Going down?

As a rule, I uphold a strong family history of coping. We are copers, the women with which I share DNA. My grandmother, my mother, my sister and I were all born with a prominent ‘shut up and put up’ gene, that marches us like a fearsome Sergeant Major through sticky patches, bumps in the road and dirty great anvils falling out of the sky.

Footballer Cristiano Ronaldo crying

Dry your eyes mate

We might have a little cry now and then, usually to each other, but there’s an unspoken acknowledgement that you don’t whine on past your allotted grizzling time; you dry your eyes, count your blessings and get the hell on with it.

To an extent, I’m fairly intolerant of other people’s woes as a result. Unlike my mum and sister, who both work in caring professions and have buckets of goodwill, I have a hard time listening to people moan about everything from a bit of drizzle to rising fuel prices. Self-pity makes me clench my toes inside my socks and struggle to plaster on my poker face to mask the hard-hearted monster that lies beneath this seemingly kind exterior.

I ought to caveat this confession before someone takes an ice-pick to the frozen organ inside my chest. If there’s really something utterly deserving of sympathy going on in your life, I’ll be the first person to suss what’s happening and try to help. That’s when it’s good to be a coper. I have friends who’s lives would challenge the most pragmatic manager. You guys can berate the balls off of life – I’ll supply the tequila.

I find that online friendships suffer more from my inability to make consolatory clucking noises. Maybe it’s that level of abstraction we have from one another inside virtual communities, whether through Facebook, Twitter or Youtube, that has me speaking my mind a little too often to those who can’t seem to stem the tide of self-pity that pours through their everyday lives. Missed the postman this morning? WOE. Rained during the school run? DOOM. No caramel in one of your Twix sticks? CALL CONFECTIONERY ADDICTS ANONYMOUS.

These are often the very same crowd of grumblers who shuffle around muttering derisory barbs about people who are actually doing something about all the shitness in a country getting shittier by the minute. Look through the timelines of your friends who ridicule student protesters or occupying demonstrators. I guarantee they’re the same ones who think life is out to trip them up because the washing machine packed up last night or Tesco had the gall to run out of Jammie Dodgers this morning.

There’s a difference between having the odd down day and going through the years with a permanent rain cloud over your head. We’re all entitled to a glum spell, when the thought of getting out of bed and putting coffee on feels like one demand too far from a bitter and twisted universe. There’s also a clear line marking clinical depression from the sorry-for-myself brigade. The former is an illness and like any other usually requires medicine and trained professionals to get it under control. In my opinion, the latter would be best served with an unexpected wedgie and a short, sharp forehead spamming.

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Health, wealth and happiness

Cartoon graphic of maid with dusterNever been big on New Year’s resolutions, they’re fleeting in nature, over-enthusiastic and usually doomed to failure. But 2011 got me a little shook up to be honest so this year it’s time to get my house in order. It’s going to take more than the superficial waving of a duster and a quick vacuum round the edges too.

Health

The last day of the year often judgementally watches me inhaling the final Ferrero Rochers and making vague promises to myself that a detox is on the cards as from TOMORROW. Nothing but steamed broccoli and tofu for me while I whip these soggy thighs into shape. By 2nd January it has usually come to my attention that there’s still a tube of Pringles in the Christmas Cupboard and the Baileys isn’t quite finished, and well, it’d be WASTEFUL to just let it all go off, right? My ethics are more important to me than my waistline SURELY?

So I promise myself this: No more diet disasters. I’m going to start on a long-term plan to improve my health without wrecking my social life (this all sounds very sensible and must mean I am officially a grown-up. Which only took 35 years, so kudos to ME).

Instead, I’m going to learn to look after my liver and lungs. The Bearded Curmudgeon had a bit of a health scare at the end of last year that had me panicking, pouring bottles of wine down the sink and buying life insurance. Tests ruled out our worst fears, although we’re still waiting to find out exactly what jiggery pokery is going on with his innards.

It did force to me assess the way we live more critically and come to the conclusion that if either of us did get properly poorly sick, quite frankly it’d be our own stupid faults. Moo doesn’t deserve to spend her teenage years changing our colostomy bags and hooking up our oxygen tanks as we cough and splutter into middle age.

