Archive for the ‘ advice ’ Category

Teenager alert! (and he’s only 10)

Things my 10 year old son claims he no longer likes that he used to:

*Night-time cuddles and stories – “yeah mum, like I want you in my face before I go to sleep – not.”

*Super Furry Animals, Radiohead, Wedding Present, Smiths, any of the many bands with guitars I indoctrinated him into liking as a child – “they’re, like, so old fashioned. Haven’t you even heard of Bruno Mars? Or Chase & Status? God, you’re so ancient.”

*One or two of his childhood friends – “mum, they’re so immature. And they don’t even know it.”

*His dad – “I sometimes think you just haven’t taken to me.”

*His brother – “Sometimes I wish you hadn’t been born, you’re THAT annoying.”

*Me – “Did they have exams when you were younger to get into university or were you just allowed in even if you weren’t clever, like you?”

*Having his picture taken – “If you take one more picture of me without asking my permission first I’m going to sue you.”

Things I love about my 10 year old:

*The way he insists on wearing aftershave (Lynx Africa)

*The amazing cuddles he gives me – they may be loads less frequent but when they come they are so worth it.

*The way he flicks his head to get his new fringe out of his eyes

*How he loves horror stories, even though they frighten him

*The brilliant way he amuses his brother with silly impressions and crazy voices to cheer him up if he’s sad or hurt.

*His lovely caring nature; he may try to act tough but he gives it away every time

He no longer allows me to take his photo, unless it is for a very special reason, like he’s engaged in an unusual activity like flying down a zipwire. Instead, to feed my desire to capture his lovely face as often as possible, I have to devise cunning and sly tricks.

Due to computer problems I can’t seem to upload an image to the blog today, but suffice to say they are of a “blurry/arty” nature – where he has moved suddenly on realising his picture is being taken. Several of them were taken inside the Pompidou Centre in Paris during a trip yesterday. We took part in an art project, called Inside Out. The artist, called JR, has set up a giant photobooth in the centre and each person enters the booth, sits still and an image is taken. During the process a bindi mark is placed on every person’s forehead. The resulting images are printed out onto giant sheets of paper – mine is nearly as big as me – which are ejected from a huge slot high up at the top of the giant photobooth, from where they flutter to the ground, to excited squeals from the people waiting below. It is great fun and you can see the results at http://www.insideoutproject.net/pompidou

Behind the fun lies the incredibly powerful idea that everyone is beautiful and unique. As someone who constantly struggles with self image, it was interesting to note my own reaction. While everyone else in my family ooed and aahed over their posters and laid them out on the floor to take in all their glory, I couldn’t wait to roll mine up and hide it away. Participants are urged to put their poster faces up in their own community – while I can think of a million places I’d want to display the giant faces of my sons and husband, I can’t imagine being comfortable placing my own giant face anywhere other than in the back garden. Funny how a bit of fun art can make you stop and think and analyse your own vision of yourself, isn’t it? I’ve certainly embraced one of the stated aims of the project – “to discover, reveal and share your untold story…”

You don’t have to visit France to join in – visit http://www.insideoutproject.net to find out how to submit your own portrait and receive a poster back in return.

Next to the giant photobooth were traditional, smaller versions, which produced 7x5inch prints. Felix had to kneel up to get to the right eye level for his pic – and while he was doing so I snapped a couple of candid pix. He will hate that I photographed him without him knowing it, so am I morally right to do so? It’s a tough one – I know I’d hate it.

As my son enters into the twilight world of teenage insecurity, I’m sure he, like me, doesn’t see and appreciate his own beauty, and that’s probably why he constantly asks me to erase the pictures I’ve taken of him. I won’t though – I want him to know that he is beautiful and amazing, if only he’d open his eyes to it. A lesson there for me too I think.

Facebook?

Facebook, oh Facebook – what for art thou Facebook? I’ve been on Facebook for three years now, lured in by my friend Elizabeth (who almost immediately stopped using it, the bugger) and then enticed to stay when a friend moved abroad for a while.

In that time it has been a source of comfort and despair, a portal into other people’s lives and a link to the past; a place to post my joys and (very occasionally) my miseries; somewhere to seek people out when bored, or drunk, or lonely. It’s been a short cut to friends and a way of discovering and establishing new connections.

When all’s said and done, I am definitely in credit to the bank of facebook – it has given me far more back than I have ever put in. I’ve connected with near neighbours and found an easy way to keep in touch with relatives near and far.

