Outsourcing my accommodation: my attitude to renting

I live in a rented house, and the lease ends next month.

A couple of months before this happens, the real-estate agent ask me to sign a form saying whether or not I want to renew, and for how long. The form includes a warning that there may be a rent increase, but it doesn’t say how much. If I say I want to renew, they send back the lease papers for me to sign.

I send the form back saying yes, I want to renew for six months, and I add the words, subject to the rent remaining affordable.

Last time, to my surprise, the rent did not go up.

This time, what happened was interesting. The agent emailed me saying they wanted to increase the rent by $20 per week — twice what I’d budgeted for — and asking me whether that would be affordable. She also said that it was still cheap compared to other rentals.

I did some research online to see whether this was true, and concluded that the suggested price was in the same ballpark as similar rentals nearby, but certainly not ‘cheap’, especially considering the house is kind of like an apartment stuck on a large piece of land: it’s very small, and unlike much of the competition has no patio, shed or carport, all of which I could use.

I replied pointing that out and politely reminding the agent of some of the other deficiencies of the house. And I told the truth, saying I had budgeted for a $10 per week increase. And I asked, politely, whether she thought the proprietor would be prepared to come down a little? (From being a proprietor myself in the past I know perfectly well that it is the agents who suggest the rent increases to the proprietors, not the other way round!)

It took me at least an hour to compose that short email, last Friday. I’ve lost count of the number of times one of my emails has unintentionally offended someone who has misinterpreted my tone. However, eventually, heart in mouth, I pressed Send. The agent replied saying she would pass on my request to the proprietor. I sent a quick thankyou and tried to forget about it for the weekend. I expected the reply would either be ‘no’ or ‘let’s split the difference and make it $15’.

The government and banks are putting out a lot of propaganda trying to get renters to borrow money and buy houses. ‘Escape the rental trap.’ ‘Live the dream.’ People here say things like, ‘I’m just renting’, ‘I’m only renting’. It’s as if you’re not really an adult unless you ‘own’ a four-bedroom detached suburban house (an apartment being no good for the ‘Australian lifestyle’, which apparently involves a lot of barbequing and lazing about on outdoor furniture). And for most people owning a house means that for their best years they are tied by a gigantic debt to the ultimate feudal lord — a national or global banking corporation.

When I was married I was the joint owner of a house, and for a while we had a second house that we rented out. Now I’m divorced and renting. It’s not ideal, and I may not want to do it forever, and I might write something later about alternative ways to access shelter and land. However, if I’m honest with myself, despite the propaganda, I’m happier renting than owning.

What I dislike about renting:

  • I can’t get a cat.
  • When the toilet blocks up I have to talk to a property manager instead of calling a plumber.
  • I can’t paint or alter the house.
  • Once every three months the agent comes in to check things are clean and tidy, and writes an inspection report.
  • I might have to move in six months or a year, if the proprietors decide to move in or put the rent up more than I can afford.
  • Sometimes I get scared that I could end up homeless because of economic rationalism, which doesn’t value wisdom and stories, which believes that the old, sick or disabled have nothing to offer in exchange for accommodation and support.

What I like about renting:

  • I don’t have to look after a cat.
  • When the toilet blocks up I can just call the property manager and leave it to her to find a plumber and send the proprietor the bill.
  • I don’t get tempted to paint or alter the house. I don’t waste my precious creative energy worrying about renovations — I can leave all that to folks who actually care about it.
  • Once every three months I have to make the place spic ‘n’ span, so it never has a chance to become squalid. (And when things don’t belong to me I tend to take better care of them. When I was married with little kids, the oven, which I owned, didn’t get cleaned for nine years.)
  • I might get to move in six months or a year. Once everything’s organised, moving is fun. I enjoy setting up house in a new place and exploring a new neighbourhood. And I tend not to accumulate junk because there’s a good chance I’ll eventually move.
  • And… well… the less I own, the lighter and freer I feel. Having no debts feels good, too.

So anyway, what happened about my rent?

On Monday the reply came back. The rent’s going up by my budgeted amount, $10 a week. This is a surprisingly good result, considering the state of the rental market around here, and the way people talk about proprietors and agents as if all of them are predators from the depths of Hell, when in fact they may well be human beings with mothers, fathers and cultural baggage, just like any of the seven billion. (Seven billion? WTF? No wonder rents are so high.)

My particular agent and proprietor are pretty good about unblocking the toilet, too. So, am I just lucky? Or, apart from being assertive, have I done anything unusual?

Well… I hesitate to make such a claim, but maybe I have.

