my ipod, turned up the volume, and away we went.

Oh wow - talk about awesome - it was perfect!

How about this:

(Mason, Waters, Wright, Gilmour) 7:06

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say.

Or maybe this:

(Waters) 6:32

Money, get away.
Get a good job with good pay and you're okay.
Money, it's a gas.
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.
New car, caviar, four star daydream,
Think I'll buy me a football team.

Money, get back.
I'm all right Jack keep your hands off of my stack.
Money, it's a hit.
Don't give me that do goody good bullshit.
I'm in the high-fidelity first class traveling set
And I think I need a Lear jet.

Money, it's a crime.
Share it fairly but don't take a slice of my pie.
Money, so they say
Is the root of all evil today.
But if you ask for a raise it's no surprise that they're
giving none away.

Or perhaps this one:

Us and Them
(Waters, Wright) 7:40

Us, and them
And after all we're only ordinary men.
Me, and you.
God only knows it's not what we would choose to do.
Forward he cried from the rear
and the front rank died.
And the general sat and the lines on the map
moved from side to side.
Black and blue
And who knows which is which and who is who.
Up and down.
But in the end it's only round and round.
Haven't you heard it's a battle of words
The poster bearer cried.
Listen son, said the man with the gun
There's room for you inside.

Down and out
It can't be helped but there's a lot of it about.
With, without.
And who'll deny it's what the fighting's all about?
Out of the way, it's a busy day
I've got things on my mind.
For the want of the price of tea and a slice
The old man died.

...and finally this one:

For Brain Damage I flung open the french doors and stood outside on the deck, watching the stars with the music pouring out into the night. Awesome.

Brain Damage
(Waters) 3:50

The lunatic is on the grass.
The lunatic is on the grass.
Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs.
Got to keep the loonies on the path.

The lunatic is in the hall.
The lunatics are in my hall.
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more.

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.

The lunatic is in my head.
The lunatic is in my head
You raise the blade, you make the change
You re-arrange me 'til I'm sane.
You lock the door
And throw away the key
There's someone in my head but it's not me.

And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear.
And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.

"I can't think of anything to say except...
I think it's marvelous! HaHaHa!"

(Waters) 2:04

All that you touch
All that you see
All that you taste
All you feel.
All that you love
All that you hate
All you distrust
All you save.
All that you give
All that you deal
All that you buy,
beg, borrow or steal.
All you create
All you destroy
All that you do
All that you say.
All that you eat
And everyone you meet
All that you slight
And everyone you fight.
All that is now
All that is gone
All that's to come
and everything under the sun is in tune
but the sun is eclipsed by the moon.

"There is no dark side of the moon really. Matter of fact it's all dark."


I think it's pretty cool that these lyrics still have such a powerful message all these years after they were first written - but God what a crazy world we live in. Here we are on the edge of an environmental disaster, and in the midst of an economic meltdown - and we still can't seem to agree on anything at all.

In my more pessimistic moments I believe it's either already too late, or that mankind won't get off its collective ass to actually do anything meaningful about climate change until it's too late.

When I'm feeling more optimistic about things, I believe there's still time and we still have the opportunity to turn things around and save our beautiful world.

Whether or not we choose to do so, is up to each and every one of us.

This evening has given me a chance to think, and it's reawakened my passion for environmental issues.

I've been worrying about losing my job and having no work and blahblah what if I lose my house - when what I also need to be thinking about and doing something about is losing my planet.

It's a little more important in the grand scheme of things.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Lights off at 8.30pm tomorrow! Vote Earth!

Earth Hour poster by Shepard Fairey. Earth Hour is happening tomorrow. From 8.30-9.30pm your time, wherever you are in the world, you can vote earth by switching off your lights for an hour - Earth Hour. Beginning in my part of the world and moving across the planet as it turns, the lights will go out.

Listen, we know that global warming is a reality. It's happening already, it's been happening for years, and in some parts of the world like the Arctic and in Antarctica it's progressing far faster than the scientists' worst-case predictions.

When I was at University a million years ago we were studying global warming, and at that point pretty much anyone who knew anything about science agreed that climate change was beginning to take place, and that it was our fault.

And then at some point the oil companies got involved in the discussion and things changed. Instead of a common agreement that this phenomenon was real, and very worrying, and something that we had to stop before it was too late, suddenly there were people questioning the scientists, and muddying the water, and sowing confusion and dissent.

The oil companies (and others who had a vested interest in such matters) spent millions of dollars on bogus scientists and focus groups and phoney research to convince enough of us that the theory of global warming was at least in question, and that we didn't need to change our habits or do anything about the way we burn fossil fuels, or destroy forests, or run our cities, or drive our cars.

When people who aren't scientists spend that much time, money and effort trying to discredit a scientific theory that's backed up by a huge amount of scientific research and observation, you know something's going on. You'd have to be stupid not to.

