Poetry Blog: ‘Crossroads’.

This is a poem I wrote at the back end of last year after a bit of a setback, careerwise. It’s not important what that was, but it hit me like a train. This was unusual for me, as I don’t brood on things too much – apart from football, stupidly – and always try to take the view that ‘these things happen’ and that as long as I can move on with life, I will.

However, this was different. When I was growing up my own father went through career problems at a similar age and as a kid in his mid-teens, an age when these things tend to leave an impression, I watched him suffer. His situation was far more serious than my own, but career-wise at least, he never recovered. He was out of work for a number of years, having successfully fought his old employer in court, and it all combined to reduce him to someone who was constantly angry and who must have felt that he’d never have hope again. So, faced with the news that I received, it was a worry to say the least.

Here’s the poem.

Crossroads

You are at an unexpected crossroads, bewildered, like your father before you.
Was he older? Younger? The memory vague, but those days branded on to you,
although the details fade. Until now.

Two envelopes, weeks apart, that plunged you not once but twice
to depths you hadn't thought were there anymore.
To questions about your worth, your place, your existence.

Dark thoughts return, like a playground bully, arm round you, sinister smile,
pouring poison in your ear. You've not thought like this in years, 
not imagined you'd think like this again. You do not know which way to turn.

The news leaves you like a puppet without a master,
limbs useless and flat, splayed out across a table thinking, like a coward
that perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, they'd be better off without you.

But just as this is not a real option, this is not a real crisis.
You wipe away tears, busy yourself, think, confide in those you trust,
love, value. There is even a small sense of liberation.

Slowly, you crawl out from under your stone and although you feel
that age is cruel and experience no longer valued, this is not the end.
You stop short of full on Gloria Gaynor, but you will, in fact survive.

You find some focus, tell yourself that you are not him and that
you will find not the other side, but an other side, that the confidence,
however painted on it may be, will return.

You are at an unexpected crossroads, bewildered, like your father
and like others, worse off, who felt that their whole world had
collapsed, sometimes even because it had.
But every crossroads has a way home.

The poem is about how bad it all felt. I genuinely felt like I’d let my family down. I felt that I’d completely failed and I felt extremely angry at that. The feelings that the whole situation prompted in me took me by complete surprise and for a short time I couldn’t see the point in anything anymore. As I usually do, I internalised everything and even though I eventually discussed it with my wife and a few trusted friends, the extent of my thoughts and feelings weren’t revealed. Until now, I suppose.

Eventually, after a few weeks of brooding and, dare I say it, feeling sorry for myself, I decided that I wasn’t going to put up with it anymore. I’d regard myself as quite strong, mentally and I could see that what had happened could just be an opportunity.

For me, there’s no point in sulking and I won’t allow setbacks of any size to hold me back for too long. Not that I’m hell-bent on moving too far forward, mind. I know not everyone is like this and I wouldn’t ever criticise or question anyone’s right to feel any way that they want, but as a grown up with a wife and family I made a conscious decision to get back on with life, hence what I hope is an optimistic ending to the poem.

It does worry me that my age is now a barrier. I feel that my experience isn’t particularly valued and that in education there has been a shift in thinking. If it’s not shiny, smiley and youthful, it probably doesn’t have what it takes. Call me a cynic, but often these new approaches from people who’ve had a job for no more than a few years are just approaches that have been done before, but wrapped in nicer paper nowadays. At my age my work feels like a competition to see who can smile the most and shout the loudest. I’m not a very good smiler or shouter either! But, as the poem hopefully shows, I’m not prepared to go under just yet!

I’m definitely at a crossroads in terms of work, age, the way I look, the things I do, the company I keep and much, much more.

With work, I can’t decide whether I want to slow down or head for a new challenge. Or just to keep doing what I’m doing, which is something I love at a place I love. With my age and a notable birthday on the horizon, I need to choose whatever I do carefully; not just in work. In terms of my looks, my hair is greying, my body not quite as responsive as it once was, my face a little more haggered. I won’t be reaching for the Just for Men and won’t resort to some form of cosmetic surgery, but sometimes I catch myself in the mirror and wonder where the fresh-faced 17 year old me went. And I’m always wondering, does my bum look big in this!

But I’ve realised that there’s no point in worrying about it. Just choose a road. Eventually I’ll find the right one. And whichever I choose, I’m lucky enough to have family and friends to rely on.

I hope you liked the poem. As ever, I’d love to hear what people think, so feel free to leave a comment.

X-Box, YouTube edits, Minecraft? Sorry, I’m just not game.

I’m starting to think I’m living in the wrong house. The more I hear the shouting, the stamping and watch the levels of concentration and frustration that go into looking at a mobile phone, the more I feel like an alien in my own home.

So what’s the problem? Has lockdown found us out? Are me and the wife no longer compatible after 25 years together and has everything just run its natural course? Have my children decided they want a cooler, younger dad and have I decided that, in fact, I just don’t really like them? Have they been mixing with the wrong crowd? Do they all resent my accent, my north-east roots and my football team?

Well, although my daughter especially would like a younger, cooler dad, the answer is no. In fact, it’s just a question of creativity and a difference of interests. There’s no major crisis; a marriage won’t end, there’s lots of love still to share and I’ll be dadding around these parts for a while yet. It’s just that I don’t understand all this gaming and YouTubing!

While I don’t live in a house of what you’d call obsessive gamers it’s fair to say that the other three occupants (wife and two children) play their fair share of games. My son especially, is worryingly keen on his X-Box. He’s ten and into things like Minecraft and Roblox, as well as being a fan of FIFA. My wife, while also enjoying the odd game on X-Box, is far more likely to be found scrolling around and tapping away on her phone playing Hay Day or word games, while my daughter is obsessed with making video edits. None of this makes any sense to me.

I think I probably gave up all things game related in my twenties. At that time I was hooked on Football Manager and would gladly spend hours buying and selling players and taking teams from non league through to European glory. I would spend so long playing, sometimes into the early hours, that it would cause arguments. And it became a real bone of contention in my relationship. So I stopped. Simple. I still have the odd urge to play, especially when a friend mentions the game, but I know that the demands on my time really won’t allow. And dabbling with such addiction is a dangerous game to play.

It’s not, however, the act of playing the game or making the video that I don’t understand. It’s the games and videos themselves. I don’t know as much about the kind of video edits that my daughter makes, so can’t really comment in any detail. I will though, of course! I’ve watched them and they made me feel unnaturally old! Images were cut together so quick that I couldn’t really tell what was going on, let alone see the point. The gaming however, is another matter.

