Friday, 20 May 2016

Five years later, thanking my lucky star

Five years ago today I didn’t expect to meet the man I’d marry.

I’d been dating for hundreds of years. I’d had my heart squeezed through other people’s careless hands a couple of times. For the rest, I’d been bored, disappointed, horrified. I’d optimistically thought that if I just kept going, I’d eventually meet someone who didn’t underwhelm me into submission.

Finally I met a self-styled “foodie” six inches shorter than he’d professed to being who, wearing an anorak, took me to Strada on a first date, and presented a 2-for-1 voucher at the end of the evening. On the train home, I reconciled myself to the cliche that was living with the cat, and completely gave up on dating. If that was what mankind had to offer, I told myself, felinekind genuinely was the way forward: I wasn’t going to waste any more time, money, effort, emotion or headspace on men who didn’t come close to meeting the standards I demanded in someone I was going to share my life with. Settling wasn’t an option: I’d rather be by myself.

Months later, and with zero expectation, I went for a drink with a man with whom I shared a mutual friend.

The Writer confounded absolutely everything I’d come to expect from the experience of dating. I found him seriously attractive. He didn’t wear questionable jewellery. He was interesting and interested and intelligent. He was open-minded, honest, feminist. He listened and asked questions. He didn’t bore on about decorating his bathroom in the perfect malachite tile. He didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t (i.e., gay), waver about what he wanted, have a massive coke habit.

And unlike almost every other man I’d dated, he didn’t play games. At no point did I have that sinking feeling you get in your gut when a text goes unreplied to for hours, days - I didn’t have to ask friends to reassure me that he had probably lost his phone, been captured by the Israeli security services on a secret mission to neverwhere, been eaten by sharks, all the while knowing deep down that I’d been left to slide quietly from the scene. It was just so… easy. It was like dating as it’s sold to you by Hollywood: exciting, full of potential, fun.

Reader, I married him.

But I’m crushingly aware of the fact that it wasn’t because I dated man after man that I ended up with the love of my life. It wasn’t because I put in the time and effort to get out there and date: the time and effort merely resulted in hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds spent in places I didn’t need to have gone to with people I never saw again. In a few cases, it led to tears. Stubbornness and a refusal to lower my standards certainly played a part: if I’d been stuck in a relationship that was fine, but not happy, I’d never have been in the position to go on the date. Open-mindedness and not being rigid about what I thought I wanted also helped.

But it started, ultimately, with luck. It was luck that we were both free that night, and fancied a drink after a long week. Luck that the bar was quiet enough for proper discussion, and that the restaurant had a late table where we ended up being the last two in the room. Luck that he was single and so was I. Luck that we hit on the topics of conversation that made us realise we had more in common than first appearances might have suggested. Just bloody good luck that in a city of millions of people, we came across each other.

“I knew he was it,” Best Mate said, some years later. “I knew after that first date. The way you talked about it, about him - it was different. It wasn’t like any of the others.”

It wasn’t. He isn’t. Sometimes expectations are confounded and love arrives like a freight train to deliver us into a completely different life. But we all still need a little luck to help us on the way.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

March's reading list

My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem
23 Feb - 1 March

What’s not to love about a memoir by one of the original feminists? Steinem tells about her father’s peripatetic attitude to life as she was growing up, and what she learnt from the people she came across. This is a book that touches on race and class as well as gender, and it’ll inspire you and make you angry in equal measure. Massively worth the read if you’ve even a passing interest in a more equitable society.

Head of State, Andrew Marr
3 - 12 March

If you’re already sick to the back teeth of the EU referendum, this might not be for you. But if you can get past that wee fact, this novel about a Conservative Prime Minister during the final days in the lead up to a referendum (although Scottish independence, rather than European), with the Out campaign led by a glamorous female former Home Secretary. If you’ve ever worked in or around politics or political media, this will make you chuckle deeply with some of its side-eye looks. If you’re not a political nerd, the not-terribly-elegant prose might annoy you more than the fun story entertains. (What is with journos not being able to write fiction?)

A Change of Climate, Hilary Mantel
4 - 25 March

From the ridiculous to the sublime, here. Mantel is a woman whose prose should be heralded by angels. It’s gorgeous. This is an all-pages-turned-down kinda book. It’s a family saga about love and betrayal and what makes a person a good person. If you like her other stuff, you’ll love this.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, Helen Fielding
26 - 28 March

I picked this up in the library as I thought I might see the upcoming film at some point. If it’s anything like the book, the film would have to be on Netflix after I’ve finally worked my way through all 12 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, as well as having read every single book left on the shelves. It’s desperately average. Bridget was of her time, which has been and gone.

