Monday, 10 May 2010

Can you walk a little faster?

So I haven’t done this for a while. I haven’t had anything to say, or at least not that I wanted to write down. No, actually, I don’t think I’ve had anything to say. I had a few of weeks when life seemed as though it was happening in super-realism – just living it was a wonderful, privileged full-time job, the idea of talking about it second-hand on the internet seemed perverse, completely unnecessary and frankly a bit dirty. But my husband asked me about my absence this morning, and his look of distain was anything but understanding, so here I am, talking about nothing again.

My relationship with the whole world of blogging has always been a very inconsistent and amorphous thing. What started as a personal need to express myself to something other than the washing machine turned quickly into an exciting adventure in cross-Atlantic and Euro-union camaraderie. For a while, it was the funnest thing in the world to have soul mates in New York who I’d never share a glass of wine with, and critical advice from Germany from someone I suspected might actually be a teenage boy.

But then the whole exercise settled down into a much more rewarding place. Being read by people I actually know, who’s shared opinions and life-outlooks I really admire. It’s ironic that the more internet forums and writing groups and comment boxes I shared with, the more I just wanted to reach for my phone and arrange a Friday night around the dinner table with real people. The blogging universe is unimaginably huge, and the successful contributors unbelievably dedicated. But more than that is the simple fact that you have to have a lot of faith in the whole thing as a purposeful industry, which is tricky when you spend more than a healthy amount of time wondering what your professional worth is. There are no rules, no deadlines, no commissioning editors and no end to the amount of time you can spend doing something with no job-description style function. It’s the grown-up equivalent of reading the huge pile of magazines under your bed when you’re supposed to be cleaning your room.

Of course these observations are all just nonsense, and the internet is what the internet is: a limitless way of being creative that my whinging desire for boundaries isn’t going to contain. And it’s not even fashionable any more to say ‘I’m too old for it all’. Get with the programme or just get lost frankly.

So, this isn’t the way this post is going to end. This is a blog after all, so here’s the obligatory self-confession bit about ‘what I have noticed of late’. (And hopefully it will tie in nicely with the reason I’ve been absent. No modern technology is going to change my opinion of good old-fashioned essay writing skills.) I have, of late, been feeling horribly pedestrian, in both thought and existence. It’s a term that a very un-pedestrian, but fabulously self-aware, friend of mine coined, and I love it and her for that. For me, at its most basic, it’s when you buy a new pair of jeans, and you know they’re a bit safe: too wide in the leg, too high on the waist, but they fit. It’s not earth shatteringly awful, but that’s the whole point – it’s just pedestrian. So in preparation for a full-time return to a weekly spot in the fabulous sparing arena of blogs, I am going to up my game, chuck out the jeans and try to shun the easy options. I’m not just going to observe the high-definition world going on around me, I’m going to blog about it. God, I feel like standing and saluting. I might even tweet.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Life extraction

About four years ago I had some major root canal work done on (under?) one of my back teeth. Bear with me, I’m going to try and make this interesting. It was when my baby boys were teeny, and having some time to myself – albeit in a dentist’s chair with a high level of anxiety, and some – was actually pretty intoxicating, and the fact that it took six visits to finish the job seemed well worth the dollar and the pain.

Anyway, the bad news was that it was never truly a finished job, and it’s taken a course of serious antibiotics every six months ever since to keep things under the intrusive-pain threshold. But now the dentist will take it no longer, and has given me an ultimatum: extraction or he closes the pharmacy.

However, despite the fact that I’m now facing a 90-minute dentist appointment in less than a fortnight, I’m suddenly really looking forward to an end to the constant fuggy achey hungover feeling that I now realise the infection has inflicted on me for far too long. And it’s also occurred to me that a lack of these constant feelings might significantly alter my behaviour? How many of my personality traits are infection-fugg induced? How long is my fuse? How much nicer is the real me?

And what if this whole improvement-though-extraction exercise works in other areas of life, not just aural enhancement. I sacked my cleaner this week after weeks of irritation about the fact that I was paying her to do very little for far fewer hours than she was billing. (I know it’s a minefield to mention I have a cleaner after witnessing the storm of anti-staff protest Tim Dowling received by admitting he employed someone to hoover his floors. I don’t have quite as many readers as his Guardian column though, so by the laws of proportional representation, the worst that can happen is that one of you might be feeling a twitch of irritation in the tip of your little finger. Bummer if it’s you. What’s the chances!)