I enjoy the ‘live’ interactions – when you post something and get an instant riposte, and so begins a banter, with all its weird tangents and footnotes and crazed insights into the minds of people you thought you knew but who actually have hidden depths (they can recite a Shakespearean ode! they also like Throbbing Gristle! they too think the new Orla Keily wallpaper is to DIE for!)

I like viewing people’s pictures, particularly to have a nose around their homes and gardens; I enjoy being kept up to date on their biggest achievements, holidays, nights out, how well the kids are doing, and so on.

I mostly enjoy some of the excellent witticisms, which tend to come from other people’s threads rather than my own (thank you especially Mark Nelson & Sophie Everett, for being funny and entertaining and having friends on the same wavelength). Were I to abandon Facebook the single thing I would miss most would be Friday Night Build Up (you’ll all have to befriend Sophie to get in on the act).

At other times these are precisely the things that I hate about Facebook. A wise woman (well, Suzy Scavenger) once warned me that joining Facebook was akin to going to a school disco; if you were one of the popular kids, you’d probably love it, with your 6,000 friends and 50 apps and mad social life and dazzling existence. The rest of us would be stood around like wallflowers on the margins, feeling like failures for not being interesting or witty enough.

Facebook, you are truly no use in times of trouble. In my experience, the worst thing to do when you’re feeling life’s a bit crap right now is to log onto Facebook. You won’t feel better; any feelings of worthlessness will be further enhanced by seeing everyone else living it up on holiday, or announcing their recent promotion or lottery win, or telling you how marvellous their kids are (especially when your own has just told you you’re the worst mum EVER in the history of the universe.)

If you do decide to issue a cry for help and bare your soul about your miserable existence via a status update I’m not sure the existentialist musings of Dave, who you last saw on a bus in Redditch in 1987, will do the trick; nor does it help when Michelle, who you don’t like that much but felt you had to befriend when she sent her sixth request, tells you to keep smiling 🙂

So, my summary is this: Facebook is fab when you’re feeling fab; great too when you just want cheering up and happen across some witty friends online; but is shit if that’s how you’re feeling.

Of course, all this analysis hardly matters a jot. By the time my kids are old enough to have their own facebook accounts, in three and eight years time, it will be passe, history, yesterday’s news. After all, nothing ever lasts forever. (Remember Friends Reunited?)

It’s already been supplanted by Twitter, a medium I started to use a few months back for work purposes. (I even get measured on my twitter interactions, which is pretty galling.) However, I’m learning to love it – for a homeworker like me, Twitter is the equivalent of standing round the coffee machine exchanging a few words with workmates about the issues of the day. I’ve made loads of connections, helped by the fact that I have something people want (access to free editorial space for their company, idea, etc). I’m meeting up with three Twitter followers on Wednesday in fact. What I really like is that it’s in real time – people respond there and then, just like in conversation. For a home-aloner like me it’s a perfect place to enjoy a coffeebreak.

Well, not perfect exactly. That would be a coffee break with real friends. Nothing’s better than the real thing.

I’ve a feeling I’m going to regret this…

 

Much has been made of the heroism and courage of the Chilean miners, finally rescued after 69 days underground. We humans have a remarkable capacity to cope with horrific situations.

I’ve been wondering how I’d have coped, shut underground in the dark for days on end, not knowing if help would ever reach me. I think I would have died from sheer terror on day one. As for being in that tiny rescue tube for 20 minutes at the end– oh my! I’m not even sure I would have fitted without having my boobs squashed.

In reality, I think I would have somehow found the strength to manage and to make it through. What other choice is there?

I wrote the blog that follows here a couple of months ago, but have not had the courage to publish it. I feared you’d think less of me, think I was whiney, and egotistical, and rubbish, and weak. Probably because that’s what I thought of myself. Still do, sometimes.

Some of you may still judge me harshly once you’ve read this – but I know I am not alone. We women are liable to end up in some right states, particularly as middle age hormones kick in!

So be nice to us, you less needy females! And you boys, be understanding. Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, especially one this brilliant.

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The fear still comes occasionally. Mostly, though, it stays at bay. Mostly I realise how far I’ve come, and I can’t imagine ever being there again. Sometimes it pulls me up short and reminds me it is still there, lurking.

I thought I’d grown up pretty fearless. I was a bit of a daredevil, loved to try new things, was a tomboy, climbed trees, played footy, rode rollercoasters, raced round on my bike. My childhood was easy-going and trauma free.

