Sunday, 12 April 2015

Life advice: How to take a compliment

If you're lucky then from time to time compliments will happen.

Somebody might say they like your dress, or your new lunchbox or your selection of scented deodorant, and it'll all be very nice for everybody involved.

But for those who have - at some stage in their lives - experienced some of the more unfortunate types of comments that can be made about a person's appearance or existence, compliments can be a hard thing to comprehend.

When you've taught yourself to be permanently on guard, ready to play verbal karate against anybody who happens to dislike your shoes or your hair or some other crucial life choice apparently open to public scrutiny, a genuine compliment can take you by surprise. And, as a result, you are constantly at risk of taking a chop at any innocent dude who tells you that they think you have good taste in nail varnish or trainer socks, because you automatically assume they're out to get you.

On my list of strengths you would see: a keen eye for pun opportunities; ability to remember everybody in the world's birthday and thus make them think that I am a stalker/identity thief; and a permanent, unfaltering openness to dessert. And on the weaknesses list, among many others, would be: extremely limited willingness to participate in sporting activities (AKA laziness), heavy dependency on crisps; and an inability to accept a compliment without making (often sh*t) jokes. It's like an illness, for which the cure is just to stop it. 

So here's how I intend to do that:

Step one: Remember that compliments are not traps
Contrary to popular school playground opinion, life is not actually a race to see who can say the nastiest thing about another person the quickest. And compliments don't just exist to lure you into a false sense of security before hitting you hard in the face with the fact that actually, no, your eye make-up doesn't look exceptionally even today, it looks like you put your mascara wand into the mouth of a dog and told it to poke you in the eye.

But this can be hard to remember, so those of us in verbal karate mode are always ready with an insult for ourselves just in case, such as these:

Hey Charlotte, I like the new fringe!
Ah yes, whatever takes the focus off my face, eh?! (*This one doesn't even work. A fringe does the precise opposite, FYI.)

Very strong handbag choice, lady! 
Oh this? It was so cheap they basically paid me to take it off the premises! 

Ooh have you caught the sun?
Nah, I think I kept my face in the oven too long when I was poking at some salmon I'd accidentally cremated last night - woops!
...whilst the other person looks on, wondering if you've either gone mad, or perhaps you just didn't hear them properly when they said they liked your hair/bag/face/voice and maybe they should write it down for you next time to be sure.

Step two: Remember that accepting a compliment doesn't make you horrendously full of yourself
People don't compliment you so that they can be outraged at your acceptance of their words. They don't say "Well, aren't you good at making a casserole!" so that they can then bitch amongst chums later about how arrogant it was of you to believe that they did indeed enjoy the way that you merged meat with vegetables and [whatever the liquid that goes into a casserole is] for their enjoyment. That would be a very strange way to live your life. Now, of course, it is possible to overdo it - don't stop them mid-sentence to call and tell your mum, or to change your twitter handle to @COOKOFTHECENTURY - but beyond that you are allowed to just believe nice words when they're said to you.

Step three: Just say thank you and carry on with your day
Yep. That's it. Simple, eh?

Learning to accept compliments - and that the whole world isn't trying to bring you down, one joke about your taste in necklaces at a time - is all part of our journey to becoming a truly confident human. Being an adult means having the freedom to - as much as possible - only spend time with people who bring us joy so, rather than constantly having to keep our arms up to fend off nastiness, we can let them rest by our sides, only raising up for a hug or a high five or take a well-earned slice of cake.

And it leaves our marvellously quick minds free for more useful activities, like playing along with Countdown or spotting opportunities to make a good pun.

Because life's far too short to miss out on too many of those.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Why you should stop giving social media so much control over your feelings

It's very easy in this world of constant digital access to other people's lives and photos and boasts to feel that every single one serves as a direct comparison to your own life:

Have you had a delicious homemade brunch today, Charlotte? Hmm, well, @someoneyouwillprobablynevermeet has. Why is your morning time consumption so inadequate? Did you even think about taking a picture of your food before you put it in your face? Where are your priorities? 

