Sunday, December 28, 2014

But is it tennis?

Yesterday I helped save a Russian baby from drowning. It was the case of being at the right place at the right time - in this instance inside of the pool right by the edge as this small child in a swim nappy and T-shirt confidently walked up to the water's edge and stepped in. At first I thought perhaps he was one of those toddler prodigy swimmers - the kinds you see on YouTube where they've been taught how to swim from birth. But as he almost immediately began to sink like a stone I reckoned it was just a case of over confidence on his part and being mesmerised by how inviting the water looked. I grabbed him by the arm and lifted him to the surface as his mother simultaneously rushed over and fished him out. She smacked him on the bottom and frog marched him back to their sun lounger. I was not acknowledged for my part in the rescue. I think she was in shock from what might have happened and maybe a little bit embarrassed that it had happened in the first place under her watch. Poor kid - I could tell his ego had been bruised.

The day before that I encountered Djokovic, his coach Boris Becker and the Ukrainian player Alexandr Dolgopolov training at the courts at the hotel we are staying in. After my own game, I sat on the bench by their court and watched them play for an hour or so and listened in on their conversation - the upcoming Australian open, racing fast cars, the usual stuff incredibly talented and rich young men talk about I suppose. It was genuinely fascinating watching how these world class players train: Both had their coaches on the courts who stood in the corners with tennis rackets and hit the balls that had gone amiss back in. Then there were two other men (similarly armed with rackets) and then there was a ball man probably provided by the hotel. So all in all seven people on the court at a given time.

Djokovic is tall and lean and handsome. He doesn't swear when he messes up a shot, not that there are many that he messes up, and he hits long, hard and just over the net. And interestingly his backhands are both single handed and double handed. Boris Becker was virtually unrecognisable. A lot of sports figures grow old gracefully and land up looking lean, fit and tanned and sort of handsome in an ageing Gary Player kind of way. Becker, after having  double hip surgery and more recently ankle surgery, kind of limps around and looks a lot older than his 47 years. I imagine the pain leading up to the surgery and then during recovery has a way of etching itself on your features. 

When I play tennis, and I use the term very loosely given present company in the previous paragraph, I am ill tempered and an incredibly sore loser. If, during my regular life, I try and maintain a sense of calm, on the courts all my inner rage is unleashed. My husband tries to make small talk or extend some affection and this is usually met with: "Don't touch me, don't even talk to me." And some balls are deliberately aimed at vulnerable parts of his body. People who don't know us from outside of this environment would wonder why anyone would want to be with such a vicious sore loser, not to mention the expletives that exit my mouth. 

A lot of this stems back to playing tennis with my sister when I was a child. My sister, who is two and a half years older than me, got private tennis lessons. I played a bit at school, but was never really that good at it. My sister took it very seriously, and we would sometimes play in our backyard on the paved driveway. She would be Christ Evert Lloyd (because she was the attractive one) and I had to be Martina Navratilova. Obviously Navratilova was a better player, but her mannishness didn't appeal to either of us. And because my sister was stronger, getting lessons, and a better player, she also always won. It did not bode well for our already shaky relationship.

I guess a lot of my present day tennis rage is a kind emotional flashback situation from those days; the almost psychotic competitive feelings I get the minute I step on the court never fail to surprise me. So when I turned 39 I decided to dispense with the frustration of never really knowing if I was just a bad player or maybe I just needed to learn how to play properly, and decided to get lessons. These days I get a lesson once a week with an incredibly nice and talented coach called Michael. Michael is almost stereotypically handsome; that is, when you think of a tennis pro you think of them as being tanned, lean, with slightly curly hair beneath the cap, and handsome. Michael is all of these. He tells me I am very tense on the court (he doesn't know about the flashback rage), I need to relax, and I need to play more in between lessons. My friend, who also trains with Michael, and I have decided to play once a week together, although this decision was made as the temperatures in London started to plummet to around 5 degrees. We decided to take it up again in March when things start to warm up. However this holiday a new friend gave me that rare as gold tip off as to the whereabouts of an indoor tennis court not too far from my house, so I can now play year round without risking pneumonia. 

Another decision I have made, in addition to improving my tennis game, is to lose weight. I was inspired by how lean Djokovic is. Now obviously it's insanity to compare oneself to a world class tennis player given he spends his life in training or playing in tournaments. But he also moved with such ease, and I don't. I am horribly unfit, or at least, too unfit to play as well as I would like. And the shorts of my skorts ride up because my thighs have gotten even wobblier than they were before. Also we had our Christmas family photo taken at lunch this year. I like comparative sorts of things and looked at the photo we had taken last year before realising that I can no longer fit into the dress I wore then, and haven't for quite some time.

I hate dieting. I find it boring and tedious and people who constantly talk about dieting are boring and tedious too. No one wants to hear about how many calories you consume or how many you managed to burn off  - it's genuinely of no interest to any one else, unless of course you are a member of an online forum or club that concerns itself with such things. Also it strikes me as slapping good fortune in the face when you think about how many people are struggling to put food on the table in the first place and there I might be saying: "Oh no, I think I'm going to have to give up on the daily de-caff soya lattes because that soya milk is not as fat free as you think!" First world problems and all that.

