Friday, 26 June 2015

Stick runner magic

During An's birthday lunch yesterday - may her bottom get ever perter - and over a glass of prosecco, I was lamenting to her my struggle to give up my daily glass of alcohol. I want to give it up. I know it's not a good idea to have one (or two) every day, but it's so yummy, and it's in the house, and when the children are tired, and I'm hungry, and I'm cooking, bladibladibladibla. You know - a million excuses.

She of the pert bottom and the birthday glass of prosecco asked me the only question that was pert-inent: 'Why do you want to stop it?' It's only one glass; it won't kill me - why is it so important to me? Randomly saying I want to stop and feeling guilty won't help me along. What do I want? And is it more important than the relaxation I get now during peak household chore times? That's something to weigh up, too: for years, during that damn witching hour when they start bickering and moaning and are too tired to just do what I ask them, that glass of wine or beer has helped me immensely. But Charlie is four, and he now gets in his pajamas by himself (after being told only seven times), and Marie is seven and will set the table (excruciatingly slowly) when asked, and Jack is ten and does (with a sigh of despair) empty the dishwasher when prompted with firm insistence. So technically I can do without my beer of delight now. My wine of sparkly soothing. Yes, I can. 

What I don't like about having my daily glass, is that I will be a little more sluggish the rest of the evening. That I will happily sit in front of the TV instead of reading a book. That I will sleep slightly worse, and that I will feel like the lights are a little dimmer the next morning. And the calories, of course, which are pretty empty ones. I'd be better having a piece of fruit or some vegetables or even some meat - something with more useful nutrients. 

Turning all these negative effects around, there's what I want from this change: I want to have more productive evenings. I want to sleep better. I want to feel brighter in the morning. I want to eat better things. (And it would be nice to be fully present around my children when they are tired and going to sleep. It's only one glass, but I wouldn't be having it if it didn't make a difference.)

I felt very optimistic after this conversation that this was going to be my day of change (it could have been the prosecco making me feel like that). When I got home, I drew my reminder person on my hand:

She reminds me to live life the way I want it. To make choices that would make me happier and fitter. I accidentally got her left leg wrong to start with, but that's okay because I do actually wear a small skirt over my leggings when running. (No one needs to see my bum wobble.) When I got the children from school, they were worried I'd gone out and got tattooed on my hand.

Stick runner worked her magic, and I did not have any alcohol last night. I had a handful of cherry tomatoes to stop me feeling peckish while cooking. I knitted a couple of squares for my blanket after dinner, so I was more productive than I have been in a while. Then I continued some research I'd been doing and I still ended up going to sleep too late, but I'm being kind to myself about that. At least I slept through until about five o'clock. That's not bad for me. Baby steps. This morning, I went straight out for a run and felt quite light. I call that a brilliant result. 

I'm keeping my lovely stick runner on my hand for a few days, I think. To help me when it gets harder. She has lost her skirt already, being redrawn after my shower and random hand washes. I have a reception tomorrow morning, after music school graduation, and one on Monday night, after Jack's school graduation, but I may not have a drink there. I'm not going teetotal at all (holidays in Spain coming up - one has to be realistic), but wouldn't it be lovely to show to myself that I can make my own healthy and considered choices, instead of reacting like Pavlov's dog to alcohol being offered?

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Just five more days

The end of June feels like the sprint at the end of a race. All the schools have special events on. Everyone needs to throw their own graduation, squeeze in some last-minute parties, go on special trips. Just five more days and finally the alarm clock can be switched off, or at least go off later. Meals can be eaten when we get hungry instead of when we have half an hour between running around. Just five more days and we can take more time to cuddle and be and read and linger - and write. Just five more days. It feels like we still have to climb a mountain.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Halloween in Summer which feels like Autumn anyway

Marie brought that picture home from school yesterday. I keep stopping to look at it. The photo doesn't do the vibrant colours justice. I love how the cat doesn't just sit in the tree. It meows. The birds hang so wonderfully in the sky. The leaves are falling and have different colours. The deer's antlers stick forward so optimistically. The thing that kills me is the pumpkin in the tree. Of course there's a pumpkin in that tree. It wouldn't work without the pumpkin.

