With the Mostest

20160329_110434I’ve spent a lot of time staying with my colleague-turned-friend Foobing. When my living situation got a bit stressful, she put me up for a night to get a break. When I was between apartments, she insisted I crash in their spare room. When I come for dinner, she offers me to stay, like it’s not a big thing. She’s a mother of two, with a part-time job in the city, helps out at the school, her husband is a high powered doctor with the schedule to match and she is always the most welcoming person, regardless of what’s going on. Last weekend she had the flu and her husband was working, so I went round to make dinner and help out a bit. Even dosed with the flu and half dead, she was warm and inviting, just like her home. She’s not superwoman, but she is super.

This is the antithesis of how I host. And how I approach hosting.

Typically, I get a bee in my bonnet about Having People Over. My stress levels are already out of proportion. What will we eat? How will I cook it? Where will we sit? What if I don’t have enough chairs? Why don’t I create a signature cocktail? When am I going to buy cocktail glasses? Oh my god, none of my napkins match. How am I going to answer the door, take coats, give people a drink and talk to the people who are already here? I hate EVERYONE and want them to leave already, before they get here, but first I must handcraft the invitations, despite having already spoken to everyone about this shindig and the price of stamps rising exponentially every four minutes.

Some friends and I have a chilled movie-and-pizza night once a month or so. It hit me while I was ruminating over hosting, that my evening was not especially welcoming. Yes, there were kale chips and matching glasses and too many snacks, but my whole attitude was off, as though it were a hassle to have these lovely, smart, hilarious women in my home, rather than a lucky delight. I moaned about having no cloakroom, fussed about the kale chips (which, to be fair, are just roasted cabbage. What on *earth* was I thinking?) and generally hustled my friends around. I aggressively fussed over them insisting they needed more drinks and blankets and cushions and did not pay enough real, focused attention to them. I feel quite ashamed of myself.

Wimbledon Library is currently blessed with a good selection of modern books that could be shelved in the feminist section. I’m working my way through Spinster, by Kate Bolick and have just finished rereading Carry On Warrior by Glennon Melton Doyle and Big Magic by Elisabeth Gilbert. They’ve prompted a lot of thinking.

Glennon (I’m going to call her Glennon, because I feel we’d be friends if we met. If not, I would pursue her until I wore her down) has a chapter in her book called Hostressing. She writes about how she is not a natural hostess. She does orders takeout for her family, so doesn’t know what food to give to guests. She doesn’t have the right glasses, so guests drink out of mugs, she’s not good at juggling the elements of hosting, so she opts out. She tells the story of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary. Here’s a quote that I lifted straight out of the Internet, because it’s easiest:

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

My whole life I didn’t really understand this story. I mean, I do, yes. Obviously listen to Jesus, it’s more important that chores, etc etc, but at the same time, Mary, JESUS IS IN YOUR HOUSE. Jesus! Come on, Mary! Get up from hanging around and get him a drink and some snacks and make him welcome. Also, why aren’t you helping Martha! It’ll take her twice as long without your help and she’s missing Jesus! If you bothered to help, everyone would have a story to tell down at the temple later rather than just you!

Additionally, I can’t help but think that Jesus would probably like a few moments of not having to work miracles and tell parables. He might enjoy a few minutes to himself. Those 12 apostles and all that donkey travel probably take a lot out of him.

However, whilst Glennon would agree with me a bit (maybe not about Jesus needing some time to chill), she’s thought about it more than I have and has a slightly different take on this. She wrote:

Is it possible that true hospitality is not about perfect food or fancy furniture? Could the better part of hospitality be listening? And if you can’t do both, could the better part be focusing on your guest instead of trying to impress or even feed him? …Maybe hostessing is not really about the host, but the guest. Maybe it’s a sacred spiritual practice because every single person who crosses our doorsteps is a gift, is Jesus really. And each guest has something to teach us if we’re present enough to learn. Maybe hospitality is not about my home, or my food, or my lack of stuff. Maybe it’s just about soaking people in.

And this is absolutely not what I do. I’m not valuing the gifts I have been offered when my cherished friends come all the way to South West London (on the District Line!) to see me. I’m fussing about trying to make the evening perfect for ME, not for them. I’m not actually present with them, but mentally rearranging things and planning dinner service arrangements. I’m trying to impress them with how “together” I have everything, which is not the point.

