What do I do when my body tells me I’m old?

ageing clockI had a lot of fun turning 40 last year.  I reckon it’s a good age – young enough to feel time is still on your side, but old enough for experience to (mostly) have your back too.

Trouble is, my body seems to be telling me something different.  I do a slightly faster or longer run than normal and I get shin splints.  I move a pile of logs and put my back out.  I choose booze, biscuits and late nights and I get spots a teenager would cringe at and black eyes a panda would kill for.

What’s a girl to do – it’s either grab the gin and head for the oven; do a Gwyneth and go all juice, gym and jimjams by 9; or ignore it all and go hell for leather, life’s short so who cares.

I say there’s another way.

No longer can we rely on ‘use and abuse’ (so 20s).  The ‘I’m just too exhausted by kids/work/life’ doesn’t cut it (so 30s).  We need a new mantra for our 40s:  Suck it up, take the dull on the chin.  Care to live.  Insert your own version as you wish.

Whereas in my 20s I scoffed at the dentist preaching to me about flossing habits, now I both floss and visit the hygienist religiously – better that than massive dental bills or falsies gnashing in a bedside glass by 50.  I don’t want old lady dribble issues, so those pelvic floors will just have to fit into my daily life.   I do my best to resist the siren call of the daily post bedtime glass of wine and chocolate (yeah, that one might need some more work), and I’ve finally signed up to a weekly pilates class – by all accounts  the best (if boring) way to strengthen my body in ways that help as I get older.  I take make-up off every night, I’m finally paying more attention to sitting properly at my desk, I exercise regularly, etc, etc.

Yes, our bodies get old.  I say, deal with it.  We weren’t designed to live so long and evolution will take a damn long time to catch up.  Accept it, take the boring self-care routines on the chin and get on with enjoying the precarious and precious life we are lucky to have.

That said, I’m keeping the gin and oven close at hand.  Much as she glows, the Gwyneth route is far too dull, and ignoring it all just makes my head hurt.   So if my resolve fails, you know where to find me…

Can a book discombobulate you? “The Fault In Our Stars” certainly can

dis·com·bob·u·late  [dis-kuhm-bob-yuh-leyt]. verb: to confuse or disconcert; upset; frustrate

The fault in our stars coverYesterday morning I finished reading ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green.  “Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw” shouts the back cover in bold, narrow, handwritten type.  If I take the “disconcert” and “upset” parts of the definition above, this book most certainly discombobulated me.

Sundays are my ‘morning off’, which usually means I snooze for a while before sneaking in some reading.  Not so yesterday.  As soon as Mr H had reluctantly succumbed to Littlest H’s insistent and boisterous ‘I’m HUNGRY, Daddy’, on went the light and out came the book.  I’ve been tired all week from staying up late to read it, and yesterday I wasn’t leaving my bed until I was finished.

At which point I gathered myself, wiped away the tears and re-engaged with family life.  But I was unexplainably snippy with Mr H, and then, while on my bike, straining up a hill in open countryside (usually a positive experience of ‘yay I’m exercising’ and ‘yay, I’m on my own’), I found myself full-on bawling for no obvious reason.  Yes, I was exhausted from the effort of more uphills than I anticipated; yes I was frustrated with my recklessness in planning a route I didn’t know when I had a finite amount of time to get back to pick up Littlest H from a birthday party; but neither of those would usually be reason enough for such an uncontrollable emotional outburst, even for me.  So I can only conclude I was letting out the emotion this book created in me.

Why did this book affect me so much?  Its subject matter was never going to be light and fluffy – it’s about children with cancer.  But I don’t think the awfulness of childhood cancer was what got me.  It was the real-ness of the characters and their emotions, the breathtakingly intelligent banter of the teenage protagonists, so beautifully observed and written, and the power of the writing to put me right there in the lives of the families and the truly awful situation they were in.

I want to read it again, to take it more slowly, to savour the bits I didn’t stop to fully take in.  There are no wasted words in this book.  I remember reading Thomas Hardy at school, skipping the first one to two pages of every chapter with their lengthy, flowery descriptions of place and time.  None of that here.  I am in awe of John Green and his skill.

No, this is not light and fluffy.  Yes, I cried tears of anguish more than once.  But mostly, I found it incredibly uplifting – how these teenagers and their families function in a terrible and terrifying situation.  How they find a path to life, rather than giving up on it or focusing on death, however close it may be.

