Sunday, 13 April 2014

Photo albums: This is your life (like it or not)

Here's a fun weekend activity for you: find your old photo albums - you know, those big picture books from the olden days that document all your embarrassing haircuts, fashion decisions, and run-ins with zoo animals - and take a look through them.

I did this a couple of weeks ago. I was at my mum's house, enjoying the type of weekend those of us in our late twenties can still just about get away with i.e. going back to our parents, doing absolutely nothing except eating, sitting down and occasionally being asked to help with something they don't understand on the computer, when I decided to take a gander through my old things.

My mum - like so many mothers whose houses are dominated by their children's dusty keepsakes - has been trying to get me to throw some of my belongings away for about the last ten years. And I've done it in stages. The cuddly toys went first (I couldn't watch as they were carried into the charity shop), then the clothes I'll never wear again, including my All Saints-inspired low-waist khaki trousers (never ever has a trouser felt so low...), and then my boy band CD collection (after I uploaded them to iTunes). And now all that's left is a few books, some greetings cards, and my photographs.

It's a shame that it's not in a hairdresser's job description that they must have the ability to look into the future and foresee the regret their customer is going to feel five, ten, or fifteen years after they request a new do. My word I made some bad decisions.

But aside from the questionable haircuts, the other thing that struck me about my trip down memory lane was the number of pages of my photo albums that, at some point previously, I'd decided to rip out.

In between the pictures of my sixth form ball, birthday parties, and whatever else we celebrated to pass the time between puberty and real life, are numerous torn edges of pages that used to be. And it's the same in my university photo albums too - sure the multi-coloured Reef bottles are there (if you don't remember that drink, you are lucky), and there's evidence that I did indeed own skirts so short that, as my mum pointed out, it's a wonder I didn't get piles, but, judging from the gaps, there are a few things missing too.

And I know what they are. They're the pictures of things I regret - friendships that didn't work out, relationships that never quite got off the ground, and hair, clothes and make-up choices that I'd rather pretend never happened.

But of course I know that tearing up a photograph isn't equivalent to building a time-machine, travelling back to 1998 and explaining to my 13 year-old self that actually, no, the Posh Spice cropped look isn't going to work out for me. It all still happened. The friends and the boys and the hairdressers still existed.

But that's OK. The odds of anybody being able to look back on their life without a single regret or a grimace is pretty unlikely. But as long as we learn a thing or two then it won't have done us any harm - particularly if one of those lessons is that tops that show off our midriff are best left in the nineties where they belong.

I'm pleased to say that this time around I didn't feel the need to rip out any more pages. I just left them as they are, ready and waiting for the next time I fancy marvelling at how young I used to be, and to remind me that there really was a time when I could bear to go outside without a coat.

If mum doesn't mind, I think I'll leave them there a little bit longer.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Relationships: The benefits of time apart

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. And they're right.

It also makes the eyes stop staring at the unwashed dishes, the mouth stop mentioning that the bin still hasn't gone out, and the fingers stop pointing at that pile of clothes on the floor that 'isn't going to move itself!' A little bit of time away from your other half will do wonders for your sense of perspective.

When you get married, you vow to be together forever. To share the good times, the bad times, and all the other times in between that are just sort of alright.

But nobody said you had to spend every waking moment together - in fact they'd be wise to make you promise not to.

In my experience, time apart is one of the many secrets to a happy relationship. There's that, Netflix, home grocery delivery and an agreement that it's OK for two people to feel differently about Match of the Day. If only they incorporated these things into the curriculum we'd all be a lot better off.

And, of course, I don't mean long periods of time - assuming you actually like him or her that would most likely cause discomfort - but just the odd bit here and there. A weekend away with friends, a night at your mum's, a day-long hen do/stag do/general drinking bender after which it's best there's nobody there when you get home to see just how green you can go - whichever way you do it, a bit of separation will do you both the world of good. And here's why:

1. It gives you the chance to miss each other 
Before you live with your other half, you spend a lot of time missing them; waiting eagerly for the next day or night that you'll spend together, counting down the hours 'til date number 19, or considering whether the time has finally come for you to mention that you were lying when you said you liked football. But once you've moved in, that feeling goes away. Sure, you might miss them when they're at work or when you're on the tube and thinking how much you'd prefer it if it was their butt that was three inches from your eye but, all being well, you'll be back together in time for Eastenders. So incorporating a little time apart brings a touch of that feeling back - a little bit of longing to remind you that it's still them that you want by your side - and most definitely not the round-reared stranger with no appreciation for personal space.

