So, Biographies Are Wild

Let me start with this: I have never been a particularly avid reader of biographies. Prior to Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, I can’t recall the last one I read. But all of a sudden, my participation in the Women’s Lives Club’s year of women’s biographies means my bookshelf is raining life stories. (I think I’m going to need a bigger bookshelf.) As a newbie to the world of biographies, I thought I would share my somewhat disorganised thoughts on the topic. More specifically, I wanted to reflect on the immediate intrusiveness I’ve felt in this process. For reasons I’ll attempt to make clear, this sudden immersion into the worlds of other people, as told by different other people, has made me far more distrustful of the form than I ever expected.

To put it bluntly, it seems to involve the total invasion of a person’s existence. Imagine having your story appropriated by someone else. I’d never really considered how insidious that could be. To lose control of the narrative of your own life seems a frightening prospect.

As supplementary reading to the book club, our fearless leader Rachel Syme suggested Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun. In it, Heilbrun references Roland Barthes’ view of biography as offensive because it entails, as Barthes puts it, “a counterfeit integration of the subject.” Heilbrun concurs, suggesting that, “In choosing among biographers and biographies, we choose among counterfeit integrations.”

The biography I’m currently reading for the Women’s Lives Club, The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm, opens on an essay from Ted Hughes that was written as the foreword to The Journals of Sylvia Plath, and in it he says, “I never saw her show her real self to anybody– except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life”. Less than a page in and I was already thrown off-kilter by those words. “Her real self”. It made me think about my “real self”, the idea that anybody has a “real self”, one true identity from which any deviation is just that: a digression from the authentic person. Why can we not be understood as more than one thing? We are more than one “real self”, aren’t we? But can a biography account for that?

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January in Books

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I always endeavour not to make New Year’s resolutions. Come on. They’re so mainstream and I’m so edgy. Actually, no. I just feel like they’re predestined to fail. It becomes the talk of February to discuss what a terrible job everyone’s done with whatever optimistic resolutions they made.

For 2016, though, I really wanted to make a conscious effort to read more books. I’m hoping that I can conclude each month with an informal roundup of my reading material. Thus far I have made my way through the books listed below, I’ve opened my Twitter up to recommendations and, on a 3am whim, I joined an online book club devoted to biographies about women. I’d call that a successful start.

Without further ado, I give you January’s selections…

 Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Taking on a book that could double as a doorstop is always a little intimidating but my escalating interest in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical persuaded me this was a must-read. After all, Hamilton’s life had to be pretty damn epic to warrant a three-hour Broadway musical. Assumption correct. The man is non-stop.

The biography opens with a prologue entitled ‘The Oldest Revolutionary War Widow’, introducing us to Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, in the latter years of her life, before we meet the man himself. In a particularly moving quote, Chernow describes that,

 [Eliza] frequently grew melancholy and longed for a reunion with “her Hamilton,” as she invariably referred to him. “One night, I remember, she seemed sad and absent-minded and could not go to the parlor where there were visitors, but sat near the fire and played backgammon for a while,” said one caller. “When the game was done, she leaned back in her chair a long time with closed eyes, as if lost to all around her. There was a long silence, broken by the murmured words, ‘I am so tired. It is so long. I want to see Hamilton.’”

Doesn’t that just break your heart? It left me wondering what kind of a man can have inspired such devotion in Eliza, a devotion, it turned out, that was not exclusive to Eliza but extended to her father, her sisters, and Hamilton’s many friends and mentors. It seems as though everyone who encountered Hamilton either became a faithful admirer or a potent enemy. If there existed an in-between, it didn’t make the biography. There may not be a more polarising political figure from the period. However, Chernow does not choose an enemy to open and close this biographical epic, but the woman who perhaps loved Hamilton most of all. The story of Eliza’s later years swiftly leads the reader into the accounts of Alexander Hamilton’s turbulent childhood, where the genius of the man quickly begins to emerge against a bleak backdrop. It didn’t take long for me to catch onto the hype. If only the unfortunate Aaron Burr had too.

It struck me that Chernow’s narrative structure, or perhaps simply the chronological sequence of events in Hamilton’s life, reflects that of the two-act ‘Into The Woods’ model. We spend the first half in the fairytale of Hamilton – he goes from an impoverished orphan living in obscurity to a self-made hero of the American Revolution, the adoring husband to Eliza and George Washington’s right hand man – until the transition into the second half begins his undoing, where the truth of Hamilton’s vices and a more cynical reality come into play. His life, both public and private, is dismantled until – spoiler alert! – he’s staring death in the face as he stands facing his long-time rival Aaron Burr, duelling pistol in hand, in Weehawken, New Jersey on that fateful morning of July 12th, 1804.

It’s hard to be concise when reviewing the life of a man who was anything but. My overriding feeling when reading Chernow’s biography was one of contentment – that Eliza’s desperate hope to ensure her husband’s legacy has been fulfilled. One of the most poignant moments in the musical comes during ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ as Hamilton, whose preoccupation with his legacy has defined him, raps, “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.” It leads neatly into the following song’s ultimate assertion: “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” In Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s book Writing a Woman’s Life, she notes that scholars have “lately written about how much of what passes as history is in fact evidence from the prevailing or established opinion of the age”. For so many years, it was Jefferson and a succession of Democratic-Republican leaders who controlled Hamilton’s narrative, painting him in the worst possible light. Two hundred years later, the Hamiltons are finally gifted a belated happy ending. Ron Chernow, an outstandingly comprehensive and devoted biographer, has recovered details of this impressive founding father’s many achievements that have laid the foundations to enable Alexander Hamilton’s success story to reach the masses.

