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On writing and aging

Sharpie permanent marker

Not really a greying writer’s best friend

Writing is a bit like exercise. There might a phase in your life when you’re at the gym three days a week, maybe running up and down hills or swimming lengths in the pool. But then you hit a slump and suddenly you fall out of the habit of doing it. It then becomes a struggle to get going again.

Writing can be like that. If it’s not a habit – a regular fixture in your week – something else will swallow up the time you set aside for it. It’s worse than writer’s block because you don’t even get the metaphorical blank page out to stare at it. You don’t even bother trying.

So that’s partly to explain why my blog has been frozen in July. I fell out of the habit of writing and couldn’t seem to get myself motivated.

In these two months I’ve been silent, not much of great consequence has happened. My life is a bit like Seinfeld. It’s a series of episodes about not very much. The only difference is that I’m not as funny as Jerry.

But I’ll relate this short, cautionary tale from a recent life episode.

It was an ordinary evening after work. The kids were sitting down to dinner. That is to say, one of the kids had practically inhaled her food while the other one was picking at it and claiming she wasn’t hungry.

I’m doing my best to ignore them because I’m smearing on some makeup before a night out with a group of friends. Looking in the mirror surprises me these days; I’m always mildly surprised not to look about 30. On this occasion my gaze zooms in on all the silvery strands of hair. If that gives you the impression they are silky, think again. These hairs are wiry. You could probably use them to scour a pan if you collected enough of them.

Yep, my grey hairs have ramped up some sort of military campaign – and they’ve reached the point of launching an assault on all fronts. It’s another joyous part of aging, a process that has picked up some pace in the last three or four years.

I haven’t quite decided what to do about all these white hairs. So far I’ve been yanking them out, which makes them come out even more wiry. They are now sticking out of my head at weird angles and looking more obvious than if I’d left them alone.

But I stumble upon what I think might be a solution, albeit a very temporary one. What if I used a black marker – my hair is black – to blend them in with the other hair? Yes, this is desperate.

I borrow a marker from the Chatterbox but it’s not really doing anything at all, so I trade up to the permanent marker. The results are marginally better, I note, but I don’t suddenly feel like a new woman with glossy hair.

The other thing I notice is that my head smells like permanent marker. I should have really foreseen this problem. Not that you’d ever be tempted to replicate this at home, but I’m just saying, don’t.



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The white t-shirt for the 40ish woman

white t-shirt

My latest purchase. Transparent or what?

Ah, summer. If you live in the UK like I do, summer is not something for which you hold your breath. Compared to a very large part of the world, summer is a blink-and-you-might-miss-it moment. Despite the fickle nature of the weather in these climes, I persist with dressing for summer, shivers and all. Call me a masochist.

Hence, my quest for the perfect white t-shirt. This shouldn’t be difficult, you might say. T-shirts abound. You can probably buy a pack of them from American brand Fruit of the Loom for less than $10.

But the thing about a fashionable white t-shirt is that it has to be exactly the right cut to be flattering. It has to sit just so – a length that would look good left loose or tucked in. It has to serve multiple purposes, you see, and numerous occasions. The perfect white t-shirt could be dressed up or down, worn for cocktails or for lounging by the pool.

Perhaps you are now starting to see my predicament. Now let me add a little something else to the equation: my age. Somewhere north of 35, women have to start regarding the appropriateness of clothes. It’s a minefield.

Not only do you have to buy things that fit your changing shape, you also have to start thinking about whether this item of clothing makes you look like a desperate middle-aged person trying to reclaim lost youth. ‘Hey, look at me,’ some outfits scream, ‘I am down with the kids.’ It’s the old mutton-dressed-as-lamb syndrome.

So what I have realized in my quest for this t-shirt is that the whole entire fashion world is conspiring against women of a certain age. Do they think we are past the age of caring?

For the life of me, I cannot seem to find a white t-shirt that isn’t as transparent as a politician trying to wriggle out of difficult questions. They are so universally thin and wispy, a breath of wind would plaster them to your skin. And on certain days, just walking down the street in London is like being in a wind tunnel with lashing rain.

The result is that these t-shirts are not flattering at all, especially for women who no longer have stomachs like Rihanna. I am not particularly squishy around the middle, but I don’t think I can pull off this see-through look any more, not even on the hottest day of the year.

