Monday, June 15, 2015

Sizing up

"I think maybe it's not such a bad thing that you are overweight. It means boys won't be interested and you can concentrate on your studies."

I was 17-years-old when my father said this to me. He said it casually, as though he were thinking out loud.  I wasn't shocked or surprised - a little humiliated and hurt yes. But this is how my family talked about weight and appearances: in a matter of fact cause and effect sort of way, and it had been that way since I could remember.

My extended family were at it too. Whenever you saw them, there'd be a comment on how you looked - if you had gained or lost weight, how you wore your hair, what you were wearing. Lunches at my mother's family's house were tremendously anxiety provoking to me as a teenager because my appearance was open for public discussion and opinion, whether I liked it or not.

And it wasn't just my family either. As a teenager I'd visit my brother's wife's parents house, and my sister-in-law's father would comment: 'You're getting a bit chubby hey?" And his wife, a petite redheaded woman who I adored, would admonish him. "Don't love, girls at this age are very sensitive." I'd smile awkwardly as though I was in on the joke, and inwardly I wanted the floor to open and swallow me up.  

Rewind a few years before the 17-year-old fat shaming incident with my father: I am little and sitting at the table with my family.  My father is seated at the head of the table and is threatening my siblings and I with a spanking if we don't eat our food. "You are not leaving this table until you eat every last thing." I don't, and after everyone goes off to watch TV, I'm left behind at the table as my food slowly develops rigor mortis. Sometimes my brother comes into the kitchen for a snack (he is always hungry), and I bribe him to eat my now ice cold food with whatever sweets I've managed to save up. The only thing I genuinely enjoy and eat readily (apart from sweets) is marmalade on toast. I start developing white spots all over my body, so my mother takes me to the doctor. Sitting in his consulting room, a cigarette smouldering in his large fingers, he advises my mother and me that I have a deficiency, and looking me straight in the eye informs me that if I don't start eating I am going to die. I am about seven years old.

In his 30s my father used to go to the gym almost every evening after work. He'd come home with a pocketful of peppermints for us from the gym's reception. Occasionally he'd enter amateur body building competitions and one of the best things that ever happened to him was meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was Mr Universe at the time) who was a judge at a competition he participated in in South Africa . My father was handsome and in great physical shape. He was also naturally slender and I imagine the bodybuilding was a way of bulking up and feeling bigger and stronger - a form of compensation for his slender frame. 

My grandmother, my mother's mother,  and my aunt (my mother's sister) were always on some kind of diet - the mango diet, the carrot diet (my grandmother's hands started turning yellowy/orange), the watermelon diet. My own mother never dieted but she maintained her slender frame with portion control and is still to this day the sort of person who never sits still. At family lunches the women in my family would stand around in the kitchen with their hands on their hips comparing diet notes, and complimenting whoever happened to have lost a lot of weight recently. 

I was a slender child but I was also very active. Never particularly good at sports, I participated irrespective: Netball, softball, occasionally some tennis, the requisite school athletics. However when I went to high school I stopped doing sports because the school was a long way from home. I chose the drama club as my after school activity of choice, which was once a week, and a lot less hassle for my mother who had to play taxi. With the advent of puberty I started eating a lot more, and along with very little to no exercise, I started gaining weight as most young girls do. My sister and I joined a gym, and when I was around 14-years-old, worrying about getting fat,  I put myself on a diet and started running around the block each day after school. I had just started menstruating and it stopped because my weight dropped to around 41kgs. Everyone said I looked great.

At 17 my father died suddenly and I started eating and also drinking heavily when I'd go out with my friends on the weekends. I'd see people at school the following week and they'd tell me they'd seen me at this or that club and I had no memory of it. I look back on it now and it's obvious that it was a way of dealing with my grief and the many unresolved issues I had with my father. But even though he had passed, my father was right -  I had very little to no interest from boys. And compared to my friends who were all so enviably slender, I felt huge. My diaries from that time are miserable tortured entires of my weight, how much I hated how I looked, and endless lists of what I had eaten on any given day. Not long after this I left home for university, and the eating and drinking continued and very soon I weighed around 75kgs or 165 pounds. At 1.54cm tall it was a lot of weight on my small frame.

On returning home from my first term at university, my mother took one look at me and her face fell. I overheard her on the phone to my grandmother talking about how fat I'd become and she was truly devastated. I imagined had she discovered I had a drug problem it would have been preferable - anything but being fat. Thereafter jokes at my expense flowed: Referring to me and my tall slender first year boyfriend as Laurel and Hardy or Little and Large, or saying she was amazed my bicycle seat was even remotely visible when I used it. She thought these jokes were hilarious. Making fun of people who were overweight or skinny or different was so commonplace in my family that it wouldn't even have occurred to her that she was being hurtful. If you didn't want to be on the receiving end - it was simple: lose the weight and get your act together.

A few months ago I was at breakfast with my friend and her mother. Her mother told me that her daughter had gotten ill as a teenager and as a result of medication and hormones had gained a lot of weight over a relatively short period of time. Not realising how much her body shape had changed, she continued to dress as she had before - and a lot of the clothes were too short, too tight, and not right for her figure. "But I didn't want to dent her confidence or make her feel that I didn't love her for who she was, so I didn't say anything - I just let her get on with it," she said. My friend leaned in to her mother and smiled lovingly. I nodded my head thinking back to my own very different experience at that age.

After leaving university I moved in with my older brother for a while. He begged and pleaded with me to join a gym with him because he didn't want to go alone. For all I know this was his way of telling me I needed to get healthy and lose weight, but he never said that to me, he never made me feel bad about how I looked. I arrived and my initial gym weigh-in and physical assessment reeking of cigarette smoke and beer following a social function at the Taiwanese trade magazine I worked on. And so, begrudgingly, I agreed to join Golds Gym with my brother. Almost a year of going to the gym every day ahead of work later, I lost a total of 25kgs or 55 pounds. I recall going to buy a jacket with my mother and sister and asking the sales person for a large and she looked at me and said: "No no, my dear, you are a small." It was a whole new world.

After moving to the UK in my early 20s I lived in a bedsit for a while and gained a lot of weight once again. I was very lonely, didn't have much of a social life, certainly didn't attend a gym, and on the weekends I would spend most of my time in my room watching Sunset Beach omnibuses and eating take out and ice-cream. As the months passed and I started establishing a life for myself, making friends and having relationships, the weight came off again and apart from pregnancy weight, I've not had a weight problem in that same way since.