2. There's nothing like a bit of perspective
No matter how much you adore one another, it's still hard not to get caught up in the little things - the bathroom light he relentless fails to switch off, the pile of Busted and McFly CDs you refuse to throw away, and the two rolls of wallpaper you are collectively too lazy to put up. And if you never leave each other's side, there's a chance those things may start to grind you down - you'll look at him and see an electricity bill and he'll look at you and see nothing but your incredible taste in music. A little time apart can help give you your perspective back; some space to remember there's more to this guy than his apparent ignorance to the rising cost of power, that there's a reason you bought those headphones and that, lights on or lights off, there's nobody you'd rather not put up wallpaper with.

3. You might get a text message that isn't about food!
Correspondence, like all things, changes the longer you're in a relationship. By the time you're married text messages are mainly used to say things like "What do you want for tea?" and "Can you remember if we've got any peas in the freezer?" rather than "I can't wait to see you" or "Your hair's nice" (or whatever people say when they're dating). But if you're away for the night, it's a chance to drop the domesticity and type out some words of love and affection. You can get back to thinking about the frozen veg situation tomorrow.

But of course, while there are lots of reasons to go away, thankfully there are many, many more to come home. You've just bought yourself a little time to remember what they all are.

You'll arrive back fresh-faced, eager to see one another, and full of anecdotes from your time spent with other human beings.

And, if you're lucky - if only for a little while - you'll have forgotten all about that bin.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Relationships: Six ways to help keep things interesting

I've read dozens of women's magazines about ways to make a relationship more exciting. 

And they all suggest similar things - weekends away, writing each other love letters, getting dressed up and pretending to be completely different people for an evening... 

And that's all well and good but what if you don't have the time, money and interest in fancy dress required to make them happen? What if your idea of role play is having him fill the dishwasher while you play on the X-Box for once? 

The problem with these suggestions is that they don't cater for those of us wishing to spice up the mundane. What a relationship needs is small scale, every day gestures to keep things fresh.

So, seeing as lady mags refuse to do it for us, I have stepped up and written some suggestions of my own. Follow these steps and see daily life move from monotony to out-of-this-world excitement before your very eyes. You're welcome, ladies.

1. Serve snacks in your very best vessels
So what if all you've got to offer for pudding is a packet of Cadbury's Chocolate Buttons? It doesn't matter that it's not a homemade trifle or a hand-crafted tart, all you need is to bring out one of your best bowls (you know, the ones that don't have any cracks in at all) and all of a sudden pudding has become dessert. You'll be so blown away by the effect it has on the atmosphere in your house, you'll be looking for a waiter to ask for the bill. 

2. Schedule at least one night a week when you won't fall asleep in front of the telly
Now, this will take some planning but it's well worth the effort. Think how amazing it'll be to have just one evening where you don't wake up dazed and confused on the sofa at midnight to the sound of your other half shouting from the bedroom "I won't call you again - please just come to bed!" Think how amazed he'll be to see you conscious for an entire night - you might even get to see a whole television programme together! All you'll need to make this happen is an early night every night for the week leading up to the event, a bowl of water on hand for face-splashing purposes, and something extraordinarily compelling to watch on TV. I recommend Don't Tell The Bride.

3. Make outlandish culinary suggestions
The secret to a happy relationship is to integrate the element of surprise into everyday life. For example, when my husband got home the other day, I suggested that we ate a sauce I'd originally made to go with cod, with steak. I KNOW. And then, when he was already dazzled, I floated the idea that perhaps we could explore other sauces to liven up our dinners. If that doesn't keep him coming back for more, I don't know what will.

4. Incorporate jokes into everyday life
"Would you like a little bit of chocolate?" he says. 
"No, I'd like LOADS!" I say.

"Are you in the bedroom?" I say. 
"No," he says, clearly sitting in the lounge.
"Oh I just assumed you were, seeing as THE LIGHT IS STILL ON IN THERE." 

