Archive for June, 2010

THE JOYS OF RUNNING AND OTHER STORIES

Back in the day, sometime in the late 1970s to early 80s, I was quite a good little middle distance runner.

My heyday lasted just a year or so, when I was about 12 or 13. I was Shropshire county cross country champion, reached regional finals for 800m and 1500m, ran regularly for my local club (Shrewsbury & Atcham AC) and had an 800m PB of 2 mins 16 secs. Now I doubt I could break four minutes.

In those days parental involvement was muted. Any folks who showed a keen interest in their child’s athletics development were viewed as pushy, needy and, frankly, pretty wierd.

My mum and dad, like most of my friends’ parents, supported me by making sure I had the kit I needed, ferrying me to and from events when needed, giving me entry fees for races and asking me how my training was going. The last thing I wanted back then was for my parents to hang around while I was at training sessions with my friends, or for them to get involved in coaching or transport. Running was My Thing, something I did that was separate from school and family life.

Despite this adolescent insouciance, I recall with great clarity every single time my folks turned up at a race meeting to cheer me on. It only happened a handful of times, but obviously their presence meant a huge amount to me, even if at the time I would have died rather than tell them so.

Now, as a parent myself, I can’t imagine being anything other than cheerleader-in-chief, photographer extraordinaire and manager supreme, should my boys discover their passion lies with a particular sport. I will be right there, every step of the way, just as I am with most anything they do. It would be frowned upon these days to be anything less.

I wonder if I would have shown the same passion back in the 70s and 80s, when parental involvement was not encouraged like it is now. I like to think so – I believe it is a Very Good Thing to share in and get involved in your children’s activities.

But there is a fine line between encouragement and being overbearing; between supporting your child and putting undue pressure on them; between helping them and doing the work for them. (I also feel for the poor sods running the activities, usually as volunteers. Who’d choose to be a gym coach or kids’ football team manager or Scout leader these days, faced with all those beady eyes scrutinising their every move and hanging on their every word?)

I know lots of parents who feel under enormous pressure to “conform” and be fascinated by every little thing their child does and says. It’s not good enough these days to provide them with the opportunities – we have to share in and endure them as well. And if you suggest that, actually, it’s pretty boring to sit through another choir practice or judo session, you may as well sign the kids over to social services.

I wasted an hour of my life yesterday attending an information session for new parents at the primary school where my youngest will start in September. While our little darlings were getting to know each other and their teacher, we were herded into the school hall to take part in some maths activities designed to help us help our children to master numbers.

Now, I think activities like this are really useful and full marks to the school for organising them (there are two more to come!) But having previously taken part in similar sessions for my firstborn, and having been a volunteer TA at the school working with children on this very topic, there was absolutely no need for me to stay. I could instead have used the time to pop home, have a cuppa, do some paperwork, ironing, anything. However, I felt compelled to stay, to show that I was a SUPPORTIVE PARENT, and to make sure my name was on The List. (You know, the one every teacher keeps, listing the parents who give a damn. Being on The List gives little Jonny a good chance of getting picked to be in the photo shoot in the local newspaper or of landing good parts in the school play. Come on, you know it’s true.)

I’d like to get back to running now, which was intended to be the theme of today’s blog. See how my little brain works, leaping from subject to subject in the blink of any eye? Try being in my mind for a day, it’s fascinating.

So, by the time I turned 15 I had hung up my spikes. I didn’t even go running for pleasure – I just called a complete halt. I went from running three or four times a week, plus races, to nothing. Nada. Zilch. I’d replaced the joys of pounding the streets with hanging about on them; swapped making myself breathless through endeavour for filling my lungs with cigarette smoke in a quest to be cool.

Over the last 10 years I have dabbled again in this most simple of exercises. Like my weight, my interest in running has yo-yo’ed dramatically over the past decade or so. I have completed a few 10k races, red faced but respectably not last; a few more 5k events; managed two or three triathlons;  and even entered a half marathon before pulling out a few weeks before due to illness (and lack of training if truth be told.)

Earlier this year I decided I needed some support to get the most out of running, so signed up to a beginners’ course for runners offered by Kidderminster & Stourport AC, from their fabulous new base at Stourport Sports Club.

I turned up on the first night, with some trepidation, to meet a roomful of like minded men and women. About half were fit enough to join one of the regular running groups immediately; the rest of us would be put through our paces more gently.

We were all manner of shapes and sizes. I’m always amazed to discover that people who are thinner and younger than me can’t always run as far as me, but that’s how it turned out.

Anyway, in exchange for £20 I enjoyed three sessions of running a week for eight weeks, led by Theresa and Pam, a funny and encouraging pair of coaches. I also go to meet some absolutely fab new friends and, perhaps most importantly, rediscovered my love of running. It’s not helped me shed weight yet, but I think that will only come once I stop eating all the pies.

