14 November 2011

Can you pay my bills?

Pay your own bills, ladies
Ah yes, as Destiny's Child once sang…can you pay my bills? I'm guessing that Beyonce & co don't have too many problems paying bills these days but I've had problems, myself. A few years ago I found myself out of work for the – I think it was (they all blur into one) – 4th time.

And finally, I got over my fear and signed on for Jobseekers Allowance. It took some swallowing of pride. A lot of swallowing of pride. I'd been working since the age of 16, when my dad dragged me to a local shop to apply for a part time job. I was used to earning my own money. Even though I'd been made redundant or had fixed-term contracts come to an end before, I'd always had just enough to keep myself going to the next job. But this time I had no choice. And anyway; I'd earned it. Hadn't I been paying my taxes and NI all those years?

It wasn't an easy experience. Going to the Job Centre every fortnight, I found that the staff seemed to be a little confused by me. They didn't understand what a web editor does. When I presented a spreadsheet of recruitment agencies I'd contacted and jobs I'd applied for, they wearily asked me to name two agencies I was registered with. They – unsurprisingly – couldn't find any jobs that fit my experience. When I went on the computers at the Job Centre, I was offered 16 hours a week jobs as a barmaid. In Leeds. Two hundred and fifty miles from where I live. That's one hell of a commute for 16 hours of minimum wage. And all this was for the princely sum of what I think was, at the time, £64.50 a week.

Of course, every penny counts, and it helped me from starving to death. But what about my mortgage? My gas and electricity bills? The broadband I needed to search for and apply for jobs? I had no option. I wasn't eligible for support with my mortgage or bills. I didn't have a partner to help carry the burden. My meagre savings quickly dwindled to nothing. I had one resort: the three credit cards I had an account with. This was before the credit crunch, and credit cards had been falling over themselves to get my money by giving me credit I couldn't keep up with. I was their ideal customer; I'd always paid on time, but never quite paid off the balance, giving them some nice juicy interest. They upped my limit often and sent me "credit card cheques", which allowed me to "pay" money into my current account.

All the bills began to mount up with horrifying speed, and the credit cards were the only solution I could see. I was aware I was putting off the inevitable but my main priority was to keep the roof over my head. The Jobseekers Allowance didn't even scratch the surface, and my debt grew monstrous in my desperate scrabble to survive. My soul died a little each time I went back to the Job Centre, and each time I wrote myself a credit card "cheque" so the mortgage and bills could be paid for another month.

Since then, happily, I've found work. And since then, less happily, the credit crunch has happened. There's been a lot of blaming of victims since then. People who lived beyond their means; people who borrowed more than they can pay. Benefits are being slashed (although I understand the JSA is now an extravagant £67.50 a week). But sometimes good, honest people who want jobs get cornered. I'm not a "hard-working family" (as the politicians love to rhapsodise about) and I haven't been irresponsible. I haven't gone off on yachting holidays with my credit cards. I just tried to stay warm and dry. And I'll be paying the price for a very long time to come.

(Incidentally, every year when the budget comes out, and whenever cost of living is in the news, you'll hear me rant about the politicians' and media's focus is on the cost to "families". Being single and child-free is no Jimmy Choo and champagne life either. We don't get discounts, other than Council Tax. It's really hard when only one income is going in and the bills are still going up.)

While I have a permanent job now, with what should be a decent wage, I still barely make ends meet. The legacy of all that debt still bites deeply. The cost of living is going up, but wages aren't. I'm grateful for my job. And in a way, the credit corner I found myself was a blessing; I can no longer borrow so I'm forced – and have learned to – live within my means.

I'm aware, though, that I'm only a paycheque or two away from being in dire straits again. I'm also aware that a permanent job isn't really so permanent anymore so redundancy is a constant fear.

I'm glad I live in a country with a safety net, no matter how small. Don't get me wrong. But I'm watching what's happening in this country with an ever-growing sense of despair. The utilities companies are putting up prices on a regular basis, despite making very fat profits, and the government does nothing to regulate it. The benefits are being cut and I honestly can't work out how people can find a way out, no matter how much they want to work and pay their way. And the bills keep coming. For those who are in the position I once found myself in, wanting a job but unable to find one and with nowhere to turn, I despair.

2 November 2011

Don't call me. I won't call you. Probably.

I'm really not one for the telephone.

I know. Women are supposed to spend all their time gassing on the phone, right? Yapping away with friends they've only just seen ("What do you talk about?" stereotypical men in the lives of these stereotypical women ask). Passing idle gossip. Talking about…I don't know – cupcakes? Shoes?

I'm just not like that. I pretty much hate ringing people. Even the people I love most in my life. My parents get a call maybe once a month, if I'm being good. I never ring my siblings. I never ring my friends.

Chances are, if someone rings me on my mobile, I'll glance at the screen, note who it is, and put it back in my bag. I'll probably text later.

If the landline rings during the week, I'll pretend it's not happening. Chances are it's someone I don't want to speak to. A creditor, most likely. Or someone ignoring the fact that I'm registered with the Telephone Preference Service, trying to sell me a new kitchen or insurance. Or kitchen insurance.

If it rings at the weekend, it's probably my mother. I'll usually pick up then because I know it's my mother. And the conversation from my side will be: "Uh huh. Yeah. Yup. Yeah. Yup. Yeah. Haha. Oh really? Yeah. Good. (repeat for 30 minutes.) OK. Love you too. Hi Dad. Yeah, good. OK. Love you too. Bye." It's obviously no reflection on them; of course I love them. But when I speak to them on the phone it's out of a sense of filial duty, not a desire to reconnect. I'd rather see them in person. Of course, I can't see them in person that often – every few years or so. So I should embrace the phone. But my intolerance to Mr Graham Bell's invention gets deeper every year.

If the phone rings after about 7pm, someone had better be dead. I see that clanging ringing sound as an intrusion into the hermit-like world I enjoy when I'm at home.

If I need to cancel something, like insurance (kitchen or otherwise) or a subscription, I much prefer an email or letter. If I ring, I'm fully aware that I'll be put through to "customer retention" and have to endure someone reading a customer retention script before they'll finally let me go. I once spent half an hour on the phone to a woman in India reading a script in broken English while I begged her to just cancel my AOL subscription.

If a friend rings, I'll usually forget to listen to the voicemail for about a week. I'll happily text or email, but my favourite way to interact with my friends is in person. I never ring up for a goss and I tend not to enjoy "goss" conversations. I spend the entire time wondering when I can find an excuse to hang up.

I'm not completely phobic about the phone. I use it to make meetings, appointments and arrangements. Ask for directions. Sort out a query at work. That kind of thing. It's a useful tool. But I just don't use it to communicate.

If I want a chat with someone I care about, like a friend, I do it face to face.I love socialising and I'll talk about pretty much anything. If it's an uncomfortable issue, a complaint or something I'm not happy to talk about, I prefer to get it all into a letter or email, where I can organise my thoughts without interruption or intimidation.I like to be prepared. Have a meeting at work where we can look at spreadsheets or schedules or visual aids. I hate awkward silences. Phone calls can catch you off guard. I've been known to write down what I want to say before making a call.

I'm a regular chatterbox on social media, but there, I have control. I can work out what I want to say. I can edit myself. I'm not going to talk myself into a corner or run out of things to say. I've always been more comfortable writing than communicating in any other way. I think that's why I love the internet so much.

As far as Skype – all the awkwardness of a phone call AND the caller can see if I'm looking at my scruffiest and haven't cleaned the house? Forget it.

I love my iPhone but I hardly ever use it for phone calls. Emails, texts,music, clever and useless apps, games, social media – all brilliant. But actually using it to phone people? Hardly ever.

If a phone call has a purpose, I can deal with it. But the kind of idle chat I love in real life just doesn't translate to the phone. I can't see anyone's face. I can't deal with a pause in conversation by glancing elsewhere, or smiling, or going to the bar, or petting a dog.

I feel a neverending guilt towards my friends and family for never picking up the phone, but I think they're used to it by now. I hope so. As far as the others – the creditors, suppliers and kitchen insurance providers – they can just deal with it.

Don't call me. I'll call you. Maybe.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

7 October 2011

Horsing around

Living my dream. The horse may disagree.
What is it about little girls and those of an equine persuasion? Like countless other little girls, I loved horses from a very young age. I can't remember ever not loving them. When I was given a piece of paper and asked to draw something while my mother registered me for kindergarten, I'm pretty certain I drew a horse.

I was an avid reader from a tender age, and horses were of course my favourite subject. Every time I went to the library – which was often, as I talk about here – I made a beeline for any book that had an illustration of a horse on the cover. Black Beauty was the book I read, and reread, umpteen times, throughout my childhood. I wrote my own stories about horses, lavishly illustrated.

I had a vast collection of toy horses, mostly from Breyer. I think at its peak the collection boasted a herd of around 40 horses. There was a leader – the largest horse, a palomino named Thunderbolt – and his wife, a gentle and wise bay named Brownie. They had a son, Cloudy, who was a rearing palomino stallion. Cloudy was rebellious. Every one of the horses had a name, a character, a back story, and a drama played out endlessly in my room with my equally horse-obsessed friend.