The global warming discreditors did a pretty good job for a long time. For many years environmental groups like Greenpeace and WWF were fighting an uphill battle just to get people to listen to them. But slowly, slowly, things began to change.

I think the tipping point in the direction of global awareness and acceptance of climate change was Al Gore's movie - An Inconvenient Truth. So many people saw that movie around the world, and it was a very powerful film, putting forward a clear and effective case for global warming being a reality.

From WWF-NZ:

On March 29 2008, more than 50 million people around the globe united for one hour and switched off their lights to show that they care about our living planet. With growing concern about the effects of global warming, Earth Hour demonstrates that collectively people can make a difference. More than 370 towns and cities took part including San Francisco, Dubai, Tel Aviv, Sydney, Rome, Copenhagen, Manila, Bangkok, Santa Cruz, Christchurch and Chicago.

Earth Hour is the highlight of a major campaign to encourage businesses, communities and individuals to take the steps needed to cut their emissions on an ongoing basis. It is about simple changes that will collectively make a difference – from businesses turning off their lights when their offices are empty, to households turning off appliances rather than leaving them on standby. Earth Hour is a message of hope and action.

I admit I wasn't really aware of Earth Hour 2008. Christchurch was the only big city in NZ to embrace it, and it simply passed me by. I obviously wasn't paying attention if 50 million people around the world took part last year.

Anyway, this year I am paying attention - and I'm VERY pleased to see how many other people are taking notice as well. There have been loads of ads on telly, I've received emails from both WWF-NZ and Greenpeace reminding me about it, and there was a nice big piece on the news this evening. Hooray! Apparently the organisers have had three times more cities pledging to take part than they had hoped for - which is completely brilliant. Hope it can be seen from space!

It's particularly important that we in New Zealand take part in Earth Hour, and that we encourage our friends and neighbours to take part. Our enthusiasm as a nation in taking a leading role in the fight against global warming seems to be waning a little - probably due to our current focus on surviving the economic downturn. John Key certainly isn't helping by pandering to ACT's demands that the Emissions Trading Scheme be reviewed, especially considering his (and his government's) very dodgy attitude towards global warming.

If Earth Hour can raise people's awareness about global warming and climate change, that's a really good thing. If we can use that hour as a global vote to let politicians around the world know that we as a planet want to do something to stop global warming, that's a great thing. If we can save a wee bit of energy in the process, that's very cool too.

It can take a heck of a long time for a movement to gather momentum. It takes energy and commitment and determination to keep on plugging away until you get a critical mass of people taking part. I'm hoping that the massive leap in the numbers planning to participate in Earth Hour this year marks the tipping point for this particular movement into the mainstream. As a planet we need to work together to combat climate change - and we need to start doing it immediately, before it's too late.

Global warming and climate change has been described as "a far greater threat to the world than international terrorism". A very large number of very credible scientists around the world agree that Earth's climate is being affected by human activities. You don't have to dig deep to find out who's been funding the climate change deniers all these years.

The way I see it is this: even if you're not 100% sure that global warming is a reality, you can see that many scientists believe the consequences of climate change would be utterly devastating to life on earth. Even if it's only a possibility in your mind, wouldn't it be sensible to take steps now to prevent it - just in case? Aren't the potential consequences of doing nothing far far worse than the changes that scientists believe we need to make in order to combat climate change?

Don't we owe it to our children and grandchildren to take this seriously and DO SOMETHING?

Turn off your lights tomorrow between 8.30 and 9.30pm and join us for Earth Hour. It's a small thing for each of us to do as individuals, but because millions of people will be doing it, together we make it into a very big thing. And at the very least, it's a start.

Further Reading:

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Of dead mice and memories

I spent hours searching for it in every cupboard and corner I could possibly think of. An old cardboard box with "Box of Memories" written on it in green felt-tip pen. I hadn't seen it for at least eight years - and I knew I hadn't opened it in at least twice that time.

The box is full of sunshine - hot, blazing, tropical sunshine - and red earth, and miles of unsealed desert roads. It contains the smell of eucalyptus baking in the heat, and the feeling of "elsewhere" we experienced so strongly when we arrived in Sydney all those years ago. It's also full of love and a sense of overpowering need to be loved by the other. Which is, I suppose, why I had sealed it up and hidden it away somewhere where I wouldn't easily find it again.

It's amazing how many dark and hidden corners my house contains - and I must have looked in every one. Inside cupboards, on top of wardrobes, high and low on every shelf, under desks, inside window seats... but I could find no Box of Memories.

Part of me was being very grown-up about my search. Doggedly determined to find it - so much so that when I wasn't actually looking, I was thinking about possible locations - going through every room in my house in my mind, looking in every corner.

