Thursday, 26 April 2012

Friendship and Community

Night in with friends

The last week seems to have passed in a whirlwind – or maybe just a hazy fog.  The kids were on half term until Monday and I have been trying to simultaneously train for my forthcoming inaugural Triathlon, whilst fighting off some virus, which has given me a sore throat and earache.

And to top it all, on Saturday night, I didn’t get to bed until 3am.  As is always the way, the best parties are those that happen spontaneously. 

It all started out in comedy style… I invited a few friends round for dinner.  It was a last minute plan and limited by the number of chairs in my kitchen. Two girlfriends (Mums from school) were unable to come.  Another guest had only been invited the night before.  And Running Man, who had offered to come at 6pm to help, turned up at 7pm, slightly giggly, having had a couple of drinks already! 

Julian and his boyfriend arrived minutes later, worried that something terrible had happened to me!  I’d asked them to phone before they came round, in case they needed to bring another chair.  I had completely forgotten and left my phone upstairs, ringing away without being answered!

As the booze began to flow, Running Man’s phone rang.  It was “The Chef” a friend of his (who I know) who used to be a Chef. 

“Tell him to come and join us!”  I shrieked, getting into the party mood.  “There’s plenty of food.”

And so he did. 

What I hadn’t realized was that he was supposed to be meeting another friend in the local pub.

Sarah arrived shortly before 9pm with the ingredients for desert…  Well, all but the key ingredient that is!  Not one to be put off by such things, I rummaged around the cupboards and found a very dodgy looking bottle of fortified wine.  Having forced The Chef to taste it and check it wasn’t ‘off’, RM poured it into the desert. 

No sooner had we finished dinner than RM’s phone rang again.  It was the friend in the pub round the corner, wondering where The Chef was. 

“Tell her to come and join us!”  I shrieked (again) already well into the party mood!

And so she did, bringing Two Gay Friends she’d been in the pub with!

I lost track of various people going home, but at 1am, I found myself dancing round the kitchen to 80’s hits with RM, The Chef and the Two Gay Friends (who I didn’t know!). 

Just a casual dinner with a few friends had turned into something altogether different.   And from an outsiders perspective, we must have looked like an odd bunch.  At first glance, there are no obvious connections between us all.

But in reality, despite the variations in ages (from about 28 to 50-something), the different jobs and marital status everyone has, there is in fact a greater bond than you might think.  Because what this group has in common, is what they do in their spare time.  So many people (and whilst I was married, I was one) have friends that ‘do’ the same types of job.  Probably because they’ve met either at university or work, all hanging out with the same ‘types’ of people. 

There’s nothing wrong with this.  I’m not knocking it.  But I love the fact that this group is not defined by what they do for a living.  There isn’t the ‘safety in numbers’ issue I have seen amongst people who only socialize with people in the same or similar line of business. 

The connections are about the types of sport or outdoor pursuits they’re into and food (the cooking and eating of it)!  No one is overly interested in what the others do for a living, because no one is defined by it.  These people hang out with each other because they are great friends.

But the connection between all these people is their bond of friendship, their support for each other and helping each other out…. Whether it’s Sarah, helping me when I needed to be taken to A&E, or Running Man fixing the dripping radiator in the bathroom, it is a community of friends.  And in this day and age... it’s a rare thing.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Competitiveness - is it good or bad...?

I don’t like to think of myself as a competitive person.

Why?  Because I have encountered people through the course of my life for whom being competitive has been a very negative characteristic.  And whilst there have been many for whom it’s ‘negative’, there are a couple who are almost eaten up by it.  Even the most mundane conversation is a strain, as it’s turned into ‘yet another’ competition.

I’m sure most of us have, at some point, encountered the type of person I’m talking about. 

Just as way of example, imagine the flow of the following conversation:

“Hi there!  Haven’t seen you for ages. How are you?”

“Not too bad.  But I’ve had a bit of a cold.  You know how it is.  It just makes you feel a few degrees under.”

“Oh, that’s nothing.  I had flu last week – temperature of 104 – major antibiotics!”

“Poor you!”

“Oh, it’s nothing!  Two years ago, I came back from holiday with Malaria.  They wanted to hospitalise me, of course, but you know what I’m like.  Not one to complain.”

Or alternatively, the conversation could flow like this:

“Hi!  How are you?  How are the kids?”

