Who’s afraid of President Fart?

Here’s a question for you: “Which is more likely to lead to World War Three: Brexit or Trump?”

It’s a serious question for serious times. The thing is, when it was directed at me this week, it was preceded by the word “Mummy” and came from the mouths of Bridget, aged 10, and Rupert, who is eight.

I was a bit shocked, I’ll admit. The smalls are pretty clued up on world events – they watch Newsround and read kids’ newspaper First News at school, and they listen to the grown-ups around them discussing things. But this question (which they asked in a perfectly matter-of-fact way) came out of the blue, and was clearly not based on reported events.

Turns out, it came from a place beyond the news: from discussion, speculation and extrapolation with friends. It also came from fear, both of the unknown, and of unnamed and unnameable bad things happening to themselves and the people they love. The “logical” end point for them of a year of unprecedented political uncertainty in their privileged world was war; specifically, nuclear war.

I get this. I get it completely. I was having a conversation on Twitter recently with an educated, hugely respected expert in his field, also in his mid-40s. We agreed that, in our lifetimes, living in the West, we’ve never experienced this level of visceral fear about how the volatile political situation might play out.

We were born during the Cold War, but by the time we were conscious of the world around us it was drawing to a close. One of our first big news memories was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Raymond Briggs’ “When the Wind Blows” was just a comic book, with no resonance for us. The “Protect and Survive” booklet from 1976 on how to prepare and deal with a nuclear attack was a dusty museum artefact.

whenthewindblows.jpg

I’m optimistic, and I’m not really a worrier. I know I am extremely lucky to be born in the UK, in Europe’s biggest ever stretch of peacetime ever. I take the security and safety of my family pretty much for granted. Even the threat of global terrorism, which runs like an anxiety-provoking thread through 21st century existence, wouldn’t stop me doing anything or going anywhere. I got through a rather serious dose of cancer, for goodness’ sake, I’m not scared of much.

But something happened overnight for me when the Brexit Referendum results came in last summer, and it was compounded by Trump’s election. The “South-East England liberal elite bubble” I was apparently in had well and truly burst. For the first time ever, I am not sure that things will trundle on being more or less OK, with the occasional blip.

I think we are in for a rough ride through unknown territory. Many of us are in shock, or brace position, or both. And I don’t think this is melodrama, and I don’t think it’s all down to social media stirring.

I’m no longer certain of peace in our time. It feels like a luxury that we may have inadvertently and rather unconsciously squandered, somehow. I’m just not sure (and neither is anyone else) what the implications of Brexit and Trump (or “President Fart” as the kids call him) will be.

There’s stuff about the future stability of Europe, about NATO and Russia and nuclear capability (and who has the codes) that concerns me greatly. Brexit looks like it’s going to be Theresa’s way or the highway, and I can’t believe it will make the UK a better place. In Trump’s first six days, we’ve already seen him erode women’s rights, cutting funding to NGOs that give women all over the world access to contraception and abortion services (yet more pussy-grabbing); shout about “America First” and stuff about “walls” and the okayness of torture, and silence scientists. (Don’t get me started on climate change – I can’t even look those graphs and pictures of shrinking ice caps in the eye, so terrified am I.)

The talk of closing borders, the resurgence of racism and treating migrants with suspicion and hate rather than compassion are not the values I was brought up with, as the daughter of a refugee.

And the rapid emergence of a truly Orwellian post-truth era of fake news and “alternative facts” is making everything much, much scarier.

All of which increases our feelings of powerlessness. But all is not lost.

That five million people in 70 countries took part in the Women’s March last Saturday, whether in the name of equal rights or to protest Trump’s presidency, was the first glimmer of light I’ve felt in quite a while. Many of the placards pictured the late, great Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and used the words “Resistance” and “Hope”.

The internet, social media and the global digital economy mean that, however backwards things seem at the moment, we are more connected, and have more tools, information and capability to be a movement for change than ever before.

And politics isn’t all bad: Canada’s Trudeau, Germany’s Merkel and London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan seem to be on the side of the good guys. Plus the Obamas are still in the world, and I have no doubt that when they return from their well-deserved holiday they will continue to be a force for good.

We also have our young people. There’s some inspiring research into younger Millennials aged 14-21 by Professor Noreena Hertz. She calls them Generation K, for Katniss Everdeen, the hero of the dystopian Hunger Games books. They were born into global terrorism and financial crisis, and they are fearful and distrustful. And they are also kinder, more generous, more collaborative, more open-minded and more creative than any previous generation. These are the kids who will change the world for the better, once the angry old white guys have had their last gasp.

2016 may have been notable for its prominent deaths, including Bowie, but future Heroes may have been born all over the world; we just don’t know it yet.

So how did I answer Bridget and Rupert’s question?

I thought about saying all of the above, but of course the only real option when faced with those two sweet little faces was to say: “Neither, darlings. Brexit and Trump are just interesting political situations. We’ve seen worse, and we’ve seen better. We must stay vigilant and call out unfairness and bad behaviour and lies when we see them. But you are safe, and loved, and all is well”.

I’d like a grown-up to reassure me, too. But we’re the grown-ups now.

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Kids, creativity, and Minecraft

 

We were listening to the BBC Radio 2 breakfast show on the school run the other morning when I heard something that really irritated me. Sheila Hancock, who as one of the grand dames of theatre is almost beyond reproach, was chatting to Chris Evans as part of the build-up to the 500 Words kids’ short story competition, when she said, in passing: “Technology kills creativity”.

I inhaled, sharply.

The context was a conversation about getting kids off screens and using their imagination and creativity to write instead.

Reading and writing are obviously very, very dear to my heart. They are my vocation, my income, my beloved companions, my education, my therapy and my escape.