But there was also a part of me - the 21-year old me - who knew that the box, when opened, would drag me back to that place, that time long ago when I was a different person, when life stretched out before me and contained many more alternative futures than the one I now find myself living. However grown-up the reason for finding it, I knew it wouldn't matter once it was opened. "Now" would fade from view, and I would find myself transported back to "then" - whether I wanted to go there or not.

My reason for the search was pragmatic enough. Trying to get web development contract work in Australia is made difficult by the firewall of recruitment agents standing between me and my potential employers. Having an Australian Business Number might help me breach the wall - but in order to get one, I need my Tax File Number.

And in order to get that (because I cannot find any record of the number), I need to provide the Australian Taxation Service with the address I was using when I first got it. Then they can verify that I am who I say I am, and will tell me what my Tax File Number is, which I can then use to apply for my ABN.

Numbers, acronyms, employment. All very grown-up. All those years ago, when I wasn't quite as grown-up as I am now (ha!) it apparently didn't occur to me to keep official letters with official numbers on them. At least, they weren't in any of my travel diaries. Maybe there would be a useful bit of paper in the Box of Memories - or at the very least perhaps I could find the address I registered with.

Ah yes - the travel diaries. Lined up on the bookshelf in my bedroom, gathering dust, rarely visited these days. Open one at random and the memories pour out - flying halfway around the world and arriving in Bangkok in the middle of a tropical thunderstorm. Waves of homesickness washing over me from all directions. The fear of the unknown - and the security of having Andy by my side. Three months later (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia) feeling like old pros we arrive in Sydney and walk along the harbour's edge in the cool of the evening.

If I concentrate I can almost feel the way I felt back then - the sense of excitement, the wonder at actually being there and seeing the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge for the first time, the smell of the air, the thrill of being the first to make the vast journey since my Grandpa (a ten-pound Pom) came here years before I was even born.

Exploring Sydney, finding a job for a while, then hitching down to Canberra (searching for redbacks in the garden) and Melbourne (a koala up a tree, fairy penguins on Phillip Island, a terrifying bicycle ride home in the dark), and on to Adelaide. A season picking grapes in the Barossa Valley - the heat so intense you had to go into a zen-like state in order to handle it - having day-long conversations in my head with all my friends back home, as my fingers automatically selected and cropped the endless bunches of grapes.

Finding two English travelling companions (with a big old station wagon - hooray!) and spending the next few months driving through the outback with them. Near-misses with road trains on deserted highways. The complete breakdown of the car in Coober Pedy after hours of driving at a snail's pace on dirt roads - if we'd turned the engine off during any of our photo-opportunity stops out there in the middle of nowhere we'd have been stranded for sure.

Alice Springs, Ayers Rock in the heat of the midday sun (we were mad dogs and Englishmen that day), the Olgas and the long straight road-that-goes-on-for-ever up to Katherine Gorge and Darwin. And then the long drive eastwards, back to the coast.

Diving on the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, driving north through more dirt roads, fording swollen streams to reach Port Douglas and then further north to the magical rainforest campsite at Cape Tribulation. Riding horses through the surf, exploring the coastline and the tropical jungle. Andy always by my side. Mine, and yet never really mine.

I stop reading. The heat, the flies, the red dirt, the smells and sounds of the Lucky Country fade away, and I'm back in my bedroom, sitting on the floor, part of me still halfway there, reluctant to return to my everyday life once more.

Those months and years with Andy are so long ago now - I've lived so much life, done so many things since then, added so many more layers of experience (as we all do) to my multi-layered self. And yet, and yet - it takes so little to transport me instantly back to the girl I was then, standing together with the boy he used to be. I know he's no longer that boy, but in my mind, in my memories, in the fantasy of him that I have created and nurtured for all the years since we parted - he hasn't changed.

Late in the evening I finally locate the box - at the very top of a high stack of stuff in the furthest corner of the highest shelf at the very back of my wardrobe. I manage to get it down without falling off the stool on which I'm precariously balanced, and I gently place it on my bed and take a deep breath. Here goes.

Inside, carefully stacked in rows are dozens of letters, written to me from friends and family back home. Some are packed inside old paper bags, or held together in bundles by the remains of long-perished rubber bands. There are postcards bought but never sent, and even some half-finished letters I never got around to completing.

It feels so strange stepping back in time in an instant. It feels as though the very essence of Australia, and Andy, and how I felt at the time and who I was, is all packed up inside the box, just waiting to be released. I feel sad and nostalgic and happy and grateful all at the same time.

There's an old tissue or serviette or something on one side of the box, which seems to be all chewed up. "Weird," I think. "Maybe it was a bookworm. Hope it hasn't eaten anything else."

