Monday, October 28, 2013

The couple that never fights

When you break an arm or a leg and have that cast on for an interminable period,  it is hard to imagine a time when you didn't have it and had the freedom to move your limb around freely. It's what I call being 'in it'.  Likewise those early months and years with children when you are so dog tired you genuinely struggle to have a memory of what it feels like to be well rested or have a day to yourself with nothing at all to do but embark on selfish ventures. They aren't actually selfish, but when you have kids you think of other people who don't have kids and who tell you they spent their Saturday getting a Starbucks followed by a lazy visit to a market, a boozy lunch with a friend, and a party that evening, as incredibly selfish. "Pah! People with no kids," you find yourself saying, "they have no idea. And they got a lie in too, can you imagine?" 

Before children, my husband and I used to argue about very little - to the degree that I thought perhaps our relationship was somehow inauthentic because we didn't even bicker, and I didn't go through periods of hating him either. If bickering, fighting, and hating each other was normal, we were somehow abnormal. I now see that although we are blessed to be incredibly well suited to each other, it was also largely to do with the fact that we had a lot of time on our hands.  Time to ourselves and time together. We'd spend a Saturday waking up whenever - usually late because we had been out the night before. We'd grab brunch (never up early enough to eat breakfast), wonder down Tottenham Court Road (he'd buy a small electronic wire or plug for some or other computer project he was building), I'd go to Boots, or Paperchase, or visit the Vintage clothing store, or pick up some magazines. We'd grab some sushi somewhere for lunch. Head home, pootle around with our projects and then later meet friends or have them round to ours and have a few drinks and dinner, and the whole cycle would repeat itself on Sunday. 

These days it is somewhat different. On a Saturday morning, despite only falling asleep at 10pm or so the night before, one of the children inevitably comes into bed with us around 7.30am (although this is a vast improvement because when they were smaller it was much earlier). One of us gets up and gets the kids some chocolate milk and lets them watch some kids TV while breakfast is prepared. We take it in turns to shower while one of us watches the kids, specifically my son, who has a habit of discovering bottles of things that can be poured over new carpets, trying to put things into electric sockets, throwing heavy toys down the stairs, or muscle his older willowy sister. My husband takes my daughter to her swimming lesson while I do a few errands with my son, we meet up for lunch with the kids, and then we take them to the park or one of the many kids parties that now fill our weekend calendars. Late afternoon and the kids usually demand a movie.  We always foolishly think this will give us an opportunity to sit down for a minute, but actually their movie watching experience involves us getting them a laundry list of drinks and snacks and taking them for toilet visits.  And then at some point my son will get bored of watching the film and will start levelling violence towards his sister who starts moaning because she is trying to watch, and sometimes crying because she is in actual pain. My husband or I have to settle the dispute, my son dutifully gets told off, behaves for five minutes, and then commits another attention seeking misdemeanour, at which point my husband (rain or shine) takes him out of the house again on a token errand. Basically an opportunity for him to have a walk and burn off some of that little boy energy that if not spent in a constructive manner gets turned into aforementioned destructive house trashing / sister bashing energy.  

By the time they return it is early evening, we prepare their dinner, give them a bath, and then it is bed time stories, and sitting outside of their rooms so they don't pop out of bed every 2 minutes and start running wild. One of us does this while the other tidies up the carnage from the day - playdough on the floor, chocolate on the sofas, dishes from dinner, crisps down backs of sofas, 101 tiny toys tidied away etc. By around 9.30pm if we are lucky, we emerge battle wary and exhausted - sometimes they are still awake but we are fed up with sitting on the stairs outside of their room. We might snack on something for dinner, watch a bit of TV. I fall asleep on the sofa, only to be woken at around 11.30pm by my husband who tells me it is time for bed. We collapse into bed and the whole business is repeated the next day, Sunday. These days we do try and play backgammon or a game of pool so we have the illusion of a Saturday night out. And yes, to be fair, we do have sitters occasionally and manage to go out, which is essential. But you've got to get back at a certain time to relieve the sitter, and one of you has to watch how much they drink as someone has to be responsible for the children during the night and of course get up with them the following morning. 

We are no longer that couple that never argue. Although I don't know if we argue as much as I vent and my husband doesn't retaliate because he is smart and emotionally intelligent enough not to take the bait and enter into a stupid pointless exchange. My son will throw something down the stairs and I ask my husband: "Aren't you watching them? I thought you were watching them?!" And he will say: "No I wasn't watching him and you are right I should have been." It ends there. Or I moan about the fact that perfectly clean clothes are chucked into the laundry basket making more laundry for me. My husband: "You are right, I will check next time." Or the bath towels are left on the floor and not hung up on the radiator in the bathroom. "I will hang them up next time." He gets annoyed about the fact that I allow the kids into bed with us (neither of us are really able to sleep when they do). Me: "But honey she was having a bad dream." And he is very tired when get gets home from work but always always takes the kids and baths them and gets them ready for bed but I know he would like me to do it once in a while too instead of fleeing to my study.

All of this exists because when you have small children you don't have a lot of time for yourself and so you start going a bit mad because you need that breathing space to be able to just sit and stare at a wall sometimes. And suddenly it's like you have to account for every breathing minute of your life and none of it is about you anymore - as in just you as an individual. And so you direct your resentment at the one person you feel can take it and who you perceive to be the enemy in all of this - your partner.

It has changed for me dramatically, because my children are now both at school full day, but a couple of months ago my very busy son wasn't and I genuinely struggled with defining myself in and amongst the 24/7 needs of everyone else. I really had to remind myself that my husband and I are on the same side and that as with any joint venture you embark on, and in this case we are talking our children, it's hard work.  My husband gets a change of scene, but that is because he goes to work, and it's not exactly like he is sitting around having a whole bunch of selfish fun either. He is working. And I chose to be a stay at home mother, and I feel very fortunate to have had this option, although it does get pretty intense. And it's not always going to be fun and easy, and you have to stick together and remember why you undertook it in the first place. Also that my husband is still that person I fell in love with and had all that fun selfish free time with, and now we are both 'in it' and the best way to get through it is to help each other, to be kind to each other, to be grateful for the other person's commitment and hard work, and to remember that we are both individually struggling with the fact that our personal freedom has been so dramatically compromised.

Also you know, I want to look after my relationship with my husband, because one day our children will leave the nest and I don't want to be left with some fragmented thing that resembles a marriage with a person I don't really know any more and who I've neglected over the years. It genuinely scares me. And also one of the reasons I say to all of my friends who are new parents: Date Night. Schedule it in and stick to it as you would a doctor's appointment - but do so weekly. It's astounding how fast you can grow apart from someone that was at one point the centre of your universe when you are busy raising children.