Next year already had eleven separate out-of-school events each week (mostly music school, some swimming, some Scouts-like things). Now we have twelve. She wants to start art academy, and chose the perfect day to ask.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Face plant win

I was walking along the street earlier, having just dumped a subset of my children in their youth thing/whatever, and I was pitying myself terribly. 'No one appreciates me, everyone takes me for granted, they all just suck my energy, and it's always on their terms, never on mine' - you know how it can go, when you're a mother and a wife - and then, and then, and then - I fell flat on my face on the pavement.

The universe put me in my place well good. There was this plastic loop on the street - I hardly even saw it - and when I stepped on it, it flipped up and caught both of my feet, sending me hurtling down on my knees, hands, and - slowing down rapidly, thank fuck - on to my face. I only just felt the pavement on my cheek and forehead. Slammed down hard on my knees and hands. Bleeding only a little. Scuffing my favourite summer shoes.

Now that was a major 'Fuck You!' from the universe. What do I have to feel sorry about? Absolutely nothing. And now I'm getting sympathy from everyone who took me for granted for my scuffed knees and hands. Win!

Friday, 19 June 2015

Mock this

Babes got me some wonderful BBC Radio 4 podcasts to listen to in the car. Earlier, I was listening to In Our Time with Melvin Bragg, about Pieter Brueghel The Elder. This was delicious to me in so many ways. The programme, In Our Time, is fantastically high-brow - radically and unapologetically so. It generally starts with Melvin going, 'Today we are discussing Completely Obscure Esoteric Theory X from Long-Forgotten and Obscure Era Y, and with me to discuss all this are professors A, B, and C from universities D, E, and F, all experts in their field.' This has my heart singing, especially if I know nothing at all about the subject. I've listened to programmes about dark matter, about long-forgotten Indian mystics, about the physiology of the eye, and about Pliny the Younger. Today was extra special because Pieter Brueghel is from my home town of Antwerp.

What finally inspired me to write (my imagination went rather blank this week - I am anxiously awaiting the start of the Summer Holidays), was one moment in which all the experts were tittering about the sons of Brueghel the Elder - how they weren't nearly as good as him, and never measured up to him. Titter, titter. Giggle, giggle. I felt instant compassion for them. How atrocious to be born the sons of one of the most imaginative and talented painters in the world, and to be forever compared unfavourably to him! If they had been born to anyone else in the next town along and become painters, they would have been considered reasonably talented and good enough to decorate any church in the vicinity. Because they were born from the seed of genius, they are condemned to being mocked even four hundred years after their lifetimes.

(I know something about this feeling, being the daughter of a minor star of business, and not even planning to try to live up to that example. I'm sure some tittering and disappointment has gone on behind my back, but hey.)

I am noticing more and more how everything is turned into a competition by people who really should know better. It is impossible for everyone to be the best at what they do. That's a plain fact. I'm not even sure we should all strive to be the very best in the world at something. What about having a balanced life? About embracing more than one skill? About being human, kind to ourselves and others, and not thinking a mistake is the end of the world? (Except perhaps if you're a brain surgeon or something - by all means let them strive for perfection in their jobs.) Brueghel the Younger was a perfectly competent painter who may not have had the sparks of inspiration his father was blessed with, but I'm sure he worked hard, and he could still paint a million times better than I can. Why mock him on the radio four hundred years after he lived his life the way he did? The people mocking him were history or art professors - I doubt they could paint as well.

Last week, Charlie swam his 100 metres brevet. Marie cried her heart out because her younger brother had 'overtaken' her - she hasn't had an opportunity to swim for the same qualification yet. It is ingrained in my little children already to compete, to show other children they are better than them, to be the best. It strikes me as relatively sick. When I praise Marie for her beautiful art work, her brothers hover around me until they get a compliment, too. Competition is baked into them. The Belgian school system starts grading children in nursery school. They all have targets to reach. Then from age six, pupils are marked every day. They get told every day if they're a six, an eight, or a ten out of ten. Every single sodding day. At six. The children are measured, compared, told how they compare to the average, passed and failed. The teachers don't even see how this might be problematic for all - not only for the 'weaker' students who are always catching up, but also for the 'stronger' students, who are constantly being told how clever they are. It's all maths, language, knowledge - very rigid and with little space for the interests or creative spirit of the individual children.

