Good Grief!

Let me tell you a little bit about handling someone’s grief: IT CAN’T BE DONE. They handle it, you carry on and try not to make it worse.

As a British-Irish person, I come from a very reserved background. As a person under 40, I don’t know a lot of people who have experienced grief. As a person under 40 who has experienced grief, I can tell you that our age-group are BAD at dealing with it. Grandparents and pets are about as much as we’ve experienced. We do not know what to say. We do not know how to be quiet either. Older people don’t know how to say the right things either though, so it all works out.

My uncle died unexpectedly. He was on his way home from an engagement party, some young men attacked him for no reason and he died. There was a funeral. There was a court case. He was a big man with a big heart and a big spirit and he left a big hole.

I did not have the language to explain this to people. My dad broke the news to me over the phone on my birthday. He didn’t have the words either and made a hash of it. It was all awful. My dad was a medic. He was not unfamiliar with trauma and loss and tragedy. It was all just dreadful.

Being Catholic, even culturally Catholic, was a relief for the weeks around this incident. There was a procedure. There were Things To Be Done. There were reassuring motions to go through to give your body something to do and your mind something on which to focus.  The Church has it worked out. Grieving people aren’t good with decisions or thinking, but muscle memory is forever.

There was a church ceremony (“reception of the body to the Church” which sounds ghoulish to my mind, but is exactly that) the evening before the funeral. The coffin is brought to the church to remain overnight. There is a service with prayers and movements and everyone knows what to do. There is an activity. You have a leaflet to hold, you have a hymn to sing, you have reassurance for the next hour as to what you will be doing and what is required of you. The family (“chief mourners”) stand in the front pew of the church and the people attending the service queue up to give condolences and shake their hands.

We did that for my uncle. It went on for hours.

Irish people, myself very much included, love a chat. We’re not great at Twitter, we need more characters. These people I did not know shook my hand and shared a story about my uncle, how they knew him and what he had meant to them. This included an elderly couple he met in a supermarket and explained to them about reduced stickers and how to bag a bargain when the chap goes round with the sticker gun. He was a journalist, he had a lot of friends, he knew a lot of people. A lot of people knew him or of him.

That day I learnt a stunningly useful expression that the Irish have for funerals and wakes.

“I’m sorry for your trouble.”

It’s good isn’t it? Encompasses a lot. Doesn’t require a response.

When my dad died of brain cancer (there’s a  sentence that never gets easier), I had to learn a script to give to people I met. It wasn’t for me. It was for them. People didn’t know what to say, so they said stupid things. How old was he? What did he die of? What kind of cancer? How long did he have? When did he lose the battle? I would be furious and there was nowhere for that to go.

Are you keeping a database on mortality? Why do you need those details? Why are you making me say these things? What on earth are you doing asking me this?

I developed a script so that I could say I was sad, but I was fine and then we could move the conversation onwards to less rocky waters. If I didn’t, there would be a hugely awkward pause where someone tried to apologise that he was dead (it’s not your fault, let me make you feel better about this), where they would share a story of cancer (it’s not a competition!), where they would suggest God had a plan (I doubt that very much, but let’s not begin a theological debate), where they would say “at least” we had some time (true! But not enough!), where they would say that “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle” (oh, HELL no) or say things involving the words “better place” (to be frank, the only better place for my Dad would have been St Andrew’s Golf Club, so you are entirely incorrect there, stop talking immediately).

I’ve been that person. Awkwardly trying to let you know I understand you feel sad and I want to make that better. People feel pressure to fix things. They want to comfort. They want to make it better. That’s not for people to do. Grief comes and sits with you and it hangs around whether someone say something trite or not. Young (or younger!) people don’t like to wait. We want things quickly. We have iPhones and streaming and netflix and Amazon Prime. We are not excellent at waiting things out.

Worse than the people saying stupid things, were the people who didn’t say anything. Where I would tiptoe through conversations thinking, “Does this person KNOW he died? Do I have to break that news? Or are they just awkward?” and would try to drop it in “casually” (HOW IS THAT EVEN A THING) to see how they responded, so I knew what I was working with, so they wouldn’t feel bad. That says a lot about me as a person, I know, but it’s something a lot of Young Grievers (that’s not a real term, I just made that up) have to deal with.

When someone dies, you feel incredibly sad. For most of the time. But there are still laughs and smiles and anger and fury that there are never any clean tea towels in this bloody house. Grief binds people together. Outside people don’t necessarily understand that. They hide the fun away for fear of seeming disrespectful. Luckily, my family is quite crazy. We would take it in turns to be cracking bon mots about how my dad would be horrified at all the visitors or how my uncle’s funeral would predominantly be populated by ex-girlfriends. We had a proper Irish wake for my uncle with guitars and whiskey and Irish singing and spontaneous poetry (I kid you not, it was like something out of a Beckett play) and it was hysterical and tragic and helpful and made me wish I could play an instrument. The English don’t really go in for that. Too many emotions, perhaps. It’s a shame, because it helps. The emotions are channelled. Aired out.

The funeral is a ceremony. In the Catholic Church it’s irritatingly not about the person who died. It’s about GOD and the Church and the coffin is not the focus of the room and there is no Eulogy like you see in films. That’s what the church-less wake is for the night before. Where you don’t have to behave because the priest is there (or, in my uncle’s case, he WAS there and I got into a heated argument with him because “I’ve been writing prayers of the faithful since I was a child, I think I can write them now, thank you very much, Father!” and my nother kicked me under the table and I had to go drink outside with the Bad Cousins who smoke) and can say what you think and feel about the person who should be in the middle of that room, but is not.