As well as enriching the central Hamilton narrative with supplementary anecdotes, Ron Chernow’s biography offers fascinating nuggets about other characters such as Peggy Schuyler, Aaron Burr, Angelica Schuyler Church, George Washington, John Adams, Marquis de Lafayette and the Hamilton children. Simply put, it’s a must-read if you love the musical.

 Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

A friend suggested I read this in the wake of my sudden Star Wars enlightenment. I have to say, for a book that begins with a death, goes on to explore the dark side of celebrity, discusses drug addiction and bipolar, all before eventually concluding with PTSD, it’s a really funny read. That’s Carrie. (What a life!)

Reading Wishful Drinking was like sitting on the beach drinking cocktails, but in book form. It’s a short and sweet collection of memories from Carrie’s unusually eventful life. Now, I accept that “sweet” might seem an odd descriptor given the weight of many of the issues explored, but the openness with which every anecdote is retold makes you feel like you’re having a fun bonding sesh with your old bud Carrie Fisher. I didn’t even know I had an old bud Carrie Fisher! How thrilling. Now she’s chilling with me on this hot, sandy beach and telling me about growing up as the daughter of America’s sweethearts, and we’re laughing because, according to George Lucas, there’s no underwear in space, and she’s opening up to me about past loves and heartbreaks, and before I know it, the sun’s gone down and I’ve been so swept up in her stories that I haven’t even picked up my beach reading – except, oh wait, I’m not actually on a beach and I’ve been reading the whole time.

What I’m saying is, you’ll read this and like Carrie Fisher. If you don’t then, well, you’re weird and you don’t deserve to be Carrie Fisher’s beach bud.

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A Love Letter to Parkrun

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I ran 10k to get that hat so you’re damn right I’m gonna wear it.

Saturday. 8am. My alarm, that dreadful marimba tone, interrupts a deep and all-too-brief slumber with determined persistence. It’s almost like it doesn’t turn off unless I wake up and manually swipe it away. In fact, that’s exactly how it is. But usually, somewhere between the eyes opening and the finger swiping, I’ve remembered it’s Parkrun day: my time to shine, or, at the very least, listen to the Hamilton soundtrack for twenty-some minutes without feeling guilty I’m not doing something more productive. My favourite!

I have lived this routine 73 times now (stat courtesy of my Parkrun email alert). Three of those times have been on Christmas Day. I’m still not sick of it.

I distinctly remember one morning when I rather sleepily told my mum I was having a lie-in. It was okay to have a week off, I kept telling myself as I desperately tried to get back to sleep. Then 8:30 rolled around and she went to drive off. I suddenly shot out of my warm, cosy bed and ran out to the driveway in my pyjamas to yell, “Give me two minutes!” Precisely two minutes later, I came back in full kit, still plaiting my hair as I got into the car.

Whenever I travel to East Anglia to visit my best friend, instead of using it as excuse to have a week off, I jog over to the gorgeous Eton Park and do Norwich Parkrun. I can tell she’s always thrilled by me setting an alarm on her morning off.

For running newbies, Parkruns will become your best friend. Other races will come and go but Parkruns are every week at 9am, Poole Park, by the cricket pavillion.

Despite my own abiding love for the 5k, I find that other runners have a tendency to belittle it as no biggie. It’s dismissed as, “Oh, anyone can do it.” But that’s exactly the point. It’s the race distance that’s open to everyone and poses a unique challenge to each individual. For marathon veterans, it’s an opportunity to improve their leg speed. For the kids, it’s an opportunity to go further and perhaps discover a talent for endurance running. For the casual runner, it’s an opportunity to work on their PB without too great an interruption to the weekend.

I don’t run five kilometres every Saturday morning to gloat about it. Most of the time, it doesn’t earn so much as a tweet. It’s for me. I value opportunities to test my limits every now and again, to try new things – longer distances, cross country, track racing – but I always love my Saturday morning Parkruns most of all. A PB feels like magic. After 73 goes at it, to know that I can still achieve the best one yet is a special feeling.

I often hear about people getting into running after setting their sights on a massive challenge. Usually the marathon. But the majority of those who take up the sport purely to train for a single, big race seem to completely stop once it’s over. The buildup is so great, the pressure so immense that when it’s done, they’re relieved. They stop almost entirely. All the fitness that they’ve built up slowly falls away. Given how challenging the beginning is, those first baby steps where you’re trying to drag your arse around a couple of miles, I am strongly in favour of clinging to every bit of fitness I can muster and never letting it go.

Surely a better challenge for someone who is turning to running in an effort to improve their fitness would be to set a goal number of Parkruns for the year? Consistency over bragging rights? Yes, you’re not going to be the guy in the office who did the sub-whatever London Marathon, but doing a Parkrun a week for a year is surely a pretty sizeable personal achievement? If you can run marathon after marathon then more power to you, but really I’m talking about those of us mere mortals who just want to keep in shape. The number of times I’ve been asked, “So, when are you going to do a marathon then?” makes me want to throw my trainers into an incinerator.