But I truly don’t believe it’s an either/or. And to say “technology kills creativity” in children, from my experience as a mum, is just plain wrong. It’s lazy, ignorant thinking.

Take Minecraft. For those of you without children aged over five, this is the incredibly popular virtual block-building game. Minecraft was created in 2009 by a Swede called Markus Persson, better known by his fans as Notch. He was inspired, unsurprisingly, by Lego. He loved Lego so much, he built a digital homage to it.

Minecraft has two modes, one of which is called Creative, where you can assemble blocks of materials – from brick to ice to obsidian– to create fantastical landscapes, underground diamond mines, or villages topped by intricate castles. There are little square pigs and ocelots and other animals tootling around. And then you can blow it all up with blocks of TNT, which is oddly satisfying.

minecraft

The other mode is Survival. This is the gamified version. Resources and lives are limited and hard won. You need to build weapons. Zombies might kill in you the night. The terrain may hold unpleasant surprises, or hidden treasure.

DD, who is nine-and-a-half, prefers Creative mode, building beautiful palaces and waterfalls. DS, who is seven-and-a-half, equally likes the peril of Survival. They design and build and modify incredible creations on Minecraft, with their fingers flying across the screen. It’s totally intuitive for them.

But it doesn’t end there.

Minecraft is creative in and of itself, but it also leads to offline creativity: designs, drawings, and written stories (all DS’s ideas for his 500 Words entry involved Minecraft in some way).

It inspires real-world block building with Lego (which pleases me greatly in its neat circularity, although Lego developing sets inspired by Minecraft is possibly a Borgian step too far…)

Minecraft is a prompt for imaginative games in the house and garden with each other and their friends. It is also the subject of quite sophisticated conversations and debates about planned Minecraft creations, including stuff about cause and effect.

And it’s part of their fledgling adventures in coding: we bought the children the fab Kano kit to build a computer and learn to code, and making your own modifications to Minecraft is among the coolest things you can do with it.

It’s also a brilliant teaching tool: there’s an official education version of Minecraft for teachers to use in the classroom. One dad even wrote a piece in the Guardian about how Minecraft gave his autistic child a voice.

YouTubers didn’t exist ten years ago. You couldn’t earn money from vlogging until very recently. But if you’ve seen some of the leading YouTube videos about Minecraft – the kids’ favourites include Stampylongnose/Stampy with his memorable laugh, Dan the Diamond Minecart and iBallistic Squid – you’ll know that this is now a bono fide job.

These videos get millions upon millions of views. Stampy (otherwise known as Joseph Garrett) was even invited to deliver the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Christmas Lecture last year, attracting its biggest ever audience.

And Notch, the 35-year-old creator of Minecraft, hasn’t done too badly for “just a gamer”: he sold his company Mojang, including Minecraft, to Microsoft in 2014 for $2.5 billion.

Not everyone can be Notch or Stampy, but Minecraft is going to be a huge influence on more familiar careers for years to come. There is unlikely to be a designer, architect or engineer of any discipline graduating (or starting their own business) in a decade who has not cut their teeth on Minecraft.

We can’t even begin to imagine the lives, jobs and opportunities our children will have as adults. But this kind of “tech plus creativity” skill set is likely to be critical to whatever path they embark on.

So I’m as happy for my two to explore, create and build on screen in Minecraft as in Real Life. Because far from killing creativity, technology can enable, boost and unlock it.

The one where Pinchy gets a proper job (sort of)

So I haven’t blogged for a while. I’m sure you’ve all been feeling terribly deprived of my wit, pathos and insight since November, but hey. I have been busy, people! Busy doing what, Pinchos? you may enquire. Busy getting an actual grown-up proper job, THAT’S WHAT!

My new walk to work :-)

My new walk to work 🙂

Yup. This die-hard solitary writer now has a regular income for the first time since leaving my last salaried employment, 14 years ago. And actual colleagues! Since the start of January I have been working for one of the very biggest PR consultancies in the world, supporting the EMEA marketing team with copywriting, editing, editorial consultancy, social media content, training, and other word-related stuff.

Cool, huh?!

It’s been a very slow burner, but there was something inevitable about it. I’ve been working with this team since my earliest days freelancing: as soon as I resigned as features editor of trade mag PRWeek on a whim in 2001, my now-boss commissioned me to help her with some case studies, and to turn a couple of PR campaigns into entries for industry awards schemes. We discovered we worked well together. We became friends. Over the intervening years, our combined skills built an incredibly efficient, successful awards strategy, which has helped the consultancy become the most award-winning across Europe. I worked for her throughout both of my ‘maternity leave’ periods (which don’t really exist when you’re self-employed), and was even editing stuff to meet a looming deadline while strapped up to my drip on the chemo ward.

I also started doing award entry writing, editing and training for other agencies, of all sizes, around the world. I created a niche: there aren’t many former journalists who really get public relations and can do this sort of stuff well. My clients were often shortlisted and frequently won. But there was one problem. It was a rollercoaster. In the run up to awards entry deadlines, I was rushed off my feet, working for clients in several time zones, all charging PELL-MELL towards the same cut-off date. At peak times, midnight shifts (and beyond) were common. I was working while the children were at nursery, and then school, switching to mummy mode for a few hours, then back to my desk when they were in bed. I was frequently juggling dozens of pieces of work, including many first drafts written by people whose first language is not English, all of which had to tell an equally engaging story to convince the judges, all at the same time.

But then, the week after deadline: silence. I never quite worked out the trick of doing marketing and filling the pipeline with other non-time-sensitive stuff while you are rushed off your feet, so my working life was essentially manic peaks and then depressed troughs. I could have been writing my taking-bloody-forever novel during the down time, or spending hours in the gym, or decorating, but mostly I used to sit at my desk fretting. (And pissing about on Twitter, obviously.) Not having a deadline doesn’t really work for me: I descend into the slough of despond pretty bloody quickly if I haven’t got a pressing to-do list.

