Sunday, 27 June 2010

It's A Family Affair

It's the time of year I normally hate – no, not summer, but that season when sport seems to rule the TV and a large section of the population's lives. This year is a first for me because since September I have been living without a TV in a house where TVs are not considered an essential item. This means that for the first week of the World Cup, I managed to entirely avoid seeing any footage. Sure, I walked past the odd pub and caught the occasional glimpse of green pitches and heard that familiar sound of fans cheering on or commiserating team performances.

For several reasons this year seems to be the year of firsts... Perhaps, I should have waited until 2010 to do my degree. Tennis is something I have always grown up with: every year my Olds tune in to Wimbledon; at family gatherings a trip to the local tennis courts is not unusual; at school I was forced to “play” and my Aunt and Uncle are both line judges. My travels left me open to trying pretty much anything at least once so this year I decided to give myself another first by taking advantage of my Aunt and Uncle's position, utilising their easy access to Wimbledon tickets. Not a huge fan of tennis, I justified the expense by viewing it as a rare chance to spend a day in the English sunshine and something else to file away in the experience bank.

I began my day meeting my Wimbledon date – Old Dear; Spending a day with my dad seemed to be a fitting way of continuing this link between Tennis and my family that I always unwittingly make. Faffing around in Waterloo getting supplies, I painfully recognise myself within him; I am truly my father's daughter and this unavoidable fact is something that I will be reminded of throughout the day. I watch him rummaging in the characteristic luminous orange rucksack, burying things deep in the bag he will clearly need in a few moments and perpetually thinking he's lost something. On the train we are virtually wearing the same glasses and later on in the day after he's given me a tour of the grounds and we are sitting with Pimm's another embarrassing personal characteristic is mirrored – he clumsily manages to explode a bottle of carbonated water and immediately afterwards succeeds in knocking over a champagne bottle – thankfully empty.

All refreshed and having watched snippets of women's singles and my Aunt line judging a men's doubles game, we head over to court 18 to bask in the sun. It's not long before another irritating Owenism I seem to have inherited pops up uninvited - nose blowing that resembles a fog horn heard through a megaphone at close range; Luckily, this isn't something that happens during a vital match point, especially as the crowd are fully engaged in this rather tense exceedingly close match between American, 23rd seed, John Isner and Frenchman, Nicolas Mahut. I actually feel quite sad to be leaving at 4.30 when it's time to meet my Aunt in the Umpire/Line Judging area for tea.

An hour later and we return to Court 18 pleased and amazed the battle continues – in the fifth set neither player has a clear upper hand and the number of games played is already so ludicrously high there are murmurs of world records being beaten. Both players are grunters and the occasional softening and quietening of their animalistic sounds perpetuates unanimous giggling from the crowd. John is already clearly tired but somehow my sympathies lie with the Frenchie. John is a lobber with once world-record breaking speed serves, “Nico” on the other hand is a runner darting all over the court, seemingly expelling more energy despite John's appearance. Both have dedicated supporters – a group of fellow Frenchies repeatedly chant ascending “alle”s while American spectators yell “John” in an accent I can't help but associate with the cheesy Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tantum film, “Dear John”. Two kids in front, one wearing an Arsenal t-shirt, both start yelling “alle John” and one shouts out a plea for the “ref” to ignore one of his faults.

As the game continues with no clear winner in sight the crowd whoop, making firework appreciation noises and attempting Mexican Waves. The umpire relishes announcing the ridiculous score, laughing each time as he updates us. Outward appearances suggest John is now not merely tired but completely exhausted. He stands looking dismayed with his hands on his hips. Good-natured yells of “We want to go home” start to be emitted from random spectators and are always followed with a peel of laughter. At 40 match point games there is a big cheer – it's impossible not to admire the dedication and devotion of these two equally-matched players.

