On my back

January 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

A year ago I started to get back pain, and though I’ve contemplated writing about it lots of times, I’ve never done so.

Mental pain can be quite interesting. Physical pain isn’t, which makes it an annoying topic of conversation, for which I often find myself apologising. Apologies, then, for discussing it here.

The back, though, is interesting. It has extraordinary power, both in terms of real strength, and also of endurance. It can be misused for years, every hour of every day, and yet it withstands — though not forever.

These are the main thoughts I’ve had about my back and backs in general, and of chronic pain in general, over the past year:

  • We are our bodies
  • Many people think pain is normal
  • Some people think pain is good
  • Many people think treating pain is virtuous
  • Some people think treating pain is self-indulgent
  • It is possible to be angry with and resentful, petulant and bullying towards, one’s own skeleton and muscle fibres
  • Without a working back, it is difficult to do almost everything

Our bodies “are ours, though they are not we, we are / The intelligences, they the sphere.”

John Donne’s lines rarely contain one clear message — and these are likely fully of meanings I won’t touch on here. But it’s a phrase that keeps coming back to me. Though our bodies are not everything that we are, they are us, ours in the fullest sense of the word.

Yet we don’t always think so. When my back hurts, I sometimes feel it’s misbehaving, a naughty child. It gets in the way of the article I have to write, or the research I need to do.

On one level I have known that my body is trying to tell me something; but it’s taken a year, and a series of increasingly specialised sessions with physiotherapists, to interpret the intense but silent communication (actually, not always silent; there are now frequent cracks from shoulders and clicks from the sternum with which I’m becoming familiar).

Presumably, there was a time when we were better at understanding how walking on two legs, carrying weight, playing and working impacted on our elegant curved spines. But when? I imagine medieval surfs crippled by the carrying of hay-bales weren’t any happier than average city office workers.

The pain is mysterious, and as such feels dangerous. But gradually I’m starting to understand more: about how tightness in the thigh of one leg might impact on the shoulders, for example. On how the stomach muscles can — and should sometimes be encouraged to — take over from those on either side of the vertebrae.

Stiff upper lip (and everything else)

At my central London workplace, I have complained a lot. I have had several physio assessments, resulting in the purchase of an expensive chair, an ergonomic keyboard and mouse and, most recently, a Swiss ball on which I sometimes sit. It seems to amuse and  occasionally annoy my colleagues. I feel I’m striking a blow for them; they probably think of me as that weirdo who sits on the fluorescent space hopper. My physical state is improved by all this, though by no means yet sorted.

But what about everyone else?

People often start conversations with me — usually because of the ball — about back pain, and so I ask them whether they also suffer. Everyone I have met so far has problems: everyone.

People think it’s normal. Some people even have a strange, perverse sense that it’s good. I know this, because I’ve had that sense. Maybe this is a sign I’m working hard, I’ve thought. Maybe it’s a punishment, and one that I deserve.

I don’t really believe this, and maybe no one rationally does. But perhaps it’s one of the factors that keep people from getting their own ergonomic chairs, or insisting their employers arrange for rooms where they can lie down for ten minutes a day.

No one demands this. One former colleague had such bad repetitive strain injury from typing that she couldn’t hold a glass of wine. I met another taking a tennis ball into the toilets – the only place she could go in the whole nine-floor building to do a few pain-relieving exercises.

The crunch

Suddenly, over the weekend, my back pain hit a new level — it was actually crippling, preventing me from bending forward enough to pick up something off the floor, or wash my face at a sink. I couldn’t swoop forward to stop a baby crashing into the corner of a table. It took me several minutes to work out how to put on a pair of pants.

Perhaps this is a signal, I’ve thought. I know what to do now to treat myself, and it’s worked over the last 24 hours. But knowing isn’t the same as doing, and I’ve also been neglectful, especially over a recent holiday, of doing the things I know will help.

Hence writing a reflective though – apologies again – not particularly insightful blog.

And reminding myself that the anger and fear that arise from pain shouldn’t be directed back at the body that ‘causes’ it. The intelligences need to kick into gear, and allow the time and space and gentleness to  let a startled muscle relax, or a tendon to loosen its wild grip on the ends of two potentially graceful bones.

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Eating things in Sierra Leone

December 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

At the moment, when I read the Sunday papers, I turn straight to the restaurant reviews.[1] I don’t know what’s so compelling about them yet, but I think it might be ‘food in context’ (recipe books don’t have the same effect), and also the snack-sized nature of the medium (I’ve written about reviews, and not liking them, before. It’s not the criticism so much as the narrative that draws me to these; but I’m also not tempted – yet – to read a whole food-based book).