Wanting to run and wanting to run a marathon are two different things. I like running. The experience of running. I feel as though there’s a misconception out in the world that it’s not running if it doesn’t hurt so much you hate it, if it doesn’t make your calves scream and your nipples bleed. To quote the great philosopher Shania Twain: “Nah!” It doesn’t have to be about testing the physical limits of your body. It can simply be about fitness. Do what you can do. Do you what you’ll enjoy.

Parkruns aren’t about who’s the toughest; they’re about going out there each week and doing your best. Was that too soppy? I don’t care.

Never Seen Star Wars

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*whispering* There has been an awakening.

Quite a few years ago, there was a television series on the BBC that I remember my dad watching called “I’ve Never Seen Star Wars“. Celebrity guests would go on it with a list of experiences they’d never had, but these would all be things everyone has done. For example, were my friend Laura to go on it, she could put forward never having played Monopoly. The point, really, is that the epitome of these kinds of near-universal cultural experiences was considered to be Star Wars – hence the show’s title. Everybody’s seen a Star War, right?

Well, no. Not me. Or at least not until, at the ripe old age of 23, I finally relented. Anyone who’s seen my Twitter feed recently might find this hard to believe but, well, you know me: when I fall in love, it’s swift, wholehearted and usually with a heavily merchandised episodic narrative of some kind. In many ways, this was inevitable. Classic Jess.

My best friend Hannah and I were both unacquainted with the Star Wars universe, somehow reaching our twenties without ever having been indoctrinated. The two other friends who make up our friendship circle (or “squad”, as the kids are saying – and also us, to be fair, because that’s definitely our thread title) were Star Wars fans. Big ones. They were relentlessly shooting all kinds of alien terminology over our heads in fervent anticipation of The Force Awakens. When I say alien, I mean that literally – do you know what a tauntaun is?! And this was only a microcosm of the wider world. Everyone seemed to speak a language that we hadn’t yet learned. After endless indecipherable texts about The Force in our four-way group text, Hannah and I decided that we had to give it a go for the sake of our sanity.

Now, I can’t overstate how little I knew about Star Wars. You might assume that I went in with some base-level knowledge thanks to its ubiquity within popular culture, but let me review the entirety of my pre-viewing Star Wars knowledge:

  1. Leia’s cinnamon roll hair
  2. Darth Vader, iconic bad guy with voice-changer
  3. Gold bikini Leia (from that episode of Friends)
  4. “I am your father” and Luke’s eventual handlessness (remember the Toy Story parody?)
  5. Anakin hates sand (my friend Emma can’t get through 24 hours without doing her impression of Anakin Skywalker hating sand)
  6. Yoda-speak (because of Michael Scott)

This was the sum total of my Star Wars knowledge. When one of six things you know about a film is that the single female character is enslaved and forced to wear a bikini, I think it’s reasonable not to hold a whole lot of faith in said film. (Yes, in true Star Wars fashion, I had a bad feeling about this.)

As a woman, I struggle to enjoy narratives that don’t provide me with compelling, three-dimensional female characters. I don’t find it true of my world experience; therefore, it creates a barrier between the story and me. I want to feel excited and represented and emotionally invested. That’s why loving Leia was crucial for me. In A New Hope, rather than making doe-eyes at her rescuers, she is far more concerned with leading their escape and giving almost audible eye-rolls. The precise moment I knew she had won me over was, “Into the garbage chute, flyboy.” Leia is a straight-up badass, and yet the popular culture I’ve been exposed to had me imagining some helpless, sexualised damsel with pastry hair. I’m so frustrated and dismayed that the gold bikini was one of so few details I had known about this resilient, funny, resourceful character. Thankfully, I know better now.

I feel compelled to mention that my admiration for the princess-cum-general translates to real life. One of the best things to come out of this sudden Star Wars mania has been discovering the sharp, eccentric, emoji-filled mind of Carrie Fisher and her achingly short memoirs. If nothing else, it was worth discovering this long ago, far away galaxy for Carrie alone.

As for the boys… well, they are similarly delightful. Luke is as far from the antihero as you could likely get, and how refreshing! In an age where antiheroes have become so tediously de rigueur, I find myself desperate to root for any good, pure protagonists I can find. “Gritty” narratives make me weary. My heart leans towards the idealism of The West Wing, not the cynicism of House of Cards. I’m more Snow White than Walter White. And, predictably, a girl living on the light side, not the dark. A male lead with none of the machismo of your archetypal action hero, and possessing qualities more typically aligned with femininity, Luke is breath of fresh air.