I sent an email to my friends about my dad. It basically said “This happened. I’m going to be away for a while. Let people know.” Very modern. Very weird. How do you even find a subject line for that? Most people responded with something comforting and/or blissfully minimal. My friend Dan wrote a massive email about how he knew my dad loved me and it was perfect. He’s a dad to two little girls now and I hope no one ever has to write an email like that to one of them, but I see it now.

A lot of people did not know what to say.

This is what you say: “I’m so sorry for your loss. It must be terrible. I’m here.

You have to acknowledge it. Don’t try to fix it. It is remembered when you don’t say something. It does not go unnoticed that you put your comfort above the social awkwardness you think you’ll feel. Be around for them. Check in with them. Check up on them. If you are not good with real time, send a card. Send an email. Maybe don’t send a text, it seems a little gauche, but if that’s Your Thing, then go for it. Do not make this about you. None of this is about you. Have your feelings somewhere else. F*ck off with YOUR feelings, it is not your f*cking turn to have a feeling.

It’s also very strange later. People think you’ll get over it. They expect you to be Done being sad now, because the funeral happened and that’s the end of that, right? That it’s three years later, so it should all be finished now. Circle of Life, etc etc. They aren’t totally sure what to do when you mention that person. Flinching occurs. You learn that’s a thing that happens outside books. They talk quickly to change the subject.

Newsflash: you do not stop being sad. It just becomes a little less unwieldy with time. I have school friends who grew up with one parent and I have only recently DECADES LATER talked to them about it. They’re still sad. I appreciate a little more how hard their being a child was. How hard their becoming an adult is.

I am not rebuking anyone here. This isn’t a massive subtweet to someone who wronged me and for whom I hold a grudge.* Humans are complex and messy. Emotions are hard. Maybe let’s not make it harder on those who are having a rough time.

*so few people read this it would be a particularly useless way of making that known!


Nosce Te Ipsum*

I haven’t written for a while because I’ve been busy. But then again, hasn’t everyone? That’s #oldnews

I had a birthday and a conversation with a doctor that began with “for a woman your age…” and ended with my shocked face declaring I had “only just” turned 34 “actually!”

My last post was how I am an adult now. There’s no escaping that. The age-box I tick on any official document is squarely in the middle of the options. That’s okay. What’s not really okay is that there is still so much I do not know.

This list includes, but is not limited to:

– how to sew a hem
– how to format tables in a Word document when they skitter off the page
– where to put illuminator on a face
– if I’ll ever be able to get away with bronzer
– what kind of shoe to wear in the summer, with a dress, when it’s raining so my feet won’t get wet and are not trainers or brogues
– why everyone is so damn keen on brogues
– what exactly the Israel-Palestine conflict is, really in detail
– how to read the Financial Times markets pages
– why I can never quite get meat cooked spot on
– how to buy soft fruit (raspberries, I’m looking at you) without one of them being a bit weird
– how to properly remember the genders of the most commonly used German words
– how to set boundaries with someone you don’t really enjoy
– how to ask for a pay-rise
– why I’m always so nervous of everything
– how to fix the alarm clock that just stopped working, but still ticks
– how to stop biting my nails (that’s actually a lie, I bite my cuticles, which is even worse)
– how, actually, to archive my emails instead of asking my boss to use my account as an example for everyone else
– how to do a plank
– how to keep trainer socks on my feet
– how to back up my personal computer other than copy&pasting the entire hard drive into another hard-drive
– how to do nice calligraphy
– how to go to Wilkinson without spending money
– where counties in England are
– world geography, generally
– how to access the blue dot on my google maps and follow it in real life
– why there are some people I just Have a Problem With and I think it could be jealousy but I’m not sure what I’m actually jealous OF
– where to buy trousers for work that are neither a weird shape or made from flammable fabric
– how to prevent a freezer freeing up (supposedly keeping it full, but that hasn’t worked for me)
– if there is a decent dry shampoo or whether it’s a conspiracy by everyone who spent money on it
– how to make it through an episode of News Night without wanting to watch a fluffy 26 minute American comedy
– what third wave feminism is
– whether the priority is on protein or vitamins or energy or fibre or fun in food.

These days I am happier to admit when I don’t know something. I’d rather ask and know than chance it and look silly later. But it is so against my grain. As the bright kid in the class and the eldest child of two bright parents, it was not encouraged to ask questions. Don’t hold people up. Don’t let down the side. Don’t show ignorance. Often I find myself nodding along when someone says “obviously you know, xyz…” and I think “OH NO, I HAVE NO IDEA, LET’S SEE IF I CAN COAST THIS” because I don’t want that person to think less of me. How arrogant is that? I don’t know about opera. I don’t know about 17th century Christianity. I don’t know how octopus breed. I don’t know who the Mayor of Chicago is. But I do know that I won’t google it later. I do know that if I ask, you might explain enough for me to want to google it later. I do know that I’d like to follow this conversation rather than waiting for someone to change the subject and hoping it’s not related. I do know that I don’t spend my time with people who laugh at those who don’t know everything they do.