My new interest in running caused me to revisit the work of Haruki Murakami. Now I’ve loved the work of Murakami for years – his charming and gentle fantasies, his quirky view of the world, his strange, introverted characters and beautifully described scenes resonate with me like no other novelist. Murakami is also a lifetime runner. He has completed more than 25 marathons, several extreme long distance runs and, now in his 60s, continues to find solace and pleasure in running.

He has written a fabulous book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is an absolute joy. In it he explores the idea of running as something spiritual, something other than a means for keeping fit.

He describes how running is a skill that must be learned, practised and honed; something that requires inner strength and persistence. As someone seeking to improve on these aspects of my own personality, it resonates particularly powerfully.

Running is presented as a simple exercise that can be done anywhere, without equipment or preparation; but which somehow embraces all of the difficulties and challenges of life – the need for self discipline, for overcoming lack of willpower, the need for consistency, for being single-minded in pursuit of a goal.

I love Murakami’s philosophy of life. He sees it as something simple that is made overly complex. He determines to live his simple life simply – running every day, writing every day, spending time with his loved ones, pursuing his goals, being alone when he feels like it, not wasting time with people he doesn’t care about.

Running fascinates me. I like how it works its magic – how the act of running can help me turn trouble and confusion in my mind into clarity.

When I hit the road, get into a gentle rhythm and my breathing and footfalls come together in harmony, I develop uncanny focus. The insurmountable becomes achieveable, I spot a way round a sticking point. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always like that. Running can be annoying, frustrating and very painful. Sometimes I drag myself round the block and come back wondering what the hell I was doing. But it’s worth it for those special moments and for the way it can make you feel so good.

When my running is going well, I’m flying along, seeming to barely touch the pavement. I feel just as I guess I did when I was 13 and loved the sensation of running. It’s a great way to feel alive, fit and healthy.

When it goes badly it reminds me that I’m out of shape and not getting any younger. But, as Murakami so masterfully describes it: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” A good philosophy for life too.

I’m off for a run now…look out for me!

A New Beginning – and Golf Balls

I tend to write my blog while I’m either a, overtired; or b. slightly inebriated. Tonight I’m both. I’m guessing this can affect the quality of my ramblings, so I apologise. This too will be a disjointed affair.

I have spent the evening contemplating my future. This is a very useful exercise while feeling upbeat and optimistic. At times like this I remember that my potential is immeasureable; that I am capable, bright, witty and confident; and, with effort and derring-do on my part, I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. I vow to always seize the moment; to act, not procrastinate; to live, not exist.

This activity is less useful when in a melancholy mien, when the unknown, the unfamiliar and the challenging become things to avoid, run from and make excuses about. If I’m honest, I think that’s what I’ve been doing recently – looking for the easy option, rather than opting for something that will truly test my ability, my stamina and my guts.

It might all go pear-shaped, might all end in tears, but this time I’m going to ignore the naysaying section of my brain and focus on the bright and breezy zone which tells me to go for it; nothing ventured, nothing gained; and my favourite lazy cliché – feel the fear, and do it anyway.

So, with thanks to input from trusted friends and some very helpful mentoring from someone who has been there and got the t-shirt, I have taken the first steps today towards launching a new internet-based venture. Not much to tell at this stage but I have bought some domain names, sketched out some logos, straplines and content ideas, and have a clear idea of what I want to achieve. Now I’ve just got to knuckle down and make it happen.

At the same time I’m also speaking to “people” – they are suitably shady – with a view to turning something else I’ve been doing in a voluntary capacity into something more substantial. It’s all looking good and could be a really positive beginning, so right now I’m feeling scared, apprehensive, doubtful – but mostly excited, excited, excited!

I’d forgotten what it was like to do something for myself, all by myself, and I can’t wait to really get started. Financially, both of these ventures could flop – but I believe in both of them, so here goes!

My other half Richard is being his usual supportive self and is not remotely concerned that pursuing these ideas might mean I won’t be financially contributing to the household for a while, despite our tight budget. His first question to me is always: “Will it make you happy?” If I say yes, I think so, he will go out of his way to help me make it happen, whatever it is. If I waver before answering, he tends to suggest I think about it again. To Richard, life is pretty much black and white; it either makes you happy, or it doesn’t – and if it doesn’t, what are you doing it for?