On paper, I had an amazing work-life balance. I worked school hours, was able to drop off the children and pick them up every day, and was there for every single school thing, while still earning a good living doing something I really like and am good at. In reality, I was stressed out and constantly worried about money – cash flow was ridiculous, as some months I’d be billing thousands and then other months, practically zero. And when you haven’t quite had the five-year sign off from your oncologist, this level of stress is probably a bad idea.

Something had to give.

Last summer, as I hit my 41st birthday (so much less dramatic than 40…) I took some time to reflect on what I had achieved with my career, and what I wanted my next decade to hold. As I pushed towards the 10th anniversary of starting my limited company, Besparkle, in August 2015, I knew I had two choices. The first was to change things dramatically to make it into a real business rather than a winging-it one-woman band. This would involve sorting out childcare, working pretty much full time, finding other contractors and partners, and investing in marketing. Maybe even writing an actual business plan for the first time! (Told you I was winging it…) The second option was to chuck it all in and find a job.

I dropped my biggest client a casual email, on a whim (this appears to be a pattern): if anything came up at her agency, job-wise, that she thought I might be a good fit for, would she let me know? She read between the lines (and presumably decided she didn’t want to lose me to a competitor) and within a couple of weeks had created a new job description, just for me.

At that point, obviously, I got cold feet. I felt utterly torn. One the one hand: oh my goodness, the bliss of never having to worry about whether I was earning enough again! And it wasn’t even that big a leap: I would still be doing a job I know and enjoy, with someone I work really well with. On the other hand: do I want to give up my independence, my flexibility, the children being my priority? Did I want to hand them over to a nanny? Do I want my days to be owned by someone else? Could I still go to all the school things? Aren’t I happy just working alone? Do I really want to do any commuting at all? Do I need colleagues? Do I want to say goodbye to my business? It’s only little, but it’s still mine, and I built it, and I’d just had my most successful year since having children.

Many of these points of resistance were incomprehensible to DH, who was just over the moon I was even considering it. He’d never really forgiven me for resigning without any discussion with him, and doesn’t exactly embrace financial insecurity. But he had another, more positive, reason for encouraging me, too: he reckoned that having colleagues and getting out of the home office would do me good personally, in terms of my happiness and emotional stability. Other high-flying (mostly male) friends also told me to basically ‘get over myself and get a job’.

Then HR got involved, and it became apparent that what they could offer me in terms of a full-time salary was below what I’d need to earn to factor in childcare and travel. The numbers weren’t adding up on either side. But we all persisted, going backwards and forward on possible scenarios: the will was there to make this work, somehow. Then I had a lightbulb moment: Option 3 – let’s stop talking about employment, just put me on a retainer contract for a few days a week instead. This was a win-win: they wouldn’t have all the overheads of a new employee but still had priority over my time, and I would get to stay in control and keep my independence. Essentially, this is the holy grail for a freelancer.

And so that’s what happened.

The logistics have sort of fallen into place. After a couple of false starts, we finally found a fabulous, cheerful, capable after-school nanny who does pick up, tea, homework and bathtime, enabling me to work two long days and spread my other hours out over the rest of the week. The smalls are in breakfast club a couple of days, too. And despite my worry about not being there for them, they are, of course, absolutely fine. They are eight-and-a-half and six-and-a-half this month, after all, rather than babies. I still mostly work at home, I can still do school stuff (though the school campaigning has had to go on the back burner) and still do some work for selected other clients, and still manage my own time.

The best bit, though, is Wednesdays. My London day. My grown-up, proper job day. The day I get up early and put on a smart dress and get on a packed train and go to a big open-plan office and see my inspiring, clever, creative colleagues, new and old. I have a half-hour fast walk from Waterloo in my trainers, through a historic bit of London that is very easy to love (I only forgot shoes and had to buy a new pair of fierce heels once, honest), and get sushi for lunch, and have meetings in cool little break-out areas with some of the cream of the communications industry.

It’s the one day of the week where I’m a professional first, and mummy second. I leave before the kiddies are up, and DH does the morning routine and school run. I get back around 7.30pm to find tired, happy, freshly-bathed kiddies in their PJs watching the Simpsons with a glass of milk, with the nanny having handed over to daddy. That this is possible, and everyone is OK, is a revelation for me.

I know this is already a very long post but I have to make one final point: I could not have done this without DH. He has totally stepped up. He has a greater childcare role than ever before and has taken on more of the domestic burden without blinking. I feel like he takes my work really seriously for the first time in a long time, and he is doing his bit (thankfully with a pretty flexible employer himself) to make sure this new level of formality in my career works for all of us. We’ve always been a team, but now it feels more like we are equals again. It’s turning out to be good for us. And I have to admit that he and our friends, who are all a bit ‘I told you so’, were right all along, damn them: creative solitude is all very well, but sometimes you’ve just gotta put your lipstick on and get out there. Who knew it could be such fun?

Check your boobs, people!

So Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolls around again: yet another disease awareness campaign during which the women’s mags, weekend supplements, Twitter and Facebook feeds will be full of pink ribbons, real-life stories, tips for examining yourself and reminders of the importance of a Healthy Lifestyle. If you, or people you love, haven’t had a brush with cancer, it’s pretty easy to skip over those pages. I know I used to: those features and posts just didn’t seem relevant because young women don’t get breast cancer, right? And anyway, it’s too scary. And maybe even a bit too much information. And then, ironically, I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer actually during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, four years ago. I’ve always had immaculate timing. breast_cancer_care_checklist_0

Funnily enough (not funny, obviously, but I’ve always needed to laugh blackly about this stuff – the alternative is dissolving into a soggy pile of woe, which is not really my style), the week I was diagnosed I had, in fact, just read one of those ‘real life experiences’ about a young woman with breast cancer in Grazia, about which I wrote a couple of years ago. I was 37 years old, with a four-year-old daughter who had just started school, and a two-year-old son. That month, everything changed.

