Highlights of 2016

THERE WERE NONE, I hear you cry. Well, the other day I found a piece I wrote this time last year on highlights of 2015. Apparently I thought 2015 pretty much sucked in terms of news items as well, although I don’t remember it being particularly bad – apart from the Conservatives winning the UK election. Reading back through the post I remembered lots of little things I enjoyed about that year, and although 2016 was rubbish in terms of democratic votes, gun shootings, and celebrity deaths, it’s important to also think about the good things. This isn’t going to be one of those list of good news for the environment etc which have been doing the rounds lately, but rather a list of my own personal highlights. Some are tiny, and some are life-changing. What were your highlights of 2016?

The Guilty Feminist Podcast

This year I finally started listening to podcasts, and this was the first one I tuned in to after it was recommended by a friend (thank you Gillian!). Female comedians discuss a range of topics, from shoes to periods to nudity, and examine their complicated and at times contradictory relationships with femininity, feminism, their own bodies, and the people around them. It is hilarious and thought-provoking, wonderfully forgiving and a real tonic if you think feminists are shouty and irritating. Some are like that, but some of us don’t have a clue! The show starts with a list of brilliant ‘I am a feminist but…’ quotes, such as: ‘I am a feminist… but I often find myself promoting this podcast by saying, it’s about feminism, but don’t worry, it’s funny.’

Dancing at weddings

I’ve been to a few weddings this year with my partner. I struggle with weddings. I find the logistics of getting there, finding somewhere to stay, talking to people you don’t know, and figuring out when it’s okay to leave very stressful. But I’ve discovered that dancing at weddings with my partner is the best. This summer we went to a stunning wedding of a friend of mine (the same Gillian who recommended the Guilty Feminist podcast – congrats on the awesome wedding too!) in rural Kent, in a big marquee and the groom’s family’s back garden. I was panicking about what to wear up until the last minute, and got changed 30 seconds before we had to leave into navy trousers and blazer and a red shirt (then got self-conscious when my partner said we looked like we were heading to a business meeting). Anxiety + free champagne meant we were both wonderfully silly by the time we sat down to eat, and still pretty tipsy when the music started. We both love dancing and we barely stopped for the next couple of hours. Several people complimented us on our dancing, which felt wonderful and all in all it was a fabulous evening. I like weddings now.

Lazy corgi fight video

I love the beginning of this video, with a corgi lying on its back with its feet in the air. What is it doing?! And then the “fight” – I’m going to snap at you… and then just go and lie over here… and bark at…nothing… These dogs are just ridiculous. Corgis themselves make no sense. How are their legs so short?! So comical.

14th May, Canterbury

I moved to Canterbury this year after ten years of living in London. This was one of the life-changing highlights to the year: I moved in with my partner and started a much longer commute to work. For the most part living together has been lovely, and although the commute isn’t my favourite thing in the world, I love living in Canterbury. When I got back after Christmas it felt like home. And although there are pros and cons to being out of London, I certainly don’t miss the tube or the weekend crowds. Or the exorbitant rent. Although the rail pass does its best to make up for that!

Started anti-anxiety medication

This might be a strange thing to put as a highlight of the year. Having to take medication is bad, right? I certainly thought so for a long time. Even though I’ve been blogging about mental health for a while now and I am very supportive of friends who are on medication, I really fought going on anxiety medication myself. I realised that I still saw it as a sign of weakness. I thought I should be able to get past it on my own. And I put a lot of work into that and when I was feeling generally okay, the self-care worked. But when you’re tired or something knocks you so you take that lift back down to the beginning again, sometimes it’s too tough to haul yourself back up all the stairs on your own. I’ve been on anti-anxiety medication for six weeks. I’m on a very low dosage and it still sometimes gives me nausea, but I also have some more space in my head to combat anxious thoughts. I’ve achieved things that I’m not sure I could have done if I hadn’t been on medication. I don’t know what will happen, whether they’ll keep working, whether I’ll need to switch, or whether I’ll need to up the dosage, but right now I think they’re working. It’s easier for me to take a step back from anxious thoughts. There’s no point saying to myself “you don’t need to worry about this” because that doesn’t work. But I am finding some relief from going a step further and thinking “you don’t need to think about this. There is nothing saying you need to spend time and energy going over this. Let it go.” Just gaining that step and finding a bit more stability is feeling great. Keep your fingers crossed for me that it stays good.

