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

Friday, 29 January 2010

GUEST FRIDAY - Hazel Gould

A good friend of mine went on a last-minute-late-night date last week that began with a phone call at 10.30pm, and ended at 5.30am at her flat with two large G & Ts and Emergency on Planet Earth at top volume (our parents turned to Rumours for nostalgia, we look back to Jamiroquoi to channel our early youth.) They both passed out, and when they got up he went to work. I imagined the scene: him stumbling into the office with a can of coke and a wry smile and saying to his colleagues “mate, I only went to bed at 6, I was wasted. I’m probably still pissed” and then sitting down to do a day’s work. Of course, this story has nothing to do with me, but my daydream did remind me of a time when a lack of sleep was something to be proud of.

Sleep is a precious commodity for the parents of the very young. Hours are collected like gold bars, as if we could stash them away for a rainy day; we barter on the nursery trading floor, selling midnight lullabies in exchange for lie-ins and cbeebies at dawn for breakfast. It’s a bear market, investor confidence is low, and all we really want are “just five more minutes”.

It seems to be a commonly accepted truth that the person who is working in the morning needs sleep in order to function properly and the person who is at home with the baby can easily get through the day with two hours sleep and a strong coffee. Biology and the politics of parental leave meant that more often than not there is a clear gender divide in the first months. Lots of couples, during the early days, decamp the daddy into the spare room to sleep all night, leaving the mother to deal with the baby because “he has to work” and “there’s no point in us both being tired”. Of course each family has its own internal logic, and it is not my place to judge the choices of parents who are doing their best to raise their children. But I do wonder if the tyranny of work needs to be challenged from time to time.

Is it not the same men who, pre-children, were drinking until 4 in the morning and rolling into work rubbing the stamp from their hand with a dab of red bull on a tissue, who now, after having a baby, need to approach a day’s work like an Olympic event: it seems that he needs to be Rocky (young and fit and training for the fight of his life) to tackle his in tray. Meanwhile there is a woman at home looking after their 10-week-old baby, with no idea what to do or how to do it, or worse, a toddler tearing around the house desperate for attention and activities, who is expected to parent, quite literally, with her eyes closed.

Biology has a large part in our downfall. Nature plays a cruel trick on pregnant women, making a good nights sleep impossible throughout the 7th and 8th months. And for breastfeeding mothers, night feeds are hers responsibility and hers alone. For all the convenience and comfort that breast feeding gives, it makes the partner’s role in the middle of the night practically irrelevant. For a lot of women, by the time they return to work, feel the freedom and pleasure of taking the bus alone, drinking a coffee, having a conversation with a colleague and realise that work is often by far the easier option, it is too late to redress the balance.

I was very lucky*. My husband took to nighttimes like a bat. He would leap out of bed at the first snuffle and deliver my son to me, with a clean nappy, and he would be there to put him back in his cot when he’d had enough to eat. It wasn’t such a big thing, but I knew I wasn’t alone. When my daughter came along, it was very different. It took a lot more than a snuffle to wake either of us up, and feeding her and getting her off to sleep was like falling off a log to me. Her birth coincided with a very difficult and stressful time at work for him, so much of the nocturnal activity was my domain. It was fine, I did it, and I didn’t resent it, but I was eternally grateful that first time around, he had been jigging the baby back to sleep and giving me a cuddle when I was crying with fatigue and frustration

We imagine that raising children is done on instinct and that the only muscle that is really needed to be in tip top form is the heart – the rest of the body can sail to hell in a handbasket. It’s true, of course, and if you love your children and keep them fed and warm, I really believe that it’s hard to go too far wrong. But I also know, that after a run of bad nights my patience is at zero, my fuse is short and my creative, physical and diplomatic energy is non-existent. The kids have a pretty uninspiring day and so do I. When I go to work feeling as tired, something about the air hitting my face, the paper cup of coffee, the banter and the focus keeps me going.

Sleep deprivation is awful, it’s painful and depressing, but it is part of the story of parenting. The night that my husband just gave up trying to get our son to sleep and watched an entire Thomas DVD at 2am is already part of our folklore. Those nights are the way we earn our stripes, our love for our children is tested almost to the limit and we learn that however much we might want to throw the crying bundle out of the window, we don’t. No body likes feeling that it’s impossible to cope, or that somehow they are underperforming at work, but for the 2 years or so that sleep is so fragile in babies, it’s worth it, just to know that you were in it together, and you came out the other side.

*At some point I will launch a campaign to stamp out the word ‘lucky’ when referring to having a partner who is so kind as to look after his own child. Now is not the time. I am lucky to have him, for all sorts of reasons.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Tell me on a Thursday

There are two ways of embracing change. The first is to embrace it. This is the way that involves excitable announcements, late-night planning conversations, lists, photos, maps, associated purchasing and public celebrating.