I’ve tried, gently and in my own awkward way, to ask more questions. “I see you have a knife sharpener, could you show me how that works?” “That’s fascinating that you are going to Surat next month. Where is that exactly?” “Actually, I don’t know if Croatia has the Euro, let’s look that up.”

So now, I know the theory behind the knife sharpening wand (but chickened out and bought a table top sharpener), I know Surat is in India and the Croatia has the Kuna. Soon I’ll be a lot more useful on the Guardian Saturday quiz.

Okay, maybe not soon.

* I googled this, OBVIOUSLY

Being Right is EVERYTHING …except when it isn’t.

Rules of CivilityWith all the talk of Fake News and swirling rumours and secrets in my workplace, I have been thinking a lot about how to talk to people. About how people talk to people and the best ways to communicate. My favourite tv characters are the Mirandas and the Chandlers and the Richards (from Caroline In The City). The secondary characters with the good lines. The sharp zingers that stay with you because they are so perfectly crafted. For a long time, that was my modus operandi. Be the funniest person in the room. Being funny, being sarcastic was the thing. Actually communicating a message was less important.

I don’t remember when that changed, but I care a bit less about being funny now. I’m definitely sarcastic less often. Sarcasm doesn’t really deliver empathy, which is more important to me. The Mirandas and the Chandlers had the good lines, but they didn’t have the good stories until they developed and gave other people a chance. The Mirandas and the Chandlers are generally bitter and a bit broken, but isn’t everyone a little bit broken? Being bitter on top didn’t help them be less broken.

After the sarcasm, came the rage and I went through a shouty phase. I was angry all the time and my anger was directed at all the wrong things, all the wrong people. I never learnt how to handle anger as a child or a young woman – anger isn’t ladylike and was never on a GCSE syllabus, so I’m still trying to learn how to do that on my own. How to be angry and express it, rather than eat it and let it poison me from the inside. I try to never shout at people, but rather to shout about things to people. That difference is important to me. I never want anyone to feel attacked by me. There’s no need for that. The world has enough attackers at the moment.

I’ve had quite a few occasions at work lately where Difficult Conversations had to be had. My initial response has been to be furious and loud and make sweeping statements in my office. Then I’ve made zingers while I simmer and sift my thoughts alone. Finally, I actually spoke to the person and had soft conversations where firmly, but carefully, I made my point, asked questions and we worked on a solution. It works. It’s not as satisfying as shouting about how right you are, how you absolutely know best in this situation and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool, but it works. And sometimes that’s more important than being right. It kills me to say that, but there we are.

We’ve all been in situations when someone repeatedly talks about the same problem – or worse! Doesn’t talk about it, but it’s ever-present! – and just doesn’t listen to our helpful and totally 100% correct suggestions. Usually this is how the media portrays women experiencing conversations with men. Men want to solve the problem, rather than offer support, which is what women “actually” want. But I notice this in female friendships and male relationships too. Work, family, friends, all of it.

This is a very difficult time for the world. Everything outside out homes feels hard and painful and sharp. Inside out homes and our heads and our hearts, we want to feel safe. We want our people to be safe and happy and successful. We want to help our people and help them quickly through their hard, painful, sharp problems, especially when we have the answers that they just can’t see.

Telling someone to go to the doctor about that thing they’re worried about, or to speak to a therapist about that problem, or to just quit that upsetting job already, or to leave that terrible girlfriend if she’s such a nightmare, or to apply for that residency card, or to go to that gym, or to join that dating app… is easy. What’s hard, what’s painful, is to sit with our people and hear them silently say that they aren’t ready. That they aren’t strong enough. That they’re scared. That they can’t think that far ahead yet. Speaking sharply or impatiently gave no person ever courage or strength or support to do a difficult thing. Sharp and impatient words make people feel that they’re failing their supporters on top of everything else.

Everyone knows this. Everyone has had a situation where that one person made them feel worse because their tone of voice cut to the bone, even if the words weren’t meant to wound. I can think of three times this very second where the memory still stings, even though our relationship didn’t even recognise it. And I bet there are at least ten people who can instantly call to mind a time when I did that to them and we’ve never spoken about it (I’M SORRY, I WAS A JERK. I’M TRYING TO BE BETTER).

What I’m learning, albeit so very late in life, is to ask questions. Not to say “see, you know what to do, which is what I suggested all along, now do it” but to help understand and to offer support in whatever way that person needs, rather than how I want to help them. I may not be helping anyone on my timetable, but I’m trying not to make anyone feel worse.

Empathy is thin on the ground at the moment. We need to gather it together and share it among ourselves, make more of it and then share it in the world.

Dollahdollahbill y’all

The Colour of MoneyLast year, I realised with a start that my finances were a mess. Ordinarily, I always have a cushion in my current account for emergencies. An emergency flight home, an emergency pair of glasses, an emergency new phone. Somehow, I’d burnt through it. I’d burnt through it, but I hadn’t anything to show for it. I own one Chanel lipstick and the expensive handbags I have were gifts. I have no Louboutins, all my shoes come from M&S or Clarks. I had no holiday photos of Bali or New York to explain away my penury.

Where the hell had all my money gone?