Anyway, a really good friend of mine who is amazing for many reasons, but mostly because she is the voice of reason in the face of my neurosis, said to me a few months back that people who regret becoming parents often do so because they see it as losing something rather than gaining it. We were talking about a couple of people we knew that had said something to the effect of: "I love my children, but if I knew then how much it would change my life, I don't think I would do it again." I think the same can be said for wanting to lose excess weight: If you see it as having to give up all the things you enjoy to attain it, it's probably going to be an awfully torturous, resentful, and ultimately unsustainable business. Whereas if you look at it as gaining better health, being fitter, feeling better emotionally, and an opportunity to buy some nice new (smaller) clothes, then maybe there's something to be gained by it.

"But we are intellectuals," I complain to my friend at dinner over sushi. "I mean -  I write, I paint, I concern myself with world events, what bloody difference does it make to what is going on in Syria if I am a size 8 as opposed to a size 10, er I mean 12?" This is how it always is with me and why I often sabotage my weight loss / get fit attempts - I veer between wanting to be leaner and thinking it's a case of pointless narcissism in the face of serious stuff. And I never, ever, talk about this kind of thing in front of my children because I don't want them equating their value or worth to their body shape. "Well", my friend replies calmly, "You are right, these things are not important in the context of what you mention, but personally I have a certain aesthetic and I enjoy feeling good about myself and being attractive to my husband too. Maybe that's not acceptable to some people but it's not about what other people think, it's about what is important to you."

Which leads me to today - I swam with the kids and a friend of ours that is also here on holiday looks over from his lounger and says: "Now there's a first!" And I was too embarrassed to tell him that I often wait until people I know are not around to swim with my kids because I am shy of how I look in a bathing suit. I'd rather he thought of me as an uninvolved parent than seeing all my wobbly bits. Which is a very sad admission on my part. I don't look at other people around the pool and judge how they look, and I was genuinely angry when years ago Cherie Blair was pictured on holiday and journalists, a couple of which were women! made fun of how voluptuous she looked in her bathing suit. As if she had committed some terrible crime by daring to wear a bathing suit and have fun with her children on what was a private holiday, just because she wasn't model thin. Heaven forbid she doesn't hate herself as we hate ourselves right?

It's true that sometimes I do look at exceptionally hairy men around the pool and then I tell my husband that they may in fact be werewolves and when there is a full moon he will have to fight them off. And he looks at me in that way he does (with long suffering love and affection and slight concern for my sanity) and says, "Uh-huh." Likewise on the aeroplane over to our holiday I show him this image of Sam Faiers and say: "Wow, now that's a great bikini body, don't you think?" and he points to a more curvy woman and says he prefers that look. Which is probably why he was attracted to me in the first place, because I am a lot curvier than the curvy woman he pointed to. God bless him and people like him. I wish I shared his aesthetic, but no matter how hard I try, Linda Hamilton's figure in Terminator II became an iconic 'how one should look' mental imprint for me at what was probably an important body image developmental age. And bizarrely, because I should know better, it remains the figure I aspire to and will probably never achieve. I guess it could be worse, it could have been Barbie I wanted to look like, and then, like the very thin Russian woman who is also poolside, I might have to have my lower ribs removed.


I'm going to start on cutting out the wine during the week, go easy on the carbs at night, and in addition to tennis, try and get 20 minutes of cardio in a few times a week. That doesn't sound too bad, does it?  And on days that I fail to do any of the above and partake in my 4pm tea, biscuit and stroking the cat ritual, I must remind myself of the following: That  it may not be peace in the Middle East, but somewhere in the world there is a small Russian baby with delusions of swimming grandeur, that is still alive in part, thanks to me. Even if I did execute said rescue with my wobbly bits on public display.

Monday, December 22, 2014

All you can eat

Fridays in the Middle East are like Sundays back in England. It's the day of rest, and also, as it turns out, the day that everyone, hotel guests and people living in Dubai alike, descend on the magnificent Al Qasr hotel for the all you can eat (and drink) buffet brunch.  An enormous and famous enterprise spanning three vast interconnecting restaurants and terraces that you are free to wonder between with every kind of cuisine you can imagine: Grilled meat, prawns, sushi, truly exceptional and authentic Indian food, Mexican food, Italian, middle Eastern, puddings of every description, chocolate fountains, candy floss, and so forth and so on. Plus Sangria stations, Mohito Stations, Rum Stations, people walking around endlessly topping up your champagne glass. Accompanied by live music and starting at 12.30 and finishing at 4pm it seats hundreds of people at maximum capacity. 

In the four years that we have visited Dubai, we have attended this buffet on three occasions, and on each occasion I look around at the Bacchanalian excess and decide it's a bad idea. Things like this inspire the inner glutton in people even if you aren't gluttonness by nature. Because it's not inexpensive you find yourself thinking: 'I must get my money's worth!' And if say, like my husband and I, you only go for an hour and half with the kids (beyond that and they start getting bored and running around) and have the equivalent of a starter, single mains, a dessert and two glasses of champagne, it's not great value. I imagine were we not with the children, and say with a group of friends, we could quite easily while away three and a half hours while grazing, talking, and getting mildly lit, as so many of the tables of people appear to do.

Some of the tables, however, don't so much graze as stock pile. And the plates of half eaten food and desert as people greedily go on to the next thing before the food in front of them is finished, always makes me feel deeply ashamed of this kind of wasteful excess even if it is not my own. I often wonder what some of the waiting staff, some of whom are from very poor economical situations back in their home countries, think of such gluttony and decadence.