The first thing that strikes me when I watch my son playing Minecraft or Roblox is just how primitive it looks. In an age where computer graphics look like scenes from life itself, these games are put together with blocks and they look like the kind of graphics and games I grew up with. But I can get over that. The thing that really puzzles me is what he’s actually meant to be doing.

Socially, it’s a nice thing, really. He’s there, headset on, controller gripped tightly, conversing with several friends and rampaging through some kind of landscape. But why? From what I can gather, on Minecraft if he’s not building something, he’s killing something. Unless of course he’s just running away from something that’s trying to kill him. And then there’s the fact that sometimes one of his friends might just try to destroy the thing he’s built, because that’s funny right? Nope, you’ve lost me. It’s like getting some IKEA furniture, but with added – and made up – jeopardy.

Then there’s Roblox, which seems to have several hundred different varieties of game to it. Sometimes he’s in a world – building, of course – while trying to find other gangs’ eggs and break them. Egg Wars, apparently. No, really. He’s just running around trying to smash eggs. He’ll be simultaneously trying to keep his own eggs alive. At other times he’s earning money to buy cars and then drive them down a hill, in what seems to be a huge garage, and crash them into the wall at the end. His character will just bounce out of the wreckage ready to do it all again. I’ve stood and watched this, transfixed, for a good quarter of an hour, and nothing changes. Drive, crash, drive, crash ad infinitum. I don’t understand. I watch, waiting for something to happen and yet it just doesn’t. And he keeps on doing it like it’s the greatest thing man has ever discovered. Weird. I usually walk off feeling like I might be going mad.

And then there’s the noise. The gaming noise. We have a wooden floor in our living room and when he’s playing X-Box the noise is just incredible. He doesn’t seem to be able to stand still. If his character is moving then so is he. Literally bouncing around the room, thudding off the floor with every step. While he’s doing this he’s invariably shouting nonsense into his headset’s microphone. Sometimes it’s sentences, commands, sometimes it’s just words, but more often than not it’s simply tortured noises. Like someone’s invited a zombie or a bear into the house. Or a zombified bear. Recently I made a video – a poetry reading – and while it wasn’t something deadly serious that I was doing, I didn’t want peoples’ main reaction having watched to have been wondering about phoning Childline because someone in Graham’s house was torturing a child or an animal. But despite the fact that I was in another room, and the fact that he’d been asked to try and keep the noise down for just a few minutes, there he was “Nnnnnghhhh”ing and “Aaaaaarrrgggghhhh”ing on in the background.

My eldest child also baffles me with her gaming choices. She’s a fairly avid player of the game BitLife, a life simulator where the aim appears to be to become a model citizen. Because of course actual life – not a simulation – is simply not enough when you’re thirteen. Again, I just don’t get it. She seems to spend her time on it aiming to become anything but a model citizen. If she’s not telling me that she’s got eight children by seven different dads, then she’s declaring that she’s lost her job or some other worryingly negative achievement, like having mudered someone. This is literally always accompanied by a huge grin.

I suppose some of the attraction here comes from the fact that teenagers need to feel more grown up. And we all wanted that when we were younger. Maybe BitLife should add a paying your Council Tax section or a ‘the top of the tap’s come off in the bathroom and there’s water everywhere’ bit. Add some more of the humdrum of actual real life in and let’s see how attractive it all is then!

Her other obsession is with video editing. Now I totally see the point here. It’s creative, it’s a skill that may well be useful in later life and given that she’s quite artistic it serves to sate some of that appetite. But then I watch some of her videos and I’m absolutely lost. When she was a lot younger they used to just be her dancing and flicking her hair to music. Not exactly interesting, but harmless all the same. And also ones to use during the Father of the Bride speech at any future wedding that she may have.

Nowadays, she seems to specialise in pictures of celebrities edited together with captions and music. People actually watch them! She’s also edited stuff together about celebrity news stories. And when I say celebrities, I mean absolute talentless nonentities. I watch them and, as well as being disorientated by the speed of the edits, I’m utterly puzzled as to who these people are. I never recognise anyone! My daughter just laughs at her middle-aged dad, face screwed up in concentration and failing to see the point, once again.

Lastly, we come to my wife; also a bit of a gamer. Now some of the time she plays what she calls ‘educational games’; things where you have to make words or do a bit of maths. She’s also topping up her German language skills via Duolingo. All fair enough. However, then we come to some of the other games that she plays. (And reading this back, that’s quite the terrifying sentence about one’s wife).

Now, to be fair, she plays each of the following games with one of our children. So, it’s a nice thing to do. A parent playing with their children. No problem. Until of course you look at the details.

I shouldn’t have a problem with this gaming. I could easily go somewhere else and do something else. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But in our house, that’s impossible, because gaming tends to take the form of sitting in the front room, using the big TV, clutching a controller while shouting at the other person in the room. Teamwork, in our house, certainly does not make the dream work. I have never heard arguments like these. Just the other afternoon, I had to stop making a series of work-related phone calls such was the noise below me in our front room. At one point, as one player let the other down and probably got them into a position where death was the only outcome possible, there was the most blood-curdling scream I think I’ve ever heard. I gave it a few more minutes and then just gave up. No one’s actually listening to what you’re saying when there might be a serial killer at work in the background.

The games have no appeal to me whatsoever. One of them is a Jurassic Park game – I have no idea which one. I watched them play a little bit of it just the other day and after a while just had to walk off bewildered, as usual. For a good ten minutes all they did was manoeuvre a jeep around a landscape – probably called Jurassic Park now I come to think of it – before stopping to take pictures of dinosaurs. It seems to be that these photos could be ‘sold’ for money in the game, but as far as I could tell no one had any idea what constituted a good photograph and thus the value of them just kept coming up way short of what was needed. What a waste of time and effort.

Next, we have two more games – Plants vs Zombies and Garden Warfare II. (I had to ask for the names, by the way – as if I would’ve known about the existence of Garden Warfare, let alone the follow up!) Now, I’ll confess, I don’t know what the latter one is. But a part of me hopes it’s the battle to get plants in to the garden in order to annoy your neighbours. The other one is simply plants fighting zombies. They seem to just take a side and then shoot at each other. Again, it usually involves my wife and son and again, more than anything, it seems to just be a case of screaming at each other for doing it wrong. Meanwhile, a zombie has just killed one or both of them. Now maybe I’m too practical, but when I see them playing it I just can’t get past the fact that plants can’t run around and zombies don’t actually exist, and that even if they did I’m not sure they could fire a gun.