Four years on from that surreal whirlwind – from discovery of lump to oncology department in a matter of days – Breast Cancer Awareness Month resonates rather more. But it’s complicated. I sort of glance at the features and the information sideways. I still can’t look at them head on. Even having gone through it – or perhaps because – it’s possible to have ‘cancer fatigue’. And it’s just too close to home – I have my Year 4 mammogram at the end of this month, won’t be officially in remission for another year, and my consultant is now making noises about me being a candidate for the new 10-year protocol of taking the crazy-making Tamoxifen instead of the standard five years. And even when I’ve got through all of that without so much as another twinge, cancer haunts.

People I know who are well past the five years, even ten, 15 years after diagnosis, still say they are not ‘over’ it. That it never really leaves you, having had cancer. That every year around the anniversary of diagnosis, even if it was decades ago, they still have a frisson of fear. The memory of that utterly life-changing, bowel-liquidising moment when they say ‘chemotherapy’ to you for the first time is too powerful to ever fade completely.

And then, inevitably, giving rising rates of all cancers, someone else you know is diagnosed and starts going through the exact same treatment pathway as you, and it brings it all back again. This happened recently to me – an old colleague posted her shocking news on Facebook and it knocked me sideways with nausea. She is handling the treatment with humour, eloquence, stoicism and immense calm, which I much admire. She says my blog posts when I went through it were inspiring, which is very kind, but I think it’s more that the human spirit is quite remarkable. Many, many people who have complete breakdowns at stuff like lost luggage or being hit up the arse by a man in a white van will end up dealing much better with a genuine, life-threatening crisis.

Nevertheless, reading her upbeat updates on her treatment was, I think, the reason why I found myself sobbing in the car park at Surrey Sports Park a couple of weeks ago. I was due to meet my best friend for a swim after dropping the children at school, and just as I parked the car, a propos of bugger all, I had a flashback. During which I was lying topless on the bed in the assessment room at the Royal Surrey County Hospital’s breast unit, with one arm in the air and the consultant taking a biopsy of the lymph lump under my armpit. On the computer, there was the mammogram of my right breast, the terrifying, obviously-not-good-news white mass of tumours shining out of the screen. It was a split-second memory, but it was very, very vivid, and I just burst into tears and sat in the car crying by myself, thinking ‘I am not in any way over this. I have not really dealt with the utter nightmare of what happened, and I am really scared of it happening again’.

It’s over (probably forever), but it’s not ever going be be over, at the exact same time. You forget, and then you remember, and it’s like being winded all over again.

I love autumn. It’s my absolute favourite season. I love the colours and the leaves and the conkers and the low sun, and the return of my preferred uniform of opaque tights, short skirts and long boots. I love the ‘return to school’ feeling, the hard-wired desire to buy new stationery, the urge to make the home organised and cosy in preparation for winter nesting. I love the start of ‘roastie season’, where every Sunday involves friends, family, red wine, open fires, a sizzling joint (the meaty kind, obvs) and all the trimmings. But on top of that, autumn has become my most fearful season, and October is now the weirdest month. There are so many layers of reminders: every year it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, every year I am getting jittery as my annual mammogram approaches, every year I remember all over again those dates: the 6th, when I went to the doctor to report The Lumps; and the 13th, when I had the first mammogram and was immediately diagnosed. (October 6th is also the day we moved into our silver lining house three years ago, even more weirdly).

There is, though, the lightness and exhalation when the good news comes back from the radiography department: all-clear, I can relax and start planning Christmas. And the bigger picture stuff: I am so, so blessed. I had the most amazing treatment, from my incredible surgeon to my risk-taking oncologist and the lovely radiotherapy team. I am still well looked after, and in very good hands, and if I have any worries at all, I know I will be seen within days. I can tick off another year and am almost there, almost signed off! And then we can open the vintage Dom Perignon I have squirrelled away!

And, of course, I am still here, and well, and life is to be lived and enjoyed. I’m still around to see my babies grow up into wonderful, kind, funny, clever, dazzling young people and to hug them endlessly. Still here to laugh and cry and eat and drink and dance with my husband and my friends and my family, all of whom are so special and lovely and generally awesome, I must be the luckiest girl alive.

None of which would have been possible if I hadn’t known, via my flicking through all the features in women’s magazines over the years, what to look for, how to examine myself, and the importance of reporting anything that ‘just doesn’t seem right’ as soon as possible. Most breast lumps and bumps and pain are benign, and your mind will have been put at rest. If that’s not the case, and Stuff Needs Sorting Out, you’ll be whisked through our amazing healthcare system and have the best chance of effective treatment. So do give Breast Cancer Awareness Month a tiny bit of attention this October. It might just save your life.

 

In which Pinchy swims for bloody hours

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to blog about this. I’ll probably work it out while I’m writing. Last month, I did my Biggest Ever physical challenge: I swam 5K for Sport Relief. Yes, I know! Me! The doyenne of exercise-avoidance!

Five kilometres, I can tell you, is a bloody long way. It is, in fact, 200 (count ’em) lengths of the Surrey Sports Park pool. It seems even longer when you can only do a ‘majestic’ (ahem) breast stroke and have never done more than happily bob around a holiday swimming pool for 40 years prior to taking on this challenge.