It reminds me of an occasion where as a teenager I attended a wedding with my parents. My mother, who has a beautiful voice and would sing in the church at weddings, was almost always invited to the receptions along with my father and us children. They were grand and opulent affairs, where the bride and groom seldom knew a good 70 percent of the hundreds of guests because they were friends or business associates of their parents. At one such reception, a rare occasion my father had agreed to accompany us, he unluckily as it turns out, got sat next to the organists's boyfriend. The boyfriend, in contrast to my father's quiet and reserved nature, was an exceedingly loquacious man in his early 20s with lots of product in his hair, very pointy shoes, and a shiny suit that ended at his ankles. He informed my dad that because his girlfriend played the organ, he too got to attend a lot of weddings and the parties thereafter. He relished telling my father that by now he had fine tuned his modus operandi: He would eat and drink as much as he could, go to the toilets and make himself sick, and then return for rounds two and even three. To illustrate this he ensured the waiter brought him not one, but two large bowels of the soup we started with, and beamed at my father. I imagine intellectually my father thought this reminicent of how the Romans behaved at orgies, but instead of interest his face registered suddenly smelling something very unpleasant and he excused himself and risked the dance floor with my mother. "What a truly disgusting young man," my father later told us. "Who does such a thing?" 

On our most recent visit to the Friday brunch at the Al Qasr, a nearby table comprised of two well dressed English couples in maybe their 50s. One of the women kept singing to and haranguing the increasingly wary-looking young man from the Indian Sub-Continent who would gingery approach to fill her glass. I imagine she was telling him not to wonder too far off because her glass would soon need refilling. I felt sorry for him. At one point she had to use the bathroom and needed escorting by her huband because she was unable to stand up alone let alone put one foot in front of the other, unassisted. By five minutes to four as we were about to leave with the children I noticed their table had visisted the Mohito station and had lined up rows of drinks to last them once the free booze had stopped being served.  The last time I recall stacking up on drinks in this way I was in my twenties on a budget and it was nearing the end of happy hour in a bar. 

If you are in Dubai, I'd definitely recommend having the experience of the Friday brunch even if it's just the once, because with the right company I think it can be an incredibly fun afternoon. And seeing that vast array of food so beautifully laid out is quite something. I also remind myself that irrespective of age or budget we all derive pleasure and ascribe value differently, and for some the opportunity to sample so many different kinds of food or perhaps even drink excessively is an afternoon well spent. Even if, like my unfortunate father's dinner companion from so many years ago, some require bulimia in order to achieve it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Notes from a holiday

My son lost his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Leonardo in the sea this week while he was playing with it where the waves break. He was very upset. Back at home that Leonardo is often at the bottom of his toy chest or lying behind his bedroom door sometimes for a week at a time, and he won't even notice. But when we come on holiday, the children are only allowed to bring one or two toys because of space, and therefore these items become extremely valued and special. I appreciate there is a lesson in all of this. I spent 20 minutes wading in as far as I could with waves crashing against me, trying to spot Leonardo - hoping he might float to the surface or be washed up on the shore. I watched children searching for shells, hoping one of them might find Leonardo and hold him up before I'd trot over and say "Actually thank you very much, that belongs to my son!" But eventually I had to admit that he was well and truly gone. I walked back to where the children were sitting and admitted as much, but attempted to add an upbeat spin to it: "Just think what adventures Leonardo might have ahead of him? Who knows where he might wash up right? Perhaps India?" The children weren't buying it and showed me a small pile of sea sand with an ice-cream stick stuck in the middle of it. "This is a funeral mound for Leonardo," my daughter announced. My son nodded solemnly.

I think my children are a lot more at ease with the harsh realities of life than I am.

Growing up, holidays were few and far between. My father was self employed and either couldn't afford to take the time off, or we couldn't afford a hotel. Holiday rentals were mostly rejected by my mother, who unusually for someone in 70s/80s middle class South Africa eschewed the then affordable domestic help. In turning down our suggestions of a holiday flat, she'd protest: "Why would I want to go on a holiday and still have to cook and clean? That's not a holiday. I might as well stay at home where I do that anyway, and not spend the extra money!"

On the few 
occasions we did get her to relent to holiday rentals, my mother would pack her bleach, assorted cleaning materials, sponges and clothes, and we were not allowed to even sit on the edge of a bed without my mother sanitizing the entire place first. That evenings meal of takeaway fish and chips on paper plates (she would not have had a chance to clean all the pots and pans, plates, glasses and cutlery in the kitchen before we were allowed to use them) would inevitably be accompanied by my mother's blow by blow account of how black the toilet bowl had been, or how many times she had had to empty the inferior vacuum cleaner before deeming the carpet acceptable for our bare feet. "How some people live in such filth is beyond me," she'd lament with a look of disgust on her face.  "They have no shame. Can you imagine putting up your house for rent in such a state?" We'd eat our fish and chips quietly and dream of a holiday in a hotel that lived up to my mothers hygienic standards so she could stop cleaning, relax, and do fun things with us. My father's expression said pretty much the same thing.

Holidays with my parents were also incredibly boring. My mother and father would find a spot by the pool or on a grassy patch as one approached the beach ('that blerry sand gets in everywhere'), and would bake themselves like steaks - alternating sides. They had no desire to sight-see, spend any money (my father), or take walks on the beach. My father hated spending money. There is a photo of us children, I think I am six years old, pictured with my father on the beach. We are all eating ice creams. We all look incredibly happy, except my father, who manages to look cross while eating an Eskimo Pie. I remember ahead of that picture being taken that my father was in a bad mood because he had to fork out for the ice creams.