The other way is to see potential change as a vertiginous cliff edge that should be kept clear of, preferably with the assistance of fences, warning signs and a strictly enforced let’s-never-visit-this-place-again policy.

My husband loves change – particularly the hours of internet research and aforementioned late-night planning conversations it inevitably allows. Which is either an indication that his life is perpetually disappointing or underwhelming, or it’s a sign that he thrives on the adrenalin of constant movement and reorganization.

I, on the other hand fear change like the grim. Maybe not fear, that makes it sound as though I have no control over it. On the contrary, I simply work very hard to prevent the need for it. I am the master of its irrelevance. It rarely gets the chance to take root. Which is probably why I love surprises. They offer absolutely no time to worry about the after effects.

So the outcome of our completely opposing attitude towards change is that any conversations based on the future have, in recent years, taken place around the kitchen table, a couple of empty dinner plates and far more than the recommended number of empty wine bottles. And more often than not it’s approaching midnight on a Thursday. Thursday is the new Saturday in our house – if Saturdays were ever actually the night to get accidentally and focus-loosingly drunk in your own house in order to make any progress in decisions as far reaching a next Easter. Maybe Thursdays are just the new Thursdays. And really the only looser is Friday.

We used to make our decisions walking around Waterlow Park, officially London’s best-kept secret. Now I have to have a glass of something French and a resolve to not take any previous resolves too seriously for a few hours. We’ve had loads of lost Fridays over the years, and I’ve been party to loads of lovely decisions while pretending not to mind about having the carpet pulled from under me and life-change plans swing slowly into motion.

And then, eventually and inevitably, comes Monday morning, and the under-medicated cold light of day. The changes that seemed so easily embraced while my reality was being massaged by the hypnotic glow of weekend family life are suddenly once again a threat to everything I base my stability and happiness on. It’s a puzzle; one easily solved no doubt by a few weeks of abstinence.

Footnote. Things I have omitted from my observations: 1. I fear change because my father left when I was 11. I mean, really, what cod psychology tish 2. The main source of our ‘change’ debates is the subject of secondary schools, and the possible suggestion that I might detach myself from my heartbeat and move out of town. Let’s see just what real fear can achieve.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The deciding factor

Do you ever wonder who decides things? General, omniscient things I mean, not whether Mariah Carey is interesting enough to be the cover story of a Sunday supp magazine. (I would suggest the correct answer to this is no, but evidence would prove otherwise.) Who decided the bus routes, the national fear of spiders, that Brussel sprouts are only eaten at Christmas? Under duress?

Maybe it’s an eldest child thing, but decision-making is close to my heart, and I consider myself pretty good at it on the whole. I’m certainly prolific. I can decide all day, sometimes for fun, sometimes to avoid actual activity, sometimes to annoy my family, and occasionally to progress our lives in some meaningful way. But mainly it goes unnoticed I think. When people expect you to be decisive, it becomes a bit lost as a skill.

I’m trying to put some positive ticks on my CV of self-belief and inner confidence at the moment (at the moment, right…) and I think, as long as it doesn’t overflow into bossiness, that being decisive is a good trait. Some people are professionals, social and cultural deciders – those people who commit to a book, or a TV show, or a new season’s colour, and their decision is the tipping point for that thing becoming universally acclaimed. It’s not just that they have personal success in their particular field, it’s that their mind is revered for being made-up well. I’d like to give you some examples, but Simon Cowell is as far as my January mind will take me. He surely has the Deciding Factor.

January is a hard month for being decisive. Your general will to live is a little deflated, your alcohol, sugar and caffeine intake dangerously low and shaky, rookie decisions easy to fall into. TV adverts are my downfall. Everything looks like an essential purchase when you’re cold, hungry and skint. I’d be happy to pay a small premium to be allowed to watch Channel 4 without adverts in January.

Anyway, I think I’m going to have to make a really difficult life-work balance decision soon, and it’s making me feel like a complete beginner in the game. If God had meant us to be indecisive and just try and have it all, why did he bother to invent guilt? Or was that Eve? Is that the truth about original sin – the temptation bit is easy to live with, but the guilt of having made the wrong decision is crushing.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Time poor, intentions waning

Novelists have always been at the top of the achievement ladder for me. Admittedly they might not be as good at saving lives as medics, or preventing world wars as teachers but, aside from performing a solo flute concerto at the Albert Hall or having several diplomatic languages under my belt, they have done the one thing I’d most like to do before I die. Or maybe even reach 40.