About three-quarters of the way through the stacks of letters I find the source of the chewed-up paper. A poor little dessicated baby mouse, lying all alone beneath a couple of envelopes. And then the rest of its little family - a whole nest of dried-up ex baby mice tucked within the curling pieces of old tissue paper, starved to death in my precious Box of Memories.

Oh god - it's like some desperate and tragic metaphor for my life with Andy. I have an overly-dramatic vision of young and hopeful love that accidentally got hidden away in a place where it could not sustain itself - and which died long before it was ever found. Preserved unchanged for years in a place remembered but never visited - preserved and yet gone, lost for ever.

I feel so sad, and so alone. I cry for the poor wee mice who got trapped in the box and who died there, worn out by hunger and thirst. I cry for what we had back then, and what I lost - what I still feel should have been mine, and which can never be. I cry for every comparison I ever made between some guy who liked me and the impossible perfect fantasy of The Love of My Life.

How can someone I knew so long ago still cause me so much pain?

At the very bottom of the box - under the old letters and the dear departed mice - I find a large brown envelope. Curious, I pull it out carefully and peep inside.

Here at last, after all this time, and as if I last saw it only yesterday, is the priceless set of my favourite photos I took of him - and for which I've been half-heartedly searching for years. The embodiment of the fantasy, the base on which I have carefully sculpted the dream of him. I recognise and remember every photo instantly. Where we were when it was taken, how I felt, what we said.

And at the bottom of the pile of photos, there are letters. Letters from him to me, written when we were apart for the summer holidays before we went travelling together. Letters which always contained a subtle reference to how he truly felt about me (in stark contrast to how he always said he felt about me) - but which I didn't fully comprehend at the time.

PS. I really miss not having anyone to kick out of bed to go and make the toast!
PPS I miss you a bit (well quite a lot actually) - look after yourself. This last bit is excessively wimpish but so what.
I miss you quite a lot but just think, soon we will be together for ages and ages (what a nice thought). See you Friday.

A lock of his hair tied up with ribbon, and old Valentines cards which he sent under protest but which always contained a million kisses ("please collect on these!")

The very last letter I open is the last letter he ever sent me. It's strange - a mixture of formal and informal, practical details ("can you look after my plant for me - it really will die in my cold house") and heartfelt pleas ("I'm sorry for the last couple of days, I've been behaving like a kid; I hope I haven't lost any of your respect and please don't judge me on it, you know it's not the real me.")

At the end of the letter is this:
Anyway all the best, I'd hate to think you'd never let me hug you again, and I really mean this:


[in green felt-tip pen, underlined thickly in red]

It was the first time he'd ever written those words to me, and only the second time I'd ever heard him say them - and it was too late.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I found him a couple of years ago, after years of searching for him online. It took me 12 months to pluck up the courage to call him, and when I did, I was shaking like a leaf. We arranged to meet up for coffee later on in the year when I would be over in the UK visiting my sister - and I was so excited that I sent him a card with all my contact details on it, just to make sure we wouldn't lose touch again.

A couple of weeks later he called and cancelled our meeting. "The past is the past, and I think it should stay that way." I wondered (still wonder) if his wife (my ex-best friend) saw the card and made him cancel, or if he did it of his own accord. Perhaps it's best that way. Definitely best for him, I should think. Maybe not best for me. I still have the fantasy and the memory of the perfect boy, and it remains unsullied by the reality of the man he's become.

I know I'll never really get over him, and I know that by holding on to my memories of him I've allowed many other relationships to slip through my fingers since then. I know that - and yet somehow, even now, I can't let go. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps we never truly recover from the loss of our first love - or maybe it's just that for some people (like me) that love overshadows all others - and no-one else can ever quite match up.

All I know is - those feelings are all still there - in the diaries, in the Box of Memories, in my own head - and they have been strengthened and deepened over time, while at the same time they have been re-created and re-cast again and again until they have become something at once real and yet not real at all. They can be awakened in an instant, and they still cause me pain and deep sadness, even after all this time.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I re-sealed the box and put it back on the high shelf, out of reach. The mice are still in there - I didn't have the heart to disturb them any further.

The envelope of letters and photos is no longer in the box - it's somewhere more easily accessible now. I know that's stupid, and that I should follow Andy's lead and let the past stay in the past, but I can't.

Maybe one day I will. Just not today.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Fat baby rat

There's a certain type of call Winnie does when she brings a "present" into the house for me. It's a cross between a purr and a miaow, and hearing it puts me into an immediate state of alertness. Time to rescue another little creature!

Winnie's pretty good at not killing things before she shows them to me - although there was that one occasion where a full-grown rat bled to death on my kitchen floor while I watched in frozen horror... but we won't go there right now.

This time it was a very plump-looking large mouse - or was it a baby rat? I wasn't too sure, but - having caught Winnie's rats in the past and learned from the first painful experience - I was definitely going to put some leather gloves on before I attempted to grab it.