I suppose this just shows that, in terms of games and gaming I’m very much a fish out of water. This often leads to our front room being very much a no-go zone for me. Really, I shouldn’t criticise as in a way the gaming that goes on in my house is just another form of creativity. It could be worse. The rest of them could all hate football or music and then I’d be truly lost. So, I can be thankful that it’s just a small difference. That said, I don’t think it’ll ever be a world that I really set foot in. And that includes as a plant, zombie or a strange figure made up entirely of squares.

How lockdown helped me contract the exercise bug.

It started, like many things do, with an idea that felt like a bit of a dream, especially given the chaos that was about to erupt. It turned out however, that one particular kind of chaos would be all of my own making. The chaos brought about by a gradual obsession with exercise. While avoiding the virus, I’ve caught the exercise bug.

Initially isolated and then days later placed in lockdown, I was intent on going for a run every few days. That was it; simple. Just the odd run to make myself feel a little bit better, gather my thoughts and cling on to my sanity. I hadn’t ran for a while – a combination of a busy schedule and the usual winter health issues taking their toll. Now, with possibly a huge amount of time on my hands I was going to exploit it and gradually get fit.

However, almost before the plan was hatched tendonitis in my achilles stopped me in my running tracks and so I resorted to walking. Easier on the body. On my first day of isolation, bored, determined to get exercise and feeling down about the fact that I couldn’t go to work, I walked for miles. My watch told me that by the end of the day I’d done just over 23,500 steps. My head told me I needed to calm down! The next day, a Thursday, I’d toned it down a bit and walked a little over 18,000, but this was still a ridiculous amount and I knew at the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to keep it up.

By the time Friday rolled around the Prime Minister was announcing that the country was going into lockdown and that schools would be closing. This would mean another change of plan. We were to be allowed out only for one exercise session per day and in my case that would have to be taken with the rest of my family. There would be no more walking around for hours. Instead, there would be a daily walk for an hour, close to home and spent in the midst of family bickering, most likely prompted by one of my children while almost certainly involving the other one and requiring one or both adults to referee. It seemed that the part of me that was going to get the most exercise would be my jaw and I could wave goodbye to any peace and quiet. This virus was going to test both my physical and metal health!

On the same day I made what could be a life-changing discovery. Perhaps ‘life-changing’ is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s definitely changed things for me, so you know, go along with my positivity here! I’ve already blogged a bit about this and also written a poem inspired by it as well, but in terms of this blog, it needs another mention. Or a paragraph or two.

Joe Wicks, otherwise known as The Body Coach, announced to the nation that as part of the home schooling effort in the UK he’d be taking a PE class via YouTube every morning from 9am. After a little hesitation I jumped in. I was going to have to home school my son anyway and so, #PEWithJoeWicks would become the start to our day. I never imagined I’d get so involved!

Since that first Monday I’ve taken part in the workout every day. As I write I’ve done 30 workouts, taking the weekends to rest. I’ve tried hard to be as strict as possible with the workouts too. Each exercise is done in 30 second bursts and so I make sure that I’m doing everything with maximum effort and not slacking off for the last few seconds in order to get an extended break in between. It would be easy at my age to just motor through things at half pace, blaming wear and tear on the joints and claiming to be looking after myself, but given that this may well represent the most dynamic I’m going to get in any given day, I’ve been making sure that I put in a lot of effort.

The exercises range from easy things like jogging on the spot or throwing 30 seconds worth of imaginary punches right through to planking, squat jumps and old school favourites like burpees. There’s also an element of fun brought into it, because after all, this is meant to be a kids’ PE lesson. And obviously fun is where I come into my own. Ahem.

It’s easy to see how Joe Wicks has made his fortune through exercise. Even when you take away the looks, the hair and the perfectly sculpted abs, there’s a lot left to admire. He’s enthusiasm personified for a start. Even when he’s telling you how sweaty and worn out he is he’ll be letting you know in the next breath how much he’s enjoying himself. And because he’s having fun, invariably we are too. It’s a relentless mantra – exercise is great, this is doing you good, stay positive! And if you’d told me before I’d tried it that I’d be smiling along with someone telling me this kind of thing and actually believing it as well, I’d have asked if you’d ever met me before. Exercise as fun wasn’t supposed to be my thing.

The actual exercises themselves are made fun too, although I’m never 100% convinced my legs are in agreement. When I’m doing kangaroo jumps while pretending to carry my imaginary joey or doing bunny hops with my hands on top of my head to represent my bunny ears, I must be enjoying it otherwise there’s no way in the world I’d bother with these extra details! My son Dylan, my regular exercise partner, certainly loves it as he’s often adding sound effects in as he goes! And we haven’t even got onto squats that lead into jumps where you shout out ‘Pikachu’ at its climax.

Like a lot of other people on lockdown I’ve stopped worrying about style and how I’m dressed. Nowadays, wearing jeans is classed as dressing up. I blame Joe Wicks as well. And while we’re on the subject I’ll be cutting my own hair soon as well, but I digress.

We do #PEWithJoe every morning at 9am. After that we continue our warm-down in the back garden with a little bit of football and by the time we finish that it’s usually around 10am. Then I’ll get changed. And this is where my style lockdown comes in. It just seems pointless changing out of shorts and some form of exercise top to get into jeans and maybe a t-shirt or a shirt. I know that I’ll be back out exercising or in the garden at some point during the day. And so, nowadays I just sling on a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt, usually the type of thing that I wear for running. In other words, I’m almost permanently dressed in leisure wear these days. It’s bad enough that I’ve not worn a suit, a formal shirt or a tie in around a month due to not being in at work, but now, even a pair of jeans feels unnecessary. It seems like some form of exercise is always lurking just around the corner.

Our daily exercise isn’t just limited to a half hour workout in the morning though. Oh no, we’re going for gold in our house. Every day – and I mean every day – we subject ourselves to a three mile walk. Socially distant, of course, and just around the locality that we live in, but still it’s a daily three miles.

As a middle aged man three miles a day is quite the big ask. I’m 48 years old for goodness sakes! Less than 2 years ago I had heart surgery! But let’s trail ourselves around the local area for three miles per day. That’s over 20 miles a week!

