Open Letter To My Body

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Dear Body,

I feel like you and I are not on the same wavelength these days, so I thought I’d write you a quick note. You know, just to check in.

We’ve had some communication issues this past while. Or maybe you’re mad at me? It really could be either. I know a steady diet of Honey Monster Puffs* and tea probably isn’t the best and most nutritious form of sustenance. Also I doubt my soft spot for chocolate peanuts is helping matters. Still, did you have to go and get a full-body common cold yesterday? Was that necessary? You know we have a wedding to attend tomorrow, and now we both feel awful. I really feel like you’re letting me down.

Also, what’s with the knee thing? You know I was excited by the idea of becoming one of those bouncy people you see on the street who never stop hopping from foot to foot, even at traffic lights. I was ready. I was going to be a jogger! But you were very much against the idea from the start. I get that now. I heard you loud and clear after the seventh time my right knee buckled on the stairs. So my question for you now is what do you want me to do?

I thought I was doing the right thing by you by exercising, but now I see you’re really not a fan of Duracell bunny running, and every time I try it, you take it out on me in the form of making my knee buckle at inappropriate moments. The only time I’ve ever read of buckling knees has been in trashy novels where the heroine is constantly having her legs give way from lust, and I would just like to make it clear that I’m okay with lust-induced knee-buckling. I’m fine with that. In fact, I welcome it.

Really.

But … this other damn-I-forgot-how-to-use-my-legs buckling that momentarily makes me look a bit like a less cute version of the Little Mermaid walking for the first time? I’m not okay with it. So… Fine. I’ll stop the running, if you stop the knee buckling. I mean, I don’t really mind because it doesn’t hurt, but it’s a little embarrassing to unexpectedly fold like Mr. Soft from the Mentos ad.

So.

Jogging.

But we can’t just do nothing. What about dancing? What about krav maga? What about the pilates we did at the beginning of the year? Remember that? That was fun! We got to wear Flashdance-style wristbands! Would you prefer it if we went back to that? I don’t remember any collapsible knee moments after that class.

I’m willing to work together on this, so just let me know. I’m open to suggestions.

… But for now, could we kick the cold please?

Yours hopefully,

Q.

*[Sidenote which almost turned into a post of its own]: I actually thought these were called Sugar Puffs, but when I googled them I was redirected to Wikipedia’s page on Honey Monster Puffs, which has this intriguing note stickied at the top:

[This article is about the cereal. For the oldest living horse until 2007, see Sugar Puff.]

Which, I mean… naturally I clicked on that. Who wouldn’t? Unfortunately, there was no full and vivid biography of Sugar Puff the pony, only a note that said he lived to the ripe old age of 56, so of course I had to dig deeper. Here are the results of my investigation:

Sugar Puff was a dark brown pony who lived in England with a family who owned a riding school. At Christmas, they would let him inside the house. Yes, inside. Like, into the kitchen, or maybe into the living room to open his presents from Santa? I’m not sure how this worked in practice. Upsettingly, there are no photographs provided of Sugar Puff pulling a christmas cracker with his teeth. He was put down by a vet at the age of 56 when his organs started to fail. It doesn’t say, but I have to assume they buried him in the garden.

So.

There you have it.

The more you know!

But Trust Me On The Sunscreen…

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Remember those What Would Jesus Do? bracelets that were popular a few years ago? The rubber ones that came in different colours for every cause, and looked a bit like cheap, Made in China, knock-off anti-nausea bands? Lance Armstrong had a yellow one before Lance Armstrong turned out to be the poster boy for sociopaths everywhere, and for a time they seemed to be on every wrist in the first world. At first they proclaimed our devotion to different charities, and then, later, reminded us in stamped technicolour to ask ourselves what Jesus would do in any given situation.

I mean to start with, I doubt Jesus would have bought a rubber wristband that takes at least 50 years to decompose, but I digress…

I never really fell into this fad – mostly because I have tiny wrists and the rubber bands only ever seemed to come in one size (HUGE) – so I didn’t own a WWJD bracelet, but in my life, whenever I reach crossroads of intent, I often ask myself something that boils down to more or less the same thing:

What would Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen advise?

There are few problems in life that aren’t addressed by The Sunscreen Song. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, in 1999 Baz Luhrmann – yes, the film director – took a hypothetical commencement speech written by Mary Schmich, found a voice actor (Lee Perry) to narrate it, and set it to mellow background music. If you’re not familiar with it, I’ll add the lyrics at the bottom of the post so that you too can have a song as a role model.

