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I don’t get spas. The culture of enforced relaxing is something I’ve never quite understood, especially because none of the things one does at a spa seems in any way relaxing. Do you actually know anyone who has been to a spa? Have you been to one?

It’s a very alien concept to me, my aversion to which probably stems from the terror of the unknown – I’ve never been to a spa, and I plan to keep that track record. Besides, I don’t think they’d let me in – spas seem to be a place that welcome extrovert types. Types that actively enjoy being naked around each other. The thing is, some of these people are my friends.
Consequently a spa trip has threatened to materialise on three occasions now. Two birthdays and a hen do. I’ve just got to pray no more of them want to get married before my excuses wear too thin. I can’t afford it. I’m busy – all month. You can’t get public transport there. And, of late, I HATE SPAS!! Of course, the response is always the same – total bemusement.

“What – you don’t like relaxing?!” and the inevitable,

“How do you know if you don’t like spas if you’ve never been to one?”
A valid point. Obviously, there are some things you don’t need to have experienced to know you won’t like them – electric shocks, for example. Being lashed with a rope, clearly not enjoyable. But my poor friends don’t realise they are in fact pressing for me to endure my own form of social torture.

dosney plain croppedI can understand how massages are a good thing. Well, as long as you don’t mind being touched by a stranger. Or being greased like a goose. And thinking of hot ovens, what’s with saunas? Being unpleasantly hot and naked in semi-public? It’s clear how such things appealed to the Egyptians with their general love of oils and balms, and I can forgive pleasure-seeking Romans because, you know, where better to be debauched than in a big orgiastic pool? But for the likes of you and I…eurgh God, it makes me cringe just thinking about it. What if I bumped into the neighbours?

We can learn many useful lessons from history, lessons which could save us a great deal of time and expense. The Romans ruined baths, played with them too hard. Then the Italians made them fashionable again in typical swagger, ensuring they were an experience unaffordable to anyone but the posho’s. While the rest of Europe was living it up, knocking back wine with their thermal water and no doubt singing and stuff, stuffy Brits stuck to strictly medicinal baths, frowning on indulgence of any kind.

And this leads to my bone of contention with the spa. Being laid back and laid bare are two very un-British things. As a result we’ve taken the spa concept and ruined it (but in the opposite direction to the Romans…) We pour Health & Safety all over it. We make it slightly awkward. And we make it really quite expensive. Which leaves us and our spas at a sanitised mid-point which is neither opulent nor all that medicinal. An economic indulgence rather than a true physical one.

Our island seems to have been invaded by these spa hotels, offering semi-indulgence at an either astronomical cost or as a bargain-basement-group-voucher – ensuring that your experience descends into a bit of a hustle to get the next cheques-on-legs through the door. Where’s the relaxation in that?

I wouldn’t mind if the hen parties that flock to these places actually got up to any Romanesque debauchery, but maybe that comes at an added extra top-up price. In my head – and please, feel free to put me straight, actual spa-goers – what you actually get is a brisk rub from a surly masseuse, one glass of fizz in the hot tub, an awkward gossip in the sauna and, more comfortably, a pedicure. Followed by a Michael Buble tribute act in the bar.

Why not just go and have a massage in town after work? Listen to Buble on the drive home? Look, I know I’m missing the point of it all. But when I describe what is relaxing and indulgent for me, perhaps you’ll see why.
Gemma’s Dream Spa Weekend:

Don’t leave the house

Eat cheese. All day. Fully clothed

Have more than one glass of fizz, and have it on the sofa – not in the bath. And don’t bother with the strawberries

Enjoy the healing powers of herbs. In my gin.

Don’t talk to anyone. Watch film/s in silence.
Absolutely zero interaction with a Michael Buble impersonator.
And aaaahhh. I am relaxed.

We edit ourselves as we go about life, don’t we? Not in the wholly condemnable Photoshop way employed by magazines etc, but we do present ourselves differently depending on the situation. Sometimes we choose to. Other times, we have to.

Now with this in mind, I am about to tiptoe into semi-dangerous territory as I essentially attempt to dole out advice on what people – well, women – should and should not wear. To work. Yes, I am mad.

We (most of us) do, of course, have the right to dress in whatever bloody way we like. Feminism is about the right to choose, after all. But for God’s sake ladies – pull it together when you are at work.

Just as we can’t be as gobby as we perhaps are in our personal lives, we can’t really be as loud with the clothes we wear in the workplace also. There is a time and a place, as they say. Being greeted by a crop top and leather leggings makes me uncomfortable at, say, the doctor’s surgery reception. Everywhere else – fine.

I am aware I am coming across as a ragingly conservative anti-feminist, but hear me out. Like it or not, you cannot get away from the fact that how you dress does project an image, a message to others. And at work, the only thing you want to show off is your professionalism.