During my two years in this house I’ve deliberately set out to establish and maintain a good relationship with the agent and proprietor. Where ‘good’ means friendly and businesslike. To put it another way, I’ve consciously done my best to make them like and respect me.

You’ll notice I’m not using the word ‘landlord’. The agent uses the word ‘owner’, but I prefer ‘proprietor’. ‘Landlord’, and to some extent ‘owner’, have connotations of status left over from the feudal system and the industrial-revolution class system where the ‘common’ (ie, working) people were told that the ‘noble’ (ie, monied) people were their ‘betters’ — were somehow more deserving in the eyes of the big Daddy in the sky.

But I don’t believe in status. To my mind, the proprietor and myself are equals, and the lease is a business agreement. The lease and the local tenancy laws contain a fair bit of detail, but, basically, I’ve agreed to pay the rent regularly and keep the place clean and tidy, and they’ve agreed to maintain it in a habitable condition and respect my privacy.

I think of renting not as some second-best way to live, but as outsourcing my accommodation. Like all outsourcing, it’s pretty expensive, and a little precarious, but it saves me a lot of bother and and allows me to focus on my real work.

Don’t get me wrong — if I had enough money to buy a house outright, I would. Actually I wouldn’t — I’d buy the smallest flat I could fit into, and do something useful with the leftover cash.

But I don’t have that much money. What I do have are a few suggestions you might find useful if you’re renting in the private market. (Disclaimer: I live in Australia, and the legal situation of private tenants is probably better here than in many parts of the world.)

  • Remember that renting can feel insecure for the proprietor, too. If you’re a good tenant (who pays the rent reliably and looks after the place well) you are by no means powerless. It’s no fun to lose a good tenant and have to worry about finding another one. There are a lot of bad tenants around. A good tenant is worth hanging onto. Put yourself in the proprietor’s shoes and look after their place like you’d want someone to do if it were yours.
  • The proprietor and agent are not bosses, parents, or authority figures. Both you and the proprietor are the agent’s clients. It’s a business arrangement. If the agent or proprietor are condescending, remember it’s just that they don’t know any better (yet!), and don’t let them intimidate you. Remember, you have something they want, too. Remain friendly and businesslike.
  • Know your legal rights and insist on them. Read the websites that explain the tenancy laws.
  • Never sign anything without reading and understanding it. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.
  • At the beginning of your tenancy, go over the place in detail and make sure the property condition report accurately describes the condition of the property.
  • If something breaks, say so. (And if it’s your fault, admit it, even if that means you have to pay for it.) Presume that the proprietor wants to maintain their investment.
  • Be patient if necessary, and don’t whinge and whine, but if something isn’t being done, speak up.
  • Once the toilet has been unblocked, email the agent to say thank-you. If they have been prompt and friendly, say thank you for that.
  • Don’t do stuff that isn’t your job. If the proprietor has agreed to mow the lawn, don’t do it!
  • Wear a smile when you’re on the phone so that you sound friendly. Say ‘how are you’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘have a nice day’.
  • Be friendly in emails, too — wish the agent a nice weekend, for example.
  • Keep the place fairly tidy and clean all the time so that the rental inspection cleanups aren’t such a burden. This is easier said than done, but it’s much easier if you don’t have much stuff!
  • Pay the rent on time. (Set up an automatic direct deposit.) This can be easier said than done, too — but if you don’t pay the rent, nothing else you do is likely to count. The downside of it being a business arrangement is that the proprietor is unlikely to listen to your pleas for leniency. Anyway, pleading for leniency gives them power over you.

 And, last but not least, luxuriate in the good aspects of renting. Such as relaxing in your kerb-shopped deckchair while you watch the neighbours sweat over their renovations.

Facebook is like Sydney, Google+ is like Canberra. For now.

Google are really trying hard to promote Google+, have you noticed? The trouble is that compared to Facebook, Google+ is kind of like Canberra as compared to Sydney.

For those not in Australia, Canberra is a planned city, the capital, where most people work for the government. It’s neat and tidy and well-behaved. It’s excellent for cycling but hopeless for bussing. There’s not enough to do for most visitors, unless you’re like me and can quite happily spend the entire day in an art gallery. You don’t go there to relax: you go for a conference.

Sydney, on the other hand, is (by Australian standards) old and filthy and loud and tangled. The public transport system is comprehensive, but heterogeneous and difficult to navigate. Last time I was there you needed different tickets for the bus, train and ferry. The people can be unfriendly (unless you look rich, which is something I just can’t fake any more). But there’s a buzz to it. It’s a lot of fun. It had the 2000 Olympics, which were pretty amazing. It has a world-famous gay mardigras. And when people think of an Australian city they think of Sydney with its opera house and harbour bridge. People go there to see the sights.