Now that I am an adult myself I appreciate that my parents didn't have much money (a relative term I suppose, especially in South Africa at the time), and that from months, and sometimes years of no holiday, my parents were quite simply exhausted. Their idea of a holiday was quite literally resting, sleeping and doing nothing. Although I also remember evenings playing cards with my father who was an accomplished rummy player and had taught my siblings and I how to play from a very young age. Or visits to the Shark Board to see that day's autopsy and being fascinated by what was found in a shark's stomach, and always a little disappointed that it wasn't a human limb. The occasional treat eating in a nice steak restaurant, or the occasion  I'd suggested to my father he might want to rent a canoe and take me out on the small lake because I found the idea romantic. We got stuck in the first mud filled nook and I had to listen to my father berate me for my fancy bloody ideas as he tried in vain to row us out to open water. I laughed and laughed, much the same way my daughter often laughs at my frustration.

I think what my parents failed to appreciate is just how much we children longed for their attention, their time, and to be doing things with them. Even little things. Our weekends were never spent going to zoos or museums or at play dates the way my children's are, apart from family gatherings on occasion. My parents spent the weekends working around the house. If you weren't working at your job during the week, then on weekends you had to cut the grass, clean the house, do the ironing, fix the light switch, etc etc etc. So on holidays we were desperate to do things with them, and they, understandably wanted to do nothing at all. 

I try and remember this now that I am grown and have my own children. Like my parents, by the time the holiday comes all I want to do is read on my Kindle, drink a glass of wine, and sleep on my lounger. I have no real desire to do anything more strenuous than that, especially the first few days of the holiday which are usually a kind of recuperative period from some or other cold I am recovering from.Or a kind of sleep catch-up time. And like we did with my parents, my own children beg us to swim or play with them, and we inwardly moan but get up and do it, and find it's rather fun actually. My husband is far better at engaging with the children in a physical way than I am and is always up for taking them on walks, for ice creams, or to the water park. I am the parent that enjoys sitting with them on my lap talking and listening to their little stories and plans. Although swimming with them is also one of my pleasures.

Unlike my parents, I avoid the sun at all costs. I spend my days lying in the shade and venture out only wearing a high factor face cream and sun hat. As children we would often burn and our skin would peel. This was considered the sign of a good tan and a holiday well spent. These days it's considered a good way to get skin cancer. But I doubt we knew much about things like that in those days and sometimes I long for the ignorant bliss of childhood as opposed to the neurotic times we live in these days where pretty much everything gives you cancer, or so we are told.

I wish my father was still alive. I am so sad that he doesn't know my lovely husband or my children or me as an adult for that matter. I'd love to take him to some of the places I've been so very fortunate to visit, and say, "It's OK Dad, don't worry about the money, just relax and enjoy yourself. Or likewise take my mother to a nice hotel that she'd declare perfect lovely and sanitary. And then of course I'd guilt my parents into swimming with the children or taking them to the beach so that I could lie on my lounger and sleep.



Thursday, November 06, 2014

A body of work

In this week's issue of Closer magazine, there is an article about a woman who had sex with 50 strangers in the back of a lorry. My first reaction was, '50 people? Who has the energy?' Then, bizarrely (in terms of how one's mind works), I wondered if she owned the lorry, did she live in it, was there a bed in it? Having read the article it turns out that Rebecca is doing a tour around England as part of an adult TV show, and the people she sleeps with are members of the public who have won a competition to have sex with her. Apparently over 2000 people (men, women and couples) applied for the opportunity. Ahead of the liaison in the back of said lorry, they are all stringently checked for STI's. Rebecca says she's a single mother and this, along with her career as a porn actress, affords her the ability to send her children to private school, have a four bed home, and they all go on nice holidays together.  She calls it harmless fun. 

Fair enough. She seems in charge of her vagina and how she uses it. I'd be interested to see what the magazine's readership reaction to this will be in next week's letters section. Most of the time the magazine has articles about people who are about to have their 12th baby and are pictured seated on a large sofa in their council house with their rugby team brood looking defiantly at the camera. The blurb shouts out: 'I'm not ashamed to live off of the state and I'm going to keep having babies!'. That gets people really heated. Rebecca only has two children and she supports herself. Although having featured her vocation in a popular magazine, I wonder how the school run is going to be for her? Personally I'd be keen on a coffee with Rebecca - I have a lot of questions.  
The full article is by Miranda Knox in 
Closer magazine, 1-7 November 2014.

In my life sculpture class we are working on a nude of a woman. The model is Rubenesque in build and has terrific confidence especially considering that yesterday, our first class with her, she had to disrobe in front of effectively a group of strangers on a cold Wednesday morning in a dusty old art room. At the coffee break she told me that posing has given her a lot of confidence and helped her deal with her body issues, 'Especially as I am a larger woman.' She's beautiful, warm and approachable, and I liked her immediately. I told her I don't even walk around naked at home, apart from say between the bathroom and the bedroom, and even then I tend to cover up with a towel or dressing gown. Naked has never really been my thing, and forget going topless on a beach. I am always curious about nudists who say that wearing clothes feels genuinely unnatural for them. For me it is the opposite.