To be fair, there are times when I love it. Everything feels good and it’s fantastic to be out in the fresh air. The weather has helped too. In our part of the U.K. we’ve been having wonderful weather – beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies – and so, to be out walking in it has been fantastic. But sadly, I’m getting no younger. For every night where I’m enjoying myself, there’s one where I am nothing short of knackered. We live in quite a hilly area and there are times, when stood at the bottom of an enormous hill, and my legs are like jelly before we’ve even moved. In my head I’m ranting – ‘Why the **** are we doing this?’ – but outwardly I’m smiling and insisting that everything’s fine and that I must have just overdone things earlier in the day. I’ve never failed to complete the distance, but I’ve lost count of the times where I’ve questioned my sanity! Still, at least I’m in good shape. Especially for a man of my now advancing years!

I know that the exercise bug has truly taken hold for another reason as well. Despite sticking strictly to lockdown conditions, I must admit that on several occasions recently I’ve considered getting up really early and sneaking out for a run. I stress that I haven’t done it, but it still feels like such a good idea. I imagine there’d be no one about, which in terms of running for me, is a really good thing. You see, I have a tendency to attract the attention of small dogs and on more than a few occasions have tumbled over them as they’ve jumped up at me. The last time saw me literally somersaulting through the air and left me battered and bruised, so avoiding that particular type of thing has real appeal. But as much as more exercise is a temptation, I know I’ll be avoiding it. Better to be slightly less fit than catch the virus because of my own stupidity. Or take a tumble while trying to avoid yappy dogs.

So lockdown, despite its very obvious drawbacks has had its benefits. I’ve become more obsessed than ever with keeping an eye on my steps via my watch and making sure I’m as active as possible, but boy am I fit! No doubt the eventual return to work will make the kind of exercise I’m doing regularly almost an impossibility, but for now I’m going to keep on acting like I’m preparing for some kind of middle-age Olympics!

 

My Lockdown Diary – Part 2

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Here in the UK we were put into a state of lockdown indefinitely on 23rd March. Now, some weeks later and firmly into April, it’s been a very strange time. For some, everything has changed, while sadly for others nothing seems to have changed at all.

For me personally it’s been a very curious time. I was initially sent away from work and put into self isolation on 17th March and so had some time to myself before the majority of the country was affected. Life at that point seemed to be going on as if there was no prospect of a pandemic. As I went out for a socially distant walk there was traffic everywhere (well, on the roads anyway) and people were not avoiding each other like they would be in the weeks to come. Having been isolated because of my vulnerability to the virus, I was keeping my distance from the off.

So how’s life looking a few of weeks on? Well, for the most part people are keeping their distance. But my part of the UK looks very different for all sorts of reasons.

With lockdown being enforced people seem to be following the daily exercise guidance like it’s an order. We certainly are. But it’s immediately noticeable, even if you just look out of the window, how many people are out and about walking, jogging, cycling and the like. In truth, it’s a lovely site. Couples out walking, families – together at last now that work constraints have been taken away – are running, cycling and just playing together. We live right next to playing fields and I’ve rarely seen them busier. And that’s not to say that we have hundreds of people congregating in any kind of dangerous way. The fields are huge and can easily accommodate a steady stream of people and leave them able to keep a responsible social distance. Despite the fearful whiff of death and illness, people have come out fighting and life is flourishing.

I’ve seen nothing particularly different in terms of exercise though and I’m very hopeful that within the next three weeks I might see someone on a penny farthing cruising down our road or maybe even a socially distant yoga or tai chi class on the playing fields next door.

The same praise can’t be levelled at what I’ve noticed on the roads, where a general lessening of traffic has led many to believe that they’re budding Lewis Hamiltons. And I don’t mean that they’re going out with braids in their hair and wearing shit clothes. For now it seems that the 30 mile an hour limit is a thing of the past. And I understand that in the real world there are few of us who actually stick to such a slow speed. Now though, young men – and it genuinely appears to be largely them – are hurtling around like they’re at Silverstone. Maybe it’s because of the boredom elsewhere, but I doubt it. It’s certainly a worrying development. Especially when you’re out for a walk these days, what with all the crossing over roads in order to avoid each other.

For some it seems that they’re flying around the place with no destination either. The far more empty roads have seemingly turned into the Nurburgring and people are out, ignoring the lines and hurtling round bends with little or no warning. The only thing missing seems to be their overalls. Certainly there are more than enough helmets. It appears to be a genuine deliberate choice – I can’t go out, so I’ll jump in the car and fly around like a complete idiot for a while. We’ve noticed a couple of cars just cruising around the place, revving engines and staring at people. Certainly, the amount of Vauxhall Corsas with over-sized exhausts on the road is very much out of proportion nowadays. Either Morley’s just a strange place or lads are incredibly bored and just not very creative. It could well be both. It’s certainly been a bizarre thing to observe though.

Another lockdown observation has to be the amount of online sales. I suppose it’s quite a sad thing really, given that most shops are closed and people are losing their jobs. It will most likely see the end of some shops altogether. But the amount of sales is incredible. And it might leave some people in a total conundrum. There are things I genuinely want, as well as stuff I’d like because they’re reduced in sales – trainers mainly. But then the idea of something being delivered has started to worry me. There’s a palpable sense of paranoia about these days. Understandably really. While you’re crossing the road when anybody comes within a hundred yards of you you’re not going to want to accept a parcel on the doorstep. I almost followed through recently when there was a knock on the door and was terrified going to answer it! It was Amazon and the bloke had left our parcel – something for the wife from work – on the doorstep and was already halfway down the drive. He simply stated our surname as a question and was off like a shot when I confirmed.

Wherever you look though, there’s an online sale. For someone who likes the idea of getting ‘stuff’ it’s ridiculously tempting. As a result of a Coronvirus programme and a wife with a propensity to worry over much, we’ve recently started to wash the shopping as it comes into the house and are quarantining the things that we don’t immediately need to use and the idea of handling a parcel, with literally no idea where it’s come from is terrifying. So maybe for now there’ll be no exploiting the online sales.

Something that’s started to worry me while continuing to appear ridiculous is television. What if it runs out? What if there are no more programmes because new shows have stopped being made? I totally get the availability of boxsets, downloads etc, but what happens when it’s new series time and it’s just not been made yet? One of our favourite shows is The Walking Dead and their recent season finale had to be suspended when post production work couldn’t be carried out in lockdown. So, we’re running out of telly! It’s not just a possibility; it’s actually happening!