But there must have been a scared part of me, for I also remember vividly lying in bed in the dead of night, waiting anxiously for my parents to return home from a night out dancing. I must have been about 10. They were late.

I watched the bedroom clock tick slowly round, each tick tock increasing my anxiety. Then somehow I knew. They weren’t going to make it home. Something unspoken but terrible had  befallen them. I quite literally cried myself to sleep that night, having already worked my way through the funeral and decided who I was going to live with.

Of course, they were there when I woke up. But my fertile imagination had made this scary scenario an absolute reality. I doubt I would have felt any worse if it had been real.

This capacity for terrifying myself with mere thinking came and went but stayed with me into adulthood. I think I had so little to be scared of in the real world that I would create terror all of my own.

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Two years ago, life was looking sweet. I was juggling being a mostly stay at home mum, with a two year old and a six year old; starting up my own small PR company; trying to create a perfect home and mould myself into a perfect housewife and mother – in other words, trying to have it all. I was struggling to do any of it particularly well, and felt disorganised, hassled and stressed.

One afternoon, while working at a hospital trust, I suddenly came over all queer. I felt suddenly breathless, and hot, and a bit dizzy. My skin was clammy, I felt sick and thought I might fall over. After a glass of water and a sit down, I decided I was coming down with some horrid bug and really should get home. I managed to get through a 10 minute presentation, before stumbling to my car.

The hour drive home was the worst car journey of my life. I twice pulled over on the hard shoulder to get myself together, and contemplated waiting there for the police. I was convinced I was about to collapse, have a stroke, or maybe a heart attack. My phone battery was dead, so I couldn’t reach my husband or anybody else. But even though I felt physically dreadful, I knew that what I was experiencing was psychological.

I somehow got home safely and ran into the house, letting out huge sobs of anguish as soon as I’d shut the door. The experience left me completely shell-shocked.

For the next three weeks I couldn’t work out if I was coming or going. All I could think about was what was going on in my head. I spent desperate hours analysing my every thought and was convinced I was having some sort of breakdown that would end with me being sectioned. I couldn’t make a simple decision without agonising over it, I was barely sleeping, and my weight plummeted – it was a pretty dreadful time. Coincidentally, it was around the time of my 40th birthday.

My GP suggested taking medication to calm my body down. I refused. Then I tried it. It was brill. Then I threw it away.

Anyway, thanks to having a very level-headed and supportive hubby, and a fantastic mum and dad, I made it through those horrid days, but I still bore the scars. Or should that be the scares?

I accepted I had been overdoing it.  I realised that all the demands I was making of myself (combined with going to bed late and eating badly) had created a classic recipe for disaster. Then, when my pre-menstrual hormones kicked in, it was like a bomb going off.

Anyway, soon I was definitely feeling better and began planning for a three week holiday in France in earnest.

The adult “coper” within me longed to get away somewhere calm and relaxing, but the so recently terror-stricken, frightened little girl part of me really just wanted to curl up in a ball at home.

The run-up to the holiday departure, in a borrowed campervan, was frenetic, so by the time we reached Portsmouth for our night sailing to St Malo in Brittany we were all exhausted.

As we boarded, a wave of terror suddenly washed over me. I had a horrible feeling that we were all making a terrible mistake, that we should not be on this boat, that we should just all get home as quickly as possible.

I tried desperately to quell the fear, to calm the rising terror, but the panic was filling up my mouth, my head, my entire body. Everything was telling me to make a run for it. I rationalised my fears – then very calmly announced to my hubby that I would just get off and get a train back home while they went on and had a lovely holiday.

Hubby said he thought this sounded like a good plan – while suggesting I look out of the window. We were already out of the port. There was no turning back.

It is hard to explain to someone who has never had a panic attack what it is like. You know that feeling you get when you’re anxious, nervous, filled with trepidation about doing something incredibly important, or about stepping into the unknown? Well, a panic attack seems to involve taking that feeling, ramping it up tenfold and taking away all the good, exciting bits, leaving you in a state of abject terror. Your body starts acting accordingly – heart racing, eyes dancing about wildly, tummy turning somersaults, head dizzy, mind throbbing with disparate thoughts.

Struggling to breathe, I let out a pathetic little noise. Like a deflating balloon. Like a whimpering, injured cat on a roadside.

I’ll skip the next few hours. Suffice to say I padded around the ship like a loon, smiling manically and exchanging small talk with fellow passengers, trying desperately to keep my brain occupied and keep the panic at bay, before finally succumbing to sleep.