My children are talking about Christmas, a lot. Every commercial on television adds another toy to their list. Every now and then I get a notepad and paper and ask them to tell me what three things they would really love, which is a pointless exercise. They um and ah, start conversing with each other, and then rattle off some plastic crap they saw on a recent You Tube toy review clip or ad break. Last night I told them that when I was a child we never got toys except on our birthday or Christmas, so when I was asked, I knew EXACTLY what I wanted, and even then I wasn't always guaranteed to get the things on my list. For some reason my parents continually overlooked the note, in bold, double underlined, and with stars and hearts around it which read: "The entire Tinkerbell hair and makeup line please."

I've written before about my feelings when it comes to Christmas. This year I'm trying not to be cynical about the occasion. And in truth, having children does make you that much more enthusiastic, and dare I say it, a little excited about the process on their behalf. We put up our tree at the start of December because the television and stores are advertising stuff from October already, so I can only push it as far as the 1st of December before there is a coup d'état in our house. And decorating the tree is a very big deal for the children, although this year we will have to work around our lunatic cat who attacks the belt on my dressing gown in the morning, never mind a tree full of sparkly dangly things. Then there is the obvious lingering guilt about lying to the children, yet again, about the existence of Santa, the toy making sweat shop elves, and the reindeers, and how Santa gets down the chimney. Understandably, my son cannot wrap his head around how a rotund Santa fits down our chimney. "Magic, I respond, it's magic." Not unlike me undertaking that painful and almost impossible feat of engineering that is squeezing myself into a pair of Spanx.

And of course I am guilty of using Santa and presents to extort better behaviour out of my children from about October onwards, which I appreciate is wrong, but I guess it could be worse. As a child I got the back of hand on my backside when I misbehaved - so a bit of extortion is probably OK. I have a sneaking suspicion my daughter who is going to be seven soon, has her suspicions about the whole Santa thing and that it might just be a story, but she's smart enough to go with the flow and milk it.


I showed my Pilates teacher a photo of the internet sensation that is Jen Selter's bottom. This woman has an amazing backside, apparently voted the best bottom in the USA and so famous that it is allegedly making Kim Kardashian very nervous about her own backside being usurped in popularity. I clicked on a few photos of Selter's bottom and showed my teacher: "See this one, look at it here, and this one, isn't that amazing?" I thought that by showing her the pictures I could indicate my desire to have a bottom like that although I don't actually want to do anything particularly strenuous to achieve it. Like so many people these days I'm after the quick fix that doesn't actually exist. My instructor told me that the bottom is a muscle mass and with work one can actually shape it, as Selter evidently has. And as it happens, most of Selter's photos are of her unbelievably shaped derriere in work out clothes at the gym and in the process of exercising. My teacher looked at my excited expectant expression - not unlike someone that is hoping to win a car on the Oprah Winfrey Show - smiled sweetly and said, 'Yeah, well, OK, you can work towards that, although a lot of it is genetic.' Later I reflected on this while eating a ham and cheese sandwich and drinking a cup of tea. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Let it go

I recently saw my in-laws and complimented my father-in-law on how trim he is looking. He assured me he was making an effort in this respect and it was important "not to let one's self go."  I remember my parents using that phrase when I was growing up. "Oh, look, it's Mrs Barnes. Gosh, she's really let herself go, she used to be a great beauty." Or, "Geoff has gained a lot of weight since he stopped the gym - he's let himself go." My mother spoke of people who got married, let themselves go, and got divorced. 

But what did letting oneself go mean? If I thought about the people my parents had pointed out, perhaps it meant steadily getting fatter and fatter? Or going from being a smart dresser to wearing old stretched out sweat pants or tent dresses and not brushing ones hair? Or maybe turning out like the angry woman who worked at Jughead Burgers? I imagined myself being any or all of these things and my husband turning around to me one day and saying: 'You have let yourself go. I am leaving you for a young woman who has not.' It didn't occur to me that people don't just 'let themselves go', it's more a case that life happens. As you get older a myriad of changes take place in your life and within yourself that are far more complex than the loss of a head of hair, a little waistline or the washboard stomach you may have had in your early 20's. For the record I have never had a washboard stomach, so my husband has got nothing to compare my far from washboard stomach to now. Maybe there's something to be said for not setting one's self up.

Now that I am what people refer to as a grown up myself (although I'm not entirely sure what that's supposed to mean or how I'm supposed to be one), I get that letting oneself go implies that somehow you stop holding the law abiding, healthy eating, regular exercising, good citizen shit together and release the inner slob, or sex addict, or over eater, or procrastinator, or disco dancer. That you don't trust yourself to have some kind of internal balance to just get on with life with an equal measure of stuff you ought to do and stuff you actually enjoy doing. The fear being that if for even a minute you let one of the masochistic self control balls drop, all hell is going to break lose. God forbid we stop flossing every night, have that second glass of wine or start smoking again right? The earth will gather its petticoats and climb off of its axis. Or not, as it turns out. Maybe that's the ultimate fuck with you head thought and why we busy ourselves with all this useless stuff in the first place. The truth of the matter is that ultimately, the universe does not care if you take off all your makeup at night or run an extra mile. But that's an entirely different subject for a different time. Gather all ye nihilists ... .