NB: Sarcasm can be considered relationship kryptonite when used incorrectly so think carefully before deploying it. Always ensure the person you're dealing with realises you're trying to be funny and that you're not just being a cow.

5. Suggest very small-scale home improvements
Some people might think redecorating a room or building a conservatory is the perfect way to liven up a relationship. Those people do not live here. But that doesn't mean we don't want to make our home better, we just want to do it at a rate we can handle - i.e. very, very slowly. Today, for example, I suggested we put the garden bunting we received as a wedding gift up on the fence. We did it together, it took us ten minutes (after which we both had to have a sit down) and we can now bask in our domestic success until the autumn - winner!

6. Make him find loyalty points as exciting as you do 
A woman with an eye for a bargain is worth more to a relationship than 20 mini-breaks, and that's a fact. Sure it's not something for the early dating days - nobody wants to have a chat about your most recent Advantage Card points coup on a first date, but once you're living together, a money-saving win classes as high quality banter. And what could bring more joy to a relationship than knowing you've made that saving together - that your combined efforts are the reasons you're going to the cinema for free, or purchasing baked beans at half the usual retail price? Splashing your cash only gets you so far, it's 241 coupons that are at the heart of a truly happy marriage. 

Well, if those tips don't add a touch of spice to your relationship then I don't know what will. And sure, you can still partake in the odd weekend away or love letter writing marathon should you wish, but it's these bad boys that will keep you going through the mundanity of modern life. 

And of course, you can always try a touch of role play should it take your fancy. My current favourite costume involves my pyjamas, dressing gown, slippers and pretending to be a woman so exhausted she just falls asleep as soon as you turn on the television. I'm not sure it's quite what Cosmopolitan had in mind.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Friendship: The ones that got away

I remember falling out with a friend over a brown crayon.

There were tears, there were sneers, there were raised voices... we were nine years old and, in that moment, no other crayon would do.

The tussles of our youth seem petty now we're adults but at the time they were a big deal. Finding out that somebody didn't want to be your friend anymore because you weren't good at hopscotch or because you refused to share your fried egg sweets was heart-breaking - who was going to be your country dancing partner now?

But, in most cases, we made up. We discovered that there was more than one brown crayon in a set, that What's The Time Mr Wolf is a much better game, and that, in the interests of getting along, it's better if everybody just has their own bag of sweets.

And then we grew up. And because adult relationships are based on more than a shared love of colouring in and pretending to be a wolf - although the best ones involve at least a little of both - the potential for them to break down is much higher.

As discussed in my last post, a good friendship is as wonderful and warming as any hot chocolate money can buy. And with every year that passes and as we get more grown-up, busy, and occupied with laundry, the more precious our time together becomes.

By the time we reach our late twenties we've all known our fair share of friendship highs and lows. There's the list of people with whom it's worked out - those chums who could steal every single one of our Percy Pigs if it made them happy (and if they promised to replace them post-haste) - and then there's the others; the ones who got away.

Unfortunately it's just a fact of life that not all friendships survive the test of time; some people just aren't destined to be our buddies forever.

And it's one of the toughest lessons I've learnt so far - aside from the fact that if a jumper says 'Wash at 30 degrees' it really means it - that sometimes you just have to let a friendship go. No matter how excellent it used to be or how compatible you were on paper, sometimes you have no choice but to walk away. It might be because you've outgrown one another, or stopped getting along, or maybe it's because they've questioned the value of watching Coronation Street one too many times - whatever it is, you know when a relationship has run its course.

Of course it's not a decision to be taken lightly, I've only done it a couple of times in my life and it hurt - a lot - but the alternative is worse. Chasing a friendship that has died is even worse than continuing to pursue a man who doesn't want to go out with you, because the odds are that you've known each other longer - and that the break up is more complicated than him just preferring 'women with bigger boobs'. When you know it's over, it's better just to step back, put the whole thing down to experience and move on.

But it doesn't mean the friendship wasn't still worthwhile - it's OK that some people only come into our lives for a set period of time. Perhaps they used to like to join you in a rendition of I Need You by 3T, or they were the person kind enough to tell you that pigtails aren't a good look for an adult, and for that you will always be grateful. Times just change and sadly the odds of taking everybody you've met along the way with you are low.