So what is a woman to do? I honestly despair. I finally broke down and bought one of these willowy shirts hoping for the best. But when I put it on in front of the mirror at home, I thought it made me look weird. It was as unforgiving as the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages.

Another joy of being 40. I’ll add it to the growing list of things. Can’t buy white t-shirts. Check!

I wonder what else awaits me around the corner, because what I have slowly realized – and forgive me if you know this already – is that the world is constructed around the needs and wants of the young. The younger, in fact, the better.

PS if you know where I can get a basic white t-shirt that isn’t frumpy or see-through, do tell.


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Why being 40 sucks

About 40 years ago, this was me

About 40 years ago, this was me

The transition from my 30s into my 40s has been a bit of a rough ride. There now seems to be a literal divide between me and everyone else who isn’t my age, i.e those who are younger than me.

It’s kind of like what parenting does to you. There is you Before Kids and you After Kids. You can never return to the days of BEFORE and you hardly remember what that looked like.

Well, there is you Before 40 and you After 40 and never the twain shall meet.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about my gradual freefall into this decade:

There are no best friends. Remember all those intense conversations you had as a 16-year-old? Remember how much your friends meant to you? Remember swearing eternal and undying loyalty to them? Those friendships are well and truly over. These days you are much more likely to exchange a few text messages, be sent a three-line email or get updates on social media. And, anyway, your soul mates from your childhood now live in different countries or at least in different states.

You try to guess people’s age. Yes, everyone looks young, including people of authority. But if the person doesn’t immediately look to be a mere child, you try to guess whether they are with you (40+) or just outside. To your horror, you discover that those you believed to be older than you are actually three years your junior. This happens a lot.

You swap hard alcohol for wine. You can no longer cope with the hangovers, and the children wake you up at the crack of dawn, which makes any meaningful recovery next to impossible. So you start laying off the hard stuff. Wine consumption with dinner (almost always at home, of course) goes up.

Parties get more predictable. You used to go to parties after the pub shut or following a few drinks at the bar. Now, venturing out after 10pm feels like you are stepping into an episode of the Twilight Zone; everything is slightly weird and off-kilter. No longer do you show up to house parties where the host is a ‘friend of a friend of someone you kind of know’.

Gigs. It was amazing when your favorite band played encore after encore at a concert. These days you get mildly anxious if they start on their third encore and it’s edging towards 11pm. And you do like to sit down if possible.

Joint pain talk. You discuss random things about your health, like your creaky knees, at parties. You hear people reminisce about when they used drugs for recreation, not to alleviate back pain, sleep through the night or to relieve anxiety. And talk always goes back to house prices, mortgages, and schools and kids (if you have them).

Your face stops resembling itself. Unfortunately you stop looking like the person you remember being, and start looking a bit like you but not like you. You might start to look like a parent (as in your parent). This generally perpetuates this thought: do I actually look old to others or am I completely blinkered about how much I have aged?

Compliments become increasingly qualified. You start talking about how good some people look ‘for their age’ or about being able to ‘pull things off’ because of their age.  

You console yourself with the belief that you can still do something significant, although you’re not sure what that significant thing will be or whether you will have the energy to embark on it.

There is no epiphany. You don’t wake up on your 40th birthday and think, ‘That’s it, I’m all grown up and responsible. I know why I’m here.’ Generally, you are the same as you have always been, but with more wrinkles and grey hair.

And why it’s not all bad:

You become more comfortable with the person you are, but you are not necessarily totally happy with it.

You tend not to fret as much about stuff which used to bother you. Anyhow, you don’t have that much time to think about it.

Small things can make you happy – like the sight of an empty dishwasher, folded, clean clothes, or a really good night’s sleep.

People become less intimidating. You tend not to be impressed with titles and accumulated wealth. No one has figured it all out.

You gain confidence, even if you also lose hair.

You don’t care that much what people think about you. Other people’s opinions are just not that important, so you can admit to liking stuff no one else does and even be proud of it.


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Retail therapy has health benefits, say researchers

Westfield Shepherd's Bush

A shopper’s paradise is only a short walk from where I work

Good news for me, not such good news for the English Husband. A study by researchers from the University of Michigan has found evidence to suggest that ‘retail therapy’, a common female practice used to perk up mood, is not all bad.