This kick up the jacksy has resulted in some good changes. We’ve both quit smoking. While I’m a bit of a social smoker (maybe one in the evening, unless it’s raining, but mostly when I’m out drinking), the Bearded Curmudgeon had a nasty habit. I’m pleased to report that as of tomorrow, we’ve both ditched the cancer sticks for a whole week with only one major nicotine-deprived argument in the process.

I’ve also resolved to go dry for three days a week minimum, all year. That’s right, not even a small sherry for medicinal purposes will touch these lips on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Not even if Moo takes it upon herself to spend 24 hours yelling in my face and lobbing food at the walls like an olympian shot put hopeful. So far, so good.

Wealth

For the past umm, four years, I have been the self-employed director of a small but well-regarded user experience agency. I love it. I love my work and I love being able to arrange my hours to fit in good quality time with Moo, but it’s been a tough ride. We battled through a ‘credit crunch’ that quickly slid into a recession. I kept going through pregnancy and a new baby, then moved to an island where I had to fight with ferry companies to get me to meetings on time (which they rarely did). Due to financial naivety more than anything, my business partner and I have ended up working miles away from each other, with an office that is rarely ever occupied. I feel isolated and lonely. I spend a good 25% of my time persuading people to pay us.

So I’ve made a decision to return to the world of regular wage checks, rounds of tea-making and office politics. I’m going to go back to working for the man. This will be challenging in many ways. The daily grind of commuting, earlier start times for the Moo and I, longer hours at nursery, but I know that I need to share my working days again and focus on the job, rather than the administration.

I may have to take a bit of a pay dip in the long term but the regularity of my income should compensate for this and help to ensure that I stick to my next resolution: to get financially organised once and for all.

I promise myself that this year I will pay off my personal debt, start a pension, and begin saving the deposit required for us to move house in the next couple of years. I’m assuming equity in our current pad won’t magically reappear. Bloody bankers.

Happiness

My work does afford me some creativity. I get to take a wider view and put myself in other people’s shoes in order to make recommendations for businesses to move their products forward. This often involves an element of design and it’s enough to scratch the creative itch that settled into my bones as a teenager and has laid there ever since.

A quick scratch is never enough to truly satisfy you though is it? Innuendo aside, I still find myself playing the “I wish” game too frequently. I wish I had more time to bake, I wish I could learn to sew, I wish I had the guts and determination to write like I’d love to.

This Christmas the Bearded Curmudgeon reminded me why I heart him for more than his great big grizzly bear cuddles and amazing capacity to store food in his facial hair for emergency situations. He literally bought me everything I need to do all the things I constantly claim to covet, including an evening course at a local college for support in writing a first novel. Seriously, how cool is that? Almost compensates for how hilarious he finds his own flatulence.

So my final promise to myself is to stop talking about and start doing all the things I’ll regret never giving a go. I think it’s probably the most important one of all.

Wish me luck 🙂

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And then Moo Grew

In 12 short days, my baby turns two. I’ve decided this will be the point that I stop referring to her as the ‘baby’ and progress to the ‘toddler’. Truth be told she’s been there for a while, it’s just me who’s having difficulty catching up.

As she zooms through one milestone after another, riding roughshod over my feeble attempts to pretend she still needs me to help her climb the steps on the slide, brush her teeth or blow on her hot spaghetti, I swallow down big, brave gulps of pride tinged with sadness. Because she’s leaving me behind already, fearlessly launching herself into independence with not a backwards glance at her poor, abandoned mummy, sat on the sidelines sobbing over baby photos that feel like they were taken only yesterday.

I’m not really sad of course (*sob*). There are so many ‘firsts’ still ahead of us that those passed are just a taste of what’s to come. And she’s brilliant, my Moo. Slightly bonkers, terrifyingly impatient, prone to uncontrollable giggles and so utterly determined. My reluctance to let the baby phase go is balanced perfectly with the anticipation of what will happen next.

But before I kiss the baby days goodbye and brace myself for the terrible twos, let me share the baby’s firsts-so-far with you, just one last time.

First clapping: Look what I can do daddy!

First steps: Oh go on then, I’ll let go

First word: This, people, is a BOOK

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Stop the clock

We get up in the morning, Maddy and I, and look at each other with the knowledge that the day’s countdown clock is already ticking.

Dad throwing daughter in the air

Time well spent

A quick kiss and a cuddle and we’re brushing teeth, getting dressed and packing bags, before darting out of the door, toast clamped between teeth. On the short drive to nursery I snarl at the traffic, angry because it’s eating up my valuable time, time that could be spent on the phone, emailing, in meetings, figuring out finances. Too much to do for dawdling today, any and every day.