Like anyone who has ever put a pen to paper for purposes of enjoyment rather than to compose a shopping list, I am slightly convinced, in the dark hours of the night, that I could one day be sipping champagne listening in anticipation to the Booker prize results from a table two metres from the prize podium. The problem with my particular novel is that it has no content. None whatsoever. I am an efficient jobbing writer – give me a brief and I’ll research, interview, type and file. Coming up with ideas isn’t my forte. Which is one of the reasons I started this blog – to try and squeeze some self-initiated creativity out of my stoney imagination. And even that was someone else’s idea to be honest.

The thing is that there isn’t enough time in the day to commit to novel writing. And with statements like that it’s easy to see why I call myself unimaginative. But in my January ideal, the things I am hoping to add to my meagre 24-hour days are already a bit over-excited. I’m supposed to be running in the morning before anyone else gets up to make up for the classes I’m missing now I’m back in the office; getting to an office for all the hours the kids are entertained with Jolly Phonics and Greek gods; spending more quality time with the children when they’re not in state childcare; ensuring my vast musical knowledge is passed onto my daughter by hovering menacingly outside the study during her daily cello practise; trying to stop the little ones breaking up all the fantastic Lego creations made by the adults over the holidays, and of course find all that extra time to plan how best to not eat or drink anything that will take no time at all to lodge itself permanently to my hips.

And, the most annoying thing is that I’ve started to stay awake at night trying to work out how to collect extra hours for the day – which would be the perfect answer to everything if I were at all productive at 3am. Sadly I’m not, in the least. However, my half-awake dreams are getting more and more fabulous and action-packed, so maybe a best-selling series of teen novels about an anxty 30-something female super hero who never actually makes it to the gym but can kill literally hours of valuable time fretting about the optimum running order of her to-do list will be a highly-acclaimed success.

Monday, 4 January 2010

I am resolved

We all know the children are our future. We'll treat them well and let them lead the way. I can't claim to believe that they are all possessed with inner beauty, but you get the gag. And so it is with a calmness and serenity (that anyone who's met me for more than one glass of wine will probably not recognise) that I passed this New Year's Eve with a newly digested understanding that it's not all about me anymore. That the small people in my life need increasingly more of my energy than it takes to move their possessions from one room to another. But also that getting the balance between supporting and dictating is a delicate one, and probably one I’m going to be focusing on for a few years’ worth of resolutions to come.

My particular style of dictatorship centres on control of the small things. By literally never being able to let an issue drop, never not getting the last word, I have been sub-consciously instructing my daughter in the art of debate since she lay gurgling on her changing mat. We can now entertain ourselves for hours by hurling asides up and down the stairs in a highly-skilled attempt to be the one who will get the final say over which jumper she will wear today, or other pressing matters. Being persistently right in every small nurturing issue is a burden I can live with – being challenged on the correct ply of jumper is a fight I am up to.

I think there is a credible gender distinction suggestion to be made here. I think women know full well that later in life their grown-up children are going to remember the basic mechanics of their childhood – good and bad – in terms of what mum did. Dad's part will be different in every family, and carry huge value no doubt, but mum's influence will have saturated to the psycho-analytical level. By focusing on the small things – the importance of never leaving the house without three layers; always putting tops on felt-tip pens – you can go some way to avoiding any memorable involvement in more critical character-building decisions that your 30-something offspring will doubtless throw back in your face. If we hold to the assumption that dads don’t do detail, or concern themselves too much with consequence, then when the issue at hand is not how to read the Sunday papers uninterrupted, it might as well be whether four is too young for a hotmail account. Or an iPhone.

And so the small issues are mine. However, after four festive days in a remote cottage in Dorset with more than enough arguments over which width of scarf is most suitable for the sub-zero temperatures, I realise that somewhere between suggestion and instruction is a valuable mediation area. And at the heart of my new clarity is the understanding that there is a clear distinction between self-awareness and self-obsession. I am self-aware enough to know that a tendency towards self-obsession is dangerous. Worrying about trying to achieve the perfect level of motherhood has become in danger of taking over my life. Letting go of control over irrelevant issues in my children’s lives is also about preparing for the fact that one day I won’t be the relevant or most influential person in their adult lives. Rightly so.

The result of all this slightly muddled sense of inappropriately focused attention was that for the first time ever I couldn't think of a resolution that I could articulate without feeling a bit embarrassed. A whole glossy magazine’s worth of disappointing female failings could be lumped into a general 'try really hard to be better' resolution, but I couldn't admit that to my 9-year-old when she asked for fear of being hideously responsible for her first dose of emotional anxiety or physical self loathing. Instead, I told her I was going to try and be less controlling, and less concerned with the things I couldn’t control. Breathe, and, relax.