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.

15 April 2011

The cat lady and the cougar

I'm a *coughmumblefortysomething* year old woman, and I'm single. Broadly speaking, in my experience, this means I'm expected to fall into one of two categories: the cat lady, or the cougar.

I like this cardigan, ok?
Ah, the cat lady, in her shabby clothes, filling the loveless void in her life with feline company. Surrounding herself with "furbabies", those whiskery substitutes for actual human babies. Disappointed by the fickle love of men, she opts for the (arguably just as fickle) love of her moggies. She's covered in cat hair, and she doesn't care. Cats on every surface, cupboards full of tins of tuna.

And the cougar. Originally exemplified as Sam Jones from Sex and the City, now with Courtney Cox carrying the torch for the younger man. A sexual predator, intent on luring toyboys into her boudoir, matching her experience with their enthusiasm. The Mrs Robinson for a new generation, rejecting her paunchy peers for the eagerness and firm muscles of youth.

Two very different stereotypes – curiously, with a common feline theme. Both pretty insulting if you think about it.

The cat lady is pretty obvious. Sad, lonely, nothing left in her life but cats.

Cor! Ooh, young man!
The cougar is, on the face of it, perhaps more empowering and liberating. But there's still an underlying current of disdain. Is there a male equivalent of a cougar? Not really, because an older man going for a younger woman is 'normal' (whatever normal is). Sugar Daddy, perhaps, is the closest, but that's not quite the same thing; the implication there is that the man is still the one in power, thanks to his money, and the woman's exchanging sex for a luxurious lifestyle. The cougar is a figure of fascination, and titillation, but there's still a whiff of desperation about her, a frantic fight against time and age, and validation through notches on the bedpost.

Now here's where I have to 'fess up to a couple of things. I have two cats. And I've been out with younger men.

Yeah, I'm fond of the cats. I put photos and videos of them on social media. When Murphy, the older, female cat, had cancer, I was devastated, and threw a lot of money at making her better. Same goes for when Teddy, the younger, male cat, needed serious surgery. (Wait a minute...older female and younger male? I'm beginning to see a pattern.) I even talk to them in a stupid voice. (Look, you try talking to a cat without ending up using a stupid voice. Go on. Try it. Bet you can't.)

I don't, however, consider them baby replacements, or man replacements, or any kind of replacement really. I don't buy them Christmas presents, or knit jumpers for them, or like a catsitter of mine, set up a "wedding ceremony" for them and take photos of them in their finery (yes, really). They're my pets. Beloved pets, but pets.

As for the younger man thing, well, that's been more by accident than design. I've never intentionally gone for younger men. It's just kind of…happened. My date on my 40th birthday was 25 years old. My last boyfriend was 13 years my junior. I didn't go out on the prowl, preying on young flesh. It just so happens that the people I've met when out and about and to whom I've been attracted have been younger (maybe a numbers game; you don't meet many single men my age when out and about, and as for internet dating – well, that's a story for another time). Bizarrely, I've been congratulated sometimes when I've had a younger man on my arm – as though it validates me, that I've "still got it".

I sometimes joke that I'm a cat lady. I sometimes joke about the younger man thing. Why, when arguably I'm perpetuating it by doing so? I guess as a defence – get in there first and make it a joke before someone else does. Maybe then I can send up the labels by confounding expectation.

Both labels are reductive. Labels are easier. Single women – and in particular, single, child-free women of a certain age – can make people uncomfortable. As I'm asked more often than I'd care to recall, why am I still single, after all? Have I given up (cat lady)? Have I chosen sex over relationships (cougar)? Well, neither. Life doesn't fit into neatly labelled (litter)boxes, and neither do I.

12 April 2011

A fallow period

Inertia. As I'm sure you'll remember from your physics lessons, it's the tendency of a body at rest to stay at rest.

It's a tendency I know well. I'm in a period of unemployment – let's call it a fallow period – and not for the first time. I've had several periods ranging from a month through to almost a year when I haven't worked, either because of redundancy (such a brutal phrase!) or because I've been working as a contractor and the contract has come to an end.

The whole 'not earning money' thing is a bit of a bind. But at the same time, there's a certain luxury to the sudden wealth of free time. The kind of free time I long for when I'm on the treadmill of commute–work–commute–sleep–repeat.

In the case of my present situation, I knew this fallow period was coming several months in advance; the project was coming to a close and there was no chance of the contract rolling over. Because of the nature of contract work, which requires contractors to start pretty much immediately, I didn't look too hard for a follow-up job.

Towards the end of the project, I was working long days, and I was too exhausted to throw myself into the soul-destroying process of jobhunting. And because I was lucky enough to be earning enough to tuck some money aside, and have been unemployed before, I wasn't feeling any immediate panic. I just worked my butt off until the final day of the project, celebrated the end with my colleagues in the time-honoured way of going to the pub and drinking way too much, and said goodbye to work at the end of March.