And then there’s Han. My friends have admitted to me that they thought I wouldn’t like Han. …Is that possible? Who couldn’t love this hot mess? (Emphasis on the hot.) I mean, really, a total boob. Remember that scene in Jedi where he taps a Stormtrooper on the shoulder and then legs it? I’m in love. Given that, mostly to rankle my mother, I have exclusively referred to Harrison Ford as “Grumpy Curmudgeon Harrison Ford” for the last twenty years, discovering his infinite comedic talents was quite a revelation. I once nicknamed Hannah, my best friend, “Han Solo” and then worried it might be insulting, he might be a bad guy. What a fool I’ve been! Could anything be less insulting than being compared to Han Solo? Aside from the fact that young Harrison Ford is truly the peak of male attractiveness, Han is in every way – how shall I put this? – A MEGA BABE. And now those same friends who thought I’d hate him have to put up with a constant flurry of cute Han pictures in their inbox, making them wish I did. Poetic.

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Same, girl, same.

Once done with the Machete Order (IV, V, II, III, VI – I promise it works!), Hannah and I opted to see The Force Awakens the following day. I shan’t indulge in a dissertation-length love letter to The Force Awakens (I promise I could), but we loved it. The kind of love that they write musicals about. We left the cinema that day feeling giddy and energised. The biggest film in the world, by a thousand different measures, is also good. Good in terms of narrative, but also good in the plainest of terms: in the message it sends. The diversity of the new casting feels incredibly powerful given the film’s overwhelming financial success globally. Dare I begin to hope that other film franchises take note?

Though I can’t even begin to cover all of Episode VII’s many virtues (e.g. Finn’s everything; don’t even get me started), I was most profoundly moved by the presence of women, in major and minor roles, throughout the story. The scene between Leia and Rey, in particular, felt so unique, I found myself in shock. Surely a moment of pause to allow two women to embrace each other is unheard of in this genre? I can’t remember ever seeing it. And yet, there it was. A mother’s embrace. I’ve seen bro hugs aplenty in my time but this, this was something entirely new – and special.

In Rey, young girls finally have an action heroine deserving of their worship and it’s her movie. It’s Rey using the Force. It’s Rey’s story. Don’t let anyone convince you that these movies aren’t for girls. They are. Now more than ever.

Thank goodness the Force finally caught up with me.

Wait For It

I’m going to say something controversial now: job-hunting sucks.

Looking for a job, the whole painful process of unemployment, is a relentless fight to retain some semblance of ego. Truly nothing takes the same toll on your self-esteem. It makes romantic rejection seem like a trip to Disney World: sure, ‘It’s A Small World’ is going to make you loopy by even the second play, but you can always hug adults dressed like cartoon characters for comfort.

Every tip about the job searching process contradicts another: stand out but not too much, blog to show off your writing skills but don’t write about this or this or this, don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of but take whatever opportunities you can get.

Most of your efforts go unrewarded, potentially even unread. You spend 50% of your energy crafting applications that walk the line between “I’m different and exciting” and “I will fit into any team”, and the other 50% is used up trying to convince yourself that you’re employable. I find myself vacillating between adamant confidence that I’m a hard-working, intelligent wunderkind and believing that I’m a useless good-for-nothing. (The ratio tips ever more towards the latter, unsurprisingly.)

On a recent day off, I went to support my running club at a track event and during the day, a thirteen-year-old girl I train with/ trail behind asked me about my job because she wanted to get one (that pocket money just ain’t cutting it for her). If you aren’t familiar with what failure feels like, check in with the smaller humans who look up at you like you’re in charge, like you’re supposed to have it together, because those eyes read like, “Girl, I’m in Year 9 and I know where my next pay packet’s coming from!”

At one point, a position with Dream Job™ potential came along. I worked my little cottons off to perfect my application, pouring an abundance of time and heart into it in the hope that this would be The One. It was the first job I got genuinely excited about, the one that I opened up about to friends and family, all of whom reassured me I was perfect for it. Even the stranger I was stuck on a coach with for eleven hours insisted I was perfect for it (and she knows me better than anyone).

I started to believe it. I built it up in my head.

I didn’t even get an interview. Instead, they sent me a vaguely encouraging rejection email and I pretended it didn’t matter after all.

When enough applications have been floated out into the ether never to be heard from again, rejection can feel like a comfort. It’s closure. That message read as heartfelt and personal. “Try again in the future” was better than being job-ghosted. I later discovered that the company had sent the same email, word-for-word, to a friend of mine.

The Gmail account I set up specifically for professional use has become my tormentor. Now I gotta, I gotta inbox full of rejection (to the tune of Natasha Bedingfield’s ‘Pocket Full of Sunshine’, FYI). I can log in anytime I like just to feel bad about myself. It’s a quiet wasteland only occasionally disturbed by the entrance of a lone cowboy to the theme music from ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’; that worn, old cowboy will shoot a couple of holes into my ego and then ride on. On one hand, it’s nice to see somebody, anybody, but on the other, those bullets hurt, man!

Quick bounce back on Kennedy these days, though. I blast the Hamilton soundtrack and knuckle down in search of my next opportunity (“I am inimitable! I am an original!”). It’s this relentlessness that’s perhaps toughest of all. There’s no free time because there’s no work time. Every second that I’m not sat browsing Indeed.com or rewording my CV to cater to every demand of the latest position that pops up, I feel like I should be. I haven’t been relaxed enough to read a book for weeks. I love a good cover-to-cover reading sesh but a few hours not spent producing something, not grinding out another boastful yet genial covering letter? How indulgent.