I'm just as impressed by the ritualistic military style of the ball boys' and girls' routine and there is also plenty to revere in the line judges who stand centrally at the other end of the court from John, bravely facing the wrath of one of his high-speed balls. Hearing the loud bang as one of his serves hits the spot these line judges stood in only seconds before and watching Nico's almost panicked looking self-defence style returns, I'm glad I'm not in the path of those balls.

Munching on Percy Pigs, I feel exhausted from the heat and the constant crossing and uncrossing of my legs on either side for nearly three hours. As time passes, John becomes the underdog - his T-shirt isn't the only now transparent garment as his sweat-soaked shorts become that way inclined. Sitting to the side of the court, his legs splayed with his racket between them, the self-recognition in his exhaustion produces empathy. I am pathetically reminded of all those times I'd be walking uphill from the gym after swimming and using power plates, carrying shopping and contemplating just giving up, stopping and sitting down or the also equally “painful” uphill walk to University first thing in the morning. Through all John's sweat and frustration, Nico appears unfazed and I find myself starting to unwillingly change my allegiance.

At “47 all” the scoreboard ceases working as if it has maxed out, having never gone to such a score before or through pure exhaustion like the more determined players. At 50, we leave this Herculean effort to engage in a final stubborn argument over which station we'd arrived at. Unfortunately “bloody-mindedness” is another father-daughter trait I'm constantly reminded of – sometimes it proves useful and for others around, I'm sure it's frustrating. On this occasion, like the tennis players we'd recently watched, Old Dear and I are perfectly matched, except on arriving at the station it was clear I'd obviously got my overs and unders mixed and would have to admit defeat.

On the way home, we discover a desperate Nico has lunged for the ball propelling himself across the court and launching his racket but is still fighting for his victory. At Waterloo, I say my farewells and on the bus home I'm told the match is postponed due to dwindling light until the next day – a wise decision I think as I contemplate the damage John's service could do in the darkness.

For the first time in my life, the following morning, I actively seek out Metro's sports pages on my way in to my supply booking. Surely if either player was to win it'd be due to a cardiac arrest? I'm strangely disappointed by the lack of a resolution and keenly await a text update later in the day. When I discover John eventually won the 138th game of the fifth set at 70-68 to a standing ovation, called Nico an “absolute warrior” and claimed to have not felt tired, I am no longer sure I wanted him to win; Players fresh-faced from sleep, rest and food, it doesn't feel like the same match. As the crowd had suspected the day before, the game broke twelve world records ( and the players received a crystal bowl and champagne flute to mark the feat.

Played over three days (the fourth set was halted on Tuesday night) for eleven hours and five minutes with the final set lasting a staggering seven hours and six minutes, this was the longest match in the history of tennis, beating the previous 2004 record at the French Open of six hours and thirty-three minutes by Fabrice Santoro Arnaud Clement. The 118 games in the final set beat the previous record in men's singles of 46 by Nicola Pietrangeli and Nikola Pilic in 1962 and Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell in 1969. Although Andy Roddick now has the fastest serve at 155 mph, Isner managed to set a new personal world record with his 113 aces. So not only was the day a first for me but a first for many world records and somehow I was jammy enough to witness them. Watching such an exciting game has me contemplating returning for more sweat and blood at next year's Wimbledon but without a TV, I won't be following the rest of this year's action.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Boomerangs, Beaters And Moodles

Ever since April, morning showers have become a whole different experience. One sunny Oxford day towards the end of that fair month, a friend secretly purchased something for me that I had been admiring in a charity shop. What was the item? An amazing shower radio in the guise of a penguin whose two fins act as the volume and tuning dials and whose tie can be skewed to change from AM to FM and vice versa.