As I am fast discovering, what with the kids at school now, and having that longed for breathing space and time to actually write and reflect, this period when your children are little is really very short when you look back. Although as I said in the opening paragraph, it can sometimes feel endless when things are difficult. But as difficult as it can be it is also a process that is in a constant state of flux. And tremendously rewarding when you see how your children are growing, and learning, and developing. When they start cracking jokes or making witty observations, or just that thing where they launch themselves at you with great affection and tell you you are their best friend and they love you. When you start seeing signs of the kind of people; the man, the woman they are going to be one day and you think to yourself with a mixture of trepidation and awe and of course overwhelming love: You know, I think we did OK and I think they are going to be fine. Then, in that moment, all of it, all the good, all the bad, all the stuff that you had to give up, all the stuff that you gained, all that stupid stuff that you argued about, everything that seemed so overwhelming, well, it all kind of weirdly makes sense.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Conversations with my three-year-old son

A typical conversation with another mother in the nursery school queue:

Me: He won't eat pasta with any sauce on it. The pasta cannot even have a tiny bit of sauce on it and if it does, he says it is 'dirty' and he refuses to eat it
Other mother: Yup, my son does the same thing
Me: And if I hand him something and open it for him, a toy, an ice cream, a banana, he totally freaks out and says he wants to do it, even if he cannot possibly do it. And then I have to wait for him to see he cannot do it before he hands it back for me to open
Mother: Thank god, I thought it was just my son
Me: And do you get the random acts of violence too?
Mother: Sometimes, but he's OK with his baby sister, thank god
Me: And if he naps even for 20 minutes during the day, he won't go to sleep until like 10pm and he is bouncing off of the walls
Mother: Yup we've had to get rid of the nap and keep him awake even though he is sometimes really really tired, and I feel really bad. But it's either that or tired and wired at school the next morning right?
Me: And when I ask him who his friends are at school and who he played with today he says Buzz Lightyear
Mother: Er ....

And then there is a moment of silence where we look at each other like we just want to hug as a form of relief that there is someone else out there that has to put up with the same stuff.

My son is going through the terrible threes right now, not a social personality disorder, but it's easy to worry sometimes that it is the latter, especially if you've read the DSM and are a bit paranoid. My daughter was the same – the two's were OK actually, so much so that I thought: 'Why do people go on about the two's being so terrible?' Either that or I had really really low expectations. But as much as I want to romanticise her toddlerhood and polarise my kids as 'the good one and the crazy one' having kept a blog means I know she was no walk in the park at this age either.

This time in children's lives comes with some really difficult irrational behaviour plus clinginess to the point that I now refer to my son as 'my jealous boyfriend' because he reminds me of the boys you date when you are a teenager who are so insecure and joined at the hip with you that it almost requires a surgical procedure to separate long enough to go to the loo alone. Actually as a teenager I didn't have a boyfriend for any sustained amount of time to base this on, but I studied the type closely because my sister had several and they were all like this. It actually put me off having one of my own, but I'd be lying if I said I had much choice in the matter. But I digress.

Children of this age are also incredibly impatient because they have no concept of how time works, i.e. the whole waiting for something, even if it is mere minutes.

A typical scenario:

My son: I want an ice cream
Me: OK, I'll get it for you
Him: I want and ice cream
Me: I heard you I'm getting it (I'm actually getting up and heading over to the freezer and he sees me doing this)
Him: I want an ice cream
Me: Yes I know, I'm opening the freezer as we speak
Him: I want an ice cream
Me: Yes, for god's sakes, here it is

(I try not to swear in front of my kids, but I have an unfortunate tendency towards profanity.)

Now if you don't know my son, you may make the very foolish error of taking the wrapper off of the ice cream before handing it to him (which actually happened yesterday with Janet) in which case the following happens:

Him: (Totally losing his shit) Noooooooooooo!!!!! I do it! I take the wrapper off!!!
He then hurls the ice cream across the room

The correct protocol would be as follows:
You have to hand him the ice cream in the wrapper that you know he cannot actually open, and then give him a few minutes to turn it over in his small dictatorial hands first. He then looks at you, and you have to grab that precise moment (not too soon though) when you can see he is ready for help, but won't ask for it.

You: Would you like help opening it? Your tone has to be totally non plussed totally non 'I told you so' and certainly nothing accusatory. Just easy breezy - like the thought just occurred to you.

Him: Yes please

And then the world is set to rights. *Breathe out*

This is a fairly pleasant and easy exchange, but don't get led into a false sense of security, because it can just as easily go like this:

Him: Can I have an ice cream
Me: Sure
Him: Can I have an ice cream
Me: Yup – I'm just getting it for you
Him: Can I have an ice cream
Me: I am at the freezer as we speak
Him: Can I have an ice cream
Me: Yes, for christ sakes, here it is
Him: (Starting to cry) But I want the rocket one
Me: (Incredulous) We don't have any rocket ones just these
Him: But I don't like these, I want a rocket one
Me: We don't have any
Him: I want a white one
Me: What are you even talking about?
Him: Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!
Me: So do you want this or not?
Him: Not!
(I put the ice cream back in the freezer)
Him: Whaaaaaaaa but I want it!!!!

And then I say a prayer to the person who grants patience, but evidently this person isn't granting me any because of all the profanities I'm guilty of, and so I have to count to 10 or hope it's past 6pm so I can have a glass of box wine. This is my own magical thinking ritual - no wine before 6pm, so I stave off becoming an accidental alcoholic. Completely irrational because I can just as easily drink to excess once it is 6pm, but I don't (unless I'm on a proper night out). But it's a ritual I cling to regardless, like saluting a solitary magpie or not walking on cracks in the road.

But getting back to my son and the crazy ice cream situation – following something like this, I sometimes think: I am so not cut out for parenting. But when you have these kinds of exchanges you wonder who is? And it can also cause you to get all kinds of messed up superior ego issues, like when people who have paying jobs tell you they've had a tough day at the office dealing with irrational assholes you retort, 'Really? Try an hour in my day, and then we'll talk.”

Then there is the throwing of stuff – sometimes largish heavy things, that inevitably hit someone in the back of the head on their random trajectory across the room. Or levelling an unexpected wrestle maniaesque attack when I am cooking at the stove or transferring the kettle full of boiling water to the stove. Or taking a box full of crayons or lego and just chucking it all over the floor and then looking up at me with a huge mischievous grin. Likewise breaking things, biting the windowsill in his bedroom (actual teethmarks when we left our rental recently -wtf? I wonder what the inventory person thought). And generally trashing the place for no apparent reason.

