Sunday, 21 December 2014

Relationships: 4 benefits of spending Christmas apart

In every other way we're pretty conventional.

We live together, we eat together, we have regular arguments about whose turn it is to take the bin out... we're everything you'd expect a married couple to be. Except at Christmas.

Because despite our vows and our rings and that little Mr and Mrs ornament we've got above our bed (the Mr of which keeps mysteriously falling down, which I'm hoping is not an omen), we don't spend Christmas together.

But don't worry, it's a good thing. And here's why:

1. Christmas is a logistical nightmare
Christmas is the only time of year when we get to spend proper time with our families. And so, for just a few precious days, we choose to do that instead of being together. Of course if we had come from the same family we would get to spend Christmas in the same place, but they wouldn't have let us get married if that were the case, would they? And because our parents rudely didn't foresee that their son/daughter would inevitably marry each other in 2013, they didn't buy houses in the same street. In fact, they're a good couple of hours apart so in the absence of a car, our only options for a Christmas mash up between families is either walking, or a taxi fare we could only pay for if we remortgaged our house. So instead we opt for sending each other off with presents and good wishes for our respective in-laws and the promise of a post-festive season meet up to help take the edge off the January blues. As far as I'm concerned, everyone's a winner (and we'll see what everybody else thinks after they've opened their gifts).

2. We get to have a bonus Christmas before the main event
But just because we don't spend the big day together, it doesn't mean we don't get to have our own dose of festive fun. Today, in fact, is our Christmas Day which we have renamed BINGE FEST as we're spending most of the day eating (and because we're exceptional at naming things). It's very similar to a normal Christmas - we have presents, we drink booze and we might even throw in a quick argument about who is or is not sufficiently pulling their weight in cooking the dinner, in the name of tradition. The festive spirit is very much alive and well in this house.

3. Telephones exist
This blog is nothing if not way ahead of the times. So I am here to tell you that telephones exist and enable you to talk to people who are in different towns. And we use those very things to stay in touch whilst we're apart. It's so nice to have a phone conversation that's about what we've been up to and how we are, rather than just what we want for tea or to ask if we've got any peanut butter in the house. Sometimes we even dabble in a little Skype too if we're feeling ambitious and want to take a gander at the presents we've each been given. It's nice to have an early glance at the socks I'm going to inevitably end up picking up off the floor at home.

4. It makes New Year worth looking forward to 
If Atomic Kitten, Five and Eternal have taught us anything, it's that big reunions are a very good idea. And we get to have our very own one every year. We cry, we catch up, and we perform all our original hits in front of a live audience (OK, one of those is a lie. He's never been much of a crier). And it's nice to have something to look forward to after Christmas. We reunite in time for New Year with just enough time to unpack and eat a few chocolate coins before heading out to be mutually disappointed by whatever we do to celebrate December 31st.

And so we go on with our lives. I'm sure we will have to change our ways at some point, but not before we've had children, bought a car, or our parents have seen the error of their ways and become next door neighbours.

But for now I must get back to eating all the cheese, crisps, sweets and mince pies we bought for binge fest. Nobody is going anywhere until this lot is gone.

Perhaps we won't be going home for Christmas after all.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

How to buy Christmas presents for your other half

Your approach to Christmas shopping changes when you're in a long term relationship.

When you first start dating it's like a contest to see who can buy the other the most stuff. Spending all your cash feels like the perfect way to demonstrate your joy at being coupled up at Christmas time - and nothing says 'I love you' better than a giant pile of wrapping paper and a bankruptcy notice.

But then things get serious. And the festive season stops being about proving how much you adore your other half by buying them a different cuddly toy for each of the 12 days of Christmas. You've got other priorities now so you need a strategy to ensure it doesn't swallow all your money, take over your home, and leave you queuing outside the divorce courts on Boxing Day morning. And I suggest that strategy looks something like this:

1. The budget 
A strong mantra to live by when Christmas shopping is: Let's not do anything we're going to regret in January. Sure, that 75 inch television would bring a huge smile to his face, but not when you announce upon opening that as a result of this purchase, you will not be able to go on holiday again until the turn of the next millennium. (Also, if you want to have any actual conversations in 2015, I suggest you leave that thing in the shop). Nope, there comes a time when you need a firm and agreed budget to prevent everybody from going so crazy that you have to live on dry pasta until the next yuletide comes around. But it doesn't take all the fun out of it - quite the opposite - with a successfully on-budget set of gifts comes the perfect opportunity for a Christmas high-five, and what could be better than that?

