Friday, 22 May 2015

alphabet aerobics....

My team does a quiz every Friday afternoon. The questions are always the same, but we draw a different letter from the alphabet each week and every answer has to start with that week's letter. The questions are things like: Country, TV Programme, Boy’s Name, Girl’s Name, Famous film star, alcoholic drink, fruit or vegetable, capital city, London Underground station, dessert…. Twenty-six questions in all. You get two points for a unique answer (i.e. no one else playing has the same one), one point for an answer anyone else has, and minus one for an incorrect answer or a blank.  Maximum score is 52 and the lowest possible score is -26.  Quite a range.

As you can imagine, it usually gets quite heated. This week’s letter was “F”, and almost every question prompts a debate.  Do you accept “A Fish Called Wanda” for film or do you think it technically begins with an “A”? If you say it starts with an “A”, does that mean that, when we draw “T”, you’ll accept anything beginning with “The”?  The Halloween Fancy Dress costume always provokes conversation too: Frankenstein was fairly obvious this week, but we also had Frank Sinatra and Flipper suggested. We're fairly relaxed about the "Halloween" part of the question and usually settle this one by searching google images: if “Flipper Fancy Dress” brings up a picture of someone wearing the costume on the first page of results, you can have the points. If not, then you’re shit out of luck. Likewise, if you’ve clearly guessed the answer to your restaurant, you have to say where it is…. You can’t just put Bob’s Diner unless you know it’s in Sioux Falls.

One big area of discussion is adjectives. You can’t just preface everything with an adjective and expect to get the points, but when does the adjective become a key part of the thing you’re describing? We wouldn’t accept “filthy pictures” as an answer for something you keep hidden, but we did accept “failing memory”. We also learned that flambé is a technique and not a dessert, so we wouldn’t accept that as an answer… but someone else had “flambéed bananas”. Is the word “flambéed” being used there as an adjective or as a key part of the dessert’s name?
 It’s a minefield.

Here’s one for you: Famous Band or Artist. Would you accept “Five” or would you insist that it was correctly “5ive”? This obviously led to a conversation about where you would file it in your alphabetised record collection. A theoretical discussion, obviously…..

I won, by the way.

41. Next nearest score was 26. The only negative I got was for failing to name a capital city. Mind you, everyone got a blank here: apparently you could have had Freetown (Sierra Leone), Funafuti (Tuvalu) or Flying Fish Cove (Christmas Island). ..then again we all missed “Washington DC” when we drew “W”, so we can't even get the easy ones.

Yes, you guessed it: it is usually me that kicks off these debates. I just can’t help myself.
But you all knew that.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

bluffin' with my muffin....

Yesterday, I found myself in the slightly unusual position of being called fat. For a man of my body fat percentage who has spent much of the last six months training for a marathon, this was a somewhat unexpected turn of events. It happened at the interval training session when one of my running buddies grabbed me from behind – you’ll notice that she was finishing the interval behind me – and grappled with my love handles. My muffin top isn’t exactly extensive, but she found it and took great delight in pointing it out to everyone whilst emitting a proper belly laugh. Now what’s this if it’s not body shaming? I refuse to allow this bullying to dent the confidence I have in my beach-ready body.

As if this wasn’t enough, she also called me old.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but even though you’re only a couple of years older than my husband, I think of you much more like I think of my dad


She wants to run a half marathon with me later in the year AND asked for the details of the job in my team that I’m recruiting for at the moment.

Maybe this is just the way that people from North Derbyshire express their respect and admiration for someone?

The cheeky northern monkey.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

round and round and round...

Spending an hour running around in circles. Round and round and round.  6 x 90 seconds at about one mile pace with three minutes recovery and then one last burst of 2 x 30 seconds at a bit faster than mile pace.

It hurts, too.

An hour running around in circles on the grass by the Embankment, pretty much literally going nowhere.

You'll notice that I tracked it on my garmin.

This is the kind of training you do to increase your speed and your speed endurance.  It's also the kind of training that I'm much more likely to do if there's someone there with a whistle encouraging me and telling me when to run and when to stop.  It's run over summer by the guys who organise the parkrun I attend most Saturdays, and it's completely free.  I did this last year, and although it's really hard and it hurts (if you're doing it right), it definitely makes you faster.  After four months of marathon training, it's just the ticket for shaking myself out of marathon pace and trying to get myself back up to somewhere nearer the pace I want to be running.