There was a farm down the road from me with a few horses and I visited whenever I could. I nagged and begged my parents for riding lessons, and for a horse. I couldn't understand why we couldn't keep a horse in the back yard of our suburban house. I was one of six children, though, and riding lessons don't come cheap, so my equestrian dreams were never fulfilled except through my own imagination, the books, the horse herd soap opera, drawing after drawing and story after story.

When I went to university, the school had an agricultural college attached. They bred their own Morgans and I discovered I could take lessons relatively cheaply. There followed a few of the happiest horsey years of my life as I donned jodhpurs, boots and hard hat and learned how to ride.

As I grew older, and entered a world where I had to pay bills and such, the riding lessons waned. I never progressed beyond walk/trot/canter although I still took lessons when I could. In one such lesson I came off the back of a spooked horse who managed to kick me squarely in the back of the knee, leaving a perfect hoof mark, a bruise from bum to ankle and the lasting legacy of a torn knee cartilage which haunts me to this day. Many times I've walked away from a riding lesson in tears, wondering why I just paid someone £25 to scream at me and make me feel stupid.

Even that has never destroyed my adoration of the beasts. I still coo "Horses!" when I see them, and feel the same surge of admiration and fondness I did as a child. I never grew out of my girlhood love.

I just went on a riding holiday and it was the first time I'd been on horseback in a long time. I felt very anxious, particularly in canter; because of the mishap my tendency is to grip and lose my stirrups, and for my first canter through the forest I was thin-lipped with fear, bouncing gracelessly on the poor horse's back. By the end of the week, though, my heart was pounding with exhilaration rather than fear. Even when my horse spooked at the terrifying sight of …speed bumps, I could manage, and even when he unexpectedly veered into the woods at a gallop with me yelling "WHOAH!" on his back, I stayed on.

And I've had the unforgettable experience of sitting astride a galloping horse on an empty*, golden stretch of Spanish beach, the surf pounding as hard as my heart, hearing the thud of the hooves on the ground, hat being pushed back by the wind, huge grin on my face. Nothing can beat that.

As an adult I've lost most of my childlike wonder and excitability. I have the steady-as-she-goes calm of someone who's been around for a while and is rarely surprised or shaken out of her normal life. But if you told the little-girl version of me that some day she would gallop on a sleek Andalucian horse on a Spanish beach, she would not have been able to contain her joy. And I was so pleased to discover that I still have that childlike joy and excitement within me.

*Empty except for a few naked men. Turns out there are no nudity laws in Spain.

9 September 2011

Nobody asks for it

Rest in peace
Like everyone else, I remember the moment very clearly. I was on MSN at work and the guy I was chatting to said “just heard a plane went into the World Trade Center?” I imagined a light aircraft. I didn't imagine what followed.

We all know what happened that day; we all remember. I don't need to go into detail about the events. What I can tell you is the helpless horror I felt as I sat in a meeting room, thousands of miles away, watching it happen on TV. Seeing my country undergoing a previously unimaginable attack, on a scale we never could have guessed. Knowing that two of the flights were from Boston, the city where I was born.

A co-worker asked me “are you ok?” I slowly nodded. Tears standing unshed in my eyes. Stomach tied up in a tight knot. Trying to take it in.

I'd lived in the UK for 11 years by then. I moved to the UK when the IRA were still bombing London and other English cities on a fairly regular basis, so terrorism was already something I comprehended in a way that a lot of Americans didn't. I'd been around at the time the Lockerbie atrocity happened too. And like everyone else, I was aware of the concept of plane hijacks. The last time the mainland US was attacked by an external force, it was the British in the early 19th century. We're not used to it. It was a shock to many Americans that the rest of the world hated us, but it wasn't a shock to me.

But this was something so nightmarish that nobody in her right mind could have dreamt it would happen. The sheer balls of this attack, the unprecedented scale of it, was something nobody in her right mind could ever have imagined.

I was profoundly relieved that nobody close to me was lost that day. People my family and I knew died though. A tennis partner of my mother's. My parents' parish priest, who gave them spiritual sustenance and kindness. A girl I grew up with in my small town. The wife of one of my brother's co-workers. The grief touched me like a piece of paper scorched at the edges. I watched the footage obsessively. And I cried. God, how I cried.

I also don't need to go into the aftermath. The politics. The war. The thousands of other innocents that died as a result of that terrible day.

What I found profoundly depressing at the time, and still find depressing today, was the tone I saw in a lot of the posts I read on the Internet. Americans had asked for it, commentators seemed to say, with their aggressive foreign policies and cultural imperialism. There was, in some of the comments I saw, a touch of schadenfreude. Take that, America, you global bully! Have a taste of your own medicine! Stop making such a fuss; we've been dealing with this shit for years! It's about time you got your comeuppance!

People were saying this at a time when mobile phones buried under rubble were still ringing, people still desperately hoping that their loved ones didn't make the flight, were delayed on the way to work. Ten years later, as thousands of people struggle with the grief that landmark anniversaries bring, I'm still hearing it.

Here's the thing. People need to separate the people from the policy. The people who died that day, and the spouses, friends, children, siblings, parents that were left behind didn't ask for it. Nobody asked for it. We didn't ask for the war and the further carnage that Bush and Blair unleashed on the world, either. And nothing justifies those deaths. But nothing justifies the death of those innocents on September 11th 2001 either. Don't blur the lines. George Bush didn't speak for all of us. The innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't deserve to die, and more Americans than you give us credit for believe this. Nor did the innocents from America who died deserve it. Of course.

I've seen recently, on Twitter, a fair amount of snideness, and embarrassment about the remembrance ceremonies, and even a bit of anti-Americanism. Complaints about the fact that Americans say 9/11 instead of 11/9, for God's sake. Now is not the time.

I hope that the 10-year marker allows those who grieve an opportunity to move on; to lay ghosts to rest and find peace. While I've watched the aftermath and the deaths mounting upon deaths, the chipping away of civil liberties and privacy, with utter dismay, that doesn't detract from the grief I feel for the terrible wound my country suffered that day.

Rest in peace, all those who lost their lives that day, the civilians, firefighters and rescue services. While we've lived through a terrible day and an equally horrific aftermath, I hope that the 10 year anniversary marks a new beginning.

Image: digitalart at freedigitalphotos.net

25 August 2011

A kiss with a fist

Don't EVER ring Southampton again!
One of the biggest reactions I got from my post Twists in the Road was to a sentence I wrote in passing:

I lived a miserable few months first in his house, until we had an inevitable screaming row, in which he punched me in the face.

It happened so long ago – 21 years ago, to be precise – that to me it was mentioned almost as an aside. But the response I got on Twitter, Facebook and the blog itself was of horror and shock. I feel little emotion about it at all anymore. It was so long ago, and the emotional abuse I suffered at the hands (or rather, the words) of my ex-husband – calling me frigid, fat, blaming me for his depression (the list goes on) – was far worse, in my book. I can see though why it shocked people, especially those who know me as a quietly strong person who isn't crossed easily.

Women have been through far worse physical abuse than that one punch. But I remember it clearly. And here's the story.

When I was in junior year of university, I spent a year abroad. Like any American student my first thought was to go to London. A representative from the University of Sheffield convinced me, with stunning photos of the Yorkshire countryside, to visit that fair city instead. Yeah, I know. That industrial city is hardly bucolic paradise. But I loved it there. And I fell in love with a man (ok, a boy) there.

We spent an academic year in the passionate bliss that is the reserve of the young. At the end of the year, we had to part. But not quite yet. When summer came, he came to the US through a programme called BUNAC, which gave him a working permit for the season. He stayed with my family and we had a wonderful summer together. He ate our food, I drove him everywhere, he didn't pay rent, and none of it mattered, because we were in love.

At the end of the summer, after a long drive to JFK airport and a tearful farewell, he returned to Sheffield to finish his degree, and I stayed in the US to finish mine. I immediately signed up to BUNAC as well, which also gives US students work visas for the UK, planning to come over as soon as I graduated.

In the meantime, early in the new year, I was dumped.

I came to the UK anyway. I rationalised that I'd already paid for the visa and the flight. At heart, I probably (certainly) hoped we'd get back together. We didn't get back together. But because I didn't know anyone else in the UK, I stayed at his. You can imagine what the tension was like. He was seeing someone new and I was miserable.

Things came to a head one night. I phoned a friend who was in Southampton at the time and he went ballistic that I was using the family phone. I thought this was unreasonable (I still do). And it turned into a heated, blazing row. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor, cartoon stars spinning around my head. After the initial shock, I screamed, and ran from the house.

…And then I realised I was in the middle of Ealing Common, late at night, with nowhere to go. A kind old man told me not to cry because I was “too pretty to cry” but I wasn't and I did. Reluctantly, I headed back to the house. I met him on the way. He told me I'd provoked him into hitting me during the argument.

In a way, it was the greatest favour he'd ever done me. In the second his fist met my temple, I fell out of love with him.