The other day a friend asked me if I would be interested in running an 8km with her later in the year. Naturally my instinctive, gut reaction was to say, ‘Hell no!’ and do the usual full-body shudder that tends to accompany any thought of running on purpose for no good reason.* After all, I can’t even run to the bottom of my road without wanting to vomit, so 8km seems like an impossible distance. You might as well ask me to climb K2 in my unicorn slippers with nothing but a Capri Sun for sustenance.

Before the immediate no left my lips however, I thought, ‘What would Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen advise?’

If you are familiar with the song at all, then the answer is obviously:

‘Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it, or what other people think of it. It is the greatest instrument you will ever own.’

If my body is an instrument, it is an out-of-tune cello, but I have to say Sunscreen has a point. My body in its current configuration exists solely to propel me from place to place, from the armchair, to the fridge, to the desk, to the nearest pet-able animal… This instrument doesn’t really play. This instrument is the guitar lying forgotten under the bed ever since dreams of being in a band faded with adolescence. This instrument needs a tune-up; it’s long overdue some attention.

There is nothing wrong with my body. It does what I ask it to do without complaint, mainly because I never ask it to do anything too strenuous. It fits into my clothes. It is perfectly capable of having a solo dance party in the kitchen. I have no aches or pains, no ailments or diseases, nothing that would impede movement or limit my activity. I have never broken bones, or undergone surgery, or had stitches put in. I can’t burp, which limits my consumption of fizzy drinks, but other than that it works pretty much the way it’s supposed to.

So I thought it over, and I warily, tentatively, somewhat reluctantly said yes; I said yes to the 8km. If this is the greatest instrument I will ever own, I might as well learn to play a tune on it, even if the tune is the physical equivalent of Three Blind Mice. I’ve downloaded C25k to get me started, and have lost myself in a sea of runner recommendations, so if anybody has any suggestions for a good pair of running shoes, please let me know.

Also, if there’s a way to stop the feeling of getting sick at the slightest hint of exercise, I would love to hear it!

*Good reasons are limited to situations in which I am escaping an axe-murderer or trying to outrun a pack of wolves.

Sunscreen

Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of ’97,

Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Never mind, you will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded. But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you, and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future… Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.

Stretch.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees; you’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t.
Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t.
Maybe you’ll divorce at 40.
Maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary.
Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it, or what other people think of it. It is the greatest instrument you’ll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but in your own living room.

Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines; they will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents, you never know when they’ll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings; they are your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future. Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few you
should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.

Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.

Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old, and when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund, maybe you have a wealthy spouse, but you never know when either one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your hair, or by the time you’re 40, it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it.
Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

Barely Surviving Bansko, Bulgaria

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Well.

As I stood thigh-high in snow, looking around me for any sign of civilisation, I patted my pockets for my phone and marveled at my own stupidity.

Let me backtrack for a moment and explain that this happened in 2007, and that I want to tell this story because I wouldn’t want you to expect my travel stories to be in any way aspirational. In fact, many of my stories are of situations to be avoided, whether that’s due to the holy mortifying shame of them, or just a general lack of critical thinking skills displayed at the time. With that said, this is definitely one of the latter.

I’d arrived in Bulgaria three days earlier with a group of family and friends who had planned the New Year’s ski trip on a whim. At the time I was in a mindmelting relationship, so naturally I’d jumped at the chance for a break. An excessively enthusiastic shopping spree had made me the proud owner of a neon orange ski suit (from the children’s section) that made me look less like a professional skiier and more like an anthropomorphised traffic cone. I had also purchased gloves (from the children’s section), thermals, socks, boots, and matching goggles, so I felt very high-tech and athletic. My suit even had RECCO reflectors, which are supposed to help locate you in the unfortunate event that you get lost in the snow*. I was probably the most prepared I’ve ever been for a holiday in my entire life.

Our arrival in Bulgaria coincided with the run-up to the country officially becoming part of the European Union, and it seemed like the country was just about making ends meet with sellotape and bits of string. Our small plane landed on an icy runway outside of what looked like a large, corrugated iron shed masquerading as Plovdiv Airport**, and when we got inside we found a single luggage carousel that may or may not have served any practical use. I wouldn’t know; there were so few of us the airport staff just dumped our suitcases in the middle of the baggage hall instead of bothering with the charade of passing them through the hole in the wall. I don’t remember much about the journey from the airport to our hotel except that it was dark, it was snowing, and I was dog tired.