Anyway, life is definitely better for having extracted the cleaner. So what’s next? Are there other things that need to go? Other people…? I’ll get back to that one when I’m feeling braver.

But how about an extraction of expectation? I generally hold a fairly high level of it with regards to both me and the world, and hence live with the persistant low-level pain of disappointment. However, on Friday I sat happily though an evening that, on paper, should come in way under expectations: the school quiz night. My team contained an unfeasibly large number of broadsheet journos, who knew pretty much everything (in fact, everything) while I have to be honest and admit to genuinely knowing almost nothing. And, thanks to the final dose of anti-biotics generously prescribed by my dentist, there was no alcohol in my glass to disguise my almost complete lack of knowledge.

But I had a great evening. Turns out some of my closest friends also know nothing, and sparkling grape juice isn’t so bad if combine it with your body weight in gherkins. And I was the one who recognised the theme to ET when everyone else thought it was Star Wars. You can’t extract a wasted youth.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Death does not become us

I’m not sure I like funerals. I’m on my way home from my second in the space of a month, and I’m starting to wonder whether they are a good thing or not. Certainly in both cases the reason for us all being there was premature, heart-breaking and difficult to justify even if you had a sense of a higher purpose, which I don’t feel I do. But I suppose that’s fairly common of funerals. They are filled with utterly breath-taking gulping sobs of sadness, however much you try and put a positive spin on them.

No, I don’t believe the person with top billing would be serenely telling us all to be happy for the life they’ve just left behind, if they could communicate anything – nor would they want us to stop crying or beating our chests. They had no intention of dying. They want nothing more than to be there in the room with us. And in that circumstance, it would be a nicer room, because it wouldn’t be a crematorium. No need. No-one’s died.

But of course they have. So twice this month I’ve had to witness people I love suffering the indescribable pain of loosing someone they love. And I’m just not sure about the whole funeral thing anymore.

It’s very public for starters. You’re basically offering yourself to the public as a living focus for the person everyone has lost. And it’s your job to make everyone else feels a bit better. They showed up, they supported, they tried to make things that tiniest bit better. In return, you have to show them how much their support has helped. Look, I’m still standing, I’m going to be okay. There will be cracks whenever anyone hugs me for more than a brief second, but that’s ok too, that’s all in the script.

Maybe it’s a chance to practice your new vocabulary in support-group surroundings. I rather than We, After rather than Before, Now rather than Then. Roll it around, see how it feels. Maybe shared grief is easier to cope with. I’m sure my family were all really happy to be able to spend time together today, but really, at a funeral? Isn’t this when you want to curl up into a tiny ball and weep, not make small talk with people who never called enough. All this because someone decided that funerals are an important way to say goodbye?

Well I don’t buy it. The need to say goodbye is mistakenly on the list of necessities in life. As is the idea that time passing is good. Anyone who’s suffered the searing pain of loosing someone’s love will know that the thing to fear most is time. The idea that the more of it that passes, the less you’ll feel the pain, is appalling. The only remaining connection between you and the lost love is the pain. If that goes, you’ll be alone.

So how about we don’t make an occasion out of saying goodbye. How about we leave the lingering presence of the person we love hanging, unfinished, unpackaged. Would that really be worse than a funeral? I heard someone today ask the eldest daughter of the bereaved family where she got her dress from, and rather than being confused at the banality of the question it was the only time I saw her properly light up all afternoon. She looked amazing, she had a new frock, it mattered. It’s what her dad would have said, too.

Funerals are important for shared grief, to celebrate a life, to start to say goodbye. Maybe. Or, run. Run for the hills, and don’t worry about the rest of us. We don’t need to see a brave face. You’ve been cheated, and it’s not fair. It’s completely not fair. Weep.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Presenting: a new me

The last time I did a presentation was on a one-day training course in Basic Presentation Skills, and my audience was a bunch of equally terrified, equally young non-presenters who were overly appreciative of my stuttering efforts purely so I would be equally as gracious about theirs.

Add to this background info the fact that my husband is a professional presenter, and that almost everyone I know is way-above-averagely competent at talking in a clear and ordered manner about whatever topic you might offer them, and you begin to get a picture of someone who might be a little out of their depth had they been asked, for example, to present to a room of 30 business men. In two days time. Especially when a positive outcome would mean a huge amount, professionally, for a significant group of the afore mentioned brilliant public speakers.