There followed a miserable time when I moved from youth hostel to youth hostel. One night I had so little money that I had to forgo a meal to pay for a room. Eventually I got a job in a pub (for the princely sum of £25 a week), and then an office job (for the extravagant salary of £8000 a year), and slowly I built up my own life from there.

A while later, he wrote me a letter telling me how sorry he was, and what a great girlfriend I was. It didn't even touch me. (Aside: my ex-husband also ended up crying one night about the way he'd treated me. Too little, too late. Don't appreciate someone after you've punched their lights out or beaten their self-confidence to a pulp and expect a happy ending.)

It's all such ancient history that when I recall it, it's as though I'm telling a story, not my own. That punch was at once the lowest point of my young life, and the start of my adult life.

Photo: freedigitalphotos.net

For advice about abuse please visit this BBC information page for resources, charities and helplines.

3 August 2011

Plinky plonky music and yoghurt for pudding

New shoes and a sanitary towel with pretty flowers on it! My life is COMPLETE!
So there's this woman. Let's call her, I don't know, Amelia.

Amelia is in her late 20s. When she goes out for lunch with her friends, she makes sure that there is a brunette, a blonde and a redhead in the group (sometimes a token black friend, but rarely), and there's plinky-plonky Sex and the City-style music playing. She considers salad a meal, and yoghurt a perfectly acceptable dessert. As she nibbles her lettuce, she and her friends talk about everything.

And I mean everything. Not just how useless men are, or diets, though those feature. She talks about constipation. Bloating, which apparently happens a lot. The quality of her stools - soft or hard? The regularity of her bowel movements. Bladder weakness. Thrush (that yoghurt might come in handy, Amelia). She envies her slim friends and is not above snooping through their houses for their dieting secrets.

Amelia worries about how she looks in a swimsuit. Really worries. So much so that she eats nothing but cereal for two weeks or drinks nothing but gluey shakes for a month to fit into it. It's not exactly a balanced diet, but it's important to lose weight for her swimsuit, even if she gains it back within a month.

When she has her period, she used to go into purdah. She couldn't wear white, or go dancing, or work. That is, until she discovered tampons in plastic applicators, which have revolutionised her life. But her sanitary products can't just absorb her blood (which, bizarrely, is a blue watery liquid). No, they also have to disguise her lady-smells with chemically-saturated cotton (careful, Amelia, you could get thrush). If the boxes are pretty, and the pads are decorated with pretty little flowers like kitchen towels, and she can pretend the applicators are lipstick so boys don't see she has periods, even better.

Amelia is horrified by body hair. She'll use foul-smelling chemicals, epilators that rip hair out by the roots, razors, anything just to get rid of it and avoid the horror of a stray hair. The razors have to be pink though.

Her deodorant can't just disguise a bit of pong. It has to be chock full of moisturiser (she gets dry armpits, apparently) and perfume.

She's also terrified by wrinkles. She doesn't have any wrinkles, because she's only in her late 20s. Nevertheless, she slathers herself in moisturisers full of big made-up science words because science really can stop you from getting older.

She also likes to put made-up science words in her hair so she can look like those women who have hair extensions and computer-generated tresses on TV. Same goes for mascara.

Amelia is slightly, adorably incompetent at her office job. She's so busy making eyes at the cute guy in accounts or gossiping by the photocopier or drinking Diet Coke that she sometimes drops files. But the job funds her shoe shopping.

Shoes. My god she loves shoes. They're practically all she thinks about, when she's not thinking about her bowels, or her waistline, or her period, or body hair, or body smells, or ageing, or the shame of hair that doesn't have the shine of a thousand suns. Shoes fulfill her. Shoes make her whole. She spends all her money and some of her boyfriend's on shoes.

Do you know Amelia? I don't either. But if advertising is to be believed, she exists. Advertisers must know women like Amelia. Every advert aimed at her seems to tell me this. Except for the ones aimed at her older sister Sophia, who's married, and spends all day grocery shopping and cleaning up after her family while chuckling indulgently at her children's mess and her husband's utter incompetence around the house.

Amelia has a mother, too, but we never see her, because her mother is over 50.

Firefox has an adblock which has made my internet browsing experience a thousand times better by blocking every ad that tries to target me. If only there were one for the TV.

EDIT: Thank you to @DickMandrake for this excellent offering from the brilliant Mitchell and Webb: Women! Sort yourselves out

ANOTHER EDIT (I can't help it. I'm an editor.) Here's another link, from the comments below. Hat-tip to @nickmellish. Sarah Haskins in Target Women: The Yogurt Edition

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

16 July 2011

No man's land

You're great, but I'm, um, just refreshing the, er, page.
When I saw the article saying that online dating leaves middle-aged women in the 'wilderness', I wasn't surprised.

I'm a veteran of online dating. I've been trying it off and on since I first divorced in my early 30s (ie, a long time ago).  And I've been single for most of the time since then.

In my early 30s, I found internet dating…well…not bad. This was when internet dating was in relative infancy – people who did it didn't really talk about it. But the guys I met were, generally, not bad. I didn't meet that many guys who lit my fires, but I met plenty of nice guys, so even if there wasn't a spark, I took heart from the fact that there were lots of nice available men out there.

Internet dating now – when I'm in my 40s, and when internet dating is much more mainstream – is a very different experience.

When a long-term boyfriend and I broke up when I was in my late 30s, and I tried internet dating again after being in a relationship for 4 years, I found myself in an entirely different landscape than the one I had explored earlier. I soon realised that I was in a strange place, demographically speaking. And it got worse the further into my 40s I went.

Men my age, I've found, aren't looking for women my age. They're looking for younger women. Now, whether that's because they want children so are looking for someone more…er… fecund, or are looking for a younger woman to validate themselves, or think that women over 40 crumble into decrepitude, I'm not sure. But whatever the reason, the men in my age group just weren't looking for me. They all wanted someone younger.

This left me with two types of men: the younger men, looking for a “Mrs Robinson” experience, and the much older men (and I'm talking pensioner here) who were, just like the men in my age group, looking for a younger woman.

Time after time, I would see a man in his early 40s like me, and his profile would pique my interest. Then I would look at his profile, and his age bracket for an “ideal” partner was, typically, 21–35. I would come up as an “incompatible” match because I had the temerity to be over 40.

In “real life” this isn't an issue. I may not be the spring chicken I'd like to be, but I'm not crumbling just yet, so on the rare occasion when I get chatted up, they don't run screaming from me yelling SHE'S FORTYSOMETHING! SHE HAS CATS! GET AWAY!

Unfortunately, “real life” doesn't turn up many available people, since either they're gay, married or just not out and about, so internet dating seems a natural and brilliant solution. What better way to meet someone with similar interests and desires?

But internet dating forces people into a “shopping list” mentality. If one doesn't fit into a very specific ideal, one won't even turn up in searches.

My last boyfriend was considerably younger than I am. I met him in “real life” and I didn't consider the age a barrier, but it did become one, because I was in a different point in my life. One where I knew I didn't want and wouldn't have children, and he was ready to start a family – which he did, immediately after we broke up. So a man my age would be ideal. But the men my age on dating sites still want that younger woman.

The other night, I idly mused “aloud” (ie I tweeted) that I was considering internet dating again – I've been single for about a year and I'm getting bored of the dating wasteland – but knew I'd find myself in the same old position of being too old for the men I'd be interested in meeting. This tweet met with incredulity. Age doesn't matter, does it? Especially when the men are the same age as I am? But in the strange world of online dating, it seems that it does.

And so I'm in a literal no-man's land. I don't meet men in “real life” and internet dating shuts out women my age.

So “Plankton” didn't surprise me at all. The only thing that surprised me was that it was newsworthy at all. It wasn't news to me.

Image: Ambro at freedigitalphotos.net

26 June 2011

Once more unto the breach…

A while back, I wrote about going through a fallow period. My contract had finished, which wasn't unexpected. Truth be told, I enjoyed the first month off. I'd been working a lot of overtime, so I enjoyed the freedom, and sleep, and I knew I had enough money to keep me going so the wolves didn't seem all that close to the door.

By June, though, I was panicking. The savings had dwindled at an alarming rate. I had about enough to keep me going for another month, and then, frankly, I was screwed. I was lying awake with my mind going, as minds do at night, to the worst-case scenarios. People called me a “lady of leisure”, as though I were swanning off to day spas and lunching on champagne with my friends rather than fretting about whether I'll be able to pay the mortgage, and avoiding hassling phone calls from the credit card company (who, incidentally, ignored every letter I wrote to them regarding a managed payment plan while I was unemployed, choosing instead to bully me – thanks, Nationwide, for increasing my stress level tenfold).

I'd been unemployed before so none of this was uncharted territory. I'd also ended up suffering from depression and anxiety disorder, though, so I knew the signs to watch out for, and to be frank, there were days when it took a huge mental effort to fight off the black dogs, especially as time went on.

The unemployed are somewhat demonised by the current government – as though we're all happy to live high off the hog on our massively generous Jobseekers' Allowance. (have you ever tried living on £67.50 a week, when you have a mortgage and bills? Don't bother. I'll tell you now – you can't. Even if you're one of the great ignored: someone who isn't a family but just a single person, trying to make it on her own.) Well, believe me, I'd rather be working.