Elisabeth Gilbert quotes Rebecca Solnit in Big Magic and I think it applies here:  “So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”

I don’t have fun when I have people over because I’m trying to make everything perfect. People don’t want perfect, they want fun and laughter and decent-ish coffee. I’m missing things trying to be perfect, which is inachievable anyway.

Foobing’s house isn’t “perfect” – it’s a family home. The glasses are mismatching, there are foldaway emergency chairs, the cruet set isn’t a pair. But it’s warm and cosy and everyone who crosses the threshold feels truly welcomed. She is friendly and puts you at your ease. It helps that she is basically 80% cuddly puppy and her kids are adorable, but I imagine there are days when she’s tired after work and commuting and homework and cooking that she’d find it difficult to radiate 100% joy, but she’s still cordial and good natured. I’ve never felt out of place there. It’s never a problem for people to stay for dinner or the night at her house – there are plates in the cupboard, sheets upstairs and cheese in the fridge. It’s all manageable and flexible. Even when she’s doing five things at once, she’s still friendly and warm and you feel gladly received.

Unexpected guests at my house would not be met with such grace.

This realisation is not going to magically transform me into Martha Stewart. Practically, I need to reconcile my perfectionist personality with putting generosity and attention first. I’d like to break down how to make someone welcome in my home and the practical ways to actually do that. The whys and the hows. I’ve been making things harder than they need to be in the past and I just need to get over myself. As usual, I’ve been making it All About Me and that is absolutely not the point.

Great Expectations

Death By Video Game. This is what online dating feels like sometimes.
Death By Video Game.
This is what online dating feels like sometimes.

Match and Tinder have taught me a lot about expectations. So far, on every first date I have been on the guy has made some comment about how he expected me to be nervous and shy and was surprised that I wasn’t. This has never not surprised me.

As a small child I was very shy and nervous. I didn’t have many friends at primary school and was forever inadvertently doing or saying something mortifying and failing to style it out. I was good at school, so always had my hand up to answer questions, but would also be crippled with shyness and wouldn’t want the teacher to actually call on me. Even now, when I’m at work seminars and have to say something in front of a group, I will be desperate to give an answer, yet terrified at the same time – even if it’s just the “My name is X and I work for Y” ice-breaker.

At university I knew a lot of shy people. Shy, clever, lovely, funny people who were a bit difficult socially. Once upon a time someone I respected told me that it’s fine to be shy, but it’s unacceptable to make the other people in a conversation feel uncomfortable and do the heavy lifting. That stayed with me. So, while I find it tricky to start a conversation with strangers, if someone asks me a question, I will do my damndest to answer them and hold up my end of the conversational bargain. Yes, I will make a fool out of myself (like that time I told a friend’s ex-boyfriend that his new haircut looked like a French pastry. I meant it as a compliment! It was not taken as such! This has been remarked upon many many times since then!) but at least it’s something to work with. At least I’m enthusiastic.

Somewhere along the line I began to appear more outgoing. I think living in Germany and working with Germans did it. Operating in a second language forces you to melt down your sentences to their bare meaning so you can switch the language and communicate your message. Talking with non-native English speakers requires you to be clear and concise so as to avoid confusion. When I first started at my company I would ask people “if you could possibly do this whenever you get a chance” and then be furiously mortified when they didn’t carry out the task because they believed it was optional from all those optional conditionals I’d used. The cultural subtext, for a native English speaker in the UK, is “please do this quite soon, as it’s important” but that’s not actually obvious from the words.

I’ve worked with Germans for eight years and as a result I’ve become quite direct. I’m still nervous and shy, but I’m better (if that’s the right word) at saying what I mean. I have also probably shot myself in the foot, because I now listen for subtext and actual text. When someone says they like my lunch looks interesting, I hear the European “I am interested in your lunch” but also the British “oooh, your lunch is WEIRD” and then flipflop between different emotions about what I see as judgements.

I don’t know what to do when people (men persons) say that they are surprised I’m not (outwardly) shy and nervous. What does it mean? Am I too direct? Am I too pushy? Should I tone “it” down? I don’t know how to do “that” whatever it would entail. I don’t know the acceptable level of pushiness. I have yet to find an infogram to demonstrate that. One of the chaps I dated remarked on a second date that I “don’t play by the rules” because at the end of the first date I’d said I’d like to see him again. “Other girls would have kept me guessing and made me worry about it for three days” apparently.