I feel (relatively) passionate about this subject. On my commute to work I see a lot of other people on their way to work. A lot of young women. And there are times when when I involuntarily tut out loud as I watch one of them topple into an office in Spice Girls-eqsue trainer wedges. Cringe as a I catch a glimpse of the pants of another under a too-short skirt. Too much denim. Sports wear (literally, like they are going to the gym). A lot of skimpy, downright uncomfortable looking outfits that just seem plain incongruous with the workplace.

Maybe I’ve just been brainwashed by decades of fashion magazines – you know what I mean, those hilarious work wear sections that I’m sure most of us just flick through, yawning. Forever  dispensing the same advice, the same rules. It’s all pencils, body-con, shirts, cardigans – basically stuff that makes you look like a sensible grown up in the day, but will let it’s hair down with you as you ‘transition’ into a raucous evening. Stuff that says you’re ‘serious’, ‘strong’ but still ‘feminine’. The language is silly but it does ring true. This style of dressing gives us the flexibility, that armour we need.

And far as I’m concerned, flashing the flesh hasn’t really got much to do with empowerment, other than that you have freely chosen to flash it. But, more importantly, what you have almost certainly chosen is to mark your card as someone who can mis-read a situation.

Look, I’m not deranged – I can see how in some workplaces a relaxed dress code, a controversial one even, is accepted. Welcomed, even. Hairdressers spring to mind (the kind where people have beards and piercings, tattoos a-plenty… not Nicky Clarke). Bars, too. Trendy shops. Some PR companies maybe? I don’t know.

But take my place of work, for example – a creative small business founded by an artist who went around for three years in her twenties wearing the same boiler suit everyday. So you can imagine the atmosphere is a little loose – we can pretty much wear whatever we like. However, we are also a training provider, working with vulnerable school children. So, whilst we are not exactly your typical school, we do have a duty to be good role models for the kids. We also have a responsible image to project to our partners in the schools. Plus, there are times we have to look even more grown up for the local authority.

We are also, coincidentally, an all-female team. Each one of us has to re-edit ourselves a bit, depending on who we’ve got coming in – we constantly have to meet other people’s expectations. And, as a tiny company competing with the ‘big boys’, we have to push even harder to be taken seriously. How we dress plays a part in this. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is. It’s obviously especially true for women, but men do have the same standards and expectations to meet also – a man coming into a meeting in a vest and shorts wouldn’t be tolerated in most workplaces.

It would be nice to think we could all just go about life true to our own code, the whole time. But this is not a reality for anyone (well, maybe Kate Moss). Perhaps this is a good thing, anyhow – I imagine we would turn out to be a pretty selfish race if we all did exactly what we wanted to, all of the time.

This mini-rant is brought on by something that happened this week, at work. One of our female students came in wearing a sheer lace corset dress and stiletto heels.

Now, we have a policy where our students are treated as fellow staff members. They are ambassadors for the company. Plus, this girl is just 14 years old. It was genuinely frightening that she had thought it was acceptable to come in dressed in the way she was – that she even owns such clothes. After a frank talking-to about self-worth and choice (my boss actually likened the get-up to that of a prostitute’s…not the most pc of strategies but I could see where she was coming from…) we had to send her home.

It can be difficult enough being taken seriously at work as it is. At the end of the day, inappropriate clothes make you look out of place. Not in a ‘I’m asserting my individuality’ way. But in an ‘I’ve judged it wrong’ way. And this does nothing for selling your skills.

I feel quite uncomfortable writing this post. I know it will rankle people. I would probably find myself a little rankled if I wasn’t the writer. But I do maintain that you can stay true to yourself as you present different versions of this self to the world. It’s not about conforming, or changing yourself. It’s about making considered decisions.

I genuinely hope that, sooner rather than later, we get to the point where men and women are finally considered as equal in the workplace, and in society in general. In such a society I imagine men will be able to choose to come into work in a skirt and feel no shame or recrimination. Women could choose to come in wearing an embellished bin liner.

But I still wouldn’t get my hair cut there.

A lot has been said on this subject but I’m afraid I am going to have to insist on adding my voice to the noise.

Commuting – I do it. I love it. Ok – sometimes I hate it…

I recently read an article in The Observer that struck a chord with me. Although this article was very London centric (as things often are) and therefore not exactly rooted in the reality of everyone’s lives, it was also interestingly controversial in that it promoted commuting by public transport as a good thing. An unusual standpoint considering, aside from in environmental journalism, this is probably the first real vindication of public transport use I have come across – in the media or from actual people.