I recently read a fascinating article on the nature of addiction in the Huffington Post by Johann Hari, this bit really got my attention:


"If you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: "Drugs. Duh." It's not difficult to grasp. I thought I had seen it in my own life. We can all explain it. Imagine if you and I and the next twenty people to pass us on the street take a really potent drug for twenty days. There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That's what addiction means.One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments -- ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.
The advert explains: "Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It's called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you."
But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexandernoticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn't know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.
 
The rats with good lives didn't like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did." Continue reading the article here.

How many of us see someone who is overweight and think only that that person is lazy, that they are hooked on rubbish and overeating, and that they don't care to exercise? Very few people stop and wonder what that person's life is like: Are they lonely? Have they had something traumatic happen to them? Are they in a destructive relationship? Are they facing hardships? Are they incredibly bored at work and under-stimulated? Are their primary relationships with their parents unhealthy? Do they feel alone and unloved?

For me the relationship between loneliness and unhappiness is directly linked to my weight and health. If I look back at the times in my life I have been very overweight - those were periods I was most unhappy or lonely. And I doubt I'm alone.

I was on holiday in December ahead of my 40th birthday and I started to have this panic about turning 40 and going on a beach holiday with my husband. And the fact that I don't have a bikini body (whatever the hell that is), and that I have cellulite, and that my stomach isn't flat, and my thighs meet and form these bulges on the sides that even industrial strength Spanx struggle to tame. And that a lot of relationships are failing around me and men are leaving their wives and young families for younger, slimmer models. And even though I was able to see the absurdity of these thoughts (and the inherent sexism and the fact this this kind of thinking was insulting to my husband), I was still irrationally panicked by them. So I decided that I must have a cross trainer, I absolutely must - my future happiness and my marriage depended on it.

So I hired one, and in three months I used it four times. It sat in my art room amongst all my paintings, my computer, and my books, and I'd walk in in the morning and I'd resent it. It was a constant reminder of the fact that I wasn't using it: so therefore it was a constant reminder to me that I was lazy, didn't have willpower, was fat, couldn't possibly be found attractive or lovable. Basically like my father's voice, or those historic lunches with my family coming back to haunt me each morning.

The day I called the guys and they came and collected the cross trainer, it was like an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt like dancing a jig and singing "Ding Dong the witch is dead." Now while I write this I appreciate that for people who enjoy the gym and their running and their exercise classes, this sounds absolutely absurd. But you have to understand that a lot of these simple healthy occupations have very negative associations for me  - they exist solely to remind me that as I am, I am not good enough. This genuinely taints my relationship with exercise and diet in a way that it probably shouldn't.

My current level of activity includes a 25 minute walk most mornings, I do pilates once a week and play tennis once week, I refuse to see or call any of this exercise. Such is my resentment of the concept of exercise for exercise's sake (the gym makes me think of a hamster on a wheel). So I rationalise that my walking is to get home and not sit in traffic, and to get some fresh air and think. The pilates if for my neck and back, and the tennis is to master a skill.

I was at lunch with a really good friend of mine at the beginning of the year and I said to her: "I'm just so tired of this bullshit dysmorphia that I have going. Even when I lost all of the weight, I still found things about my body that I disliked and I wasn't particularly confident. I have UK size 8 dresses in my cupboard that look tiny to me now, and I remember wearing them about two years ago and worrying about the fact that I felt big. We are never happy as women are we? I mean, when will this self loathing stop?" And she looked at me squarely and said: "It stops when you decide it stops."


I was interested to see what people my age are doing in terms of exercise and why. Doing a small Vox Pop on FB it appears that a lot of people are keen on running these days, yoga is always a constant, and spinning is pretty big too. A good friend of mine has a personal trainer that arrives at her house a few times a week: "If he didn't, I wouldn't do it. But because he turns up I cannot get out of it." Then there's Karl Lagerfeld who said he lost the weight so he could wear nice clothes, which narcissistically I can relate to. I love clothes, but the clothes I love don't suit my figure. Not that I'm FB friends with Lagerfeld. Or the email I got from an old school friend who told me due to a debilitating illness she is no longer able to exercise in the same way, and that she has gained weight, but that fortunately her husband still loves her the way she is. And it made me think about myself, and how many of us equate being loved, being attractive, being accepted, with our dress size. And that makes me deeply sad. It really does.

Likewise I got a lot of emails from people talking about how exercise was a celebration for them; it made them feel good, it made them process their emotions better and they felt healthier not just physically but emotionally too. Or for my friend's young son, who following leg surgery and months in a wheelchair, has totally transformed his life and gained a new-found confidence by losing an astonishing 42kgs or 92 pounds. Some of my friends, also in their 40s, talked about adjusting their diet and exercise to encourage heart health  - obviously an increasingly worthy concern as you get older.

Fast forward a few months after my conversation about dysmorphia with my friend at lunch (because while one may have an epiphany, acting on it often happens a while after the fact) I decided I was going to get rid of my bathroom scales. I was using mine every morning - in the past I had used them morning and night, so this was a noticeable improvement. What I discovered is that far from helping me keep in shape, the scales were actually hampering my body image and relationship with food instead of improving it, and here's why:

Each morning, after peeing, I would weigh myself. Depending on the number (it usually varied by 500 grams up or down) I would reflect on what I had eaten the day before that might have constituted the difference. I'd quietly admonish myself if it was up (thinking of that extra glass of wine or bit of chocolate I had had before bed), and I'd feel enormously frustrated if I hadn't eaten very much the day before and hadn't lost anything. So basically, before my day had even started I was (a) Thinking about food (b) Having negative thoughts about myself all thanks to a couple of digits.

What the hell kind of way is that to start the day right?

So I got rid of them. The first few days were panicky. What if I balloon? I mean, if I don't see those numbers it might get completely out of hand. How can I trust myself? But slowly over the next few days, weeks, and months, I've found it totally transformative. And here's why:

I don't start the day thinking about food: what I ate the day before, and what I need to eat that day. More so I'm thinking about if I need to wash my hair, getting the kids up, hoping my son is in a good mood when he wakes up, and that I'd like a cup of tea. I might eat a piece of toast while I make my daughter's packed lunch, and sometimes I don't eat until I get back from taking the kids in to school because I've never really been a morning person when it comes to food. Ideally I like to eat at around 9 or 10am. During the day food doesn't really feature that much in my thoughts - if I'm hungry I eat, otherwise I don't. I eat what I want, and when I've had enough, I stop, not feeling compelled to finish what is on my plate. Meal times aren't really relevant to me, but then I don't work in an environment where I am restricted in that way, which I appreciate a lot of people are in terms of work.