We’ve needed to call Sky in order to re-arrange our package and the fact is you can’t call Sky. We want to re-negotiate (Oooh, my favourite call to make!) but we can’t because they haven’t got enough people working to actually deal with these calls. More proof, if it was needed, that telly could actually be endangered. And while it’s not the most pressing concern at this time, it’s still completely unexpected and a bit of a worry.

I’ve managed to spend quite a bit of my lockdown time in the garden. There’s plenty of room and a lot of jobs that needed doing, which is a good job given the amount of time we all have on our hands. One morning was spent painting the fence panels on one side of the garden. I roped my ten-year-old into this one, prompting lots of comments about “hard work” from a boy who so far in life has been fairly pampered.

Next up was turning over the soil in the flower beds; a job that literally never gets done because despite being fairly deep into middle age I’m still not a full convert to gardening. There are limits and things like digging go beyond my boundaries. But, needs must, so fork in hand – garden one, not tea one – I spent a good half an hour digging and turning the land over. I’m assured it’ll create better conditions for plants, but the bigger bonus was that I got to spend half and hour in the sun.

Since then I’ve trimmed shrubs, weeded heavily overgrown areas, regularly filled up the bird feeders, painted both sheds and cut the lawns a few times – which is a few times more than usual at this time of year. As my time at home continues so will my work in the garden. I love being out in the fresh air anyway, so being forced out there is kind of a bonus. Pots can be cleared out and cleaned up, the garden furniture will get oiled and the often neglected area around the side of our house which is home to the bins is in need of a real tidy up. So almost a summer’s worth of outdoor jobs to do, but lots of springtime to get it done!

The final thing that has been very noticeable during the last few weeks of lockdown has also been garden related. It’s a wonderful thing and I hope it’s going on in your lives too. There are noticeably more birds around. Very noticeably. We have a few birdfeeders on the tree at the back of our garden and traffic has very definitely increased. Sadly, we haven’t had our woodpecker back, but we’ve had goldfinches, robins, blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits as well as the usual blackbirds, wood pigeons, collared doves, magpies and sparrows. There are also at least a couple that we just can’t identify and it’s genuinely a lot busier at the end of our garden. It can’t be a coincidence that things are a great deal quieter in the surrounding area and it’s certainly given me a bit of a lift when everything feels a little bit flat. It’s nothing dramatic, nothing life-changing, but the fact that I can sit and watch the birds getting bolder and bolder around our garden and feeling safe enough to be exploring the patio is definitely a good thing.

The other day, as I stood doing the dishes I watched as a robin approached. It flitted around the place getting gradually ever closer. Within seconds it was perched on a chair right underneath the window, just staring at me. A moment of complete peace among the chaos. Just what I needed.

So far lockdown has been a very strange time. We’re living in fear, definitely, but something has changed societally. Life is, in some ways, a lot calmer and people are adapting to suit their surroundings and situations. With at least three more weeks of this it’ll be interesting to see how things develop.

 

PE with Joe – how I found out that where there’s a Wicks, there’s a way.

It seems cynical to say, but this whole Coronavirus lockdown thing has allowed me to start getting fit. And when I say fit, I mean really fit. I was fit before…for a man in my middle years anyway, but now I’m beginning to feel like some kind of middle aged superhuman! OK, that might be me getting a little bit carried away, but I’m feeling good.

It started as a reaction to the virus. As someone who is classed as being vulnerable to it, I decided early on that in order to combat the risks I’d have to stay fit. So I wasn’t going to be sitting around watching films and reading books, which had been the kind of situation I’d dreamed of for years. No, I was going to maximise my daily government sanctioned exercise window and then do as much as I possibly could around the house to be as healthy as I could be. The fitter I was, the more strength I’d have to fight whatever was going to get thrown at me.

When UK schools closed down I was subsequently given a fantastic fitness opportunity. This was the point where, with the focus on home-schooling, lots of people starting volunteering services and sharing ideas. And this was when Joe Wicks stepped into my life and began to get me and my family fitter than we’d been in years!

I was aware of Mr. Wicks before this time and had decided that he simply wasn’t for me. I have to admit that this was based largely on his appearance. As a middle aged man with a little bit of a pot belly, I found myself feeling secretly jealous of this newcomer who looked like he’d been carved out of rock and dipped in hair. As well as this, I decided that his kind of fitness simply wasn’t my thing. As a footballer and runner I was more into simply pushing myself to the limits and ending up feeling physically sick than what I saw as glorified dancing.

But then, a few years ago now I tried yoga and loved it. And so, when Joe announced that at 9am every day of lockdown he’d be putting on a half hour PE class for the nation I thought we’d give it a go. It wasn’t quite as instant a decision as that. In fact at first I just thought, ‘no way’. But then, through a combination of chatting about it with my wife and considering the fact that it’d be a way of keeping the kids busy for a while, I thought that we could at least give it a go. Now, weeks later, I’ve not missed one day since it started!

The workouts have been a pleasant surprise. Apart from some ill-fitting lycra gear – which through football and running, I already had – and a yoga mat, there’s been no need for equipment. No weights, no resistance bands, and no other bits of stuff that I actually don’t know the name of. In hindsight, I don’t know what I was imagining! I do know that I can’t be a pleasant sight however. I’m a shade short of 6ft tall and built like a telegraph pole, so clingy gym gear isn’t exactly flattering. But Joe’s enthusiasm has been the perfect counter to my paranoia!

I didn’t realise that it’d be as difficult as I found it at first. After that first day I ached in places that were unexpected to say the least. Who knew that your bum could hurt so much just by doing aerobic type stuff? And given that I’d lifted no weights, how come my arms and shoulders felt so weak all of a sudden? Or weaker than normal; it’s all relative!

What I do know is that I’m thoroughly enjoying my appointment with Joe every day. It’s tough work and gets a sweat on, but it’s a tonne of fun too. As I said, it’s difficult but as time passes I’m finding that my body doesn’t hurt so much anymore. And whatever the aches and pains I’m there every day looking for more. There’s nothing too complicated and it all comes in bursts of 30 seconds before a short rest and time for a drink of water, then we’re ready to move on to the next exercise.