We all have to endure some things that don’t fill us with joy, of course – much of life is mundane and routine after all – but his point is that if it isn’t taking you to a happier place, or doesn’t allow you time to enjoy the good things in your life, then you really are wasting your precious time. Management gurus refer to the “golf balls and sand in a jar” effect. For those of you who’ve never had to endure management bulls**t seminars, it goes like this: the golf balls are the good things in life that you love doing (spending time with your kids, playing football, going to the seaside, dancing to loud music, whatever…) and sand signifies the “rest” of life (household chores, being at work (unless this is one of your golf balls), washing the car, doing the shopping, etc). If you put the sand in first and try to squeeze the golf balls in on top, you won’t get many in the jar. The trick instead is to cram as many golf balls in as possible, and let the sand trickle in between. I’m sure you’ve got the message, but just in case: fit the necessary evils around the good times, not the other way round.

Thinking about Richard’s simple outlook on life takes me back to the first time we met. Rock House was the journalism training centre in the heart of leafy Wolverhampton where we were both trainee journalists, aged 21 and 22.

We were among 12 wannabes who had been selected from more than 1,000 applicants for a prestigious year-long internship, in the dimly distant days when the newspaper industry had money to burn. Our number included a lovely ex-Wolves footballer Robert (if he ever made a mistake his first news editor thought it hilarious to storm out of his office and issue him with a red card); a vegetarian who only ate Pot Noodles laced with vodka; a religious zealot; a mad teenager who threw tantrums; and two old people (they were over 30).

For that first social gathering, one of our number, Sarah, sat cross legged on a pub table, espousing the merits of Marxism and how she saw it as her job to spread equality through journalism. Richard, an ex public schoolboy who lived in a country house with a swimming pool, suggested all nations would actually be better off under dictatorships and that all girls should be sterilised at birth, with a reversal only if they passed a state parenting test. The battle lines were drawn. I then spent an uncomfortable few weeks trying to deny any interest in “the fascist”, as he was dubbed.

Two months later he threw a fancy dress party at the house in salubrious Richey Street in Wolverhampton that he shared with his best mate, also Richard. They lived in the coldest house I have ever had the misfortune to visit. On entry I was always handed a jumper and told the heating could not be switched on “because we are on a budget”. I think the house was kept cold deliberately to encourage women visitors to get into bed. Funnily enough there was always enough cash for beer.

Anyway, I turned up at the fancy dress party as a pirate, complete with false beard, eye patch and false leg. By this point, our relationship had defrosted – I quickly realised he was a lovable wind-up merchant rather than the awful Toryboy he liked to imposter.

At some point in the evening we ended up in the same room, slightly drunk, my beard by now askew, my eyepatch lost. Romantic as ever, Richard chatted me up by post-it note. I still have them. He even asked to kiss me by post-it. Then someone wee’d into a sinkful of washing up and Bugs Bunny had a fight with Cleopatra and the moment passed.

Somehow, that innocent moment led us to where we are now – 20 years together, married, two beautiful kids. He still makes me laugh every single day. And he still occasionally writes me a post-it note, just for old time’s sake.

And finally…

As usual, this blog has absolutely nothing to do with photography, even though it was originally set up to follow my attempts to become a better amateur snapper. As probably every photographer and camera club in Wyre Forest and beyond knows already, judging by yesterday’s turnout, a field of poppies has burst into life along the Bewdley bypass, just beyond the West Midlands Safari Park. When I turned up there last night it was peopled by lots of folk with very fancy cameras, long lenses and tripods. My little lenses seemed pretty paltry by comparison, and I was bereft of a tripod and a zoom lens, thanks to foolishly breaking the former and dropping the latter (breaking it also). But I had an hour to kill so did the best I could. Hope you like one or two of them. More on my flickr account if you’re interested.

And finally, finally…come on Ingerland! Roll on Sunday. England into the last eight of the World Cup? That will definitely be a golf ball moment.

Field of poppies, Bewdley, Worcestershire

Field of poppies, Bewdley, Worcestershire

Poppies in field, Bewdley, Worcestershire

Middle Age Reflections

Friends, it’s been a few weeks since I blogged. No excuses, just busy having a good time, gadding about in the Wyre Forest and beyond, and NOT WORKING! Instead I have been mostly at home, playing with children, browsing in shops, doing housework and gardening, reading, watching TV, listening to music, running, taking photos. It’s the life, for sure, but you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

So, I’ve been keeping myself busy cooking up a couple of possible money-spinning writing projects which might or might not amount to anything (I’ll let you know if anything comes to pass) and also checking out possible job opportunities as a fallback.

In the meantime, I don’t imagine you’ve been desperately awaiting the next instalment of my life story, but I’m in the mood for a chat – so here goes.

Earlier today, I looked in the mirror. Properly looked in the mirror. It was scary but I had no choice (I was getting my hair cut).

I was surprised to find I liked what I saw. I’ve never been particularly vain or troubled by how I look, aside from the occasional going-out whine that “I’ve got nothing to wear”, or when I try on clothes in a communal changing room.