As to what it takes to make a friendship last forever, I'm not quite sure. Like any relationship, it's all about timing and tolerance and a mutual commitment to making it work. If you've got that, a shared passion for terrible television, sugary sweets and nineties music, I'd say you're onto a winner. Oh, and a stationery set that's big enough to go around. I find it helps prevent arguments.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Friendship: It's about quality not quantity

It's a strange moment when you suddenly stop worrying about whether you've got enough friends.

For years it's a genuine concern. If you have a party, will anybody come? Do you get enough text messages that aren't just from your mum or Domino's Pizza? And exactly how many non-family birthday cards did you get last year?

At school, it always felt like size mattered in the chums department. The bigger the group you were a part of, the smaller the chance that you would find yourself sitting alone in French with nobody to tell that you'd been "à la piscine" at the weekend.

And at university a heavy group of pals meant people to sit sleepy-eyed with in lectures, to consume large sandwiches with at obscure times of the day, and to go out with of a Wednesday evening, rather than sitting at home doing a glossy magazine quiz about which FRIENDS character best reflects your personality. You already knew the answer to that anyway. (Gunther.)

And that's not to undermine those friendships - they're the making of some of the best days of your life - it's just impossible to keep up with that volume of people once real life starts getting in the way.

The combination of going to work, eating meals, sorting through your post, washing clothes, filling the dishwasher, entering online competitions, watching The Magaluf Weekender, and actually going to sleep for more than four hours a night dominates most of the week. It's a wonder you can keep on top of what's going on with you, let alone anybody else.

So if you do manage to spend time with another human being - aside from your colleagues, the dude at the sorting office and your grocery delivery man - it's because you really want to.

And now that you're an adult, though you don't demand much of that person in terms of time, you do when it comes to quality of friendship.

If I meet up with a pal and I ask how they are, I'm looking for a proper answer. I'm not looking for a fluffy "Yeah sure everything's fine - shall we get the chicken?" response (although my answer will of course always be Yes), I want: "Right, strap in for a full-blown analysis of my life". If I didn't care then I wouldn't have blocked out my Thursday night; I'm not exactly Mrs Popular but I definitely could have been doing something else - you do know that Eastenders is shown on Thursday evenings, right?

And of course it works both ways. I want to know the ins and outs of what's happening with you and then you, dear friend, are going to get the precise same from me. I have a husband who doesn't seem to understand the meaning of "Please unplug the iron", a fringe I can't control, and a marshmallow habit I fear is getting out of hand - who else am I going to talk to about this sh*t?

A good catch up with a good friend is better for your soul than any drug, massage or - dare I say it - confectionery item money can buy. And the truth is that, at this age, most of us would rather spend our time with the buddies we know we can really chew the fat with - metaphorical and literal (and ideally BBQ sauce-covered) - than spend an evening with 50 people we hardly know just so that Facebook can see how popular we are.

Because those are the chums that are really worth giving up a night in front of the telly for. And that, my friend, is no small compliment.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

How's married life? Exactly the same.

Aside from "When are you going to have a baby?", "Are you pregnant yet?" and "Will you name your firstborn after me?", "How's married life?" is the question I get asked most frequently.

I don't know what people think will happen when you get married but, in my case at least, it hasn't changed anything at all. Sure, I got a new surname and now spend most of the day trying to remember what I'm called, and I had a ring put on my finger that has to stay there forever or the world with explode (or something like that) but otherwise things are just as they were before.

But that's a good thing. And here's why:

1. That's why you got married in the first place
Getting married means: I want to be with you as I know you for the rest of my life. It doesn't mean: marry me and then immediately change into somebody else to help keep things interesting. The fact that you get to spend your life with somebody exactly as you find them (with perhaps just a few small wardrobe improvements) is one of the main reasons marriage is so popular. There's that, the fact that you no longer have to pretend to like nightclubs, and knowing that there will always be someone there to help you take the bin out.

2. You'll face enough change together as it is 
Life is full of surprises - some of them good, such as the release of Cadbury's Pebbles (have you tried them? They're delicious) and some of them bad, like when Coronation Street gets cancelled because of sport. But that's OK because whatever comes up, you'll take it on as a duo, so the least you can do is remain the one consistent thing in each other's lives. If you got married, changed into different people and then ITV altered its television schedule, do you really think you could handle it?