The huge crate in my room, packed full with on-offer shampoo and new-line moisturizer, indicated that I really liked spending the money, rather than actually liking the objects I bought with the money. To be very honest, I still don’t really know where that tendency comes from. Is it because we didn’t have much spare cash when I was tiny? Is it because I enjoy the thrill of the chase? I did find that when I had a bad day at work, or was annoyed about something, my first response was to go and purchase a treat for myself – usually something food-based, because then it didn’t seem like such a terrible waste of money. I’ve never been someone to buy clothes to cheer myself up- clothes are too expensive for that. But a scratch card, a magazine with a free gift (those are like CATNIP to me, even if I don’t really want the magazine OR the free thing), an on-off bar of chocolate or a microwaveable chocolate pudding? Fair game. It got to the point where I had a stack of magazines I hadn’t read and too many chocolate bars for me to actually eat. Often the buying of the thing was the thrill and I wasn’t interested when I got it back to the office. If it was a shirt from Zara, I could take it back, but you can’t really take back a £3 bar of chocolate from Hotel Chocolat. They’d look at you funny. I had an internal budget for things like this. Anything up to a fiver was okay. So I would buy a nail polish, but not a lipstick, in Boots. I could buy some body lotion, but not a fancy serum unless it was on offer. I bought a lot of patterned tights from M&S. I’d buy a magazine in WhSmiths, but not a book. I’d buy a tiny bottle of wine, but not a full one (which is actually less economical and worse for the environment)!

This was how I frittered away my emergency money. Tights and snack pots of mango and postage to World Zones.

I spent money when I was tired, or bored or frustrated or sad. All the things that HALT from Alcoholic Anonymous tells you to avoid. (Hungry, angry, lonely, tired → reasons not to drink or your drug of choice) Instead of dealing with My Emotions, I was spending money, which made me more frustrated and angrier with myself and also poorer.

Around this time my friend Fee started an accountability project. She had various aims and she would email me once a week to tell me whether she had stuck to her aims or not and why. The idea was to see if there were patterns for making less-than-stellar choices. Being held to account by an external source meant that Fee took the aims more seriously, than if she had just set them for herself. I didn’t actually need to do anything, and my opinion or judgement certainly wasn’t required.

I decided that I would straight-up copy Fee and have an accountability project for my finances. Every week, I kept a diary in my phone of what I spent, money I shouldn’t have spent (and what I spent it on) and near misses.

Fee very wisely pointed out that I would have to be careful not to feel like all the fun had been removed from my life because I was trying not to BUY things, so I factored in another column – fun treats that didn’t cost any more money. This meant I would actually use some of the things that I had bought (dvds, skin care treatments, snacks), rather than just accumulating them. It also meant that I could learn how to treat myself without spending money on things.

For well over twenty weeks in 2016, I emailed Fee tables of what I spent in Sainsbury’s, the Post Office and the newsagent near work. I wrote down money I didn’t need to spend and what I spent it on.

Hilariously early on in the project, my brain reasoned that if I couldn’t spend money on myself, it was entirely acceptable to spend it on other people and so I would buy little gifts and mail them to people. I bought a lot of terrible brightly coloured magazines with stories of crazy bridesmaids who ran off with grooms, women who taste-tested dog food for a living and the caravan that was haunted by a Victorian family – all less than £2 an issue – and then I would mail them to my sister in Canada because I knew she loved this nonsense. Or I’d buy a cake at lunch to share with the team and foster a fun environment. Or a box of two egg custards to treat my work friend and I at lunch.

Having Fee look at my spending every week wasn’t exactly as I’d expected. I thought that knowing she would be reading my spending habits would be enough pressure that I would want to impress her and behave properly. The Good Girl approach of my younger years. According to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, it turns out that I’m Upholder (with a slight leaning towards Obliger) when it comes to my nature.  I actually want to meet outer and inner expectations, and if I rebel, it’s going to be that I resist my inner expectation more than the outer expectation. I knew Fee would give me some slack in some areas (she would give me a pass for spending £2 on a doughnut), but I wouldn’t give myself that slack. If I was going to break my own rules, I’d break them (buying an 80p chocolate bar), but not go beyond her levels of what the rules were.

Staying with Gretchen Rubin, I’m also an abstainer. Possibly her most quoted line is from Samuel Johnson “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” I’d rather just never eat crisps, than have to mentally justify how many crisps is enough. As long as I had a clear line of what was “allowed” (buying groceries I actually needed, or cosmetics that actually needed replaced), I didn’t need to think about what I might allow myself as a treat.

Eventually, I managed to top up my emergency fund. I didn’t buy take-away coffee, I rarely bought cakes, I stopped buying nail polishes, I wouldn’t let myself wander around Tiger or Hema for entertainment. I read books, I emailed with friends, I ate the snacks I had stashed away. I didn’t stop having dinner out with friends, because spending time with them was important to me and the eating out expense was worth it. But I did decide that I could either have a glass of wine, or I could have pudding. I could have a coffee out with friends, but I could either have a cup of tea and a cake, OR I could have a fancy mocha. They worked out about the same, but I wasn’t spending seven pounds to have the same amount of fun that I could have by spending four. The cake wasn’t the objective – seeing my friend was.

After a while, Fee and I noticed that we were reporting the same things week after week, so it seemed like a good time to call it a day with the accountability side of things. Not having kept a record over Christmas and New Year was good, because I would probably have been a little distressed to see how much more I spent over the festive period, even though I wanted to. I spent money on flights and gifts and restaurants and regret none of it. Even when I was spending money like water I never regretted anything I bought. I regretted the larger number on my credit card statement, but I took back to the store anything I truly regretted.