NB: In the end, happiness in long term relationships is predominantly demonstrated through high fives. If you don't like them, I suggest you get out now.

2. The smaller the better 
I haven't looked at the stats but I am pretty confident that 'clutter' is the most common reason marriages end in divorce. Not adultery, not fundamentally disagreeing about the validity of Love Actually as a film (though I must admit, we have come close), but all that stuff that couples own but can't figure out where to put. So when it comes to Christmas shopping your first thought (after deciding whether they'll actually like the thing, of course) is how much space it will take up in your house. Because you're going to have to live with it and you don't want there to come a day when you're shouting at your other half for owning something that you bought them. I'm pretty sure that 'proving to be a bit of a dick' is an available option on divorce papers too.

3. The bargain present 
A close friend of number 2 is the gift which has been purchased on the proviso that it replaces a current offending belonging. It might be a t-shirt to replace the one with 'FBI: Female Body Inspector' written across it from his hilarious acronym phase, or perhaps it's a pair of boxer shorts with a warning that if he doesn't throw away the pair with so many holes in them that they're nothing short of obscene, you're going to call the police. These presents say 'I love you but enough is enough'.

4. One for you, one for me
When you live in the same house, apart from going to the toilet, shaving your legs and stomping off upstairs because the other person has been SO UNREASONABLE as to fail to telepathically work out that you'd have liked them to dust the skirting boards while you were out, you do most things together. And you soon realise that if there's a present you can buy them which can be enjoyed by more than one person at once, that person is most likely going to be you. And so you start to get clever. Tickets to plays you would both enjoy start finding their way onto your shopping list and subscriptions to TV packages that just happen to host your favourite shows as well as theirs suddenly look like ideal presents. You're not being selfish, you've just found a way to both give and receive at exactly the same time and I think Father Christmas would be proud of you.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Dear Mum, as promised, here's my Christmas list...

1. A top to wear with jeans. Not cropped. (Not as young as I used to be).

2. Good quality tights. Should probably try a size medium, small ones keep falling down.

3. Socks. Black please. Can't bear to spend my own money on something so boring.

4. Jumper. Not itchy. Put it up to your face to test it; if you get a rash, don't buy it.

5. Knickers. Full cheek coverage please. Too cold and old for thongs.

6. Gloves to go with that scarf you gave me Christmas 2012 - can send photo if you don't remember.

7. Woolly hat that will not give me hat hair - so not too tight or cone-like.

8. Fancy top I can wear out to dinner but that will also look nice with a cardigan if nippy.

9. Purse. Must be strong and have room for lots of receipts and loyalty cards. No smaller than a brick.

10. Winter dress for work - not so hot that I'll pass out on the tube but warm enough to stop me getting piles. (Good luck with that).

11. Book by that woman we saw on This Morning that we both thought had nice hair. Will text if remember name or title.

12. Pyjamas. No animals please. Am newly married; too soon for full penguin coverage (sadly).

13. Hand cream. Large. Nothing that smells like ice cream (always end up tasting it and is always gross).

14. Good pen. Am serious writer, need serious tools.

15. Banana guard. Keep ruining handbags. (Will unwrap in private to avoid childish giggling).

Things I do not need:
- Umbrellas. Am overrun.
- Towels. Is like B&B round here.
- DVDs. Netflix innit.
- Jewellery. My necklace stand keeps falling over in the night and frightening us.
- Scarves. Got about 30 but still just the one neck.

Thanks v much. See you for Christmas! x

P.S Please don't forget to get lots of Pringles. All flavours. (Don't worry, I'll take any leftovers home).

Sunday, 30 November 2014

School friends: The ones that didn't get away

No-one is better at keeping you grounded than your school friends.

There aren't many people who will take one look at your passport photograph and say: "No offence, but you look like a smackhead" or who will stand and laugh hard in your face whilst recounting (for the 58th time) the time you drank nine happy hour cocktails and danced alone on stage to The Jackson 5. (In my defence, it was my birthday and I looked excellent). But this is all in a day's work for a friend who has known you since you were 13 and prided yourself on being able to recite every single word to Boyzone's Love Me For A Reason (I can also do the official dance moves, if you're interested).

It isn't possible to keep hold of all your friends when you leave school, what with university and jobs and having to take charge of the weekly shop, so the ones you do manage to keep are all the more special. They're the friends who have known you the longest, who have seen you through every bad haircut, fashion faux pas and unfortunate crush and, if you're lucky, they'll only mention each of them three or four times every time you see them. They're kind like that.