Just back from Sierra Leone and having written a bit about its politics and economics, I haven’t known where to start with actually communicating the experience. So I thought I’d begin with food.

Cassava

I’d never eaten cassava before – which will make some people smile, since it’s the staple diet of 500 million people, mostly in Africa.

At the place where I try it the cassava is peeled and steamed, and then slightly mashed. It’s like potato crossed with parsnip, but creamier than either, and it’s got a surprisingly nice texture, squidgy but also with a bit of crunch, like risotto with the bite of some less-cooked grains. The cassava comes with “sauce”.

Cooked on patch of ground, with a bench to sit on and some carpenters making sofas nearby, the sauce had an intense aspect, even before it came near being eaten:

Over a charcoal brazier, in a big pot, a reddish stew, mainly palm oil and chilies; whole fish, which tasted like sardines and might have been; fish heads; chicken feet; fish balls, made of I’m not sure what and a bit hairy-looking, but tasty; bones; many other unidentifiable things.

This, steaming hot, is ladled over the cassava, served in plastic bowls and eaten with a spoon. It’s savoury, spicy, delicious. You push to the back of your mind the possible consequences. Even further back I pushed Freetown’s recent cholera epidemic, which would have made eating street food really silly, but which was over, pretty much, wasn’t it? (We were fine.)

We drank filtered water from the plastic bags that are ubiquitous, and make every drink taste like a bottle kept in the car too long or like a child’s beaker on a summer day.

Later, after someone climbed a coconut tree, a local man called Ibrahim bought me a “jelly” – a green coconut, chopped open so that you can drink the water, then halved with a machete and the flesh – looking very like a dead squid – scooped out and eaten.

Dinner

We walked into central Freetown on the last day of rallies for the ruling APC party. The crush in the streets was fun, then scary, then exciting again; there is no crowd-control in Sierra Leone. On Campbell Street, we stopped at a general store that doubled as a bar.

Freetown, Sierra Leone

We ordered cans of Heineken and watched as the street – full of cars, trucks, dancing people and motorbikes going in both directions on both sides – grew darker.

We asked for some meat on sticks. It comes plastered in chilies and you pull is off with your teeth and try to guess what it is. Goat? We thought. Lamb, a distant possibility. Some you chew for a while but make no impression. I left a piece – “That’s just fat,” I told my friend. “There’s no distinction here”, she said. Later, someone grabbed the scraps we’d left and ran off laughing into the crowd.

Later still, when the dancing was really underway, we changed to drinking J&B whisky and Coke. A man bought some more meat sticks for everyone. “I hope you have a strong stomach!” he said. I asked him what it was. Chicken gizzard, it turns out; the muscular gut that birds, lacking teeth, use to grind up food.

Breakfast

Coffee: Nescafé, powdered milk. Or: Cocoa, powdered milk, brown sugar. In Sierra Leone this tastes like luxury.

Cereal: Imported. Powdered milk.

Toast: White bread, cooked over a flame in a tin pan, with edges burnt. Real butter, surprising, again a luxury. Jam (easy export/import). Honey, sometimes with ants in, but they’re avoidable. Sweet, thin marmalade. Nutella – 55,000 Le, or about £8.50, per jar; sometimes worth it. Laughing Cow cheese.

Fruit: Guavas – like daytime versions of passion fruit, green outside, delicate rose tint inside. Papaya – sweet, sunset-coloured, with a hint of marker-pen in the perfume. Star fruit – big, yellow, juicy. Bananas, small and green. Oranges – green as well, fibrous, eaten by cutting off an end and sucking. Grapefruit.

Malarone: An anti-malarial to be taken once a day, with food. £3.85 per tablet until the patent expires, or unless you’re friends with a doctor.

Water: Filtered, frozen but thawing.

Lobster

On Lakka beach, one of the closest to Freetown and therefore less prized than some, but still long and white and quiet, we drink red wine with a slight dusty edge and eat peanuts and small, sour pancakes known as cassava bread. Lobster traps bob in the water, are pulled to shore. The peach-coloured lobsters are taken from the traps, carried up the beach, cooked in pots over charcoal as the sun suddenly sets. In the dark, we’re brought chips, small cooked snapper, wedges of lime. The lobster is extraordinary, fresh and savoury and also sweet.

There are little boys who hang about, waiting for a job to do: something to carry, a car to wash. They fall asleep with their heads on the sand.

Drinking

Friday afternoon. We’d heard that the election results might be announced, and as I waited at a police checkpoint I cycled through local stations on a battery-powered radio. No one at the checkpoint knew. I called local journalists, election observers – something would be announced, it was agreed.