I don’t know whether that level of directness is based in language or whether I’m older and a little more secure in what I want or think I want. Let’s be fair, I don’t exactly know what I want and often want things that I know I shouldn’t, but that’s all part and parcel of life, I’m guessing.

The other element of online (or offline) dating is dealing with other people’s expectations. I am extremely lucky to have girlfriends who truly want the best for me and are in my corner no matter what. I love them dearly and know how lucky I am to have them for support and wise counsel. They’ve watched me make mistakes, picked me off the floor and laughed when I spun them into funny stories.

And yet.

I make choices they wouldn’t make for me and I find their reactions interesting. Interesting in the British sense.

Occasionally I would send friends screenshots of the options on Match. They would suggest one or two of the chaps on offer. I would be horrified because I was trying to express the sheer lack of options available to me.

I haven’t quite worked out what I think about “leagues” and “settling”. It’s a disgraceful concept to think that one person isn’t good enough for another based on their attractiveness or intelligence or whathaveyou. You see stunning women with conventionally unattractive men all the time. You see smart chaps with women who are not on the same level intellectually. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. There’s a lid for every pot. The heart wants what it wants. Etc etc. But perhaps I do believe in leagues of some sort. I want someone at least as attractive and intelligent as me.

On the surface, here’s what I want: a man my age; about my height (ideally 5 foot 9 to 6 foot); conventionally attractive; goes to the gym and does some sort of sport (but not excessively so and does not require me to participate at all ever); has arm muscles; eats properly but will also go for a cheeky McDonalds (I do not understand Nando’s, so he can go on his own); doesn’t have a beard but can grow one; is broader than me, but not too broad; is handy and good with computers; is close to his family; has a good set of man friends; is not afraid of women; is a feminist and will identify as one; reads fiction books; watches some of the same kind of tv as I do; watches some, but not an excessive amount of, sport; has a ‘good’ job; has good teeth; has no chest, ear or nose hair; is mildly visually impaired (ideally slightly worse vision than mine, but not much worse); likes animals; owns a decent suit and scrubs up well; uses moisturiser; has some chat and is funny.

My friends are picking out beardy men. Very very broad men. Very sporty men. Men with terrible teeth. Men with poor choice of clothes (based on a few photos!). Very short men. Very very tall men. Then they get cross that I’m not giving these chaps, who I haven’t met yet, a try. The chaps I’m already giving a try are given short shrift. “I don’t see you with him.” “Oh, no. Not him. Ditch him. I don’t like the sound of that at all.” “Well, I didn’t expect more from that one, I told you!”

Watching my women friends (and, mortifyingly at a work night out, colleagues) swipe through Tinder I notice that they choose men for me who look like their boyfriends or husbands. Not the famous men they claim to fancy (no one ever chooses a blonde gym bunny for me, even when they look like Zac Efron), but the beardy, academics with a Dad bod. Asking them why they don’t pick the hot shirtless blond, they say that they don’t see me with someone like that (and my protestations that I’d at least like to have a go fall on deaf ears). Why can’t I “marry up” with Mr Efron? They see me with someone homelier. Someone who looks a bit more normal. Someone who looks like they have a personality. Someone safe. A bit more suitable.

My friends have known me a long time and so when I wheel out a funny story about a date, I’ll ask them for advice or for feedback. What shouldn’t I have done? Why do we think he said that? What does that mean? But the problem lies in the gap between what I’m telling and what actually happened, what two strangers felt, the atmosphere that can’t be explained with words. I can’t take a team of twenty women on a date with me, but that’s the only way they’d get a proper sense of what occurred.  Of why I’m putting up with the guy who sends questionable messages, the guy who’s into things I could never be into, or the guy who messages back so seldom I assume he’s trapped in an avalanche somewhere (he skis). It also explains that when something ends, I’m a bit more cut up about it than I can let on and a bit taken aback by their brusque “Well, he was terrible. NEXT!” response.

When you meet someone, they stop being a screenshot. They become real rounded people, who may or may not be sociopaths, but I’m meeting them because we have a connection. When it comes to a conclusion then, it feels odd to sever that connection. It’s hard to explain that to someone who’s been married for so long they don’t remember being single. They’re focused on the end goal (me being happy with a husband) and this chap isn’t it, so can easily move on to the next one. I’m a little bit crushed for a while – not necessarily because of the guy in question, but because I’d put some energy and hopes into This One and they’ve been dashed. Dashed for good reason and better to know now, etc etc, but still. Being dashed stings.