I managed to get Winnie to drop it after a couple of attempts, then I shoved her out of the living room, closed both doors and went looking for my rat-catcher gloves. By the time I got back with hands fully protected the mouse/rat had disappeared from its little hiding-place under the TV, and was nowhere to be seen. Dammit!

I spent ages searching the whole of the living room with torch in hand - under the sofa, under the chairs, under the bookcases and behind the curtains - but I couldn't find it anywhere. Eventually I gave up and settled back down to watch TV. I knew Winnie and Bailey would help.

Later on in the evening, as I was having a cigarette outside on the deck, I noticed Bailey getting very interested in the flower basket by the back door. Aha! I threw down my cigarette and raced inside and - bingo! There was the rat/mouse, trying desperately to hide behind the curtain. I grabbed my gloves again - by which time Winnie was in hot pursuit.

She and I both managed to get it at almost the same moment - it squeaked like crazy and ran up the table leg. Ah - it's definitely a rat. A fat baby rat. With its teeth biting hard into my leather glove I managed to grab it by the tail, pushed Winnie out the way, and escaped out the back door with my prize. I let it go in a flowerbed at the end of the garden. Phew!

Ecologically-minded readers may ask why I allowed a pest and an enemy-of-native-flora-and-fauna to go free and fight another day. I confess - I can't kill things, and I can't watch them being killed either. I just can't do it, so I have no option but to rescue them from my cats and liberate them - whatever the species.

Hope Winnie doesn't catch it again though...

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Thoughts on being a contractor / freelancer

As those of you who regularly read my blog will know, I lost my job at the end of last year - I got made redundant. It wasn't that much of a shock really - I had seen the redundancies coming a mile off - but it was certainly a bummer that I was one of those chosen to lose my job.

I was mighty sad to leave Shift - it's an awesome company with awesome people who are more like family than colleagues - but there you go. Life goes on. Shift's doing fine now, so it's great that by cutting a few jobs when they needed to (however much that hurt at the time), they've come through the crisis and things are looking up for everyone who still works there.

I've been in the web industry for over 12 years - and for about half that time I've been an employee at various Wellington web design companies - and the rest of the time I've been a contractor. I've worked for a lot of different web design and development companies over the years, and I have a pretty good reputation and a strong network. Wellington's a small place, and the web industry is a pretty small industry - so people know people, and lots of people know me.

So it wasn't too difficult to decide that I'd go back to being a contractor/freelancer - at least for a while. When I'm doing work for a design or development company, that's contracting. When I'm designing and building websites directly for an individual client, that's freelancing. I'm currently doing both.

I rather like being a contractor. It's quite a different discipline from being an employee. Yes, you're using the same skills and expertise to achieve a similar end result (a beautifully-built website), but the process itself differs in a number of important ways.


Firstly you really do have to hit the ground running. You're there as a temporary (highly-skilled) worker, and you don't have time to settle in. The company you're working for doesn't have time to introduce you to everyone or take you through a long-winded explanation of their systems or the way they work - you're there to do a job, and you're expected to pretty much get your head down and get on with it.

I like that. You have to be a self-starter, a self-motivator, a very organised person. You have to know what you're doing technically - and although you have to recognise when you need help and be able to ask for it, you're expected not to require much (if any) hand-holding or direction. It's up to you to figure out what needs doing, and how to do it.

It's interesting going to a new company on a temporary basis. You have to figure out all the logistical stuff pretty much instantly. Where are their offices, how am I going to get there each day, where are the loos, how does the coffee machine work, where am I going to have my lunch, how should I set up my computer so that it can talk to their systems - and within the first couple of hours you need to have all that sussed so that you can get on and do your work.

Putting in the hours

The amount of effort required and the accompanying stress levels are quite a bit higher than they are when you're an employee. For a start you've probably been asked to provide a fixed-price quote for the project you're working on - and you jolly well have to meet the deadline and stay within budget. That's why you're there - you are generally expected to take responsibility for a single project, and there can be no excuses.

If (as sometimes happens) you underestimated how long it's going to take, you're just going to have to suck it up and do the additional work for free in order to get the project finished - and you absolutely MUST hit the delivery deadline. That can mean working long hours, evenings and weekends if necessary, in order to achieve it.

Funnily enough, I really enjoy that discipline. It keeps me on my toes. And you learn for next time, and are (hopefully) able to calculate your fixed-price quote more accurately for the next project.

Self-discipline and perfectionism

The self-discipline required to be a good contractor is pretty high.

I'm a perfectionist, which means that I need every job I do to be the best it can possibly be, and I realised long ago that in order to achieve this I have to accept that I'm probably going to spend longer on a job that some people would. I'm happy with that. I would rather spend my own time bringing a website up to a level of perfection that I'm comfortable with, rather than saving that time and delivering a site that (in my opinion) isn't finished properly. Ugh! I couldn't do that, actually.