He has us doing things like squats and push ups fairly regularly. But there are also things like ‘Spiderman’ where we lunge to one side and fire out our imaginary webs before switching swiftly to the other side. My ten-year-old son loves doing this one and joins in doing the web sound effects with Joe. I’m also doing a sound effect; it’s called the wheeze. We also do ‘Climb The Mountain’ where you’re essentially in a plank position but running your knees up towards your chest. And then there’s ‘Bunny Hops’ where we…well, we hop like a bunny (ears included), as well as ‘Joeys’ which involve us jumping from side to side, kangaroo style protecting the baby in our pouch. I’d advise you not to try to imagine me doing these things by the way as I fear that even the imagined sight could burn your eyes. But I can tell you that it’s loads of fun and you can certainly feel the benefit.

The whole thing has allowed for a little bit of father son bonding too. Me and my son both do the class and as such, we’ve both not missed one yet. We spur each other on and it’s something that we now have in common; something else to talk about other than just football! That said, as soon as the workout is over we’re off outside for a game of football as a warm-down! Old habits die hard. It’s been nice to talk aches and pains with my son though and it feels like we’ve got a little bit more in common as a result.

The days are never the same. We do a range of different exercise or it might be a variation where we do ten exercises before a break followed by the same ten after. Other times, we do twenty different exercises over the course of the half hour. No two days are ever the same though, which is definitely a good thing and it keeps an old dog like me on my toes and stops me from using boredom as any kind of excuse for missing a day.

Introducing music was for me, a bit of a nightmare. For a start, let’s just say that Joe’s musical taste doesn’t have anything in common with mine. But then, apart from the sheer trauma of listening to Dua Lipa, I found it completely off-putting. I was finding that I couldn’t hear the 5 second countdown towards the end of each exercise and believe me, I needed to be able to hear that! The relief of knowing that I only had 5 seconds to go until having a short rest was palpable. Having Joe shouting over someone like George Ezra meant that I now had nothing to cling onto!  But he’s decided not to use music every day and as such this adds a different level of variation.

Next came Fancy Dress Friday, which needless to say is not my bag! I hate dressing up simply because a lack of confidence tells me that I look an even bigger idiot when I’m dressed as a superhero or say – and this actually happened – Freddie from Scooby Doo. Joe seemed to relish the exercise even more while dressed like Spiderman though and was leaping around like never before. Meanwhile my son came down in an England top claiming to be Wayne Rooney. Safe to say that Fancy Dress Friday probably won’t catch on in our house. It doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy the exercise though and again, Joe’s enthusiasm is actually a little bit infectious.

The upshot of it all is that I’m more or less sure that I’m a convert to this particular form of exercise. I’m already beginning to think about how I can make it part of my day when lockdown or isolation ends and work comes calling again. Thankfully it shouldn’t prove to be too tough with modern advances in technology like the ability to have YouTube on your telly. And hopefully, as was the original idea, it’ll help myself and others to fight this virus.

Keep exercising and stay safe everybody.

 

 

More middle age gigging: Embrace at Leeds First Direct Arena

IMG-20200315-WA0005It’s 2.31am. My ears are ringing and my head is full of songs. Sleep, at least for a little while, is no longer an option. So I get up to write some thoughts down to go towards this blog. Given the current climate it’s best to point out that I’ve not come down with the dreaded virus and it’s not worrying about the toilet roll and paracetamol stocks that’s woken me up so soon after getting to bed. No, I’ve got another bout of middle age gigging to blame. Clearly, the excitement of two gigs in 5 months is just too much to handle for this particular 48-year-old.

Around mid afternoon it didn’t look like this gig was going to happen for us. My wife is feeling ill and despite the fact that she’s doing her best to just soldier on through it, it doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. We’re going to drag ourselves into Leeds (I say drag; it’s a whole 6 miles or so!) and there’s a distinct possibility that we could be heading home before the first support band is done. I’ve said it before here and I’ll say it again; going to gigs in your middle age is not the experience that you would have had in your teens or twenties. Now, we have a whole load of other factors to consider.

One of these factors is the babysitter and having not heard back from ours for a while we were beginning to worry that they’d forgot. Sure enough, a mid afternoon text confirms that, yes, they’d forgot! A little while later though, they confirm that they’ll be here and it’s all systems go, but at a lot more relaxed pace than ever before. In fact let’s call it all systems slow.

Before I know it though, we’re heading out of the door, having said a fairly straightforward goodbye to our kids, who are normally a great deal more fretful than this. On reflection it’s clear that having had another night out just a few short months ago our children are becoming more accepting of our gallivanting. Considering that this is probably our second night out in the last calendar year it’s indeed very accepting of them to not be hanging off our legs and crying as we head down the hallway. On reflection though, given the global pandemic that we’re experiencing, it’s best that we don’t get used to this going out lark. I mean, I can always turn all the lights off in the kitchen and ask Alexa to play Embrace every so often and just jump around a bit, while having someone else in the house occasionally stand on my feet. I’m sure it’s much the same. Maybe this going out is actually overrated.

So tonight we’re off to see Embrace at Leeds First Direct Arena. Embrace are easily one of our favourite bands, if not the favourite, and in the car on the way we find ourselves discussing just how many times we’ve actually seen them live. We settle on somewhere near 30 times, so tonight is kind of a big deal.

As usual when we get in there I’m reticent to move too far forward. I’m a big fan of my toes and none too keen on other people’s elbows. Never have been. My poorly wife however has other ideas and in what seems like seconds we’ve snaked our way through the crowd, levitated a bit – as mentioned before, it’s one of her super powers – and hovered into a space about 5 yards from the front without anybody else batting an eyelid. Being the rebellious type these days, I haven’t even apologised to any one of those we’ve stood in front of either. Rock, and indeed, roll.

We take our place just in time to catch the last bit of local Leeds indie Legends Cud’s set. Having not particularly been a fan back in the day, it’s no great shame to have missed them, but there is just about enough time to realise that these days, singer Carl Puttnam is quite the ringer for Swiss Toni off The Fast Show. So while he’s throwing a few shapes as the set draws to a close I’m listening closely for any lyrics about ‘making love to a beautiful woman’ or any mention of junior salesman Paul. Sadly, it seems we must have missed that particular tune.