Apparently, some new research (yawn) by The University of East Anglia has found that public transport commuters are happier than those who drive to work. Out of the 18,000 passengers surveyed it was found that, even when other factors that may affect wellbeing were taken out of the equation, commuters who travelled to work on public transport scored lower on feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness and sleeplessness.

Now, I don’t need research to tell me how beneficial my 90 minutes-a-day of public transport is for me – I’ve been reaping the benefits for nearly ten years, travelling cross county from Birmingham to Warwickshire via both bus and train (lucky me).

I hope my status as a seasoned public transport commuter gives my opinions some kind of weight, because I am now going to rather grandly claim that commuting makes me a better citizen. Hear me out – I’ve got a list for you:

1. The thing about public transport is that it’s all very, well, public. You’re thrust right into the path of your fellow planet-sharers in a way that you just wouldn’t be in the rest of your life, other than perhaps, say, the supermarket or, if you work with members of the public (brave), at work. So –  getting the bus actually keeps you in touch with reality. Ok yes, sometimes that reality is hearing the ins and outs of someone’s argument with their ex-girlfriend, or having a small child throw up on your shoe. But, you know, if we aren’t forced to interact with society at it’s fullest how can we be fully rounded people? I’d argue I get more of a community (ugh, I hate myself for writing that word, I apologise) from the people I see everyday on the bus and train than I do from my actual neighbours. I don’t necessarily like them, but that’s not the point

2. Catching the bus-and-or-train builds many key life skills and generally makes you a better person to be around. You are more patient (that’s alright bolshy lady, just shove past me with your many bags – I don’t mind, I am a good citizen), you can empathise, you are probably quite kind (please do take my seat nice old man)

3. If you travel by public transport you could probably embark on a career-change and become a leading Body Language expert – you have no choice but to learn appropriate personal space boundaries, when and when not to smile, when to make yourself invisible

4. These skills also come in handy on the mean streets – you are sharper than your driving counterparts. You can rate a situation / person in terms of dodgy-ness and accompanying threat level in a matter of seconds

And I do honestly believe that my commute is also essential for maintaining my mental health – here comes another list, ooh:

5. Public travel time equals thinking time. I plan most of my life from the train. I don’t know what I’d do without it. I’d probably be a disorganised mess

6. You also get time to be productive (I am writing this very blog post from the 08.22 to London Marylebone). Time to be leisurely – listen to that album you’ve been waiting to come out, read a book (books, remember those?), watch YouTube (with headphone on, please). Or, if you are a pain in the arse, talk loudly on your mobile phone and then cough everywhere…

7. Travel by public transport also means you get some physical exercise (ish) – which, say the researchers, is the crux of the benefit to your mental health

I know this is all a little tongue in cheek, but I do hope readers recognise some of the above in their own lives. Maybe we public transporters have a better sense of humour too – we have to, really, as we are faced with the ‘laughable’ incompetence of transport companies that we have no choice but to use, shedding out increasingly large amounts of cash to said companies despite, if anything, a decrease in the standards of our journey. Actually, as I type I find I am becoming less and less relaxed…

I’ve obviously been painting too rosy a picture of public transport – on the other side of the tracks (sorry) lies pure, unadulterated RAGE.

Nothing, NOTHING, can make you more angry than public transport. There’s obviously the cost. I remember when the bus cost an adult 90p, and that makes me upset. A return train ticket to work is now double the cost it was when I started.

But the real biggie is the cruel way in which public transport reveals the ugly truths of our modern society, and people in general. People are rude. Selfish and rude. A life of public transport has taught me this. As a queue-worshipping Brit, ‘pushing in’ is probably the thing that gets to me most, the thing that grinds me down and contorts me into the-irrationally-angry-woman-I-hate. It sounds ridiculous and really not worth bothering about, but I have had 30-minute phone conversations purely about something that happened to me in a bus queue.

I have shouted at people. Actually shouted. Pushed and barged. I regularly swear aloud to myself and at others. Is the stress of public transport pushing me to do things that are out of character? Or is it actually revealing what’s inside of me?

So we’re a split-personalitied bunch, but at least we public transport users are eco friendly. (Although probably not on purpose.)

Bet those researchers are glad I wasn’t in their study group.

Technical assistants, technicians, tech support, IT guys (they tend to be men), techies – whatever you want to call them – they are a prickly bunch, don’t you think? (And if you happen to be one of the above, then please do read on, because I’ve got some advice of my own for you.)

There is the classic cliche that springs to mind of course – that of the arrogant, anti-social, patronising (male) individual with a raging God complex. To boot, they often throw in some unpalatable sarcasm and speak unhelpfully fast (if at all). If you’re lucky they will be into death metal, and will demonstrate this to you by wearing a silly t-shirt – annoying but inoffensive. If you are unlucky they will be obsessed with designer labels, but the only the kind of you get in Debenhams so your eyes will be assaulted by tiny men on horses and laurel leaves.