I’m planning on getting through it with the help of several sleepless nights, a lot of talking to myself on the bus, a spare pair of non-snag tights in every pocket and a new top. It’ll be fine.

The main problem right now though is that I’m not even up mentally to the new top purchasing. I’m sad to say that several nights of excess in all the drinking, talking and kitchen-dancing areas has rendered me incapable of normal function. It’s finally happened. I am too old for it all.

It’s come sooner than I predicted, especially since I have put in some solid ground work to prevent it happening. I always knew that at some point it was going to become unpleasant going to bed with two bottles of cheap Bulgarian red swishing about inside me. So I took care of my progressively aging body by treating it like a Majestic temple – with each birthday came another 50p on the bottle price, another few minutes of consideration of the label and a few hundred feet more of prime vineyard slope in the mix. My plan was to hit 40 with a couple of bottles of fine vintage coursing gently around my extremities – surely no damage can be done if you take these things seriously?

Good plan, badly executed. It seems that while the body grows older, so does the mind, and it forgets to remember the rules. Not every night, I’m not crying out for help. But the point is, when it does happen, I can’t stick to the ‘one good bottle and we’re off home’ rule. It becomes a ‘fridge, wine rack, beaker, bottle, whatever’ kind of rule.

But it’s not feeling so much fun anymore, and the aftermath is horrible. And now it turns out I have to present, and be seriously presentable. I think it’s time for a change of habit, a straighter road, a clearer intention, and maybe a new top.

Monday, 22 February 2010

And the crowd goes wild

So, I'm laid in bed listening to the curling in Canada. There's no need to point out the absolute pointlessness of listening to a sport that in itself has got to be the most pointless example of a mis-spent youth. If you're not even watching the Olympic awkward-lunge-and-letting-go followed by the maniacal Olympic ice sweeping in full flow, the sound of one stone hitting the other stone isn't going to tick many entertainment boxes.

But I didn't have the energy to sit up and watch, so I listened. With raised eyebrows. I had the energy for that at least.

And then I noticed something. The man whose job it was to let go of the stone with an obligatory expression of unbearable seriousness (yes, I could hear it), was then screaming instructions down the ice to his Olympic domestic brushmen to scrub harder, longer, softer, in a more sportsman-like manner... I don't know what, but the urgency and anger in his voice was quite alarming. Was he really taking this so seriously? Was he really so angry?

It’s kind of odd that we Brits like curling, and I don’t mean for the obvious reasons that it’s no more suitable as an Olympic sport than hoovering. The thing is, we’re quite good at it, aren’t we? And don’t we hate it when other people are good at things? Isn’t that the true definition of Britishness, ‘to be of a disposition of perpetual resentment and distrust of anyone who can achieve, and to only have a natural leaning towards the under dog, [caveat: until they start to achieve]’.

So, we like the curlers, even though they’re pulling off their second Olympic medal winning sports page domination. We fell in love with them as underdogs in 2006 and in 2010 we’re still lovin’ it.

But, anyway, it’s ok after all, because even if we don’t follow the book with our love of curling, we certainly do in defeat – our state of mind of choice. So the final British curl is about to be cast down the ice, and the over emotional Canadian supporters started singing the national anthem. Theirs I mean. And our guys couldn’t concentrate – but most importantly the sweepers couldn’t hear their instructions. That’s the actual factual explanation of our subsequent failure. After four years of practice, pre-breakfast broom training, late nights studying their instruments and endless cancelled family holidays in the hope of Olympic glory, the sweepers couldn’t hear Mr Angry shouting ‘sweep’ so they didn’t. Or couldn’t. So, the match was stopped, everyone had a nice cup of tea, and the crowd was calmed. But the seeds had been sewn, and our skipper chucked a bad ‘un and we lost on the final stone.

I know this isn’t the kind of thing I usually choose to dwell on, but I felt a huge sense of national pride in the whole sorry episode. My kids enjoyed watching the curling almost as much as they enjoyed watching the bobsleigh team coming down the run on their heads. A friend once quoted someone perceptive and told me 'If ironing's all your good for, you better be damn good at ironing.' If it works for sweeping, I might have found my answer to navel gazing.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Who do you think you are?

A question was posed in the pub on Friday evening. It was the one of those rare spontaneous evenings where an unexpected babysitter lead to a last minute decision to head to Soho for drinks that taste much better and work much faster for the simple lack of organisation that went into them.