The first night of the holiday was hell. Lying tense, wide awake, exhausted and terrified in a tent in the pitch black while your family snooze gently beside you, is not a place I’d like to return to. I eventually dropped off at about 4.30am.

Over the next couple of days I settled into the holiday and, as I chilled out, the sense of panic and impending doom receded. Incredibly, it turned into the best family vacation we have probably ever had.

Two years on I can look back to those horrible days and weeks and months with a wry smile. I definitely made things worse for myself. I refused to accept the help offered to me because I was determined I could beat this all by myself. Big mistake. It was my ego that had landed me in that mess, and my ego was keeping me there.

I eventually got “proper” help. A cognitive behaviour therapist man with lots of initials after his name helped me understand the nature of panic attacks, and hormonal imbalances, and chemical stuff, and taught me how to address and beat fear.

One of his early suggestions was that I stand at the edge of a cliff five nights on the trot for half an hour at a time to understand the nature of true fear (I’m scared of heights). The first night I did it I clung onto a tree root five feet from the edge and did not move, convinced I might accidentally throw myself off. By the fifth night I was sat, feet dangling over the edge, humming happily and peering over at a bird’s nest 100 ft below. I did it. I understood.

My GP helped in the only way she knew how, in the useless 10 minutes allocated to me – by suggesting medication, but also by helping me understand the impact of hormonal changes, particularly for us biddies approaching the menopause.

But mostly I got help from my amazing parents, who never failed to come running when I needed them, and from my gorgeous husband, who never made me feel like a nutcase.

It’s not been an easy road to travel, but I’m kind of glad I have been there. It’s made me a much more understanding person. I used to judge people instantly – now I wonder what is going on in their heads when they are a bit abrupt, or behave oddly.

I still have my shitty moments and days, and don’t kid myself that it will always be plain sailing – but I’m no longer afraid of fear itself.

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Until I started this blog it was completely against my character to share my vulnerabilities in quite such a frank and open way.

I would always try to put up a wall of coping, of doing great, of being somehow better than everyone else. I probably still do this sometimes. It saddens me now to think that when I was going through my worst moments, I did not feel inclined to confide properly in a single one of my friends. It also saddens me that none of them seemed to notice! I must have been a fine actress – dying on the inside, laughing on the outside.

Maybe I didn’t think anyone would understand. Maybe I thought nobody I could turn to would actually want or be able to help. I felt pretty pathetic and was ashamed at being unable to cope, when on the outside my life must have looked so easy.But I think having a period of “losing it” has made me determined to do my bit to break down some of the stigma surrounding mental health – and I honestly think the more people admit to having had their own share of troubles, the better for everyone.

I’ve found it incredible that whenever I do share my experiences with anyone the floodgates open – and pretty much everyone I’ve confided in has ended up discussing their own personal crisis, or told me about their own battles with anxiety or depression or some other mental manifestation. The ones who seem the happiest and most strong are usually the first to breathe a sigh of relief and let it all come tumbling out.

Here’s to honesty. And to friends. And to staying strong.

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT!

My little boy O, aged four, leaves nursery next week, ready to embark on his next great adventure. It will be the end of an era and the close of a chapter in both our lives. It will be emotional (for me, not him). There will definitely be tears.

Just over seven years ago now I moved into our current home in Kidderminster, a town with which I had no prior connection and no family or friends, with my then boyfriend R (now husband) and our first born, F, then aged 15 months. We moved in on December 23rd (madness, what were we thinking?). Our Christmas morning pictures reveal a bare living room, bar for a battered old sofa and a TV on a cardboard box (we hadn’t had much time for unpacking).

But there was a fire roaring in the grate, we had champagne to celebrate and we were smiling. We look very contented. I assume we were, though time has left this memory rather hazy. I’m guessing this was because we were on autopilot, shattered from packing, moving, unpacking and Christmas arrangements.

Directly opposite our house was a nursery – a lovely little kindergarten. It was perfect – a picture postcard nursery, with little swiss-style wooden beds, beautiful playrooms kitted out with wooden toys, mobiles, lanterns and gorgeous Scandinavian fabrics, with homecooked food made by a corden bleu cook – just the ticket for an aspiring yummy mummy.

Of course, I am not that shallow – these were lovely extras to the real reason for choosing the nursery, which was the warm, caring staff and freerange, un-school-like ethos, backed up by clear routines and discipline. Being a few yards away didn’t do any harm either. It meant when I first left F with them, aged two, I did not feel quite the same terrible wrench as many mothers and fathers endure, leaving their little ones miles away.