Being unemployed, for me, meant social isolation. I could go days without talking to anyone. When I am in social situations, I've noticed that I find them much more difficult and a little bit scary – it seems that social skills need to be exercised like muscles, or they atrophy.

Not that I've sat around doing sod-all for three months. I've already written about the volunteering work I did, which was hugely rewarding. I painted the spare room and the kitchen. I started this blog.

I even stopped smoking. Family members reading this, who live a long way away, may be surprised to hear that in the past 10 years or so I've become a heavy smoker, smoking 30–40 cigarettes a day. I added up how much I was spending on them, and that wheezing cough, to my list of worries, and decided it was time to kick it. It's been difficult, and I'd be lying if I said I don't miss smoking sometimes, but it's an achievement I'm happy to add to my list of stuff I did while unemployed.

I didn't tick off everything I listed in my “To Do” list – the front door still needs painting; the garden's still a tangled jungle of weeds – but I'm proud of the things I did manage to cross off.

I did everything I could to keep busy and keep my chin up – although as the savings have dwindled and the rejections from employers multiplied, that's become increasingly difficult.

Please can someone remind me what these things are?
Well, good news. I start a new job tomorrow! I'll be honest: I'm a tiny bit terrified. My rusty social skills, and work skills, need to be polished off and re-oiled. Self-doubt about whether I can do the job or have just bullshit myself into a nightmare plague me.

But I'm also excited. I'm going to be a useful member of society again! I won't have that embarrassing moment when people ask me what I do and I have to say “nothing”!

I hope I don't repeat what I did on the first day at one of my jobs, when I got stuck in an underground car park and then in a hallway, and couldn't get out because of the intricate security system. I hope I don't delete the entire home page of the website, the way I did once when trying to get to know the new content management system at a new job. I hope I don't make a prat of myself, generally, and I hope the job is as exciting and enjoyable as I thought it would be when I applied.

That “first day” feeling we all remember from school never goes away. But after three months fallow, I'm ready to start breaking ground again. Wish me luck!

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

22 June 2011

No big society, just a little dog

About two years ago – the last time I was out of work (it's a recurring theme in my patchy career) – I decided to register as a volunteer with a charity called The Cinnamon Trust. I had the spare time, and it was a cause that I could identify with. It's a charity set up to help elderly people who have pets – from taking a pet to the vet, through to regular dog walking, and up to the commitment of fostering.

I have two very beloved pets of my own. I know how important the bond is, and I would hate to think of being forced to give up my companions because of infirmity. It seemed like a perfect way to marry my love of animals and my desire to do something productive and useful while I wasn't working.

As it happened, at the time there were no volunteers needed in my area. But then, with perfect timing, just as my last contract came to a finish, the Cinnamon Trust contacted me. An elderly man who lives in the town about 5 miles from my own had a dog that needed walking. I leapt at the chance.

And so I met this fella. This is Teddy, a 5½-year-old English cocker spaniel. My childhood dog was an English cocker spaniel so it's a breed with a special place in my heart. They're a bit nuts but utterly gorgeous.

Teddy's owner is a gentleman of some 91 years. He has a degenerative spine condition, and suffers from shortness of breath, so walking an energetic dog in its prime is too much for him. I was more than happy to step in and help.

Lady with treats, why it rain? Me all wet. :-( I can has treat?
The walks have become something to look forward to and a genuine pleasure. Walking Teddy helped keep me from slipping into despair, which is always a risk when not working. It kept a routine and structure to my day, and without being too dramatic about it, it was a reason I had to get up and get out of my PJs every day. It was fresh air and exercise for us both, and anyway, it's impossible to feel down when you're looking after a dog who's beside himself with joy at life. Every day he burst through the door and barrelled towards me with an unbridled frenzy of delight at the prospect of a walk, never dimmed by repetition, and that always put a huge smile on my face. Even when the weather wasn't so great…

One day when we came back from our walk, Teddy's owner invited me in, telling me he had something to show me. This was a photograph of him and his wife, taken in the 1940s, he looking handsome in an RAF uniform and she looking glamorous and lipsticked in the way that women in the 1940s seemed to manage so effortlessly. He told me that he and his wife had been married for 65 years, and she had passed away about 5 years previously – judging by Teddy's age, he arrived on the scene around the same time as his owner's wife passed.

Still, he said, gesturing to Teddy, I have him for company.

I walked out of there with a lump in my throat. He'd just demonstrated just why, exactly, the work the Cinnamon Trust does is so important. The bond he had with his youthfully exuberant dog, and the company that dog provided, was so important – but without help, he wouldn't be able to keep him, and the flat would be silent and lonely. Some days when he opens the door he looks in fine health, but other days he's unshaven, still in his dressing gown at 10am, wincing in pain. His children – presumably near retirement age themselves – live nearby but Teddy is always there for him.

As desperate as I've been to return to work, watching my meagre savings deplete at an alarming rate, it was with huge sadness that I emailed the Cinnamon Trust today to tell them that I won't be able to take Teddy out anymore. The endorphins of daylight and exercise, the feelgood factor of helping someone else, and the infectious joy of a happy mutt have been as good for me as the practical help has been for his owner.

Several times Teddy's owner has presented me with boxes of chocolates “from Teddy and me”. It's flustered me. I feel it's a privilege to help out, and don't need that kind of thanks. I feel I should be thanking them.

There's a lot of talk in this current government about Big Society. My own personal feeling is that it's farcical, and a back-door way of getting cheap or free labour as more and more people become unemployed. This isn't a political blog – there are far better people out there covering the politics – but I will say one thing: I can't see that forcing the unemployed to volunteer in order to keep their benefits would work. Volunteering takes heart, and commitment, to work, and I'd imagine if I'd been forced, I would have found it counterproductive and depressing.

However, volunteering because I wanted to has turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I've ever done while out of work, and didn't feel like a chore or a commitment at all. If there were a way to carry on when my new job starts, I would, but doing a full-time job and also committing eight hours a week regularly to the dogwalking just wouldn't work. It's clear that Teddy's owner isn't an early riser so I can't do it before work, and I can't guarantee I'll be available every night after work. Those extra eight hours a week will be too hard to find. I'm sad that I can't carry on. Teddy might not know it, but he helped me as much as I helped him and his owner.

19 June 2011

Dad and daughter day

I know not everyone's been as lucky as my siblings and me, so I'm not going to go all misty-eyed about how Fathers (generic Fathers) are brilliant. But here's a little about mine.

Dad and me way back in the summer of '69
It's Father's Day and in its honour, I dug through my disorganised boxes of photographs (which stop in about 2005, when I got a digital camera) and found the photo you can see to your right. I think it was taken at Edaville Railroad. Looking at the date stamp – August 1969 – I realise that my mother must have been about to pop with the next in the brood, my little sister, born at the beginning of September. I don't know the story, then – did Dad venture out with my two brothers and me to give Mom a break? Or was she waddling around with us in the August heat? I don't know. But I love this picture. How relaxed I look, precariously balanced on his arm. That's my Dad. I'm safe.

I remember being convinced that Dad was Mister Rogers, because at the moment Mister Rogers' Neighborhood finished, Dad would walk through the door. That kind of magic is possible when you're a kid. Off of the TV, into the living room. Especially when it's your all-powerful Dad.

I remember waiting on the doorstep for him to come home. And come home he did, at 6 on the dot, every night. He never worked late. He always came home for all of us to sit around the table for supper (eating dinner in front of the TV was strictly forbidden). First, though, he and Mom would go into their room, close the door for five minutes, and just catch up in what must have been the only quiet, private five minutes of their days.

Unusually for a man of his generation, he always helped Mom with the clearup and getting us all off to bed. I'm one of six children – this was no easy feat. If we were kicking up, he'd stand at the bottom of the stairs, threateningly snapping his belt. In all my life I don't think Dad laid a finger on any of us. I only found out as an adult that as we scattered in terror of The Belt, he and Mom were stifling their laughter downstairs.

On Saturdays, he piled us all into the Tardis-like station wagon to go to the supermarket and the library, giving my poor frazzled mother a break from looking after six children who were all close in age. Those library trips were pretty special to me, as I've already said.

He had two brothers. One of them, Robbie, was severely mentally disabled. I was slightly frightened of Robbie as a kid, because of his slurred speech, and his shaking hands (the medication they gave him for his mental illness caused Parkinson's), and just that he was different. He lived in a home but he came to visit sometimes and Dad treated him with infinite kindness, tolerance and love until Robbie passed away.

Most men of his generation just saw it as their job to bring home the bacon, but Dad's always been more than a provider for us. He and my mother set a standard of parenthood that I've seldom seen replicated. Truth be told, he's set a standard for fatherhood that I've never seen in the boyfriends and husband I had, which is one reason why I'm not a mother.

So he was more than a provider, but boy, did he provide. He somehow put six children through university and for most of us, post-grad study. With a B.A., I'm the least educated of any of my siblings. In America, with its tuition fees, that's pretty incredible. With the self-centredness of youth I just accepted this in my late teens; now I know what it must have taken.