We drove on, asked for directions, and ended up with an old man in the car, showing us the way.  We turned off the highway after the sign for Black Johnson, into the forest. There were small jagged tracks, with high rainforest on either side. We parked our 4 x 4 and walked, me carrying the radio as it buzzed in and out of reception. Otherwise everything was quiet.

As we reached the sea: a completely improbable guesthouse called Tito’s Paradise. Poyo had just been collected – a ‘wine’ that is tapped from palm trees and fermented almost instantly. It was sharp, sweet, yeasty – like a strong, heady wheat beer. It reminds you of coconut water, but also of something seriously on the turn. It’s hard to drink much of it, unless you’re excitable and around 14, which most of the people on the beach were.

And then, after we’d swum in the evening sea and as a bonfire was being lit, the results were called: the National Election Commission chairwoman’s voice suddenly clear and full of slow, stony authority. The incumbent, Ernest Bai Koroma, won with 58%, and the dozen people on the beach cheered and hugged, in slight awe at the massive roar that could be heard, in the background of the radio, from Freetown.

All the mobile networks went down. Bottles of local Star beer, variable in alcohol-content, sugar-content and almost every other way, were opened. Still wet from the sea and being bitten by unseen mosquitoes, I found that the internet was working, and filed a story in the dark.

Huge plates of food appeared: rice and fish with coconut sauce. More poyo was offered and drunk, and the dancing started – first among the ‘adults’ on the beach while the boys – of which there were about eight, between the ages of perhaps 12 and 17 – kept it cool on the veranda.

Someone broke out the ‘man-pekin’ rum, which we had been warned off. ‘Pekin’ means child in Krio. The rum, mixed with water perhaps, was lighter and sweeter than a straight spirit – more like strong punch. We shared blue plastic wineglassfuls.

When we went to bed, the boys were still dancing.


[1] Specifically Jay Rayner’s in The Observer. He recently described some meat as “the colour of a box at the opera”.

Cycling home from St Albans

October 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

I caught the train as far north as an Oyster card takes you*, and then cycled to St Albans. I associated the town with two things: an atmosphere of extreme Englishness, autumn leaves and crumpets and hockey games; and a bloody battle involving Boadicea. Both things, it turned out, are true. It is pretty and British, with an expensive bakery that will give you buttered toast but only if you plead. And in AD 60 or 61 it was destroyed completely in the last victory for the Iceni before they were re-crushed by the Romans.

It has a Cathedral – something I didn’t know. In the grounds there were wide strips of sunlight and bunches of flowers that had been blown around by a hard-edged wind. Along a path down the side of the building a woman pushed a baby in a pram. Another child, about four years old, ran ahead, over the grass. The woman called her back:

“Why?”
“Because that’s where dead people are lying. And you don’t want to walk on dead people.”
(I think it was because of the mud, really).

Inside, there was no avoiding walking on the dead. The floor is made up of slabs with “Here lieth…” carved at various times and in various states of abrasion. Here lieth – in the vaults beneath the building, or in a grave on that spot. Or literally just under the stone; it is levered up and the body slipped under, then the weight of the slab presses it into the dust. Maybe needs a couple of jumps to get it flush again.

In other places the floor is tiled, the red squares worn in their centres and ridged up towards the edges and the mortar, like the floor is made of soft cloth rather than stone. Wearing cycling cleats, my footsteps clinked and grated; like spurs would have done, I imagine. (Angela Carter also noticed the similarities between knights and cyclists).

Always a sucker for history up to the Wars of the Roses, and beyond, I clinked along thinking of Cadfael and Wolf Hall, and finding a man lying and carved in marble, of The Bishop Orders His Tomb by Browning.

And then how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor’s-work

There were candles, burning and dying. Flowers. A list of names on the wall in copperplate that is going to come into its own if I ever have a son: Willegod, Eadric, Wulsig, Wulnoth, Eadfrith, Wulsin, Alfric, Ealdred, Eadmer, Alfric II, Leofric, Leofstan, Egrid, Fritheric.

On sheets of A4, the printed story of Alban: beheaded in the third century for proclaiming his Christian faith and thereby becoming the first English martyr (writing that I think of 1066 and All That, which my father read to me; both of us often collapsed in laughter and unable to go on).

Legend tells us that on the hill-top a spring of water miraculously appeared to give the martyr a drink; also that moved by his witness the original executioner refused to carry out the deed, and that after his replacement had killed Alban, the executioners (sic) eyes dropped out.

On the other side of the sheet, this opening gambit:

You may think this building is beautiful. You may appreciate its history, art and architecture…But if you don’t understand what’s at the heart of it all, you’ve missed the point.