My current clothes still fit me, some of them more snuggly than others which sometimes makes me panic all over again and think I need to get the scales out of the cupboard. But the reality is, I have not ballooned in weight, and even more interestingly, the self loathing thing is slowly starting to fade too, which I suppose is helped by the fact that I don't have those hateful conversations with myself each morning. 

My husband actually prefers a curvy shape - not to objectify people, but we are all of us drawn to certain things in terms of what we find attractive. For him it's Christina Hendricks, and failing that, me.  And after years of telling me this I am slowly starting to believe him, and not just thinking he says that to me to make me feel better about myself while secretly lusting after tall skinny model types. But even though I am now with someone that loves and accepts me unconditionally and actually finds my figure very attractive, that negative self loathing thing I have going is hard to beat. Indeed the voices from our past are hard to silence completely, but right now I'll settle for an occasional whisper. 

I probably massively over-compensate against the obsession with physical appearance I was raised with and don't use words like fat or thin around my children - nor do I ever identify people I am referring to in terms of these sorts of physical descriptions. I also never talk about my feelings about my own appearance in front of them. Food is simply something we eat to nourish our bodies, keep up our energy, and something that brings us together as a family. I get as frustrated and at times worried as my father and mother probably did when my children refuse to eat perfectly good food, but there are no threats of physical violence if they do not eat, and emptying their plates is not a requirement. However making an effort to at least try something is strongly encouraged. I also try and make things they enjoy eating even if the menu does become somewhat repetitive -  especially where my son is concerned.

I recently had an appointment and felt worried ahead of it that some of my 'thin' nice clothes don't fit and I didn't know what I was going to wear. Shopping is often frustrating because I don't think anything looks good on me because my body shape does not conform with an idea of what I think I should look like, i.e. Daphne Guinness. So a friend of mine offered to go shopping with me and suggested a few things that she felt would suit my figure. She was honest and encouraging and  I bought a couple of new items of clothing that weren't actually in larger sizes, but in cuts that were tailored to my figure and that suited my shape. And voila - I looked good, and I felt confident.

While I was trying on a pair of an excessively tight jeans in the department store the young sales person said to me: "Wow, you have the perfect figure - you have curves in all the right places." Obviously my immediate reaction was that she was flattering me to get a sale, because she couldn't possibly have been honest. I mean, how can I, with big backside and ample thighs be considered perfect? So I looked directly at her in that dead pan way I like to joke and replied: Thank you. You know, I have to eat a lot of cake to get my curves this way." And she responded earnestly with: "Really? Cake? I eat cake, I mean I do, but it just doesn't work for me." In that moment I realised that the compliment had been earnest. This slender girl wanted what I had and didn't want. And obviously she was completely stark raving mad. But it made me smile.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

To unfriend or not to unfriend

Back in March I posted a question on FB asking people what their thoughts on circumcision were. I probably should have known better because it's one of those contentious things that's associated with sex, and religion, and parenting. And any idiot knows it's dangerous territory questioning how people raise their children. Asking about these things on FB is also a great way to get unfriended, but more on that later. I think sex, religion and politics and parenting are exactly what we should be discussing because how we think about these things, how they drive us, or affect how we live our lives, has a very direct impact on the world at large. Also how can you possibly begin to know someone unless you know their opinions or beliefs on these things?

The circumcision question led to a torrent of heated response. It was a shit storm actually. And for a large part of the weekend over which this took place, I felt like I was backed into a corner with a chair in one hand and a whip in the other to defend the fact that I had dared raise this topic for discussion in a public forum, and for my own opinion on the matter. The responses from people went something like this: Those in favour cited everything from religious reasons, to health and hygiene benefits, to aesthetics (like father like son). Those against started off with the relatively tame: There is insufficient evidence to make this a necessary procedure. To those who felt it was an unnecessary painful and traumatic experience to put a baby through. To those who said it was infringing on the rights of a child to perform such a cosmetic procedure before they were of age to consent. To those who felt it was akin to female circumcision because you are removing a part of the penis that has a role in sexual gratification. 

You see where this is going right?

We all want to do what is right for our children - and that was abundantly clear even when the bullets were flying in this debate. No one was circumcising their child to mutilate them or deprive them of later sexual gratification - and no one was not doing it because they didn't care if their child, as an adult, might be more at risk of STDs. People were making decisions based on what they felt was right for their children, and there were good intentions all around - even underneath all the vitriol.

The content of this debate is valid but not the point of this particular post. What was interesting to me was that people are a lot more defensive of their beliefs than I had expected. I mean, really really defensive. It was easy to see how things like this lead to massive arguments on and off FB and the much dreaded 'un-friending'.

I question everything I believe in or think because arriving at some kind of informed objective truth is far more important to me than being right, and there are many times when I am proven to be wrong. It's also why I take advantage of using FB as a kind of vox pop source of information for things I am interested in or want to write about. By today's count I have 392 FB friends.You better believe that among these 392 people I am going to get a lot of very varied opinions, also included in that some direct experience and professional data because of the nature of some people lives or their work. It's an interesting, valuable and handy source of informal information, especially if you are genuinely interested in what people think, rather than people just agreeing with you. In my personal non FB life, I don't surround myself with people who are just like me either, but there is something to be said for likemindedness amongst one's friends. Discussion and even heated debate is something I value in my friendships and admittedly a commonality we share. We argue about pretty much everything, and in an ideal situation this happens over wine and good food. It is one of life's great pleasures and more so it serves a vital role in our personal development, education, and the continued betterment of the world at large.  

Among my 392 FB friends, some of these people I have known since I was five years old, but haven't seen in 30 odd years. Some of them are mums from the school run, people I used to work with, others I've met socially along the way, or through a class I am doing. And sometimes they are through another friend on FB which means I haven't actually met the person in real life. I'd say 98% of these people are not a regular part of my day to day life in terms of people I see socially, talk to on the phone or email. And there's a good chance that were some of these people a real and active part of my life, the friendships might not actually translate and endure.  