Dad gave me a work ethic. I started babysitting at the age of 13 and immediately began putting money aside to save up for a bike – I was only earning a dollar an hour, so it took a while, and eventually Dad rewarded me for understanding the principle of working and saving by paying off the balance for my beautiful shiny blue bicycle. I hadn't asked for it or expected it, and I understood why it was a reward. It was one of the proudest moments of my young life.

As soon as I was 16, I was frogmarched down to the local shopping mall to get a part-time job. And I've held jobs ever since, throughout school and university as well as in adult life – except, of course, when I'm “between jobs” as I am now, due to either redundancy or fixed-term contracts. I know how much it distresses him when I'm not working, and the work ethic he's given me drives me to jobhunt with pigheaded determination and a reluctance to give up.

Of course as I grew up I began to see his annoying habits, his flaws, his human frailties and his vulnerabilities. He's set in his ways. He's conservative. He still treats me like I'm a 13 year old kid and this triggers a strange reaction where, um, I act like a 13 year old kid.

And he's already survived cancer twice – the latest, quite recently. Because I only go home every few years, each time I see him he looks more like the old man that my head knows he is but my heart won't accept. When he asks me to go to Mass, or say a prayer, I say I will. I don't believe in God or religion or the power of prayer, but I say it as a comfort to him. It's the least I can do for him.

I can be pretty rubbish sometimes about phoning my parents, or remembering important dates. I'm not a very demonstrative person so I don't gush with love on the phone; a quick and slightly embarrassed “Love ya” to Dad before he hands me back to Mom is as far as it goes. I won't send Dad a link to this because I have other blogposts on here with rude words in them that he wouldn't approve of. I'm sure, though, that he still remembers the girl in pigtails waiting eagerly on the doorstep for his return.

10 June 2011

Alice, bucket lists, and benevolent viruses

This week I found myself near the centre of a bit of a viral storm.

On Tuesday, I saw this tweet from Michael Moran via India Knight:

Tweet from Michael Moran about Alice's bucket list

I clicked and I found Alice's bucket list. Alice is a brave, articulate and sweet 15 year old girl who is, infuriatingly and utterly unfairly, dying of cancer. I was struck by her brilliant attitude, and the simplicity, and achievablity, of most of the “bucket list” she had created – the list of things she wants to do before that utter bastard, cancer, cuts her life too short.

I know I have media types, journalists, and high profile professionals on my Twitter follower list. I know that I have people with showbiz connections, or music business connections, or who work in PR, or who have creative careers such as photography. I knew, when I saw Alice's list, that I could reach people via Twitter that could help her. And so, I sent this tweet:

Tweet from me with a link to Alice's bucket list

Things started to go a bit nuts after that.

My tweet was retweeted hundreds of times. And my own timeline was inundated, with offers from photographers, beauty therapists, and many others, trying to find out how to help Alice. Repeatedly I had to explain – never begrudgingly, always touched – that I didn't have a personal connection to Alice, and that I couldn't help them get in touch with her; I was just passing it on.

Some people – despite the evidence to the contrary provided by the photo of the decrepit middle-aged woman in my avatar – misunderstood and thought I was the 15-year-old girl with terminal cancer, and I had misguided but sweet messages urging people to help me meet Take That or design an Emma Bridgewater mug.  (Both of those are things I wouldn't mind doing; where Alice and I part ways is in the whole “swimming with sharks” thing…)

A Hollyoaks actress tweeted me offering her help. People were contacting me asking what hashtag we should use to make the tweets consistent and to trend. Somehow a lot of people thought I was a lot more than the messenger. I didn't get annoyed by the flood of confused tweets, though; they all came from good hearts and best intentions.

At the same time, of course, Michael Moran's tweet, and India Knight's retweet, were spreading as well. Everyone was telling everyone. Soon Alice's blog was flooded with responses from incredibly generous people.

By the next day, Alice had gone global. Celebrities and journalists were talking about her, and to her. She was mentioned in Prime Minister's Questions, and covered in the news.The hashtag #alicebucketlist was trending. In a strange game of Chinese whispers, people were saying that Alice's dying wish was to trend on Twitter – which of course wasn't the case. What she wanted was for people to sign up for bone marrow donation, and to sponsor her sister in a run to raise money for cancer research. If I was overwhelmed by the response I was getting from the small part I played, I can only imagine what things are like for Alice and her family.

Lots of people signed up to the bone marrow register. Her little sister raised £10,000. Hundreds and hundreds of people have visited her blog and spoke of her inspirational attitude and offered whatever help they can to help her cross things off her bucket list.

Obviously, I'm not solely responsible for drawing everyone's attention to Alice; Michael Moran's tweet to India Knight was retweeted over 50 times, and who knows where else it came from, but it spread like wildfire, and I was one of the people who helped fan the flames. I don't know where Michael Moran found out about the bucket list. So who knows how many directions this came from. All I know is that I'm kinda proud that I helped. I'm so happy that people have registered as bone marrow donors as a direct result of my tweet, and that I helped Alice with at least one of the items on her list.

Social media sites are often regarded with suspicion. It's easy to climb on the wrong bandwagon, to get swept up in something that turns out to be wrong or goes too far. When things go viral, they can also go in a malicious direction. People get flamed; people get bullied; people get ruined. But this week, I saw the enormous benevolence it can offer, and the incredible generosity and goodness of a lot of people out there. On a purely selfish note, in a week that was personally not too great for me, I found something that gave me the grains of hope and optimism that I needed. And I'm pretty sure it helped Alice a little bit too. I hope it did. Rock on, Twitter.


UPDATE 19th June

It seems that Alice's sudden fame has been something of a poisoned chalice, judging by her more recent blog posts, and by some of the comments made to me on Twitter. This makes me feel unspeakably sad. I hope that positives – the increase in donors, and Alice meeting Take That amongst them – keep her and her family feeling positive about the whole experience.

3 June 2011

Bathing beauty

Running hot and cold
Ah, bathtime. We may have dreaded it as kids, but as an adult, a bath is the ultimate at-home self-indulgence after a long day…isn't it? A chance to close the door on the world, put on some soft music, and relax in a warm, fragranced watery cocoon.

So we're led to believe.

For me, this is what bathtime is generally like.

  1. Run the water. Wander off while the tap runs. Forget I'm running a bath until the water is near the overflow.
  2. Step into the bath. Get a little insight into what it's like to be a lobster at the moment it's dropped into a pot of boiling water. With a shriek, withdraw red, scalded legs. Drain some water out and turn on cold tap. Wander off while the tap runs. Forget I'm running the bath until the water is near the overflow, again.
  3. Step into the bath. Feel the icy currents flowing through a tepid pool around my legs. Shiver, step out of bath. Drain some water out and turn on hot tap. Wander off while the tap runs. Forget for a third time that I'm running the bath until the water is near the overflow.
  4. Step into the bath. The water is lukewarm. Fuckit, it'll do. Ease self in. Realise I've forgotten to add any product. Pour bath product in and turn on shower attachment for fast frothing into some semblance of a bubble bath. Accidentally spray everything in the bathroom when I drop the shower head. Resolve to deal with sodden toilet paper later.
  5. Step into bath once more and ease back. Here at last comes the relaxing bit! Close eyes. Feel rasping sensation on leg. It's the cat. Licking any part of my limbs that have emerged from the water. Spend the next 5 minutes trying to keep limbs away from cat, and cat away from the bath, which she seems to regard as a gigantic bowl full of warm, soapy water for her own delectation.
  6. Lie back again. Realise I've left my book on the bed. Step out of bath, and, shivering and attempting not to slip and fall over, or trip over the startled cat, retrieve book. Return to bath.
  7. Drop book in bath water.
  8. Abandoning idea of reading, attempt relaxation. Close eyes. Begin to contemplate that I'm lying in a tepid, expensively scented soup of my own filth. Feel icky.
  9. Attempt to wash hair. Realise that I'm just adding shampoo and, I don't know, hair dirt to the soup. Fail to rinse all product from hair. Give up, knowing all the while that my hair will be lank and knotted until next shampoo.
  10. Wish I'd just taken a shower.

Ah, yeah. That's self-indulgence for you. More trouble than it's worth.

Image: Idea go at freedigitalphotos.net

31 May 2011

The City Mouse and the Country Mouse

When I was a child, one of the stories of which I was fond was Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, a take on the Aesop fable about the City Mouse and the Town Mouse. In this story, a country mouse samples the high life of a city mouse, and the city mouse visits the country mouse to sample his more humble life. In the end, each decides he prefers his own life.

I grew up in a suburb, but a very small suburb, with a population of about 18,000. Its history was, for the most part, fairly rural; I played in fields called 'The Cow Fields' and town institutions included a large farm where you could pick your own strawberries, and a country store in the midst of an apple farm. That country store is long gone, alas, but I can't smell mulled apple cider or feel the sharp bite of a blue autumn day without remembering it.