It's just how I like to roll on a Wednesday evening.  At least it wasn't raining this week.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

if the rain comes, if the rain comes

I woke up early on Monday morning to the sound of the rain lashing down outside.  I actually really like the sound of falling rain.  When you're all tucked up in bed, it's very soothing.  Unfortunately for me, it was still raining a couple of hours later when I had to leave the comfort of my bed to get onto my bike for the ride into work.  The cat had a look out of the back door when I opened it to get my bike, but she had the luxury of turning on her heel and heading back to bed.  Alas, I did not.

With the crazy weather we've been having, it really wasn't much of a surprise to see that the sun had come out by the time I was showered and at my desk ready to start the week.  It's when the weather is like this that people stop cursing you as a cyclist for avoiding all the traffic jams caused by Nottingham's interminable tram works (three years and counting) and pretend to sympathise whilst smugly thinking how they arrived to work all cosy and dry.

The weather actually doesn't bother me, and I cycled to work on Monday in the rain thinking about how much I was enjoying it.  Sure, I got wet and it was a Monday morning and I had the prospect of wet gear festering in my locker waiting for the ride home, but it really wasn't so bad.  Over the two years I've been commuting on my bike, I've really come to value that 15-20 minute blast in the fresh air at the beginning and end of each day.  I work in a large office and spend a lot of time at my desk or in meetings in windowless rooms.  If I drove to work, I'd barely know what the weather was doing from one day to the next.  This way, at least I get a real feel for it.  What's the point in being worried about a bit of weather?  I have a waterproof jacket, access to a hot shower at either end and a locker with a change of clothes...why worry about a bit of rain?  Plus, at this time of year, I get to enjoy the baby bunnies frolicking in the grass alongside the cycle path.

This year has really been all about the running up until now, but since the New Year, I've also cycled something over 520 miles.  Almost all of it going backwards and forwards between home and the office. Together with the 550-odd miles that I've run in the same period, I suppose I've had plenty of time to get hardened to the British climate.

...although, of course, I don't count the cycling as exercise.  I'm sure Alistair Brownlee is the same.  Maybe Bradley Wiggins too.

Monday, 18 May 2015

belligerent ghouls...

As I was clearing up some paperwork in the kitchen last night, I stumbled across an issue of the glossy magazine my old school occasionally sends out to its former pupils. In spite of myself, I can’t help but have a quick flick through, even though I know that it’s only going to annoy me.

I am, you understand, a product of that hoary old British tradition: the public school. Even though I left the place some twenty-three years ago – more than half my lifetime - it apparently still has the power to make me feel nervous and uncomfortable. I look at those pictures of happy, privileged children and I feel a surge of self-loathing and resentment.  I realise this says more about me than about my alma mater.

I don’t come from a particularly wealthy background: my dad was a doctor working for the NHS in General Practice and my mother was a nurse who had become the full-time mother to three boys. Clearly, we were better off than some, but in order to afford a fee-paying school for their children, my parents made sacrifices (many of which I've only really begun to appreciate as I've got older). Where my fellow pupils were heading off to Florida in the summer holidays, if we went anywhere at all, we usually went to stay with my grandparents in Devon (where my father’s father used to run a pub in the Plymouth naval docks). It probably also helped that I sat some exams and was awarded a scholarship which meant that we got a discount on fees and I got my name in capital letters in the school directory.

I attended the school at the tail end of a long period of under-investment and the buildings were in various states of disrepair. In addition, academic standards were low, perhaps because the school accepted anyone who had the money to pay the fees and didn’t apply any minimum criteria. Scholastic achievement was generally considered poor form and, with hindsight, I’m not sure that the teaching was up to much either. I spent five years there, and the only time I’ve been back since was to attend a friend’s wedding. I don’t like to talk about it very much and I am perfectly happy if no one ever finds out that I attended a school anything like it.

You’d imagine that must be because I had a terrible time, but that simply isn’t true. For better or for worse, that school played an absolutely critical role in making me the person that I am today. My very best friends are all – almost without exception – people that I met there. So why do I have such a violent dislike of the place? Because I hate people’s preconceptions of public schools and I hate it when they are applied to me; I hate it when I run into some of the people I used to go to school with and when they prove that many of those preconceptions are rooted in reality (We barely spoke at school and certainly haven't seen each other in more than twenty years.  Tell me: am I likely to want to be your friend on Facebook?). I hate the faux-nostalgia for the place that people seem to have. If those were the best years of your life, then actually I think I feel sorry for you.  As I flick through the magazine, it is filled with pictures and reports from reunion events: 40 years; 25 years; 1 year…. Pictures of people wearing the old school tie with brackets after their name in the caption detailing the house and years they attended. (C 87-92). They are in networking clubs in London, Dubai, Hong Kong; they are at golf tournaments and fundraisers (the school, which currently charges fees in excess of £10,000 a term*, has charitable status). They are in government….. It represents a world that I want nothing to do with and I’m a little embarrassed to have ever been a part of, even through no choice of my own**.