The church was beautiful though, as I left it, treading inevitably on the dead.

Candle smoke

After coffee and the miracle of toast, I set out to cycle back home. It’s about 20 miles, and as I headed down the hill out of St Albans it began to rain, hard and cold, which seemed for some reason not to matter. I knew the route wouldn’t be pretty; but pleasantness was outweighed by purpose – having somewhere to get to, which can be satisfying just in itself.

The route passed through Radlett, Elstree, over the A1. Then Hendon, which has an incredible view, Mill Hill, Finchley, where my phone died. Mapless, I found my way to the North Circular and across it, turned east, and ended up on The Bishop’s Avenue. The houses, each one worth millions, are extraordinarily awful. Massive, hunkered down on stone thighs, hunched stone shoulders, guarded eyes.

You may think these buildings are ugly, I thought. But if you don’t understand what’s at the heart of it all, you’ve missed the point.

And then the Heath, the flying last downhill. A sky the colour of oyster shells. The last long evening, I realised, before the clocks changed. Home to – I only made the connection when I arrived – St Albans Road; full circle

Marble hands

* NOTE: You cannot get to St Albans with an Oyster card. I tried, had an argument with a conductor who wanted to fine me, went back two stops. You can get to Elstree and Borehamwood with an Oyster card.

Being of comfort

October 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve needed a lot of help and advice so far in my life. I’ve received it from great people (to all of whom I now say: thank you. This is what you make me feel like doing. Some of the below is critical of you, but it’s also critical of things I have done. You are all very good at advice. Or at least, you all have your moments (*smiling*).

In the bleakest times no one could help. But the rest of the time, there are some things which are always more useful than others. So this is a guide to anyone who wants to (or has to!) help someone like me.

Don’t say: “There are people worse off than you”
I’m going to assume – throughout – that the person on the receiving end of this advice is not a moron. They know, rationally, that there are people in much worse situations than them; people going through things they can barely imagine. But we all live our own lives, because we have to, and feel our own feelings. Reminding a person of the suffering in the world at a time when they are also suffering will add to their pain because it will make them feel a) even bleaker b) selfish. The time to think about less fortunate people – to think about them constructively and compassionately – is not when you’re at rock bottom. This strategy will not help anyone.

Do say: “Lots of people go through this”
Knowing your sadness or strife has been experienced by other, however, is useful – particularly if it makes it feel more normal (“I’m not a freak for feeling this!”), or transient (“People have got through this”). Recently I told a friend who works for a private equity company that I was having a stressful time in a long interview process. He said that for finance jobs it is normal to have up to 30 interviews. 30!! That made me feel better.

Don’t say: “You can stop this now”
Leaving, quitting, walking away – yes, they’re all options. But they probably aren’t the best option. Telling the person they can leave is slightly hectoring, because it implies that they’re making a choice to stay and should therefore be happy with it (which they obviously aren’t). It also isn’t constructive; rather the opposite. You might think that your job as an adviser is to remind this person that “there is a world elsewhere”. It isn’t – it’s to help them manage the world they’re in. The decision to pack it all in and go to work on a farm will not come from you, but from somewhere deep within them. You bringing it up is just a bit teasing.

Do say: “There will come a time when this will be over”
In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut describes an alien race for whom all time – past, present and future – is equally existant*. The idea that the future already exists and the past still exists can be comforting if the present really isn’t working; but in really bad moments it doesn’t feel true at all. What does help is someone telling me that the problem is time-defined (“By this time next week this will be over”) or, at least, probably not infinite (“You won’t always feel this way”).

Don’t say: “I wish this wasn’t happening to you”
It doesn’t help, because it sounds – and is – futile. It makes the advised person feel like a victim, and the adviser seem weak when your friend needs you to be a rock.

Do say: “It’s not you, it’s them (or him/her/the situation etc)”
Presumably you think this is true because you’re talking to someone you love. If you don’t think it’s true – if you think the fault lies squarely with your friend – you will have to have a different kind of conversation. But for someone in need of comfort, a big danger is that they turn everything bad that is happening against themselves, seeing it as proof that they are stupid/weak/cursed/ugly etc. This is a second problem on top of and above – or perhaps underlying – their upset about the event or situation itself.

Don’t say: “That’s weird”
Don’t tell them not to be upset. They already are, and no wonder: XXXX just happened to them! On their birthday!

Do say: “It’s normal”
Anyone would be upset by that. That’s a terrible feeling to have. I hate when that happens. That’s rubbish! That’s hilarious! However you express it, let them know that their reaction is totally rational. Once they’re stopped feeling so upset you can deal with whether that’s true.