I have to imagine my future self reading this post and calling Debbie Downer on all of it. Her inbox is a happier place: opportunity, acceptance, accomplishment. She can plan for trips on aeroplanes and shop for her friend’s Christmas presents with unconstrained generosity. She is exhausted at the end of the day. Her time is hers; it’s evenly divided between friends, TV, runs and reading without a nagging feeling in the back of her mind.

She’s great.

I can’t wait for you to meet her.

 

Now I’m On Track

IMG_2749When my dad knocks on my door, it means he wants something. One time it meant we were having takeaway pizza, but most of the time it means he wants something. On Friday he knocked on my door, entered without waiting for a response (!!!) and led with, “I’ve got an idea to run by you.” Never good.

His fabulous idea was for me to go along to the last track meeting of the season in Exeter and run in the 3000m. Do you know how many times around the track that is?! Seven point five. Let me put that another way: too damn many.

Anyway, I said yes. For a few reasons: 1. I’m a little bit stupid. 2. I’m very easily guilted into things by my parents. 3. #yolo 4. Having had the track team help me train for the past year, at no benefit to themselves whatsoever, I thought it would be nice to try and make all their coaching worthwhile – the club was in a slightly vulnerable position within the division and having another athlete finish the race would earn extra points towards avoiding relegation. 5. I saw my brother run 10,000m (25 laps!) a few weeks ago and he didn’t lose his mind along the way, so I knew it wasn’t impossible. And, 6. My dad treated me to some new shorts because my training shorts aren’t club colours. Blue shorts with a red and black vest? No, siree! Gotta style it out.

Before I faced the scary, new challenge that Exeter posed, I had my all-too-familiar weekly Parkrun to best. My Parkrun PBs probably stopped being interesting a while ago, but last Saturday it felt particularly important to have a successful run – something to fall back on if I had my ego totally shattered the following day. I finished it in 24:48, a leap forward from my previous best of 25:24. At last I’m a sub-25er! Hard work pays off, kids.

The Sunday morning wakeup call was 7am. Day of rest, my arse.

The beginning of the day involved a lot of turning to my dad and other important-seeming adults to check this was a good idea. I have never been so nervous before a race. Plus, I would be headphone-less – how was I going to run 3000m without the support of Carly Rae and Tay? While I do some training on the track, racing on the track was never on the cards. It’s far too exposed. The exactness of the times on the perfect flat of the track is better suited to super speedy folk. And there are plenty of those at my club. Except in my age category, I guess (which, by the way, is SENIOR women – when do I get my bus pass?). But this particular model of human was not designed for speed. I went into this race knowing that, barring an upset, I would be coming last; in fact, my dad’s assurance to me was, “Not everyone is going to lap you.” And that’s the best I was hoping for. If I ran well, I wouldn’t be embarrassingly far behind everyone. Terrifying.

One small mercy was that my race was scheduled at 12 noon. I had long enough to prepare, scrounge a banana off my brother and warm-up without having to simmer in low-level panic all afternoon. There were four other Wimborne athletes running the 3000m (in different age/gender categories) at 12 o’clock, so we all went for a jog and a stretch together. I then spent the 20 or so minutes immediately before the race vacillating between needing a drink and needing to pee.

During my pre-race pep talk, Coach Dad informed me that I should be running 115 second laps based on science and graphs or something, and if I could do that, I’d finish in 14:20.

Standing on the start line for the 3000m was one of the more scary moments of my life. I’m used to road races, where the start is usually a crowd of a few hundred people positioning themselves based on how fast the people around them look. On the track, there aren’t enough people to hide behind. Everyone stood along the curved 200m line as I anxiously copied everything my teammate did, pretending I totally knew what I was doing. Then the gun went and we were off.

Once I’d shaken off the fright of the gunshot noise, I settled in. And something funny happened: I remembered I could run. I’d been so caught up worrying about it that I’d managed to convince myself that my legs wouldn’t work. Once I realised that the legs had some speed in them, I suddenly had to slow myself down because my first lap was way under 115 seconds – which, sure enough, I paid for. My split times were a little inconsistent, with the middle laps falling to around 119 seconds before I dug in for the latter stages of the race.

I don’t imagine I’ll ever run with more support than I had during that race. The stretch from the 200m mark to the finish line was a chorus of cheering, with encouraging faces appearing in outer lanes and calling out from the mound next to the track. They cheered all eight times I went past with increasing enthusiasm.

Other than that, the race is a blur. I was running just that fast. My official time was 14:23.74. Not an embarrassment.

Race over, I could eat lunch and watch everyone else’s events, a free woman once again! It was actually a really delightful day out once the 3000m was out of the way. The weather was scorching, and there were plenty of different events to watch – including my speedy little brother in the 5000m. Mostly, it was nice to come along to support the people I’ve been training with now for a solid year and enjoy in the tremendous team spirit that comes from the top down.

Wimborne AC did incredibly well on the whole, placing third. The mission to stay in Division 1 was a success. Job done! Now don’t get any ideas about the impending cross-country season…

Running Away From My Problems

DSC00104I just finished my 58th Parkrun. 25:25. Another personal best. It feels like a miracle after waking up with tired legs and pizza belly. It feels like a miracle for a lot of reasons. It’s now been a year and a half since I first dusted off my old non-brand trainers (unloved even in their best days) and decided to go for a run one autumn morning.