I’ve always overshared. I’m quick to turn a disaster and painful mortification into a short stand-up bit. I’m a fairly open book, for good or for ill. It’s hard when your life isn’t so interesting and you’re trying to get that embarrassing tale out there before someone else tells it. There is a rich seam here in the comedy mine. But I’d like to stop feeling like Miranda with her houseplant line, so I might have to scale back the funny stories and keep some things closer to my chest. My expectations are low, but I still have some, plus I want my friends to still have some hope for me and in me.

Adulting: March Roundup

Wow. March just flew in. How did that happen?

Good Adulting:

Delightful living conditions
Have you let memory foam into your heart? You should. It’s amazing. I love it and am genuinely evangelical about it. While I have a brand new mattress on my bed, it’s not memory foam like my last few mattresses and I missed it. It is hands down the most comfortable mattress to sleep on. If you share a bed, you won’t feel the other person turning over. It hugs your body supportively and you sleep so well. As a treat to myself and to generally make my life better, I bought a memory foam mattress topper before Easter. Memory foam does have quite a strong smell when you first break it out of its packaging, so I let it air out while I was at home over Easter. Every night I get into bed now, I involuntarily sigh with delight.

Flat-wise, there are some cupboards in the hall way stuffed full of random things (one has a mop, some carpet and a fan. I am sad every time I open this cupboard. I should stop opening the cupboard as I need none of those things, but still). In a fit of productivity, I took everything out, organised it and threw away junk.. It pleased me immensely. On the decorative side, I put up some more pictures and collected some (many) glass jars for tealights. I have an idea for decorating some of them with lace, but we’ll see. I’m a sucker for candles and fairy lights – they cultivate such a cosy intimate atmosphere and convert an evening watching TV into something indulgent.

Fabulous friend
I’ve decided that in order to recover from minor romantic setbacks, I should immediately plan something nice as a distraction. So,  to move on from a disappointment over Easter, I booked a trip to Seattle to visit a friend of mine for Thanksgiving. For years I have wanted to visit her, but time and money prevented me. Life is short, as we all know, and I may not have this kind of opportunity again, so I jumped at it. This should also be filed under “BRAVE” as not only did I book it on my phone with limited awareness of my AVG software, but I also don’t travel well and I’ll be doing it all on my own. I can’t wait to see my friend and see her life. It’s time I really invested more than skype and emails in her. She’s important to me.

English friendswise, I visited my friend on maternity leave with one of my annual leave days from 2015 and delighted in hair tickling her baby. It wasn’t much, but I was so pleased to spend time with her.

Confident in the kitchen
I’m not 100% convinced by Wimbledon library yet. The layout is bizarre, there are far too many study tables and one of the librarians is too loud, but I love it nonetheless. I’ve never met a library I didn’t like. Libraries have been a refuge since I was a tiny girl. I feel safe and rich in a library. I can always, ALWAYS, find something to read and especially adore coming across old –not vintage, just old – books that attract my attention. Wimbledon library, like all libraries, has a substantial cookery book section and I brought home Jack Monroe’s first book, A Girl Called Jack, which grabbed me and made me want to get in the kitchen.

In March I made their courgette gratin (vegetable rice with cheese and courgettes layered on top), which was excellent (even if I threw more vegetables into it than required) and a herby spinach mushroom dish of which I have now forgotten the title, but those were the ingredients. I’ve earmarked (and photocopied) more recipes to make and really like that they’ve made me enthusiastic about vegetables.

I also pimped a Sainsbury’s ready-meal, claiming to be Korean, with more vegetables which made it more excellent. I’d like to learn how to do more Korean food, but the long list of spices puts me off a bit.

Good husband
Well, I’m still not married. But I tried pretty hard this month. I went on lots of dates and am slowly getting back in The Game (shoot me now). I’ve learnt that I should trust my instincts, to ignore people with very very different approaches to sex than me (although it does lead to some hilarious stories. To be clear – no sex was had. If it was, I definitely wouldn’t be writing about it here. It’s not that kind of a blog), that people who want to spend time with you make that known and to be kind, but firm. It was also confirmed that I am *too much* for some people (possibly all the people) and I might want to learn how to temper that. I also learnt that if a man can’t drink 5 whiskeys and stay straight with me, it’s interesting but not ideal. Five. Five is key.