Hey, Charlotte, have YOU just landed yourself a sweet book/magazine/film/four-album deal? Hmm, well, @somedudeyoudontevenknow has. Why do you even bother conditioning your hair for this world if you're not going to take it seriously?

And this all feels so much more personal because we're having these words and pictures delivered straight to our phone and laptop screens whilst we sit at home watching old episodes of Not Going Out and eating, well, everything. It's like these people have come round to our houses to tell us directly how well things are going for them, had a scathing glance at our peeling wallpaper and overflowing bin and then danced off down the street with their 300,000 followers trailing behind them. I mean, who does that?

But, of course, that isn't what's happening. Firstly, you opened the door. In fact, you invited them round to stay for as long as you've been following them which, if you joined Facebook back in 2005 like all the cool kids, is a chuffing long time. And you know that you could have them off your screen in a micro-second if you wanted to but that isn't the point. It's you that you need to feel OK with - your life, your achievements, your consumption of photograph-worthy brunches and cocktails - and then none of this will touch you. You'll just give 'em a little 'like' or a 'favourite' and be on your way, rather than adding them to your personal file called 'Reasons to believe I am fundamentally failing at life' which, if nothing else, is a very long name for a file.

It's easy to forget that people rarely use social media to acknowledge the baby steps it takes to make real progress towards realising your goals. You don't get many updates that say "Sent a few emails out last week. Got a couple of replies saying no and one maybe, so we'll see what happens" because that would be a) pretty boring b) who is going to retweet that? and c) nobody likes to admit just how much hard work goes into getting things done.

The loyal readers among you (Hi mum!) may remember that in January I wrote this post about my intentions to spend 2015 being much less afraid. And it is this very thought process that made me realise that I haven't been doing so well at it. But now I think I know why.

Because I forgot that other people's lives and successes have no bearing whatsoever on our own. And because I forgot that if you want to do something difficult - like get your teeth fixed (no, I still haven't been to the dentist), or get more writing work, or attempt to do anything else which means making you vulnerable - it is going to feel a bit scary but that can't be a reason not to do it. In fact, it should be all the more reason to go and bloody give it a try - because imagine how good it'll feel when it turns out to be completely worth your while.

And if nothing else, any success you do get will make for some excellent social media posts. But remember not to be fooled - it'll only ever be half the story.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Don't look too keen: Why dating rules were made to be broken

Dating rules can be ridiculous.

Leave at least an hour between text messages.
Don't accidentally point at wedding dresses whilst you're out together.
Don't do too much smiling in case they think you're a psychopath.

Urgh, I'm glad to be out of it.

The rule I always struggled the most with was 'Don't look too keen'.

Now, this is not because I'm a crazy person with a body secretly tattooed with the name of every man I've ever admired (I'm afraid of needles, thanks very much) but because this rule is actually unfinished. What it should say is: 'Don't look too keen unless you're ABSOLUTELY 100% SURE that they are equally keen on you in which case, do what you like'.

The game goes something like this.

  • Meet someone you like.
  • Appear interested but nonchalant, like a Coronation Street viewer passing the time with an episode of Eastenders. You're here, you're looking, but you've just got so much else going on.
  • Commence dating. Brush your hair and clean your teeth but don't let them think it was all for them. There's a good chance you'd have done that today anyway.
  • Begin to incorporate occasional smiling and physical contact into dates. Maybe even laugh at their jokes but don't play with your hair. It'll totally give the game away.
  • Undertake mind reading exercises/ask a couple of their mates if they've mentioned you, to confirm that they definitely do like you precisely as much as you like them.
  • Say something encouraging like "You're nice" or "Those jeans fit you well around the waist" to let them know that actually, yes, you are interested too.
  • Enter balanced, game free relationship. Reply to their text messages when you want and perhaps even answer the phone when they ring you (unless Corrie's on, obviously).
  • Get married. State just how keen you are in front of everybody you know.
  • Schedule regular occasions on which to demonstrate your deep felt keenness throughout the year, such as anniversaries, birthdays and Pancake Day.
  • Specifically do not appear keen on anybody else at all for the rest of your life, with the following permitted exceptions: David Beckham, Leonard DiCaprio (Romeo and Juliet era preferred) and anybody offering free chocolates, as long as you make sure you get enough free samples for both of you.
It's an exhausting business.