The next morning, I was dressed and ready to go by 7am. Feeling very prepared (and possibly overly-optimistic about my skiing abilities), I bounced excitedly from foot to foot as I waited to be picked up from the hotel lobby. A rickety minibus made the treacherous trip up the mountain every hour for four hours, picking people up at different hotels and depositing them at the top. In the evening, the minibus would meander back down the same way. Other than that, there was no way to get to or from the slopes, so I was always obnoxiously early for a seat on the bus.

My first day of skiing consisted of a lot of snowploughing – and if I’m honest it didn’t really pick up from there over the course of the week – but I had a great time. Just focusing on getting down the mountain in one piece was a nice reprieve from the drama that was eating me alive back home, and I was a huge fan of the little stops for hot chocolate every twenty minutes. My more athletically-gifted cousins quickly left me for the excitement of the red and black slopes, but I was content to slowly snowplough my day away in my kiddie ski suit, one green slope at a time. At the end of each day I would stumble back onto the rickety minibus, feeling extremely pleased with myself. Another day without breaking any bones! Another day of successfully avoiding trees! I was a star skier in my own mind. I would chatter excitedly until someone tugged on my sleeve to let me know we had reached the hotel, and then I would tumble off the bus ready for shots of tequila.

Skiing; it’s so much fun!

So three days into the trip, around dusk, I found myself on the last minibus of the day. Putting my trust in the courageous driver and the fact that this was my third round-trip on this deathtrap and we hadn’t yet plunged sideways down a cliff, I turned my attention to my friend Darcy and his younger brother Bing. They were staying at a hotel further along the route from mine, but everyone we knew staying at my hotel had left early that day so it was just the three of us. As the bus finally pulled in beside my hotel, I waved a cheerful goodbye and jumped down, alone.

The bus pulled away.

I stood, staring at the hotel.

I’d never noticed the blue window frames before. Come to think of it, I hadn’t noticed the popcorn plaster exterior either. I was almost sure my hotel had four floors… Why did it now only have three? I walked up to the building and pushed open the double doors.

The lobby looked entirely unfamiliar.

A large, surly-looking doorman appeared out of the gloom and said something to me in Bulgarian. I shook my head. He repeated himself and I smiled apologetically. “English?” I asked, with a hopeful voice. He shook his head and frowned at me. I looked around for someone – anyone – who might tell me where I now found myself, but the place was deserted.

I backed up, letting the double doors swing shut in my face. Then I turned around, and with an optimism that managed to completely blinker me from the red flags of my idiocy, decided it couldn’t possibly be too much of a walk to my hotel. In an ill-advised move that really sets the tone for the rest of this story, I set off down the road (if you’re keeping score as to how many moronic decisions I made on this day, we’re probably already up to about three).

Now keep in mind that although I used the word ‘road’ before, I was being extremely generous. What I am referring to as a road was merely a wide dirt track that looped its way back and forth down the unlit mountain. There were no cars to be seen, and I could tell that up ahead the path curved in a long arc before doubling back further down, so naturally I decided to take a short-cut through the trees (four).

Stepping off the road and hopping down into the forest, my feet plunged straight down into the snow until it reached my knees. I briefly considered turning back, but looking up at the embankment I had just jumped from I decided it would be easier to just press on (five). At first, I high-stepped like a pudgy pony doing dressage, but slowly the snow got deeper and deeper, and soon I was half-wading, half-shuffling through the snow. After fifteen minutes, night had well and truly fallen and I was only halfway through the trees to the next patch of road.

I started giggling to myself as I assessed the situation. Patting my pockets, I pulled out my Nokia with absolutely no roaming capabilities, and shone its paltry light around me. I was lost. I didn’t know where I was. If I kept walking, I was pretty sure I would eventually reach someone, but not necessarily someone who spoke English. I didn’t speak a word of Bulgarian. I didn’t know the name of my hotel, or whether it was up or down the mountain. I apparently didn’t even know what it looked like.

I slipped my phone into the neck of my jacket and slapped the snow with my palms as I considered my predicament. Then I returned to my slow snow-shuffle, giggling every so often at my own ineptitude. Every single step was an exercise in trust; I would inch my toes forward and hope against hope that the sole of my boot would meet something solid before the snow reached my waist. I started to feel nervous that I would fall down a hole camouflaged by the snow. I  wondered how useful my ROCCO reflectors would really be if I got caught on something. I wondered how much colder it would get overnight.

As I neared the road, I saw lights approaching from the distance and threw all caution to the wind. In all likelihood, you have never had occasion to watch a small, cushioned, neon-orange starfish-shaped person waddle quickly through excessively deep snow, but if you had been there that night that is exactly what you would have seen, and I think you would have been impressed by my speed.