Dyeing my hair

While in most areas of life I’m quite frightened of change, as we all are (I heard someone on the radio recently say everybody is scared of change, and if someone says they’re not, they’re lying) when it comes to going to the hairdressers I LOVE change. The bigger the change, the better. If I have a haircut and come out looking more or less the same, I’m a bit disappointed and have generally forgotten I had the haircut by the time I get home, so someone saying they like it confuses me. You like what? It’s the same! This year I dyed my hair red for the first time. I’ve wanted to do it for about a decade so it was pretty exciting for me. It didn’t go quite as bright as I wanted so I’m planning to get it done again soon. I look so quiet and demure that most hairdressers are worried I’m going to get upset, so they tend to – consciously or not – tone down what I ask for. But my current hairdresser in Canterbury seems to trust I want what I say, so I’ll ask him to dye it next. Hopefully it won’t come out some dreadful shade of pink.

Driving home for Christmas

I passed my driving test four years ago, then only drove on the odd weekend at my parents’ house for the next four years. Now I’m living in Canterbury, I have my car with me here. Unfortunately the years off and the fact I was driving somewhere I barely knew meant I started getting extremely anxious about getting in the car. Panic attacks and heated arguments with my partner while driving ensued, and although I kept at it, I was still struggling with nerves. I would be so anxious about driving fifteen minutes to the nearest stables for a riding lesson that I could barely stand due to extreme nausea. Then I started anti-anxiety medication, and although I was still anxious before I left the house, once I was in the car I was fine. So I took a somewhat bold and impulsive decision – I do this sometimes – to drive myself from Canterbury to Suffolk to stay with my parents at Christmas. I hadn’t been on a dual carriageway for four years and had never driven on a motorway. But for some reason I decided that having a parent come down and sit in the car with me, or drive in front of me so I at least knew where I was going, was not as good as going solo with the Google Maps app and ‘winging it’. Well, I was right. I had a couple of fun moments at roundabouts and risked speeding tickets here and there (with added adrenaline rush because when you take my little car over 80 miles per hour, the steering wheel shudders) but the sense of achievement was second to none. Definitely a highlight of the year.

Other people’s achievements

I am very lucky to have an amazing circle of friends, family, and partner. They share in my achievements and my worries as I share in theirs. Although there have been difficulties and sadnesses this year, several of my immediate circle have also had wonderful news that I have loved sharing with them. My best friend is pregnant and expecting her baby very soon. I love that I was one of the first to know about the pregnancy, and I’ve loved keeping up our dinner routine while we can and checking in on how she’s doing. Apparently my general cynical nature has been a great tonic to her when all she wants to do is complain about feeling fat and having rib pain and most of the people around her are saying OMG YOU MUST FEEL SO BLESSED!!! My ‘yeesh, poor you, that sucks’ has been very useful, she says, which I’m very happy (and relieved) about. In other news, my partner had his first academic book published this year. It’s a huge moment and I felt so very proud going to the launch and hearing him talk about it. Getting to read a published book by someone you know and love is really wonderful, and I couldn’t be happier for him.

There are more great moments but I feel like this post is already quite long and gushing. I encourage you all to note down a few things that went well this year, even if it was just a great book you read or a brilliant movie you saw. Looking back on them in the future is really encouraging, and god knows we all need some good things to remember about 2016.

What I’ve Learnt… About Online Dating

In a mood of boredom and boldness I joined a dating website the other week. Here are a few things I’ve noticed:

People don’t always know how to react when you tell them you’ve joined one of these things, even if they were telling you before to go for it. It seems that they don’t want to offend by saying: ‘Oh good idea!!’ but instead want to reassure you that you’re fine on your own and don’t need to bother. Make your mind up, people.

Very few people have a decent picture of themselves to hand when they’re setting up their profile. An awful lot of selfies going on.

It’s damn near impossible to write a profile that doesn’t make you sound a) like a pretentious arsehole, b) like a braindead moron who only watches TV box sets, or c) like the most boring person alive. I’ve rewritten mine four or five times and I’m still not happy with it.

People come up with absolutely atrocious usernames. I’d take the slightly dull firstname_yearofbirth any day over gems like ‘MrAlwaysRight’ (true story). It’s amazing how just the profile name can make you write people off.