Yes this is cruel, but I am not sorry – because in my experience I have found these caricatures to be totally true and their lack of customer service skills totally frustrating and downright unprofessional. My experience of the Genius Bar, in particular, has scarred me to this day. There is not enough time, space or point for me to go into what is so wrong with the whole Genius Bar concept. But come on, the name – what is with the name?! Patronising, tick. God complex, tick.

I’d anticipate a person working as a so-called genius to be incredibly sharp, able to hold a conversation and damn clever. What I in fact received (three times) was poor customer service from an idiot who did not look me in the eye once and obviously hadn’t listened to a word I’d said about my faulty iPod. Apparently my penchant for pirate music had caused it to give up and die.

Listen, there is nothing clever about poor customer service. I do not deserve to have a pair of eyes rolled at me because of my taste in music (which, by the way, is entirely legal).
Or do I? Is it actually terrible that, considering I’m closer in age to being a digital native than a digital immigrant, I have practically zero IT skills?
I would love to have learned more when I was younger – oh, to have learned code! But in my obligatory IT ‘lessons’ in the late nineties we rolled up paper into balls and talked about boys. And now I rely on other people’s WordPress templates and young men with no manners.
I’m obviously jealous – I’d love to have a specialist subject.  A real skill, and a useful one at that. But I’ve got just one piece of advice for you, techies, to make it better for the rest of us mere mortals – don’t be so arrogant as to tell us switching it off and on again won’t work. IT DOES. I’m doing it all the time.

We recently welcomed a whole load of new technology into our lives, which is great. I’m typing on one of them now. But, inevitably, they stopped working one day – all of them, at once, stopped connecting to our (also new) wifi. After much wasted time and talking aloud and swearing we just switched everything off and on again – and lo and behold, it worked. (Well, we did this four times before it worked. And we also removed a rogue cable…but that’s a similar thing…)

 lead edited

It reminded me how massively stressful it is, more so than it should be, when technology doesn’t work. We go into meltdown along with our laptop. Surely our bodies not working should deserve at least the same level of focus? We’ll happily run to the Genius Bar – queue to get in, for God’s sake – for advice, but we put off going to the doctor for weeks, months and even years.

The more I think about it, this God complex that hovers over the techie fraternity’s probably isn’t so truly ridiculous as I first argued. When you consider how reliant we all are on our technology now maybe they have a right to all this arrogance. When they save our laptop they are also, in a small way, saving our own lives. Well, restoring our mental health at least.

The techies are our new gods. Doctors for our devices. We’ll just have to put up with them.

It’s a shame, though, we can’t just turn them off and back on…*

* I’m not saying techies are robots…honest

I always kill plants. It’s a real problem. A conundrum that genuinely boggles my mind – what am I doing wrong?

plant edited

Whenever I build up the courage to bring some plants or plowers home to nurture (this is rarely), some unconscious instinct must kick in and, despite reading the enclosed care instructions and actually following them (sometimes I even Google, just to be doubly sure), I am forced to watch the plants cruelly shrivel and die in record time. On some occasions only hours later. It’s very deflating. It doesn’t help that I name them (we miss you, Tree-bo).
We’re not talking cut flowers here – I am confident that they are notorious droopers. I mean real plants that come in pots and don’t look like much to start with.

Not only is all this very uneconomical in both money and energy spent, it is also a little worrying – what does it say about me? Am I unstable? Negligent? Irresponsible? I like to think I’m just keen – that it’s my enthusiasm that kills them (it’s fortunate I don’t want to bring children into the world isn’t it.)

Overall, my unsuccessful foray into gardening makes me feel incompetent, and embarrassed about my lifestyle generally. How embarrassing that I have managed to grow up into an adult who goes about life totally devoid of any skills, knowledge or real consciousness of the natural world.
I live very much indoors. As a self-confessed urbanite I am uncomfortable with ‘the outdoors’ unless it is pre-arranged, meticulously planned, not too sunny, and doesn’t last too long. I much prefer if I am enjoying it from the comfort of a car or boutique hotel. I hate this about me. My heritage has clearly gone to waste – my granddad was a keen gardener, and I have wonderful memories of the amazing garden he kept. Still to this day, his peas are the best I’ve ever tasted. My mom follows in this tradition too. My boss is a renowned horticulturalist for God’s sake! So – either I’m unwilling or unable to learn from these artisans. Which is it?
Well, I’ve certainly noticed I am becoming more interested in gardening and growing in recent years, in the cliched way that people do as they get older. Whilst I’m not going to rush out and buy the box set of The Good Life, I do find I care much more about what I eat now. Where it has come from and how it was grown. I am conscious about taking care of the world I live in, too  I find I want to make things (although I am yet to make anything at all from Kirstie Allsopp’s Craft book, nearly 12-months on…)