Don’t: Lie
Don’t let comforting the person – or protecting their feelings – lead you into lying to them. You went to their ex-boyfriend’s wedding – don’t pretend you didn’t. They’ll find out and the truth will hit them like a cold clod of earth from a catapult. Try to keep them in the loop, as gently as you can, and eventually the loop will be easier to bear. Equally, don’t tell them their behaviour is rational if you think they’re acting like a lunatic. They need help making reality better, not creating a fantasy.

Do: Be careful with the truths you communicate
There is no need to say that the bride looked ravishing, however, or that it’s no wonder they lost their job because they’re a liability. You like them – help them find a path through it.

Do: Learn about them
(This bit is mainly for partners, who have to deal with more mood swings and petty fights than friends do)
Physical and hormonal triggers are massive. Several people I know cannot function when they’re hungry. I am made tragically sad by lack of sleep though only – a fatal flaw – after it gets to the point of chronic and prolonged exhaustion. Periods are a killer; men must, I think, have an equivalent but without the attendant blood loss.

Importantly, with all of these, telling the person will not help. Make them a  piece of toast; put them to bed. If these aren’t an option, wait it out. At least you know what the problem is. Remind them if you like. It won’t help. But you understanding them will help, in the long run.

I don’t have any more don’ts – which is a good thing. There’s no science to comfort (well, obviously there is, but this isn’t a blog for professional therapists), but we all have to do it. Listen to them. Remember what they’ve said before. Try to get them to go outside. Send them texts. Hug them. Tell them about things that have happened to you/your friends, but only if they’re relevant. Tell them they’re looking nice. Resist the urge to collapse and share your problems as well – they’re in no state to handle it. You can do this on someone else, or on the same person, but at a slightly different time.

Also, this can help. Ha ha ha.

*At least that’s how I remember it, having read some of it when I was about 13 and home ill from school. My Dad gave it to me. Also don’t do this! Or maybe, with hindsight, do.

The thin and the dead

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I bought an Autumn issue of a glossy fashion magazine. I can count the number of times I’ve spent £4.10 on such an article; they always have the same effect, and this was no exception. There is an initial, guilty excitement. As I begin to flick through this is quickly succeeded by a glassy, dead-eyed boredom, much like the feeling most of the models seem to be portraying. After a little time – a very little, perhaps £1-per-five-minutes-worth – I’m done, and I’m left with a feeling that is half feminist anger and half a stirred-up, mixed-up sense of insecurity. It is clever, this feeling; it shape-shifts, and is difficult to describe. It whispers: “You should try to be that – you will never be that, and should not want it – you must try – you have already failed.”

We know, now, that fashion models are not good role models. They are 23% thinner than the average woman, down from 8% thinner 20 years ago. Many lack muscle and don’t eat enough to be healthy. Even if we do aspire to look like them most women are not over 5’8’’ tall and so can’t.

We know this; but we do nothing to change the conversation (This is from Mad Men, Season 4, which I’ve just been watching – and don’t think the irony escapes me).

Being a relative stranger to these magazines – I sit down look at one every few months, though similar images are everywhere – this shocked me all over again. It’s all women. Men’s magazines are also full of women. Where are the beautiful men to look at? Why do all the women on the pages that are meant to inspire make me feel so damn sad?

On every page a woman seemed to be trying to seduce me, dying, or experiencing a debilitating kind of intellect freeze – with a vacant, empty-eyed look such as is never seen in real life, as though aliens had caught her in some sort of ray and beamed up her brain. Or was I just being – god forbid – over-sensitive?

I did some counting.

Of a total 309 pictures of women, 126 or 60% were in the glassy/expressionless category. Far behind, the next highest was pouting/vampish with 46 (some, to be honest, borderline with the aforementioned alien-brain-abduction), and then almost smiling, with 40. Serious got 37, and very serious (like, scowling), 11. There were 18 actual smiles, two silly faces, eight faces too obscured to judge the expression (for example, by an owl), and one kiss.

At the least nice end of an un-fun spectrum, there were 20 images of women who fell into what I called the dead/comatose/drugged bracket. They fell there and they stayed, without will or capacity to move, waiting to be dragged away and buried. Or, for the lucky ones, given a sandwich.

In the entire magazine, there were 25 pictures of men, none of which were the main event on the page, and definitely none of them topless. Thanks, Vogue.

Now, a magazine editor might find this all a bit po-faced, and by god they’d be qualified to judge. It’s aesthetically pleasing, they might say, and we all know it’s fantasy.