You know, for a starfish.

I reached the edge of the road as a car came around the bend, and put out my hand… only to realise it was stopping of its own accord. I blinked in the harsh light of the headlights as an angry silhouette stomped towards me and grabbed my arm. It was Darcy. He and his brother had reached their hotel and somehow realised I had alighted at the wrong stop. They had retraced the minibus route in a taxi searching for me and my radioactive-looking ski suit.

Without a word, he half-pushed, half-dragged me to the taxi and bundled me in, where I was glad to see his brother (whose face wore a far less intimidating expression) and even more glad to give my extremities the chance to thaw. Darcy got in beside me and slammed the door of the taxi shut with a tight-lipped expression of barely restrained fury. He didn’t speak to me for hours.

Giddy with relief at being rescued from an ignominious death in a frozen forest, I was happy to ignore the waves of anger radiating from his body the entire drive back to the hotel.

I’ll tell you something, though…

He made damn sure I got out at the right one this time.

*Foreshadowing

**Apparently Plovdiv Airport has since undergone extensive renovations, and from the sound of things it no longer resembles a shed and now looks more like an actual airport.

Pilates? I Thought You Said PIE and LATTES!

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I took myself to a pilates class on Friday.

My friend asked if I wanted to join her, and instead of going with my usual gut reaction to an invitation to exercise (“No thank you, I would rather boil my own eyeballs”) I decided to accept.

I changed into leggings and a sports bra, dug out a pair of pink Flashdance wristbands (mandatory), and pulled on a pair of those ultra-low socks with elastic that either digs into your skin like a cheese wire or is so ineffective that the sock slips off and crumples uselessly under the arch of your foot.

I was ready.

We arrived at the pilates in extremely high spirits. The elation and novelty of having decided to do exercise was giving me the sort of insufferable feeling of magnanimity I usually only feel after donating to charity. I practically bounced into reception. Pale ash floorboards and white walls immediately gave me the feeling I should be whispering, and the two expertly made-up and manicured receptionists raised their false lashes in slow synchronisation to stare expectantly at us. We mumbled our names in the hushed tones reserved for church or, apparently, health studios with minimalist decor, and tripped our way down the stairs to the room of mirrors.

Now, I realise that there is a reason for the mirrored exercise room. I understand that it serves a purpose, and that the purpose is to keep an eye on your form. It’s important when practicing yoga to make sure that you look more like a swan and less like an inbred inner-city pigeon that just survived an aggressive encounter with a housecat.

That being said, isn’t there something profoundly unnerving about having to maintain eye contact with yourself while your entire body threatens to seize with cramp? Other people may be able to do curtsy lunges while looking like fierce, fit princesses of the modern age, but when I do them I look like a deflating balloon. It’s hit or miss whether I’ll make it back into a standing position. Since watching abject failure makes me uncomfortable, I try to avoid looking in the mirror positioned mere inches from my face. If I happen to accidentally catch my own eye, I flush red and shake my head apologetically.

Sorry, Gym-Mirror Me, I think. I’m doing my best here. These muscles haven’t been used in about a decade. Can we move past this mortification and pretend it never happened?

Gym-Mirror Me exhales deeply and ignores me, shaking with the effort of sinking into another curtsy lunge.

After class had ended, I lay on my mat and tried to ignore the silent screaming of my abdominal muscles as I thought about the year ahead. There are so many things that I want to accomplish in the next twelve months. Last year brought some pretty adult changes to my life and involved a lot of google searches that started with, ‘How do I…’ and ‘What does it mean when…’ and ‘Why do I need…’.*

I know this year will be bumpy. Aren’t all years bumpy in one way or another? I don’t think I’ve ever had a year that was uninterrupted smooth sailing the whole way through. I’ve had years where I’ve encountered setback potholes the size of craters, and challenges that loomed over me like the vertical face of K2. I’ve also had years that felt like studded paths, with nothing too drastic, just little bumps in the road to slow me down.

I’m hoping this year will be the latter. You know, traversable potholes. Surmountable challenges. Nothing that will blindside me at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

I left the pilates studio feeling like an astronaut in space, on an endorphin high that didn’t leave me until the following day when I realised going up or down stairs would be a challenge for the rest of the weekend. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I enjoyed it! I think I might actually go back and hand over more hard-earned money in exchange for another forty-five minutes of punishment.

This year is already full of surprises, and we’re not even ten days in.

What next?

*Thank God the internet took off before I reached my teens. How on earth did people manage before Google?!