But here's a thing nobody tells you. That isn't really the end of it.

If you're somebody who has worked tirelessly for years to ensure you're always on the right side of the keenness tracks, taking occasional breaks to kick yourself hard in the shin for accidentally misreading a high-five as a marriage proposal, your guard never quite goes down.

I think it's because dating teaches us to be so cautious that when we do let ourselves relax, an alarm bell rings inside our heads and says WOAH WOAH WOAH YOU'RE VULNERABLE! QUICK, DELETE HIS NUMBER AND START PRONOUNCING HIS NAME INCORRECTLY! YOU NEED TO WIN BACK SOME POWER!

It can come up out of the blue. You can be asking an innocent question about the weekend ahead and your options for mutual socialising, and all of a sudden you're feeling the need to clarify that you were just wondering what they were up to and you don't even want to hang out with them anyway, and you have so many other options on the table you can hardly wade through them, whilst they look on, baffled.

It can be difficult to shake the dating game off. Of course some elements apply forever - it's nice to listen to what people have to say instead of just saying "Uhuh" every ten seconds and continuing to look at Twitter, and washing is always a positive activity, but once you're in a relationship it's nice just to have a bit of trust and stop all this fannying about it.

The dating game is just that - a game. Sometimes you win - and by win I mean you meet somebody you like and who likes you and that you enjoy spending time together for an appropriate length of time (whether that be forever, or until you realise that you just can't get past your differing opinions on who made a better Batman), and sometimes you lose, by which I mean that it leaves you wondering whether you should just marry your cat and be done with it.

But when it does work out, you have to just throw the rule book out and admit that you do indeed like another human being. Relationships do make you vulnerable because you can't enter into one without admitting that actually you are rather keen. Queen Keen of Keen Town, actually, and you don't care who knows it.

All you can do is try and find yourself in a situation where everybody is as keen as each other so that that never feels like a bad thing. With somebody who also believes that eight is the optimum number of kisses to include at the end of a text message, and who feels just as strongly about the apostrophe as you do, and who agrees that, yes, Pancake Day really is the greatest day of the year.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

How to look after an extremely hungover person

With a long term relationship comes appreciation than some events are non-negotiable. 

Birthdays are one, Monday, Wednesday and Friday episodes of Coronation Street are another, and the Six Nations also manages to make its way onto the list, whether I like it or not (spoiler: I do not). 

But I don't grudge the fun that comes with it, on account of my overall life intention to not be a dick about harmless things (with the exception of all the things about which I give myself permission to be a dick, namely: poor customer service, people wearing shoes in my house, and any occasion when I'm feeling a bit overtired).

Sure, having life arranged around relentless games of rugby for a number of weekends straight (I've lost count, does it go on for 21 or 22 weeks?) is a little inconvenient socially speaking - the games tend to kick off around the sort of time when I particularly like to step out for lunch or change the bed, but these things can be rearranged. I am a reasonable person. Also I've learnt that it's possible to eat lunch whilst watching rugby which makes it a 100% more interesting pastime.

But mainly I just don't partake, I do other things, I see friends, I read a book, I stare into the abyss - I'm very good at keeping myself entertained. But what I do get involved with is with the side effect of relentless rugby and sporting celebrations, and inevitable all day drinking. The hangover. A condition which, if I may say so, I am exceptional at caring for. There's basically six steps to it:

STEP ONE: Prepare the ground
Buy up all the ibuprofen, Lucozade, eggs, meat-based breakfast goods and sugary sweets you can get your paws on but, CRUCIALLY, keep them out of reach until the following day, otherwise you could find everything has disappeared in a post-party-time midnight feast, and then you'll have to leave the house to buy more things and nobody likes leaving the house.