Back in a previous Leeds' life when I had a steady job, fixed-abode and a vague sense of security, I had a fish shower radio that helped me feel marginally more alive in the mornings by pumping out cheesy tunes of old courtesy of the cheery folk at Magic. You see, even back then, I had moved on from Radio One, preferring the Magical blend of 80s tunes with new music and friendly DJs. My new shower buddy's first run was actually hours after I was presented with it - not in a shower but inside a gazebo as we lay around in star shapes apres barbecue. Listening to an unidentified radio station, I found myself enthused by new artists again who maybe weren't the most current releases but were certainly unfamiliar to me. Hours later, several artists' names were scrawled on old receipts in my wallet. And what was the station? I should be ashamed to admit this but anyone who read my turning 30 entry will know I am well beyond shame... the station was Radio Two.

Since that illuminating day, the penguin showers with me every morning, channeling Chris Evans' voice into the cubicle. Evans' show is no match for Magic mornings of old and some of the features are clearly aimed at my seniors but the penguin's selective nature and my rushed mornings mean that for the moment, failing to find a better option, Evans' voice is the first I hear every weekday. I am particularly happy with the random nuggets of information I occasionally acquire from the show. On Friday, I was informed the average person reads about 10,000 words a day - a figure I have since tried to confirm elsewhere but have been unable to.

From the 10,000 plus words I have read in a twenty-four hour period, I have learnt some new vocabulary and as I love words, I thought I'd share these with you. Re-reading notes I made for a film review, I came across “Moodle”. “Moodle” is one of my favourite types of word creation – a blend, combining “Man” and “Poodle” to describe the kind of guys girls think are cute and like to just take out for a walk, rather than date.

The next day but still just within my 24 hour time-frame, browsing a Liverpool charity shop, a friend came across a cracking book - one so appallingly bad, I had to purchase. And the title? The A-Z Of Being Single – a tongue-in-cheek self-help book for men written by comedian, Jeff Green. Trying to predict "Z's" entry, we flicked through the book and found Green's opening advice – something we could have never guessed and was both so surreal and awful, it was enough to convince me to part with 60p:

“Zealousness (Over-)

Be careful not to show excessive interest in your new partner's life, especially during the early days of the relationship. Remember, you're a bloke; you're not supposed to be that keen. There is a thin line between healthy attention and downright creepiness. You will raise her suspicions and possibly drive her away forever if you look deep into her eyes and say in a sincere voice things like:

  • Please tell me about your cat's operation again...

  • I wish I could have your periods for you.”

Cruising towards the beach, money parted with and book in hand, I enthusiastically opened up at “A” and started to skim through, stopping at particularly ludicrous entries to share my dismay with my companions. All of us coupled up, we were amused to discover we have already nearly reached Green's fifth stage in his “Seven Stages Of A Relationship”:

Stage 1 - Holding hands

Stage 2 – Pet names

Stage 3 – Flatulent familiarity

Stage 4 – B & Q

Stage 5 – Matching tracksuits

Stage 6- Twin Beds

Stage 7- Death

I hope the last three stages are a long way off, although I guess The boy and I are kind of going through a temporary version of Stage Six, in that we are currently living in separate cities so most definitely sleeping in different beds.

The two nuggets of information that less personally affected me and satisfied my love of words were the definitions of “Beater” and “Boomerangs”. According to Green, Beaters are: “A socially unskilled friend who comes along with you on the pull for the sole purpose of driving any available women into your range”. He goes on to formulate a hypothetical situation, illustrating how men can use this friend by pretending not to know them, agreeing with the disgusted women trying to escape the “Beater” and offering to save these damsels with his company or suggestions of a new venue to accompany them to. Green implies that a “Boomerang” is another socially inadequate person who “as adults actually chooses to live with their parents”.