Now that we’re in February, and I’m working my way through the pile of books I have been so generously gifted by friends and family, I’ve read Help by Oliver Burkeman. It’s a great book. He writes for the Guardian about various self-help strategies. This book is the distillation of what’s available, and what works. I’ve taken note of quite a few of them and applied them in my life. He makes the point that humans do not infinite reserves of willpower. Burke writes about a study by Roy Baumeister, “a pioneer in research on self-control, asked people to complete tasks that required ‘effortful persistence’ and focus – the equivalent of such real-life challenges as remaining at your desk to work instead of wandering off to make a cup of coffee, or walking past a shop window without making an impulse purchase. The tasks, it turned out, depleted their glucose levels; moreover, subject who had a glucose drink beforehand showed more persistence. Exerting self-control, in other words, uses up real energy, much as lifting a heavy object….Baumeister calls this effect ‘ego-depletion’, because we’re imposing our sense of self on the world, and on our behaviour, and the effort involved is a limited resource. We use it up…. It’s [also] why, if you want to change some behaviour, willpower can be only a temporary or partial solution. It’s exhaustible, and if you rely on it too much in one area you may find that you don’t have enough left over for the rest of your life. Instead of relying on willpower, we need to develop routines, so that things become automatic.”

What I’ve done with this information is to make a bunch of decisions once, so I don’t have to keep making them.
– I can buy a magazine, but it can only be Red or Vogue. The font size in Marie Claire is too small, the content in Elle irritates me and I don’t like any of the weeklies, so they don’t bring me as much joy. I don’t need them.
– I can buy a snack, but I must want to eat it then and it must be something I will actually enjoy. I can’t just buy something because it’s new or has fun packaging.
– I can’t buy anything in Boots that I already have a version of. I can pick it up, admire the packaging and marketing, but I can’t buy it.
– I’ve subscribed from so many marketing emails advertising sales because I would trawl through the sale to find something I wanted.
– Online shopping can only be books or CDs or things I have touched. If I want to buy clothes or shoes, I have to touch them in a real shop so I know exactly how they look.
– I can only buy clothes that fill a hole. I can’t buy any more grey long sleeved v-necked jumpers. Whatever I buy has to be EXACTLY what I’m looking for, it can’t be a near approximation if I squint a bit and hope for the best.
– Before I buy something for someone, I ask myself if they would actually WANT this item. Or do I just want to send them something to make myself seem like a good friend. Because they aren’t always the same.

I’ve found spending money to be quite  a bit easier in 2017 and it’s because I have rules. I can follow rules with a little flexibility (ahem: camel coloured trench coat from Mango reduced to £20!) and it means I actually have what I want at the end of the day. Granted, I can’t buy a house yet, but I can save up to buy a coffee table book about houses…

Adulting Round-Up Quarter 4 (part 4)

Part four, the final!

Organised finances
I want to do a post entirely on my financial accountability project, but needless to say, I found it very helpful to see exactly where I spend my money and where I throw it away. Christmas came and went, expensive as it always is and I think I learnt a few lessons there. My family are not Big Ticket Item people. We tend to buy a number of small things totalling a larger number, rather than one thing at the large number. Buying One Thing seems like such a risk – what if the other person doesn’t like it? Or, if it’s something they actually want, it looks like you’ve shown no great thought by just buying what they asked for.  My family have always been like this. Most of my friends have too. We all came from well off backgrounds but with minimal money extra. As teenagers we would have a limit of ten or fifteen pounds and would try to see how many things we could get for that. As we grew older and had a little more spare cash, gifts still held that same ethos: lots of little things. The problem is that inflation rose with us and the little things are now a little bit more expensive. We’re maybe buying six bubble baths for the price of one good hardback book.

At the moment, my friends and I are all roughly at the same stage with roughly the same amount of spare cash at the end of the month, and it’s not lots. Those of us who aren’t spending hundreds of pounds on flights home for Christmas, have mortgages or are on maternity leave with babies. Or having weddings to pay for. Or have gone freelance. Or have had a career shift and suddenly need to squirrel money away for rainier days. There’s less money for buying a Good Thing and the Topper things that make up the whole gift. And we have enough money ourselves to buy the little things – the glass nail files, the cute lipbalms and the weird chocolate bars (lime and salt is not a great idea, actually, take it from me).

I took a slightly different tack this Christmas and just outright asked people what they would like as a gift. Rather than buying two things I think they’d like and then “rounding it off” with some smaller sillier things, I bought the things they asked for and things I thought they’d like. It felt VERY strange not to be wrapping a whole bundle of gifts. And, to be honest, it felt a lot less wasteful. I knew that people would definitely really like the three books I gave them, rather than like the book I gave them and wondered what to do with the bubble bath set I hoped they’d like but wasn’t sure and felt I had to buy something else to make up the budget I’d set. I’m not really explaining this very well and I’m afraid of coming across as a skinflint or buying gifts that aren’t considered – I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s interesting that I am already defensive about how I spent my money on people.

Where I fell down this year was completely missing gifts with some friends. I’d not expected to exchange gifts with them, hadn’t budgeted, then panicked and overspent. I didn’t like that. I also don’t know how to fix it. How do you break the gift-cycle? How do you say to someone, “Look, I like you and cherish our friendship, but I don’t think we need to mark it with tangible items this festive period.” It seems so harsh!