The nursery gave me the chance to get a little of my old life back. I spent two days a week working, mostly freelancing for a local newspaper and writing, before taking my first tentative steps into public relations, while little F learned about tadpoles and jolly phonics and taking turns, and made lovely little friends.

R and I always intended to have a second child, and possibly even a third, and once the rhythm of our lives settled into an easy pattern, we decided to give this baby lark a second go.
Things didn’t work out quite as we had planned.

In fact, after three years of trying, we had practically given up. One final heartfelt late night discussion later, and we decided we should count our blessings and be grateful for the miracle we had been given.

F might not get a brother or sister to play with – but we would fill him up with love and devote our time to making sure he had the best childhood ever. And we would learn to live with the disappointment of not bringing another super-child into the world. It was probably for the best.

Two months later I discovered I was pregnant with O. Well, you know what they say – sometimes the thing you wish the most for happens when you least expect it, or when you stop wishing for it quite so hard.

O has followed in his brother’s footsteps by attending the same nursery, making the transition from the Pumpkin House to Middle Room to Big Room, just as F did before him. He too has learned the delights of cooking hopple popple (bacon, potatoes, onions, leeks) gently over an open fire at Elfin Wood; of marvelling at the size of the squash grown at the nursery’s allotment; of naming the chickens and watching their chicks hatch in an incubator; of incurring the wrath of the owner’s mother, whose punishment is to get a naughty child to sit in the kitchen and help her cook.
He will also follow in his brother’s footsteps into the same primary school, and hopefully he will not be unduly weighed down by expectation (his brother is a bit of an academic genius and most teachers’ pet student).
In pretty much every other way they are different. One is studious, a great reader, a gentle soul, confident on the outside but a worrier on the inside (like his mum). The other is a crazy bundle of chaos, scarily creative, with mischief coursing through his veins (like his mum). I love them both equally, fervently and with all my heart and being.

My two little miracles.

So it’s goodbye to those pre-school years. Goodbye to toddler groups and baby music, to NCT and nappies, to buggies and sleepless nights (so many sleepless nights!), to lugging round a bag full of wipes and toys and crumbled up biscuits, to Poi on CBeebies, to snotty noses and half-drunk cups of tea, to crying in despair while a toddler tantrums, to crying with joy when they tell you they love you for the first time. Goodbye to the most fantastic, scary, emotional, exhilarating, mind-numbing, terrifying, exhausting, anxiety-inducing, ecstatic roller coaster adventure of my life – so far. Bring on the teen years – I think I may be ready for you if I can just have a few quiet years first.

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!

PHOTOSHOPPING THERAPY FOR DAFFODILS

Daffodils in the breeze at Dudmaston Hall

Daffodils at Dudmaston Hall, Easter 2010 - original, untouched version

As Mr Wordsworth sort of put it, there’s nothing that screams “Spring is Here” here in the UK than a host of golden daffodils.

There are literally thousands of images of daffodils littering the internet at the moment, from masterful macros of every conceivable part of the daff, to bright and beautiful landscapes showing fields of waving yellow heads swooping off into the distance.

So when visiting Dudmaston Hall on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border for an Easter Sunday egg trail I just had to get down close and personal with a small patch of daffs on the hill just below the main house, blowing gently in the breeze, begging to be photographed.

The results were, I thought, okay in their original state, as shown here. But I decided to have a go at processing it using Photoshop, the most popular of the many post-process software packages for photographers.

Now as my use of Photoshop is in its infancy I merely tweaked the contrast, brightness, hue and saturation levels up and down a bit on the original Raw image, and cropped most of the bottom off. The end result is here. I think it’s marginally better than the original.

Had I been more skilled on the old computer, I could have further upped the yellow of the daffodils, got rid of the woman in pink had I so wanted – maybe even increased the number of daffs through some careful layering. I could have improved the sky – it’s a bit dark on one side. I could have even removed the tree altogether so it was just an image of bright yellow on green on blue.

But that would hardly, in my opinion, have stayed true to the original image. If I wanted to invent scenes then I would be practising my painting skills instead.

This will probably come back to haunt me once I am Photoshopping like a pro, but I want my photos to be a record of the life lived by me and my loved ones and of the places I visit, not a falsified version.

“Life isn’t all ha, ha, ha!” a friend’s mum once said, when my pal was complaining about the effort involved in sorting out some domestic task or other. Well, she’s right – and in the same way I want my photos to reflect, as closely as possible, the reality I viewed through the lens of my camera, for good and for bad.