All that amazing information in a mere 24 hours! And my top three, rather bizarrely, are all belittling negative categories for types of men. I look forward to the next day's worth of reading material, I have time to reflect on. I am yet to finish my delightful new purchase and something tells me, it might not be the last time you hear about it.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The Cruelty Of Strangers

I’m sweating in the oppressive heat of the underground on my way from Angel to Kensington Olympia. I’m on the first leg of my journey on the Northern line on the way to Kings Cross and I have just sat down. Almost immediately, I have the misfortune to hear the guy wearing sunglasses sitting beside me loudly say: “Gays should be put in line and shot. They’re disgusting”. This remark is said without any shame in the kind of voice intended to be heard by all around, inviting controversy. His friend opposite heartily agrees before the original imbecile goes on to theorise: “Being born gay is bollocks – come on, do you see two year old boys trying to make out?” I struggle to ignore the temptation to respond to this ludicrous line of argument and manage by internalising my rant.

This is the fourth thing I have heard or witnessed in one day to shake my faith in humanity and genuinely shock, surprise or disgust me. Earlier in the day I encountered a child arguably more unfortunately named than God’s Promise. Who names their son Endurance? Calling the register, I struggled to stifle a smirk, immediately thinking of condoms and later of the Japanese game show. Towards the end of the same lesson, I stopped another student from walking out of the class. When asked where they were going, they cockily informed me they needed to fart and could they please leave the room. A few hours on and another child I have expressly told to stay put abandons ship. I go to challenge him but a learning support assistant stops me and calls me over to tell me she has given him permission because he needs to "break wind" and this isn’t something I want to witness. I don’t remember fellow students ever pre-empting such an event while I was at school or recall ever encountering this request in the five years that I was teaching in Leeds. I’m sure the accepted approach was to hope for a “silent but violent” variety and cause class uproar while strongly denying any involvement – there was none of this unabashed pre-admittance and this class avoidance technique was unheard of.

Leaving Victoria train station early one Sunday night slightly bleary eyed I saw what appeared to be a man hosing down the pavement. As he got nearer to me, I narrowly missed the projectile stream of urine. The sight of men peeing against a wall is fairly commonplace but not a man walking in broad day light seemingly sober towards a crowded train station with his flaccid dick out, weeing as he moves. I was horrified and things seemed to have reached an all time low. If I had been in India this everyday sight would have been no more shocking than seeing a woman squat in the street or someone pooing in the slums and beyond. Obviously things deemed unacceptable in one culture are the norm in another – in the UK abandoned dog turd incurs a fine, whereas horses seem to live by a whole different set of rules but if we were in Hungary you wouldn’t bat an eyelid if a horse trotted past wearing a giant diaper.

Being called fat in India is often intended as a compliment, suggesting wealth and good health. The Nigerian guy in Malaysia who told me I was a “big girl” had intended to woo me, rather than mortify me. If someone in England was to call you “fat” or a “big girl” defences would go up and they would be judged as rude. Yet, in the last month and a half, two rather distressing encounters have occurred. Browsing the sales rack in Primark, I was flabbergasted when a woman looked at me and told me “You’ll never fit that over your bump.” Completely startled and far too polite to retaliate, my face flushed and my internal monologue began. This woman was the kind who in age had retained a trim figure and had obviously enjoyed the sun bed throughout her life. She clearly persisted in buying clothes far too tarty or young for her age and was pawing a skimpy tight-fitting mini dress as she gave me this uncalled for and frankly unnecessary advice. It was only weeks later telling the story to my sister, that we formulated the perfect come back – I am aware I do not have the figure of a model but at least my skin fits me.

Having survived such pleasant commentary from an aged skank, I should have been prepared for my next shock. Talking to a hotel receptionist in Bristol, a rather rotund fellow guest listening in unasked decided to share his opinions about our destination and then proceeded to ask me: “Do you have a bump?” Initially oblivious of his meaning, I looked to me knees thinking that perhaps I had unknowingly knocked them. As I began to look back up, the penny dropped and that same characteristic rosiness returned. Once again too stunned to speak and too polite to retort, it wasn’t until days later we decided I should have asked him if he was hungry.