How often have you been genuinely surprised by people's posts or responses to things you post on FB? Certainly I have often thought to myself: Wow, I kind of thought I knew you, but I had no idea you were so religious or had such and such political views, or that you had a predilection towards kinky stuff, or that you were a gifted artist, or that you like base jumping or believe in spanking children etc etc etc. Recently someone I thought of as an artist and free thinker posted something intimating a strong anti gay marriage sentiment. I was at a loss for words. You make these assumptions about people, based on a handful of things they post and to a large extent what you want to be true about them, and then it turns out there's a sting in the tail. I suppose it's a cautionary tale of how we often get taken by con men for example, because we desperately want people to be like us and essentially good guys, and we project a whole lot of stuff on to them that is often nothing at all to do with that person's own character. But it's all good - differences are what make the world a more interesting place. I might not agree with this persons' feelings about not wanting gay people to enjoy their basic human right to be as unhappy as all the other straight married people in the world, but I'm not going to unfriend him over it. At the same time, geographical limitations aside, I'm not going to have him at my dinner table either. 

It occurred to me that people's FB posts and exchanges in the comments are a reminder of a few things: 1. Sex, religion and politics seem to be discussed a lot more and a lot more freely on FB than we do face to face.  2. Even though they might like your stuff from time to time, people you are friends with on FB are not always going to agree with you and not everyone is going to like what you have to say. So if it's important for you to be liked - don't share your opinions on FB. Stick to cute pictures of animals. 3. At some point, you are going to get unfriended or do some un-friending yourself.

I got lucky following circumcision-gate.  To my knowledge, or at least regarding people who I know well and care about, I was not unfriended for raising the topic or for my own stance on the subject. I am so used to healthy debate in my real life friendships that it would be a genuine shock to me that someone might actually unfriend me simply because we disagreed on something. However I also appreciate that by raising the subject I was not able to edit other people's responses, some of which were considered deeply offensive. I'll take that. I also however see this as freedom of speech in action, and all concerned had the option to simply opt out of the discussion at any time or silence it from their feed. No one was forcing any of us to fight this to the death - me included. But then personally, I am tenacious and stubborn like that, often to my detriment.

Following on from this, I was curious to find out what sort of things people do unfriend or get unfriended over. So once again I took to my handy population of 392 to find out what they thought, and posed the question. Have you unfriended or been unfriended (to your knowledge) and why? The responses were interesting, and not all of them for the dramatic reasons I might have imagined.


This first response sent to me by a friend articulates what I imagine most people fall out over - politics and religion. Those big serious subjects that people take so personally, and feel very strongly and emotively about. Also I appreciate his honesty where he talks about actively provoking people because I think we've all, at some time or another, been a bit guilty of that.

This is what he had to say:
"My unfriendings were mostly due to disagreements on two topics: religion and South African politics. In the former category, I suspect people unfriended me because I've been vocal about my own anti-religious views and they happened to be religious people, and in the latter category, I'm pretty sure I was unfriended because I called out white South African hypocrisy and racism, and that puts some people on the defensive. In terms of unfriending, I find Americans to be way more tolerant of different - even offensive - posts/views than South Africans. Most of my unfriendings, by far, were from South Africans and resulted, as I've said, from disagreements over politics and religion. Come to think of it, the few American FB friends that I've had serious disagreements with have not unfriended me. They might have unfollowed my feed, but I'm still "friends" with them. 
The most acrimonious FB disagreements I've had were with white South Africans (former classmates from either high school or college) who took exception to my liberal views on SA politics and race relations, and the accusation frequently thrown at me is that because I live abroad I don't know how "bad" things have gotten in SA and therefore can't judge the validity of their (right-wing) views. To be fair though, I do enjoy provoking people (because I believe it serves a purpose), and I'm therefore not all that surprised when my FB comments draw an outraged, angry reaction from certain people. 
I've also done my share of unfriending, and I usually do so because of overt racism on their part or because of insanely conspiratorial right-wing views. A few years ago, I unfriended an acquaintance because she referred to black people's dreadlocks as "dirty." I've also unfriended a number of American acquaintances because of their rabid - and frankly, racist - anti-Obama beliefs. No big loss there. 
Finally, I just want to say that I think the common wisdom that FB is a truncation of actual face-to-face interaction is actually quite wrong. The fact is that we tend to self-censor much more during face-to-face interactions because the threat and consequences of disagreement and offense are so much closer and immediate, whereas the indirect nature of FB actually allows us to disclose more and display parts of ourselves that would otherwise remain hidden. In my experience, FB has actually allowed me to "know" people in greater depth than before, and vice versa. FB doesn't obscure our "real" selves; it often brings them out into the light and puts them on display for the world to see."
Another friend added: 
"Once that I know about I have no idea why. Maybe because of my conversations with x where I sometimes take positions that others (including myself at times) wouldn't like. I have unfriended because of game requests. Otherwise I shunt people into a group that can see a limited part of my feed and profile. I take great pains to interact with people on fb as I would in real life." 
One person told me she often gets unfriended because she posted things about her vegan beliefs which some people felt were too harsh, but told me they weren't as bad as some of her other vegan friends who posted a lot of upsetting photos on the subject. She wondered why people didn't just silence her posts. This same person told me she in turn unfriended someone because they were advertising puppies for sale - something she felt very strongly about.