I run into nursery and stop for the first time that morning, to watch Maddy beam at the staff and immediately engage them in a fascinating activity, like naming all the characters on her wellies or waiting by the window for the wind to move the trees and shrieking with delight every time it happens. That’s where my time went, they have it. I want it back.

Must be at my desk by 9am though, got to go. Clients don’t like it if you spend 20 minutes playing with your little girl in the morning so that she knows you’re more than the person who tiredly argues with her to finish her spaghetti in the evening, and yells at her to come in from inspecting snails in the garden.

Work all day, rest up by talking for a few minutes on Twitter. Need to fit in more than a day’s worth of effort today because I’ve got to compensate for taking time off tomorrow afternoon, when nursery is closing early. Will probably need to work this evening too. That’ll mean getting Maddy to bed on time, no spare seconds for reading more than one story book tonight. Can’t wait for the weekend, when we’ll rush around madly trying to visit neglected friends, fix the broken bannister, finally take the old fridge to the tip.

I wish I could stop. Jump off the carousal and watch it turn without me. Would it matter if I didn’t fit everything in? Would any of us be less happy, less fulfilled? I’ve a sneaking suspicion that I, at least, would be changed for the better. Able to take breaths that don’t bump up against the knots in my chest and throat on the way down to my lungs.

I wish for just a little more time: a little more of my daughter’s time before it’s not mine to take any more. A little more of the Bearded Curmudgeon’s time, to remember how enveloping and wonderful it is to be the centre of his world occasionally. And a little more of my own time, to find a natural rhythm to my life, not enforced by irrational demands of little consequence.

I also wish for calorie-free chocolate, but not even I could eek out an entire blog post on that.

This post was written for Josie’s Writing Workshop. This week’s prompt was: I wish.

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Left alone, contented

At the realistic and sober age of 13 I looked forward to my fabulous future with barely-contained excitement and tummy-churning anticipation.

Detailed plans of becoming a fearless female war correspondent were brewing in my already mighty imagination. Kate Adie would quake in her desert boots when she saw me coming, capturing candid interviews with the terrified victims of militia posses, and emerging from spectacular bomb blasts brushing the dust from my faithful flak jacket.

Somehow, although the details of this part were always a bit hazy, I’d also make a mint doing it. Perhaps I’d pen a best-selling novel based on my early career, which would be eagerly snapped up by Hollywood film producers, spawning one iconic blockbuster after another.

By a weary and cynical 21 years, I regarded multi-millionairedom as a filthy fantasy for the deluded masses hypnotised by the unattainable allure of capitalist achievement (I like to think of this period as the Prententious Era). My work would shun glamour, fame and fortune in favour of cutting exposes, where I’d weed out self-serving politicians and corrupt councillors.

Blinking in the blinding morning-after sunlight of graduation a year later, my 22 year-old self reluctantly agreed with my mother and landlord that it was time to start earning a living. And so began my life of proper jobs.

I didn’t stop imagining and reaching for the next big thing though. Around every corner danced an infuriating devil sporting a jaunty cap and whispering intriguing words like “opportunity” and “possibility” before scuttling back into the shadows, scared into silence by the postman’s heavy knock and daily downpour of financial demands.

On my life goes. Doing well, but not quite well enough. In the main full of love, laughter and a few decent spins of the wheel of fortune, but maybe not quite as exciting as it could be. That dancing devil, squished and squashed but revealing himself just enough to provide an uncomfortable poke in the ribs every so often. Intimating that I’d taken a route ever so slightly off-course, opened the door right next to the one that would have revealed life’s big jackpot.

So used to his presence had I become that I failed to recognise the devil’s absence. Oblivious to the contented silence his whispered words had left behind, I hung onto the self-doubt they had nurtured in me through the years of important friendships, family celebrations and business successes.

Now, with a muted gasp of awareness, I am suddenly aware that he has left me alone, contented and surrounded by a wonderful life, wanting no more.

The bearded curmudgeon and I are celebrating with a trip down the aisle next year, for which a brimming bowl of courage will be required. But that’s a whole other Writing Workshop.

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Appley onion and potato soup

This is my toddler’s favourite soup.Drawing of a bowl of soup

Hearty, sweet and packed full of your five-a-days, it’s worth making up a big pot and freezing for later. I managed to make this using only locally sourced ingredients too (discounting the Knorr stock cube).