I’m being slightly disingenuous, of course: I didn’t just get in the pool on the day and hope for the best. I had been training for it since September, along with my two co-swimmers, my dear friend S and her oldest buddy A. Well, when I say training, it was more like swimming up and down for a bit twice a week, and then going for a natter, a cuppa and a panini because we were ‘famished’. At first, anyway. We were all comfortably swimming a mile – 64 lengths – by November, although that was taking me an hour. And then I sort of… stalled. I didn’t really get in the pool much during December and January. Or February. I started to seriously think about pulling out of the swim. I hadn’t started fundraising and was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the task for a non-swimmer.

Come to think of it, I was overwhelmed by much over the winter. It’s true that you only realise when you emerge from a tunnel how dark and cold it was in there, and how long it has been since you felt the warm sun on your face. Sitting here now, feeling broadly OK, I can’t quite believe what a struggle those wet, overcast months were, in all ways. It was probably a combination of seasonal glumness, a stressful time re finances, my natural tendency towards depression, and big bad life-changing stuff going on for friends who I love fiercely. Plus I was working almost every evening to meet deadlines and very involved with our school campaign after our head teacher left suddenly. (See my previous five posts for the full story!)

This period of General Rubbishness, pre-swim, was topped off nicely by a week in Egypt. Our first family holiday abroad for three years, and the first since I finished my cancer treatment. We took the kids out of school for a week and could still only afford it by hiving off a bit of the money we’d borrowed for a basic refurb of our decrepit kitchen, combined with DH’s first bonus for a few years. In other words, we were quite desperate for a holiday. The kiddies were looking forward to it so hard I thought they would burst before we hit Sharm. We were going to have an amazing time!

There is a small but important life lesson here about ‘non-attachment to outcomes’: the more you want things to be a certain way, the less likely they are to meet your expectations.  I’m always quoting Alain de Botton on travel – something very true he once said along the lines of ‘the trouble with holidays is that you take yourself with you’. The trouble with Egypt was that I took my tearful, short-fused, exhausted self there and expected to be transformed instantly by the sunshine, sea views and all-inclusive package  into the easy-going, cheerful version of myself. What actually happened was that I sat on the lounger with cause-less tears running behind my shades while our delightful and beautiful children had an amazing week in the pool. My Kindle died, both our phones were stolen from our hotel room, necessitating far too much interaction for DH with hotel security and management, reps, and Egyptian police stations, plus there was the worst torrential rainstorm Sharm had seen for decades. My energy was in such a shit place, frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if I manifested all of the above, like a frickin’ witch.

I was planning to swim loads while we were there. I didn’t. I did snorkel on a coral reef with beautiful fish, like Actual Finding Nemo, though, and that lifted my spirits a little. When we returned, it was only a fortnight to the Big Swim and I had only covered less than a third of the distance in my training sessions. So I went Forrest Gump. I got in the pool and just swam, for 80 lengths. Then a couple of days later I swam 100. Then 120. And finally, on the Monday before Sport Relief Swimathon Saturday, I ringfenced three hours and swam 180 lengths. At that point, and not at any point before, I knew I could do it. S mentioned that last year’s Swimathon times were on the website. I made the mistake of looking and realised that I really was going to be one of the slowest in the entire country – no-one in my age group had done 5k nearly as slowly as my predicted time of 3hrs 20 minutes. The only women who had done that sort of time were (I kid you not) called things like Doris and Ethel, which I pejoratively assumed meant that I was as slow as a Very Old Lady.

That week, as I wondered again why I was doing this, the Sport Relief programme about Davina McCall’s far more crazy challenge to cycle, run and swim 500 miles from Edinburgh to London, was on telly. The documentary followed Davina on her trip to Africa before taking on the challenge. As she sat with the little girl whose days consisted not of school and games and fun with friends but the monotony of breaking rocks and breathing dust with her mother, hour after hour after hour, for pennies, I cried. I realised that the money I had already raised at that point would send two little girls like her to school for a year. THAT was the point. And I cried again the next morning when I tried to explain to DD when she asked why I was swimming so far. There was my motivation. To give little girls, just like my bright and funny and precious seven year old daughter, a chance at a better life.

Nevertheless, I still had to do the damn thing. I didn’t sleep the night before the swim. I woke up in a terrible mood, really jittery and anxious. S had an upset tummy and A had her back strapped up. It was not looking good. The worst thing was waiting all day: the event wasn’t due to start until 6pm after the  start time moved from 5pm. I went slightly ballistic, and pointed out to the organiser that this would mean I would be in the pool until nearly 9.30pm, meaning my children couldn’t be there at the finish line and our plans for a takeaway and champagne with my M&D, who were up for the weekend to cheer me on, would be buggered. After she realised quite how slow I was (and that she’d probably need to give me the keys to lock up…) she asked if I’d like to start an hour early, in my own special lane. Like a special person. FFS. My sister texted, accurately: ‘We are not a family of athletes, Pinch’. I graciously accepted, of course.

So we arrived at the pool. DD and DS had secretly made me a poster saying ‘Go Mummy Go!’ I got into my cossie. Put my goggles on. Still shaking. My lovely friend B arrived en route to her date night just to see me off. Good luck countdown texts arrived from other dear friends. Team Pinchy was cheering on the sidelines. I got into the water, put my bottles of sporty drink stuff raided from DH’s cycling larder on the edge, and started. I was not entirely in a lane of my own – there was also a small child, who swam the entire 200 lengths in less than two hours, and a series of elderly gentlemen doing the 5k as a relay, who also finished well ahead of me. It took me a good 40 lengths to get into any sort of stride. If one can be shaking while ploughing up and down a pool, that was I. I stopped briefly every 20 lengths for a quick gulp of drink, and to check in with the very patient lady counting for me. Every length took one minute, for the first couple of hours. Then, as everyone else in my lane finished and I had it to myself, I actually got quicker. I was coming in under target! photo 2

My family and S’s arrived to cheer us all on for the finish. The last 20 lengths were punishing: I was breaking new ground, and by that time my right arm was very painful. It’s the one that I had all the lymph nodes removed from; my movement is slightly limited on that side and it does get very uncomfortable at the top and in the armpit if I overdo it, risking lymphodoema and cellulitis ( I’ve only had this once, and it was royally crap).