I met some amazing people at the school, people I’m proud to call my friends, but I tend to think of us as survivors rather than alumni.

* This is a **lot** more than they charged when I was a pupil.  They charged enough then, but this seems ridiculous and doesn't even include things like uniforms.  It's a better school now, I'm sure.... but holy cow, that's a lot of money.

** I should be absolutely clear, if it needs saying, that my parents were only doing what they thought was best.  You don't send a seven year old child away to board lightly.  At least, I hope they didn't.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

deadlines and commitments...

Like all writers worthy of the name (!), I do enjoy surfing a deadline.  As a music reviewer for Leftlion magazine, my workload is around 300 words a month in the form of two short album reviews for most issues.  Not exactly strenuous, you might assume, especially when you consider that I usually have a good couple of weeks between receiving the music and needing to submit my copy. But as any writer will tell you: that's not really how deadlines work, is it?

I like to think I'm reasonably diligent: all of the music I review is by local bands, and much of it has been self-funded and produced by people who create music for the pleasure of it and from the desire to create something.  I shouldn't think that many of them harbour delusions that they are going to be the next big thing and are making music simply because they get a kick out of it and hope a few other people do too somewhere along the way.  As an amateur critic in a free local cultural magazine, it's definitely not my job to put the boot into them.  If I don't like something, I don't review it at all.  It's simple.  Once I have the MP3s, I like to give them a fair listen before putting my thoughts down in a review.  Ideally, I will have done absolutely no googling of the bands (everyone has a Facebook page, most detailing their influences) and I try to form my own opinion.

This takes time.  It might take no time at all to write 150 words, but to be in a place where I can make those words count, I need to put in the hard yards with my headphones on.  This is where deadline surfing can be a bit problematic.  I remember one month where we had been away somewhere all week, and I came back to the house on the night my reviews needed to be in, put on my headphones and discovered that the album I was reviewing was full-on, grunting death metal and wasn't quite the relaxing mood music I was hoping for to gear me up for the week ahead.

I've been pretty good this month: my deadline is Saturday, but because I know I'll be out at the cricket tomorrow night, I've taken advantage of arriving home early this evening from a team away day at work to listen to this month's reviews.  As ever, I'm surprised by the quality of the material.  I seem to be the de-facto reviewer of most of Nottingham's punk and metal bands, and this month is no exception.  Blind Thieves sound a bit like a heavier version of Wolfsbane (I mean this as a compliment, by the way...).  Their singer definitely sounds a bit like Blaze Bayley, anyway, but they're better musicians, and their three-track EP is really pretty good.  Dark Mother are a darker, murkier proposition altogether, ploughing a slower, heavier Black Sabbath-esque furrow with some heavy, chugging riffing.  The quality of the recording isn't of the same quality as that of Blind Thieves, but somehow that suits their style.  Very different, but also good.

After a good listen today, I'll let my thoughts settle overnight and then give them a quick google for a few details before tapping up my reviews on Saturday afternoon and mailing them off... right on deadline.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

when you want to go to it....

I was having a conversation with my boss today when she described me and two of my colleagues as "Mr. Cynical, Mr. Laid Back and Mr. Competitive".

I looked at her for a couple of seconds, weighing up what she had just said.  It was no good, I couldn't work it out.
"I honestly don't know which one of those is supposed to be me."

Mr. Laid Back, apparently.

I've clearly changed quite a lot over the years.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

long road up to recovery...

It’s been sixteen days since I crossed the finish line in the Mall in London and completed my first marathon. It was the culmination of months and months of focused effort and training to try and get my body to a place where it could cope with running 26.2 miles. It was with no little satisfaction that I was able to think about a job well done: my body is vulnerable to fatigue and secondary problems associated with my MS – loss of muscle mass, loss of flexibility in my ankles, scuffing… and so on. To have run all those miles with relatively few problems was very gratifying indeed. I started to get sore hips at around 17 miles and had deep muscle pain in my thighs for most of the second half of the course, but it was mostly manageable and wasn’t exactly unexpected. I popped a couple of paracetamol at around mile 18 and really, really enjoyed the last six miles though Westminster and down the Embankment. If “enjoyed” is the right word. Everything still hurt, but I was mentally in control and determined to enjoy the ride.