Where I did well was saving my credit card reward vouchers (from the M&S credit card) and Amazon vouchers that I’d accrued for Christmas. The M&S card actually isn’t good at all for rewards now, as they’ve changed their T&Cs and so I shall be smart and switch to something better. That was one thing I did learn from my ex who worked in finance – don’t just GIVE your credit to some bank – it’s an asset, so you should receive something in return. I’m looking at either a cashback or an airmiles card.

Speaking of airmiles, I was smart enough to book flights in the BA sale in January (although not using airmiles) and so saved myself a little there. Stupidly, I have to move one of my flights, because I hadn’t put something in the diary, but you live and learn.

Decidedly relaxed
Over Christmas I had food poisoning and had to totally relinquish planning to my sister (who managed admirably, of course) and the rest of my family. It was quite difficult for me but I didn’t really have an other option. My sister did everything wonderfully and my mum had everything organised in her own haphazard relaxed way. Everyone still had a good time, even if the plates didn’t match. There’s a lesson there, obviously.

One thing I did learn while I was away, holidaying with someone else’s family, is that I need to be connected to MY people to feel relaxed. Fritz and I had a bit of a discussion where he was slightly miffed that I was on my phone when we had some time alone. Not all the time, but for about fifteen minutes. I felt bad about that until I realised that, actually, this was not mindless scrolling through Instagram or Facebook and ignoring him. He was on holiday with his family, revelling in the connection and relationships he had. While they’re lovely, they’re not my family. I was in Italy where I didn’t speak the language, where I was on someone else’s timetable and utterly cut off from My People and what was going on with them. I realised that Facebook and Instagram were giving me back a little corner of my world when I felt so alien in the real one. Skiing was tough and it was a bit lonely being in a class of strangers. While it’s great to be included in someone’s family, I wasn’t up to speed on in-jokes and I missed that. Social media gave me a moment of belonging to my people and connection. I didn’t feel quite so lost and on my own (even though I wasn’t!) – it was also great to let people know how stressful I found skiing and hear from friends who agreed, not to make me feel better, but because they had also found it difficult. I can relax around strangers when I’ve topped up my reserves of familiar people.

By the time I got back to London after skiing and generally living out of a suitcase since November, I realised that I wasn’t doing super well. I was constantly fighting off a migraine and being overwhelmed by my To Do list. And so for a week I tried to be in bed for ten pm. I shut my phone off at 9.30 so I could get ready for bed and then read for a little with a nice candle before turning out the light. It was remarkable the difference. It was also remarkable that I only lasted for three days. It was a lovely idea, but I have friends and family in different timezones and if I don’t have my phone on, then I’ll miss them and weeks can go by without us catching up. Also, a friend texted with big news at 9.28 and it would have been churlish to just cut that off after two minutes. I haven’t worked out the balance, but this is something I need to do.

Career plan
If I wanted to switch careers, I’d be in good company. Every third person I know seems to be jacking in their career of a decade and doing something utterly different and terrifying and brave. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m thinking of options. That being said, writing cover letters is the most soul destroying activity in the world, so I’m in no rush.

On the career front, I have discovered that I am not a bad manager at all. I had a very immature trainee for a little while, who had never been away from home before, took everything personally and was terribly difficult to work with. She also burst into tears at the drop of the hat, which disrupted the department and other departments! This was not ideal. The organisation I work with isn’t super at human relations or communication and the attitude was essentially “she’ll leave soon enough, let’s not make a fuss” which I didn’t think was actually that great a solution. So I sat with her on a number of occasions and had Some Difficult Conversations. Hilariously, I had to talk to her about how to be an adult in the world.

She was bright, but she wasn’t independent. She was used to being the centre of attention and not having to try very hard and now she did. She was a good kid, she’d just never had to work at anything. I had to establish how to teach her how to do the job without losing my patience or being unkind or sarcastic, but also without mollycoddling her. I also had to put the good of the team before my own personal feelings of exasperation. I also had to be firm when usually I would wuss out. In the end, she was much improved and so was I. I’ve learnt how to ask questions and speak softly, rather than charge in with a funny-but-cutting remark that will shut down the other person. Being right and having the other person know it, damn it, isn’t always the goal.

Finishes projects
The list of projects is ever increasing. Oh, so many. But slow and steady wins the race. Some I’ve timetables for later in the year, some I’ve realised felt more burdensome than rewarding and some have been chipped away at bit-by-bit.

I’m loving my Bullet Journal and also the List Book I was given for Christmas. I’m juggling a paper diary, my BuJo, the notes in my phone and at least two pieces of paper floating around, but at the moment I seem to be fairly organised. I’ve done a little Marie Kondoing, I’ve resolved to be more intentional about the blog and I’ve got plans in the wings. I’m getting there.

Sorry is not actually the hardest word, but it is contentious

20160201_222846It’s almost a reflex to start a blog post with apologies and excuses as to why there hasn’t been a post in a while. I’m not going to do that this time. I’ve been busy. Who hasn’t? I’ve been busy and my priority has been living and managing life, rather than analysing it online.

That’s not to say I haven’t been having Deep Thoughts, but this is the first time in ages I’ve done my nails (I’m handing out badges at a work event this evening and red sparkles may be the only entertainment I have. Unless I can send an intern to fetch me some Glühwein…) and I need to not touch anything until the topcoat is dry.

Apologies are funny things. I’ve been doing a lot of work on what the British say and what the British actually mean (see: Very British Problems for the definitive guide) and “sorry” comes up a lot. Sorry as a softener to bad news, an interruption, a disagreement, etc etc.