The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
28 March - 2 April

A gorgeous novel that falls into the ‘fairy story for grown ups’ category. Set in the wilds of Alaska in the early 20th century, an elderly couple create a girl out of snow during a storm, only for her to come to life. It’s haunting and magical, occasionally dark and always enveloping. The perfect Sunday afternoon on the sofa read.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Why I give a damn

There was a piece on the Guardian recently that suggested that we’d all be happier if we cared less about our jobs.

I can see the logic: clock in, do as much as it takes to get by, don’t let the work get to you, clock out and don’t give it another thought. You’ll be less stressed, ergo you’ll be happier.

Except: bollocks.

A lot of us spend a lot of our lives at work. It seems deeply odd to me that you’d choose not to care about something that you do for eight, 10, 14 hours a day (although I imagine if you don’t care about what you’re doing, you’re probably not spending 14 hours in the office, somehow).

In an office where you get on with the people you’re working with, it seems odd to me that you’d do your colleagues, your boss and your team the disservice of not caring about what you’re doing. If everyone else does care, and is putting in their best to win the new business, to get the project off the ground, to provide the best service, then you’re letting everyone down by not pulling your weight. I sure as hell wouldn’t want you on my team - in any capacity.

And it certainly seems odd to me that we wouldn’t want people to care about what they do. I want my firefighters to care about whether they get the family out of the burning house; my Government ministers to care about the real-world effects of their polices; my surgeons to care whether they save the lives of the people on their tables.

I care deeply about my job. I care about my colleagues. I care about my performance and whether I’m doing my best - because I care about the outcomes. I’m also lucky enough to love my job. I know that I’m spending my working hours doing something that’s important to me - and that makes me pretty happy.

Yes, I find it stressful - consciously, in the moments I’m under pressure, and at an unconscious level, as I find it increasingly difficult to properly detach. But I’d far rather be in that situation, surrounded by colleagues who also all care about what we’re doing - and try to find ways to manage the stress.

Life isn’t about apathy. What you put in, you get back out. Don’t half-arse it.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Being 30+: my take

Based on Rachel’s recent piece about what she’s learnt since turning 31, some unsolicited advice for those facing the big(ish) three oh, and things I’ve learnt up till this point. They’re all largely aimed at women because I don’t have a huge amount of experience at being a 30-something chap.

You realise that over time, you’ve started to give less of a shit about what other people think. Obviously you want to know if you’ve got your skirt stuck in your pants, or a piece of kale in your teeth, but their sneering about how you’re choosing to live can get to fuck.

At the same time, there’s somehow an increased sense of societal pressure about the life choices you’re making and what you have - or haven’t - managed to achieve by now. And while some is most definitely societal (grannies asking when you’re going to settle down, anyone, or any frickin’ Daily Mail headline from here to Kingdom Come?), I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the pressure comes from ourselves. I’m almost certain that no one I know is judging their friends for being single / not having bought a house / not having a ‘better’ job / having or not having had children… (Are you judging your friends for any of those things? Because if so, you’re frankly a bit of a dick.)

As a general rule, comparison is deeply unhelpful but sadly inevitable. Your friends might have a better job / shinier hair / a bigger flat. But you can almost guarantee they’re jealous of your thinner thighs / more free time / seemingly endless capacity for partying. Get on with your own thing and stop peering around enviously thinking about what you’ve not got. Someone looking like they have it all sorted means fuck all. THE GRASS IS JUST GREEN.

Life’s a bitch and it’s possible to have spots AND wrinkles. Seriously, what gives, skin fairy? On which note: if you’ve got the funds, upgrade your skin care. Your skin isn’t 21 any more. You need to look after it accordingly. On a good day, it’ll thank you for it.

If you were a precocious little shit like I was growing up, you probably grew up thinking you were somehow special, or different. By this point, you’ve probably (hopefully) grown out of that delusion. You’ve not been fingered by Destiny to be the UN Secretary General. Or Beyonce. You’re just another person who’s muddling through. And that absolutely does not make you a failure.

That said, if you really think you’d be ace at being UNSG, or Beyonce (or both? Why limit the dream?), knuckle down. Work out what will qualify you for that position and work really, really, really hard at those things. In all likelihood you’ll probably not end up there, but you’ll have given it your best shot, and not let yourself down by not trying.

Related: life probably doesn’t look how you expected it to at 10, 16, 21. That’s ok. How boring would it be if it did? And you know what? Life at 40, 65, 80 probably won’t look like it does in your head either.