The truth is I took up running in an effort to combat depression.

It was October 2013. Not my worst month, certainly not my best. My mum had suggested running, or physical activity of any kind, countless times in the months prior. Problem was, I didn’t want to leave the house. I really didn’t like leaving the house. Then my counsellor asked me about my fitness; she asked how much exercise did I do during the week? None. The truthful answer was none. I was perfectly happy doing absolutely no exercise, resentfully resisting the suggestion and throwing away some typically facetious reply about how the only marathon I would be doing was the binge-watching kind. So perfectly happy was I.

“You should aim to do 20 minutes of exercise twice a week,” she told me. “You should do something that makes you out of breath.”

Living in a house full of keen runners, running seemed the obvious option. It didn’t require the commitment of a gym membership or buying new kit. I simply laced up my trainers and started running. And then I walked because, damn, running is really hard. But then I ran again…

The first thing that hit me was how satisfying it is to be physically challenged. I can now personally attest to the whole “runner’s high” thing. Yes, endorphins make you happy. We know this because we all watched Legally Blonde. The unavoidable discomfort that had put me off sport for years is now masked by a far greater, almost euphoric feeling of accomplishment. Is there anything better than that moment when you’re four kilometres down in a 5k and ‘Shake It Off’ comes on your playlist and you find just a little more fuel in the tank? It’s as addictive as everyone claims. Not the ‘Shake It Off’ moment specifically, but The Buzz. I’m running to chase that feeling. It is an exact opposite of the feeling I know I’m running away from so I know I’m going in the right direction.

If I’m ever thinking, “I don’t want to run today”, I think about how dropping out might affect my rate of improvement and hastily dismiss the thought. I’ve never known motivation like it. I’m not a serious athlete. I’m not looking to become a serious athlete. But I want to be better than I was last week. So, I go out to feel good. Those aching calf muscles afterwards only serve as a gentle reminder of how great I did. Besides, if I wake up early for a run, go out and push myself, it’s a free pass for the rest of the day. A day when I’ve run is a day when I’ve achieved and, therefore, I can relaaaaax. Imagine Pixar’s Inside Out is the inside of my mind: Sadness takes a nap while Joy (voiced, of course, by Amy Poehler) eagerly repeats affirmations as I unwind with some feminist literature.

Then there’s my long lost friend Vitamin D. Sunlight hitting my skin, warming its colour to a few shades up from its natural vampiric white. I feel like I went years living inside, only venturing out when I had to, for food or education or if a fire alarm went off. I’m a writer. I sit and I write. I’m more relaxed in front of a Word document than anywhere else. Running is a break from that, offering balance to my natural lifestyle. It takes me so many places, exploring my home county one foot in front of the other. I live in Bournemouth. I have the seafront, from Boscombe Pier to Sandbanks, and the New Forest, and the numerous athletics tracks that host club training sessions. Is there a place any more perfect to run? I doubt it. I have my running shoes to thank for showing me my world. I’d never really noticed how beautiful it all is – even if I do try to ignore my mum when she points out all the geese and rainbows and flowers and MUM, I CAN’T TALK RIGHT NOW, I’M TOTALLY OUT OF BREATH. WE’LL TALK LATER.

Getting out more, I’m meeting people all the time – happy, active people. I think I might even be one of them now. At the end of our track sessions, I don’t see a single person looking glum. The stand is always abuzz with proud smiles, people asking, “How was your session?” and “Are you racing at the weekend?”

Running might seem like a lonely sport; it’s not strictly a team sport, after all, but I think if you find the right running club, it does feel like a team. It’s not that there aren’t runs where I want to stick my headphones in my ears and drown everything else out with nondescript dance music. There are plenty and they’re necessary. But going out and having people cheer you on is an entirely separate, valuable experience. Making friends is always a plus, right? We all appreciate nice people supporting us.

And finally, of course, there’s the reason most people want to start exercising: that old “getting in shape” chestnut. While my main motivation for exercising was mental health, I have to admit that the idea of slimming down was an added incentive. The fact that I hated my body was never a big issue but it simmered beneath the surface, perfectly in line with the many millions of women who share that experience and have their vulnerability fed by marketing and the media. I would conceal whatever figure I had underneath baggy grey-tone tops that hung off me, hoping never to draw any attention. Funny thing is, my figure hasn’t really changed, only the way I see it has. I train four or five times a week but my body looks about the same. It’s probably tighter and firmer, but the same size, same shape. Running has merely given me an appreciation of what my body is capable of. The legs I always resented for being too chunky can carry me for miles and miles. My body is strong. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says about it, my body is so great, it can run far away from anyone who says otherwise. I feel oddly powerful, like I could lead the people into battle or catch kids who are trespassing on my land (I have no land). So, now I wear colours and I wear shorts. Sometimes even a cheeky crop top. I don’t care. My body is healthy. I’m happy.

People often ask me, “Why now? What made you take up running?” I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t think they understand the weight of the question. “The desperate need to feel better,” doesn’t seem like the appropriate response, but it’s the truth. And it worked.

10 More Websites for Creative Gift-Giving

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Warning: an onslaught of hyperlinks ahead.