Women say sorry a lot. Women apologise a lot, generally. We are the gatekeepers of society, constantly patrolling the emotions of a situation and protecting our wards from discomfort.

Men don’t bother with this emotional labour.

I’ve sort of reached the end of my tether with it, to be honest. I’ve actually become known at work for (rather counter-intuitively) harassing our female interns to stop entering rooms and apologising

Office. Knock on door and intern enters.
Intern: “Sorry, can I just..”

Me: “STOP! Don’t apologise for your existence. Don’t begin our interaction being sorry. Would a MAN do this? He would NOT. He would knock, enter and then state his business! Take up space in the world! Let’s do this again – go back out there and then come back in!”

Cowed intern shuffles back outside, enters and looks sheepish.

Me: “Now, what would a MAN do? Declare your intention!”

Intern: “Umm, here’s a thing…”

Me: “If you feel you need to say something at the start as an introduction, you could try “hello, do you have a moment?” Okay, what do you actually need from me?”

Cowed intern then delivers papers or whatever.
Scene ends

Let’s be clear here, I was exactly the same. I will still say sorry when someone else stands on my foot on the tube, but I’ve made a conscious effort to stop doing it at work unnecessarily. I saw a tote bag with the words Have the Confidence of a Mediocre White Man and it struck me as pure genius. Mediocre White Men don’t walk into rooms apologising.

Mediocre White Men are the status quo. It feels like everything is in relation to them.

For example, in this country we’re generally required to throw the word “female” round as an adjective when describing careers because the standard is male. No one is saying “male politician” or “male doctor.” Our nouns don’t have genders the way European languages do, so few of our words have suffixes to show what gender a role is.

Some of those with suffixes (actress, for example) are slowly being eased out (not without complaint from the ridiculous anti-PC bridgade) for equality, but this still requires an adjective or the declaration of a person’s name. “Nicole Kidman, actor, bought a new house” or “Female lawyer makes complaint against colleague for harassment” because the assumption is that an actor is otherwise male.

There’s not much I can do about equality, but encouraging my younger colleagues to have the same levels of self-confidence when entering a room feels like a start.

In which I carefully complain about having been thin – part 2

CakesFor years and years there have been girly conversations I have not been permitted access to. Three girls standing round a mirror getting ready for a night out talking about diets and exercise plans. Or in changing room talking about Atkins or Davina’s Little Black Dress DVD. The bonding that happens there. The reassurance and the advice, because they are all bigger than they’d like to be.

I can’t contribute to this conversation. My opinions can’t be welcome. I’m not recognised as part of that club. I don’t have entry: I’m so lucky to be thin. I’m so lucky to be able to eat what I want. I’m so lucky. Those are the words that keep me out.

A conversation I have had a thousand times is the chat about boobs. No one wants boobs as small as mine, but theirs are too big and I don’t understand what a hassle it is. I’m so lucky.

Growing up, I didn’t feel so lucky. The Dove “everyone is beautiful” campaign came out a bit too late for me as a teen and even when it did I noticed that it didn’t include flat-chested skinny girls. Flat-chested skinny girls were used for eating disorder posters. Looking wan with limp hair. Kate Moss was the ideal in the 90s. Skinny, but with boobs and a tan. I was no Kate Moss. Real Women have curves. Apparently real women aren’t ironing boards with peas and no hips. Thanks very much.

Now, I am very aware that this is a lot of complaining and whining about not very much. My body works. My body is healthy and can fight illness and can be clothes from most high street stores for not a huge sum of money and I don’t have people looking sideways at me on the tube for not fitting into the seats, or for eating a sausage roll or for taking the bus for a short distance. I know this. I know this. I am very very grateful to be able to breeze through life without people making comments because I am too big for their opinions. I have been very grateful for this for the three decades I have been eating chocolate chip cookies on a sofa.

What I’m also aware of is that I’m getting older. I’m getting older and things are changing. I came very late to the skinny jeans trend, because my calves have always been too big to get into them. I threw away photos of my weird-trouser phase when I would wear dresses and look like a mountainous lump because I didn’t know how to Dress My (new) Shape. I am no longer the thin rake-like girl of uniform days.

I’ve tried to have this conversation a few times with friends and it’s been shut down really quickly. Apparently there’s nothing on me, they don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m being ridiculous, I’m tiny and should eat another biscuit and have I looked at how massive they are? And as well meaning as that is, it’s stung. I still don’t have access to that conversation. I’m not big enough yet. Even though I’m bigger than I would like to be. Not all over, but big enough. The implication is that if I think *I’m* too big, then I must think *they’re* massive. And I don’t, I’d just like to talk about how I’m getting bigger and a little displeased about it without making anyone else feel uncomfortable. It’s difficult. Talking about bodies and size and fat is so FRAUGHT with emotion and judgement and complexity if you are a woman. This is not how men talk about bodies.

A few years ago I did the Shine Night Walk Marathon for Cancer Research. Walking, I could do. I was horribly horribly afraid of it, but I reckoned I could at the very least walk for cancer research if my dad had brain cancer. There was a 12 week plan, which I more or less followed. I was vexed, to say the least, to find that I did not transform into a lissom tanned Northern-Irish-accented Heidi Klum. That was my first clue that something was…off. I’d never lost weight before, but when I moved to London and ate about 12 (count ‘em – TWELVE) croissants a week in a size six jumper, I was doing no exercise at all (unless you count walking between Gregg’s and Starbucks in the morning before work. They are less than 50 yards apart). Now I was walking 60 miles a week, on no croissants and eating vegetables. I was the same size. I stayed the same size. I didn’t want to be a different size, but it was an interesting fact.