Then, suddenly, it was the two hundredth length. My darling husband and babies stood at the end of the pool shouting ‘COME ON PINCHY!’, and I was trying to swim 25 metres while doing an odd mixture of sobbing and laughing. And then it was over. My official time was 3hrs 8mins. I’ve just checked and I was the 3,680th person to finish in the country. Whoop! Because I had started an hour early, I was actually out of the pool a few minutes before my much speedier swimming buddies, and was able to cheer them on at the finish. We had done it! Between the three of us we’ve raised a couple of grand so far, I think – you can still donate on my page at https://my.sportrelief.com/sponsor/majapawinskasims – I’m a few quid shy of £700 so all donations very welcome!

There was elation and achiness and lots of hugs. And we all got a medal, much to the smalls’ delight. Then champagne and a massive fat well-deserved Thai takeaway at home, followed by a bath in oil provided in my lovely school mum friend E’s ‘survival pack’ (along with bananas and jelly babies).

I woke up the next morning, terribly glad it was all over (although slightly surprised I had not turned into a size 6 sylph overnight). And at that moment, I began to feel better. Lighter and brighter. I had a health kinesiology session with my very dear friend Magic Emily, which helped shift things further and sorted out the achy lymph-free arm. And I have felt a little bit more myself every day since. I haven’t completely shaken off the Gloom, but I’m getting there. And that’s prolly why it took me so long to blog.

I’m never, ever swimming 5K again. But I quite fancy a different sort of physical fundraising challenge. I’m thinking trekking Peru for Breast Cancer Care next. Machu Picchu, anyone?

 

Now We Are Forty…

It was my fortieth birthday a couple of weeks ago. FORTY, for fuck’s sake! I am now a 40 year old woman! How on earth did that happen?

Oddly, I wasn’t in the least bit concerned in the run up to the day. No denial, no keeping it quiet, no plans to pretend, like the mum in Judd Apatow’s hilarious movie ‘This Is 40’, that I will remain 39 forever, no telling people not to make a fuss. That’s not my style: I like MAXIMUM fuss to be made of me on my birthday, and always make a fuss of people I love on theirs.  Any excuse for champagne, frankly. No, I embraced it utterly, and planned a big grown-up garden party.

As the Significant Birthday approached, people kept saying things along the lines of: ‘Ooh, the big Four-Oh, how are you feeling about it?!’ and I was then able to spout my ‘Theory of Being a Forty-Year-Old Woman in 2013’. Which goes something like this. There has never, in human history, been a better time to be a woman. There’s still a long way to go – there’s appallingly bad shit and inequality and unfairness and misogyny and sexism still going on around the world to women and girls – but nevertheless. In particular, there has probably never been a better time to be a woman over 40. Or an Actual Grown-Up, as I now think of what used to be called Middle Age.

At the RA on the Big Day

At the RA on the Big Day

Just look around you, at the musicians and actors and models, the business leaders and entrepreneurs, the writers, journalists, politicians and sportspeople. There are an awful lot of Actual Grown-Up Women among them. Some of the coolest, sexiest people in the world are now over 40. Kylie’s 45 (KYLIE!), and Madonna was 55 last week, for goodness’ sake. Jennifer Aniston is 44; Samantha Cameron and Susanna Reid are both 42. Paula Radcliffe was born the same year as me. Karren Brady is 44, and JK Rowling is 48. Cameron Diaz is a year older than me. Yeah, really! The original supermodels are all in their mid-40s. Women aged over 40 are at the top of their game: mature, confident in their skin, look frickin’ amazing, and have an attractive sheen of experience and wisdom.

In short, when I think of myself as a 40-year-old woman, I don’t think ‘Shit! I’m over the hill! I’ve done nothing with my life! In my advanced years I must cut my hair unflatteringly short and wear crap clothes and ugly shoes and no make-up and inexorably trudge down the path to old age and incontinence and death!’ Rather, I think this: Wow. This is totally going to be the best decade ever! This is the decade when I will accomplish my dreams and achieve my potential. Now my children are no longer tiny and totally dependent on me, now I have something approaching a life of my own again, it’s going to be amazing. This is where I get to be utterly myself, where there are no barriers. apart from my own thoughts, to business success, finishing that novel, being thin, being comfortably-off, being happy, and being fit and healthy.

That’s the most personal thing, right there. The healthy bit. My thirties weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Apart from giving birth to my two darling children, I was basically stressed, broke, anxious, depressed or having panic attacks for much of my thirties (and twenties, if we’re being honest). And then my late thirties were spectacularly crap thanks to my Cancer Experience. You know how much I hate the language of cancer – the battling, struggling, fighting, surviving stuff – but as I approached my 40th birthday I actually felt euphoric about having reached this ripe old age because (and you may never hear me use this word again) I survived. I got this far. And so my party was a chance to say thank you to (almost) all the people who supported me and DH through it, and to celebrate having actually got to 40, which looked like a distinctly shaky possibility three years ago when I was diagnosed. IMG_3210

Still, I do wonder when I’m going to feel grown-up. Does that ever happen? When I was younger, my mum would say she still felt 18, and I never got what she meant, until recently when I realised that in my head I am basically still 22 and feel no more emotionally mature, stable, sophisticated or cool than Taylor Swift. I am hoping that at some point I will know my limit on white wine, stop drunk texting and tweeting, re-heel my shoes on time, learn to play golf, or tennis, own a fancypants coffee machine, have regular manicures, and never run out of bog roll or milk. That time is not now.