Most of the people who you have conversations with that seem nice and normal will fade away without you knowing why.

Some men (and maybe women too, I don’t know) think it’s okay to take you out on a first date and seem like a normal person, and then when planning the second date try and get you to go to a place that is in the middle of nowhere, but is right by their flat. And because you know there’s nothing else there, it’s just a horribly blatant move to take you for a drink and then be able to say: ‘my flat’s just round the corner, and otherwise you’re looking at an hour to hour and a half journey home.’ Smooth. Slick like oil. People, this is not cool. It’s a) fundamentally selfish, b) extremely presumptuous, and c) borderline coercive. And only on the second date? Really? Come on, guys. It’s a shame that it would look a little crazy if you put on your profile: ‘If you’re lying on here to try and bed a woman, à la Barney on How I Met Your Mother, you can sod right off.’ Tempting, though.

It’s very difficult when a throwaway comment someone says on their profile reminds you of some complete tool you went out with, even though the comment on its own may not be irretrievable evidence of dickishness. I’m struggling to overcome my gag reflex for people saying they ‘never want to stop learning.’

It’s never appropriate to send someone a picture of yourself in swimwear after one date, even if they’ve JOKINGLY mentioned one in the middle of an already bewildering exchange about what other pictures they should put up on the website (um, I don’t care?). It doesn’t make any sense and sets you up for extremely rude comments to take down what is clearly an ego the size of a house. I was so confused by this happening that, as his brother was also in the picture, I just said: ‘well I wouldn’t put that up on the website, you might get more requests for your brother!’ Oh yes. I’m a real catch.

Some people really know how to offend women in ten syllables or less. Some particular favourites are: ‘I have a vacancy (!!!!!!!!) for someone marvellous.’ Well, good for you. Do I apply with a CV and covering letter, or do you have one of those interminable online application forms? ‘I’m looking for a woman who isn’t overly influenced by her vagina’ – WOW – this one got so ridiculous it MUST be a joke, set up by someone who is willing to spend £25-odd a month to persuade women the end of the world has arrived, because someone this consciously offensive must not be able to exist in ordinary circumstances. One that wasn’t offensive but was RIDICULOUS started with: ‘To whom this may concern’ and in the ‘who I’m looking for’ said they’d be ‘strangely attracted’ to a woman who ‘wears flowers in her hair.’ It’s extremely difficult to wear flowers in your hair, actually. I’ve only ever tried tucking a daisy behind my ear when I was very small but the bastards fall out surprisingly easily. Or the wind blows and they either blow away or your hair tangles round them so you’re left with petals sitting about for days. Anyway, he sounds like an idiot.

You will be tempted to overlook some of this nonsense because they look beautiful in their profile picture. If this happens, get a good friend to read out their profile to you. Sometimes hearing it aloud will make you realise that you’ve skimmed the worst bits, and you really can’t let yourself go on a date with someone who says that they ‘think thinky thoughts.’

People can look totally different in different photographs. Some profiles have five or six pictures, and it genuinely looks like a different person in each picture. It’s extremely confusing.

Most of the people who ‘like’ you will be at least five to ten years above your specified age range. And/or illiterate.

On good days, it’s fun, an ego boost, and a brilliant procrastination tool. But on bad days, it can make you feel like giving up trying to find someone entirely. Especially when people who seem nice turn out to utter tools, or just disappear as soon as you tentatively suggest meeting up. It is, as a friend said, ‘a total minefield’ with a ‘lack of respect and humility. There must be some decent people out there but they seem few and far between.’ I will keep looking as I have two weeks left that I’ve already paid for – but the jury is out on whether I’ll keep dodging bullets after that or whether I’ll have given up hope of ever finding anyone normal, bright, and with an ounce of respect for women.

Love // Blue Valentine and The Theory of Everything

I read a letter to an agony aunt recently from a woman with two children who’d been single for a long time. She’d built up her career, moved house and raised her children to an age where they were fairly self-sufficient. And now she said she wanted love. She wanted a new partner in life. The response from the agony aunt, after congratulating her on how successful she already was, encouraged her to think of love not just in terms of finding a new romantic partner – in her words, if this woman ‘lowered her standards enough, she could find someone in a week’ – but to seek fulfilment in other kinds of love too, through meeting new people and getting involved in new projects, giving something back to the community, and so on. It is easy to be cynical about this kind of response. Most of us want to find a romantic partner in life, and there is a lot of pressure in society to do so. But there are many different kinds of love, and a couple of films I’ve seen recently have made me think about how love changes over time, and about the different bonds people carry through their lives. One is The Theory of Everything, which I found touching and uplifting because although the love between Stephen and Jane changes, it doesn’t disappear. The other is Blue Valentine, another film about a couple whose love changes, but sadly it twists into something unrecognisable, making the whole thing remarkably bleak.