And I've checked with other parents and apparently this is completely normal. So, I assure myself, I can really stop worrying; my son does not have a social disorder – he is just a small boy. Apparently they have a lot of physical energy that needs release preferably outdoors, otherwise they set upon your house or you with destructive vigour. A friend of mine has a trampoline that she tells me she sticks her son on, even in really cold weather (with ski jacket, gloves and wooly hat), so he can jump it all out of his system. “Boys are like dogs, you've got to run them every day to get that energy out otherwise you, their siblings, or the house gets it.” And when she told this to me I thought: “Man that's so harsh,” but now I think the woman is a genius and when I return to London and our garden is less wild kingdom I'm going to get one.

This morning I was holding my son and he slapped me in the face – no real reason, but he thought it was hilarious. My instinct was to hit him back, because that's how we are wired – it's that 5 second thing. But I put him down, counted, prayed, did whatever ritual I do when I am soooo angry, and said to him: When you do that to me my instinct is to do it back. Do you want to get hit too?
Him: No mommy, I'm sorry
Me: OK, so lets make a deal – you don't hurt me and I don't hurt you back ok?
Him: OK mommy

Of course I'm not going to hit, but he needs to learn that if he goes about hitting other kids, there's a good chance he's going to get hit back.

Moments like these I think it was wise that I made the very conscious decision before having children that I would never smack or hit them. I am fundamentally against this practise for various reasons, but sometimes when he really makes me angry or tests my patience I think to myself: If you hit a child or smack them when you are really mad or fed up, how do you regulate just how much so you don't really hurt them? I think it's dangerous territory and I avoid it all together. As a friend of mine who has the same view said to me this morning: “I totally agree, my daughter really pushes boundaries all the time, and if we did smack her she would be black and blue on a daily basis.”

I also think smacking doesn't work. My mother likes to share an anecdote of being on the phone to my grandmother when I was little and telling her that I had gotten three smacks that day for bad behaviour, “Breakfast, lunch and supper,” she muses. And I'm like “Three huh? So at what point did you realise that just maybe, that was an ineffective means of deterring negative behaviour?” But it's an entirely different generation and way of thinking and I don't believe I will ever entirely change my mothers's conviction that some kids (not mine, she always assures me, not mine) would really benefit from a good smack.

Small children, toddlers specifically, are completely incapable of reason and cause and effect thinking. It's actually been studied and proven. Which is why they will repeatedly, for example, get their fingers trapped in a drawer, or in my son's case, get sent to his room (which he hates) for throwing things or hitting his sister. So I could hit him each time he did something like this, and I know I'd just land up hating myself and feeling guilty and it wouldn't make an iota of difference to his actions.

So how do you stop them from doing crazy stuff? I've found changing the scene, taking them out of the context or away from whatever it is they are doing, or distracting them is best. Also keeping anything you value or could cause mortal wounds out of their reach is also a good idea. The world is one big interesting place to them and they have no idea that chucking your brand new iPhone into the toilet is really really inconvenient and expensive – it's just something they do, because, well they can. Last night I was working on this piece for 10 minutes in the kitchen and my son was very quiet. I looked up to see he had dismantled the keys in my iPad keyboard. When I asked him why he had done it he thought for a moment and replied in a heartfelt way: 'Because I broke it.” I mean, what could I say to that? I honestly don't believe it was out of malice. It was there, it's interesting to pull stuff apart, and he did it. It shouldn't have been within his reach, and that was my responsibility to ensure, not his.  So what would spanking him have accomplished in this instance? Sometimes, when I think about it, hitting small kids feels a bit like hitting a mentally disabled person because they are simply incapable of understanding or doing something that you expect of them.

I also really don't want my kids to learn that hitting someone is a way of exerting your will over someone else's, and it would feel totally hypocritical to me to do the one thing to them that I totally disallow and disapprove of them doing to each other, or any other child. But it's possibly also true that people like me that don't smack or hit their kids probably also drink a bit more wine than those that do, even if it is post 6pm, But I feel it's a small price to pay for, you know, teaching non violence. I think the world would truly benefit from more of this kind of thinking as would the wine industry.

Which isn't to say that I have this whole thing figured out. Most days I am pulling my hair out with frustration with a child that doesn't seem to listen to me and continually does the same shit over and over again despite threats to remove favourites toys, time outs etc. I'm going out on a limb here and hoping it is an age thing, a phase thing, and that if I employ the patience of a saint (while gritting my teeth), and a great deal of understanding, he will grow out of it into a lovely boy that is smart, kind, and courteous, and one that helps old ladies cross the street instead of throwing them across. It's all about faith and keeping an end goal in mind. 

We took the children to this indoor play place on the weekend. You know, the kind with zealous mothers clapping and shouting 'Wow, that's amazing!' every time their kids comes down a slide or climbs a few gym blocks, while the fathers sit around looking at their phones.

My daughter was inside a kind of tube thing and this little kid who was building some sort of fort pushed her over so he could get the tube and add it to his grand design. I saw him do it, she got annoyed, he went off to muscle something off of another kid and she reclaimed the tube. I didn't feel the need to step in. A few minutes later his mother appeared and he did it again, only this time I wasn't actually looking. My daughter started crying because in the process of him pushing her over while she was inside of the tube, she hit her face on the floor and she came and told me as much. The mother looked me in the eye and said: “Oh she just fell.” Like totally randomly out of the blue – nothing to do with her little Donald Trump over there.

Now my daughter doesn't lie, maybe one day when she skips school to hang out with her friends for the afternoon or steals the car for a joy ride, but not now. Even sometimes she'll start talking about something that is evidently made up, like “My friend Nutty, who is a nut and who lives in a packet talks to me when I am on the toilet,” and I'll play along and say, “Really and what does he say?” And she'll be like, “Mom this is just pretend – it's not real.” And when she tells me stuff that happens at school - it's always in a fairly matter of fact reporter-type fashion even if it puts her in a bad light. So I knew she was telling the truth. If the other mother had said: 'I'm sorry my son pushed her over – he's a bit over excited with this thing he is building' – I would be totally fine, but it really got to me that she lied. And yes, in that moment I judged her her Gap jeaned ass.

But I'm on holiday and I'm working on being more relaxed and less angry so I just let it go. Had this happened during my near nervous breakdown crazy bitch building house period, well, I think she may have been relieved to have all those gym matts around. Says the woman who doesn't believe in violence as a means of exerting one's will over another's.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Refurbishing a house aka: A shortcut to insanity

I just saw this new painting by Andrea Kowch in a Sag Harbor gallery and I fell in love with it. It doesn't require any complex analysis – simply put it sums up my present state of mind. Only if it were to absolutely sum up my present state of mind, the barn behind her (containing about 200 boxes with her household possessions) would be on fire, and she'd be holding the still smoking match in her hand as she headed toward saner, simpler, dust free pastures.