STEP TWO: Turn off your alarm clock
No, not for him, he'd sleep right through that bad boy. Hell, he wouldn't wake up if you shouted "Rugby has been cancelled forever! Apparently you can pass the ball forwards after all and the whole game has been called into question!" (Ok fine, he might, but mainly because he'd be wowed into consciousness by my exceptional rugby knowledge). No, this is for you. Have a good sleep, you'll need your energy for all the kind caring you're about to do.

STEP THREE: Remember, the fact that this was all self-inflicted is irrelevant 
You know what you feel like when you're ill? You know, pathetic, delicate, like all you want is to be tucked in and fed drinkable yogurt through a straw? Well, a hungover person is very similar, except replace 'tucked in' with 'left the hell alone on the sofa in front of the TV under a blanket' and 'drinkable yogurt' with '50 different types of fluids because I JUST CAN'T DECIDE WHAT I WANT MY HEAD HURTS'. So behave accordingly. Best stock up on glasses in advance.

STEP FOUR: Keep it down
The problem with looking after a hungover person is that it's a bit dull. They're not great conversationalists in this state, and ideally they'd like nothing more than total peace and quiet. But if you're not also recovering from a booze-fest, you might find yourself feeling a bit restless. So, sure, pop on an episode of Corrie, but keep the volume down low. Just the sound of the theme tune could be enough to finish a person off.

STEP FIVE: Use motivational phrases to boost morale when things get tough
A hungover day is like a metaphor for life. Sometimes you wake up and think everything's going to be OK and then before you've even got down the stairs you realise that you can't even remember where you left your shoes last night or if you remembered to shut the front door. So morale is going to dip from time to time, and it's up to you to keep everybody motivated. My go-to words of support are: "You're doing so well - I reckon you're through the worst of it now!" and "If anybody can beat this, it's you - just do nothing, you're ace at that!" I recommend going for heartfelt but with just a little edge, for your own personal amusement. 

STEP SIX: Reap the benefits of your kindness
One day it will be your turn. You'll step out of an evening, sup on two or maybe even three mojitos and you'll find yourself regretting all that mint and crushed ice (and probably the rum) come the following morning, and you'll welcome a little TLC with open arms. You too will want to have a variety of drinks and snacks to choose from, and somebody there to reassure you that, no, life will not always feel this way - the universe isn't really going to punish you forever for having the audacity to have fun - and you will reap the benefits of the exceptional standards of hangover care you've set.

If an event must come around every year then we might as well make it as pleasant-a-part of the calendar as possible, rather than just two months of sighing and stomping off upstairs and muttering about 'never disappearing to the pub all afternoon to watch my programmes!'

Ok, fine, I said that once. It's not my fault they don't show Coronation Street in bars. But if they did, I'd be there. And I might find myself taking up that hangover care a little sooner than I thought.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

16 things I've learnt from my mum

1. There is no situation that could not be improved by the involvement of a hot water bottle. A long car journey, a late evening trip to the movies, a stomach ache that just won't quit - my mum's got an HWB for every occasion.

2. A handbag should enable you to address any need that you, your friends, family or casual passers-by could identify. Got a headache? Worry not, she's got her pouch of tablets. Need to freshen up? Well, would you like a Tic Tac or a Polo? Fancy a snack? Well, sure, but not before you've had a wash. You can choose between either hand sanitiser or wipes, which are stored in the specially purchased cleaning products purse. Turn your nose up if you like but if you want to eat you're going to have to WASH THOSE HANDS.

3. When I'm not wearing mascara, I look unwell. If I had a pound for every time mum's asked me "Are you ill or have you just not put your make up on yet?" then maybe I'd be able to afford to have my eyelashes permanently tinted and save us all a lot of trouble.

4. She may not always be able to hear what I'm saying to her when we're sat next to each other, but she can hear me opening the fridge door from ANYWHERE.

5. Related: when we went to Japan last year, I bought my mum a small battery operated walrus that goes in the fridge and shouts something in Japanese every time the door is opened (presumably "Remember to close the fridge door!" or "That cheese has got to last all week, you know!") It's true, there really is such a thing as a perfect gift.