The gym chain Fitness First recently sent me an email, though, with some food for thought on that score. Entitled ‘Fitness First Create The Ultimate Model Workout For LFW’, it said:

“With London Fashion Week only a few days away, it won’t be long until the world’s most beautiful people are strutting their stuff along our cobbled streets. Fitness First have created the ultimate full body workout inspired by models, so you too can achieve the model physique. Dave Petersen recommends combining this workout with a cardio session three times a week, alongside a healthy and sensible eating plan. Stick to this and you will be model-ready in time for Spring/Summer 2013!”

(I tried to find a link to this press release online, but it isn’t on the Fitness First PR site. If you think I’m making it up, write and I’ll forward it to you.)

A workout that will make women taller and 23% thinner in – the release seems to imply – “only a few days”! Lucky women.

[As an aside, there’s also Photoshop, of course. Working at a newspaper, I’m aware of the need to credit images when we use them. Photographers should get recognition for their work; but I wonder if this is increasingly because any image can now be created – anyone can be made to appear as if they look like or are doing anything – and we’re trying to keep a hold somehow on reality. Years ago I met a really nice man at a party. We talked about work; his was airbrushing models to make them look better. Wow, was my response. That’s kind of awful. He smiled, blushingly, and looked down. Yeah, he said. It is kind of awful.]

So why does the magazine industry continue to make me angry, when I can cope with other bad industries like tobacco (Mad Men again)?

Another story from a party, this one much more recent:

On Saturday night, late and in a warehouse, I met a woman who I thought was nice. We talked, ultimately, about some fairly intimate things. Later, I found out that she had lied to me – completely, manipulatively, and for her own benefit. I still feel a little sick at the memory.

Why do we hate being lied to so very much? Because it unglues our hold on the world.

The mad perpetuation of fantasy female images isn’t just a game, and doesn’t make us feel bad simply because we’re not as thin or groomed or long-limbed as them. It’s a huge, smooth-skinned, dead-eyed lie, and that, in itself, is terrifying.

The Ambitions

August 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

I read a book called:

Careers Advice for Ambitious Women, meaning that I found out three things:

1) What the book said

2) How I reacted

3) How other people reacted to me reading it

1) The book

I was given the book by the author – or the woman behind the author – Mrs Moneypenny, who writes a column for the Financial Times. Writing this is partly to explain how I came across it (or to excuse? See Section 3), and partly because mentioning being given a book by its author is something of which I think this author would approve.

Ambition can mean a lot of things. I wrote these words and then stopped to wonder if they were true. For this author, it is clearly defined as striving towards career success. This doesn’t mean ‘having it all’, a concept she dismisses as particularly lacking in rationality or usefulness. It means knowing where you’re trying to get to, knowing what your priorities are and basing your decisions on them. If one of your top priorities is not career success, then the book is not aimed at you. Nor is it aimed at you if you’re tempted to sidle off down philosophical tracks, like ‘What does success even mean….’. Here, it means recognition, connection, a good salary and the ability to set the agenda; in whatever field, but probably in business.

The book, like Moneypenny’s column, where she refers to her children as a numbered set of ‘cost centres’, is straightforward, sometimes to the point of harshness. It’s practical, filled not with empowering thought exercises but with advice which is sometimes specific to the point of feeling narrow – Moneypenny suggests training as a financial analyst or accountant, but so many times as to make it almost a mantra. There are a lot of short narratives of real women, workplace scenarios described to illustrate points, and ‘homework’ at the end of every chapter.

The section on priorities, containing one of the simplest messages of the book, is also one of the most confronting. Moneypenny lists her priorities in descending order: work, children, husband, friends, self. Even for me, who has clearly put work before children so far (by concentrating on the former and not having any of the latter), this is a surprising thing to read. I imagine that for people with children it might feel shocking. We ‘know’ that once you have children you ‘put them first’; it’s what everyone says.

Moneypenny’s point about priorities is that you need them in order to make decisions. She does not dictate that work must be at the top; but asks that one recognise what is. If it were children, you would choose watching them in the school play over meeting an important deadline. These choices would ultimately damage your career. Your career, meanwhile, is not something confined to the realm of your own selfishness; on Moneypenny’s list, ‘self’ is last. In her conception, it is a way towards other important things, such as a good education for your kids.

If the building were on fire, Moneypenny is not suggesting saving the laptop and leaving the baby (at least I don’t think she is). But she is willing to say that sometimes the decision-making won’t be pretty.

2) The book and I

So I read the book. My copy is hardback with a silky, matt finish. It is hot pink and dark grey, printed to look like a sort of secret diary, manual or ‘little black book’. The title and the author’s name take up most of the cover, in the hot pink and in silver. From the look of it, it could be a self-help book or a bit of saucy chick-lit.