To me, books or any other art form, work if they make me feel.   This book made me feel on every page.  I feel the privilege of life, the privilege and preciousness of healthy children, family and friends, and the temporary nature of that privilege.  I feel the truth of how humour, ‘real-ness’ and a lack of melodrama or sentimentality could help make cancer or other disease more bearable. I have a new perspective on how my and others’ behaviour could look or feel to people suffering with cancer or other disease.  That point struck me in particular reading how some family members acted around someone dying – remembering them to their face while still alive, using the past tense, being sentimental.  It is beautifully handled in the book.  I have a tendency to melodrama and sentimentality, and I hope I managed to avoid making my father’s two years with cancer more difficult by acting as these people do, however understandable the reaction is.  Even if I did, I can’t change it now, but perhaps I can handle it differently if, god forbid, I’m in the situation again.

I completely agree with the proclamation on the back cover of this book.  It is insightful, bold, irreverent and, more than anything, raw.  The irreverence is its brilliance in my view.   I’m sure it wouldn’t work for everyone going through cancer, nor do all the main characters manage it in this book, but it is a real, unsentimental coping mechanism that I can relate to.

In Western society we are increasingly used to the expectation of long life.  Our politicians and finance gurus discuss the problem of pensioners living longer.  More and more  diseases are eradicated or managed with sophisticated drugs. The vast majority of us are used to clean water, sanitation, heat, excellent medical care, jobs that won’t lead us to early death, limited immediate threat of war.  Long gone are the days of high infant mortality and fifty being a ripe old age.

Watching historical drama or current documentaries about Africa or other areas of the world where life is less certain, I wonder at that sense of living with death.  Parents of the past expected some of their children to die – I’m certain it was still hugely traumatic, but perhaps one felt helplessness and inevitability about it compared to the shocking, terrifying, gut-wrenching feelings towards it today.  We believe it will never be us.  We expect to live until we’re old, crinkly and bad-tempered, necking gin at 10am and pushing to the front of the queue because we can.

I do think cancer is changing that perception in current generations though.  More and more of us experience it ourselves or in our close family and friends, and it makes long life feel less certain.  Many cancers are survivable, yes, but it is a disease we fear because it strikes hard and indiscriminately – there is little we can do in our lifestyles to manage our risk of getting it, or indeed, to not be the wrong side of the survivor statistics.  How the teenagers and families in this book handle that process in the extreme, is a lesson for me and no doubt any other readers.

If you read one book this year, read this one.

Feeding time at the in-law zoo

Prosciutto wrapped chicken stuffed with herbs, courgette and tomato gratin, baby roast potatoes.  Sound good? It bloomin’ well better, it took at least an hour to come up with.

Only the in-laws coming to stay, but my fingers are increasingly worn by thumbing a mousepad or recipe books in preparation.  Finding a tasty meal I haven’t cooked for them a million times before that has no rice, no pasta, no couscous, no spice or heat, no fish, no vegetarian…  Phew – what’s left?  Red meat or chicken with pastry, potato or bread.  Crikey.  I’m bored just writing it let alone eating it for a lifetime.

I remember the first time they came for supper at our flat in London.  Mr H told me to keep it simple.  So I wracked my Jamie Oliver-addled brain and came up with mozzarella and tomato salad to start with, some kind of chicken with roast vegetables for main and who knows what for dessert.  Turns out that was the first ever taste of mozzarella for my now father-in-law. Lucky for me he loved it and apparently it became a firm favourite.  Bless them for keeping schtum for fear of offending their number one son’s new laydee.

Time has resulted in more honesty, or at least, more obvious signals.  I guess that’s good.  I don’t want them dreading coming to stay for fear of what I might put in front of them.   I did contemplate a chicken tagine this morning, wondering for a moment if cous cous might past muster.  Thankfully I saw sense.  Using up my bounty of potatoes from the allotment will be far more satisfying anyway.  I am insisting on putting courgette and potato soup onto them, though, which I’m pretty sure won’t become a favourite.  But we have marrows bigger than our kids’ legs to use up – I’ll risk unfinished bowls for getting the damn things off the kitchen windowsill.

How on earth can people survive with so much delicious food off the menu?  What on earth do they eat?!  Traditional simple British food – that oft maligned creature, dare I say it, with good reason.  It’s not that I don’t love the old classics, but I just can’t imagine not eating anything else.  Love the in-laws as I do, I find their food habits, well, a bit boring.  I probably have to ‘fess up to being a bit of a crazy one myself, loving rabbit food for breakfast, and generally salivating over health food shops and stupidly priced, funkily packaged ‘health foods’.   I’m obsessed with coffee and cake.  For a gal who shouldn’t eat wheat, I sure eat a lot of cake. And cookies. Gotta love the cookies.

Crazy how differently Mr H and I ate growing up and yet here we are, sharing a life, feeding our kids balsamic vinegar and vine-ripened tomatoes, curries and stir fries, pasta and parmesan.  Their idea of simple is home made pizza or fish fingers with home made potato wedges and carrots from the garden.  Not a white bread chip butty in sight.

