Friday, October 31, 2014

Let it go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Et tu, Brute?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Smashing tofu in bad guys faces

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

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

'Hating' things

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The bidet, and why you need one, possibly




When we started refurbishing our house a couple of years ago, my mother strongly encouraged me to get a bidet. "Do whatever you want with the rest of the house, but make sure you get a bidet."  She was emphatic perhaps even solemnly so - the way you tell your college-aged daughter never to leave her drink unattended on the bar.

A bidet made me think of those houses I visited as a kid - the fancy ones owned by older relatives with avocado-coloured baths, carpeted bathroom floors, and fleur de lis border patterns. Or hotels in Dubai - with what appears to be a bottom washing obsession in the Middle East.


It felt kind of old fashioned and ostentatious, and it wasn't something on our must-have list. But then I remembered something a friend of mine had randomly told me about years before. She said that (weirdly) she had had a bidet in the small ensuite in her room in halls at university. "Best thing ever," she enthused, "great for, you know, washing down there after sex." I also remembered my mother washing my (then) toddler nephew's muddy covered feet in the bidet or was it dog poo covered? Or teaching him to wash his little hands using the tap on it, or filling it with water and allowing him to play with his little floaty toys in it.  (And yes, my mother is equally if not more hygiene obsessed than me, so this was done when it was clean).

And then there is the fact that before that wonderful life-changing invention that is wet flushable toilet wipes, it really was the only way you could properly wash your bottom without stepping into the shower or bath. Unless of course you are a tourist in a park bathroom in London that has diarrhoea and washes your backside standing at the communal basin where everyone can encounter this breathtaking (and the smell really was breathtaking but not in a good way) sight. 


But I digress ...

As it turns out when we were designing our bathroom, we had the space next to the toilet and I found a bidet that was pretty modern looking (not an avocado or fleur de lis in site). The architect seemed amused that someone in this day and age would want one but said she'd stick it in the plans. And I thought to myself, 'even if we don't use it, it makes the bathroom look smarter (at least to some people) if we ever resell.' 


And so it came to pass that we had a bidet for the first time, and the thing is, I have come to love it. I really love my bidet.

Apart from the fact that it really is good at cleaning your bottom and is useful for the aforementioned feminine hygiene thing (if you face the other way),  it's also kind of a broader family love affair.  My four-year-old son (when he remembers it's there) loves weeing in it. I only wish I had had one when we were toilet training him because he so loves not having to stand on his toes to reach the regular toilet. I remember being little and always feeling that the world was far too big for me and being delighted when finding things that were my size - that for once I didn't have to struggle, that for once the world didn't expect me to fit in with it but fit to my needs instead.

The cat likes to perch on the edge of it while I turn on the tap and uses it as a fountain to drink from. My other cat likes to lie in it in the summer using it as a kind or large cooling ceramic nest. I don't know if my husband uses it because eleven years and counting we still do not feel the need to be in the bathroom when the other is using the toilet. Thank god. And my daughter eschews it in favour of the regular toilet and toilet wipes in the kids bathroom. But me, my urinating son, and the two cats - we are all big fans.