I wonder if we can have outstanding achievements (in sports, arts, medicine, science, etc.) without this harsh environment of competition. I don't want to stop people excelling. I want 'the best' to receive all the encouragement and help they need. I would also like to see more compassionate and loving attention to people who are 'good enough'. Only one can be the best. That doesn't make all the rest of us losers, to be mocked. Good enough is just that: good enough.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015


The silence. The endless damn silence. Trying to remember that publishers have lots of things to read and mine won't be a priority. Trying not to conclude that obviously my email repulsed her. Trying to keep in mind that rejection is fine. That I tried. That I'm trying. That I'm not giving up. That I did not write a piece of shit. Going back to read a little to double check. No. Not a piece of shit. Could have been more brilliant, yes, but I've read worse. No. It's what I wanted to write. I did not want to write like that brilliant book I'm reading right now. That's her way. The other is mine. Deciding that I'd be happy with a well-reasoned rejection letter. A reason. A way forward. But no. I'd rather have a yes.

In the meantime, I artificially keep my mood up with my newest addiction to weight loss. I've never felt chirpier but if I'm honest I'm just hungry. I never knew it would be possible to make those two equal each other. I'm now my target weight with my clothes on. Looking down, my thighs still wobble a bit. They still look like fat instead of muscle. Because they're a woman's thighs. Because I've not been exercising. Because exercise needs fuel, and food is not my friend right now. My osteopath warns me that my lower back muscles are weak. I would do more planking if it didn't make my stomach pouch hang weirdly down. It's my badge of honour awarded for having three children. I'm at peace with it. I just don't need to see it hanging like that.

Monday, 8 June 2015

From the heart

I was introduced to a publisher's marketing director yesterday, who gave me some pointers as to how I could get my book published. She thinks the best way may be to have it translated and published locally. Another book recently got published in Flanders which had been written in English and translated. I came home buzzing with new hope and immediately finished a reshuffle I'd been making on my first chapters. She promised me contact details for a big publisher, so now I'm waiting for her email and I'm good to go.

I was up until two writing her an email (I had her email to email her asking for the other email - it's complicated) and watching TV in the background and having a late night beer. I made a little detour past Google to see how many calories in beer - which is my instinct these days for most things I consume - and oh my fucking god did you know that beer has more calories than Coke (the drink, not the powder), and white wine even more??? I was SHOCKED. I always thought Coke was the devil's pee, so I generally stay away from it. It's pure sugar, for polyester's sake, so how can it have fewer calories than a beer, which surely is all wholesome grains and yeast? My head is still spinning. From the information, not the beer. I only had the one. Just out of interest, I looked up the calorie value of coke, the powder, as well. It seems to be zero, as it is fuel for the body and will burn itself off. Presumably, though, it would not be a very nutritious alternative to food or beer.

Per hundred grams:
  • Cocaine: 0
  • Coke: 38
  • Beer: 43
  • Orange juice: 45
  • White wine: 82

I asked Babes very nicely if I could stay in bed this morning, because I always function better if I get to sleep in. He kindly got the children up, made their lunches, took them to school. He's lovely. I got up at ten, and was indeed much clearer in the head than I am after getting up at seven. I finished and sent my email. Then I chopped a couple of hedges in the garden. Normally, I manicure them and it takes me hours. I chopped them roughly and they look just fine. It took half an hour, not even, for both hedges. It's a bit like cooking. No one cares if you don't spend ages julienning your veggies perfectly, as long as they get fed. We can get to the back of the garden better now. I felt all Ms. Moon in my spaghetti strap top and no bra on, chopping away and trying to not chop the cat who happened to walk by for attention.

When I came back in, I sat, covered in tiny box hedge leaves and cobwebs, and edited my synopsis and tidied my sample chapters. Then I wrote an email to the London agent I've been hoping will represent me but I've been too scared to write to. I wrote it from the heart and forgot all about the guides and pointers to query writing I've been collecting from all kinds of places. I simply wrote why we'd be a good match, what my book is about, and a little bit about me. I dispensed with silly pseudonyms, didn't put myself down at all, just asked if they would consider me as I am. Without seeming too personal or desperate. I actually wrote the email while I was chopping the hedge. Not the words. Just the feel of it. Writing takes time. It takes life. It takes menial tasks. Sitting at my computer hoping for words to come is not always the way to get to those words.

My sister An, may she chop her hedges fruitfully, had my daughter Marie to stay at her house a while back. When she returned her to me, she said Marie had told her apropos of something I can't remember now: 'My mama says that life is a struggle.' Then a little later, she added, 'but she also says that life is a beautiful gift.'