If the millennial way of life is one that works for you, go for it. Travel, value the experiences, step out of the rat race. But don’t for a second think that gives you the right to judge people who work hard at the 9 - 5 (HAH! If only), have a home they love and a ‘conventional’ lifestyle. I have feelings about the prospect of paying for other people who haven’t bothered to think about how they’ll fund their old age. They’re not generous.

The patriarchy is real, and a pain in the arse. As a woman and as you get older, you begin to notice it increasingly, in ways that are highly detrimental to being able to just get on with shit. As my gal Gloria says, you’ll become more radical about it as you get older. If we all shout loudly enough, it will have to change.

If you’re a man, just LISTEN to women when they complain about how the patriarchy screws us. DON’T say that it’s not you. If you’re lucky enough to be floating through the world assuming you’re not part of the problem, you’ve just not thought about it for long enough. No. Don’t argue. Just listen. Learn.

There comes a point where, if you’re lucky enough, you might start to feel guilty about what you have in comparison to other people. Be aware of it, don’t pity other people, be understanding. And if what you’ve got is through sheer hard work rather than dumb luck, bugger the guilt, quite frankly.

There also comes a point where it gets hard to make new friends (not acquaintances, real, honest to god, will hold your hair back over the loo after too many tequilas, not judge you for anything, help you bury the body friends). At the same time, if there’s someone around whose presence is a drag, it’s ok not to have them around. Life’s too short for toxicity and selfishness.

Dating is hard. It only gets harder. Not a lot I can offer there. Just don’t settle. And realise that it’s not you: it’s luck.

I’ve always dismissed stress as a feeling you get at the precise moment when you’re under pressure. It’s so much more than that. Find ways that actually help you cope with it. I’m still struggling with this one, and spend the 90% of my life when I’m not on a beach in Thailand or galloping at full pelt across a field affected by it in at least some small way that I usually don’t even think about. Thankfully I have an extremely patient husband.

Be slightly pushier about stuff than feels comfortable. Lean in. You’ll be surprised at how far it gets you. It doesn’t come across as pushy: it comes across as confident.

You might feel a bit lonerish / pathetic / guilty about spending Saturday night in jogging bottoms on the sofa with Netflix and wildly preferring it to being - frankly - anywhere else in the world. You might feel just the same about spending every weekend in a hedonistic haze of drunken, ecstasy. There’s no point. If you’re not hurting other people, kick on.

There’s probably never such a thing as ‘a good time to have children’. There’s certainly always a reason not to. As far as I can work out, as a woman, you’ll always have to sacrifice something. (And yes, I do believe that sacrifice is the right word, I don’t care what you think about that.) Policies like shared parental leave are moving us GLACIALLY in the right direction, but if you’re 30ish now, they’re not enough by many country miles.

Of course, that’s if you’re fortunate enough to know how you feel about children. That’s a whole other emotional quagmire. You’re not alone, however you feel about this one. Talk to your female friends. If we’re all more open about this stuff, maybe we’ll figure out some answers. Or at least not feel like weirdos.

Kindness is so fucking important. Be kind. To everyone. No one is beneath your kindness.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

February's reading list

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett
30 Jan - 10 Feb

God I love everything this woman does. I would read Ann Patchett’s shopping lists if only she’d publish them. This collection of essays is gorgeous (lots of pages folded down in the notebook). Anyone who has even a passing interest in writing will adore The Getaway Car, the essay in the collection about the writing process: I found it utterly inspirational.

Euphoria, Lily King
10 - 13 Feb

Curtis Sittenfeld, author extraordinaire of American Wife (one of my Desert Island books), recommended this on Twitter, and where is the sense in not reading something recommended by someone whose writing you love? It totally hit the mark, as apparently all fiction about anthropologists making discoveries in the deepest jungle does (see also Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Signature of All Things - although that’s botany and the colonies, but has a similar feel. I digress). I read this in just a couple of sittings: it’s enveloping, and King has a wonderful turn of phrase. Highly recommended.

Big Magic, Liz Gilbert
13 - 16 Feb

I saw plenty of people rave about this on Twitter as an inspirational exploration of creativity and inspiration. If you’re the sort of person who loved Eat, Pray, Love (disclaimer: I haven’t read it, and don’t plan to), I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that you’ll enjoy this. Otherwise, I’d steer clear. It’s about as hippy drippy as you can get (ideas being sentient things that search for a home through humans who’ll birth them? Do please fuck off). There are a couple of tiny nuggets in there that you might find interesting (how Gilbert is bosom buddies with my gal Patchett, for starters) but I’d read Happy Marriage instead. It’ll save you the blood pressure rise.