For these reasons, I always considered myself something of a country gal. I knew I didn't grow up in deepest countryside, but the city always seemed a large, scary place. Boston – the nearest city as I grew up – was always a bit of a mystery to me.

I've lived in London, or the surrounds of London, for the past 20 or so years, but still haven't really thought of myself as a ‘city mouse’ (even though, according to an infuriating newspaper I saw over the weekend, I am of the Sex and the City Generation…but that's a rant for another time).

When I go out into the country, though – like, the proper country – I realise that I am, indeed, a city mouse.

This weekend just gone, a friend and I went to the Hay Festival. Hay-on-Wye is a tiny village on the border between Wales and England, which, once a year, hosts a huge literary festival in which the city mice come to the country. My friend Rachel and I have visited the festival every year for the past 4 years, and very enjoyable it is too. But I always experience a bit of a culture shock when I go.

As we don't have the budget or forward planning skills to book a B&B or hotel, Rachel and I take advantage of the rooms being offered by locals in their own homes. These homes are usually in deep countryside. When I look out the window before bed, rather than seeing my neighbours, I see more stars than I ever imagined possible, shining against a black velvet sky. Instead of hearing the constant hum of traffic, I hear my own tinnitus whining against the silence of night. In the morning, instead of being woken by the crash of dustmen and the roar of commuter trains, I hear sheep and cockerels.

What do you MEAN, ‘no taxis’??!?!
You have to drive in the country. Drive everywhere. If you don't book a taxi a week in advance, you're screwed,or so it seems. The nearest supermarket may be 20 miles away. If you run out of something you can't nip out to a corner shop. You're screwed. If there's a snowstorm or flood, you're screwed.

And the country lanes. Dear god. The country lanes. For someone who grew up in the US – the nation of the car – British country lanes are a thing of true horror.

Allow me to explain to my American readers: country lanes are the width of one car. In fact, not even one car width, at times. My car bears the scars of hedges that reached out from the side of the lane to scratch its paintwork. The country lanes are winding and twisted, hemmed in by solid, towering hedges. The speed limit on these things, which an American might call a narrow footpath, is 60mph. You have no idea what is waiting for you around the next bend, or over the next brow of a hill. It could be another car, being driven by a complacent local at the speed limit; it might be an achingly vulnerable biker; it might be a lorry bearing down on you like Death itself. It might be an innocent animal; a fox or badger; a pheasant of breathtaking stupidity that strolls along the road as though danger is a foreign country. I'd rather have a convoy of tailgating Audi drivers on the motorway, frankly.

‘I feel sorry for you, living in London,’ said the slightly eccentric woman who hosted us this weekend, regarding Rachel and me with genuine pity. She lives alone with 2 cats, a dog, 4 horses and a clutch of hens. Her house is about 400 years old, and rehabilitating it has taken her years. It seems at once bucolic and ideal, and terrifyingly isolated. I mean, her house isn't even on SatNav!

To round off my sense of isolation, I couldn't even get a phone signal, the entire weekend. Addicted as I am to my iPhone and all it offers, it's amazing that I didn't have the shakes by Monday.

There are times when living in an urban environment drives me nuts. Too many people. Too much noise. Too much dirt. I love the gentle British countryside. But after a few nights there, I find myself itching to return to ‘civilisation’ – to a taxi service that doesn't take advance booking; to roads that aren't like a terrifying and life-threatening roller-coaster; to shops that are a 2 minute walk rather than a half an hour's drive.

In the Country Mouse and the City Mouse stories, the conclusion is that the country is altogether a more pleasant place to live. One might have luxury in the city, but one also has cats and mousetraps. For me, though, the life of the Country Mouse has a life that's too slow, and too inconvenient. It's the city life for me, for all its annoyances. The country is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

25 May 2011

Dry Kindling

I'm not what you'd call an early adopter of new technology and gadgets.

CD players, DVD players, MP3 players, smartphones…whatever the gadget, I get one (what seems like) years after everyone's started talking about them, and usually right before something newer, faster and sleeker comes onto the market to replace it. I was reluctant to join Facebook, then got addicted; then I was reluctant to join Twitter, and got addicted to that too.

It's not that I'm a Luddite. I like whizzy, shiny new things. Once I come round to something, I usually embrace it. OK, the mini-disc was a mistake, but generally speaking, I grow to love the new things. I love the internet. I'm devoted to my smartphone, which is one of my favourite toys, and years after the rest of the developed world, am an enthusiastic downloader of music.

I get there, eventually. I'm not afraid. Just a bit slow.

There's one bit of kit I'm not sure I'll ever grow to love, though, and that's e-readers, such as the massively popular Kindle.

Stick it in your e-book, Grandma.
Yeah, I've heard people rave about them. I've heard all the advantages of them, and I can see why they'd be handy. I get all the reasons. I just can't fall in love with the concept, though.

I have what I can only describe as an emotional connection to books. I have done since I first started to learn to read, at the age of 3 or so. Story time was always special.

One of the abiding memories of my childhood is when – mostly to get us out of my mother's hair for a precious few hours – my dad piled my siblings and me into the station wagon every Saturday to go to the public library. He carried a empty bag so large that it would leave Santa envious, and we'd duly fill it with storybooks.

I remember those trips with all my senses and many (always positive) emotions. The slightly musty scent of the old building that housed the library, and the creak of its stairs. The feel of the books in my hands and the paper between my fingers. The anticipation when I cracked open a book I'd pulled off the shelf and saw the words and pictures within, and the thrill when I made the decision and a book went into the sack. The warm fondness for books re-read constantly, and the excitement of the books I was going to read for the first time. The delighted greetings of the librarians, who knew us well and marvelled at our voracious appetite for stories. I can even recall the layout of the rooms. I felt like I had a whole world at my feet when we walked into the library.

Another fond memory from my childhood is the book order. I can't remember how often, but in elementary school we were given the opportunity to put in a mail order for books. A few weeks later, to my immense excitement, a fresh stack of paperbacks JUST FOR ME would arrive on my desk.

This connection to books, tied up in emotions and senses, has stayed with me into adulthood. I've never thrown away or given away a book. I'm reluctant to lend books, and turn down offers to borrow someone else's. I don't like being given books as gifts – not because I'm an ingrate, but because the whole process of choosing my next read is so enjoyable. I still feel the same thrill in a bookshop or when a parcel from Amazon lands on my doorstep as I felt as a child at the library or when a book order arrived at my school desk.

I love picking up a book from my ‘to read’ pile and feeling its heft, the embossed cover, the pages. The smell of them, whether that smell is fresh print or the mustiness of a secondhand book. Flipping through the preliminary pages, running my thumb against the pages across the side of the book. It's all done with the same appetite and anticipation that I'd feel sitting down to a great meal.

I'm going to the Hay Festival this coming weekend and one of the greatest delights of the festival is wandering through the town's many dusty, piled-high bookshops. The rush of anticipation and the rush on my senses are the same as they were in the childhood experiences that made me fall in love in the first place.

I just can't imagine feeling the same about a computer in my hand,as much as I love computers. Sure, a Kindle can hold a gazillion titles, and it weighs less than a book, and you can read it in the dark, yadah yadah yadah. I can see that. Maybe I'm weird for feeling such a sensory and emotional pull towards books. Maybe my middle age is making me old fashioned; maybe I'm just an old fart. But I may never get around to adopting this latest bit of kit. Anyway it would look lonely on my bookshelf.

Image ©Maggie Smith on freedigitalphotos.net

15 May 2011

Fuckwit quotes and opened doors

I've been single for about 6 years of the past 10. Particularly when I was a little younger, I was often out at the pubs and clubs of London, so for an average-looking woman I had my share of chat-ups. And boy I've had some corkers. At one stage I was considering compiling what I called my ‘bumper book of fuckwit quotes’.

Guys, even when drink has been taken, there's no excuse for lines like these – and yes, these were all really said to me.

  • ‘I'm glad you went to the toilet. It's the first chance I've had to look at your arse.’
  • [On an internet date] ‘I've been wanking to the thought of you all week.’
  • ‘I wouldn't want to date you, but I'd love to take you into the loos for five minutes and fuck your brains out.’
  • ‘You've got nice hands. Big legs, but nice hands.’ [then, upon seeing the look of horror on my face:] ‘No, don't get me wrong! I'd love to have those big legs wrapped around my neck tonight!’
  • ‘You're so gorgeous I don't know why I haven't raped you yet.’
  • ‘Do you and your friend want to come back to mine for a threesome?’

I could go on. I have loads more, and there are tons, I'm sure, that I've blotted out of my memory altogether. But you get the idea.

What astonishes me is that in anyone's head, it's ok to say stuff like that, let alone to a stranger you're trying to bed. Even accounting for the fact that drink silences one's internal filter, and even if said in the context of a place where people were openly on the pull, just…how can it ever be appropriate?

We're not in Ye Olde Times, I know. I don't expect to be treated as a delicate flower or have coats thrown over puddles for me. But have we really gone so far the other way? What comes through in remarks like those is an utter lack of respect. It's not cheeky flirting. It's not funny. It's not charming.