An excerpt from the 28-page study, published this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, says: ‘Shopping that is motivated by distress – “retail therapy” – is often lamented as ineffective, wasteful, and a “dark side” of consumer behavior. Popular press accounts of retail therapy typically paint an equally dismal picture.

‘We propose that retail therapy has been viewed too negatively. Shopping may be an effective way to minimize sadness that lingers (residual sadness) following a sadness-inducing event. We focus on shopping’s potential to reduce residual sadness in particular’.

The researchers found that shopping gave people a sense of control that countered feelings of sadness. Those who shopped were three times less sad compared to those who only browsed. ‘Our work suggests that making shopping choices can help to restore a sense of personal control over one’s environment and reduce sadness,’ they concluded.

Well, I have no idea how they judged this – you’d have to plough through the entire report – but I can vouch for the fact that shopping gives my mood an instant lift. Unfortunately, the lift is rather short-lived.

Feelings of guilt generally take over in the hours after I’ve been on a shopping spree, which then has the adverse effect of making me feel weak-willed. That’s when I start thinking I’m not a good person for using shopping as a crutch.

The only time feelings of guilt don’t take over is when I have plenty of money in the bank, money which I’ve earned and I feel I deserve. Unfortunately, I rarely have that much money in the bank – so my shopping does get me into debt from time to time.

This was the case only just this week. On my way to buy makeup from Clinique (it was bonus time after all) I was pretty much tackled by a salesman on London’s chic New Bond Street, who convinced me to try a beauty product from Orogold. Be warned if you are ever in the area – they tend to congregate together near New Bond Street and South Molton Street.

I’d not heard of Orogold before, but it’s an American premium skincare brand, which I’ve since discovered has a reputation for employing aggresive salespeople. I was absolutely determined not to buy anything at all, but the salesman – who was extremely convincing and persuasive – told me that he would throw in a ‘free’ facial at their salon if I bought a facial exfoliator worth £50. I was hooked.

I’ve not yet tried to book my facial, but I don’t have high hopes that it will be a stress-releasing experience, since I’ll probably be given another hard sell.

This purchase made me feel almost immediately guilty. I spent the rest of the day in a funk. So retail therapy is not always good when you feel like you’ve been ripped off. My gut feeling tells me that anything that needs to be sold aggresively is not worth the money. If only I’d been that rational when I was in the shopping moment.



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A high-intensity workout

Hiitgirl logoI’ve reached a time in my life where I fear I might be sagging in the wrong places. Is there ever the right places? All I know is that my skin is suddenly betraying me.

Gravity – and I don’t mean the blockbuster movie – has become my bitterest enemy. So I’ve decided to try to do something about it.

Since the age of 18 I have not stepped foot in a gym and have never done any form of cardio. But I fear that my once-a-week ballet class is no longer enough to keep me from being a flabby skinny person.

So I’ve embarked on a quest to get fit. This quest took me to a new studio called Hiitgirl. The name stands for high-intensity interval training. It’s like a form of endurance hell.

The basic idea is this (and it’s brilliant for people who hate the gym): you only need to work out for 30 minutes at a furious pace. The workout is done in intervals – you push really hard for 30 seconds and then have a 30-second rest, repeating this until the end of the session. Some intervals will vary. According to Hiitgirl’s website, this is equivalent to a normal two-hour workout and you will continue to burn calories after you’ve finished. So far, so good.

My first impressions are really positive. The studio, a short walk from my flat in Crouch End, is for women only. With a pleasant smell and lashings of pink, this doesn’t so much resemble a gym as a spa. I am lulled into a false sense of security by the sound of women laughing and chatting after a session.

This serenity lasts precisely five minutes. As soon as I get changed I sign a disclosure that makes me worry that I could drop dead after my workout. There are alarming questions about heart conditions and passing out. I don’t show my fear, but I’m starting to get a little anxious.

There is little warm-up, you just dive straight in. A clock counts down how long you have to do each exercise, accompanied to thumping music. There are squats, lunges, sprints, press-ups, planks, jumps, bicycles and something horrible called a burpee.

I try my best, panting through each exercise. I feel like a small animal in the wild, trying to keep pace with his parents or face certain death. I am starring in a cutthroat natural history documentary. The voice of David Attenborough narrates my story: ‘And the human valiantly struggles but it’s no good. She won’t survive the winter.’