“Great thanks!   James has settled really well into school and Sarah is a bright kid and she’s really enjoying her new Nursery.”

“That’s great!  Of course our Jimmy has skipped the first year of school because he’s so bright.  And Lucy is truly gifted, so it’s just a matter of where we apply for a scholarship…”    Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah!!!

Exhausting, isn’t it?!

Well, it exhausts me anyway.   In fact, it makes me want to scream. 

As a parent, I feel I have a right to be proud of my children – but no right to ram it down other people’s throats.  I have also, over the years, become very aware of how lucky I am.

I have two fit, healthy, bright kids.  Everything a parent dreams of.

That said, during the first five years of their lives, they have both respectively had serious (though not life threatening) health issues.  I have no doubt in my mind that those very necessary visits to hospital, witnessing other kids with far worse illnesses, have made me very aware of how lucky I am, in the greater scheme of things. 

I do not need or want my kids to be the next Usain Bolt, or Richard Branson.  I do not believe that level of success necessarily equates to happiness.

I want my kids to be successful in life – but to my mind, success in life means: being happily married; having fabulous kids; a job they find fulfilling, that provides the level of income that makes life comfortable; a good network of friends; and a happy home.

So why am I talking about competitiveness?  Well, this week I have been accused of being competitive.  Overall, I view ‘competitive’ as ‘negative’.  So it really p*ssed me off!  But the main reason I’m p*ssed off, is because I know that “underneath it all” I have this huge competitive streak!

Next weekend, I am taking part in my first ever triathlon.  Yes!  At the grand old age of 40-something, I am going to swim, cycle and run with 99 other idiots, at some un-Godly hour on a Sunday morning!  And I don’t just want to complete the course.  I want to win!  OMG – I said it!  I have barely acknowledged it to myself, but I do… I want to win my age category.  But I have so much self doubt, I am terrified I’ll just make a fool of myself.

And as I’m doing the event in total isolation (two of my friends are helping with the Marshalling – but no one I know is taking part), I have absolutely no idea what the competition is going to be like.

But why the heck do I feel a need to win anyway?  It really irritates me that I do.  That’s why I don’t want to admit it!  Why does a middle aged woman like me need to win a local novice Triathlon?  I have absolutely no idea.  But I do think that if Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct (and I largely believe it is) it must be deeply rooted in my psyche and therefore something I can do nothing about.  And if I don’t win (and I probably won’t), how will that make me feel?   Will it put me off doing any further events?  Or will it get me ‘hooked’ into training harder and competing again to do better next time?

During the course of my life, I have never wanted to have control over other people, but I have a desperate need to be ‘in control’ of myself.  Taking part in this event, where I might embarrass myself beyond belief, in front of my friends and my kids, is a step out of my comfort zone.  The honest truth is, I hate being I a position where I am flying in the dark.  And that’s how this event makes me feel.

But I can’t help feeling that at some point in our lives, all of us need to do it.  Get out of our comfort zone.  Risk making an ass of ourselves.   Push our physical and mental limits… 

In essence….

‘Live’ a bit more than we are used to.

I will do my very best to make my kids proud – and I’ll report back after next weekend.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Everyone’s at it…

I guess it’s just that time of year.  The days are getting longer and warmer.  The blossom is starting to come out and everyone’s getting fit and doing sponsored ‘somethings’..!

And I have to admit, I’m at it too! 

I wanted to do a marathon a couple of years ago, but every time I started to ‘up the anti’ and do longer distances, I started getting problems with knees and tendons.  So when someone asked me whether I fancy doing a triathlon, I decided it was a perfect alternative.

Running Man is without a doubt my biggest supporter in this challenge.  His enthusiasm is contagious.  He regularly checks in to see what distances I am running and swimming, and has lent me his bike for the bit I feel most ‘wobbly’ about.  And I do mean ‘wobbly’ in the most literal sense. 

My earliest memory of cycling is of the paroxysms of laughter I heard after my parents pushed me down a slope straight into a rose bed, because they had failed to tell me where the brakes were.  Strangely, as my father spent half an hour picking rose thorns out of me, I don’t remember finding it particularly funny!

After this dreadful introduction to cycling, the last time I owned a bike (about three years ago) I was knocked off it by a van on a quiet back street.  It frightened the life out of me and has made me very anxious about cycling on city streets.  It does rather beg the question “Why the hell are you doing a triathlon?” doesn’t it?!