This is what eight months of refurbishing a house, combined with a traumatic house move experience will do to a person, and did I mention with two small children in tow who I wanted to give some semblance of normality and stability throughout the process? And moving into a dust ridden house that still had builders in it and no working kitchen, and via a hotel which eventually kicked us out because they were fully booked? Either that or the femme de chambre got fed up with fishing out sticky unidentifiable objects from the bidet and between the sofa cushions, and wondering why the hell the face clothes were so very brown.

All of it was self inflicted; No one told us to take on a major refurbishment project and move in when our house wasn't quite finished, or to choose an unrecommended moving company from the internet without them actually coming and assessing how much stuff we had. Which doesn't make it any easier, but it also means you don't get people's full sympathy. You sit there bitching about the kitchen company that screws up all the time, or the fact that the taps aren't symmetrically aligned with the shower attachment, or the plug sockets in the house that are askew thanks to a depressive electrician who has absolutely no sense of symmetry or alignment, none. Or how some of your stuff got broken in the move. And their faces glaze over and you think: “God dammit, this is my life here, and you don't care, you just don't care!” What I haven't mentioned is that they've had to listen to this diatribe or a variation of it for several months every time they risk asking you how you are, and they are quite frankly sick of it.

Those who still listen to me bitch, (after all, good friends are nothing if not long suffering) repeatedly assure me: "In three months you will be enjoying your new house so much you will have forgotten about all of this." Which is why I am writing this blog, because a lot like childbirth, I don't want to stupidly forget how painful the process is lest I be re-tempted into such foolishness in the future.

The process of taking a house back to the brick and being introduced to and working with an ever increasing cast of characters takes its toll. When you are project managing something of this size and juggling so many balls, so many balls that often go astray, it does things to you. The stress of it, the endless and often unexpected problems that arise, the frightening escalation at which you haemorrhage money, the fact that you increasingly wake up at 4am with terrible worry about what could potentially go wrong, and that you are ultimately responsible for it all. And that you are trying to do this all the while still being a nannyless mother to small children, while having stupidly agreed to be the class rep, and trying to keep your home life ticking by in a normal sort of fashion, and not be a complete bitch to your husband who is not there to share the load because he is working to pay for it all, and he travels a lot. And... and... and well, it sucks the life out of you and drives you a little bit crazy. And eventually it makes you mean, and short tempered and intolerant. And in need of botox and psychotherapy.

I realised I had a real problem, apart from the fact that I was becoming that crazy bitch (something I'm convinced my builders referred to me as and probably still do), when I started having panic attacks in the middle of the night. It started earlier this year; I woke up gagging, my heart pounding out of my chest, with a terrifying conviction that I was about to die. Sometimes a residual dream fragment would remain – I had accidentally swallowed the wrong combination of tablets and now the irreversible inevitability was upon me, or I had accidentally fallen into a noose. Ditto. And then, of course, despite being exhausted after a day of site visits and motherhood combined with multiple school runs, I was exhausted, but now genuinely scared to go to sleep. And so I chucked insomnia onto the pile of stuff I was struggling with.

In my waking hours I'd find myself feeling dizzy and exhausted, and just plain ill and not myself. I became convinced that if it wasn't cancer (once you approach 40 your starting point for everything is cancer) and ruling out anything else via a myriad of blood tests, I thought it had to be an allergy or plural. Either that or I was going mad. Although I kind of knew I was a bit mad anyway, but this felt different. So I sought out a well regarded allergist who immediately spotted Hyperventilation Syndrome – never mind any allergies. Me: “Hyperventilation? But isn't that people breathing into brown paper bags in the midst of a panic attack?” And then he took me through a questionnaire which I scored really high on, and gave me some literature, and it was all there. (My husband has just read this blog entry and told me it is far too long, so I deleted all the stuff about Hyperventilation Syndrome – but google it if you are interested. It really does exist. Promise. And it was also responsible for the panic attacks at night.)

*Breathe in …. and breathe out....Breathe in …. and breathe out*

I recently likened the process of refurbishing a house to spending an entire day cooking a meal that you are too knackered and fed up to enjoy at the end of it. Which makes me sound terribly spoilt and ungrateful and rubbish; I hail from South Africa originally and many people there live in tin shacks and would only be too pleased to have a house to renovate - stress and all. But I am starting to see why people get into the process of fixing up places and selling them on. It's because they are too fed up to enjoy them and actually live in them having gone through the horribly stressful process of making them perfect. That and the fact that you spend all your time spotting tiny imperfections like smeared sealant on the tiles while sitting on the loo and it drives you CRAZY. (Having read this back a few times to edit I see that I use the word crazy a lot – this is obviously an ongoing theme.)

Because of when our rental lease ran out, and when the school holidays started etc, we had to move into the house while the builders were still there. My two usual moving companies (yes we move a lot, which is why we stopped renting, bought a place, and got into this craziness in the first place) couldn't move me at such short notice. And I blame it on the fact that I had so much on my plate, that I stupidly didn't even think to ask friends for another recommendation and instead went online to one of those sites that you fill in how much stuff you have and then local moving companies send in quotes and you choose from one of them. To my credit they were all reviewed, as per an Amazon type system, and I did ask what I thought were relevant questions, but it was a huge mistake in retrospect. Actually, forget retrospect, on the day the two guys arrived, woefully ill equipped to deal with such a large move, I knew I had blown it, but by that point it was too late. It was like being stuck in a really bad acid trip and we just had to ride it out.

The movers from hell, as I fondly like to refer to them, managed to break a few items, damage some others, and there are a couple that remain MIA. I'm thinking they got broken and hidden in some dumpster. But until I get through all my boxes I cannot in all sincerity accuse them of the last. And believe me I've accused them of pretty much everything else. So much so that a lawyer friend of mine warned me about posting on FB and websites reviews, what she far too kindly referred to as 'hyperbolic references'. I have no idea why saying in an online review: “I would rather chew off my arm than recommend this moving company' is a problem given it's true?

Here are a few things I have learnt from managing a house refurbishment and moving house while trying to keep all of your marbles:

When your architect tells you at the outset that you can be as involved or as uninvolved in the project as you like, do not nod your head in a naïve agreeable fashion, smile and say: “Gee that's perfect, given I have two small kids with different school runs, and no nanny help and cannot really be on site all that much.”

Instead laugh cynically, get out your phone, and get yourself a project manager pronto who sports an A type personality and a healthy dose of OCD that can be on site every day. Unless of course you genuinely and insanely decide you do want to do it yourself. In which case quit your job, or if you are already at home, ensure the the kids are at school full time, or employ a full time nanny. But understand this, jokes aside, it is a full time extremely stressful job and you need to be available at the drop of a hat to be there to oversee stuff or make decisions. And you are going to be on the phone a lot, and online, and you have be organised and have your admin hat on. I wish someone had told me this at the outset, genuinely.