For a lot of people unfriending appears to simply be a pragmatic thing, but drama queens beware!
"I used to have exactly 100 friends and a strict one in, one out policy! I have no qualms about unfriending people. I normally do it because I want to limit the audience that I share with. I've relaxed a bit about it these days though..."
"Every now and then I go on a "spring clean " my friend list. They are mainly the needy, attention seeking drama queens. With us moving every 2.5-3 years there's just some people who don't need to follow my next chapter in life. I'm sure I've been Un friended for a number of reasons. I'm just not everyone's cup of tea." 
"Depending on how close I am to the person I unfriend or silence them. I usually unfriend people I've never met, or old "friends" from school days that I don't interact with, people that I am not close to who are drama queens, or who constantly post things I am not interested in. If I am quite good friends with them or I don't want to upset them, I'll choose to unfollow them - then I don't see their posts but I can still interact with them from time to time. Really like the comment above about interacting with people as I would do in real life and I also try to do that - not always successfully. I think it's key to remember that it's easy to offend via FB/email/text as it's the mood of the person reading your post rather than the mood you were in when you posted it that determines their reaction."
Interestingly, it also appears that people get unfriended when there is a change in relationship status:
"I got unfriended when I made some comments on somebody's picture and she did not like it. Another girl unfriended me once when we were still starting to get to know each other. I asked her what up, then she added me again. But I think a month later, she unfriended me for good when she got married and had a baby to her exercise coach. But that's ok. I gained two more friends from her."
"I've also had quite a few incidences of guys getting engaged and suddenly vanishing (in some cases because they did and others I suspect the fiancé went through and deleted on their behalf...)"
Some people seemed concerned about unfriending because they didn't want to offend people. This strikes me as a real life problem too - how many of us put up with genuinely unpleasant family members or people in our lives because we don't want to offend them? So effectively because we want to be considered nice people, we allow others to be awful.
"We all want to be liked I think it is definitely a form of rejection, which no one likes, so we take it personally. Even if we are not particularly fond of the person who had un-friended you."
"I discussed the topic with my teenage daughter and she uses the silencing thing, so as not to hurt other people's feelings OR cause trouble, as she says." 
"I contemplated the one in one out at 100 too! ... And I use the silence / I don't want to see these posts thing. I hesitate to unfriend due to possible offence being taken. I accidentally friended someone I don't really know recently and they accepted - feel bad now unfriending."
Personally, I have only unfriended a total of 2 people since I joined FB at its genesis all those years ago. For one thing, I am a lot more forgiving of people's nonsense, because I myself an guilty of it all too often. People say stupid things all the time, it doesn't make them a bad person. Also rightly or wrongly, I always assume ignorance first rather than genuine malice. I think were more people given to introspection, empathy, lateral thinking, properly informing themselves on a subject,  as well as good impulse control, life would be a lot easier for them and they'd alienate a lot fewer people.

However there are times when people post pictures of dead bodies, dead or tortured children, or likewise animals that have been subjected to unthinkable cruelty. And this is my greatest bugbear with FB. I can tolerate pretty much anything - even the bigoted crap, but to be unexpectedly
 faced with an upsetting photograph (where I've not actively been in a position to choose whether or not I see it by clicking on the link) I find close to unforgivable. I posted something about this a few months back and someone rightly pointed out that I was adopting a head in the sand attitude to the very real cruelties that are happening in the world. It's true, sometimes I do, for my mental health, there are days I cannot be reading about human and animal atrocities. But equally most days I'm clicking on news links and informing myself on another example of why man is hell bent on destroying himself, along with this beautiful planet, as much as the next person. I just ask, and is it so much to ask? to give me a little warning - so depending on what kind of head space I am in, I can prepare myself for what I am about to see - rather than get some horrific image staring back at me first thing in the morning right next to the ad that tells me I can lose 95% of my belly fat. These days I simply click on the 'I don't want to see this post' and it seems to be working - a lot fewer visual shocks first thing in the morning.

I see the unfriend button as this very serious daunting absolute last resort kind of thing - not unlike the big red 'fire missiles' button you see in war films or ones about nuclear devastation. That once pressed - there is no going back - it's final. So you've got to be pretty damn sure and you've got to live with the consequences of it.

The first of the two people I unfriended was a guy I was at junior school with who was an on off boyfriend - in that innocent way early childhood boyfriends are. I hadn't seen or spoken to him since I was about 13-years-old and saw him on FB and jumped at the opportunity to find out what had happened to him and where life had taken him. Something I'd often wondered about over the years. It started off well enough, and then he started posting these really snippy and gradually plain nasty comments in response to fairly innocuous day to day posts of mine. The words internet troll came to mind. It was like he had some weird bone to pick with me (unresolved relationship issues from when we were 8-years-old?) and I got a distinct toxic somewhat disturbed disengaged vibe from him. I unfriended him and that's the last I heard.

The other unfriending was actually a pretty big deal. A good and close friend of mine for many years and I got into what was a fairly stupid disagreement following a post about the origins of my family's ancestry. It moved off of the page into direct messages. We went back and forth a few times and it was escalating. At one point I offered an apology to deflect what was getting seriously and disproportionately out of hand and my friend continued to attack me with some very personal character assassinations. Feeling there was genuinely no way in for a resolution, I unfriended him. Had this been anyone else I wouldn't have cared, but it hurt deeply. A year and three months later of no contact both in the real world and on FB, I got a message with a heartfelt apology and fences were mended. I have no doubt that were we face to face when that initial conversation about my family had taken place none of this would have transpired, especially as our relationship had withstood a good few squabbles over the years. But, however narrowly, we survived it, and it was a slap in the face reminder of the dangers of how quickly these kinds of exchanges can lead to real destruction.

A big thanks to everyone who contributed to this post. This is by no means a well researched or exhaustive piece on the subject. It's simply an opinion piece and I'm sure there are still many instances of why people unfriend that I haven't covered. So if you would like to add your two cents worth or relate your experience on the matter, please leave a comment following this on FB or in the comments below.

And finally, here are some examples of FB and social media exchanges that didn't have quite such a happy ending:


Saturday, April 04, 2015

So where are you skiing this year?

Since moving to London in my early 20s, and then going on to work in advertising, a common question I got asked was if I was skiing that year and where. People would talk about where they had spent the season working in chalets in their gap years, and where the best snow was. I had never skied in my life. Growing up in South Africa with our climate and in my socio economic braket, it wasn't the done thing. If my parents could afford a holiday, it meant driving down to the coast and spending a week at the beach. I knew only one person who had skied and her parents were well off and they had travelled to Europe to do it. I remember fingering her mothers fur coat and matching fur hat (very James bond) and thinking that if there was a heaven, this was it. Skiing in Europe felt like a glamorous distant dream to me - totally other worldly. 

When I met my now husband (in my late 20s in London), I was invited along for my first ever ski holiday. We went with a bunch of friends of varying abilities, got a chalet in France, and I had a couple of lessons. While I went into the experience with an open mind and a good attitude, at night everyone would tell tales of daring, near death experiences, and things that really scared them. Things like encountering ice, getting on or off chair lifts, falling off of chair lifts, button lifts etcetera. It had never occurred to me to be afraid of any of these things, but maybe I should be? I was too young and new to the experience to appreciate that this kind of big upping and scare mongering is a part of the group holiday ski experience. Listening to all of these things on this and a couple of subsequent trips, along with a few falls during my lessons, I began to worry and somewhere along the line I became afraid and developed a massive mental block. 

Now, if you think about it, putting yourself into exceedingly discomforting and restrictive ski boots and then locking yourself into skis and pointing yourself down a steep icy mountain is indeed contrary to what we instinctively think of as sane life preserving behavior as humans.  It's right to have every fibre of your being tell you that fighting gravity in this way is a very bad idea. Against that, watching people in their 70s gracefully glide down ski slopes at a fair clip with the wind in their silvery hair makes you think that maybe, just maybe, there may be a knack to it that even you could learn - because if elderly people can do it, it can't be all that bad and life threatening right? 