Something else I know from previous experience is that when I'm back at work, I'll look back on all this wonderful free time and berate myself for having wasted it watching daytime TV and farting around on the computer. So once the wrap party hangover cleared, I drew up a list of things to do to keep myself busy and motivated. None of it was very exciting. Fix up the garden. Take broken appliances to the tip. Revarnish the front door. That kind of thing. Dullsville. But it was all stuff that needs to be done, and by being productive, I reasoned to myself, I wouldn't lapse into inertia, and the momentum would help to drive me towards my next job.

A week and a bit on, the list is still there, and largely unmolested by strike-throughs. I've spent most of the time sleeping and, well, watching daytime TV and farting around on the computer. I justified it to myself – I'd been working really hard; I haven't had time off in a very long time (my last holiday was 3 years ago); I have enough money to keep me going for a few months. And I'm doing some dog walking for a charity (The Cinnamon Trust, a very good cause, so check it out if you love animals and have free time) so I'm not a complete waste of space, right? Frankly, I've enjoyed every minute of it.

You're not watching Loose Women again, are you?!
But now there are annoying pinpricks of conscience threatening to burst my bubble of lazy self-indulgence.You'll regret not making more of this free time when you're working again. The money won't last forever. You have no excuse for not cleaning the house or doing the gardening. The sun is shining so what are you doing indoors? It's like Jiminy Cricket has come to stay. And by god he's a nag.

The longer I remain in a state of inertia, the harder it becomes to move again. And the sooner I start moving, the easier it will be to keep up the momentum. I can already see the dangers of indulging much longer.

It's mid-day right now, the sun is shining and Jiminy is nagging. And where am I? On the sofa, computer on my lap, writing this. Time to hit 'publish' then dust off that list and tackle it anew. After all, the whole point of letting ground lie fallow is to keep it productive, not to let it dry up into wasteland.

10 April 2011

You're not very fat, for an American

It's a blessing and a curse, being an expatriated American who's lived in London for almost 21 years.

A blessing because it's an instant icebreaker in any situation. My accent is weird. Not weird in the same way that my fellow New Englander Lloyd Grossman's accent is weird – that strange, pretentious, grating midatlantic drawl. Just weird in that it can't be placed. I've had all sorts of guesses about where I'm from, ranging from the understandable (Ireland, Canada, the generic "North of England" – presumably the latter due to my flattened vowels), through to the bizarre (South African, Dutch). It seems to me that accents are very important in the UK – an instant way of classifying someone – and so my own accent immediately triggers a line of questioning.

And so the conversation opens – usually in a predictable way. Why did you come here? Do you ever want to go back? Why are you here when you could be in America? (This is normally accompanied by a mournful gesture to the weather, or the delays listed on the board at a station platform.) I have the story down pat and can rattle it out on demand. I don't mind. It's an instant icebreaker, like I say. It's led to some great chats and good friendships and working relationships.

But here comes the curse part. People make an awful lot of assumptions about Americans. I've been asked some real jaw-droppers over the years. "You're Irish-American? Did you donate to Noraid?" (I'm not Irish-American in the "my great-great-great-cousin thrice removed was in Dublin once" way of presidential candidates; my grandparents are Irish and I have an Irish passport.) "Have you ever used a gun?" (The only guns I've ever seen have been in the holsters of the police.) "Americans don't speak proper English." (I've been an editor for around 18 years and I'm a word nerd – say this to me and you'll get a history of the language, including a potted history of lexicography, Webster and Johnson.) "You're not very fat, for an American." (Erm. Thanks?) "Yes, Trish, you're American, but you're not really a proper American." (This is meant as a compliment, and in this intention becomes an insult.)

Americans are fat. Americans are stupid. Americans all wear baseball caps. Americans are religious nuts. Americans are trigger-happy. Americans are bullies. Americans are loud. Americans are brash. I've heard 'em all. And I'll have a response to pull from the dogeared file in my brain labelled Yank-Bashing Response Templates.

Here's the thing though. I'm no rosy-spectacled patriot. I choose to live outside of the US. Part of the reason is the way my country has turned, particularly post-9/11, into a more insecure, paranoid and reactionary place (at least, so it seems to me). In part, it's also because living abroad for my adult life opened my eyes and horizons. I feel more like a foreigner in Boston than I do in London. I use English slang and Anglicised spelling. I can no longer complain or have someone bump into me without saying "sorry".  I sometimes pretend to be English when I'm visiting the US to avoid having to explain why I talk funny even though I was born in Massachusetts.

When I'm asked what my nationality is, I really don't know how to respond. I have an American passport, but I haven't lived there since 1990. I have an Irish passport, but I've never lived there at all. Half of my life has been spent in the UK, where I live, work, play, and even vote.

What am I, then? I've no idea, frankly. I own a baseball cap, but I don't wear it. Make of that what you will.