What will they think of our eating habits when they become adults?  Will they look at us and shake their heads?  Will Jamie Oliver’s job be done in a generation’s time, or is that a middle class view of the world, where making meals fresh from scratch is the norm and ready meals a guilty secret?  I’d like to think so.  But the spread of obesity doesn’t suggest things are getting better.  Health scares seem to suggest virtually anything you eat will be bad for you in the end.  So what’s best?  Maybe it is about eating food you enjoy, enjoying the food you eat.  Within moderation of course. Or if not, then with exercise – you can’t beat the old energy in = energy out, however much I might try to sometimes.

And as for the kids, hopefully if we continue to give them tasty, varied fresh food without being militant about chips and chocolate, they will grow up to love the taste of food, enjoy trying new food, and even better to enjoy cooking for themselves and others.  We will see.  Time to go salt the marrows.

It’s come to this

‘This’ is a nit date.  Ever had one? Oh, you should, everyone should. It’s the pinnacle of life I never thought I’d reach.  Spending two hours with an equally hirsute friend de-lousing each other’s hair – it’s exactly what I left work to do.   Followed closely by spending 30-60 minutes nit combing my daughter’s similarly long, thick, wavy hair every other day for two weeks and counting.

On reflection, I see this joyous initiation into primary school life in two ways.  On a bad day, dealing with nits is yet another rung in the never-ending hamster wheel of life with young children.  As if there aren’t enough mind-numbingly dull, repetitive aspects to the average day, now I have to add this to our bedtime routine?  Where do I rustle up that extra time – oh yes, of course, out of my own, post-bedtime adult time.  The time when all parents I know take a deep, relieved breath, often followed with the clink and slurp (sorry sip, of course, sip) of the all important ‘I survived’ glass of wine. Right now, it also eats into my exercise time, which makes me grumpy.  If nothing else it means I can’t have chocolate after supper ‘because I deserve it’.

Don’t let’s forget the gross-ness of them either.  Having never seen a nit, when the letters from school started coming through I asked a few friends what to look for.  Tiny grains of rice that are stuck to the hair seemed the best indicator.  That didn’t quite prepare me for increasingly obssessively combing about 20 brown, 2-3mm bugs with recognisable legs out of my daughter’s hair.  Boy was my head itching after that.   Every time I see girls in my daughter’s class with their long hair flowing in the wind I feel like finding their parents and giving them a good talking to.

On a good day, (or in a good hour – let’s be honest, days with kids are never wholly good, are they), it is a mark of friendship that we trusted each other to do a really thorough job and not be too grossed out by the whole thing.  For some people it could sit the same side of the line as not closing the door when you wee or talking about your sex life.

Mostly though, I think it’s an example of the most unexpectedly valuable, enjoyable and treasured things I’ve gained through stopping working – the fun and support of really wonderful, local friends, for me and the kids.  Friends whom we would never have been able to get to know anywhere near as well if I had continued working.

Although I was lucky enough to make one or two great local friends when I was working, I know now how valuable and nourishing a broader support network really is.  I wonder if this modern friends-based set up gives us even more support than families provided when the norm was to have grandparents, siblings, cousins a few doors down.  These are people I’ve chosen to spend time with, with whom there are no family role issues or baggage to deal with, just trust, respect, friendship and joint knowledge that in a fix we will do whatever we can to help each other out.

I think not having access to this is one of the most difficult parts of being a working mother, unless you are lucky enough to get it through existing friendships.  You can’t be there for play dates to get to know your kids’ friends.  You feel you can’t ask too much too often because you know you can’t reciprocate.  You’ll never be one of the gaggle loitering at the school gate because you have to drop and run, if it’s even you who drops at all.   You might meet people at the occasional organised evening out and 5 mins chats at school pick up time, but you know you don’t have the time to build proper relationships.  What a shame, there could have been nit dates, pox parties and everything.

You give up a lot to keep a full-time career going in my opinion.  Nit dates are the least of it.  Even on my worst days I don’t regret stopping, or not feel thankful we can make it work financially for a year or two.  When I’m cleaning wee off the floorboards for the nth time, or hearing myself shout ‘will you stop shouting’, I have of course wondered if it was really the right decision for me or indeed for the kids.  But out of the heat of the moment, I know this life is infinitely more rewarding on so many levels.

So maybe in a funny way, the nit date wasn’t so bad.  My friend was happy she has finally found someone who has more hair than she has.  And it could be worse. She told me some of the nits cases she’s seen at work were so bad the sufferers had nits in their eyebrows.  Now that really is gross.