My birthday itself was perfect: the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (my annual art indulgence) with DH and the kiddies, and then champagne afternoon tea at my new favourite restaurant, Balthazar, with the surprise addition of my mummy, which reduced me to tears. DH bought me a stunning grey snakeskin Michael Kors handbag and, from the kiddies, a gorgeous gold ‘Pinchy’ name necklace, made for me by a stroppy little Polish man in Hatton Garden (His phone call alerting DH to the completion of the commission was a terse ‘Hello? Pinchy is Ready’. Dial tone). Then a takeaway and more champagne at home with our best friends, which accidentally got a bit drunken. Then an indulgent lunch the next day at Le Gavroche with my wonderful parents, and sis and brother-in-law, who gave me the most beautiful gold bracelet. Mama and Pops had created an amazingly nostalgic Aspinal leather photo album with photos of me from newborn to now, embossed with ‘Maja – the first 40 years’ on the front. (Mummy said she was going to put 1973-2013 and then realised that it would look like I had actually died…) IMG_3188

So I didn’t really need the party I had planned. But what a party it was. We cunningly shipped the smalls off to our dear friends’ house with an all-night babysitter so all the kiddies could have fun together and all the adults could stay at ours and have a lie-in the next morning.  We spent all day dressing the garden: hay bales covered with colourful fleeces, Chinese lanterns in sorbet shades, fairy lights, and bunting. At 8pm, guests started arriving and under the gazebo there was live music – a guy and a guitar, and his girlfriend singing Kings of Leon tracks beautifully – to accompany prosecco, and canapes made by my mummy and best friend. We even had catering – a deliciously meaty South African barbecue – and then the party really got started, with DH manning the ‘Marisco Disco’ (ie a playlist on my iPad attached to a proper sound system kindly loaned to us for the occasion).

Everyone had dressed up. The wine flowed. I danced on the patio under the fairy lights all night, with my best friends and my family (my mum and dad have got some stamina, I can tell you). I can’t remember the last time I did that. Being whirled around by gorgeous boys for hours on end was quite marvellous. I lost count of the number of times we had Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ on, with 46 people shouting ‘You know you want it, you’re a GOOD GIRL’ repeatedly. My sister (dressed as Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys circa 1988, just because she knew I would love it) and brother-in-law presented my birthday cake: delicious chocolate brownies in the shape of the number 40, each with a candle. One of my oldest school friends had flown over from her home in Malaysia just for the weekend, just for me. Another lovely friend came straight from his flight from Ireland and arrived at 11.30pm to share my celebration. Almost everyone had booked a hotel room, so they could fully commit to partying. I was spoiled with gifts of every major champagne label under the sun, and some beautiful jewellery, and compliments on my last-minute dress, and many, many hugs and kisses. The old Salisbury gang was back together for the first time in years. My uni chums were there, and my mummy friends. Everyone had a ball.

The last guests left or went to bed at 4am. (The neighbours kindly asked us to take the music inside at 1am.) And when everyone else had gone, I stayed up for a bit by myself to savour it all and quietly open a couple of pressies. To soak up the last vestige of party atmosphere, and cement my memories. My jaws ached from smiling. My knees and toes were killing me from dancing in heels for seven hours. I’ll never forget it. It was perfect. IMG_3452

Being born in 1973, we’ve had a few 40th celebrations over the past year, and more special ones to come in the next couple of years among my closest friends. It does feel like a really significant birthday, a real milestone or marker in one’s life. Some people dread being 40 as it approaches, and I totally get that. It’s a natural trigger for quite a lot of self-examination and life assessment. I say: embrace it. Enjoy it. Celebrate it. Mark it, as noisily as possible with as many people as possible and as much champagne as possible. And when the hangover has abated, and life, somewhat surprisingly, gets back to normal, get on with the business of living, and loving, and start planning your 50th birthday celebration. I’m thinking Vegas…

The perfect age

I have a confession to make: I’m not really a baby person. By which I mean, I’m not one of those mummies who absolutely adores the newborn and tiny baby phase. I never revelled in that intimate milky haze. I love my children fiercely, and I would have killed for them the moment they arrived in my arms. But their babyhood was also an extended period of low-level panic: total responsibility for a tiny, vulnerable, helpless human being, who I struggled to understand and who couldn’t tell me what they really needed. It was two years of guesswork and feeling like I was getting it wrong, both times.

My tiny vampire and teddy bear.

My tiny vampire and teddy bear.

I regret, looking back, that I didn’t relax a bit, go with the flow and enjoy them more. It’s a cliche because it’s so true: they really aren’t babies for long, and it’s a very precious time. But we are are who we are, and some of us are brilliant with babies, and some of us are not. I was bloody good at giving birth, I have to say, but doing a good job of an actual miniature human being? Not so much. For me, it was a total headfuck. I wish it had not been so, but there we are. The moment DS was born, I knew we were done, our family was complete, and I have never had even a twinge of broody desire (luckily, since my ovaries were almost certainly nuked by the chemo two years ago) to have another baby.

Now, though, is a different pot of crustaceans altogether. I had an inkling, when DD started school nearly three years ago (OMG, where has that gone?!) that I was entering a phase of motherhood that I would be a darn sight better at. That would come more naturally to me. That I could really enjoy. Before having children, I always imagined myself with primary school-age kiddies. And lo: I have discovered that I really love being a school mom. Happily, I had two summer babies so this bit came round relatively quickly. DD is coming to the end of Year 2 and DS is about to finish reception, they are about to be seven and five, and I would bottle them, right now.