Facebook has third-party apps. I reckon that’s the magic thing, the thing that’s missing from Google+. Any developer can add functionality. The social plugins, all third-party, are fantastic. I’ve got it set up so that my Facebook timeline automatically displays all my Tweets, my activity on Tumblr, Soundcloud and Youtube, links to my MailChimp newsletters, and, using the Networked Blogs app, a fair selection of postings from this blog and my main site Proximity (proximitypoetry.com). It’s the go-to place!

But a lot of the apps on Facebook are just ways to play. Games, quizzes, various kinds of virtual gifting. Going on Facebook feels like a stroll down the street in a neighbourhood where all your friends live and everything’s open 24/7. OK, there’s a lot of garbage lying about, but it’s fairly easy to avoid stepping in it. (That is becoming more difficult – more on that in a moment.) Like any new environment, when you first join Facebook it can be pretty uncomfortable until you figure out how you fit into it. Sydney is like that, and I imagine that when I finally manage to visit New York, I’m going to feel much the same.

But Facebook was like Canberra at first — plain and simple and fast. (It’s still fast, actually, most of the time.) The simplicity was one of the main reasons people moved there from Myspace, which had become painfully bloated with over-the-top…

advertising. And, guess what? Facebook’s monetising strategies have become much more annoying of late. There is now a lot of thinly-disguised advertising content in the main stream of posts, instead of in a sidebar. Groups and pages are cluttered with posts from people who have been seduced by the temptation to get paid to share ‘news’ about some mob selling shoes or investments or the secret to a better sex life. It sucks.

I don’t mind sidebar advertising: sometimes I even click on it. Usually I’m disappointed by what I find, but that’s another story. If it weren’t for the advertising Facebook wouldn’t be free, and neither would Google. But there’s a limit to what is acceptable in a site where you spend long periods of time. The people at Google have known this from the beginning, and I hope they don’t become corrupted by greed to the extent that they start doing what Facebook is doing.

I hesitate to recommend that everyone moves to Google+ (as if that would make a difference anyway, LOL) because, even though it’s convenient to have all the integration, even though I love Gmail and am pretty attached to Google Calendar, the thought of having everything on Google gives me the creeps. Eggs all in one basket… we are all far too dependent on Google as it is. (BTW, if you’d like to try an alternative search engine, check out duckduckgo.com. I like it and I don’t.)

However, as pointed out in an excellent book, ‘What You Really Need to Know About the Internet: From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg’ by John Naughton (Quercus 2012), the Internet is an ecology, not an economy. There are niches for all kinds of ‘species’, symbiotic relationships arise between large and small organisms, it’s complex, chaotic, unpredictable… and all based on a system that, like DNA and RNA, is simple, elegant, computational, egalitarian, and acronymic (I’m thinking of the TCP/IP protocols, the DNS, and all that).

When I wonder about the future of the Net, I look at my two smart Montessori-educated teenagers as an example. (Interestingly, the boys who founded Google were Montessori students.) The way my kids use the Internet evolves over time as they, and the Internet, develop. The Net is only a little older than they are.

My young man has set up a Minecraft server for himself and his friends. He’s finding out how difficult it is to be a benevolent dictator. They talk on Skype while they build imaginary worlds out of virtual Lego, and there seem to be a lot of arguments. My young woman is into photography and dance. She relaxes on Tumblr, where she has two blogs that I am forbidden to look at. Both my kids also communicate using Facebook, Gmail and Youtube (making videos as well as watching) and listen to music online instead of buying it. They use whatever works best for them, and that changes over time as they, and the Internet, slowly grow up.

No-one can predict what will happen next. Some people will always prefer the costume-jewelled alleyways of Sydney, some will prefer the suits and cyclepaths of Canberra, and some will just want to walk away and live in a cave someplace. But if you listen carefully — late nights and early mornings are the best times — you’ll be able to discern the small twitterings of peculiar poets as they flutter here and there, exploring the trackless forest of Facebook, the eerily-lifelike rock-gardens of Google, and whatever grows up to supplement or replace them.

A dream achieved: no more ‘things to do’

One of the best things I’ve done during 2012 — no, the best thing I’ve done — is throwing away my to-do list.

When I say to-do list, I don’t mean a few odd jobs scratched on a scrap of paper clipped to the fridge door. ‘Fix the tap’, ‘Call the lawnmowing woman’, that sort of thing. I mean a spreadsheet. A database. A designed system. With, if I remember rightly, importance ratings from 1 to 3 and urgency ratings something like ‘deadline!’, ‘immediate’, ‘soon’, ‘fairly soon’, ‘whenever’, and ‘just an idea’. I kept track of my ideas in a database. WTF?