A few days ago on the radio, I listened to stats claiming most people worry about giving up a seat on a bus or train for a seemingly pregnant woman for fear of getting it wrong and causing offence. Since my travels, I am fully aware I need to get back in shape but pregnant! It is just my luck to have met the few individuals who manage to fall outside these statistics. A steady build-up of these disturbing encounters has left me severely doubting humanity. I am in serious need of a door holder, bag carrier or “bless you” to remind me such individuals are thankfully in the minority.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Another Chapter Begins

In tribute to Old Maid's Day today, a celebration of thirty - the age when you're officially an Old Maid, panic often sets in and people start to evaluate their lives

"But you're only 12," the bubbly Canadian at the bar next to me affectionately said. I was forced to admit that I had in fact turned 30 some time ago. Something that I had been dreading for months and as the fateful date drew nearer, grew to care less about.

In my teens 30 had seemed ancient - the end of life, the end of the road. Eighteen felt old with only 12 years until I would be deemed officially dead; a concept explored in the 1970s film, Logan’s Run, that depicted a society where people are killed off at 30 or forced to become fugitives on society’s outer fringes.

Less extreme views in our society see 30 as representing the outer-most boundary of youth, the border between young and middle-aged. Now, realising, I am no longer considered young and I am an adult, a woman, not a girl, is a hard thing to accept. I have to ask myself why this milestone age carries such stigma, expectation and anxiety.

The number itself means very little; it is the way others perceive us and the landmark events that individuals are expected to have achieved by this age that are more significant. Thirty is a socially imposed milestone, unlike 18 or 21, that are significant because of their legal implications. Thirty is a marker by which humans can measure each other both physically, in terms of ageing body conditions and in terms of life achievements. With our huge capacity for learning, people grow and develop over time and judge each other by how far we have done so. To feel as if nothing much has changed implies failure.

Men have a tendency to measure their success by their careers and personal relationships and are often more concerned with the affect of ageing on their joints, with many athletes and footballers out of the game after 30. Women however, fear losing their looks and getting wrinkles, reflecting at 30 on the status of their social standing and ability to form a long-lasting meaningful relationship.

Feeling, somehow cheated, I experienced no magical transformation as the bewitching hour drew near and the clock struck midnight. I wondered what the big deal was. Historically, according to 19th century belief systems, women have more to worry about, becoming 'old maids' or 'spinsters' at 30 if they have not followed traditional life paths. The word 'spinster' by modern standards has positive connotations of a woman who spins wool, thereby living independently from the male species, off her own wages.

Wool spinners were often single women and in medieval times when the fear of witchcraft was very real, likened to witches, as something out of the ordinary and therefore threatening. This sinister association disappeared in the Elizabethan era and 'spinsters' became women of traditional 'marrying age' without children who wouldn't or couldn't marry. Today, the term is viewed as derogatory, suggesting those it describes are wrinkled bitter old women. The rather twee title 'Old Maid' is commonly used to describe unmarried women without children, past the age a woman's biological clock is traditionally thought to be active. The fear of becoming a crazed baby-obsessed single woman is still very real for many.

With the fast pace of life, developments in gender expectations, the erosion of the family unit and longer life expectancy, fear of becoming an 'old maid' should be something of the past with women celebrating their freedom and independence on days like today - Old Maid's Day (June 4th). In 2007 the Office for National Statistics found that the average age for first marriages increased to 31.9 years for males and 29.8 for females and the majority of the population were cohabiting.

There has also been a huge swing in favour of delaying parenthood until the thirties and beyond. In 2006 the Baby Medical Advisory Board claimed that 48 per cent of women having their first child were over 30. Statistics collected by NationMaster showed the average age for first time mothers was 29.1.

In modern society, the pressures to have made something of yourself, lived a little, be a home owner and have a successful career are more predominant. Although with house prices increasing over the years and the current recession, the time it takes to amass sufficient savings means that homeowners are now increasingly in their thirties, rather than twenties. According to the GE Money Home Lending and Customer Research Organisation, the age of first time buyers in the UK has increased from 27 to 34 in the last 30 years, with only a third of buyers buying with a spouse, unlike in the 1970s when 80 per cent purchased with a partner.