I hear men grumble that ‘feminists’ (or as dinosaurs call them, ‘women's libbers’) have killed off chivalry because they shout at any man who holds a door open for them. I've never encountered this myself, and suspect it's apocryphal. I thank anyone, male or female, who holds a door open for me. It's basic manners.

Care for a fuck, milady?
I proudly call myself a feminist, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate a dash of chivalry. Gestures like going around to open the car door for me or walking on the outside on the pavement don't leave me feeling patronised. They tell me a guy is being polite and thoughtful, and I appreciate the thought, even though I'm not at risk of having my petticoats splashed by puddles and I'm perfectly capable of opening a car door myself. They're not necessary, and I'm not insulted by their absence, but they're charming little touches. A guy who shows a little respect is considerably more likely to succeed in getting lucky with a woman than the charmers above.

Some might argue that I want to have my cake and eat it if I expect to be treated as an equal yet appreciate having a car door opened for me. OK, we can have that debate. But when I'm subjected to lines like the above, we may have gone a little too far the other way. Give me too much chivalry over too little respect any day.

9 May 2011

The chicken on the desert island

I'm a vegetarian, and have been so for about 20 years. There isn't a question I haven't heard; there isn't a ‘hilarious‘ quip that hasn't been rolled out already.

I don't mind talking about it sometimes, and certainly don't mind friendly curiosity. The fact that I'm vegetarian sometimes provokes more than curiosity though – for some reason, it makes people a bit defensive, as though I'm judging them, or they can be downright aggressive in challenging me, as though I'm being offensive.

I even ended up in an (admittedly alcohol-fuelled – it was at a wedding) outright, vehement, sweary argument once with a chef that resulted in my storming from the room. A lot of chefs really hate vegetarians, by the way, in my experience, but maybe that's because it's harder to be creative with a vegetarian dish.

It's never a subject I raise myself. I'm not a proselytiser. I'm not trying to convert anyone to a cause. Of course I'd be pleased if more people were vegetarian, or at least made ethical choices about their food and ate less processed, intensively produced meat than they do. But it's your shout what you eat, just as it's mine about what I eat.

It's a personal choice I've made, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't bug me sometimes that I'm cornered and challenged on it when I just want to enjoy my meal.

For the sake of simplicity, I've prepared this handy Q & A sheet which I may hand out in future when people want to spoil my dinner with an interrogation.

Please bear in mind I'm not preaching. These are all questions I'm often asked so I'm assuming curiosity.

Why did you become vegetarian? Was it for ethical reasons, or taste?

A little of both, and neither. My ex-husband was a vegetarian, and I hated preparing raw meat in any case, so I was eating very little except when out in a restaurant. I had an epiphany one day in that Mecca of finely produced meat, McDonald's, in Liverpool Street station. I bit into a burger, chewed on a particularly unpleasant piece of gristle, and decided then and there I never wanted to eat meat again. I must have been working up to that moment, either consciously or below the surface, but that was the moment the decision was made.

The other issues that I'm aware of now such as factory farming, the impact of meat production on the environment, health, etc, came in later, and reinforced my initial decision.

Don't you miss it? You must crave a bacon sandwich!

Nope. I genuinely never want to eat meat again, and have no cravings for it.

I'm told that bacon has been the downfall of many a person experimenting with vegetarianism, particularly in their student days. Occasionally the smell of barbecuing or roasting meat or frying bacon fleetingly seems attractive, because I grew up eating the stuff and it still has associations. But I'd never want to follow it through. I just don't want to eat animals.

Do you eat fish?

This is an ill-informed question, and a personal pet peeve. A fish is an animal, and eating it involves killing an animal. Vegetarians don't eat animals. It really is that simple.

People who describe themselves as vegetarians but then tuck into a fish dinner are on The List. Just so you know. Thanks to them, I get offered fish as the ‘vegetarian option’. If you don't want to eat red meat or poultry, then great – but you're not a vegetarian.

Do you eat eggs and dairy?

Yes, I do. If I'm honest, I wish I didn't, because these products still entail the slaughter of male chickens and cattle, who are surplus to requirements. It's one of the uncomfortable compromises I've made on vegetarianism, because a vegan diet would be the logical conclusion of the ethical grounds of my diet choices. I personally would find it difficult to go vegan for practical reasons, and also because I really like cheese. Some day, perhaps.

Nice shoes. Leather?

Another uncomfortable compromise. Yes, many of my shoes are leather. Good quality alternatives are difficult to find, and expensive. I try to avoid other leather accessories such as belts and bags, where possible and where I can find a good quality alternative.

I've been accused of hypocrisy because of the leather shoes. It's a fair call, and not one I can really argue against, except to show me anyone who hasn't had to compromise on something or other in their lives. I accept the accusation.

Humans are carnivores. We need meat to survive.

No. Humans are omnivores. One of the reasons that the human species is so successful is because we can adapt so well, and can extract nutrition from a wide range of sources.

I'm lucky to live in a country wealthy enough to offer a huge range of healthy alternatives to meat. I accept that if I were impoverished, or in a developing country, meat would be the fastest and most nutritional way to get protein. However, we really don't need as much protein as is consumed in the developed world anyway. I can easily get a balanced diet without meat. About the only vitamin that's tricky for a vegetarian to get from a non-meat source is B12, but that can be overcome with food choices and supplements.

But what about your health? Aren't vegetarians all pale weaklings?

Oh really? Come over here and say that. (Weakly waves feeble fists)

No, really, I am one of the halest, healthiest people I know. I rarely get so much as a cold. And look at this belly. I'm not going to waste away any time soon.

Mm, yummy, I've got some Haribo sweets and marshmallows! Want some?

No thanks. I avoid sweets and other products made with gelatine, or indeed any slaughter byproduct. This also applies to cheese made with rennet, and food or beauty products coloured red with carmine.

(Perusing menu) Do you mind if I order meat?

Of course I don't! I'm not trying to convert anyone. Eat what you like. I hate the smell of fish and seafood though, and can't bear it when it's served complete with a head, so I may quietly move to another seat.

Look! Over there! A chicken!
If you were on a deserted island with a chicken and you were starving to death, I'd bet you'd eat it! Gotcha!

Gotme! Given people have been driven to cannibalisation by starvation, I might just eat the chicken. Is this likely to happen, though? Really? It's not a worry that keeps me up at night. Should it?

POSTSCRIPT: For more information on vegetarianism, there are great resources on the Vegetarian Society website.

24 April 2011

Twists in the road

‘Life,’ as the old cliché goes, ‘is what happens when you're making other plans’.

Clichés are clichés for a reason I suppose.

When I was in freshman year of high school (aged 14–15) we did a project called ‘Who Am I?’. I compiled a book documenting my past, my present and what I thought my future would be – right through to an imagined obituary.

My imagined future was as conventional as you'd expect from a girl who grew up in a small town, inexperienced and naive, with a conservative (small ‘c’), traditional upbringing. My dad worked in a white-collar job; my mother was what was then called a housewife and is now called a stay-at-home mom.

If I recall correctly, in my imagined future I married a handsome doctor, and had two beautiful children – one of each, a girl and a boy, of course. We were of course together to the very end. I had a career too (I can't quite remember what career I gave myself – possibly veterinarian, as I was an avid fan of James Herriot at the time). But the main accomplishments in my imagined future were marriage and family. That was the plan.

At around the same age, I tried to imagine what life would be like in the impossibly futuristic Year 2000. I would be 32, I thought, with awe at how OLD I would be, but I still imagined myself married with children, and maybe some career or other. That was the plan.

As I got older, I still imagined marriage and family, though knew I'd have to have a career as…something or other. I abandoned my veterinary aspirations when I realised I wasn't good enough at science. I was good at English, which I went on to study at university, but even as I graduated I had no idea what I wanted to BE. The plan became fuzzy.

I came to London after I graduated. I'd met an English boy on my year abroad and so I'd booked up a return to the UK, with a flight and a visa. That was the plan. But he dumped me months before graduation day. I came over anyway, and thought I'd stay for six months and then return to the US. If I'm honest, I also harboured a hope we'd get back together in the interim. That was the plan.

Of course, we didn't get back together. I lived a miserable few months first in his house, until we had an inevitable screaming row, in which he punched me in the face. I then moved on to youth hostels. After a while I got a part-time job in a bar for £25 a week, and then, at last, a job as a secretary, earning just enough to rent a room. At the bar, I met the man who was eventually to become my husband, and later moved on to a job as an editorial assistant, so thought I'd found both the relationship I wanted and the beginning of a career. Career, marriage, then at some point maybe two beautiful children (one of each). That was the plan.

I didn't go back to the US after six months. I divorced my husband. I don't have the perfect handsome husband or two beautiful children (one of each). Career-wise, I've been fired once, made redundant three times, and been unemployed a further three times due to fixed-term contracts coming to an end. My career in book publishing morphed into online publishing. And as I write, I have no idea what turn my career will take next. That was NOT the plan.