But remember… this is for Charity, right?  We’re supposed to take ourselves out of our comfort zone for these things.

So, when RM dropped the bike off last week, he also adjusted the seat for me.  Having clamped the front wheel between his feet, he told me to hop on the bike to see if the height was OK.  I found myself screaming like the biggest ‘girl’s blouse’ as I wobbled about, terrified I was going to loose my balance and go flying.  Suddenly beginning to believe my lack of cycling prowess, RM promised to drop off a cycling helmet.

Having bashed my head a couple of months ago whilst out running, I don’t think it would be a particularly smart move to bash it again… so high visibility top and cycling helmet will be worn!

As it stands, I’m not worried about the distances of my first triathlon, as it is a ‘sprint’ (ie, short distances).  But what was really bothering me was what to wear.  And that’s when I discovered a whole new type of … well… porn!

I’ve never been interested in porn… but there is something about men in tight fitting Lycra that pushes my buttons!  And there’s shed loads of it on the internet.   By which I mean, there are loads of sites that sell “tri suits”!

Having done a bit of research, I found something suitable, and my tri suit is in the post to me.  Having mentioned this to a few friends, it would seem a couple of my smutty male friends seem rather interested to see it in action – which does make me wonder whether I should be wearing it to Waitrose in the early evening.  I have it on great authority that lots of people ‘pull’ at the supermarket!  Anyway, I digress.

To give you an idea of what it’s like, it’s like an all in one sleeveless Lycra romper suit.  And not something you can get on and off in a hurry… which leads to my next worry.  What the hell do you do if you need a pee?

Well, having asked around, it seems you have to do a ‘Paula Radcliffe’ or, as another friend suggested, get a ‘Shewee’.   Having looked it up on the internet, I don’t fancy getting one myself, but I was relieved to see that it is indeed NATO approved (for real!).

And so finally, all that is left is two weeks of training.  Today is a run, tomorrow is a swim and Saturday I’ll take the bike out. 

So why am I doing it? 

Well, it’s spring, it’s for charity, it’s a challenge, I’ve never done one before and it feels great.

I doubt I would have ever done this if I’d still been married. 

Sometimes, life doesn’t just move on, it races ahead.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Motherhood – why do we undervalue the most important job of all?

Last week I met up with a mother from school.  She is married to a British man, but was born and raised in the Middle East.  She is highly educated, intelligent, well read and cosmopolitan.  She speaks four languages, has degrees from universities in two different countries, neither of which were undertaken in her first language.  In short, she is one smart cookie.

So, what does she DO exactly?  Well, she looks after her three children.  She cooks their meals, arranges their social life, ferries them too and from school, arranges their holidays, helps them with their homework, entertains them during the holidays, buys their clothes, clears up after them, shops for them, takes care of them when they’re ill etc etc.  Yes, all those things that a mother does….  And is that it?  Yes!  It’s a full time job. 

But what I found so interesting about her, was that having told me all about her early life and studies, she told me straight out that her ‘job’, in fact her ‘life’ was about her children.  Despite her obvious intellect, she sees raising her children as the most important thing she can do.  She wants to study more, but this would be for her personal interest and would not encroach on her responsibilities to her children.  Within her culture, it is the correct and appropriate thing to do.  In fact, to leave three children at home and go back to work, would be questionable to her society.  

Now, before you start shrieking the obvious at me - I do of course realise that my friend is in the very fortunate financial position that she does not ‘have’ to work.  I know there are countless women out there who would love to be that financial position.

And before the other half of you start yelling at me…  I know there are women who have worked hard to build up a career, want to go back to work and have ensured that their children will not miss out, by providing suitable childcare arrangements. 

This post is not about the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of the ‘should mothers go back to work’ debate.

The point I’m trying to make is that I think she is lucky that she is not faced with the issues that many of my friends have.  I am talking about the women friends I have who have chosen to stay at home with their kids, often accepting a reduced standard of living in order to do what feels the ‘right’ thing to them.  These women seem to have the same conversation over and over again.  It goes like this:

“So, how many kids do you have?”

“Oh, just the three.”

“How lovely.  But what do you DO?”

Instantly, these women are put on the back foot.  Their role running the home, looking after the kids and being a wife are instantly given zero respect and value. 