Fortunately, my perfectionism also includes a need to deliver on-time - so even though it might have taken me a while longer to get it done to my exacting standards, this doesn't impact on my client - they still get their site on-time and at the original fixed price.

Proving yourself

I think there's also something of a need to "prove yourself" at each new company when you're a contractor.

I get pretty much all my contract work through personal contacts these days, as I find this strategy infinitely more effective than trying to get work via most recruitment agencies.

So you go into a new company knowing maybe one or two people there - but the rest of the employees don't know you from a bar of soap - and you have to prove to them on a daily basis that a) you know what you're doing, b) you don't need much help from them, and c) you're worth the money.

To me, this means working with 150% effort the whole time - and also being infinitely flexible. I'm there make everyone else's job easier, which means when they say "jump", I really do have to ask "how high?"

The client always comes first

Ultimately, whatever work you're doing, and whoever you're doing it for, it's vitally important as a contractor to remember the simple rule: The Client Always Comes First.

There's a certain level of comfort associated with having a permanent position at a company. You've already proven your worth - demonstrated by the fact that they wanted you around enough to give you the job in the first place, and over time you've shown them that they made the right decision.

You know the ropes, everyone knows you, you have your comfort zone of your own desk all nicely set up just how you like it - and you know the way things work around here. I do think it's possible (perhaps likely, even) to get a bit complacent if you've been in a job for a while. It's possible (likely, even) that after a while you can slip a little - from 100% effort every day down to maybe 99%, or even (shocking, I know!) down to 98%.

Every once in a while one of your colleagues has a big night out and they don't turn up for work the next day - but they don't get fired for it - and you know that if you decided to have a "mental health day" you would get away with it too.

It's not like that when you're a contractor. Not at all. You have a responsibility to get the job done when you said it would be done, and that's that. No time off if you're sick - you simply can't afford to get sick. If you don't work, you don't get paid, simple as that.

Occasionally you might have to pull an all-nighter in order to get everything done in time - and if that's what it takes, that's what you have to do. You also have to be available at a moment's notice when a client needs something done in a hurry - and the work hours can sometimes be unconventional, to say the least.

Here's a perfect example. It's 4.30pm on a Saturday afternoon, and I just got an email from a client with feedback on some work I did yesterday. I'm going to have to stop blogging for a bit and make the changes they need...


OK, back again...

Because of this constantly having to prove yourself thing, you have to be on your toes, on the ball, giving it everything you're got, all the time. And that means knowing that The Client Always Comes First.

Recently while working on a project I realised that one of the days in my schedule was actually a public holiday. The day came and went, and I worked on the project at home. No time for time off!

I also realised after I had done my timeline and quote that the last two days of the project were the two days of Webstock. Aaargh! I REALLY wanted to go to Webstock - it's the best conference ever! I worked like a crazy person to get everything done in time, so that I would be able to go.

For various reasons that didn't work out, and I had to make the sorrowful decision that I wouldn't be attending this year. The project took precedence, as it always must. And honestly - if I'd gone to Webstock instead of finishing the project properly, I would have been stressed out to the max, and I wouldn't have enjoyed it anyway, so there you are.


It's interesting how many times you're asked to do something completely different from the job you're there to do.

For example, I've just finished a month at DNA building a massive set of templates for a major commercial client's website. Big project, tight timeline, high levels of jQuery required (which I had to figure out as I went along). I loved every minute of it. And a couple of times they needed someone that minute to do updates on another major commercial client's website because it had to go live the next day and the client needed a last-minute bunch of alts doing.

So you get thrown in at the deep end and have to make those alts instantly on this new website you know nothing about. Awesome! That's pretty cool because there's a level of trust implied in that request. Asking me to work on a completely different website than the one I'm building says to me that they trusted me enough by that point to know that I could do it.

Another example. I'm doing ongoing contract work at Optimation, which is a development rather than a design company. I love working there - the people are awesome (and very, very bright!) and the work is interesting. And quite varied. I'm their HTML/CSS expert - everyone else is a .net programmer, and I haven't really got a clue what they do or how they do it. They see CSS as a "dark art", and I see their skills in a pretty similar light. We work well together.

So I go in there one day to do some HTML/CSS stuff on one of the big online apps they're building, and instead I'm asked to spend the day doing a re-skin design of one of their products, so that they can show a potential client just how flexible this product is. Cool!