Running the marathon was completely new territory for me, but so too was what happened next. How should you recover from something like that? Lots of people reckon that you should rest for a whole day for every mile that you ran: 26 days. That doesn’t necessarily mean 26 days off running completely, but 26 days of taking things much more easily to allow your body time to recover and to allow all those tears in your muscles to heal.

I might be stubborn when it comes to exercise, but I’m not a fool. I was keen not to stop entirely, but I also wanted to keep moving. After all, I’ve learned in marathon training that one of the best ways to work stiffness out of your legs is (maybe counter-intuitively, and certainly counter to everything that your legs are screaming at you when you set off) is to go for a run. On the day after the marathon, I had extremely stiff, painful thighs and was struggling with stairs, but I still managed to go out for a very gentle two mile walk / run, and it really helped. I had a sports massage on Wednesday, and that weekend, I did a very gentle parkrun. Even over the course of a relatively steady 3 miles, it was clear that I still had stiffness in my hips and soreness deep in my thighs. Hardly surprising, really. Still, I built some swimming back into my exercise schedule, kept cycling to work and tried to keep my legs moving, including building in a bit of interval training to try and shake off marathon pace and to do a bit of speed work. Nothing too strenuous quite yet, but just to mix my routine up a bit.

I ran a bit faster at parkrun last weekend, and on Monday I attempted my longest run yet: 5.5-ish miles along the river with my running club. I’m still running quite a bit slower than I would like, but I was definitely heading in the right direction and running at a little under 8:30 minutes/mile…. Until, after about three miles, my hip flexors really began to make their presence felt and I started to labour a bit. The pain wasn’t terrible, but I can take a hint: I slowed down.

How long do you need to allow your body to recover after a marathon? Well, apparently for a little bit longer than I’m currently allowing it. Just some gentle speed interval work tomorrow then.

If I didn’t admire Eddie Izzard already for completing 43 marathons in 51 days for Sport Relief in 2009, I now have greater insight into what an incredible achievement that was. Knowing how my legs felt the day after London, and knowing how my body is responding to running now, some sixteen days later… well, I’m in awe of him. Remarkable.

Monday, 11 May 2015

make it count...

I watched a couple of things on TV this weekend that both made me a little emotional.

The first I saw by accident when I was snoozling in my chair on Saturday afternoon.  The athletics from Manchester was on in the background and, between races, they did a little profile of one of Paula Radcliffe's runners.  Apparently, Paula ran a competition to pick six women who want to get active and inspire others by taking on the Great Manchester Run (which took place on Sunday).  Presumably they've been profiling the others too, but the one I saw was a profile of a lady called Lynsey Moores.

As this article says:

Lynsey, a single parent from Old Trafford, has been unable to see, speak, swallow and walk at times because of her uncertain condition. Lynsey, who was diagnosed shortly after youngest son Jacob, now seven, was born, said: "I've decided not to live in fear of MS. I won't be beaten by it any longer and let it rule my life as it has done for so long. "Fortunately, I've not had a major relapse for quite a while and do count myself as one of the lucky ones. I hadn't done any exercise but am now gradually getting fit.  The most important thing is to complete the course and raise as much money as I can for the MS Society."

The BBC profile showed Lynsey running and talking to camera, and it was inspiring to see her determination to do this 10k and also quite moving to see how proud her two kids were of her and what she was achieving.

Clearly, all this is quite close to home for me.  Close enough that I looked up her JustGiving page and made a donation.  If she is anywhere near as determined as she sounded, then I think she will have smashed it in the race yesterday.  I like (and recognise) her attitude.

And then, on Sunday, I caught up with The C Word on iPlayer.  This was screened the other day and tells the story of Lisa Lynch and her battle against breast cancer.  Sound familiar?  Well Lisa wrote a beautiful, funny and very popular blog called "AlrightTit".  She was a brilliant writer and she was one of those people who just seemed to broadcast life and the joy of living....even when facing up to an ultimately incurable cancer.  Sheridan Smith did a great job of capturing Lisa (if you don't believe me, ask her family), and it was a very emotional way to spend a Sunday evening.