Looking for some gift-giving inspiration? Look no further. My original post full of gift-giving tips seemed to go down a treat so I thought I’d follow it up with another. Since that post, I’ve been discovering plenty more websites filled with fun gift ideas that will leave your nearest and dearest in no doubt of your love for them. Old faves like Society6, Red Bubble and Etsy still stand, but allow me to introduce you to some new gems…

1. Living in La La Land (UK based)

This is my current obsession, with free UK shipping and very reasonable prices all around. I hope the collection continues to expand but, so far, their products are so bizarrely diverse in terms of the corners of pop culture to which they choose to venture. One minute you’re looking at a Breaking Bad chopping board, the next you’re like, “Do I need a notebook covered with the sassy emoji?” and eventually you conclude that it is the Jessica Fletcher “Don’t Mess With Jess” notebook that you needed all along. (You know. From Murder, She Wrote.) It’s a wild ride. With their popcult pencils collections, you also have the option to have your own message printed on pencils, should you so wish.

Fandoms encountered thus far during my adventures in La La Land include: Game of Thrones, Twin Peaks, The X Files, The Office, Mean Girls, School of Rock, Harry Potter, Murder She Wrote (still weird), Pitch Perfect, Parks and Recreation, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Ryan Gosling (with pizza), Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Friends and many, many more.

Pros: Free shipping to the UK! (with no minimum spend; arrives nice and fast, too)

Cons: International shipping costs. Certain random items within the clothes section seem disproportionately more pricey, but that doesn’t take anything away from the many, many bargains the site boasts.

2. Eclectic Eccentricity (UK based)

I’m in love. Seriously. This might be The One. It’s like a sea of radiant, glittering beauty that I just want to swim in forever. If you know anybody with a predilection for all things spacey (of the stars and planets variety, not Kevin) – and isn’t everybody just a little bit mystified by the stars? – this is a wonderland for you. And, should you choose not to shoot off into the stars, you can always just float through the sky. I want to gush about all that this site has to offer because some of these pieces are transcendent and magical, with titles like, “Heading in the Right Direction” and “Spread Your Wings” (a feather necklace, because of course). Eclectic Eccentricity is a danger to me because not only is it filled with gems, but the names make me want to buy everything as a supportive gesture to all my friends who are heading in the right direction or spreading their wings. If you visit this site without a particular purpose, you will soon find yourself thinking of all kinds of reasons to buy everything. I warn you of that.

Pros: All things are bright and beautiful. Also, based in Norwich. As so many of the best things are.

Cons: You may hurt your finances due to an inability to restrain yourself. Not cheap, but prices are more than reasonable. Quick dispatch for orders and delivery only minimally more for international orders.

3. Ashley Bridget (US based)

While a little pricier than La La Land, the quality of Ashley Bridget’s collection reflects that (similarly to Eclectic Eccentricity). This is a great site if you’re looking for a special piece of jewellery and, right now, you’re likely to find some bargains thanks to the 50% off summer sale (applies to all items with the discount code: SUMMER). I discovered Ashley Bridget when looking for a gift for my Harry Potter fan of a friend and was very excited to find a wealth of bracelets, necklaces, etc. that would both tap into my friend’s HP love but would also be beautiful accessories. Currently, they have collections and pieces inspired by Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Frozen, Lord of the Rings and tennis, as well as more general interests.

Recs: The Magic Collection, The Expression Collection.

Pros: Ships internationally.

Cons: A little pricier, $50 minimum spend for free shipping (though this also applies internationally). Has recently added a Grey collection. Thank you for respecting my privacy at this difficult time.

4. Adolescent Clothing (UK based)

This site is filled with fun t-shirt, beanie and sweatshirt designs with slogans such as “You’re freaking meowt.”,  “Girls > Boys” and “Bae-con“. The collection is relatively small at the moment, but there are bargains to be found amongst what is currently available. If your bestie has a penchant for pizza or is on her way to crazy cat lady status, you might just be in luck. Definitely worth a browse!

Pros: Free shipping to the UK.

Cons: The sizing is limited to small, medium and large and I canny find a size guide!

5. Emily McDowell Studio (US based)

How to adequately articulate my love for the Emily McDowell designs that so often express my inner most feelings better than I ever can? This card just about does it. The site has a collection of cards, mugs, dish towels, prints, bags, postcards, notepads, gift tags, stickers and temporary tattoos with designs that are all both aesthetically delightful and amusingly frank. I feel like everyone should have a “basically just waiting to go home and take off my pants” work mug, or a “short, encouraging phrase” tote bag. The specialty of Emily McDowell Studio, though, is the card selection. The messages tap into the reality of what it is to be a human in 2015. While the birthday cards, the valentines and the wedding cards are all uniquely special, there are a whole host of designs for the in-betweens: a card for someone who you’ve lost touch with, a card for a friend with cancer, a divorce card, a card for your honourary mother, one for your platonic soulmate, the awkward dating card “for when you’re kind of together but it’s not a big deal”.

Pros: The selection of cards gives you plenty to choose from; really good value price-wise!