All of a sudden your friendship shifts to suit your new adult lives. You're no longer in the market for lunch break one-upmanship about who's doing best in maths or getting off with who or how very dare she buy the same hot pants as you. Now we're talking jobs and careers and - BLIMEY - marriage and babies, but we still throw in the odd anecdote from our younger days to stop us taking ourselves too seriously. (The one about the time I over-gesticulated and hurled my bracelet into the face of a stranger is one of my favourites, though I still don't think she'd find it funny.)

These meet-ups are evidence that a joke can indeed remain funny forever. I have one friend with whom I have never managed to get through a drink or a meal without mentioning the time we went to see Shrek at the cinema and an unknown boy burped SO loud in my face that she and I were left helpless with laughter. I'm 29 now and it remains one of the funniest things that has ever happened to me, partly because surprise, aggressive burping is always amusing, but also because that moment really summed up my relationship with boys at that time - embarrassing, undignified, and often just a lot of hot air.

But aside from all the giggles and nostalgic chit chat about school trips and hair mascara and the time I thought blue and yellow braces would look good on my teeth (they didn't), there's also a lot of genuine love between us too. We've had the privilege of watching each other grow up, and take quiet pride in seeing one another slowly managing to get to where we want to be. I hope we never stop meeting and drinking and laughing, and I hope the stories never stop - yes, even the one about my ill-advised fuchsia pink pedal pusher phase - because they remind us of just how far we've come.

And if perhaps one of them would be so kind as to remind me of the above mentioned, nine cocktails/solo dancing story in time for my 30th birthday next year I'd really appreciate it. With my low capacity for alcohol these days, I'm more likely to pass out on the stage than dance on it, and I'm sure that, if that does happen, this lot are never going to let me hear the end of it.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The seven stages of falling asleep on the sofa

It was only ever meant to be a little dose of innocent shut eye. Just a momentary escape from Match of the Day, or the adverts in the middle of Rude Tube, or a conversation with her husband about what they're going to do on New Year's Eve.

But now she's woken from what accidentally turned into a full-on sleep and she's livid. Her eyes dart from side to side, searching for what will tonight win the title 'Single Most Annoying Thing In The World'. Will it be that glass on the coffee table that's been there since last night, or will it be that pair of shoes that she specifically asked be placed on the mat but that stand there on the tiles, mocking her. Or will it be her own inability to stand up without tripping over the throw she's been sleeping under and looking like a dickhead.

It's the same story every time:

Stage 1: The 'little lie down'. She slides down the sofa 'just to get comfortable' whilst watching television. This is her first crucial mistake. Lying down is basically giving her body permission to drift off to snooze town. She might as well just throw back a shot of Night Nurse, sing herself a lullaby and be done with it.

Stage 2: The cover. Whether it's a throw that lives on the sofa (for the sole purpose of accidental nap time), an over-sized gentleman's jumper or a freshly washed towel, she'll grab anything she can get her paws on and throw it over herself, just to make the sofa feel even more like a bed. There is, of course, a very nice and very available bed just upstairs but in the interests of not moving a single muscle, she's convinced herself that the sofa is superior.

Stage 3: The gentle warning. A voice of calm will suddenly speak out across the lounge. "Charlotte, don't fall asleep. Remember you don't like it when you wake up on the sofa. Why don't you just go to bed, hmmm?" She appreciates his concern (even if his tone is just a little patronising - doesn't he have any faith in her?) but she's only going to be here a few minutes so he needn't worry - she is totally in control.

Stage 4: Deep sleep. Before she knows it, she is spark out, dead to the world. Only an earthquake or the Coronation Street opening titles could wake her now. And if the gentleman in the room has it his way neither of those two things is going to happen any time soon. He's just going to plug in the X-Box and enjoy a little bit of calm before the inevitable post-nap storm.

Stage 5: The awakening. The time comes when he wants to go to bed. And because he's a nice man, (and one who has heard many times that she doesn't appreciate waking up to find herself downstairs alone - why does he think it's OK to abandon her?!) he attempts to wake her. He has a number of strategies for this - from the gentle to the electronic. There's the gentle shake, the relentless repetition of her name until she wakes up shouting "WHAT DO YOU WANT STOP GOING ON AT ME" or, for the more comatose episodes, he will ring her mobile and let the sudden vibrating of the device next to her startle her back into reality. She does not appreciate the call.