I’ve always been a list-keeping sort of person. I remember being 8 or 9 and having written lists of my clothes (a weird assortment of hand-me-downs… some things never change) to make sure I wore them in turn so I wouldn’t have all my favourites wearing out before my less-favourites.

If you’re thinking of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory you have a point, even though Sheldon is a caricature and nobody’s really like him. I’m somewhat autistic, I think. Either that or I just have an unusual brain. Which amounts to the same thing, really. If you are not autistic at all the technical word for you is neurotypical.

But I digress. The to-do list! Sometime during my first year at university life seemed to get more complicated. I wrote a list of things that needed doing, to outsource them from my brain so it could get on with more interesting stuff, like studying, hanging with friends and fantasising about the opposite sex. I was studying computer science, and I made the analogy that I was putting my tasks on peripheral storage instead of keeping them in RAM, freeing up RAM for currently running jobs. My to-do list was like a removable USB drive for my mind. (We didn’t have USB drives, by the way — a few really geeky kids had personal computers, but my to-do list was a piece of paper pinned to the wall.)

But I digress. (I’m creative, alright? And kind of autistic. Deal with it! 🙂 Since then I’ve always had a to-do list, and it got longer and longer as life got more complicated, with a job, and kids, and (for a while there!) a husband, and voluntary work, and eventually, the worst of all, self-employment as a computer consultant, and later, ie, now, as a writer. At one point the amount of different stuff I wanted to remember got so out-of-control that I couldn’t figure out what I should be doing next. I’d be flipping from one thing to another, trying to do three things at once, or just standing there looking at the list going ‘aagh’. Major stress. The kind of thing that puts lines on your face and gives you backache.

I did some research on how to handle things, how to Get Things Done. Unfortunately for me, most of it’s probably written by people like Sheldon. Everything I read about ‘time management’ talked about prioritising: triaging your tasks based on their importance and urgency. I immediately thought, assign numeric ratings… use software to sort… focus on whatever’s at the top of the list… easy, right? Back in control, right?

Not.

What happened was that I managed, each day, or each week, or each month, to cross off a few of the topmost items: the things with deadlines and some of the things that were really urgent and important — and each day, or week, or month, a few new tasks and ideas would get added, and most of the new tasks would be urgent. I never got to the terrific ideas that weren’t urgent, were lower down the list. I would look at them longingly: some of them were going to be really fun, when I eventually got to them. ‘Start a non-fiction blog’ was there, for example.

And I used to mentally beat myself up about all the things that had been on the list for six months, a year, two years. What was wrong with me, what was I doing wrong, that I could never get to these things?

What was wrong with me was that I needed to sleep, and eat, and exercise, and parent my kids, and hang out with friends, and fantasise about the opposite sex, and, well, live.

Since I made my first to-do list, back at uni, the list came with a dream: one day I would finally get all the things done. And then I could spend all day playing again, just like when I was a child. I’d been carrying that dream around for almost 30 years.

Not only that, when I looked at all the things I’d told myself I’d do some day, I felt like I’d broken an enormous promise to myself. For 30 years.

Some time in the first half of 2012 I thought, what if I just threw it away?  It occurred to me that I was making life’s journey with a gigantic suitcase full of things I’d probably never use. I’d learned to travel light, physically — anything that doesn’t fit in my cabin-bag-sized wheelie case doesn’t come on tour (except for my guitar… but that’s another story)! What if I just threw it away? Wouldn’t I feel lighter? Better? Happier?

Okay, I thought. So what would have to happen, what would have to change, in order for me to throw it away?

I would need some other way to keep track of deadlines and commitments to other people. That stuff really does have to be outsourced to something more reliable than my wetware.

And I would still want to keep a few things written down. The stuff I really had promised myself I would actually do, the stuff I wanted to plan out, to make happen. But the less important stuff, and the stuff that was just ideas — that’d have to be cast once again upon the Darwinian mercies of my soggy neural network, just like it had ben in the wonderful before, when I could spend all Saturday afternoon practising somersaults or writing to imaginary boyfriends.