Choose a builder the same way you would a future husband that you will land up hating and arguing with all the time. Essentially he is a good man and he's giving it his all, but the nature of the business means your relationship is ultimately doomed. There is lots of blaming, and bringing up of the past - Him: “Remember I told you those wooden floors would set us back two weeks, but did you want to listen to me? Noooo... you just heard what you wanted to hear!” Me: God dammit, then why didn't you get another company in to do it and assign your guys to another part of the house?!? Him: (Making throttling gestures with his large hands) “I told you, it doesn't work that way, Jesus God!”

I genuinely had no idea just how emotional men in the trade could be, seriously.

Sanding floors and finding the right colour filler for the gaps and the right colour stain is a bitch. If you have the cash, replace the floors completely.

Keep receipts all together in one place. Not some in the bread cupboard, some with the kids artworks from school, some on the side table in the lounge, some at the bottom of shopping bags that get thrown away by your cleaner. The alternative is having a bunch of stuff you changed your mind about and will now need to eBay. And by 'you' I mean 'me'.

Correspond via email and following meetings, write everything down and email those concerned. Having stuff recorded will save your ass repeatedly. Trust me on this one.

Never accept something unless you are 100% happy with it. You would be amazed the amount of shyte people will try and fob you off with, all with very rational sounding explanations as to why you should accept something that is blatantly wrong. Pretty much everything is changeable, but the earlier you do it, the less it's going to cost you – both financially and stress wise.

Plan your house room by room. And BEFORE the electrician starts hacking into the walls to place the switches and plug sockets, and even the radiators (although this is the plumber), have them use a pencil or marker and actually draw on the walls where these are going to go. I'd go further and ask the same for the light fixtures – even though they will look at you as though you are completely insane. Looking at plans (which becomes akin to deciphering hieroglyphics after a while because there is so much information layered on there) does not give you the same idea of where stuff actually goes as it does when you are physically standing inside of a room and looking at it.

DO NOT EVER, EVER EVER book movers over the internet – EVEN IF THEY HAVE A 98% THUMBS UP in their reviews. Always go by personal recommendation, and always insist that someone comes and sees your house and how much stuff you have before you get a quote. And never, ever, answer over the phone how many boxes you think you will need. That is not something you will know, it is a moving company's responsibility to know given it is their line of business. I was asked if 40 boxes would be OK. Me: “Well I don't know, I think you should come and see our house and tell me.” Moving company: “No, it won't be necessary I think that should about cover it.”

It just about covered our books – just about. And then they didn't have any more of the tiny boxes they had arrived with, and my husband who was fortunately not travelling for once, and fortunately not at work for once, had to empty out three nearby Argos shops of their moving box stock while the moving guys stood around looking awkward and embarrassed. Apparently this was not their first experience of such a thing. Oh, and we had to hire a babysitter so we could help them pack up our house – something we thought we were paying them to do, but it was painfully obvious there was no way in hell they were going to do it in the one day they had allocated to the task. Yes yes I know, I'm an idiot. Given how many times we have moved in the last five years you'd think I'd know better. 

On the plus side (this is my husband talking because I am just about out of plus sides at this point) I did learn how to dismantle and re-mantle my children's beds, because it would appear that our moving company – five men strong (they sent in more guys for the heavy lifting day), were incapable of such an incredibly complex feat of engineering. Although they did manage to remove our dining room legs before unceremoniously dumping it in what will be our dining room once the builders are finished painting in there – some legs nearby, others in a completely different room. Likewise the spare bedroom bed.

Our furniture was not wrapped in carpet but chucked into the back of a dusty van along with our mattresses and duvets (likewise not covered in plastic) – so a lot of it has been scratched. Sets of drawers were carried on and off with the drawers jiggling about in them, lamps were teetering on top of furniture – not wrapped in bubble wrap, not in a box – teetering. Do you know the painting 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch? Well that's pretty much what I looked like during my two day move with these people.

What's the current status? Well apart from the chronic residual tick in my left eye, and what amounts to post traumatic stress syndrome, I did what any sanity searching person (in possession of air miles) would do whose house is full of dust, builders, and approx 200 moving boxes with quite possibly dozens of broken items inside - I left the country. Not like I kidnaped the kids and left the country, but we all got on a plane and left for a holiday which was planned anyway. I'm treating it as a much needed rest in a sanatorium or would do had my son not recently got a nasty virus which means he coughs so much he is vomiting and has had really high temperatures for the last three days. 

The builders remain, I am hoping and praying that the unbroken things we did manage to unpack are being protected from the dust, but to be honest I don't really care at this point. I've come to the conclusion that we move through life with far too much stuff – both physically and emotionally and the more you have the more stress it causes you having to worry about all of it. On my return I'm doing some serious chucking and giving away.

I'm enjoying being present and focused on the time I spend with my children, instead of putting them in front of the TV at every given opportunity so I can sort out house stuff. And I'm actually listening and interested in what my husband has to say rather than looking at him but actually thinking about plumbing fixtures or the right shade of grey or having to bollock our kitchen company for their latest screw up. And I'm gathering my strength and sanity to deal with all that bullshit (because it really amounts to that in the greater scheme of things) on my return.

Some final bits of unasked for advice: The most important thing in life is the people that you love and their wellbeing and the rest is just stuff. Sometimes you've got to know when to shut the door on the barn and walk away – even if it's only for a while to gather your strength. And playing with matches is generally a bad idea.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The class rep

I am the class rep for my daughter's reception class at school. Technically speaking I am half the class rep, as I share the role with another mother, who happens to be a friend of mine. We agreed to do it together because no one else wanted the job, and like me she has two small kids and little enough time to have an uninterrupted toilet visit let alone time to dedicate to an admin job of this kind.

The rep the previous year provided very big shoes to fill.  She'd get the weekly newsletter we all got on a Friday afternoon, extract the relevant bits and email us later that evening. She'd send us online calendars which allowed us to specify a preference for a mothers dinner date and it would then collate the popular choice. Emails were sent the day before reminding us if our children were meant to take things into school, or class trips, and we were effectively shaped into a highly efficient summer fair, book fair, winter fair, bake sale, and fund raising machine. You see a lot of women like this in the school -  high functioning professionals that give up their careers for a few years to raise their children and who are effectively intellectually frustrated.  They approach things like being a class rep as though they are orchestrating a hostile takeover, all the while elegantly attired.

I genuinely appreciated her for it, because in the nursery the year before, I was one of those mothers that had no idea what the hell was going on most of the time. I had a new baby and a toddler, so I might have been forgiven for that, but it didn't look very good. I'd always turn up having missed the boat about something while everyone looked at me a little pityingly. While the other children were given beautifully made sandwiches for their walking home snack, my daughter often got a Penguin. She didn't actually like sandwiches  but they didn't know that. I felt like that kid that is constantly asking other kids to copy their homework, or for spare PE kit because they've forgotten theirs at home and don't want detention.