I do survive the class but feel like my legs are wobbling underneath me; I have trouble putting on my shoes. By the next day, moving has become a painful process and I feel bruised. I wince with every step. I live in London and walk more than I realized. Getting on and off buses is an ordeal that requires clutching the door for support. Steps fill me with dread and there are lots of them to be negotiated; they make my legs shake.   

The irony is that I feel ancient, suddenly about 80 years old. Instead of feeling like I am bursting with unspent energy, I am hobbling. Even my armpits hurt. I won’t elaborate the ordeal that is the toilet.

Maybe I’m a masochist but I’ve signed up for 8 more sessions. For the privilege of feeling like my body has been hit by a heavyweight boxer, I’ve paid £99 (minus 20% for my first month). I might be ready to do another class in about a week, so I figure I might actually be fit by this time next year.


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A blogging festival – Mumsnet Blogfest 2013

Mumsnet blogfest programIt was a day to inspire female bloggers – a Mumsnet blogging festival with a great line-up of speakers – but there were times when you felt a little discouraged or perhaps lost.

Writing, as we all know, is an undervalued skill. So it was with little surprise that Jemima Kiss, head of technology at the Guardian (a British national newspaper), cautioned new writers and bloggers about doing unpaid work for simple exposure. ‘People don’t ask plumbers to do jobs because it’s good exposure,’ she said to the audience in a session about blogging how-tos.

There were also warnings about using your children and family for amusing (even embarrassing) stories that might one day come back to haunt you (I’m guilty of this). Most of the speakers – including writer Jon Ronson and psychologist Tanya Byron – seemed to think that you should always ask permission, especially of older children. ‘Think of me as a cautionary tale,’ said Ronson, who is the author of several books, including The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Tim Dowling, who writes a personal column in the Guardian about his inadequacies as a father and husband, uses this rule as a guide: ‘I’m never looking to humiliate anyone but myself.’

He said he has very little time for ‘ethical qualms’ about stealing fragments of conversation or using real events from his life, including those with his children, because there’s always that weekly deadline looming.

Sonya Cisco, who has a blog called The Ramblings of a Former Rock ‘n’ Roll Mum, echoed Dowling’s comments when she said: ‘Being around kids is an endless source of fascination,’ before adding, ‘but I am always the butt of those jokes.’

There was lots of conversation about Twitter and trolls, online bullies/stalkers and cute kittens (the darlings of the internet).

Radio 5 live presenter Richard Bacon chaired the opening session in a large, lecture-style room only a few minutes’ walk from the regenerated heart of King’s Cross in central London. His opening remark played to the audience of women, most of them mothers and bloggers: ‘I have read what you have written on Mumsnet [British parenting forum] and I don’t mind telling you I’m scared.’

(For the American readers who don’t know Mumsnet, it’s nothing less than a British phenomenon. The parenting website offers everything from advice, a forum for discussions, reviews on baby products and has a large network of sponsored ‘mummy’ bloggers. It recently generated a great deal of column inches for a discussion thread on penis beakers.)

I wanted to get some practical advice about making money from your blog, but this session was a little disappointing. The main message was to be passionate and to keep creating good content. ‘Content is king and that is the only thing that will ultimately make you successful,’ advised Tom Allin, who works for Skimlinks, an affiliate marketing agency.

The goodie bag included Harrods children's magazine, where you could find a mini Range Rover at a princely sum of £40k

The goodie bag included Harrods children’s magazine, where you could find a mini Range Rover at a princely sum of £40k

Gina Schauffer, who works for digital brand agency Zone, added: ‘Brands absolutely want to work with you [bloggers] but only when you use your own voice.’ I was sceptical of some of these comments. Let’s be honest with ourselves, most brands want you to sell something. They’re not very likely to want you writing about how bad their product is. A sponsored blog post is likely to hold back some of the truth, I feel. Who wants a full degree of honesty in advertising?

And if you are ready to sell your soul to the consumer devil, be prepared for it to be at a cut-rate price. All of the panellists skirted around the issue of money until one brave person asked straight out how much you’re likely to get for a sponsored post. The answer depends on who you’re doing it for, how big your blog is and how much influence you might have with blogging communities. To start out with, you’re looking at around £75 to blog about an ‘experience’. It could be a visit to somewhere like a theme park or baking with a new ready-made kit. This is not going to make you rich.

There was a heated debate on whether you can be a mummy blogger and still be a feminist, which nearly ended in tears or punches – it was hard to decide which way it was going.