Letting go is a problem for me. I live my life a lot like I ski: shoulders up by my ears, all joints clenched, and feet grimly gripping ski's and in turn the snow. Holding on for dear life and anticipating every worse case scenario. I had an American ski instructor years ago - a lovely man - and he'd sing to me as he skied backwards gracefully to face me: "Let it go, just let your body go." And sometimes, by some small miracle, I could switch off the neurotic inner voice that was telling me that like that Kennedy who died while skiing (backwards trying to catch a football) I too was going to die. Even though I struggled to ski forwards, let alone backwards while doing a sport. And when this happened when I managed to stop worrying and trust what by now my legs and body knew how to do, it was heavenly. Frightening, exhilarating and a relief to pick up speed and feel the wind in my ears and just, well, let it all go. It remains a very physically embodied lesson for me on the importance of living life fully and without fear. 

I read a book a year ago that sold really well - it was Paul McKenna's 'I can make you thin,' aiming to to help people lose weight and keep it off. And when I read it, I thought, 'dear god, how disconnected from ourselves have we become that we actually have to pay someone to tell us what is so obvious?' To summarise it's this:  Eat what you like when you like, but eat only when you are hungry and stop eating when you get full. With some self hypnosis techniques thrown in for good measure. Yup, I can see McKenna sitting back on his leather chair laughing out loud while counting his money. And I imagine even though it seems so obvious and simple his book is a revelation to many and some will even benefit from it. I told a friend about his weight loss theory a few weeks back, and she said to me: "Oh, but I could never have such a relaxed attitude. If I told myself I could eat anything I would eat everything and get very very fat." She almost visibly held her breath as she said this as if she was terrified of just, you know, breathing, never mind eating.

My grandmother spent her life obsessing about food. As a child she was deprived of it due to poverty and as an adult she deprived herself of it in what seemed like a constant stream of diets and breaks from diets. The carrot diet, the mango diet, the all you can eat just out of the oven bread-roll diet. She told me she wanted to fit back into the beautiful dresses and clothes she wore as a younger woman. In the week that she died (she was in her 80s) she was asking my mother to order her pizza and cokes - food she never really ate. I never forgot that and told myself that I didn't want to live my life like that. I didn't want to spend my life depriving myself of things only to be on my death bed regretting it all because of some tragic self imposed life sentence. 

There are people who take vacations where they run with the bulls or go climbing dangerous mountains. Personally that sounds too much like hard work to me, but I get that society and how we live our lives has very much removed us from what makes us feel truly alive - that core sense of survival. We are no longer chasing after or being chased by saber tooth tigers, so we pay a lot of money to climb into a cage and get lowered into the sea to be surrounded by dangerous sharks to remind us that we could be dead at any moment but as it turns out, we aren't. And for a few minutes after, we take a deep breath and as it fills our lungs, we feel exhilarated and thankful for the life we have, and we promise ourselves to live more fully. And much like when a friend or relative dies, we take stock: We promise ourselves to call our family and friends more often. To have the courage to chase after love even with the risk of rejection. To quit the job that is slowly killing us inside and do something that we really love. To feel genuinely proud of our children even if they don't fit into some unrealistic version of the people we thought they/we ought to be. 

In that moment, when we have faced death, it's as though we are exposed the the truth; the very heart of who we are, why we are here, what we want, and what we need. And we feel all of these things in our very being. At least until we are back in the office a few days later and all the usual noise (ours and other people's bullshit) continues and that truth gets drowned out. And all too soon we are back to our disconnected alienated self that needs the internet or news to fill us with its daily dose of fear and tell us what not to eat, what to read, what to believe in, what to do, and how to feel. This is what it has come to.

Then there's perspective. Whenever I feel myself obsessing about my waistline, money, schooling for the children, or the fact that my one glass of wine an evening has now become two, or about the ever mounting garbage in the world and the ever decreasing rain forests, or the fact that there are terrorists at large, I stop and think of people in the world that are struggling to find food for themselves or their families. Or of those that are right now, this minute, fending off rapists and ethnic cleansers and wondering why the rest of the world is not helping more. Or of people who have their passports confiscated and are being forced to work in slave labour conditions. Or people that are disappeared, beaten and killed for their so-called political beliefs. Or people that are forced to leave their small children and travel to a different country so they can provide. Do you think these people are standing in supermarkets worrying about the benefits of organic versus free range chicken or how many minutes on the Stair Master it will take to burn off a cappuccino? Or whether or not their kids spend too much time on the iPad? My god, our priorities have become so fucked up.

Something I also came to realise soon after having kids was that my husband and I spent and continue to spend a lot of time arranging play time, play dates or holidays with play facilities for our children, and yet at some point in our lives play has failed to be a priority.  If it's such a fundamentally important part of a child's development and happiness, when does that stop for us, and why should it? I'm not talking about watching TV or getting drunk or high - although I appreciate the escapist merits of these things. I mean, actively engaging in an activity not because you have to, or ought to, but because you enjoy it. That it challenges you and engages you and you experience pleasure and frustration and exhilaration and excitement while doing it. Where you even feel a little bit guilty because for once in your life you are doing something that is fun and by choice and not because you are getting paid to do it or because you were told to do it. 

So, why don't we eat food that we enjoy, and eat when we are hungry instead of starving ourselves? Walk because it's good to feel the air on our faces and not have to sit in traffic, as opposed to doing so because of the calorie burning deficits? Go out on week nights? Have an occasional cigarette if we want one? Take a day off of work occasionally and go to the movies on our own instead of missing films because our partner or friends aren't interested in watching them? Dance or play tennis or run because we like to not just because we're told we need regular cardio? Turn off the bloody TV and make love instead? When did simple living become so complicated? And why are we so afraid to live our lives without an internal policeman who's voice is not our own?