If you’re serving to adults only, chuck in 150ml of good cider when you add the potatoes, and swap the cheddar for a stronger cheese, such as gruyère.

Ingredients:

  • 3 medium potatoes, diced
  • 2 green eating apples, peeled, cored and sliced
  • 2 leeks, chopped
  • 1kg onions, sliced
  • 2 or 3 bay leaves
  • 1 litre vegetable stock
  • 100g butter
  • Salt and pepper to season
  • 200g cheddar, grated

Quarter the butter and melt the chunks over the hob in a large pot until foaming. Tip: Choose a heavy based casserole pot, the bigger the better.

Fry the onions for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly to prevent them sticking or browning. Add the apples and leeks and continue frying for about 10 minutes until the onions are soft and see-through.

Meanwhile make up the hot vegetable stock. Add to the veg pot with the potatoes and boil for a few minutes to reduce the liquid.

Pop the bay leaves into the pot and season well with salt and pepper. Put a lid on the pan, reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove the bay leaves. Blend half the mixture until completely smooth (either using a blender or a hand blender in a bowl). Add the blended mixture back to the pot and mix well.

Spoon the soup into bowls or cool and freeze.

If eating now, top with the grated cheese and serve with crusty bread.

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Who are you to judge?

Woman's hands covering her breasts

They're your boobs, do what you want with them

Twitter went into revolted, disgusted, opinionated overdrive last night during the BBC Three programme “Is breast best?”.

This morning I watched the programme during breakfast, against my better judgement and risking the stability of my blood pressure, to try and understand the furore. Were there new, original thoughts on the subject? Perhaps children were seen to be mistreated or neglected in some way?

Well no, of course not. It was the same old sensationalist rubbish, this time churned out to inflict fear and horror on a younger, more impressionable audience. An opportunity to yet again attack the choices of mothers in the UK, for no other reason than it provides perfect fodder for the self-appointed parenting police out there, officiously patrolling the popular media.

I don’t have a strong opinion on breastfeeding. Mostly because I can’t possibly understand the individual decisions each mother makes and how she arrives at them. That prime time TV space is regularly given over to judging modern mothers angers my Feminazi underbelly though.

Why do we, as mainstream audiences, feel the need (and assume the right) to judge the choices parents, particularly mothers, make? Any decision in life is made in context of your situation, environment, personality, upbringing and a hundred other factors. Why do parenting choices fall outside this circle of understanding?

I’m not going to start justifying my decision to breastfeed for only a short time (6 weeks). Why should I? Do I ask you to justify the choices you make in life that affect other people? Maybe I should demand evidence of how you spend your money; hound and harass you if you purchase anything other than fairtrade products; insist you ride a bike instead of driving a car because of the environmental benefits?  No, of course I shouldn’t. I’m not that rude (unless you started it, then know up-front that I’ll dish out much better than I get).

Never mind that only 16% of working women are provided with the facility to express at work – just one of the myriad other factors perhaps? Cherry Healy called people like me who return to work while their babies are newborns “workaholic career women” by the way. Right. Just a thought, but maybe it’s that very attitude that corners women into choices that they might not be entirely comfortable with.

It neither starts nor stops with the eternal breastfeeding debate either.

Are you giving your toddler cows milk rather than a super-dooper, iron-enriched, muscle-pumping, brain-engorging milk substitute drink?

Bad parent! Are you trying to make your child anaemic?

Have you followed government advice and slip, slap, slopped sun protection lotion head-to-toe over your little one during the recent warm weather?

Bad parent! You may as well start saving now for the leg braces your child will have to hobble around wearing once the rickets take hold.

The truth is that the vast majority of parents are doing exactly the same as the rest of the world. Taking one step at a time, doing the best thing they know how at any given time. We can’t always know all the information when we make our decisions, we can only try to make the right choices based on what we know now, in this moment. My choices are personal, they’re based on details only my family and I understand and I really don’t want or need to know everyone else’s opinion about them.

As I told a fellow mum and Tweeter today, I became really good at telling people to bugger off when my baby was about three months old and an older man in a coffee shop chastised me for sipping a hot drink while she slept soundly in her pram next to me. If I’m honest, I didn’t say ‘bugger’ either.

My friend had the defining last word on the subject though: “People should just mind their own business”.

Hear hear.

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