I don’t walk those miles any more. I don’t eat those croissants any more. I do eat a lot of vegetables. I’m aware of and grateful for my body and I know how tough it is when your body can’t look after itself. I owe it to myself (and to the NHS) to stay as healthy as I can without becoming miserable. Let’s be real here, celery is incredibly depressing.

Months back I started schlepping a Tupperware of vegetables for lunch rather than sandwiches or pasta. I cut back on cakes and biscuits. BACK, not OUT. This was still quite a shock to people. Friends commented that they didn’t know who I was any more in this new actually-just-the-one-slice guise. That felt a bit weird. Was my personality made up with GREEDY and DECADENT? Was that all there was to me? Obviously not, as I still complained and hogged the conversation and tried to be funny (my actual personality traits, which I do try and change), but it happened enough times with enough different people (colleagues, family, friends, acquaintances) that it gave me pause for thought.

After being exhausted for a few months that was down to my utter lack of protein, I realised I didn’t actually know how to feed myself as a grown adult woman who doesn’t eat all the cakes, so asked a collection of friends who were on weight loss programmes, or had personal trainers, or who had children how they eat and how they know what to eat. Slimmers’ World (I don’t know where the apostrophe should go), Weight Watchers, that beardy man off Instagram, Deliciously Ella, The Hemsley Sisters…all different information.

A friend of mine said she was going to start a plan – Lean for Life – which took all the thinking and calculating out of it. THIS IS PERFECT, I thought. Yes, sign me up. I want someone to tell me exactly what to eat so that I know I have sufficient protein.

I was EXCITED about this. This was a plan that was going to HELP ME get myself organised FOR LIFE. It was a relief to have someone tell me what to do. I picked the book up out of the library and saw a shiny haired smiley lady happy to eat salad. Oh yes!

Then I looked through the book and spotted that there were NO POTATOES (sweet potatoes do not count, sorry) in the recipes. I checked. I looked twice, three times. Not only were there no potatoes, but carbs seemed quite thin on the ground actually. And, from what I had learnt from my friend with the personal trainer, there didn’t seem to be enough protein in the recipes for me. Okay, okay. Fine. I can do this. None of the breakfast options appealed to me, but maybe I could just get over my weird oat-aversion. After all, porridge is just wet Hobnobs.

Then I looked at the chapter on exercise. Aha. This…was a little less reassuring. Fifteen minutes a day, no break in between. How hard could it be? I found an exercise and was instantly perplexed by the instructions. “Open your hips” was one.

What? How do you do that?

I tried a few of them and with each one, I got more and more frustrated. A Iot like when I tried aerobics for two years at school and every time would trip on something, rather than executing the grapevine like the other girls. I couldn’t do the exercises. This woman, this lovely smiling shiny woman, could do them and I was a chubby lump who didn’t even KNOW how to open her hips and could only think about mashed potato.

Over the next couple of days I would resolutely read through the book and try to see how I could do it. And then I would be in tears. I had a proper not-sure-where-it-came-from meltdown. I was going to get fat and stay fat and not know how to fix it if I couldn’t even follow this book. I had tried doing ALL THE EXERCISE and that had done nothing. Perhaps it had built muscle, but it hadn’t looked that way and the muscle certainly hadn’t stuck around. I had tried EATING ALL THE VEGETABLES and that had done even less. I didn’t know who I was, what I was about to become or how to stop it, if I wanted.

On top of that, I felt terribly guilty for having told my friend I would do the plan with her and we could support each other. Failing at eating, exercising and being a good friend. That really helped motivate me.

It’s been a few weeks since having a meltdown and I’ve relaxed a bit. I’m still Concerned that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ve realised that these plans aren’t for me. I really do need to put a proper exercise plan in place and take my personality into account. If I have a reason to look good (a holiday, a fancy event), then I will put in 80 sit-ups and crunches a day until I have abs, but I can’t do it every day. If I don’t do it every day, it’s too easy to just…not. I like to walk, so I need to really reset my schedule so that I can walk to work in the morning. I’m not going to buy kit, I’m not going to go to a gym, I’m not going to do something that costs unnecessary cash. It’ll annoy me and I won’t do it. But I do need to do something.

My recipe book is now a folder with sections and pristine recipe sheets. I’m quite pleased with this. I am full of excitement for trying new recipes and actually sticking to meal plans. I’m trying very hard to have protein with every meal (thank God for eggs, is all I can say. So easy!) and cut down on the carbs with them. I’ve stopped eating five fruit AND five veg a day, because apparently that wasn’t quite right and meant I was either buying produce or chopping produce for hours a day.

I haven’t worked out what to do about cake and biscuits. I’m still a mad sugar fiend. I just like it. The idea of not eating cake, or worse – eating cake made of beetroot and broken dreams pretending to taste ‘just like chocolate’ – is not for me. But I do need to eat a lot less of them. Unfortunately, I will buy these delicious Mr Kipling things when I am sad or annoyed or frustrated. I will also eat them all. I can’t seem to say no. I do actually feel better. I don’t tend to feel remorseful.

This bit of adulthood I haven’t quite cracked yet.