6. Greetings card occasions can creep up on you. But that isn't a problem in our house, oh no. My mum has a special file that she keeps permanently topped up with all available types of cards to ensure that all possible greetings needs are met. Whether your friends have just had triplets or your neighbour is celebrating the completion of a new conservatory, my mum has got the card for you. She's even offered to source cards for herself on a number of occasions but we have to draw the line somewhere.

7. Hands down, nobody's washing smells better. Nobody's.

8. Related: it might say 'hand wash only' on the label, but the exception to that rule is 'mum wash'. I don't know how she does it; I just know that I have so much confidence in her washing abilities that I'm pretty sure that even I would survive a spin in her machine.

9. Yogurts with the best sell-by date are always at the back of the shelf in the supermarket. Some things are worth getting a cold arm for.

10. That if my mum, my auntie and I are in the same room, the odds of being called by the correct name are extremely low.

11. That, no, I don't need to leave the water running whilst I clean my teeth and, yes, I do care a lot more about wasting money now that I am responsible for the bills.

12. On a cold day, if one must leave the house, one should do so in jeans with tights underneath. No bug in no rug has ever felt so snug.

13. Come hell or high water, this woman will get her five-a-day. My mum can eat kiwis in a moving vehicle, apples in bed and bananas whilst cleaning the bathroom. Nothing gets between my mum and her fruit.

14. Little treats are the best. If my mum knows you like something, whether it's a particular type of sweets or a brand of chocolate or, in my husband's case, as much fudge as you can possible get your hands on, she will make sure she sends you off with some every time you see her. My treats bag also often includes a box of dishwasher tablets, which makes me happier than it probably should.

15. Receiving a hand written note from someone you love is one of the best things in the world. When I was at school on my birthday, my mum would slip a little note in my lunchbox to say 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY!' even though she'd obviously already said it to me that morning. I'd look forward to it every year. Similarly, if she ever left us alone in the house during the school holidays, she'd leave a note in the kitchen saying 'Lunch in fridge please don't make mess love mum x' which I also enjoyed.

16. That the greatest thing you can do for another person is to never let them doubt for a single second that they are loved. I can only hope to nail this skill as well as she has.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Body image: Why it's time to stop scrutinizing the way we look

I've never been a big fan of my eyebrows. They're seriously spiky customers, they totally give away that my hair's dyed (spoiler alert) and they seem absolutely determined to join together as one, if only my tweezers would let them. But they let me express myself. They go up when I see something that surprises me, like a free seat on the tube, or a Buy One Get Two Free offer (seriously, they happen). And they furrow when I'm confused, like when anybody tries to make conversation with me before 9am or after 9pm, or when people don't understand how to queue. And I'm grateful for that.

I've never really liked my nose. Right there in the middle of my face, like a pink slide for flies. If I'm embarrassed or I laugh too much it goes as red as a flustered tomato, and I could swear it also flashes. But having a nose means that I can smell things. I can enjoy the scent of a well-chosen fabric conditioner or a frying piece of bacon. And I love bacon. And fabric conditioner (though not together) so being able to smell them both makes me very happy indeed.

Sometimes my eyes just DO. MY. HEAD. IN. They cry when I laugh, when I yawn, and when it's windy, and reduce even the most waterproof of mascaras to a charcoal spread. They well up at the smallest sign of kindness. Try me - offer me a crisp. But having eyes means that I can see you. That I can read back through my own tweets. And that I can look in the washing basket and see that yes, now would be a good time to do a pink wash. Having eyes really is rather handy.

I've always thought my arms were a bit weird. I've got double jointed elbows, you see. Sure, they're handy for grabbing things that have dropped behind a radiator but that's a party trick people only really want to see once - at best. When I try to do press-ups (which - OK, fine - is almost never), I have to think really hard about which way my arms should bend, so I'm forced through embarrassment (and perhaps just a smidge of laziness) not to bother. But with arms and hands I can put together a mean bag of Pick 'n' Mix. I can hug you real tight. And I can cook up a poached egg which I can guarantee will be runny in the middle. And for that I am definitely grateful, as would you be, should you wish to pop round.