Step 6: The stomp. And now she's awake. And for a number of reasons - none of which are anybody's fault but her own - she is cross. She's cross that she fell asleep on the sofa AGAIN, cross that she's still fully clothed and now inexplicably BOILING, and livid that she now has to drag her sorry behind upstairs whilst feeling (and looking) like a zombie. And so along the way she'll find anything to direct her fury at - an out of date pile of newspapers, a scarf that's fallen on the floor, or a bowl that has innocently missed its go in the dishwasher (largely because she was eating marshmallows from it before she fell asleep clutching it to her chest). She is a walking, shouting example of why one should indeed never wake a baby, a dog or a sugar-filled, world weary woman.

Step 7: The regret. Just as her mum always said, everything does indeed look better in the morning. In the light of day she'll see that actually that overflowing pile of washing doesn't really make her so mad that she wants to throw all the clothes out of the window so they can just 'bloody well get washed in the rain'; and that if she's honest, she remembers now that it was actually her idea to turn the heating up before she drifted off to sleep and that of course nobody is trying to make her sweat herself into oblivion. She apologises to the most patient man in the world (and to the dishwasher which she remembers kicking for a reason she can't quite recall) and promises just to get into bed next time she feels tired.

And so another day commences, another commute gets underway, and the clock ticks until yet another evening of dinner and warmth and ill-advised portions of sweet snacks turns into a one-woman battle to stay conscious. She must just try to stay upright for as long as possible, and then send herself to bed as soon as her eyelids start weighing her down.

Because there's only so many times this man is going to have the energy to try and negotiate with a woman who wakes up and starts shouting at a pile of newspapers for failing to find their way into the 'cocking recycling bin'.

And anyway, he did warn her that this would happen in the first place. He's just not sure that now is the best time to mention it.

*By she I mean me, by her I mean me, and by Charlotte, I mean me. What do you mean you already knew that?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Gone in 60 minutes: When married people go out for dinner

How long does it normally take you to go out for dinner with your other half? An hour and a half? Two hours? Maybe even three if there's a strong selection of cheese on the menu.

They're great. The long lingering meals, the peering at each other over the salt and pepper, the flirtatious sips of gins and tonics, and seductive gnawing on garlic bread.

But when you live together, sometimes that's not what you're looking for from a trip out to an eatery. Sometimes you just want to eat.

All couples have a list of their go-to favourite places, often within walking distance of their house to allow for booze-fuelled wobbling home. We've got a Japanese place we frequent so often we should probably pay rent, a sushi joint where we can recite the entire menu and a cheap and cheerful noodle cafe which is as good at prawn dumplings as it is at strip lighting. And now we know them so well that we can put on our shoes, leave the house, order our food, eat, pay for it and get back through our front door within 60 minutes. Even less if the buses are on our side.

Because with knowledge comes speed. I know that at the Japanese I'll have the calamares, the beef teriyaki and an aloe juice, and that at the sushi house I'll have everything on the menu that features tempura, followed by the melty chocolatey fondant. Sure, you can bring me a menu if you want but I'll only use it to point at the same things I select every single time we go there. There's none of that 'Can we just have a couple more minutes?' malarkey with us; even if one of us pops to the loo, the other can order on their behalf. Our trip is as predictable as it is delicious.

They don't tell you this when you get married. Sure, they talk to you about patience and tolerance and always being best friends, yadayadayada, but I don't remember the bit when they said 'And, as an added bonus, there will be a selection of restaurants that you'll know so well that you can be there and back in less time than it takes to watch an edition of Match of the Day (though it will definitely feel a lot quicker).'

The great thing about going out with somebody you've been with for a long time is that you can admit that sometimes your hunger is so consuming that you won't be able to speak until your dinner arrives. We can just agree to use our remaining energy to both glare at the kitchen until somebody brings us our food. We can have a proper conversation once we've stopped our stomachs from grumbling or over email or whatever. Right now, we're here to eat.

But don't take this as a complaint. This little ritual makes me just as happy as when we head further afield to try somewhere new. Speedy local eating is just an extra part of the marriage deal, like joint credit cards, anniversaries, and threats of divorce every time you ask for help changing the bed.

I used to look at couples who weren't saying anything to each other over dinner with real pity. I assumed they were on the brink of a split, and were just sat there working out who would get the dog and who originally paid for the Lighthouse Family CD. But now I know differently. There's a good chance they're happier than they've ever been. They're just ravenous and sat quietly waiting for his beer, her passion fruit mojito, and the crab sushi rolls that they both love almost as much as they love each other.