And I know this, because it has been said to me too, on many occasions.  Why do people always ask ‘what do you do’ as if being a mother is not a job?  Why does our western society seem to place a higher value on a job that earns us an income, than the role of  ‘mother’?

Why can’t people say:

“You stay at home and look after the kids?  How fantastic.  What a great job you do.”

And why do I feel so under attack when people say “but what do you DO?”  Well, I’m the product of a western society that is mixed up and messed up.  I have a brain that I want to engage.  It’s one of the reasons I blog.  Well, that and the fact that I’m trying to re-establish the career that I gave up to be a full time mother.  Being divorced, I no longer have the luxury of a husband who can ‘provide’ for me whilst I care for my children.  Neither do I have the career path I once had.  And I know that I’m not alone in this conundrum.

But whilst I am forging ahead, doing the best that I can, all I want (and I believe I am speaking for many other women I know) is a bit of respect.  Surely our western attitude towards women is about giving women ‘rights’.  The right to choose our path without being looked down on.

I do realise that in many other countries women do not have the same educational opportunities or social choices that my friend has had.  I have no doubt that some people will think it a waste that a woman should have had such a good education, only to ‘give it up’ and look after her kids. 

Personally, I think that if our societies’ attitudes met up in the middle somewhere, we would all be a lot happier.

Monday, 2 April 2012

The art of listening.

I read a fascinating article last week.  Half way through this article, there was a quote that really stuck in my mind: 

“We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionately…”

Having been thinking about it all week, an interesting discussion took place at my house on Friday night.  Running Man told me that he thinks I put men off by discussing my husband too much.  He questioned whether this is because I’m actually not ready to get involved with someone. 

I got what he was saying.  We’ve all been there haven’t we?  Or at the very least had a friend that does it – you know…. Endlessly talk about the ex-boyfriend / husband etc because they are still obsessed with, or devastated by them. 

To be perfectly honest, in my own situation, I think my readiness for a relationship and ‘getting over’ my ex-husband are separate things.  I have little doubt that until the day I no longer have to have regular contact with my ex-husband, he will continue to irritate me.  But this has nothing to do with my readiness to get involved with someone new. 

In fact, rather sadly, it was the brief affair with Tall Dark Handsome Guy last year that has really put me off kilter.  Unfortunately, he led me to believe that his feelings for me were sincere.  I believed that he was a decent man.  Sadly, I was wrong.  And the greatest damage that was done, was to my confidence in my own judgement.

Strangely, I can flirt for England with people I feel ‘safe’ with.  And by ‘safe’, I mean that I have no intention of letting anything develop.  But the moment I meet someone I feel seriously drawn to, I seize up like a clam.

Being aware of this problem of mine, I decided, when I met Tall Dark Handsome Guy, that I would try and be a bit more open.  And so I was.  And maybe that was part of the problem.

I don’t doubt that maybe, sometimes, I need to give me a bit more of a clue that I’m interested, but with TDHG, I think I went too far.  I may have revealed too much at an early stage.  Without being ‘secretive’, sometimes it is wise to hold things back and listen more.  And by listening more, we have the chance to pick up signals…

In all honesty, there were signals there.  I didn’t particularly want to listen to them, but they were there none the less. 

And so, the conversation with Running Man continued.  His view is that you shouldn’t alter your behaviour.  You have to be yourself, otherwise it’s tantamount to playing games and setting yourself up for a disaster.  I totally understood what he meant, but I don’t think that listening a bit more and saying a bit less, is playing games. 

In reality, it won’t take anyone long to know that I can talk the legs off a donkey.  That is, if they’re interested enough to get to know me.  And that’s the point – sometimes we need to let people have the time to get to know us.  Giving someone an information overload without ever getting to know our personality, could be very off-putting.  And by the same token, by listening to them we can look out for clues as to their personality. 

As it stands, I suspect that under ‘normal’ circumstances (ie – when I’m not trying to do what I did with TDHG) I might appear a little aloof.  I have always had a terrible fear of rejection, or having men interested for all the wrong reasons.  In simple terms, I work on the principle that if someone seriously likes me, they’ll make an effort.  And if their intentions are dishonourable, they will soon give up!

And so, going forward, I will take the advice to talk less and listen more.  I am sure it will stand me in good stead. 

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