MUFTI day - the phrase has a painful association for me. It's a day at the school - once a year, where the children get to wear non uniform and donate two quid to charity. Back in nursery our class rep wasn't quite as, well, efficient at reminding people about things as the aforementioned high functioning rep was. For starters I had no idea what MUFTI day was, and hadn't read the newsletter, so I didn't know when it was either. And to be fair to the rep, she had older children, assumed everyone read the newsletter, and didn't feel the need to spoon feed us. So on the fateful day, I'd had a terrible night with the baby, and I asked my cleaner to walk my daughter in to school. That afternoon, upon waiting in line to collect her, I began to get an increasingly sinking feeling, as miniature princesses, cowboys, and knights began emerging from the nursery (beaming) into their mother's waiting embrace. And then my little girl came out wearing school uniform; a small, solitary, distraught figure, who subsequently fell apart in my arms. A genuinely even tempered and happy little girl most of the time, she was totally distraught. At the time dressing up as a princess was the most special wonderful thing in her world, and here was this one day where she not only had license to dress up as one but to spend an entire morning in the company of other princesses! And her mother had messed up. 

The following year I kept a frantic eye out for information or mention of when MUFTI day was, double checked it with the teacher, triple checked it with the class rep and the other mothers, and then marked it in bold letters in my diary and on the calendar in the kitchen. There is no way in hell I was going to forget it. This time my daughter chose to wear something low key like a pair of jeans, a jumper, and trainers. But at least she wasn't in school uniform. As part of my class rep duty this year, I reminded the mothers at several different intervals - a kind of MUFTI day count down. I felt like, even if I did nothing else, I had fulfilled my duty as a good rep.

Another job of the class rep is to liaise on behalf of the parents with the head of the department and the headmistress. These meetings occur once a term and are fairly relaxed. We are invited to propose items for the agenda, and I ask mothers to email me any of their questions or concerns. It's things like: The toilets are dirty and smell (always). Why is the (albeit handsome) French teacher not a native French speaker? My French speaking child finds his pronunciation humorous. Why don't our children have napkins at lunch time, my son is using his sleeves? That sort of thing.

Regarding the toilets the answer is always the same: Small kids, especially small boys, tend to miss the target and unless you have a cleaner in the toilet 24/7, it is going to smell of urine. In fact I have a vivid unpleasant olfactory memory of my own school toilets even all these years later.

At the last meeting one mother vociferously stated her opposition to pudding on the lunch menu and biscuits as snacks, and suggested these be removed in favour of more healthy options. My response didn't go down too well: "What are you kidding me?! It's the one time in your life you can eat pudding and not worry about it. Why would you want to take it off the menu?!" The headmistress sensibly interjected that the children were not permitted pudding unless they had eaten their lunch first, and that they also had the option of fruit if they so chose. She thought it was good to promote the concept of choice from a young age, and that children should be given the ability to exercise this and to self regulate. Yeah, I thought, as I nodded my head - that's what I was going to say. But I could tell the Sweet Nazi, as I unkindly mentally labelled her, had my number, and likewise my sugar loving face burnt into her alfalfa eating mind for all of eternity.

As luck would have it, this women, whom I had never seen or noticed until this meeting, suddenly began appearing everywhere. A couple of days after the meeting, I almost collied with her outside of the school as I was in the process of magnanimously handing out chocolate eggs to some of the children who were coming back to my house for a play date. The expression on her face undoubtedly read: 'Yup, just as I thought - the Pied Piper of rotting teeth and emerging fat cells.' I walked home feeling sheepish.

I am presently planning my son's 3rd birthday party. Fortunately he is consistent in his tastes. Last year it was pirates, specifically 'Jake and the Neverland Pirates', this year it's robots, space rangers (specifically 'Buzz Lightyear'), and rockets. At three my daughter thought she liked 'Ben 10' even though she had never seen a single episode of it. It's a complicated story but she had a little friend called Ben, whom she adored. And one day in the store she saw a book with 'Ben 10' on the cover and excitedly exclaimed, "Look it's Ben!" And in all fairness to her, it was a rather uncanny likeness. From that moment on 'Ben 10' was her friend Ben. I could see some of the other nursery mothers thought I actually let her watch the programme because she talked about it all the time. They were probably thinking: 'OK, so always late, has no idea what the hell is going on, traumatised her child my missing MUFTI day, AND allows her to watch totally age inappropriate TV.'

Anyway, so she wanted a 'Ben 10' theme for her 3rd birthday, but then she also wanted dinosaurs. It really threw me - what to do, what to do? It genuinely messed with my desire to have an integrated matchy matchy sort of theme. I blame it on years of working on Proctor and Gamble advertising. In the end I landed up going for both  - and alternated table settings with either 'Ben 10' tableware or dinosaur ones - likewise with the balloons. Party bags had a similar assortment of things, and the entertainer was a conservationist chap who showed off his collection of lizards, snakes and spiders.

For her birthday presents she asked for something called 'The Tower of Doom' and a 'Blue Dragon' - both featured in a kids shop catalogue she enjoyed browsing while she used her potty. So I, despite instinctively thinking these things may well be frightening for a tiny just on three-year-old girl, once again indulged my daughter's eccentric tastes and ordered them. The blue dragon (an automated remote controlled creature who's eyes glowed red as it menacingly lumbered forwards, while producing a blood curdling screech) had to be banished into the deepest recesses of the garage because she was terrified of it.  I think it was then that it occurred to me that the Temple of Doom (with its two headed creatures and knights) might be similarly received, and it never got presented. It remains unopened in the garage and I think my son may well be getting it for his birthday this year.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Building works

We bought a house a year ago, and have gutted it inside, knocked a couple of walls down, and are in the process of putting it back together again. So these days all my free time (and there isn't much of it to begin with), is used looking at taps, shower enclosures, toilets, doors, door handles, paint swatches, spindles (the wooden bits that staircases are made up of), stair lights, paint swatches, wall paper, tiles, and and and - the list is endless. At the beginning of the process the architect told us we could be as involved or uninvolved in the project as we liked. I have not found this to be the case, because ultimately, unless you say to someone, and mean it: 'You choose everything' - there are going to be choices to make and this involves you pouring through brochures and browsing the internet. Now I love shopping, I won't deny it, but this wore me down. And being a pro choice sort of person, I never thought I'd say this, but after this experience, I think there can be such a thing as too much choice. It can be overwhelming and contribute to that already residual sense that one could always do better than the choice one has already spent 50 odd hours making. Google is sometimes not your friend - it is the equivalent of the Jones's.