And finally a speech from comedian Jo Brand, who managed to calm things down by talking mostly about herself. She told the bloggers: ‘Go forward with a bit of righteous indignation.’ We all then headed to the bar for some much-needed gin and tonics.

What I learned in a nutshell (top 10):

  1. If you want to make money from your blog, you need to go self-hosted and learn to back it up.
  2. Always think SEO (search-engine optimization). When you write your blog title, think about what people will be searching for – that’s what you want it to say. Don’t use puns or try to be funny.
  3. You ain’t going to get rich doing this shit and don’t expect to be a success overnight – you will need to be patient and persevere.
  4. Buy your own domain name, either from domain monster or GoDaddy (two of the most popular in the UK).
  5. Top tip for writing comedy: punch up (the big guy is fair game), but don’t punch down.
  6. If you’re blogging about your family and friends, be prepared for the possibility of a fallout.
  7. Don’t use more than one category per post. (Something technical to do with how Google uses linking)
  8. Apparently we should all be joining If This Then That (IFTTT), according to a techie.
  9. You can be a feminist and make jam and wear high heels. Just don’t try to start a discussion about it.
  10. If you’re on WordPress (and a lot of us are), get the yoast plug-in.


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A Liebster Award

Liebster award logo

The only award I ever won was first place at my school’s Halloween costume contest. I went as the Statue of Liberty.

I’m going to come clean. Part of my day job entails me to write about awards. I’ve written a lot of these stories – so many, in fact, that I can’t help but feel that many awards are utterly meaningless. I know that’s perhaps a little mean-spirited, because the award winners are often inspiring, but it’s a feeling that can’t be helped. When I hear that I have to write another story about an award winner, my heart sinks a little. (It actually sinks a lot.)

With that now out in the open, this humble blog has been nominated for a Liebster Award by White Trinity, a blogger from Singapore who mainly writes about restaurants and food and takes much better photographs than I can.

The Liebster Awards are meant to recognize blogs with a small number of followers (under 300). The aim is, of course, to widen out that readership. It’s a very noble aim and the award is given to bloggers from bloggers.

There are rules accompanying this award. The one I have a problem with is nominating 10 more blogs for the award. I fully know there are 10 relatively unknown blogs worth nominating, blogs which are well written, funny, witty and useful. But you know what, I have no idea what they are. I simply don’t have the time to keep up to date with the zillions of worthwhile blogs out there.

I could pretend, of course, and talk knowledgeably about blogs I’ve barely ever visited. I could go around and just randomly nominate 10 blogs I have heard of, but this hardly seems the point. I’d be nothing better than a hypocrite.

So instead I will talk about the blogs I have actually read and which I think are worth a mention here – they each deserve a Liebster Award:

  • I am a reader. Always have been. I tend to read fiction books. This is an excellent blog for anyone who loves books and reading. I’ve subscribed to it for a year. It gets updated regularly and the girl who writes this is clearly a lover of words. I don’t know how she finds the time to read everything she does:
  • I am inspired by Helen Fawkes, a journalist who has written a blog about her incurable cancer. She is truly remarkable:
  • I like Lady Goo Goo Gaga’s refreshing take on motherhood, because we’re not all perfect domestic goddesses who like to fix our husbands martinis when they get home:
  • If you thought parenting was challenging, try raising five kids with disabilities, staying sane and keeping a sense of humor. This blogger has managed it and somehow finds the time to read my blog occasionally. Thank you:
  • A very funny take on one stay-at-home dad’s journey, and he likes to drink. We have more than one thing in common:
  • Finally, this blog is from another expat living in England and writing about her experiences:

Another rule accompanying the award is to answer 10 questions. Because I don’t want to bore you with my answers I’ll just choose one: Why do I blog?

I blog because I have always liked to write. Sometimes the entries almost write themselves, sometimes they can feel like homework. There are times I have thought about giving this up, because I think about the blog more often than I feel I should. I often wonder if anyone actually ever reads it, because I don’t read the other blogs I subscribe to as much as I’d like and then I feel guilty about that. Mostly, I write this for myself. It’s a diary, a moment captured in words, and I hope one day I can show it to my children and say, ‘This is who I was. I wasn’t a perfect mother or a perfect wife, and I had bad days when I  had to drink a bottle of wine, but I always loved you.’


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