And that's just the way it is.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Dog love

I love my sister An, may she ride her unicorn on rainbows, to bits. I always have. I love her even more ever since she got a dog. I have to confess I am not generally a dog lover. Not because I don't like dogs as personalities - I do - but because I have a troubled and anxious relationship with dirt and the world, and dogs are just so full of hair and smells and saliva and poo and vermin and - well, so on and so forth.

An, unsurprisingly, chose a wonderful dog. She's a gorgeous and amazingly friendly cocker spaniel. I will call her Camille. Yes, even dogs get pseudonyms. I like Camille so much that I have even petted her without washing my hands afterwards. If you know me, that means a great deal. Camille likes me back as well. I can't pet her every time I see her (on anxious days I would simply die), but we have a little conversation and she wags her tail at me a lot.

The reason I love An even more now that she has a dog is not because I can see how well she treats Camille, even though she does. It's also not because she lets my children play with her so they get to have that experience, in spite of their crazy mother not wanting a dog in the house, even though she does. The reason I love her even more is because she spent a long time looking for the perfect dog, and when she finally found Camille - in a kennel where she had been bred to be a hunting dog, but turned out to not have the necessary killer instincts - she found her in France, and this made An decide to speak French to her. She is completely consistent. She will be speaking Dutch to me, or English to Babes, but tell Camille 'Assis!' She will speak French to her in shops, late at night when she's tired, and when she's in a hurry. Her husband, Dr Dean, and her son also speak French to Camille. She's even teaching my children the right commands in French. It's damn cute to see four-year-old Charlie speak French to get Camille to fetch a ball.

My sister speaks French to her dog. How absolutely adorable is that?

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Jon Stewart on Caitlyn Jenner

Lacking inspiration, I will just give you this:

I love that man, Jon Stewart. He's so clever and kind and human. I will miss him when he goes to tend his animals, but I also wish him the best because I bet he's tired of the stress of being on TV, and he has given plenty.

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Belgian way

Jack claims he has to get his bike checked over by the police before he goes for his cycling test tomorrow. He has to cycle 13 kilometres on his own. There are some police officers and random volunteers on key corners to mark him on his turns, his understanding of traffic, his attention to lights and street signs, but he has to find his own way and there's no one to screech all out bloody hell at him if he ignores a stoplight. I'm breathing. He will be fine. We're good. Still breathing.

He told me at the weekend that he has to get a piece of paper from the police office to say his bike is roadworthy before he's even allowed to go on the road. You would not believe the weekend we've had. As an illustration, here's the laundry I'm having to do today:

I also had to remove that orange paint from the passenger seat of the car. There was a music school exam, and that damn school party, and a Scrabble contest with a visiting sister - it was not the kind of weekend that would allow for leisurely bike rides to the police station. The only other option left was tonight, after Marie's violin lesson, with all three children on their bikes.

Now, this is Belgium, so the only time you can really be sure anyone is in the office is on Tuesdays between eleven and twelve in the morning, so I phoned up and asked if anyone would be in after five tonight to check Jack's bike and give us the necessary piece of paper. What followed was classic Belgium. The lovely police woman asked me if it was a new bike, and if its bell and brakes work. I told her it wasn't very old, and Jack hasn't cycled it that much, so everything is still in working order. Then she instructed me to make sure the bike was clean, and tell the officer tomorrow that it's new, so it didn't need checking. She must have had the same kind of weekend and wanted to get home.

I don't know what I'd do if I had to live in a country that cares about rules. Actually, I do - I used to live in Britain. I got in trouble all the time for assuming rules were more like guidelines, and instructions were a starting point for negotiation. It's the Belgian way. It's why the principal at Saturday's school party asked that people 'really try to perhaps please take into account a little bit the no entry signs and not walk around the halls.' It's why idiot parents lifted the flimsy plastic ropes 'closing off' the park for that wind storm the other day, and had their children in the swings under the trees. It's why our politicians get away with admitting to illegally employing people, but only a little; evading taxes, but only a little; using drugs, but only a little; speeding, but only a little. It's why I'm tolerating the fact that the children are singing 'We built this city on rock 'n' roll' in the bathroom instead of sleeping right now. I wouldn't have it any other way.