This is absolutely not what I'd imagined, either aged 14 when I did my ‘Who Am I?’ project, or aged 22 when I collected a diploma and boarded a jet to London. When I had to forgo a meal to pay for a youth hostel in London, knowing nobody other than the man who'd just hit me, and with no job, I was terrified. When I divorced my husband, I was terrified. When I first lost a job, I was terrified.

Your P45 is in the post!
Here's the thing though: Each twist in the road has never led me off a cliff, even if it seemed that way at the time. Each time, once I've packed up the baggage and resolved to carry it lightly, I've discovered new scenery and new paths (sorry, I'm beating this metaphor to within an inch of its life – bear with me).

Yeah, the divorce – and much of the relationship leading up to the divorce – was hard. But when I came out of it, I gained a new confidence and appreciation of what I need and deserve. I'm still single, but there's plenty I enjoy about it, and I know that being in a relationship and having a ring on your finger is no guarantee that you'll never be lonely.

I don't have two beautiful children (one of each), or any children for that matter, but as I've aged I've realised I didn't really want them anyway, and thank goodness I didn't have any with my ex-husband. Marriage and children, which used to feature so heavily in the plan, have dwindled in significance to microscopic scale.

I lost some old friends along the way, but I gathered new friends. Those friendships change too, as friends pair off and start families, but I know and value the true friendships. They're friendships I may never have forged if I hadn't escaped the confidence-eroding claustrophobia of my marriage, or left one job to move to the next.

Being out of work sucks, but the move into online publishing injected me with a new enthusiasm, and it's something I never would have found if I hadn't been made redundant. Each loss of a job has always led onto something new and different and the novelty and the opportunity to learn something new keeps me motivated and happy.

Divorced, single, child-free and out of work at my age? Nope, it's not what I ever would have imagined (or chosen). But to quote another cliché, when a door closes a window opens. (When you think about that one literally, it doesn't really make much sense, but go with me here.) And I've chucked the plan out the window. I'm not panicked. I'm curious.

20 April 2011

Out, damn'd spots

Freckles. I got'em. You may have gathered this from the title of the blog, or if that wasn't enough of a clue, from my bio.

For as long as I can remember, I've had them. Lots of them. I took after my mother, who's covered head to toe, and my grandparents on both sides are Irish, so freckles are part of my genetic hardwiring.

I was painfully aware of them for a while as a kid. I was aware that I didn't just have a few adorable freckles scattered artfully across my nose, and that the sheer concentration of melanin spots on my skin was kind of unusual.

I remember seeing an episode of The Brady Bunch where Jan Brady tried to scrub out her freckles with lemon juice. I missed the point of the episode, which I'm pretty sure was that Jan learned to love her looks, and I, too, tried to get rid of my freckles with lemon juice. It didn't work, obviously.

As I moved into adulthood, beyond the painful self-consciousness of childhood and adolescence, I generally forgot about them. They're a part of me. They're my skin. I can't get rid of them any more than a dalmation could get rid of its spots. They're as much a part of me as my eye colour.

The only time I really think about them is when others bring my attention to them. In bars or at parties, men say with a leer that they like the freckles across my collarbone and upper chest because it ‘makes them wonder where the freckles end’.

I've even had men proclaim more than once that they're going to kiss or – and here the mind really boggles – make love to ‘each and every freckle’. Not only is this an unpleasant thought – it's also highly impractical. One week in, they'll only have made it as far as my left elbow. I have a lot of freckles.

I've had the inevitable ‘connect the dots‘ remarks. I've also been told a few times by black men that my freckles make me a ‘sister’, to quote them, because the melanin that creates my freckles is also what pigments their skin. Well that's true I suppose, and I guess as chat-ups go it's more imaginative than ‘do you come here often?’

When I travel abroad, to countries where people generally have darker-toned skin and staring isn't considered as rude as it is in the US or UK, they become even more of a talking point. The freckles darken in the sun and become more obvious. ‘Come here Mrs Freckles! You got too many freckles!’ said one guide in Greece, before seeing my thunderous face and hastily adding ‘But I like them! They're sexy!’ Once when I was eating dinner with a friend in a Spanish restaurant, a busboy stopped, stared, and pointed at my arm, before looking at me quizzically. They blew his mind. When I visited Kenya and Tanzania, children stroked my arm, fascinated to see whether my strange-looking skin felt any different to the touch.

I have to admit, I feel a slight relief when I travel to Ireland or Scotland and I'm surrounded by fellow frecklers in abundance.

I think the strangest moment was when Dove came up with their Campaign for Real Beauty. If I understand correctly, the idea behind this was for women who aren't model-beautiful or whippet-thin to accept their own ‘unconventional beauty’. An admirable concept I guess, until you remember it's all just to sell more soap and deodorant.

One of the ads featured a red-haired, heavily freckled woman. It asked: ‘Ugly spots? Beauty spots?‘. I was pulled up short by this ad. This was a very attractive woman. In an entirely conventional way.

I mean, look at her. Would people seriously call her ugly because of the freckles? Sure, not everyone goes for the same looks, so she won't be everyone's cup of tea, but would anyone seriously contend that she was ugly because of her freckles? She's a pretty woman in most conventional ways – tall, slim, enviable cheekbones, symmetrical features, pretty eyes, shiny hair, young.

Look at her. The freckled freak. Bravely struggling against her handicap.

Dove – like many product manufacturers targetting women – had created an anxiety where there had been none. I knew my freckles weren't the ‘norm’, or they wouldn't get the kind of comments I've mentioned above (although given the amount of times they're a hook for a chat-up line implies to me that they're not really that unattractive). But suddenly I felt like Dove pitied me. Poor me. Trying to be attractive in a world that considers my freckles a mark of ugliness. I have to challenge this by, um, buying face soap. Or something like that.

The Wikipedia article I've linked to also raises an interesting point. Dove is owned by Unilever, who make a product called Fair and Lovely – a cream marketed to dark-skinned women to make their skin whiter. I guess we have a long way to go before we find out what ‘real beauty’ is.

Note: This post was inspired by Slate's blogpost, The cure for your fugly armpits. Worth a read!

19 April 2011

Of proms and poodle perms

I got an email the other day about my 25th high school reunion. Twenty. Five. Years. Whoomp! I'm smacked in the face once again with the stark reality of age.

STOP LAUGHING. We all looked like this in the 80s.
I look back at that wrinkle-free face, surrounded in the poodle haze of a perm, and marvel. That shy, bookish 18 year old had no idea what lay ahead of her. And thank goodness for that. She'd be terrified. She had yet to learn how to cope with real life.

I didn't like high school all that much. I wasn't one of the cool kids – too shy and plain to be a cheerleader; too awkward to be sporty; brainy but not quite one of the brainiest. My high school years weren't the madcap whirl of football games, drama, dates and parties that you see in the movies – although elements of the American high school experience you see on the silver screen certainly were there.

In my high school years I did my homework, I worked part time in a shop (as soon as I was 16 my dad marched me off to get a job), I went to the movies a lot, I got crushes on boys and wondered what kissing felt like but never went on a date. I read Seventeen magazine, experimented with makeup and drank skimmed milk while stuffing myself silly with cookies. I wasn't anywhere near as fat as I thought I was, or as ugly as I thought I was, but that's the folly of youth.

My hometown was small and most of the kids in my class were kids I'd known since the age of 5 or so. By high school, the die of social placing had long been cast. High school social structures are rigid and unforgiving. On the bright side, though, the bullying that plagued me through earlier years had died down; the culprits were bored by then, or perhaps too worried about jostling for their own place in the pecking order.

Even in senior year, I never joined the other seniors in claiming ‘the balcony’, an area of the stairs overlooking the school lobby traditionally monopolised by the seniors – I wasn't ‘in’ enough. Although I was one of the best English students in my year, I didn't get on the yearbook committee, because I wasn't friends with the right people.

I also didn't go to the prom. This event is as much a rite of passage as you'll have been led to believe by the movies. Getting a date, getting a dress, getting a corsage, getting a limo, getting drunk. It MATTERED. But I was below the eyeline of the boys in my class. The night of the prom, my equally below-the-line friend and I went to the movies.

Don't get me wrong – I wasn't miserable. I had friends, and I had fun. I got good grades, enjoyed classes, had some amazing, inspiring teachers. The scaffolding for the more outgoing, sociable and confident adult I would eventually become had begun to be built. I still had an innocence and naiveté that helped prevent me from being bundled into adulthood before I was ready. But there was a sense of being outside, and of waiting for life to begin. And begin it did, when I moved away from my small town life to a large university, where nobody knew me and finally I could start afresh.

I haven't been to previous high school reunions. Part of me is curious – are the cheerleaders still beautiful and supreme? Are the football players still strutting their stuff? Have the brainy kids gone on to forge glittering careers? What happened to the class stoners? And of course, I wonder what they would make of me. Is their recollection of an 18-year-old Trish the same as my own? Would the fact that I live in London be enough to impress them?

And then I think: Why on earth am I still worrying about impressing them anyway? Why go? As you may have gathered, it's not a time I look back on with any particular fondness, and I'm not really in touch with the people I was friends with back then. I might have more wrinkles now, but I also have more confidence and peace with who I am. Not to mention a better haircut.