Cons: Variety of items like bags and mugs is limited. International shipping might be a bit of a faff and delivery is not free. I recently ordered three cards to the UK and the shipping came out at just under $10, but per card that’s not too bad and the actual items themselves are priced pretty fairly.

Read the full post »

BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend Norwich 2015

© BBC

© BBC

Note: This is as much a diary entry for me as a shared account or review for all of you so fair warning if it turns into a stream-of-consciousness post.

From the moment I first heard about this year’s Big Weekend, it all seemed implausibly fortuitous. My best friend texted me to say that when she saw Norwich trending on Twitter that wonderful morning, she had never expected Taylor Swift to be the reason. Not only was this year’s Big Weekend going to be held walking distance from my friend’s house, the headliner was the very person we had been spiralling over since the 1989-era had begun: Taylor fucking Swift, y’all. It also happened to be the weekend immediately after my final university deadline. The perfect celebration.

Taylor Swift in Norwich is truly the most insane, unbelievable thing to happen in Norwich since… well, since last year when The Avengers came to town. (Seeeriously, people, Norwich is the place to be.) For my friends who attended UEA, I can’t imagine how bizarre it must be to go from Captain America strolling around the Sainsbury Centre one year to the world’s biggest popstar rocking up the next. In addition to Taylor, the lineup included a mixture of fresh (Florence and the Machine, Years and Years, Hozier, etc.) and throwback (Snoop Dogg, Fall Out Boy, Muse, etc.). Prior to ticket release day, only Taylor, Florence and a handful of smaller bands were announced. It didn’t matter. They had us at Taylor. We woke up and began frantically tapping refresh, secured tickets for both days and then wondered how we could possibly go back to our mundane lives what with a Taylor Swift show on our horizon. Read the full post »

Fancy Dressing Up

I imagine that my family’s dinnertimes are much like those of the Kennedys – that is, the other Kennedys. To clarify, there are some obvious differences: no one in my family was ever forced to have a lobotomy, nor have any of us run for political office. But in every other sense, we’re identical: good-looking, intelligent and we love a lively dinner table discussion (except Callum, who just begrudgingly puts up with them). The Other Kennedys, as I shall henceforth refer to them, apparently loved to quiz each other at meal times, a fact I became aware of after Lorelai mentioned it in an episode of Gilmore Girls. At one of our recent mealtime discussions, talk eventually turned to an upcoming fancy dress party the family was invited to, with the theme: “people from history”.

That’s great, I thought. There’s loads of those! My first suggestion was Richard III. I suggested my dad cut a hole for his head out of one of those cartoon road play mats that I used to play with my cars on as a child, and he could wear it as a poncho with perhaps a slightly off-centre crown. He could even glue some toy cars on the mat to take it to the next level.

Coming up with suggestions of historic women was harder. The obvious options were the queens: Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria. My mother doesn’t really have the aesthetic for Liz, with short, very dark hair. The costume would also require the investment of excessive time and money. When I suggested Victoria, she was indignant but I maintain that it’s rather narrow-minded to only take that suggestion to mean post-Albert mourning era Vic; in fact, I’d watched The Young Victoria only the day before. Even Queen Victoria was young once! Alternatively, she could do the more iconic look but covered in gold as a nod to the Queen Vic bust that has finished many a Walford resident off. I sense she would not be on board with that idea.

Other options seemed scarce. Women have, as a general rule, been left out of the history books and the women we did think of didn’t have a distinct look. My mother resisted suggestions of Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale, the first woman to go to space, the first dog to go to space. To be fair, the latter idea would require a costume inside a costume which seems like more trouble than it’s worth. It’s still an amazing idea. My mother did not agree.

The idea I got most into, though ultimately can’t do because only my parents are available to go to the party, was for us to go as the musketeers. But with this suggestion came the inevitable squabble over who would be who. Naturally, I wrote my dad off as Athos: the eldest, haggard and greying, attempting to keep the peace between the others. The clear choice for D’Artagnan was my younger brother, Callum: youthful, athletic, with much to learn and the newest addition to the group. Dividing Porthos and Aramis up between myself and my mum was the complicated part. I insisted I was Aramis. My mother protested against getting Porthos. I can understand why. Porthos is the short straw. There’s really no way to make it work and, after the Victoria and space dog suggestions, my mother was getting far too annoyed with the rest of us to want to hear me suggest Milady de Winter (ya know, the villain of the piece) so we let go of that idea. I also don’t know if we’ve moved too far from historic figures to fictional characters.

As we began to quiz my dad about which mathematical symbol was the title of the last Ed Sheeran album (a definite quiz question at the other Kennedy house), it occurred to me that JFK and Jackie O might be the solution. Sure, it’ll fuel the “heh heh Kennedy” jokes for another year but they’re historic and they’re people! As it looks like me and Callum aren’t able to make the party, despite my enthusiasm about the theme, we only need ideas for my parents. If I did have to go, “Teen Kennedy” would be my call. Sure, no one’s heard of this particular Kennedy but when I’m walking around yelling, “I am a Kennedy, Google me!”, what the hell will that matter?

If you have any other suggestions, particularly for historic women my mum can go as, please send them my way! Warning: she’s definitely not open to anymore dog suggestions.


P.S. This week she mistakenly called me Geoffrey. That’s not relevant but it really tickled me.