Anyway, in this gin-fuelled hedonism granted by a small space on the heaving pavements of Dean Street, my husband posed the question. Who do you want to be? Not what – which is essentially a career question, and one that he knows me well enough not to approach even with an extremely long barge pole. How many caveats, excuses, angry accusations, guilty denials and general despondency can one question inspire? The ‘what’ question is tainted for ever now with the echoes of school bells and after-taste of petit filous, let alone the shadows of the glass ceiling and a four-year CV gap.

So it was ‘who’ that was questioned. And not one of us (we had a couple of other over-excited escapee parents with us) could answer without turning it in to a huge joke. Hardly appropriate considering the gravity of the question. Hardly surprising considering the inappropriateness of the timing of the gravitas question.

Years ago, I was on a uni coach trip to Amsterdam, and we were playing games to entertain ourselves in anticipation of the main event. One game involved someone asking questions to everyone else in order to guess which one of us we had chosen to be ‘it’. The questions had to be of the ‘what type of song would this person be’ variety, and I was asked what item of clothing ‘this person’ would be. It so happened that I was ‘this person’, so my answer was ‘a big baggy cardi’.

Only you would ever describe you as a big baggy cardi, so the game was over fairly quickly and awkwardly at that point.

And the embarrassment of my completely exposed lack of aesthetic pride still haunts me, particularly because it also exposed my clear lack of inner belief. Why couldn’t I think of one nice thing to say about myself out loud? I knew there were better things about myself than my penchant for shapeless knitwear. I knew it, but I didn’t believe it enough to vocalise. And that was when I was young and thin, and life’s boundaries were self-imposed. Now I’m not-so, and life’s boundaries are super-imposed. And life is richer, but the ‘who’ question still inspires a knitwear-based response. Maybe it’s now a cashmere one, but there’s not much extra self-confidence woven into the stitching.

How is it possible that almost 20 years later I can’t answer the ‘who’ question because I know that the list of things I think need changing is essentially pathetic. You can’t get to 38 (bloody hell, 38) and be entirely disappointed in yourself. I like myself a lot actually, but I would never admit that to anyone. Mainly because I assume that all they see in me are the few things that will always be unattractive or unnecessary.

So, who I’d like to be: someone who could name an item of clothing that they both liked and could honestly associate themselves with. I’d also really like to be someone who doesn’t worry that they might have said something a bit rubbish in 1992.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The List

I wasn’t going to do this this week. I had decided to have one Sunday night when I didn’t lie awake worrying about what, who, why and whether I could be creatively interesting enough to entertain myself and a few significant others with a posting. A musing about my relatively untroubled, unremarkable life over the past week, and all the incredibly unchallenging things that haven’t been playing on my mind. Then I found myself writing lists instead.

Lists are great right? I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t love a good list when it’s presented in the right way. I think they’re actually the only things that really galvanise the different parts of you life. The longer and fuller your life becomes, the more spurious the links between the different areas of your life become.

Compartmentalism is a natural state of survival, so lists are like those yoghurt-pot-and-string telephones linking all the boxes together. There’s not much that links the necessity to both own and put on a posh ‘client skirt’ with the hurried playground planning of a new-school-mum’s social – other than the to-do list you’ve made to help you overcome the fact that you’ve had no time to either prepare for, or avoid, either event.

The Ocado list provides a direct link between your aspiring social needs, your fridge, your newly embraced fascination with iPod apps and your hatred of the general public when armed with a shopping trolley. It also provides an essential link with your husband. You can sit quietly at the kitchen table, together, on the same side, sharing input in the list. It’s quality time.

Anyway, there’s not much more to say about lists. That’s the great thing about them. They’re pure, they work. I’m not interested in the psycho-analytics that could go behind why we love them. They’re neatness and order in an otherwise chaotic world. It’s even good to list your most hated things. Everything can be made easier with a list, even guilt.

So the list that has spent most time buzzing around in formation this week is the music one. Those soundtrack to life songs that wriggle around as ear worms for days before becoming weirdly prophetic. These are mine.

1. Single ladies (Put A Ring On It); Beyonce & my eldest, her biggest nine-year-old fan
2. I’m Being Eaten By A Boa Constrictor And I Don’t Like It One Bit; Reception music class
3. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood; Nina Simone
4. Neon Rainbow; The Box Tops
5. The Wanting Comes In Waves; The Decemberists
6. Happy Birthday To Me; my littlests putting in some early practice