In my search to have a more meaningful existence and I suppose deal with anxiety and sadness in a non medicated way, I've made a conscious effort to just let it go a bit and start living more. Like everyone else this doesn't come easy. Your parents tell you what to do, you are told what to do at school, and later at work. And so it's hard to switch that all off and trust in yourself to live your life in a way that is true and meaningful to you and has nothing to do with other people's opinions. I'm not about to switch to caffeinated coffee, wear a bikini without a coverup or actually read the Conservative door drops before chucking them in the recycling box. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. But these days my jeans are a little tighter and I don't quite fit into the Hervé Léger style dresses I have and which I had to practically starve myself to fit into in the first place despite wearing Spanx! I'm tired of depriving myself and struggling with something which should be a simple and natural act - you know, eating to survive right?

And what a relief to go out and not have to sit up poker straight and suck in one's gut all evening because of a fashionable outfit that was designed by a sadist, with admittedly nice taste. And to enjoy food. Bliss. I goof around more with the kids with stuff that they want to do - as opposed to just the stuff that's interesting or convenient for me. So we do the wrestle mania-type stuff or pretend we are wolves and I find I enjoy it too. It's fun to be silly. I use my spare time to paint or do this, write, because it makes me happy and it's my thing. Also I am very fortunate to derive a lot of love and support from my family and my parter, which I genuinely appreciate is a gift and something I do not take for granted. And I'm trying not to ruminate on things that worry me or make me unhappy - so not too much on the news sites, never the crappy Daily Mail, and not too much FB. And occasionally, I'll have a wonderfully decadent sugar filled cookie and a cup of tea and sit with my cat on my lap, and this simple thing will feel like a small slice of heaven. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Et tu, Brute?

Our eyes locked as we were introduced, and when we shook hands and smiled at each other I felt a little buzz. I didn't mean for it to happen, I honestly didn't. But then we started talking and laughing and getting along like a house on fire. And very soon we were meeting up for coffee, and then a drink, and then, inevitably, we found ourselves in that most compromising and illicit of situations - a night in the 151.  And then all hell broke loose.

Let's call her Olivia. Olivia and I were introduced by a mutual friend who brought her along to my husband's birthday party - we like to say she crashed it, only because she's the kind of person who would never crash a party. Olivia was fairly new to London socially and back in those days my husband and I went out a lot, both together and separately - life before kids - and were happy to meet new people. Olivia and I soon started meeting along with the person who introduced us, let's call her Mary. The three of us had a great time together, but Mary had an even busier social life, and soon it was just the two of us meeting up, although, and this is relevant: Mary was always invited.

As it happens with most good relationships, the more time you spend together, the more time you want to spend together, and in the case with Olivia, I soon grew to love her and she became one of my closest friends. Despite coming from entirely different backgrounds and not always having an enormous amount in common, there was an attraction and a joy in each other's company that perhaps emanated from a fascination with each other's differences. But also there was and is a shared love and enjoyment of many things and probably mutual values that are difficult to articulate here, but certainly things that have sustained our friendship. 

My growing friendship with Olivia contributed towards the eventual disintegration of her relationship with Mary. And as things took on a bitter downward spiral between them, I did reflect as to whether or not I had somehow contributed towards this dynamic. Could I have done something differently? Not continued to see Olivia? Should I have made a choice between them? I felt absurd even thinking about such things, but it also almost felt that it was expected of me. I subsequently maintained my friendship with both, which was probably difficult for each of them. I like to think even in the briefest of descriptions here, the organic nature of relationships and how they develop hopefully goes some way to illustrating that you cannot reduce human relations, how they form and how they break, to such a crude sentiment as 'stealing a friend'. 

Some time later I suppose you can say I was on the receiving end of all of this. A person I introduced to my group of girlfriends decided that I was too bourgeois, self possessed, boring, lacking in ambition, obtuse, trivial, (I'm guessing here because I never did get the courtesy of a concise reason) dumped me as a friend. In the run up to being dumped I remember a particular evening where I had to endure this person making it very clear that she was bored and resentful in my company. There's something very menacing and heart breaking when you come to realise that someone you consider to be a friend actually resents you. I think I have some idea of what Caesar must have felt like. Bloody Brutus. 

After getting pregnant with my first child, I didn't hear from her again until some years later when we were both invited to the same function. Nervous ahead of what I imagined to be an awkward encounter, I sent a message to her extending an olive branch and was told via text that as far as she was concerned we had nothing in common and she had no interest in my friendship. I don't recall offering my friendship but it was more along the lines of: 'If we are both going to be at this function I'd like it to be cordial and friendly, and I hope life is treating you well.' But her acerbic unfeeling response was a reminder that by not having her in my life in the intervening years, I had in fact lost nothing. 


And while I was not worthy of her friendship, apparently some of the people I had introduced her to, for a while at least, were. I'd be lying if I said that it didn't upset me that they continued to be friends with someone who had behaved in such a hurtful manner towards me, and that I didn't hope for better judgment on their part. But I reminded myself that I didn't have any right to dictate who my friends were friends with, and maybe she was a different person with them, and maybe I had contributed to the breakdown in that relationship too. And as long as she wasn't poisoning my name to my friends, it wasn't my business. Recently a mutual friend told me their friendship had fizzled as they found her far too self centred. And yes, that did give me a small degree of satisfaction. Horrible to admit, and probably juvenile on my part, but I think all of us feel somewhat vindicated when someone other than us has an opinion that we might otherwise have thought ours only. That perhaps outside of us and our projections sometimes a person just is, objectively speaking, a bit of a shit.