With a bit of time until main support Starsailor take to the stage I have a little look around me. It’s still a little bit weird to see genuine grey-haired folk standing around at a gig, especially so far forward. They’re usually stood around the sound desk just nodding. But then reality bites and I realise that although I’m not completely grey – more a rather suave salt and pepper sort of look these days – I’m very much one of this middle aged gang. And as much as I kid myself that I’m still physically fit for my age, I’m going to feel this in the morning. I would certainly hate to think that I’d done it on a school night and was faced with a day at work the next day.

As Starsailor arrive and launch into their first song, something incredible happens. I’ve said before that I’m terrible with lyrics and will frequently either forget them or just sing my own version with an inane grin on my face. I kid myself that this tactic will convince people that I’m high and therefore incredibly cool, rather than just quite old and forgetful. One day, you’ll find me right at the back of an Embrace gig, just doing my ironing and humming along, looking incredibly pleased with myself. Please dear reader, have a look at the address on the tag around my neck and have someone at the venue stick me in a taxi if it happens. However, tonight as the band play Alcoholic I’m transported back 19 or so years. Suddenly, I know every word. Every one of them. No really, all of the words. I have no idea where this gift comes from, but it’s a lovely feeling. Maybe Starsailor hold the key to eternal youth or something. I resolve to ask James Walsh about this should I ever bump into him in either of my favourite haunts, Asda Morley, or Sainsbury’s at the White Rose Centre. I’m sure it won’t be long given everybody’s current obsession with panic buying hand sanitizer and beans. See you Wednesday, James.

Starsailor’s set is fantastic. James’ voice is as powerful as ever and the band are wonderfully tight. They streak through some of the classics – Four to The Floor, Poor Misguided Fool and Silence Is Easy sounding particularly good – before ending with a fantastic version of Good Souls.

However, by 9.15, whatever has gone before is, in the nicest way possible, forgotten. For two reasons. One: my middle aged feet are killing. I’ve chosen to wear Converse boots and in return they’ve chosen to make me feel like I’ve got the swollen feet of an ultra marathon runner. I resolve to contact Hush Puppies about producing a special middle-aged gig-goers shoe. Something a little bit trendy, yet above all, comfortable. And featuring Velcro so I we don’t have to bend for too long fussing with laces. My legs hurt as well, and my back doesn’t seem to be enjoying my efforts at dancing along.

Then the house lights go down and the stage lights go into overdrive. There’s dry ice rising at the same rate as the tension. And then, we’re off. It’s Embrace.

The opening three songs – ‘All You Good Good People’, ‘My Weakness Is None of Your Business’ and ‘Come Back to What You Know’ – are amazing, as well as making for a shit-hot Scrabble score. In particular, the opener brings back some particularly simple but happy memories. I’m transported back to living in our first flat in Leeds and hearing someone leaving the pub next door singing the song at the top of their voice and being sat smiling at the fact that there were others who’d fallen in love with this still relatively new band. And, super special middle age bonus time; I also know a lot of the words! ‘All You Good Good People’ always makes me feel like I’m part of something, like I’m one of the people that it’s for. Maybe after all of these years I am. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Despite the sore feet and creaking knees, I’m smiling along, happy to be here.

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In amongst a section of songs from the album ‘Out of Nothing’. ‘Someday’ stands out. It sounds great and like everything in the set tonight, it simply soars. By the time we’re singing along to the line ‘a light is gonna shine, for you and I’ I’m in my own little world and probably screeching at the top of my voice. I might even have my arms stretched up in the air like I’m having a Polyphonic Spree moment. Awkward. I’ve said this in middle age gigging blogs before, but apologies if you read this and realise you were standing near me.

Alongside ‘Someday’ there’s ‘A Glorious Day’ which is another one that brings the memories flooding back, especially here in Leeds, where Embrace’s own mini festival of the same name took place some years back in Millenium Square. We attended both days and then, while watching the DVD of it (remember them old folk?) some months later we noticed a familiar face could be seen repeatedly in the crowd – me! It’s now known in the house as ‘my gig’, often prompting the tired old line of ‘Have you seen Embrace at my gig?’ and is my very own claim to fame, albeit it a pretty poor one!

The pace of things picks up again as the band play ‘Last Gas’ and ‘One Big Family’. During both we’re guided through a bit of a singalong by Danny as we scream out the ba-ba-ba- sections. All of a sudden there’s something of the Bruce Forsyths about him as he motions and mimes to us when it’s ‘our turn’. Little does he know that in my head I’m fulfilling something of a lifelong ambition singing back-ups for the band!

During ‘Higher Sights’ and ‘Retread’ I think I manage to put myself in some kind of trance. It’s possible that this is a middle age thing. It may not actually be a trance, more that it’s just way past my bed time and I’m not used to being out of the house. However, for the sake of the music, let’s call it a trance. Both are songs that I love. Coincidentally and somewhat improbably, given my lack of memory for lyrics, both are songs that I know the words to. Hence the fact that it’s not long before I’m back to screeching at the top of my voice. I may have even closed my eyes for few seconds at one point during ‘Retread’ for the refrain of ‘Will you fight?’ later on in the song. The point is that the gig has reached some kind of peak at this point. This is why we love music, why we follow bands and, in terms of the blog, why we’re still hauling our tired bodies off the settee to go and throw ourselves around in rooms full of like-minded souls in our middle age.

After my trance/impromptu middle aged nap, I find myself checking my watch. I’ve staved off the yawning so far, but my body is telling me that it’s late. More middle age flagging than middle aged gigging. Oh for the days of being a teenager or in my early twenties again when I would leave the gig sweaty and shattered, but then continue on with the evening until the sun was coming up.

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I’m perked up somewhat by the sound of ‘Gravity’. This was the first dance at our wedding and – ridiculous as it sounds – we even invited the band. It genuinely felt like the right thing to do given how much Embrace meant to us. We didn’t think for a second that they’d show up, but having met them we knew that our invite and accompanying letter would at the very least raise a smile. As it turned out the band sent us a congratulations card which was read out at the reception much to our delight. ‘Congratu-fucking-lations’ it said and the person reading out the cards just read it word for word, like Ron Burgundy on the autocue! As ‘Gravity’ begins I wrap my arms around my wife and we sing and dance along together – any excuse for a cuddle! It’s another wonderful moment in yet another wonderful Embrace gig.

And then, Danny says a few sentences that are equal parts thrilling and terrifying to me and probably every other middle aged gig-goer in the room. ‘We haven’t asked this once yet, but we will now. We want you to go mad, jumping up and down for this next one.’ He advises us to settle back down during the verses, like some kind of health advisor who’s all too aware of the creaking joints and aching muscles in front of him. But it’s with some trepidation that we go along with the notion of going mad during the more up tempo section. It’s time for Ashes.