Perhaps it’s just my desire to produce kicking in, with an alternative (to children) version. The fact I’ve created this blog is already evidence of that shift in me http://booksbywomen.org/coming-back-to-writing/

So, while I am showing willing, it’s maybe time to strike while the iron is hot and get tips from these experts I have at my disposal. I should follow the lead of the men in my life, actually. My Dad is a vegetable grower now. And my boyfriend is growing chillies in the flat.
I’ll give it a shot. Not that we have a garden… I’ll grow basil or something. Make some space on the windowsill (bye, weird Ikea glass orb that is definitely not the vase I thought it was but in fact a totally useless object).
Wish me luck – or rather, wish the plants luck.

PS: One thing I do know about gardening is that I talk aloud to myself regularly, and so with the plants in earshot it is clear that the old wives tale can’t be true.

Something out of the ordinary happened the other day – I lost something.

I never lose things. I am just not one of those people. I am organised. Boring. You can rely on me in a scrape – I will have that emergency tissue in my handbag; I’ve got the map to the hotel; yes, I’ve got some suncream you can borrow; yes, I have the last train time written down in my pocket notebook.

I do not lose things. Well…apart from the time I lost my passport. Life lessons learned: 1. Don’t take your passport to a festival, even a non-camping one, and 2. Hairdressers are good people (one from the Regis salon in Debenhams found said passport and returned it to me. I went back there recently.

Ok, so I lost something once. Although, hang on…there was also that time I left an amazing paid of vintage driving gloves on the bus. I cried. Really (turns out there’s a helpline you can ring).

Ok, so I am not quite as organised as I thought I was three paragraphs ago. But I’m pretty ‘together’ most of the time. So you can imagine my anger and disappointment when, on the last short hurdle of my commute home – the number 50 bus, I realised…I had gone and lost my house keys.

It’s horrible that moment, isn’t it – you must have felt it at some point? That sinking realisation that your treasured possession is not in your pocket, at the bottom of your handbag, on the floor. This is an organised person’s worst nightmare – how could I be so careless, so unlike myself?

You see, I will freely admit that I am a control freak – I think all truly organised people are. We cannot escape from ourselves. Which is why I was so unhappy when, in that moment I knew my keys were gone, I surprised myself with how careless and unreliable I could actually be. The last thing I want is to be surprised with the hidden depths of my character –  I want to be in control of me.

But if we were to rewind to seven years ago, to when I lost the passport, it is a bit of a different story.

Of course, in that first moment of realisation there was the familiar panic / terror / rage-at-self for being so stupid. What if I had to leave the country? Or, more realistically, buy alcohol? But then once I knew my passport was safe in Debenhams, I let go a little and actually felt a bit pleased with myself. Proud, even.

Because when I was a teenager, being the organised one in my circle of friends always felt rather lack lustre, predictable. Dull. How I longed to be as carefree as they driving around late at night with boys they’d just met at MacDonalds, running off to the Welsh seaside on a whim, bunking off school, walking into an exam having done zero revision. It all came so naturally to them. It made them so appealing – sexy. There was nothing natural about me trying to climb onto a yacht late in the evening in Sandwell Valley Park, when I’d only (begrudgingly) agreed to go on a short walk.

And so as a young woman I found myself fighting against the organised streak in me, wishing I could be more like my more un-together, dishevelled friends.

But I’ve found that as you get older the tables turn. It’s funny – people actually want to be like you. Those same free spirits want to know how you manage to get through life with few dramas and disasters. “I don’t know how she does it.” You feel brilliant (until you are inevitably asked to organise a hen do.)

You find your opinion changes, too. No long longer is the total disorganisation of your friends endearing or jealousy-inducing – it is f***ing annoying. Even they are annoyed by it, too.

This, reader, is a certain sign you have become a ‘grown up’.

At the end of the day, that organised streak runs through you like a stick of rock. And if you break it, you breakdown. Having to sit outside your apartment building on a step like a cat, waiting for the other (responsible) key-holder to get home, is a low point in life.

It is no shameful thing to be the boring, organised one. But losing my keys has reminded me that I am indeed human, and still capable of surprising myself – even if I don’t like it.

P.S. A few days later I found the keys – in my desk drawer at work. I think I can actually remember placing them in there…thinking I lost something else last week – the plot.

Forget golf. My name is Gemma and I am a cycling widow.

bike bold cropped plain

Cycling is just everywhere now. It is the sport du jour.