I was embarrassed to read it on the train. I’ve ridden trains home at 8am wearing full theatre make-up; I’ve ridden them wearing football kit and covered in mud; I’ve changed clothes on them; had intimate conversations on them; lugged enormous bags up and down their aisles; worked, slept, eaten and argued on them. I’ve never before felt embarrassed on them.

After an effort of will, I made myself read the book in public. But I then found it impossible to get it out at work. Was all this embarrassment because of the admission, contained in the title, that I am ambitious? Or because there was something already akin to admitting failure in reading such a book at all (‘if you have to ask, I can’t tell you’).

I do think of myself as ambitious, though perhaps it has a different colour to Mrs Moneypenny’s. This way of thinking constitutes a change that’s come about gradually, with feminism at its base. While doing my A-Levels (and even while aiming for top grades), I was of absolutely the opposite opinion; I thought that ambition was a dirty word, associated with conventionality, a certain kind of conveyer-belt mentality, power-hunger, greed and vainglory.

This, it turned out, is exactly what a lot of people think.

3) Me, the book and everybody else

A friend picked up the book in my flat. He asked, “Is this a joke?” – not snide, just frankly bemused. I talked about it to other friends, mainly female. The general reaction fell towards the aggressive end of uninterested. Just after I’d finished the book (on a train), I explained quite a lot of its content to a very strong, ‘high-achieving’ friend. She said it made her feel a bit sick. She told her partner about it, and we all ended up in a fractious, late-night conversation about pay scales for male and female tennis players.

I looked up the word’s etymology. Ambition comes from the French ambire, to go around, and the Latin ambitionem, which the Online Etymology Dictionary defines as “a going around,” especially to solicit votes, hence “a striving for favor, courting, flattery; a desire for honor, thirst for popularity.” The Oxford English Dictionary (a copy printed in 1933) gives the first definition as “The eager or inordinate desire of honour or preferment”.

Of the same-rooted ‘ambit’, it says “A circuit, compass or circumference 1597; esp a space round a house, castle, etc., the liberties, verge.” This gives rise to the image of a little king walking round the limits of his palace, pushing at the walls to see if he can make them move outwards and take in some extra ground.

So can ambition ‘mean a lot of things’? Or does it principally mean a striving to reach a position of power, which some people find inspiring and others find distasteful?

Is it possible to have an ambition that includes helping other people? Moneypenny certainly thinks so, not only in terms of providing for one’s family, but from a feminist perspective. She quotes Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”.

The author probably knew she would raise some hackles by writing the book. I wonder if she knew how many would rise in response to someone reading it? I was surprised. I haven’t encountered such a strong reaction to a book since I was sacked from a temping job for reading The Female Eunuch.

A supposedly fun thing I might do again

August 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

Before starting this blog – about the triathlon I did yesterday – there were several references I wanted to remember. The first was to a column by Simon Kuper – more below. Of the second, I can only remember this:

 A character in a book (fiction?) mentions that he has come to the time in his life where everyone starts to run marathons. I read that (but where? Never mind) with one of those sort-of-pleasurable shocks that you sometimes get from fiction – the author having hit the nail on the head – though at the same time, making you want to say ‘ah, but that’s not me exactly…

I don’t know if I’ve come to the point in my life where I need to prove something/ward off death/go the extra mile/feel alive. But I did sign up to do a triathlon – partly to make sure I carried on exercising even with a long-houred job; partly to prove (to myself) that I had recovered from an injury that stalked me for a couple of years; partly to see if I could.

And maybe, in some way, to make myself better. In his column, Kuper calls it “obsessive self-improvement”, which leads us into the mindset that: “Parties are for networking; cafés are for laptops; and sex is an opportunity to burn calories.” Oh, god.

I did wonder, as I got up in the grey 5am light, what good this was doing me, or anyone else.

One of the most stressful things about a triathlon is the sheer amount of stuff you need for it. I had a list; it ran to two pages. And it had two columns. I mentioned this to about three people – all men – who I knew did triathlons. They all felt the gadgetry was part of the fun.

Was arrival from 6am part of the fun? I arrived at 6.30 to a car park full of bike racks and tenacious preparation. From my (brief, appalled) research into buying a triathlon bike, the contents of the racks could have accounted for about £1.5m worth of bike. I got my borrowed, battered-but-beautiful racer out of the boot, and screwed the seat back on (too high, it would transpire).

Then there was a flurry of registration, racking – where you lay out all your things for the transitions, and put talcum powder on them – and the sticking on of stickers.