3. If you were going to change you'd have done it by now  
Remember all those hours you put in at the start of the relationship? The showers, the shaving, the pretending to be up for watching Transformers when you'd have preferred to just stare at the cinema ticket for two hours instead? Couldn't keep that up for too long, could you? No, after a few months you settled into being real people - with opinions that differ! And bad habits you refuse to change! Like his inexplicable love for leaving boxer shorts in the middle of the bathroom floor Every. Single. Morning! And if you thought marriage was going to change any of that, I'm afraid that you were mistaken. Marriage changes nothing, it just means there will be somebody there to comment on all of your faults for the rest of your life.

4. It's OK that you don't have any news 
You have to accept that from the moment you said 'I do', you became the least interesting people in the world. Whilst the engagement is all "Oh my god!" and "How did he do it?!" and "How many strippers do you want on your hen do?", your marriage will only spark a reaction if you co-create a human or start asking your friends to put their keys in a bowl when they arrive at your house for a dinner party. So it's best to just take advantage of those first few months - sit back, relax and enjoy being out of the limelight. And if the only news you have to share is that you've started watching Modern Family or that you've discovered that ten is the optimum number of marshmallows to have with a hot chocolate, then so be it.

So if you want to have an interesting conversation with a newly-wed, don't ask them what married life's like, ask them what's good on telly at the moment or what snacks they can recommend - they'll have so much more to say. And if you think you can see a bump forming around her middle, I recommend checking the bin for sweet wrappers before putting yourself forward as a namesake.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

That moment when you realise you sound exactly like your mum

With every day that passes, I become more and more like my mum.

First there was the discovery that wearing tights under jeans really does make winter more bearable, then the moment I became incapable of sitting through a film without falling asleep, and then, more recently, the realisation that true happiness isn’t a beach in the Bahamas or a lottery win, but 30 minutes alone at a Marks and Spencer Final Reductions sale.

And now I’ve started talking like her too. All those things she used to say to me when I was younger – those stock phrases that all parents presumably download at antenatal classes - have started slipping into my vocabulary. But I don’t have children; so I just say them to my husband instead.

Of course there are some that just don’t apply to him, such as:       
“You need to have an early night tonight, young lady - you are overtired!” (To which I would shout “NO I’M NOT!” because exhaustion makes me argumentative.)

“If you think you’re going out in THAT skirt without tights on, you’ve got another thing coming. Do you want to get piles?!”

“Charlotte - STOP listening to Celine Dion and GO TO SLEEP.”

But there are plenty of others that, with a few small edits, can be very useful in every day married life:

“I’m not angry that you lost the third brand new lunchbox I’ve bought you in a month, I’m disappointed.”

“Don’t forget your scarf/coat/gloves/shoes when you go out this morning – it is seriously nippy out there!”

“Now then, do our socks really live down the side of the bed? Hmmm?”

“That’s funny, I see you’re sat here in the lounge and yet the light left on in the bedroom would suggest that you’re up there - how can that be?”

I’ve chosen to think of this development as evidence that my maternal instincts are starting to kick in, rather than that I am the most patronising woman in the world.

My sentiments are good. I want us to have a tidy home, for us to be warm and well-fed and for us not to wind up bankrupt as a result of too much Tupperware shopping. He does too; he just doesn’t feel the need to mention it quite so frequently.

It’s an odd feeling when you realise that your other half has joined the small group of people for whom you would run through fire, fight a bear or wear an extremely itchy jumper for a whole week to keep safe. You just want to care for them and, seeing as our parents are generally the people from whom we learn how to look after one another, it’s inevitable that we eventually start taking on their traits.

Of course, you can take it too far. It’s important not to make him start seeing commuting face-to-armpit with strangers as an enjoyable escape from my constant chatter about the location of his socks or the cost of electricity. A balance must be struck.

Now I just wonder which element of my mum’s personality I will take on next. Will it be her ability to send a text message without using a single vowel, her addiction to old, harrowing episodes of Trial and Retribution, or her remarkable chocolate cupcake baking skills?

The latter would certainly make me a lot more popular at home.