As a perennial tubby (I’ve probably been a stone or more overweight for most of the past ten years) I’ve had my moments of self-hatred and crazy dieting, but I’m pretty happy in my own skin these days.

I’ve still got my own hair (dyed) and teeth (crowned); my eyesight is still 20:20; and I have “the hearing of an 18 year old” (Kidderminster audiologist, Jan 2010). I may be on the stout side, but I can give most skinny lasses a run for their money over 3 miles; I’ve got wrinkles, aches and pains in strange places, but have escaped so far the ravages of serious illness. All in all, it’s not a bad return for no effort whatsoever.

I have decided I should try a little bit harder though. This has been triggered by three recent events. The first was on Friday, when I went out for the evening with one of my best chums. She looked gorgeous in a stunning dress, with flawless hair and make-up; I, on the other hand, turned up in scruffy jeans, sandals and a top that’s seen better days, looking like a grubby impoverished student. The contrast between us did make me think I needed to up my game a bit.

This was enhanced further when I decided to apply for a job, which I’d found on an internet seach. Applications for the job – as a part-time teaching assistant at a village school – had to be in the next day. I duly printed off and filled in an application form and put it aside ready to deliver by hand. I then promptly forgot all about it and only remembered when I saw it on the mantelpiece the next day, an hour before the school was closing. With no time to change, I just brushed my hair, added a liberal spray of perfume and dabbed some lippy on before setting off. I was in gardening jeans and a slightly grubby t-shirt, with grass cuttings on my converse trainers. I pulled on a coat and scarf, despite the sweltering heat, to hide my clothes, and hoped I could just hand over the application and disappear. Inevitably, the head was in her office and invited me in for a quick tour, all the while scanning me up and down. I must have looked rubbish as well as very hot (but not in a good way). Not the first impression I was hoping to make. Ah well, I didn’t really want the job anyway…

Finally, I was helping my son fill in a school project about healthy eating – and I realised I hadn’t eaten my five a day for at least a week. It was more like two a day. For a non meat eater this is particularly pathetic.

So now I have a ticklist – more fruit and veg and water, dress smarter and do more girly maintenance things. Easy. There’s even an app for my iphone that can tell me what I need to do and when. How can I go wrong?

I’m even planning to increase my running (but more of this in a separate blog later this week).

So, now I’ve got the plan for an improved physical appearance plan in place, the rest (the psychological stuff) will be easy. Yeah. Right.

I naively thought that with age and motherhood came wisdom and supreme confidence. I used to look at my mum and think that I would one day be able to do what she did – juggling kids, work, home, parents, finances – seemingly with ease. I thought there would come a time when I’d have all the answers at my fingertips, that I’d worry about nothing, that childish woes would cease. How silly I was. Little did I know how much she struggled to keep it all together.

I was 40 just over two years ago. I feel SO much happier, more relaxed and content with my life today than when I hit that milestone. If I’m honest, the approaching anniversary sent me into freefall – I was a mess. I was working for myself as a freelance PR consultant, feeling completely out of my depth, and had a two year old and a seven year old to look after. Suddenly it all seemed too much. I was over-anxious, easily overwhelmed, introspective and frightened of my own shadow. Everything became a crisis, a source of potential panic. Thankfully, I had a lovely family to help me find myself again, and saw a very nice man who helped me make sense of what was going on in my head. I can look back on that time now as one of those clichéd “positive learning experiences”. It was shit at the time though.

If perchance you happen to be in a similar place – well, my heart goes out to you. All I can say is that it will pass, you will learn to smell the roses again. Everything passes, honestly – both the bad times and, annoyingly, the good.

I am off out tomorrow to help a friend celebrate her 40th. I think she’s dealing with it rather better than I was. She actually wants to celebrate it for a start – I just wanted to dig a hole and get in it!

So, here’s to those of us approaching or in their middle age. A funny place to be. All sagging skin, eye creams, medication, dental appointments, Saga insurance invitations and hair dye. But it’s also a blast, if you just let yourself savour every moment. The realisation that time is ticking on hopefully helps you act, not procrastinate. I’m learning not to give a damn what other people think, and just do what I want when I want.It’s very liberating.

As Motormouth Maybelle puts it so eloquently in Hairspray The Musical: “I know where I’m going – and I know where I’ve been.”

Or perhaps I should be quoting Kermit the Frog: “It’s not at the bottom, it’s not at the top, but this is the place where I always stop…”

In other news: I’ve been taking quite a lot of photos recently but only of the snapshot variety, capturing friends and family at play. These are some of my recent favourites, taken on a camping trip near Cardigan Bay at half-term. Sunny days, boozy nights, the company of dear friends – just great. Let the good times roll, I say – while I’ve still got my own teeth.