Even my parents are suddenly into it. Between them and my long-time-obsessed boyfriend there really is no escape. I realised this when, a few days ago, I found I had willingly paid to sit through a 90-minute documentary on the bicycle. On a Sunday night.

It’s official – I’ve been brainwashed.

Look – I haven’t got a problem with cycling in theory. It’s jolly to watch (NOT as a spectator. That is a little dull. From the sofa – fine). The jerseys are pretty. It’s good to have on in the background – quite relaxing if you ignore the (often) hilarious commentary, and the occasional screaming at TV from the man next to me on the sofa.

But the thing is – cycling doesn’t sleep.

It is ALWAYS on, even when it isn’t on. (I’m continually told the season is ending…then I find we are watching more cycling…am I missing something?)

If it’s not on the TV, it’s on podcasts – stealthily consumed, like an addict, from the shower or at the kitchen sink.

If it’s not the podcasts, it’s Twitter. Constantly.

Then there’s YouTube. Hours and hours of YouTube.

On top of all this audio-visual consumption of cycling, there’s actual cycling. On the daily commute to work and back. Up at the crack of dawn on the weekends for longer trips. Timed, presented in graphs, analysed. It’s a real commitment. To be honest, I’m mostly impressed that I have a boyfriend who can demonstrate such a commitment to something.

The bone of contention isn’t so much the mental space it requires from my boyfriend, but the actual space it takes away from me.

We have three bikes in our tiny flat. There’s no garden or anything – they live in the spare bedroom. Then there’s the equipment, tools, shoes, giant bag, weird padded Lycra, helmet etc. Cycling just comes with so much paraphernalia.

It really is exhausting. And I don’t even ride a bike.

But I’d rather this than golf. Or worse, football. As far as sport goes cycling is pretty non-offensive. And full of passionate European men, so naturally entertaining.

After nearly 5 years of cycling widowhood I have absorbed quite a bit. I could pick out Alberto Contador in a crowd. And, although it pains me to say it, I did feel a rush of pride during all the trendy London 2012 cycling fever when I was able to spout off obscure to (impressed?) friends.

Now with my parents donning the Lycra (well not quite yet, but its only a matter of time, right Dad?) at least I can hold a conversation about their new passion with them. That can only be a good thing.

So while I may gripe, and while I do wish we actually had a spare bedroom, this cycling widow is happy (I recognise I am not actually married). I have other reasons to be happy too, according to recent research.

Cyclists are, apparently, better in bed.

They are also less stressed than the rest of us.

So, cycling is good for your health, mind and sex life, and it’s (kind of) free. Great.

Good for people all round. No argument there. Or is there?

Conservative District Councillor Deirdre Alden caused recent controversy in the cycling community (so I am told) when she openly criticised a £23 million scheme that would provide 2,000 Birmingham cyclists with free bikes, saying that cycling is a “discriminatory form of transport.”

Her reasoning was that “the vast majority of cyclists on our roads are young, white men.” Also adding that cycling is too dangerous for old people. And that, to round things off, modest women wouldn’t cycle either.

… What a bloody ridiculous thing to say. Is she just making up statistics?

I can’t believe I need to say this, but obviously cycling is no more discriminatory than alternative transport methods – are cars, trains or buses free? No. Is cycling free – mostly, yes. Totally – for those lucky enough to receive support in the form of a free bike.

Anything that improves people’s health, wellbeing and mobility – particularly for those people facing economic and other disadvantages – is a good thing. Surely? If anything, cycling can help to combat transport discrimination. It means people can get to work, friends and family, the doctors and other services without having to shell out a minimum of £2.10 for a bus trip.

And it will get people having great sex.

http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/news/regional-affairs/cycle-city-birmingham-scheme-blasted-7750763

Something big and important has happened.

I am now the proud owner* of a landline. I have an actual home phone. Yes. Two phones, actually.**

I can now confidently complete the Home Tel. No. section of official forms, which is great. For years I have felt somewhat off the map, dodgy even, not having a home phone number to provide to the authorities – whoever they are.

It’s like I legitimately exist now.

This silliness aside, it really does feel like a momentous event in our household (for me at least) having a landline. I’ve been trying to work out why. I mean, it’s just a bloody phone – right?

I’ve had a home phone before, of course, as a child.

Plus, I’ve already got my own phone – a mobile one, constantly glued to my hand (more on that shortly).

And to complete the equation, I’ve had my own home before also.

But up until now, I’ve never had my own home with my own home phone in it. It all feels very grown up and proper. I feel accountable, more responsible.

However, thinking so much about phones in one go has also reminded me of the rage that I normally try and ignore – does anyone else not buy into this total reliance on devices?

Devices – ugh. Makes me think of surgery. And aliens.