Both films show these young couples on their wedding days, the moment when Disney films would stop rolling the camera. We all expect this one great love will last forever, partly because of all these cultural examples we’re given from such a young age. Blue Valentine is so painful because you can almost see where the cracks in their relationship come from – the pressures of money, and of very different careers, creating a path of broken dreams which chips away at what was so beautiful and genuine. It is summed up best for me in the lyrics of Coming Up Easy by Paolo Nutini: ‘It’s a shame -the way it seems to go / Because now my best friend, my partner in crime / I’m afraid it looks like we’re gonna have to go our separate ways / You see the thing is I love you, I love you, but you see I resent you all the same / And all my other friends they’re just saying you’re slowing me down.’ Sometimes life changes people too much, and changes the dynamic in a relationship more than people can cope with, without it being anybody’s fault.

Both films are difficult to watch because these couples get together in difficult circumstances, surmounting the odds, and then you watch how life gets in the way of what was so hopeful. But it doesn’t have to end with such bitterness and anger as in Blue Valentine. I really liked how The Theory of Everything was marketed as a love story, even though they aren’t still together. It is still a love story – at the end of the film they do still love each other, just in a different way. Even though a relationship which looked so picture perfect at the start, despite all the problems they faced, didn’t end up lasting until the end, their relationship didn’t die. It’s the saddest thing when you see couples who have been together for years begin to hate the person that they shared so much with.

The most painful bit for me of ending relationships has been not just losing a partner, but losing a best friend. Someone you’ve spoken to every day for years is suddenly cut off from you, for months at least, or forever if you can’t manage to change into a friendship. If you can achieve that change, it must produce some wonderful love. Often the love between friends is the strongest, I think – it doesn’t have any of the extra pressures of family love or romantic love, which is probably why it lasts so long in many people’s lives. I have a friend today I’ve had my entire life, and although our lives have gone in wildly different directions, seeing each other is the same as it’s always been. I have other friends from university who, true to the cliché that you make best friends at university, I am very close to – again, sometimes without seeing them for months at a time. In the last year or so, I’ve had the enormous joy of making a lot of brand new friends, either from being back at university, or from dancing, or from the sheer luck of moving in with strangers who turn out to feel like new brothers and sisters (without the constant piss-taking I actually get from my brothers whenever I see them). Making friends as you get older is like getting unexpected presents. Unlike with trying to find a partner in life, you don’t go out seeking new friends. Text and email conversations are tears-of-relief-inducing in their uncomplicatedness, and getting to know people is just sheer enjoyment. And suddenly you find that you have a whole extra batch of people sending you messages of support when they know you’re having a tough time, and to plan trips and fun and games with. I love it.

To borrow from a third film I’ve seen recently, Birdman: What do we talk about, when we talk about love? I think in some ways it’s silly that we only have one word covering such a range of emotions and connections, particularly as it is so often hijacked to only mean romance and Valentines’ Day (FYI, email distribution lists, I am going to start unsubscribing from all of you who keep trying to peddle expensive Valentines’ Day crap at me three times a day. LEAVE ME ALONE). Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to find a partner, and it is something I want too, being a bit of a romantic – albeit one becoming steadily more cynical at the bizarreness of dating. But what those two films, Blue Valentine and The Theory of Everything, made me realise is that love isn’t static, it changes and adapts and sometimes there’s nothing you can do to keep it the way it was at the beginning – and that doesn’t have to be as depressing as it sounds. And through it all, keep those friends who know you well enough to give you the things you want and need without you having to ask, and the people who you’re still as close to after months apart as you are when you see each other every week. I will leave you with some excellent advice I read recently (yes, on Pinterest. It’s a gold mine of inspirational life quotes): “If you gotta force it, just leave it alone. Relationships, friendships, ponytails… Just leave it.” Thank you, Reyna Biddy, whoever you are.