Already in all-in-one tri-suits, everyone puts on wetsuits.

I asked the man next to me whether to pin the numbers on under the wetsuit (I wasn’t sure they were waterproof). He asked if it was my first tri. I said yes. He said “Exciting”, which wasn’t a question. I asked if he’d done many. He said yes: “It’s addictive, isn’t it?”. I didn’t yet know. His friend lent me some safety pins. “You need a lot of stuff, don’t you?” I said. “Yeah!” he said (= Exciting).

Then we dunked ourselves in the lake and got out again, for a briefing. The sky was the colour of petals and mist hung over the water with a clear space in between. In this space were canoes, ready to help us and point out the swim course, in case the big orange buoys weren’t enough (they weren’t).

Everyone, it turns out, then gets into the water at once. And waits.

There was the eerie calm – as might, I imagine, happen before a battle – of a group of adults about to do something irrational. Then, over the PA, they counted us down, and said Go.

The lake turned into a jam jar full of massive, thrashing tadpoles. I lost all sense of rhythm, and perspective. This was the first reminder; that your rational mind can know something (‘I will not drown’), while your body reacts to something much more powerful (‘I am drownable’).

Triathlon swim start

Tight-chested, panicky and ashamed, I did complete the course (in a weirdly quick 29 minutes), but I didn’t feel invincible. One down, two to go.

The bike was better. As I (finally) got into a rhythm and realised it was a sunny day in Kent and not D-Day, the band locked round my lungs eased itself off. The hedges were high and full of bees. It was hilly. There is no better hill-detector than a person on a bicycle with gears that are not made out of spider silk and lubricated with carbon dew. The course was a two-lap loop. That meant every hill was to be revisited.

Still – there were lovely, swooping, dangerous downhills too. At a compulsory stop for roadworks, I adjusted the height of my seat, and shouted my number to the marshal, as instructed (so that they could deduct the time spent there from my total; and despite having number 149 stuck all over me and written on my bicep in marker pen).

The nutrition advice tells you to eat 30g of carbs for every half hour of exercise after the first 90 minutes. So on a long straight bit of road I tried an energy gel that was taped – as instructed – to my crossbar. It was the sweetest thing I’ve ever experienced, since my brother told me to eat an artificial sweetener tablet at our grandfather’s house. So sweet it’s almost bitter, the gels require several stages to get the whole thing down. (Get some into the mouth; hold it; move it to the top of the throat; brace yourself; swallow; recover; repeat). Was this fun? I wondered. My lungs, working constantly and hard, felt stretched, almost itchy on the inside.

After a last climb and another transition (1 min 28 seconds, it turned out) I was running. It was odd, suddenly to be doing so. The heat radiated off the white dust of the path.

The run was in some ways the strangest part. I wasn’t exactly exhausted, though a stitch clinched in around my sternum and stayed there, like a little biting creature. I knew I wasn’t running fast. I told myself to go faster. But whether because of inadequate nutrition, or because this is actually what exhaustion feels like, I couldn’t.

It was a strange mix of strength and weakness, that feeling. Perhaps you only get it the first time, since after that you’d know better what to expect.

Now two-and-a-half hours in, I bit the bullet and ate another gel, the sunshine seeming to turn sickly-sweet with it, all compounded by the fact that, unlike on the bike, I was now not carrying water. To my right, the reservoir gleamed like a hotplate; like the sea in the Ancient Mariner, close but undrinkable.

And finally the blue, inflatable finish line, like a bouncy castle, less fun but infinitely forgiving. A kind man gave me a plastic cup of water and offered me some crisps (“salt and vinegar” I managed to mouth). “Don’t forget your medal!” he said. “Did I win?” I asked (I was joking; I was last). But they weren’t joking; they gave me a medal, steel on a green ribbon.

I lay down. I wanted to cry, smarting from the swim, the fear, the having to carry on. My supporters came and held my hands, and I realised that it had also been hard doing something in such a big group (130 people in the standard distance) so alone. Was it fun?

After a few minutes, I thought: maybe.

Did it make me better? Hard to tell.

Was it addictive?

As I type, because of a glitch on my laptop, the PDF with the final times (I think they’re called ‘splits’ in the triathlon world) keeps popping back up on screen. There’s one really good thing about 3 hours and 21 minutes: it’s beatable.

UPDATE. I wrote this post a week ago, and have just checked the race site. There are new times, adjusted for the traffic lights. So I actually completed it in 3 hours and 19 minutes. I beat my original time, in the past. I always knew I could.

The title of this post is a reference to David Foster Wallace