When I stood in front of the mirror this morning I realised how quickly my brain automatically turns to negative thoughts. To noticing all the hairs that are out of place, the teenage skin that should surely have GROWN UP by now, the constant quandary over whether each part of me is the size and shape that it should be. It's so boring. The time has come to stop this and just accept what's right there in front of us - sure, wash it, moisturise it, hell, even use one of those little exfoliating sponges every now and then if you like, but let's not waste so much time scrutinizing.

A touch of gratitude for what we've got, what it let's us do, and how it makes us who we are, can only do us good. And think of all the time we'll win back - more hours in the day to marvel at our ability to see a blue sky, to spot an opportunity for a bargain, or even to hone our press-up skills, should we suddenly find the energy.

Though, to be honest, I don't think any amount of free time could ever make me fancy that.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Three handy phrases to live your life by

As this little gem from Miss Piggy proves, it can be helpful to have a few little go-to sayings to get you through the day. 

'All things must pass' is a favourite of mine (thanks for that, George Harrison) as it comes very much in handy when on a delayed train journey, or facing a hard day or whilst chewing a bad choice of jelly bean. Of course, I like it a lot less when I'm doing something I really enjoy, like going on holiday or eating a bar of Fruit and Nut, but one must take the rough with the smooth.

'Everything will look better in the morning' is another classic (thank you mum). And it's true, except in the case of my fringe (if that were to have a phrase it would be 'Everything will look weirdly eighties in the morning and need to be rinsed under a tap'). As somebody who loves to get angry late at night about things that a) don't really matter and b) definitely cannot be resolved when everybody is so tired they can no longer see, I know that on the few occasions when I have managed to hold off mentioning them until the next day, my feelings have diminished significantly thanks to sleep. All of a sudden the washing basket no longer looks like OUR HOUSE IS ABOUT TO BE DROWNED IN PANTS! and more like p'raps we should pop a wash on, when we've got a mo.

And the third, which has scored a new high position on my list of late, is: 'There is always more to it'. Allow me to demonstrate what this means through the use of an example:

When we were at university I rang my now-husband, then early-stage, absolutely-no-idea-what-he-was-letting-himself-in-for boyfriend, for some advice about a piece of work I was doing. Due to poor phone reception in his house, he used to have to walk down the road to talk to me (a level of effort one can only muster in the early days of a relationship) but on this occasion he didn't do that, he just let the line continue to break whilst I rambled on about my work until I eventually said "Can you please just go outside, I am struggling with this essay that I have had eight weeks to write but have not started until now!" And then in a low and patient voice he said: "I dislocated my knee tonight, so I'm sorry but I can't really walk."

Like I said, there is always more to it. (And may I also recommend asking somebody how they are when you ring them, before launching into your demands).

I realise now that this statement applies to pretty much everything. When I don't hear from a friend for a while, I am quick to wonder if perhaps they've decided that they no longer want to hang out with me, and that the joke I made last time we met up wasn't funny at all, and just proved that I am a moron. Now, this could happen (my jokes are not always that well thought through although I ALWAYS laugh) but it's more likely that people are just busy trying to deal with their lives - I know I am. If I haven't replied to your email, or suggested a date to meet up or realised that just thinking about my response to a text message is not the same as actually sending one, it's because there are other things going on that are keeping me from you, not some malicious intent to be ignorant. Who has time to incorporate that into their day?

Similarly when I'm ready to accuse my other half of purposely failing to replace the milk due to some long-held desire to deprive me of calcium, or of ignoring the pile of dishes in the kitchen because he believes I 'enjoy' cleaning up all our shite, I must remember that everything is not necessarily as it seems and that I should definitely wind my ridiculous neck in. 

As always, we have to remember that most things just aren't about us. There's always more to it, and all we can do is learn to remember that, to ask how people are, and to pause before going completely barmy about something that probably has a perfectly reasonable explanation. 

If somebody could just please remind me of that the next time it's 11pm and I've noticed that there's a toilet roll that still hasn't been changed, I'd very much appreciate it...

And if you have any other little sayings like this that you find handy, I'd love to hear them!