That isn’t to say it’s not fun to create pictures as “art” once in a while. I also have no problem with people layering, enhancing and fiddling with the levels to their heart’s content, as long as they are honest about what they have done.

I went along to a local camera club one night for a competition night and was amazed at the quality on show. I got chatting to the gent who had produced a wonderful picture of the inside of a cathedral. He explained how he had used a long exposure and a small aperture to capture the detail in the ornate woodwork, and how he had carefully timed his shot to maximise the light coming in from the setting sun. I was keen to soak up as much information as possible, with a view to replicating his efforts myself.

I then asked if he had enhanced it much after taking the photo – and he revealed he had spent nearly two hours on this one image to get it “just right”. He had removed a fire extinguisher which had been on the wall, had layered out some shadows on the right hand side, had boosted the brightness here and reduced the contrast there. He had boosted the light from candles at the top of the picture. The result was lovely, and I’ve no doubt an improvement on the original – but is it still a photo or a piece of artwork? Does it matter?

Perhaps I’m just cross. When I adopted photography – or was it the other way round? – some months ago, I hadn’t realised how expensive it was going to be, what with lenses, tripod and a load of other paraphernalia that I don’t yet know I need. But I had also not appreciated how much time was going to be spent sat indoors on the computer, and it is slowly beginning to dawn on me what I have let myself in for.

I’ve been told about a professional photographer in Kidderminster who regularly exhibits his “as taken” shots, completely free of any post processing. They are downloaded and printed off with no additional processing. He instead spends a lot of time framing his shots just-so and ensuring the lighting and exposure are spot on to start with, instead of turning to Photoshop or its equivalents to sort out any anomalies when he gets home.

Whether I follow in his footsteps or go for the more travelled Photoshopping route, I am well and truly hooked on this photography lark. I can’t stop taking photos and feel bereft if I happen across a lovely scene and realise my camera is not by my side.

We are due to go on holiday shortly to the north Devon coast. Normally I would be happily researching places to visit for family entertainments, and checking out the best eateries and pubs . Instead I’m looking up photos on Flickr of the area we are visiting so I can head off to do my own take on an oft-photographed scene. I look forward to sharing the results – Photoshopped or not.

First attempt at Night Photography

bewdley-underarches, originally uploaded by Jane2020.

I’ve always been a bit of a night owl. I tend to hit the wall, energy-wise, at around 3pm most days, when I could happily crawl into bed for an hour or two, if only work and children would allow me such a wonderful luxury.
But with or without my “old lady’s nap” I come scarily alive come nightfall. I am literally wackaday wideawake, and often just as irritating as Timmy Mallett, particularly when everyone around me is winding down.
In the good old days BK (before kids) this second wind resulted in lots of late night drinking and musing on the state of the nation and how to dispose of Thatcher Thatcher Milk Snatcher, while listening to Patti Smith, Kevin Coyne, The Wedding Present, The Smiths and Otis. Nowadays, I tend to use this time to catch up on the ironing.
But last Thursday I joined some new chums on my Recreational Photography course on a night visit to Bewdley, a beautiful little town on the River Severn, just three miles away from my hometown of Kidderminster.
After some false starts, I discovered how wonderfully illuminating photos taken at night can be.
While I find my daytime photos tend to strike a discordant note when compared to my memories of the moment – the skies are never quite blue enough, the detail not deep enough – I discovered that night photography reveals hidden depths, hidden details and hidden secrets that I hadn’t noticed at the time.
This picture was one of my last of the night. I had sneaked away from the rest of the group on the riverbank opposite Southside, a beautiful row of townhouses skirting the water’s edge. On my travels I discovered a steep set of uneven steps leading right into the brown, mysterious water. Perched on my bottom on the penultimate step, I took this image. My tripod was lopsided and I hadn’t been able to get my remote to work so had to press the button to take this picture, so I know it could be sharper. At the time the reflection of the bridge was somewhat muted and barely noticeable, yet when I got home it came magically alive. I plan to pop back one night to try again.
I have been musing on my photography adventures so far with some disappointment. I don’t feel that I have progressed sufficiently. But then I remember that I have spent very little time actively seeking out photographic opportunities. Until starting this short college course, I had only once gone out purely to take photos – the rest of my pix have come about during day trips or family holidays. So I have now resolved to spend at least an evening or morning a week taking photos – and this blog is a good way for me to keep my promise to myself. It will be interesting to see how long I last. I tend to be a bit flaky when it comes to sticking at things…