I have been on, including my current vacation, eight ski holidays. Most people would be proficient by this point, but for me, it hasn't quite happened. Today, for the first time, I did a red run. To give you some idea the system goes something like this (although it varies from country to country): Green (beginner) Blue (intermediate) Red (experienced)  Black (advanced) Off piste (lunatics). This holiday I asked my instructor, an enviably handsome and athletic Swede by the name of Kenta, when in hells name I was going to get the hang of this: "I mean, eight ski holidays, for gods sakes? When will it fall into place and when will I stop being terrified?"
"Well," he drawls in his Swede/American laid back handsome ski instructor accent, "You've gotta just keep skiing. The more you do it, the more you get used to it. And the stuff that you find tough today, you do without thinking tomorrow. And before long none of it feels particularly terrifying any more."

I listen to all of this, and for a moment there is a glimmer of hope: 'Yes!' I think to myself 'I'm going to get this. By the end of this holiday I will confidently be doing blacks - no problem. It's all in my head.'  And then I remember how stubborn I am, and if I decide that I am terrified and something is tough, then goddammit, I am going to be terrified and it's going to be tough an no one is going to convince me otherwise.

My children did a bit of skiing on the nursery slope and short beginners run last year, and this year, after only 4 mornings of skiing, are on reds and blacks already. This resort, Verbier in Switzerland, doesn't have green slopes and is not known as a beginner-friendly resort, so acceleration is unavoidable. But they have no fear, and no fear of falling especially, and unquestioningly have faith in their teachers and follow them down anything. This morning I found myself out at the same time as my children, and my daughter (excited at the idea of us skiing together) called out: "Come on Mum!" and then proceeded to point her little skiis down the mountain. Within minutes she was out of sight, while my son, not listening to his teacher, was gunning it down at top speed right in the direction of the edge of the mountain with his instructor flying after him. I stood staring down the slope my daughter had just effortlessly skied down, with a look of abject horror on my face. My legs were aching (skiing is incredibly physically demanding - more so when you are a beginner), hating every minute and wondering why the hell I had signed up for this nonsense, yet again. For the first time since having them, I envied my children. Or more specifically, I envied them their fearlessness.

The key (as I've been told by countless instructors and experienced skiers) is to learn to let go and allow yourself to pick up speed. The speed, pointing your ski's down into the fall line (facing down the mountain) is what makes your turns easier and the whole business more effortless, safer? and a lot less hell on the legs. And yet getting over that mental block of not only the acceleration but the fact that you are pointing down something steep and icy is incredibly difficult, well, for me at least. Maybe if I have a glass of wine before doing it? At this point I'll try anything.

In the cafes and restaurants that you eat lunch in, there is invariably a video playing on the screens of people doing extreme skiing: parachuting from helicopters down treacherous vertical slopes that are otherwise inaccessible, and then skiing maniacally down them in straight lines.  This is supposed to be motivating, but in my case it makes it difficult to swallow my food. It looks utterly terrifying. The videos cut to close ups of ruddy faced handsome men and women high fiving each other after their death defying stunts. These are exciting people. These are glamorous people.These are people that don't just exist, they live! The men are athletic, tanned, and have long hair and easy laughs - they laugh in the face of danger. At night I imagine them wearing turtle necks, drinking whiskey, and having swarms of young women around them in the bars. And if this were the 70s or 80s, they'd light up a cigarettes and a logo for Marlboro would come on the screen.

Years ago on another group ski holiday, seeing my distress, a good friend of my husbands pulled me aside and said to me: "You really don't have to do this to please him you know? If you don't like it, don't feel the need to do it." And he was right of course. Now in my 40s I am well past that point in my life where I feel the need to fit in with or impress my peers, and my husband is happy to take the children on ski holidays even if I don't want to join. So why do I keep trying? Why do I keep putting myself into a situation that I find not only physically uncomfortable but also demanding and frightening? I think at the heart of it it comes down to tenacity and sheer bloody mindedness: I look at all these other people doing it, and doing it well; the children, the families, the elderly people, the inarticulate drunken idiots you see in the bars at night, and I think to myself: If they can do it, why can't I? What makes me different?

 So I keep trying, I keep pushing myself. Some days I have great moments, and others terrifying ones where I just want to pack the whole lot in. And in all of this I keep hoping that one day, maybe one day, I might be the one sitting in the bar at night in my polo neck, drinking my whiskey, saying to a wide eyed rookie: Ah yes, the off piste skiing here is awesome. You've gotta come out with us in the helicopter tomorrow,' while exhaling a great plume of Marlboro smoke.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

So this is 40

Some months back I decided I wanted to write about turning 40 but in a way that was different from all the satirical and cliched pieces that are floating about. I wanted to make it uniquely about my experience and if it contained elements that other people related to  - great. But ultimately I didn't only want to write it for the purposes of publishing, but more so to provide a  record for myself - a kind of keepsake to look back on and read one day when, please god, I reached the next big landmark age - like 80? Which is why this is a very long post and probably a lot of TMI going on - you've been warned.

I started and stopped writing this on several occasions, and the somewhat disjointed result of that may be evident here. I just didn't quite know how to approach the subject.  Changes tend to be gradual, almost imperceptible - so even though I've attempted it here, it's tough to sit down and articulate exactly how I've emerged through the years and what conclusions I've made thus far. Unless of course you run into a childhood friend whom you haven't seen in some time and they point out things like: "Wow you look so different. You used to have a lot of acne and were so shy! And do you remember that time you peed your pants at school? That was hilarious!" And you think to yourself, 'Ah yes, now I remember why I haven't seen this moron in 20 years.'

So why all the sturm und drang over what is essentially just another birthday? Maybe the real anxiety we have is that turning 40 marks a crossing over from one phase of our life into the other. A bit like 21 is the alleged gateway into adulthood from childhood, 40 is the gateway into mid life - as in, this is it guys, you are officially into that next chapter - no turning back. There is also the fact that 40 for a lot of people comes with expectations of what we are supposed to have achieved by this point in our life and it forces you to stop and take stock. Thoughts like: 'I just didn't expect my life to turn out as it has,' or 'This is not where I thought I'd be,' or even, 'This is not the life I want' are not uncommon. It reminds me of the John Lennon lyrics: 'Nobody told me there'd be days like these, nobody told me there'd be days like these, strange days indeed, most peculiar mamma.' And perhaps more poignantly, also by the wonderful Lennon: 'Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.'