Ask anyone who has renovated or refurbished a house what the experience was like and they will almost certainly share a widely different set of stories and opinions on the matter, but I bet you a dollar that almost all of them will say the following:
1. Whatever you had budgeted to spend, double it
2. Whatever time you had planned on the process taking, double it

One of the most important things in the process is that you have a team of people that you trust. This means and includes the architect and the building contractor. Because what invariably happens is that you start out with a plan, stuff goes wrong or crops up, and you incur a lot of extra time and money to fix it. Even with the most honest man on the job unexpected things occur. In our case we were going to strip the walls only as far as the wall linings, and once they started doing that they discovered the plaster behind was crumbling, so we made the decision to take the whole house back to the brick and re-plaster from scratch. And in some places wooden support beams were sagging with age and damp and had to be removed and replaced with steel. And it turns out the existing water supply is insufficient so we have to pay Thames Water to dig out something in the road and replace it, which means putting up parking and traffic restrictions in place, and getting their team to replace water pipes, for a price, naturally. Then there's the roof, or parts of it, that need replacing, the guttering etc etc etc.

And while you're at it, you may as well fix the higgledy piggledy 1920's ceilings, insulate the whole house, and if you do that, then probably a good idea to double glaze the windows otherwise you are going to lose heat and triple your heating bill. Oh and that ugly 1970's fireplace probably should be changed because it don't work with the style of the house, but you have to get a chimney sweep (yes they actually exist outside of Dickens novels)in to see if it is clear, and see if the gas connection is sufficient, etcetera. You see where I'm going with this right? 

Ahh and what about changing your mind? The more you do this, the more money and time you spend. But to be fair to the moderate mind changers of the word, of which I count myself one, it is impossible to work from a set of drawings only. For example: We had decided on a separate TV room to our kitchen, but once the builders took down the existing wall and were about to put up a new one in a different place, we found that actually we liked the space to be left completely open plan. Then there was a space where a door was going to go, and when you were walking around it didn't feel right in that position, so we moved it. 

I once worked with someone who told me never to settle with something unless I was 100% happy with it. This was in a work context, but it's stood me in good stead with many other things since. This cropped up with the opening to the conservatory from the kitchen, which was off centre, and needed opening to the left by approx half a meter. I kept walking into the room and wanting to shove the wall over to the left - probably the designer in me that likes things to be aligned and equidistant. Our first builder said he wasn't sure it was possible and ummed and ahhed and made it sound like I was requesting a complex feat of engineering. The architect talked about added cost, and the two of them genuinely tried to talk me out of it. Our second (and final builder - which is another story) came along and said he didn't think it was a problem provided the structural engineer took a look. Long story short, it was possible, it wasn't a huge cost, and everyone agrees it looks infinitely better. Sometimes you have to stick to your guns. I have this theory that if something bothers you,  go home and sleep on it. If you are still bothered by it in the morning, chances are you need to make a change.

We have also put electric plug sockets in every conceivable location.  So much so that I wouldn't be surprised if our house doesn't visibly glow in the night from all the energy. But until we have lived in the house and know how we are going to use it, use the rooms, we needed to have the flexibility. Also because my doctor, who has himself renovated his house recently, mournfully advised: "You can never have enough outlets, and getting them done after the fact is a huge pain and expense."

Then there were our friends who told us that the sunken spot lights in our kitchen should line up exactly with where our kitchen cabinet doors open, so we should hold off on putting in the ceiling until the kitchen was fitted. And to have two fridges instead of one of those large expensive American ones which are all about door space and not much fridge space. That saved us a few quid.

Or the friend who warned us regarding the position of plug sockets or light switches so that they don't conflict with where one wants to put art.

Lots and lots of opinions and bits of advice from everyone. There are people out there who make up their minds about something and don't really care for or want anyone else's opinion - but I am the opposite. It's not that I am insecure, indecisive or easily swayed, quite the opposite actually. But I genuinely believe, especially when you are doing something for the first time, that information is priceless. Learning from other people's experiences and mistakes has been very beneficial to us. Now I'm certain there will be things that once we are in we will say, "If we were to do this over, we would do x, y or z differently..." There are already a few electric socket positions in the kids rooms I am not too happy with and probably should have checked, but once the furniture is in I doubt that the fact that they are not precisely centred with where a (potential) double bed in the future would go to house bedside lamps, is going to bother me hugely.

I do however think that if you have a generous budget, getting an interior decorator in is helpful. Our budget was not that generous. These people spend their time pouring through catalogues and brochures on your behalf, and probably have a lot of stuff at the tip of their tongues, once they know your taste, and can save you the hours of having to choose things yourself and the second guessing. And it really is hours and hours and hours. And knowing which taps to choose, and which shower hose, and that you don't just need the shower hose, you need a cradle, and an end piece, and which basins to get with waste or without etcetera
  A lot of it started out as being Greek to me, but we are fortunate to have a very intelligent and helpful contractor who has assisted me through the laborious and confusing process and has suffered a thousand and one probably rather idiotic (at least to him) sounding questions via email.

Timings are another tricky bit. We are currently renting, and it goes without saying having a mortgage and a rental is a financial stress. But we also know that it is cheaper than a divorce, which is what a lot of couples risk when they live in a house while building work is going on. I also think it's very tough when you have small children, school runs, the usual havoc of life with a young family, and tons of dust. I don't think I have it in me. And I'm praying that I won't have to test that theory because our landlord has droves of estate agents showing our rental every week. One couple who appeared to like the house asked me when we were moving out. I could see the estate agent behind them trying to signal me, the veins bulging in her neck and her eyes widening as I said: "Well, hopefully at the beginning of July, if our builders are finished." I am praying it won't be a situation where they find someone, give us a month's notice (our current agreement), and we have to find a place for a few weeks before the works are completed.  *Area just below left eye twitching as I ponder this possibility.*

Everyone says to me: "How exciting you will get your house exactly as you want it." At first I genuinely didn't think this, I felt overwhelmed at how much I would have to choose and how many ways I could get it wrong. But I've found that you figure it out as you go along, guided by budget, advice from the architect, builder, and friends, and it slowly starts to fit together. Also, I am blessed with a husband who has a very relaxed attitude about things and he constantly reminds me: "Honey, if we hate it, we can always change it." Which I suppose is true, after sleeping on it of course.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Notes from recent travels

"I wouldn't want to mess with her," says my husband, eyeing a particularly muscular woman at the poolside. This instinctive nightmarish vision of having to defend himself - bar brawl style or perhaps in a dark alley - against this unsuspecting stranger, feels peculiarly male to me. Later my son steals her sons' toy and we get chatting. "You are in great shape," I tell her. "I take it you work out?" I almost expect her to say, "Well, duh!?" But instead she says warmly, "Thank you. Yes I do, it's my release. If I didn't work out I'd have anxiety. I really enjoy it." She tells me she works out every day. I try and appear knowledgeable on the subject despite my soft body and the calorific cocktail I'm nursing in a plastic cup. The truth is I do know quite a bit about transforming one's body because my father used to weight train religiously when I was younger, and I got into it myself in a big way after university. Years of drinking and unhealthy eating had taken their toll, and it took almost a year of hard work and daily dedication to shed the massive 55 pounds I had accrued. Me: "So you alternate muscle groups and cardio versus weights?" She nods, evidently impressed, and says she does. 