Lately my hand always seems to have a phone in it. Especially so since my introduction to Twitter. It’s genuinely frightening. Will I wake up one morning to find I no longer have hands, but phones?

Remember the old days? When having a landline was essential – literally. Short of posting you a letter, coming round to your house (God forbid) or pinning you down in your local pub, if you didn’t have a phone you didn’t get contacted. Remember how you answered the home phone? With the last four digits of your number?

It’s not like that at all now, is it? Just ‘Hello’ if you’re lucky. ‘Yeah?” if you’re not.

But look – I am aware that I’m doing a lot of romanticising here.

The reality of the landline – well, I hated it as a child and still do now.  I just hate speaking on the phone. Full stop.

There are the awkward silences, the extra protracted explanations you have to throw around because the listener can’t see what you see, and can’t read emotional cues from your face. It’s painful. Worse than making conversation at the hairdressers.

Writing this blog post I am experiencing massive flashbacks to when I was a teenager. My best friends, two of them in particular, would phone me – pointlessly – almost every weekday evening, despite the fact we spent the daylight hours of every weekday in each other’s company. And we would be on the phone for hours. I mean HOURS. I wouldn’t even be saying anything.

I was essentially forced to listen to them going about their family activities, grunting every now and again to show I was still awake for this torture.

All I wanted to do was watch Home Front and Changing Rooms.

You’d think then, considering my adverse reaction to the general concept of telephony, that I’d quite appreciate the control offered by the mobile. You can see who’s calling, and choose not to answer. You can just bloody text.

But no – I hate it. It all feels back door and shady. Criminals use mobiles don’t they? It’s a bit too anonymous for this fussy phone user.

To boot, mobiles just encourage people take advantage of you, imposing on your life in new ways. They expect you at the drop of a hat, make pulls on your time any hour they see fit. It’s just not on. There’s no hiding from people when you have a mobile.

I just hate all phones.

Unless they are used as a means for watching the internet on the TV. (The only reason we got said landline in the first place.)

Then phones are great.

So on the one phone-clad hand I do feel more like a proper grown up since this landline.

But, on the other hand, if you decide to take the risk and call*** me on it…I’ll panic and run away.

*Disclaimer: Ok, well technically I’m not the owner. Technically my boyfriend is. Strange, half-existence demonstrated through living arrangement… perhaps rendering this whole blog post void. Sorry.

**Neither phone actually works

***No-one can actually contact us should the phones eventually work – we haven’t given our number out

What would be your Mastermind subject?

I was thinking about this in the shower the other day, as you do. And it occurred to me that I no longer have a subject that I can honestly say I specialise in.

The revelation made me genuinely sad. Have I let myself down?

mastermind_chairImage courtesy of bigissue.com

I don’t really specialise in anything any more – I just generalise, badly. It’s not the end of the world. I’ve managed to get through life so far. But over the last few days I’ve been asking myself the question – what exactly do I know?

It’s generally acknowledged that you’re supposed to know more things when you get older, right? But in reality while (some of us) become wiser, cold-hard-facts-knowledge is something we just end up forgetting. Life takes over and we stop practicing – getting on with daily life doesn’t leave an awful lot of time for knowledge pursuits. Not unless you’re doing it as part of your day job.

I’d say that my knowledge peaked at 22 and it’s all been drip dropping out like a leaky tap since.

Does part of us stop caring? I’d argue that most of us get to a point where we’re not trying to prove ourselves to the world anymore. You start to relax.

I was quite happy with this relaxing, until the other day in the shower. Now I’m worried – should I be learning more stuff?

You forget what it is like to learn. The confidence it brings. When I was at school, absorbing all that information was effortless. Natural. So much so that I took it for granted. But now as an adult, well – it’s a totally different, scary slog of a story.

Last week – before the shower – I was told that my punctuation is all over the place. At the age of 31 and owner of a Bachelor’s Degree in the English Language this bombshell was hugely shame inducing.

Handily, for some reason I’ve had the Penguin Guide to Punctuation in my bookcase for who knows how many years. So, I thought I’d spend ten minutes reading through that to refresh my ageing memory…

Eight days later, and I still have not grasped the functions on the comma. *At this point I will take the opportunity to apologise for the offensive and incorrect use of commas riddled throughout this blog post.

When the weekend arrived I was at my wits end. I thought I’d give my poor brain a break. Do some relaxing, something I am confident I am good at.

We walked into town. Loafed around the library. Got tired from all that hard work. Sat down in said library for a break. We looked up and realised the square outside was packed. Positively teeming with throngs of over-excited small children literally running, throwing themselves at whatever was going on.

I’ll tell you what was going on. Science.

The British Science Festival had come to town, and my word was it going down well.

Some children were blowing bubbles bigger than the London Eye.

