Splish Splash

Well that was a surprise. A Bank Holiday weekend in the UK where – at least where I was – it was gloriously sunny all weekend.  Somewhat of a rare occurrence.

We were lucky enough to be with friends down on the Dorset coast, a spectacularly beautiful part of the country in all weathers but especially nice when it is sunny and warm. In addition, the sea is clear and relatively warm in the summer and so it was nice to take advantage of that and get in several sessions of proper swimming in the sea – and one dunk for me in a cold river ford, but that was just for a laugh – it was not deep enough to swim in but was deliciously cooling on a very hot day and it seemed to amuse my fellow waders, most of whom under the age of six.

Swimming and I have an odd history. I was never very into it as a child and I think part of that was body self-confidence (or rather lack of) and a general dislike of swimming pools – something I carry to this day, I’d much rather jump in a river. For whatever reason when I ended up at my secondary school I was a very basic swimmer and could not manage backstroke.

So, then came the humiliation of remedial swimming lessons at lunchtime, as this was the kind of school where while it was OK to be useless at sport, basic incompetence was not tolerated. I hated the whole idea, if only because everyone knew I had to do them and I was therefore excluded from the fun everyone else was having during the break time.

Of course, I was entirely wrong about all this and looking back I am happy that I had to go through it. I’m now a competent swimmer and can enjoy it when the opportunity arises and I have some of the teachers at school to thank for that. But it was not the physical education staff that ran the lessons; it was other members of staff that took the classes on a voluntary basis, when their main role was teaching science or geography. I do not know what their motives were – I suspect that for some it was having experienced similar issues in their own lives. All I know is that these lessons were executed in a calm and matter of fact way, with a lot of patience. I can recall the day that I first allowed myself to lie back in the water – with a supporting hand initially – and realised that I did not sink; a moment of revelation from which thankfully there was no going back.

It is a shame I cannot say thank you to those people who helped me back then; some of them at least are no longer with us. Apart from the practical upshot of learning to swim and the freedom that gives me, it taught me another lesson. Sometimes you must accept that in order to achieve something important you might have to go back to the start and accept that your ego might have to take a back seat while you re-learn something you got wrong the first time but you were not prepared to admit because of the shame; because in the long term you’ll be in a better place.

Sadly, not much opportunity for wild swimming in Hertfordshire; and anyway, as the year goes on maybe it will just be a little too cold. But it was fun when it lasted and I’m sure I’ll be taking the plunge again at the next opportunity.


Eclipsed (1999 Version)

I can entirely understand the excitement around the total solar eclipse yesterday in the USA and I hope that lots of people get to experience something which I found very special. Hopefully they will get to see a bit more than I did all those years ago in Cornwall, but the sort of feelings that I recall from way back in 1999 have stuck with me, which is why if anyone ever asks me if it is worth putting yourself out to be right in the shadow of a total solar eclipse the answer would always be yes.

Back in 1999 I co-organized a group to go down to Cornwall for that eclipse, about fifteen of us camped out in Helston village hall; well it kept the costs down.

On the day of the eclipse everyone was rather excited. There was a general sense of anticipation in the local area, and perhaps also a little bit of nervousness. There is something very primal about celestial events, and the pub whose board outside jokingly read ‘Repent! The End of the World is Nigh!’ summed up the feeling quite well.

That enthusiasm was a little dampened by the fact it was obviously not going to be the best weather conditions at the relatively early hour the eclipse was due. We climbed up onto fields near the sea, on one side looking down onto Falmouth bay, and inland looking towards the massive radio telescopes of Goonhilly. As we sat down to wait we were at first mildly concerned we would be moved on by the approach of someone who was clearly the local farmer; in fact, he invited us to go into the middle of the next field and join his family and friends. That was the first thing; people acting in a way that was disturbingly friendly to complete strangers.

As we watched the clouds steadfastly obscuring the sun, we kept an eye on the clock. Eventually, fortified on sausage rolls and cake it was time.

We could not see the sun, but you very quickly saw something was changing. The best way I can describe it is that a wave of darkness swept towards us from the telescopes, and rolled over us and past, out to see, the darkness intensifying all the time until it was completely black. Serious, complete blackness. And silent. The cows in the field, the birds and everyone in the field were for a few seconds completely silent, as though everything was holding its breath. Looking out to see you could see light at the edge of the shadow, but for a few moments everything just stopped and the only movement was tiny flashes of light from the cameras of the masses that had collected on Falmouth beach.

And then suddenly it was over. It was as though               someone had turned up a huge dimmer switch as the return to daylight was quick, but also gradual. Suddenly the birds were singing as though it was dawn, the cows were mooing and pretty much everyone was hugging each other and giggling like five year olds. Champagne appeared in small plastic cups. No one seemed remotely upset we had not actually see the moon pass across the sun until a little glimpse through the clouds after the fact. But everyone under the shadow had felt it happen, and that was enough to cement it as an experience and for a short while at least bind everyone together with that shared happening.