Lisa was a friend of this blog, and she was kind enough to put me up in her (quite small) list of links to "blogs I like", which was - and still is - very flattering.  Since the screening on the BBC over the Bank Holiday, I've been receiving a steady flow of referrals from her blog via that link.... presumably from curious people who are quickly disappointed at the sudden drop in the quality of their reading.   Lisa died on 11th March 2013.  I don't make much of a habit at looking at my blog stats, but every time I see a referral from Lisa, it reminds me of how awesome she was and how she's still making a difference to people's lives today.

We were supposed to meet at the Cider Bus at Glastonbury the year she broke her back (it's a long story).  As I have done every year since then, I'll be raising a pint of Burrow Hill cider in her memory when I get to the festival in June.  Much missed, kid.

Friday, 8 May 2015

these tears I can't hold inside....

Earworms of the Week

Don’t Panic” – Coldplay

We live in a beautiful world. Yeah we do”
After the somewhat traumatic events of the last 24 hours, keep repeating this refrain to yourself until you believe it. It’s not really working for me at the moment, to be honest. I keep wondering how we can live through 5 years of David Cameron and his cronies in government, and then somehow we return them again with an outright majority. It’s baffling. I suppose I should be grateful that UKIP only returned a single MP, but when they polled 12.6% of the national vote and only got something like 0.15% of the available seats Meanwhile, the SNP get 8.5% of the seats from 5% of the votes (and almost all the Scottish seats with barely 50% of the vote). Meanwhile, the Lib Dems get almost entirely wiped out with roughly twice the share of the National vote (7.9%), and the Greens get a million votes (3.8% of those cast) and one seat. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that something needs to change, does it? And you know what: with an outright majority in Parliament, the Conservatives don’t need to do a damn thing about it.

Don’t Panic? Probably not, but It might be time to get more directly involved.  I think I'll volunteer to help any pro-Europe campaign for the referendum. I might even be on Ken Clarke's side for that one!

Strangers in the Night” – Frank Sinatra

Dooby-dooby doo, etc.  Man, I'd been clean of this one for months too.  I blame David Cameron.

Supremacy” – Muse

Amidst the chaos of the day, this guitar riff popped into my head. How can everything be lost if something like that can happen?

Everything in its Right Place” – Radiohead
Bullet in the Head” – Rage Against the Machine

If you remember, our regular Friday quiz at work always has the same questions, but we draw a different letter of the alphabet. Today we drew “R”. So when I was racking my brains to think of a famous band/artist beginning with the letter “R”, how is it that, no matter how hard I mentally scrolled through my iPod, I drew a blank. I could have had the Ramones, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the Raconteurs, the Rolling Stones, R.E.M., Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, or something like that…. But no, the only thing I could dredge up was Leann Rimes. WHO DOES NOT FEATURE ON MY IPOD. Go figure. Although, on the upside, 2 points as no one else thought of her either.

Gleaming Auction” – Snow Patrol

There was a time in 2004 when this was the best album ever and I saw the band 4 times in all that year. But you know how it goes, as a band becomes popular and you start to hear them everywhere, you slowly go off them? II was a bit like that with Snow Patrol. Their next album was also good, but something had changed between us; something that was probably cemented by the ubiquity of “Chasing Cars”. It wasn’t them, it was me… but I started to feel slightly embarrassed about liking them. I still bought their albums, but it wasn’t the same (and the quality did start to drop off too). But for some reason, I was inspired to put this album on, and it sounded GREAT. Gary Lightbody does do a lot of talking heads programmes about “Game of Thrones” though, doesn’t he? I know he made a brief appearance as a minstrel, but shouldn’t he be making music or something and not saying how shocked he was by The Red Wedding on Sky Atlantic?

The Rose” – Bette Midler

It’s on the choir songlist for the summer season, but I think the main reason that it’s in my head is that we’ve been given the results of our colleague feedback survey at work, and we’ve been asked to plot out our action plans on a template that’s been made out in the shape of a tree: plant your seeds of the things you’ve identified you need to focus on, and then build up the leaves of action, check-in and goal…. Ugh. Can you imagine? It’s like an episode of Play School where we all pretend to be a seed and then slowly unfurl ourselves into a tree. But what does Bette teach us? Well, just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies the seed that with the sun's love, in the spring becomes the rose.
Hmm. Beautiful.

I Heard it Through the Grapevine” – Marvin Gaye
Brick House” – The Commodores

Last weekend, I just wanted some Marvin and nothing was going to get in my way. Apart from when I wanted to listen to some classic Commodores. How ever did we manage before the instant gratification of downloads? Let’s get it on now, baby….

Have a good weekend, y’all. Just try not to think about it.