Some children (and grown adults) were running barefoot through a bowl of custard – which held solid under the weight of those who ran quick enough.

But the biggest hitter – and most entertaining to watch – were the mini canisters which, when filled with two reactive elements, exploded.

The sheer glee on each child’s face as the canister propelled itself into the air as if by magic, and the rapt fascination as they were shown how this had happened was really was heart warming. And a little inspirational.

That thirst for knowledge is something I wish I had made more of an effort to hold on to.

But of course, it’s easy for kids. They have tons of time to dedicate to learning. They don’t have any worries about money, work or getting the washing done.

Perhaps the answer is to stop being so damn lazy. Just take up a hobby. REALLY take up a hobby. (Not just buying Kirstie Allsopp’s Craft book and leaving it there next to the TV.)

Because despite it being hard work – and I already have enough of that at actual work – learning new things really does make you feel better about yourself. Helps you feel as though you can go about the world with some confidence – even if you don’t want to take it over any more.

Being a specialist in something – no matter how trivial or obscure – is a small way of demonstrating to the world, and to yourself, that you’re still here. In a small, relaxed way.

So, I think after I’ve conquered commas I will release the inner child with me, and learn something. Perhaps I’ll start by taking out a science book from the library. Who knows, maybe this time next year I’ll be the one showing small children how to walk over custard.

And if John Humphrys invites me over to the big leather chair, I’ll have the confidence to say yes.

When did you stop being fearless? Can you remember?

I remember. I can pin it down to the exact moment.

I was eleven. I was on the Pirate Ship at Alton Towers, something which I’d loved being on since I was tall enough to be allowed on it. I’d go as far as to say it was my favourite of all the rides. (Unfortunately for my Dad, who was consequently subjected to a string of back-to-back trips on it…)

And then, out of nowhere, I hated it.

Everything was normal until the third swing, and then I started crying hotly. I thought I would be sick.

My Dad, sat next to me as usual, was oblivious to my abject terror. He just thought I was enjoying myself. Not that he could have done anything to stop my terror had he been aware of it…another frightening thing I learned that day.

My stomach swung up and down with the movement of the ship. I used to love that.

I gripped on the measly railing, miles away from my actual body, which I scrunched up like a contortionist, one knee up by my chin in an attempt to contain the lurching sensation inside me. No use.

I remember thinking I was going to fly right out of the seat, that colossal and hostile ship taking over what little control I had of my small body.

And the worse thing was it seemed to last forever. Well, at least MUCH longer than it had ever lasted before. Like the ship’s operator was in on it.

I haven’t been on a ride since.

pirate_ship1

Image courtesy of adventureland.us

It’s when we start thinking about stuff, isn’t it? That’s when the fear sets in. Too much thinking.

I went out on a boat, a real one, recently. It was a little boat, the kind where you are close to the water. The conditions were mildly choppy. I was totally fine as we lurched about a bit, enjoying it even – whooping and whee-ing with the toddlers, actually (I have no shame). But then the Pirate Ship popped into my head, as things do when you don’t want them to, and I instantly started to feel sick. A ghostly nausea.

When I think about it, and I do a lot, I’m scared on a regular basis.

Pretty much every day. An irrational fear, mostly, about things that aren’t even a reality. Just potential realities, looming darkly on the horizon.

And whilst I don’t think this fear ultimately stops me doing things, making decisions, progressing in life, it does make for a great deal of unnecessary stress. Stress I recognise I impress on to those around me, involuntarily.

But I just can’t help it. Fear is almost a reflex for me now. An element of my personality.

Never mind fairground rides. Its terrifying just being alive.

Wine helps. *She says, as she types this blog article, wine glass in hand after a hard day at work… But this obviously isn’t a wise life choice.

I can’t imagine what life must be like for those who are unfortunate enough to not possess as many of the coping skills as others do – as I seem to, despite it all. Daily life must be a genuine struggle.

There’s still hope though.

One of the reasons today was such a challenge at work was because we welcomed students, returning and new, for another academic year. Whoopee!

But it strikes me in this job, too regularly, just how damn resilient kids are. I know, you hear it said all time.

But really – kids, especially the older teens, are absolute fighters. After nearly ten years in this job I am increasingly aware that some (an alarmingly high number, it always seems) of our young people have to cope with horrors much more vast, complicated and intimate than a slightly nauseous experience at an amusement park could compare to. It sounds like a tired cliché, but I doubt most of the young people I’m thinking about have even been to a bloody theme park.

And long may they steer clear! Maybe then there’s hope, hope that they’ll hang on to the last shreds of bravery they have. Perhaps they will go on to be even stronger in their adult lives, leading the way for others. A good deal braver than I am.

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