I’d kept a diary since my uni days (because you don’t want to think about exams and lectures all the time but it helps if you can remember when they are!). I used to have a paper diary, then a software calendar that I would print out each month and carry in my bag for ‘on-the-go’ appointments, but now I had an Android smartphone and was using the wonderful Google Calendar.  Accessible from my computer, from my phone, downloadable, printable, sharable… and I was well into the habit of looking at it every day, which is the trick with diaries. So I thought, well, I can put the deadlines and commitments on Google Calendar. I’ll use the Calendar Flair gadget to give them a red star! Yes! Of course! And the things I really, really want to do — the bucket-list things! — I’ll think about how and when I could actually make them happen and put them on the calendar as all-day ‘appointments’ on certain days or weeks. I’ll schedule them.

And it worked! That heavy suitcase feeling disappeared. Not overnight — at first I scheduled too many things and had to learn to let go even more: schedule less for each day, block out whole days as unscheduled, and stop scheduling things that didn’t really matter. I’m still learning. The calendar is gradually getting less cluttered. But I’m still achieving lots of stuff. Maybe more than before, maybe not, but that doesn’t matter, really, because I’m happier.

The feeling of liberation is hard to explain, but it’s very like when you get off a plane with your cabin bag and go straight to the bus or taxi rank while most of the other passengers are waiting around the baggage carousel.

OK, I still have the cabin bag — I have a short list of tasks for each day, most days. I can’t live without that. (Not yet, anyway!) But I’m living more in the moment, not worrying about next week until I get to it, except at certain times when I sit down and plan. And if my plans don’t work out, I don’t beat myself up. When I get to the end of the day and I haven’t done some task or other, I can just pick it up with my clicking finger and drag it to another day, or another month, or sometime next year, and forget about it until then. Or I can just hit Delete and say, well, too bad, I never did that thing, but so what? And I’m getting better at hitting Delete. Which gives me more time to do the stuff I really want to do. Like writing. And hanging out with friends, and fantasising about the opposite sex. Hurray!

Ginsberg misses out. My mum’s chocolate slice recipe

If you’ve been to one of my poetry workshops you’ll know that everyone becomes much more creative after a serve of decadent northern European home baking, preferably involving chocolate. By popular demand, here’s the recipe for my mum’s chocolate slice.

Allen Ginsberg, who died before I got around to inviting him, wrote a satirical poem entitled ‘Cmon pigs of Western civilisation, eat more grease’. Hmm. Well, if it worries you, substitute a politically-correct binding ingredient for the melted butter.

Ginsberg might have called this a brownie, but my mum is English. When I was a kid we had slices and biscuits, not brownies and cookies. Cookies existed only on Sesame Street.

Jackson’s mum’s chocolate slice

What it looks like

Slice

  • 125g butter
  • 1 cup self-raising flour (I use half wholemeal, half white)
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut
  • 1/2 cup sugar (use less or more as you prefer. I use brown sugar)
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder (find a nice dark organic one)
  • 1 egg

Icing

  • 1 cup icing sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • Hot water to mix until runny

Topping

  • About a tablespoon of dessicated coconut

Method

  • Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
  • Line a slice tray with non-stick baking paper. Let the paper extend a little beyond the tray.
  • Melt the butter.
  • In a large bowl, mix flour, coconut, sugar and cocoa.
  • In a small bowl, beat the egg.
  • Add the egg and melted butter to the large bowl and mix well.
  • Tip into the tray and press down firmly. (Make a fist and press using the flat surface formed by the middles of your fingers — or if your hands never worked a day and can’t take the heat, use the back of a spoon.)
  • Bake for 20 minutes.

It has to be cut while hot and still soft, and iced immediately so that the icing melts in. Otherwise it’s dry, biscuity and not half as yummy.

  • While the slice bakes, sift the icing sugar and cocoa into a bowl, and boil the kettle.
  • Use a sharp knife to divide the baked slice into squares or rectangles.
  • Gradually mix hot water into the icing mix, a teaspoonful at a time, until it’s runny.
  • Quickly distribute the icing over the slice and spread it with the back of a spoon. There’s an art to doing this quickly and evenly so it melts in nicely and doesn’t pool in the gaps between the cut squares. (Oh, and you have to spread it right to the edges of the tray. I insist! My mum used to be lazy about that. I considered it grossly unfair when I got a half-dry edge piece and my little brother got a choc-soaked middle piece.)
  • Sprinkle it with coconut.
  • Leave to set. Put it in the fridge or freezer to speed this up.
  • Once it’s set you can grasp the edges of the baking paper and lift the slice in one piece from the tray onto a cutting board. Use a large sharp knife to separate the squares.
  • Hide it well if you want it to last.

This freezes really well and tastes great straight from the freezer.

It occurs to me now that it might be even better with rice bubbles added to the mix. Or chopped hazelnuts, perhaps.

Best served with excellent coffee, although children might prefer a glass of milk.