These statistics suggest it is perfectly acceptable to be single, childless and without your own home, yet 30 still seems to be that age we dread. Humans have a habit of breaking up significant chunks of time into decades- the ‘noughties’. the 60s, golden wedding anniversaries... As a child I was told, the older you are, the faster time escapes you. This is one thing that certainly rings true for me - I can’t remember being ‘bored’ since the age of 13. In the grand scheme of things, 10 years is pretty insignificant; in the life of the solar system a decade is only enough time for the earth to travel around the sun 10 times.

A loophole around this human tendency to look to the future, plan and dream is coping more with the details of each day as it comes, something increasingly easy to do as the pace of life speeds up. One reason, I stopped fearing 30 was a pre-acceptance of the age. My ‘turning’ had alarmed me for so long before the big day, I was already starting to view myself as 30. By the time it was my birthday, I was so busy and stressed, I almost couldn’t be bothered to celebrate it.

After ‘d day’, I wasn’t a dramatically altered person but had to tick a different box on forms and unintentionally started to assess what I really value in life, what my energy should be invested in, who my friends really are and how I have changed over the years. I realised that the biggest difference in who I am now is my attitude to others - no one is ugly. I try to see the positive in whatever life may throw at me; I care less about what others think about me and I am, perhaps more self-assured.

The way others view me, has changed to some extent. To be taken seriously, I feel I have to dress like an adult, and express my personality less through clothes and accessories. At 30, it is inappropriate for me to behave in the same way as I did as a student. For the first time in my life, after my 30th Birthday, my mother, who is not very keen on children, actually started suggesting I ought to consider my body clock and I found myself surrounded by friends discussing mortgages and children.

Turning 30 wasn’t all bad. It was an excuse to have a huge party and rely on friends making a special effort. One of my friends made up for the 21st she never had, while another proved being 30 didn’t necessarily mean that you had to be sensible, having to redecorate after her 30th. Unlike for men, who reach their sexual peak in their early 20s, 30 is something to celebrate for women as the age their sexual peak begins, hitting it somewhere between 30-40.

Am I happy with who I am at 30 and do I fit the social model? Until recently, I was a student again; I am still without a house, job or children and back to a long-distance eight-year relationship so should be despairing, but the reality is, I feel I have achieved something over the years. I have experienced world travel, have a profession and will soon be embarking on another. TV sitcoms like Friends, Sex and the City, Coupling and Seinfeld help make it cool to be 30.

The saying goes, ‘You are as old as you look or feel’ and according to supermarket staff who regularly ID me and my friendly Canadian, I’m not 30. So as modern women, let’s empower ourselves to free ourselves from the pressures and expectations of being 30 by starting a new chapter in our lives rather than ending an era.

Now you’re 30, you’ll:

  • Leave clubs before the end to "beat the rush".

  • Get more excited about having a roast on a Sunday than going clubbing.

  • Prefer Later with Jools Holland to MTV.

  • Start referring to those older than you as “Only...”

  • Stop throwing out worn clothes because they could be useful for doing DIY, house work or gardening in.

  • Listen to Radio 2, instead of Radio 1.

  • Take a greater interest in the world around you and the news.

  • Stop laughing at those innovations catalogue that fall out of newspapers and start seeing the benefit of a plastic figure for the car to deter would-be thieves.

  • Think IKEA and self-assembled furniture aren’t a bad way to spend your Sunday.

  • Start to understand the benefits of a pension scheme.

  • Have to begin supporting your parents, financially and emotionally.

  • Stop tutting at immobile elderly people taking too long to get on or off the bus and start tutting at loud swearing youths instead.

  • Start saying things like, “I remember when the top ten was good...”

  • Start to feel the cold and lose your ‘beer jacket’.

  • Have a well stocked fridge and enough milk and bread.