Brave (braver)
I went on dates to places I did not know with men I didn’t know (obviously, I was safe. I have not yet been murdered. I have made a lot of “don’t murder me” jokes).

I also took buses. Buses terrify me, because sometimes they don’t stop, even when you push the button, and then you don’t know where you are. Tube > bus. This is a stupid thing, but there you go.

I also did a lot of map reading this month, which involved me walking in circles quite a bit, but my map skills are improving.

Healthy Mind & Body
This month I threw all my money at the dentist. My mouth is costing me a fortune, but I am so proud of myself for going to appointments, not making a fuss, not taking breaks, not trying to talk my way out of appointments and just sucking it up. Yes, I have been terrified, but tough. Me and floss are best mates now. Me and the mouth guard are still in the bedding in stage. I’m decidedly less keen on the mouth guard.

I have been caning the fruit and vegetables this month. I’m voluntarily eating celery and only mildly complaining about it. One thing I will need to sort out is eating fruit and vegetables instead of other things, rather than as well as. To be fair, I snack a lot less at work (mainly fear of the dentist, to be perfectly honest), but I keep reading things that say “pudding every day is madness” and CLEARLY that is not how I do things. Dessert is a daily occurrence for me and, realistically, I see breakfast as an excuse to eat cake in some format.

On the mind front, I made a point not to chasten or hasten my mother when I was at home. I make plans, she can’t stick to a plan. I wear a watch, she thinks time happens to other people. If I try and impose my rigidity on her, no one wins. Over Easter I made a conscious effort not to force my opinions and lifestyle on her and be respectful that I was in her house. It was still mildly stressful, but at least I didn’t snipe at her, which made for a much more harmonious time.

Art and culture
One of the exhibitions I was most excited about was Cosmonauts – Birth of the Space Race at the Science Museum. I went after work one Friday night (hadn’t realised that the Mormon church was across the street, wondered why there were so many Elders kicking about outside) and spent a blissful few hours geeking out on the Soviet side of the space race. You guys, I love space. It was epic. The exhibition was extensive and the staff they had on hand were phenomenal. A unformed chap came over to me, I thought to chastise me for taking a photograph, but actually just to point out things I might not have noticed. He spent a good half hour telling me about the moon lander, how the exhibition came to be (very stressful. Lots of the pieces had to be declassified first of all as they were top secret, which was a lot of paperwork in itself), the logistics of placing the pieces in the museum (knocking a huge hole in the side wall of the museum), notable differences between how we handle artefacts and how the Russians handle them (the landing pods are full of asbestos so we have them behind glass. The Russians don’t have them on general public display – to see them you have to apply for special documentation and should you receive it, you can walk right up and touch them). He was fabulous. The whole exhibition was a delight.

Another cultural outing was to trendy East London to see my flatmate’s gig – “Over 100 singers, beatboxers and performance artists create a space-themed carnival spectacular at Oval Space, East London. With DJ sets from William Serfass (Roscius) and Strong Asian Mothers – playing twisted galactic pop, big nasty alien beats and sexy old school hip-hop until 2am” – quite different from my usual weekend evenings. I took my friend Lisbet along, as she works in the music industry and we meandered to Oval Space, where it became apparent that we were definitely not that cool. There was strobe lighting, people with facial glitter, grime music – the works. My flatmate and her choir were excellent – absolutely not the music or arrangement that I’d expected – and it was such fun. Not my kind of thing by a long shot, but it’s important to try new experiences.

Organised finances
I don’t travel a lot for work, but this year I will be on the move quite a bit and I finally organised a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. I’m slightly ashamed of how long it took me to do this. This should save me a little bit of unnecessary outgoings.

Decidedly relaxed
Over Easter I was at Home in Northern Ireland and spent hours sitting in a sunbeam with the cat on my knee, a book in my hand and coffee by my side. I spoke to very few people, turned my phone off and enjoyed giving my brain a rest.

Not such great adulting:

Great hostess
I did no hostessing at all in March. I’m thinking I should make a conscious effort to hostess once a month. I did bring tupperwares of a meal to a friend, but that doesn’t even nearly count.

Career plan
See previous month.

Finishes projects
If anything, I added to the list, rather than completed anything.