In subsequent years the people I see and socialise with has greatly reduced because I have children and I get a night out a week, maybe, and that's usually with my husband and we have to get a sitter. I know I need to get out more independently because it sure beats the hell out of being passed out on the sofa by 8.30pm in stretch pants with the kids still running around when they should be in bed. But more positively, I'm at a point in my life now where I know who my friends are, and I am confident with that. There is also no way in hell I  would put up with someone's bad behaviour on a night out. Maybe it comes from being a parent to small children, but your bullshit tolerance dramatically reduces. If someone was behaving like a brat I'd get my purse and leave. Life is too short, as is my free time, and I don't want to spend it with someone who doesn't want to spend it with me. What's the point? 

Some of the mothers I am friends with sometimes get together for lunches or dinners or a playdate and I am not always invited, and it's fine. Likewise I cannot always include all of them in a single sitting and I see them separately. I like to think that if someone has a problem with me they will tell me, and we see each other when we can and we get on with our lives. Some of my friends live in other countries and we occasionally talk via Skype, email or on the phone. Sometimes we don't talk for months. They have whole new lives outside of me with a whole new circle of friends - people they shop with, people they have dinner and drinks with, people they confide in. I am no longer their best friend any more. And again, that's genuinely OK with me. How could it not be? How could you not wish the people you love anything but good friends and support in their lives, especially when you are not there to provide it? What I know is that when we are together, in whatever capacity, we meet, and in that moment, it's as though no time has passed at all. Because good friendship endures in this way.

Certainly I know friends that are still part of a wider social circuit that feel the brunt of so-called friend stealers. People who have an almost ambitious and ruthless attitude to collecting people and intentionally excluding the person that introduced them. My reaction to this is that it says more about them than it does about you. Basically they are still behaving as though they were in junior school, and lest we forget, kids can be cruel right? I would also like to think that people who were genuine friends of mine would see through this and not participate. Good friends don't simply dump you in favour of the next best thing, and if they do, well, they aint your friend.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Smashing tofu in bad guys faces

This week we were on the way to my mother's apartment with takeout Chinese food. She has recently had foot surgery and is stuck indoors so we thought we'd treat her to lunch. So I say to my 4-year-old son: "Guess what, I got that deep friend tofu you really like."
My son: "Actually I hate tofu. If there was a bad guy I'd smash that tofu in his face."
Me: "Er... ok then."

What is it with small boys and:
Bad guys?
Smashing things?
Smashing things in people's faces?

'Hating' things

A week earlier we had had the same dish and he'd had seconds and thirds.

It reminds me of our rescue cat, who is probably a year or so older than my son, although approaching middle age in cat years, and equally inconsistent. We got a cat flap and I spent a couple of weeks coaxing her to it, holding it open, and letting her out of it. I thought things were going swimmingly in the direction of step 2 which was getting her to use it independently. The next week she absolutely refused, point blank, refused to exit that way, no matter what I did, what snacks I got etc. So I had to let her out of the front door again, which is a pain, especially when she wakes us up at 4am by scratching on our bedroom curtains to alert us to the fact that she needs to go out to pee, mouse, or terrorise the half-asleep birds. She's intelligent enough to know that the sound of her attempting to tear up the new curtains can rip me out of even a deep sleep, but stubbornly refuses to use the cat flap. I am getting desperate enough to hire a cat trainer to come in and help with the problem. 

My daughter is about to turn 7 and wants a disco party. "Not a fairy entertainer Mom, not that sort of thing for little children - a proper disco party." I remember when my daughter was mad about fairies and we did the fairy entertainer thing and attended many fairy parties and had fairy tea sets, wings and dresses. I imagine she would still love it if she were to attend a party of this kind, but she was rather emphatic about what she wanted for her own party this year. It's strange, wonderful, and a little scary watching how your children slowly start to grow up. And so much of it feels very independent of me in terms of what I encourage or expose them to which is a reminder of the influence of things outside of the home too.

Fortunately (so far so good) this is not about an interest in boys - it's still all about the girlfriends, dancing with them, what outfits they are going to wear, and some One Direction songs she likes. Oh and a disco ball, apparently there has to be a disco ball. There was also a request for a chocolate fountain but I don't want to get sued by the venue for clean up bills after.

I'm watching a new TV series on Amazon Prime called Transparent. It's about a father who comes out to his adult children as a transexual. It's such good TV. While the father's coming out is the central premise of the story it's also about each of the children, the mother, their relationships with each other and the people in their lives. I find it refreshing to see another family's quirkiness and dysfunctional relationships with each other.

Everyone that I know has told me that their family is nuts. Some of the stories people tell me, I think to myself, 'Jeez, and I thought my family was crazy, but that's a whole new kind of crazy.' And yet all of these people, at least on the surface, seem fine and (mostly) functional and go about their businesses. It's also a reminder to all of us parents to young children that it's OK that sometimes we get it wrong, sometimes our children see us angry or making mistakes, or flawed, because life isn't always going to be perfect when they leave the nest. And learning about conflict and mistakes and humanity at home in a safe environment is preferable to being tossed into the big bad world and having to learn it there with people who are not always going to be loving and forgiving. I don't even want to think of my kids out there in the world without me holding their hand, but I suppose one gets incrementally prepared for these things, a lot like the forthcoming disco party that is almost upon me.