They are delightful, and I want this summer to go on for ever. I always want to watch them bouncing on their trampoline and inventing silly new jumps that reduce them to a heap of hiccupy hysterics. I want them to always be as funny and sweet and cuddly and delicious and adorable as they are right now. They don’t seem to have been particularly scarred by having a rubbish mummy early in their lives: they are disarmingly affectionate – it’s like they are teaching me new ways of loving and being loved and accepting love, every day. Every day, they break down my barriers and melt my cautious heart. Their kisses and cuddles are offered and demanded and given so freely. They are fearless with their love, still, and it is a total joy and privilege to be with them, most of the time. They are well-mannered, rarely horrifyingly naughty, and our minor spats are usually because they are so in the moment with what they are doing, they’ve tuned me out. Which is fair enough, really: pirates don’t need to put sensible shoes on.

I am pretty much the opposite of a ‘helicopter parent’ – I’m more of a stealth bomber, hovering out of sight in case of extreme crisis, and I encourage them to be independent and to make their own fun. And occasionally I hear a bored whine, and it is then that I know the magic is about to happen: in the space where they are a bit bored, their most exciting and imaginative new games and activities flourish, quite without my interference. They play beautifully together, and are completely in love with each other: DD is still unselfconscious enough to enjoy playing with her little brother almost more than anyone else, although he is starting to wind her up on occasion, being his father’s son. I avoid getting involved in their disagreements as far as possible (unless there is blood, obviously) not just because I can’t be arsed/am doing laundry/have a rather tricky level of Candy Crush to conquer, but because they are quite capable of resolving their differences, compromising and negotiating. In fact, I reckon they sign the peace treaty (ie agree on a movie or a game or who’s gonna wear the Cat in the Hat outfit) a lot quicker when I’m not doing a Ban Ki-moon act.

Every day, I take joy in the little acts of care for them. I take satisfaction from washing, ironing and putting out their uniform every night. I make their packed lunches with love (all those cute little Tupperware boxes!). I love making their beds in the morning, opening their curtains and letting the day into their room. I love doing the school run. They are so happy at our wonderful school, and doing so well. I love the little facts they come home with every night, and their excited bulletins about the next day. We are lucky that our homework burden is light, so after school they are free to ride their bikes and just be children. Apart from non-negotiable swimming lessons on a Monday after school, we don’t have any other scheduled activities at the moment. They are happy enough, stimulated enough, and tired enough as it is. Yesterday, we had no playdates planned, so we just hung out in the garden, the three of us, eating lollies, reading Grazia (me) and playing some sort of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/Despicable Me mash-up (the smalls), whose rules I didn’t quite understand.

And the next stage is letting them teach me not only about love, but also about play. They are old enough, now, to play a rudimentary game of cricket, football or catch in the garden. They are old enough to write the clues for a treasure hunt. They are old enough to go for long adventures in the woods. They are old enough to make quite complex structures out of Lego or clay. They are old enough to try magic tricks and card games. I’ve never really enjoyed stuff like role play (no sniggering at the back), and puzzles, but the stuff they are into now is, well, more interesting. Take Harry Potter, who features large in our lives at the moment. IMG_2418They are mesmerised by the first three movies. I’m reading the first book to them at bedtime and they are properly enthralled. I think, to be honest, that that was the moment being a parent first made complete, joyful sense to me: when I started reading them books I love and saw the wonder in their faces. (Doing Hagrid’s West Country accent is no problem, as a Salisbury girl, but my Professor McGonagall is appalling). DH took great joy in whittling them a real wooden wand so they could properly be Harry and Hermione. They both saved up for a toy owl, so they have their own Hedwigs. I spent hours following a YouTube tutorial to make them Golden Snitches. DS is mooting a trip to Harry Potter Studios for his fifth birthday.

They want me to join in their play more than I do, and are surprised and delighted when I stop the chores and muck in. DD’s face when I actually got on the trampoline the other day and showed her how to do a pike was a picture – she lit up, which was worth the alarm caused to my pelvic floor. I plan to say yes to their games a lot more, this summer. Yes to water fights! Yes to races! Yes to hide and seek! IMG_2454

Because much as baby days were over quickly, this golden bit of my darlings’ childhood is rushing past. And this time I really do mind. I am already having conversations with friends about what age our girls will be when we allow them into town alone and let them have a mobile phone (the consensus seems to be between 11 and 12. That’s potentially only four years until the Letting Go starts…) It’s not going to be long before we have teenage strops and sulks and they don’t want anything to do with each other or us (but still desperately NEED us to get them, and love them unconditionally – I anticipate another challenging period of communication equal to having a newborn!).

In the meantime, for the first time in my almost-seven years as a mother, I kind of feel like I am doing a good enough job. I don’t always get it right. For every day that I’m calm, cheerful and easy to be around, there’s another day when I’m preoccupied, knackered and impatient. I really appreciate the silence in my home office while they are at school, and I rejoice, some days, when it’s time for the bath taps to go on and mummy’s little helper is chilling in the fridge. But I also rejoice on Saturday nights in, when they are allowed to stay up to watch trashy talent show telly with us, and we get through bags of tortilla chips and houmous together and discuss which mentor or judge we’d like. When we were in Rome for DH’s 40th at Easter, after the first two days we were missing the kiddies terribly and planning our next trip to the Eternal City with them in tow, and a bigger icecream budget. They are wonderful little humans, and great company. And, pelvic floor notwithstanding, I will be doing the Bottom Jump on the trampoline with them in a matter of hours. Lucky old me.