The sense of euphoria lasted for most of the day. Nobody wanted to talk about it; there was not much to say, there was just this sense of release, as though the tension of the darkness had been lifted, the sun restored and life goes on. It is very easy to see how in the past such events were extremely portentous. We all knew that a few seconds later it would get light again, throughout much of history that was not the case. It must have been a terrifying experience in the past, but now it is a reminder of the celestial spheres and another of those wondrous things that the moon is just big enough at certain points to completely blot out the sun.

It’s just marvellous.


Weighty Issues


Well my attempt at a fitter me has been slightly derailed by overdoing it last week and resulting in a (thankfully appearing transient) back problem. I’m less worried about having to put a break on the weights work than being unable to run for a few days, as the part of me that expects every aspect of my life to hurtle towards a car crash at some point worries about the loss of fitness and an expectation that my weight will suddenly increase rapidly overnight.

Ah – yes, weight issues. I have always had a problem with my weight, from a child to the present day. There was a brief period in the late nineties/early 2000s when a combination of exercise and a better diet had dropped my BMI out of ‘overweight’ into normal but apart from that I have always carried more weight than I should have with all the accompanying – for me at least – body image issues.

I do not remember a time I has not fat as a child. And I was fat. The bullies at school were always there to remind me after all. The reasons for this were multiple. First off is that I’m my own worst enemy, with a personality that tends towards excess and a n aversion to the concept of rationing. Unfortunately for me, I was born into a loving family for whom showing love included never being hungry. So, I was fed well at home, and fed even more at grandparents. As an example, every Sunday was spent at grandparents and went along the same lines; large cooked breakfast in the morning, followed by the inevitability of Roast Pork and overcooked vegetables and tinned peaches and ice cream before everyone sat down in front of the TV and fell asleep leaving me to do my homework in peace. But about two hours later it was Teatime, so of course out came the sausage rolls, apple pie and scones and although no one could have been even remotely hungry to not at least attempt to eat some of it was unthinkable if my Dad was going to avoid a falling out with his mother.

And of course, by the time we got home it was supper time.

The real curse of this type of scenario is that you get used to it and it becomes a vicious cycle and that was how it worked as I just began to get larger and larger. Add to the equation that I hated sport at school anyway (and with my ever-increasing size proceeded to hate it more and more as I became even more useless and increasingly feeling the shame of my size in the mandatory communal showers meant that by the time I was fifteen I weighed fifteen stone; and I knew that a year earlier that had been fourteen. I was putting on a stone in weight every year.

Panic can be a good thing sometimes. I proceeded at this point to panic and started to cut back on what I was eating as best I could and take the dog for longer walks. It was not easy ducking the scones and pies but I managed it well enough to stop the progression and reverse it a little, although it still dogged me through university and still today; if it was not from my running I think I would be in a much worse place, so here’s hoping I stay injury free for a while so maybe I can get closer to a place where I feel good about myself.

I was somewhat amused that I wrote this blog only to find this news story on the BBC the same day, entirely coincidently http://www.bbc.com/news/health-40921856 so I’d better get my running shoes back on…

Reflections of Children

Last week was an unusual but satisfying one for us due to one rather unusual factor. We had someone else living with us. Just for about a week, admittedly, but there was another living, breathing human being in our house at bedtime and in the mornings and through the day. We are used to people being with us at weekends of course, but for an extended period? No, this was something new.

And something good too. One of our God children was staying with us while the rest of his family were otherwise engaged, so we had the joy of taking a thirteen-year-old for waffles, milkshakes, Roman ruins and watching 1980s fantasy/science fiction movies with popcorn in the evenings before bed.

I am not sure who was enjoying themselves more if I have to be entirely honest.

Now reflecting on the experience, it has taught me several things about myself that if you had asked me before I probably would have not considered. For example, I always thought of myself as being relatively patient; now I know that I can be remarkably impatient at times – good to know, easier to manage when you’re aware of a flaw. I also thought that with children, I would be the soft touch that would let them get away with anything. No, wrong again. I’m much more of a rule based disciplinarian than I thought I was, and the Lovely Wife turns out to be the good cop (I will say, as his parents will be reading this, bad cop wasn’t needed as he behaved impeccably, but I suddenly understood the terrible truth).

Of course, the most interesting thing was that, for a short time at least, we had acquired a child. When we started going out we were clear that we both wanted to have children. I was always convinced I was going to have a couple of daughters. I do not know why; it just was that way in my head. I even know what I would have called them. After we were married we were both convinced it could only be a matter of time. Life up to that point was a blessed one, with lovely things happening to us at what seemed exactly the right time. So, I was convinced that this would be no different and soon we would be worrying about schools and the like.