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Will I ever stop feeling like a dick for trying to be funny? No. Never.

I spend an awful lot of time feeling like a bit of a dick.

If you say that you like my dress then I'll make a joke about it being vintage because I haven't been able to afford clothes since 2011 - HAHAHA. If you ask if I've lost weight then I'll mock my inability to digest wheat. And if you acknowledge that I've dyed my hair, I'll say "Well, you know, we're married now, gotta keep things fresh!" even though I'm not really sure what that means.

And it would appear that I'm not the only one.

Yesterday I went, for the second year in a row, to Mumsnet's annual Blogfest. You might remember me writing about it last year - it's a day when (mostly) women come together to learn new things about writing and blogging, chat to each other, and hear from a line-up of speakers so brilliant that it's worth getting out of bed on a Saturday morning at an hour normally only reserved for knocking back a couple of much needed post-Friday night ibuprofen. Nick Hornby, Tim Dowling, Suzanne Moore and Lucy Porter - to name just a few - were definitely worth the early alarm clock call.

Networking scares the hell out of me. Walking into rooms full of people I don't know (except in some cases from their twitter avatar, but starting a conversation by telling people you've been 'following' them feels very creepy) and having to make conversation fills me with dread. And worse, I'd paid money to do it. On a Saturday! But you have to remember two things: 1. Most people don't know anybody either and 2. It is completely worth it to speak to interesting people. (And secret option number 3. If it doesn't work out, you can always just hide in the toilet. Though that seems a bit of a waste of £95.)

And I met some wonderful people. Endless interesting women who are all giving the whole blogging thing a bloody good go, often whilst also raising a child or two, holding down a job and managing to stay up to date with major TV box sets. It made my moans about not having enough time to get things done seem pretty pathetic. And I'm still seriously behind with Breaking Bad.

But it saddened me to see how much self-esteem was an issue for all of us. The fact that the round-table discussion on 'Blogging and self-esteem' was so oversubscribed spoke volumes. Dozens of us sat together and talked of fear of judgement when writing about personal things, nasty tales of trolling, and just wondering who the bloody hell we all thought we were for daring to put ourselves out there.

But the good news is that we all still do it. People spoke of comments they'd had from readers saying they'd found their writing really helpful, of using blogging to work through problems in their own lives, and also of all-important bloody mindedness and refusal to stop doing something we enjoy. I can't be sure, but I think Beyoncé would have been really proud of us.

And even if you reach big time stardom it seems that the fear never goes away. 'How to find your funny' - a session on how to make people laugh through your writing - was chaired by Bryony Gordon and brought together Rebecca Front, Arabella Weir and Jon Ronson. All people I like and admire an embarrassing amount. It also introduced me to Kirsty Smith of Eeh Bah Mum and Elaine Miller of Gussie Grips - another two funny women to add to my list.

And though my heart was beating through my chest (I'm surprised they couldn't hear it down the microphone) I asked a question about something that has been bothering me ever since I started this blog: Does the feeling that hits every time you write something and wait to see if anybody likes it or finds it funny - you know, when you just feel like a bit of a DICK - ever go away? And you know what? They said no. Absolutely not. You need that, they said - as soon as you think you're great, you're screwed.

And it really made me feel better. Every Sunday when I write something and hit publish I go into a spiral of self-doubt, regret, and bemusement as to why I put myself through this each week... So it's good to know that even the greats have that feeling too. We have something in common. We'll be best buds before the week is out, I'm sure of it.

And then Francesca Martinez, the marvellous comedian, actress and writer, spoke about self-confidence and self-image so well that I was at serious risk of smearing teary mascara all over my cheeks. She talked about realising that 'normal' doesn't exist, that beauty and success are all social constructs created to disempower us, and reminded us that we have the power to control the way that we think about ourselves. If only I'd been to hear her speak when I was a teenager, I could have saved myself years of angst. That woman is an absolute inspiration. If you ever get the chance to go and see her, I recommend you take it.

Just like last year, this day has done me the world of good. It taught me things, it introduced me to lovely new chums and, more importantly, it made me feel a lot less alone in this little online world. It also showed me that self-esteem is something everybody battles with, whether writing about marriage and relationships and attempting to make jokes about eating too many crisps (that's me for anyone that's new here), or blogging about family or children or, in some cases, even post-labour incontinence. (Definitely not me. Yet.)

So now I shall hit publish and wait for the inevitable feeling of 'dickhead' to kick in. But it's OK; I now know I'm in very good company.