Rewind to 30 years ago: It's 1985 and I am 10-year-old kid, slightly shorter than average, enviably slender, with a boyish haircut. I'm thinking about the the year 2015. Wow, 2015. What will I be doing? Where will I live? What will I look like? I cannot remember the specifics (memory and age aren't great friends), but I do recall my fantasy of myself at 40 involved having fabulously big hair, impressive shoulder pads, a glass desk, and an office with an incredible view. Oh and I thought I'd be old, because 40 was old to me back then. But old with style. All very Dynasty - with a pinch of Stephanie from The Bold & The Beautiful thrown in for good measure. There were no picket fences or children in this vision. I never imagined myself playing happy families. I suppose as a tween my idea of reaching some kind of pinnacle in my life was about being a powerful independent career woman - something to do with what my mother had always instilled in my sisters and I: "Never be dependent on a man or anyone else for that matter. Always be financially independent and have a good job to fall back on."

Fast forward 30 years and I am a stay-at-home mother of two children with absolutely zero interest in a big office  - great view or not. I have never been particularly well designed to a job in an office or working within an institution. Which is not to say that I lack ambition, but I'm more of a solitary worker and I never really had that killer instinct to want to climb to the top the way some people do. I always wanted to be happy however, whatever that is, and being happy was more important than zeroes on a check. In the days I did work in an office I'd often fantasise about working in a zoo as a keeper or being someone that read the millions of books that aspiring authors sent in to publishing houses. But like so many people you do what you do in order to make a living and pay the bills. These days I fantasise about having a place to paint that has great light, and often stare longingly at my elderly neighbours house which has this beautiful old glass extension on her 1st floor. Ahhh just think of all that natural light. I might have to go over there and make friends and suggest we discuss studio rental space.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that I'm not doing what I thought I'd be doing at this age, i.e. the whole sterling career, but that's OK. Where I am now is a product of hundreds of choices, some of which felt extremely random and insignificant at the time, and circumstances over the years. And in my opinion luck plays a greater part in things than we'd like to think. Because the fact of the matter is I do consider myself incredibly lucky - I like and enjoy my life. And while I am not yet published and I may not have a name in the public or have invented something that changes lives, I have what I feel to be a meaningful life. In the last few years I've come to appreciate the importance of this and not chasing after a fantasy of what I think I should be or have. And living a life that is not about what everyone else thinks or has, but it being an authentic existence that works for me. And let's not forget about choice - even if sometimes if feels as though I only have a few choices, that's better than a hell of a lot of people in the world today.

For a long time 40 felt old to me, and now that I am 40 myself I don't feel old. I think mentally I kind of stopped ageing somewhere in my 30s which is when I genuinely feel I hit my stride. Being blessed with a solid relationship, good friends and a supportive family, and having children also helped me start appreciating who I was, being OK with that, and I suppose finding my voice. Also conflict became a whole lot easier for me in the last few years - not easy in that I don't have anxiety about entering into it or occasional contrition after the fact. But more so I suppose when you have a degree of confidence in your opinions and feelings about something and are not as concerned with people's opinions of you, you can hold your boxing gloves aloft and enter the ring with a degree of confidence - irrespective of the potential bloodied outcome.

Somewhere in my 30s I also learnt to be OK with saying no to things that I didn't feel comfortable with and realised that doing things to make other people happy and the cost of my own wellbeing is not worth it. The sad reality is that a lot of people will take as much as you are prepared to give and don't always have the same degree of empathy or generosity as you imagine they do. Likewise as I've gotten older I've become more choiceful in terms of how I spend my free time - which granted has a lot to do with not having all that much free time when you have children. But the whole politics of relationships from my 20s and early 30s just doesn't interest me any more. And if spending time with someone leaves you feeling drained or unhappy or anxious, then it's not something I want to invest myself in. Which is not to say that all friendships are always happy and plain sailing and a good friend is indeed someone that is there for you when times are bad. But generally speaking some people just suck the life out of you or make you feel bad about yourself, and life's too short to be going round in circles with them as they deprive you of the will to live.

I asked my husband, who turned 40 last year, how he had felt about this milestone. "Well its was fine really, no big deal," he replied in that upbeat philosophical manner he has. "But listen, let's not kid ourselves. It's a reminder that a good half of my life is over and that I'm going to be getting older, and I'm that much closer to, if I'm lucky,  a natural death."

Ah yes, death. Once you get to a certain age, that's really at the heart of all this older birthday anxiety business right? No one likes to talk about it, so we talk about super vitamins, taking up running, juicing, re-reading the classics, learning an instrument, painting classes, visiting South America etc. And late at night when we are lying in bed we think about and put off making mammogram appointments and prostate exams and try to push these scary thoughts far out of our minds. A few weeks before I turned 40 I got a letter in the post saying I was eligible for a free stroke screening test. Now, I appreciate from my friend who is a neurologist that you don't have to be elderly to get a stroke, but the timing did make me wonder if I'm now in store for a whole bunch of 40+ medical test pamphlets to start flooding through my mail box. Because whether I like it or not, I now fall into that category and tick that box. 

I think about exercising more now because I am acutely aware that diet alone doesn't shift the pounds as it used to, nor does it get the heart rate up and one is meant to do that a few times a week to be healthy etc etc etc. Dear god. The truth is that all of this stuff, all of it, is to somehow avoid facing what will be the inevitable decline and decay of our bodies, and the really big elephant in the room: our eventual death. But it's a shitty subject and like everyone else I like to pretend everything is not about it, even though it is, so let's continue along the lines of self denial and change the subject.

My views on politics, religion and sex haven't really changed that much over the years. I mention these three things because apparently your views on these big three conversational no-no's are a fairly good indication of who you are as a person. Well, OK, sort of. In terms of sex and relationships, there are times I become very sad thinking about how I allowed myself to be treated in my 20s (and indeed treated others) and the almost careless manner in which I threw myself into relationships and situations that were evidently bad for me. I want to go back and take hold of my younger self, look her in the eye,  and say: "You are worth so much more than you think. Don't waste your time on someone who doesn't see that about you." I also want to say to my university self, "Stop with the peanut butter and syrup on toast and be more active," but that's another story. The virtues of hindsight.  