I'm really enjoying the level of flexibility and sheer range of skills I need to demonstrate as a contractor. Check out this comparison between what I did at my last job, and what I've been doing recently:

As an employee
  • HTML/CSS and jQuery, building approx 25 websites in three years

  • The occasional bit of Information Architecture input if required

  • The occasional bit of design development if required

As a contractor/freelancer
  • Badger Communications: building and adapting a range of Flash advertising banners in a variety of shapes and sizes for a variety of countries and products

  • Bamford: project management, information architecture and site schematics for a new site for one of New Zealand's leading medical supply companies. Also site design, site build (HTML/CSS), creating dynamic functionality via jQuery and facilitating CMS integration for my programming partner, Tom St George

  • DNA: XHTML/CSS and jQuery build for a large commercial client, where the technical requirements were as high as anything I've ever done before

  • DNA: urgent HTML/CSS work (client alts) on a website I knew nothing about in order to get it live ASAP

  • Optimation: HTML/CSS consultant/expert for a coding company that builds online applications in .net

  • Optimation: Re-doing the design of an online app (showing that it could be re-skinned) for use in a pitch to a potential client

  • Origin Design: HTML/CSS build on a couple of CMS-based websites, where the range and number of templates was far smaller than either Tom or I were used to. An interesting exercise in achieving a great deal with a minimal number of templates

  • Round Peg: HTML/CSS build on a highly graphical website designed by an old-school graphic artist who really cares about type line length, letter spacing, and all those beautiful print-based elements that HTML does really badly.

Feast or famine

They say that contract work is always "feast or famine" - that there's either not enough work, or too much - and I've certainly found that to be the case.

Over the past three months I've sometimes worked two jobs at the same time - spending the day working for one client and the evenings and weekends working for another. It's not that hard to do - when you don't have any other responsibilities, that is - but I wouldn't want to do it for extended periods of time. Even I - who love my job to bits and wouldn't give it up even if I won Lotto - need some time-out sometimes.

When there's "feast", you have to accept as much work as you can handle, and then lock the door on the rest of your life and just do it. You'll notice I haven't blogged very much at all over the past couple of months, and that's why. I've been in feast mode. I figure there will certainly be periods of famine in the future - and so I have to take on as much work as possible when it's available, to tide me over during the times when there's no work.

At the same time, you have to know when to say "no". It's very important to know your limitations and stick to them - otherwise you're going to end up doing a half-assed job for all your clients and that's Not Good. For example, when I was working on the DNA project I accepted no other work at all, because the amount of effort and stress levels were high enough anyway - and I needed to concentrate my whole being on getting that job done on-time, and to as high a standard as possible.

Right now (as you will have figured out from the fact that I'm blogging again) I have some work on - but not enough to keep me occupied 24/7. I'm going to need to get out there and start hustling again.

Ask The Universe - and put in the hard yards

I'm a great believer that The Universe Will Provide - but I do accept that this belief comes with some provisos. At the moment I'm doing quite a lot of Asking - and more often than not The Universe comes through for me - but it wouldn't work if I just sat on my ass and hoped something good will happen.

That's where hustling comes in.

My first priority when I'm not working full-time is to keep my online portfolio website up-to-date. That way, if a potential job does come through unexpectedly, I can send people over to my website, confident that all my work is being displayed, and there are no dead or "since-been-redeveloped" links showing. With 130+ case-studies on my site, it's important to keep up with that.

I try to keep my ear to the ground at all times, looking for the next work opportunity - but I have to say that recently most of my work has come in unexpectedly (thanks, Universe!), through friends and contacts in the industry. I guess that's a pretty strong indication that I've been around a while...

However, when the serendipitous call doesn't come through, you have to get out there and make it happen.

Next week, in between bits of work, I plan to get my CV out there to a bunch of web design companies I haven't contacted yet. I have friends who already work at some of them, which will be handy for getting inside info on whom I should speak to - and where I don't already have a contact, this is the time to call up and make one. It's not one of my favourite pastimes - I don't think anyone really likes cold-calling very much - but it has to be done. The Universe can't Provide in places where no-one knows your name.

Absolute freedom - and no freedom at all

You might think that life as a contractor would be fab, in that you have absolute freedom to do what you want, when you want. In some ways I suppose that's true - in theory you could say yes or no to any project that comes along - and in theory you could also probably set your own timelines and work hours.


That presupposes that you're always in a full-on feast environment - which is generally not the case. In order to be able to call the shots to that extent, you'd have to be in a feast where you had so much extra potential work that you could pick and choose - and in my experience that happens only rarely. I should probably be a programmer or something - then maybe that would happen on a regular basis :)

It also presupposes that clients are going to be cool with you setting your own timelines and messing them around if you feel like it. And in my experience that's not the case at all. If you deliver a great product on-budget when you said you would, if you make yourself available whenever they need you (as much as you can, anyway), if you work hard for them and always do your best - they might just ask you back again. If you don't - well, they might just call someone else next time.