Then, after a while it became clear that nothing was happening. But we prayed, and we took it further practically by going for IVF. Walking through White City to the Hammersmith hospital became a regular appointment.

After the third failed cycle of treatment it was clear it was not going to happen and there is a point where you must consider the health of the adult over a diminishing chance of success. Even at this point we still had some hope – stories of couples conceiving after giving up because of the sudden lack of stress of expectation kept the flame alive for a while.

But it was not to be, and we had to face the fact that sometimes you do not get what you want, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes you want kids and will not get kids, just as the dream spouse may remain just that – a dream – for some people. That’s a hard thing to get hold of, especially if you have a faith. We struggled and still struggle. It is something you never get away from, it does not and cannot ‘heal’.  You work around it. Luckily for us, we had each other and because it hurt us both badly it meant our relationship remained strong (I would also note the support of our friends and family through this; sometimes in unexpected ways.)

Being childless does have its benefits. As with the visit of our God son we find that many of our friends want us to be involved in some way in their children’s upbringing (ensuring that our diary gets increasingly complicated, if only so we remember all their birthdays). Working with the youth at church not only gave us contact with some lovely young people at exactly the most stressful part of the whole process, and has unexpectedly led to some very special – and sustained – friendships that we cherish (not to mention the pride and joy of seeing those young people excel and develop in their own lives and feeling we have at least some little assistance in that).

Not being worn down by the more tiring aspects of bringing up children means we have the energy for it at friends and family gatherings – rare is the case that a summer BBQ does not end with me buried under a pile of giggling children (it just always seems to happen).

What we have and what we have been given to work with is still a lot – in the end we are still very blessed. We will continue to love other people’s children who are entrusted to us when we can. We can joke about having all the fun with them and then giving them back when they get tired and emotional.

But when I see a little girl clinging to her father with utter love and trust, I cannot help but cry a little inside that I will never experience that very special kind of love.

It is true however that if that little girl happens to glance over at me it is almost certain that I will pull a silly face and probably stick my tongue out at her. You cannot take the child out of the man, thankfully.

Torture Test

Yesterday I had my induction at a local gym that I have somewhat reluctantly decided should be a place I probably need to be more familiar with.  I’ll be clear right from the outset that I hate gyms. The reasons are multiple but even the basic concept – that people should pay good money for the privilege of torturing yourself on a regular basis on machines that would not look out of place in a medieval torture chamber (and indeed have the capacity for causing similar levels of pain). I don’t get it. For me personally they remind me of school gyms too much of the time, places I think of as a place of overweight teenage humiliation as, naked except for the regulation blue trunks, that I was forced to learn how to do a forward role ‘properly’, a futile exercise that taught me nothing I ever needed and rubbed the skin raw on my shoulders.

It is not the exercise, anyone who knows me I run most days and it is an important part of my life – and keeps me at least in touching distance of what might be called reasonably fit. It is just the nature of the gym environment that makes me self-conscious and a bit uncomfortable, especially if the place is busy. For those of us who fall something short of the body beautiful it is hard to feel you are being judged and assessed. It should not matter of course, but equally we all know it is quite hard to feel/avoid feeling what we should. The little voice at the back of your head is unfortunately quite persuasive and knows exactly how to press your uncertainty and self-conscious buttons.

So back to the induction at the gym. Why? Considering the obvious level of distaste, I do seem to be being inconsistent. In the end though this became a bit of a change that needed to be made. I have been a member of gym a couple of times before and the experience was not a bad one.  In fact, when I was lucky enough to have a small, quiet pay as you go gym across the road from where I was living at the time I was in there most nights (but then of course I was a lot younger and single). What I do recall is that after a while I could feel the benefits and it helped back up my running by addressing the areas that could not. It seems clear to me that based on my current level of fitness if I want to improve my running times – and while I am hardly competitive – I need to shakeup what has become too much of a routine of the same runs at the same pace and that building myself a more holistic exercise programme, with a few races planned before the end of the year to aim towards seems to be the way to go. So, that means extending my runs, adding intervals and hill reps (which are hateful but effective in building strength, which I learned from my marathon training a few years ago) and the gym to work on upper body and core are now on the horizon and based on the induction where the very nice young chap who introduced me to the various items of torture managed just about not to laugh at my inability to do press ups I certainly need to get working on stuff.

Time will tell if it is going to be a fad or I’ll actually make it stick, and I’ll never make it onto the cover of ‘Men’s Health’ (thank goodness) but maybe I’ll feel a bit better about myself and hopefully allow me to ignore some implications from the sad reality of my actual age.