These days I am blessed with a partner who I love, and who I like and respect and have a lot of fun with. When I was younger and probably even at university, I genuinely didn't think I would get married. I saw relationships as things that were about arguing and having to compromise massively in a way that I didn't think would suit me. I also thought that if you had a relationship and didn't argue then it lacked passion and wasn't the real thing. And when I looked at some of the passionate relationships around me the protagonists didn't look all that happy. It never occurred to me that I might just be lucky enough to meet someone that I could find friendship with and mutual respect, someone that fit around my rough edges, complemented the good in me, and made me want to be an even better person. And that kindness, consideration, compassion, empathy and trust is at the heart of everything. Oh and fun, you've got to have fun together. This is something the rubbish romance novels you read as a young girl don't tell you.

Likewise I spent a lot of my younger life worrying about my weight - OK I still worry about it and like everyone else I think I could be 5-10kgs lighter. But as a younger person I obsessed about it and spent a lot of time wearing baggy clothes and hating the fact that I wasn't as thin as my friends. I look back at my high school diaries and see myself miserably counting calories and marking down my weight each day, and being overwhelmed with self loathing because at 16 or 17 I weighed 55kgs. Yes 55kgs.  I pray to god my daughter doesn't go through the same thing but I think the fact that my husband and I are not fat phobic and body obsessed as my parents were is probably a good start.

At 40 I do not have what the magazines refer to as a bikini ready body, or whatever the hell that means, and that's OK. My body is fit and healthy (knock on wood) and it's worked hard all these years and carried two babies. And since the day I was born, my heart has never once stopped beating - not once in 40 years. Isn't that an incredible thought? What an amazing machine. I am increasingly appreciative and thankful for the genuine miracle that is my body and in spite of the lumps and bumps and effects of gravity here and there I love it. It's mine right?  At some point you've got to stop with the self loathing, look after your body and be kind to it because it's got to last you.  And to decide that healthy is a lot more than most people have and it's a lot more important than some bizarre concept you have of what will make you beautiful and happy. Oh, and it's OK to buy a bigger dress size.

In terms of politics I still believe passionately in state funded good quality healthcare and education for everyone and I love the fact that I live in a country that uses my taxes to help people that are disabled, elderly and less fortunate - although obviously it could always be more. These things are essential empathetic societal components and I wouldn't want to live in a country that didn't give a shit about its citizens. I genuinely loathe the fact that the American political system always brings up abortion every time there is a vote. Someone's right to make this incredibly personal and difficulty choice is genuinely debased by that political circus. As for gay marriage - this is such a no brainer for me. You have every right to marry who you love, barring of course siblings, because well, as I say to my kids who often debate the merits of marrying each other: "You don't want too much of the same DNA in the mix guys". 

In terms of religion, we are what the Americans refer to as secular in terms of how we raise our children, but if at some point my children discover a particular faith they are interested in pursuing I will support them in their choices. OK, maybe I might try and talk them out of scientology or joining a cult. But barring that, ultimately you have to let your children be their own people and live a life that feels meaningful to them - irrespective of your own beliefs. I did however read an article recently on secular households that made me feel even more confident in the path we have chosen. You can see it here.

My music choices remain fairly eclectic; lots of classical, still some hip hop and R&B, Billy Joel and Paul Simon (great poets!), and since meeting my husband Radiohead and more recently The National. And I do find myself listening to a radio station that plays a lot of 80's and 90's stuff which I remember my mother used to do (only hers was 60s and 70s music). As a tween this used to irritate the hell out of me as I liked the trendier stations that had shock jocks (relatively speaking) who played current stuff. Now when I am driving and a song comes on that I know all the lyrics to and it takes me back, I am filled with inexplicable happiness.  Likewise I used to like Indie films and as a teenager bad horror movies - now I don't want to watch things that make me unhappy or anxious. If I want that I only have to open a newspaper.

I stopped going to nightclubs somewhere in my 20s because even at 24 I realised I was one of the oldest people there. Recently my husband and I went out with friends of ours and the club had a dance floor and the people there were all around our age or older, and it made me feel happy and comfortable - a kind of 'breathe out' feeling. I also loathe and avoid places where the music is too loud to have a conversation. This, I know, makes me definitively old - 40 or not. I also walk around the house switching off lights after people and berate anyone for letting the tap run while they are brushing their teeth. My dad used to do the same thing which I attributed to him being tight with money. And yet I do it, and for me it's about not wanting to waste energy or resources because I'm painfully aware that all things are finite. I recycle.


I've loved having children which was a surprise to me because while my middle sister, even as a child and a teenager, was always great with kids, they never seemed particularly interested in me and I had no idea how to be around them. When I had my daughter in my 30s I was absolutely clueless about babies, but I got there in the end and I cannot imagine my life without my children. I am definitely not someone who ever says: 'If I knew then what I know now I would not have had kids,' although I genuinely appreciate parenthood is not for everyone. I'm happy I did it, and a little sad I didn't meet my husband earlier because maybe we might have had a chance to have more children. My Obs Gyn tells me that in this day and age 40 is still relatively young to be having children, to which I respond: "Really, more children now? Who has the hell has the energy?" And she says, "I agree with you, but you know, if you wanted to... ."

In terms of the children we do have we are over that really exhausting baby and small child rearing phase and now into the next part of things which involves helping with homework, attempting to answer ever increasingly complicated questions about the world, and helping them negotiate their school yard relationships. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I handled particular situations, feeling bad about some of the shouting (especially in the morning ahead of school) and trying to be present, interested and fun with my children. And there's still a ton of tidying and cleaning up non stop - I'm not sure that bit of parenting ever stops. 
I definitely find myself looking forwards with my focus on my children and their futures, rather than mine so much, and hopefully steering them in the right direction to achieving a life that they find meaningful and fulfilling

My 72-year-old painting teacher tells me that provided you have your health, life just keeps getting better and at 72 she is having the time of her life. She tells me that she knows who she is, and that as you get older you really cut through a lot of the unnecessary stuff and focus on what is important, which inevitably makes life a lot easier. It's one of the many reasons I enjoy the company of older people because they take you by the hand and guide you through the stuff they've already been through with a attitude of 'Come on, follow me, it's not so scary. There's actually some pretty amazing stuff ahead of you.'

And so with some trepidation, but not as much as I thought, I take a deep breath, plug my nose with my fingers, and jump over the threshold and into that unknown, somewhat daunting, but undoubtedly exciting landscape that is my 40s.

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.