I reflect on my own current exercise regime which consists of doing the school run - a total of 6 walks a day - in a hilly party of London with one small child in tow and another in the pushchair I am breathlessly hoiking around. By the looks of her thighs and washboard stomach, and mine which resemble misshapen lumps of dough, what I am doing is evidently not enough.

I like a muscular build on a woman, I see it and I appreciate all the hard work and dedication that's gone in to it, because I know what it takes to achieve something like that. So many Mars bars denied, so many hours working out - the self discipline is enviable. But more so she looks strong, healthy, and able to defend herself, which is what really appeals to me. Maybe I too somehow envisage the bar brawl or being jumped in a dark alley, and the idea of being able to surprise any potential attacker with my strength and stealth truly appeals. All fantasy material naturally, as I'd most likely scream for help or make a run for it as much as the next person. But still, it would be cool.

On the subject of surprises, I decided to surprise a friend of mine and fly to DC for his 40th birthday party last week. We have known each other for about 20 years now and I thought it might be nice for him to have some friends, or at least a friend, from his pre American life, apart from his lovely wife that is.  This involved flying from West Palm Beach in Miami to the Ronald Reagan airport in Washington, approximately a 2.5 hour flight.

Given the fact that I travel frequently I should be more used to it, and I guess I am, but I don't like flying. It's not so much that I worry the plane will fall out of the sky, but I struggle to wrap my head around how such an enormous piece of machinery, plus passengers, plus all their bursting at the seams suitcases, manages to actually get up there in the first place. Whenever I check in, I look around at all the luggage people are checking in themselves, and it makes me very nervous. 'All that stuff, all that stuff must weigh a ton!' I think to myself. I am most nervous on take off, which I'm told is realistic given that's also when the plane has a full tank of gas. Thanks very much to whoever told me that - probably my husband.

So ahead of this particular flight I am doing my usual pre flight withdrawal thing; I retreat into my book and don't want to talk or be gregarious. But my American co travellers are gregarious and in high spirits, chatting away in the waiting area, especially as the flight has been delayed by about 40 minutes and then a further 20 or so thanks to the toilet on the plane being broken.  They are an upbeat bunch, but connections are at risk and people are beginning to get nervous, so the talking and joking is elevated. I'm all for the toilet getting fixed: whatever it is, fix it, I don't care how long it takes. I'd rather wait longer and know that everything is working as it should. That's the fear talking.

In the seated area next to the gate, the man next to me is frenziedly shovelling something into his mouth, his head bobbing back and forth. I look over to see he is eating trail mix (a mixture of nuts, seeds and raisins). The woman opposite is reading her Kindle and has removed one shoe and sock and is twirling her foot this way and that.

'God, if I find myself in a 'Lost' situation I really don't want these people to be on an island with me', I think to myself. I am nervous and therefore intolerant. And I hate seeing people's feet, especially in an out of context situation such as this. She could be naked - it's feels the same to me, just very, I don't know, uncomfortable. And the audibly masticating man next to me is just annoying. 

Once we board, my seat is right at the back of the plane, and my travelling companion is a woman in her mid to late 60's wearing a surgical mask - the kind that Chinese tourists wear when they have a cold. I greet her and then add, "Do you have a cold, or are you afraid of germs?" trying, and probably failing, to sound as friendly and upbeat as my co travellers. "I have cancer," she answers plainly, "and my kids have told me I should wear this because the air on planes is circulated over and over and I could catch something that would be bad for my immune system."
Me: "I'm really sorry to hear that."

She puts on ear phones and I take that as my cue to shut up and read my book.

The flight is bumpy - so bumpy that for the entire flight the seatbelt signs are on. I manage to order a small bottle of red wine and drink it hurriedly lest is spill all over the place, and of course, in the vain hope it might calm my nerves. I try and write a piece about a recent fellatio master class I attended (I'm not kidding) but then think a woman who is battling cancer may not want to read about penis hygiene in such close confines. So I shut my laptop and go back to reading about extremists and people who believe in such things as a secret organisation that runs the world. As an aside Jon Ronson's 'Them' is excellent, should you want to read about conspiracy theories of this kind.

30 minutes before landing and the woman next to me is getting angsty, she removes her mask, and asks the flight attendant to please enquire about her connection and if she is going to be OK. Five minutes pass and it appears as if he's forgotten so she asks him again, and then adds: "I am burying my husband tomorrow in Buffalo and I cannot miss my flight."

Me: Your husband? What happened?
Her: He died and he is orthodox and he has to be buried with his people up there, even though we live in Miami. So I flew him over
Me: God I am so sorry. What did he die from?
Her: Cancer
Me: (Incredulous) So you both have cancer?
Her: Yes, I think I got mine worrying about him being sick. He fought it for five years but we weren't lucky
Me: (Swallowing), My goodness, I am very very sorry, you've been through so much
Her: Thank you, yes, I have. But I cannot miss my connection today. I should have flown out with him yesterday

I imagine this woman dealing with all this fear and tragedy and having to bury her husband in a strange place - certainly far away from her and her children, and I feel an enormous sense of loss and sadness. Irrespective of how upbeat and hopeful I like to be in order to cope and keep the shadows at bay, sometimes I have to concede that life can be a terribly unfair bitch.

Fast forward a few days and I am back at our resort, chatting to a grandmother at the pool, who is there to help look after her 8-month-old granddaughter while the father is at a conference at the hotel and the mother is back in Kansas heavily pregnant. Her and I chat about children and how taking your grandchildren on holiday is such a brilliant idea if you have to babysit for an extended period of time, and then something, or rather, someone, jolts our attention away.

A man looking exactly, and not just a bit, but exactly as though he has just stepped off of the cover of Men's Health magazine saunters into our vision and joins the aforementioned well toned muscular woman and her kids at the pool. Obviously if he was going to be anyone's husband, he was was going to be hers, and I realise the gym is evidently a shared passion of theirs. He starts talking on his mobile phone, ever so slightly turned at the waist, and every conceivable muscle in his body is bulging and shining in the afternoon sun. I pretend to read my book and then look over at he grandmother who is not pretending to do anything other than stare. And you do stare, because seeing someone so physically perfect is a rarity and it's, well, a thing of beauty and wonder. Another man, a father watching his kids in the pool, eyes the Men's Health guy and then instinctively crosses his arms across his chest. My husband, lying next to me, says: "I think I need to get back to exercising again." But this time there is no mention of messing with anyone.