I guess it's true that you could decide in advance to have 6 weeks (or 6 months) off to go overseas or have a nice long break or whatever. You wouldn't have to ask anyone's permission like you would if you were an employee - you'd just tell all your clients that you won't be available for that period of time. Easy.

The downside of course is that, as I mentioned earlier, if you don't work, you don't get paid. So any calculation of your holiday expenses has to include the amount of $$ you would have earned if you'd been working. Ouch!

Being organised

I mentioned being organised right at the beginning of this piece, and in some ways it's one of the most important aspects of being a contractor. If you're not organised, important stuff is going to fall through the cracks and get lost.

The first thing I keep with me at all times is my diary. I'd be seriously lost without it. Whenever I do any contract or freelance work I record a very detailed timesheet in my diary, and I provide a copy of it whenever I submit an invoice.

Most people don't actually ask for this, but I figure it's a useful additional service I can provide. Clients use timesheets to help them cost similar jobs in the future, and I think it also provides an extra layer of trust within the client/contractor relationship. When I'm asking for a wodge of $$ for a job I've just done, I think it's reassuring for the client to be able to see exactly what I did, and how long it took.

If I've over-quoted for a job and it takes less time than I thought it would, I only ever charge for the actual amount of time I spent, so again it's important to show that to the client in the form of a timesheet and reconfigured invoice. Clients like it when you come in under budget!

It's also an extremely valuable resource for me when I'm costing new work. When I work to a fixed-price quote and it takes longer than I quoted, I don't charge any extra for that extra work (assuming that the client didn't make changes halfway through) - so it's important that I continually improve my accuracy in this area.

My diary's also very useful when it comes to invoicing, because I can go through page by page to ensure that I've charged all my clients for all my work. When you're working for a number of different clients on a number of different jobs it's easy to forget to invoice someone, and that would never do!

In addition to my diary, I have a set of monthly calendars, drawn out on large pieces of art paper. This is my forward-planning device. I have a pile of squares of blank paper, each of which fits neatly over one day on the calendar. When I've got work coming up I blu-tak a square on top of the appropriate date, and write the client's name on it. Using blu-tak means that when the client changes their mind and the dates shift (as they often do), I can simply move the paper square to the new date.

Once a day's work is done I refer to my diary and calculate the number of hours and the amount earned. I pencil this in on the calendar itself. At the end of each week I tot up the total amount earned for that week, and at the end of every month I do the same.

I have a target in mind for each week and each month, which at the end of the year will provide me with the same amount I was earning as an employee, taking into account the fact that you get no sick pay and no holiday pay as a contractor. I'm hoping I'll achieve it. We shall see.

In conclusion - do I like being a contractor and freelancer?

Hell yes!

Of course there are many things about being a permanent employee that I miss. I miss my desk. I miss my friends at work. I miss being a permanent part of a team. I miss the comfort that comes from knowing what you're going to be doing tomorrow, and from knowing that you'll be able to pay the mortgage this month.

But ultimately I think it was really good for me to be forcibly ejected from my comfort zone. I had become a little too settled, a bit too set in my ways and somewhat unadventurous.

Being out again in the cold harsh world of contracting is a GREAT discipline for me. I always did love doing the best job I can possibly do, and that's virtually mandatory when you're a contractor. I love learning new things. I love revisiting old skills that have gone a bit rusty and polishing them up again. I love the variety that comes with doing contract work, and the question in my mind of "Shall I go for this contract? Do I think I could stretch my abilities in order to do it?"

It's very interesting working for a variety of masters. Unlike the single permanent employer, each of my contract clients sees me in a different way, depending on what their needs are. I do different work for all of them, and so, unlike in a permanent position, I'm unlikely to be pigeonholed into doing the same thing all the time.

I have an interesting life. I don't have kids, so I have the freedom to focus a lot more of my energies on the work I do. We all need meaning and purpose in our lives, and for me a lot of that comes through my work. Being a contractor intensifies that purpose in some ways. You have to focus on earning enough to survive, and with that comes working as hard as you can, and producing the best product possible all the time so that clients will ask you back.

I don't particularly like change, and I don't go out of my way to make it happen, but when it's thrust upon me I can rise to the challenge and do well. It's important for me to remember that when I'm happily stuck in my comfort zone.

You never really know what's going to happen in the future. Nothing is permanent, not even a permanent job - and in these tough economic times that's going to be the case for more and more people. It's good to know that losing your job isn't the end of the world - it's simply the start of a new one.


I would be lying if I said that I didn't write this knowing that it might be read by a potential new client. That would be silly. So if you are looking for a contractor, or you're looking for a small company to design and build you a new website, and you like what you've read, please get in touch.

You can find all my contact details (together with a detailed summary of my past 12 years in the web industry) on my portfolio website. Thanks for reading!

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