Make Your Home Among Strangers, Jennine Capo Crucet
16 - 22 Feb

Another book recommended on Twitter by the fabulous Sittenfeld, who suggested that if you enjoyed her Prep, you’ll like this debut novel: I can see where she’s coming from. The premise, of a young woman out of her depth at a fancy US university, is very similar, and throws the protagonist into similar situations. It’s a thought-provoking read about class and social mobility; about race and racism; different worlds and fitting into neither - and both; and family and where you come from. (All February’s books seemed to be linked in some way. Funny how that happens. But a good month for cracking (ish) female writers - unplanned, but the best reading month I’ve had in a while.)

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Sometimes we all need to hear we're wrong

It came up in discussion with The Writer over crab linguine on a Wednesday night.

(Bring a pan of heavily salted water to the boil, and add 200g linguine. In the meantime, sweat four cloves of garlic in olive oil. Add 1tsp of fennel seeds, 1tsp of chilli flakes and the zest of a lemon and combine. Add the brown meat from a prepared crab, with several tablespoons of the pasta cooking water. Stir to combine. When the pasta is ready, add to the crab mixture with a little additional cooking water. Squeeze over the juice of half a lemon, the white crab meat and stir through. Serve with chopped parsley and a drizzle of olive oil. Serves two.)

And then again in a piece I read on Medium the following day. And by the end of the week, the topic was swilling round in my brain enough that I’d had my firm belief reiterated that one of the most useful challenges you can set yourself is to read material you disagree with.

Increasing numbers of people get their information from news websites – from the stories they choose to click on and read, or from personalised feeds that deliver the stories they’re most interested in – and others from a self-selected Twitter feed. Even Google bases its search results on your history, meaning that you’re likely to exist in an ever-smaller bubble when it comes to the type of information you’re presented with.

I’d very happily trundle along in a world where everything I read confirmed views that I already hold. I’d love to truly believe that I have all the answers, and if only the world existed as my beliefs would have it, then we’d be living in a better place. Much as I’d love to have that level of confidence in my opinions, I don’t. I’m thoroughly prepared to accept that other people – and other people whose views I don’t like – might have more expertise, have spent longer contemplating the issue, might simply be right.

So even though I’d rather read Hugo Rifkind (it’s weird: it’s like the man articulates thoughts I hadn’t got round to forming yet), it’s better for me to read Owen Jones. I read as much Melanie Philips (urgh) as I do Melanie Reid (swoon). And it’s important that there’s a good chunk of my Twitter timeline whose views make me question whether we’d ever be able to be friends offline.

By forcing myself to consider the other side, to engage with opinions that I’ve not previously considered or interrogated, I’m ensuring that my bubble is as big as possible; that I’m forcing myself to think about what I believe and why; and whether there are better ways out there.

None of which, of course, ever justifies listening to Radio 4's Any Answers and some of the frankly crack-pot views it broadcasts. Open-minded: good. So open-minded your brains fall out: not worth it.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

My notebook

Wherever I go, whatever bag I’m carrying, I always have a small notebook with me.

It’s recycled brown craft paper, with plain pages; small, about A6, and dog-eared. Unremarkable, and of huge creative value to me.

Inside, the pages are covered with lines of text, copied out in scrawled handwriting, from whatever source I’ve taken them. They run in all directions across the paper, some have small doodles at the end of the sentence. Some pages are covered from top to bottom in closely packed print; some have a single line that leaps from the blank space on the paper. (Some pages have been well-thumbed, and are stuck to the middle of the book with Sellotape.)

The lines are taken from anywhere, with the single thread running through that all of the text has, at some point and on some level, spoken to me. They’ve come from novels I’ve read, magazine articles I’ve skimmed, tweets I’ve enjoyed, half-formed thoughts I’ve had and scenes I’ve observed while walking home late at night. (An easy way to tell how much I’ve enjoyed a book these days is the number of pages of a novel folded at the corner, ready for me to easily revisit and transcribe.)

Some are full sentences; some are snatches of text, half-phrases where a couple of words rang true; some whole paragraphs; and some are merely the definitions of words I didn’t previously know, but having taken the time to look them up and note them down, I now notice everywhere I go.

As well as keeping track of lines of literature I’ve loved, the book provides a wealth of creative inspiration. Going back and flicking through the pages, I revisit personal highlights of the work of favourite authors without taking the time to read the whole book. And seeing some gems juxtaposed with others that would never otherwise have come crashing up against them can spark an idea that takes on a new direction altogether.

It’s such a small thing, of no aesthetic or monetary value, yet its worth to me is far more than its scruffy pages and scratchy handwriting could ever suggest.

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