In what is now time-honoured tradition as the song starts Danny leans forward towards the audience and implores us to pogo by waving his arms and shouting ‘Up, up, up, up.’ And up we go.

Brilliantly, I find I can bounce for ages – a boast that I should only really share with toddlers and Tigger, but I’m pretty pleased with myself all the same. As always, the song is immense and the atmosphere in the crowd lifts another few notches. But it’s over all too soon. I resist an ever-growing urge to check my heart rate via my watch and concentrate on applauding the band as they leave the stage, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be back for an encore.

Sure enough, in what seems like no time, Embrace are back. It’s very much a sing-a-long encore ending with ‘Fireworks’ and ‘The Good Will Out’ and ensures that the whole night ends at very much a late forties friendly kind of pace. Even then though, there’s time for one last personal moment of magic. As he walks across the stage towards the end of the final song Danny is eyeing the crowd and giving thumbs ups. As he approaches my section of the audience, I swear I catch his eye and then, almost in slow motion he aims a thumbs up in my direction. In fact, not in ,my direction, more straight at me. My arms are already raised and I give an instinctive thumbs up back, he nods and in the blink of an eye the moment passes. But it was our moment. Even as a middle age gig goer, it’s a thrill.

Shortly afterwards the music stops, the band assemble at the front of the stage and there’s a last bow before they’re gone. Danny, Richard, Mike, Steve and Mickey, thanks. You’ve made an old man very happy indeed for around about the 30th time!

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More middle-aged gigging! The Bluetones at Leeds Stylus.

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Picture the scene. Tea time in an ordinary three bedroomed semi in suburban Leeds. The telly’s on. A family – mine – are sat around watching a bit of post football television.

“You’re not going out again? Really?”

“You’re always going out! It’s ridiculous. What about me?”

Now if you’re thinking that this is perhaps my middle aged reaction to my teenage daughter heading out on some shopping trip or hanging about with ‘the girls’, then you’d be wrong. Horribly wrong. This is in fact the kind of dialogue that my kids hurled my way on Saturday evening when, without warning – unless you count the many warnings that they simply didn’t listen to – me and my wife headed out to watch The Bluetones at Leeds Stylus.

The sense of outrage is palpable. The sheer horror undisguised. The grief is multiplied by the fact that it’s Uncle Richard babysitting and not fun loving, just out of his teens cousin, Martin. Thankfully though, it’s mostly put right by the simple fact that we’re having pizza for tea. This serves to calm the nerves and rationalise the fears of what might happen should your parents have the brass neck to go out for the second time this year, for a few hours. Kids eh? Possibly the simplest and most complex things ever to walk the face of planet Earth.

As I’ve documented in a previous blog, middle aged gigging is fraught with tension, pitfalls and problems. The first of these is brought to light fairly quickly this evening when we realise that we don’t know where the gig actually is. Well, we know where, but we don’t recognise the name of the venue. And this was never the case when we were young and cool. A Google search allays a few of our fears, but even when we’ve parked up, we don’t really know where we’re going. For a start it seems to be part of the student’s union and sadly, it’s been a long time since either of us were students.

And this brings into play another fear. Will there be actual students at our gig? Are we about to have to watch an entire gig from one of our favourite bands while simultaneously hiding in a corner trying to disguise the fact that we’re the oldest swingers in town. And by ‘swingers’ I mean people attending a gig, not people conducting illicit sexual relations with the partners of other middle aged folk. I mean, even the image of me naked, let alone other more out-of-shape-forty-and fifty-somethings is enough to prompt you, dear reader, to be sick in your mouth. So come on, pull yourselves together: stop picturing me naked and read on!

Thankfully, our first element of tension, is dissolved when after a relatively short walk I find memories of my PGCE at the University of Leeds come flooding back. I know – sort of – exactly where I am and before we know it we’re heading into the building and down the stairs towards the Stylus. We don’t have a ticket though and instead are relying on picking them up on the door, so there’s an anxious wait while the girl scans the list before finally finding our names and highlighting them. She stamps our hands and we’re in. However, here’s another potential crisis point if you’re a middle aged gig goer. How can you preserve the memory in the time honoured fashion if there’s no ticket? What do I put in a box of memories that’s destined for the loft? What do I frame with other tickets in order to attempt interesting artwork that the wife will not allow on our walls?

Overcoming this tiny existential crisis we go into the gig. It’s early and the crowd is sparse so we head to the front. Sort of. I’ve always been too polite at gigs. It’s got worse as I’ve got older. So now, in middle age, while I’ve got a bit bolder in moving forward I’m still unlikely to stand straight  in front of those people who’ve left a gap. Don’t get me wrong, it’s their fault if they’ve left a gap and someone’s inevitably going to stand there, but it most likely won’t be me. So we stand and ponder for a couple of minutes. My wife is a lot shorter than me – a clause that will undoubtedly get me into trouble – while retaining her status as an intellectual giant – a clause that might just get me out of jail – so she likes to be as far forward as possible. So we’re caught between two stools, so to speak.

I’ve been going to gigs with my wife for a very long time. It’s a wonderful thing. We like much of the same music and it helps us get on. I’ve noticed my wife has certain mystical powers that only come out at gig time, but I’ll only let you in on the one in case you’re ever at the same gig as me and we need to use her power’s for the greater good. She can levitate. Genuinely levitate. And as such, while I’m worrying about standing in front of a couple near the front, she levitates into the space, forcing me to follow. I’ve let slip that she does mind control as well now. But she’s levitated and I’ve not even noticed her moving, which in turn helps me overcome my middle aged gig politeness. We’re now just three people from the front of the stage. If this was someone like Take That I could reach out and touch Mark Owen’s testicles as he gyrated in front of me. But it’s not and I doubt Mark Morriss would enjoy such over familiar fandom. Anyway, we’re no longer between two stools. Just metaphorically within touching distance of Mark Owen’s scrotum. It’s been quite a journey in a very short space of time.

As a younger man I had a reasonably encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially with what was new at the time. So during what are referred to generally these days as ‘The Britpop Years’ I knew my stuff. And of course, this is where my love of The Bluetones came from. Nowadays however, my grasp of things has slipped. Having a career, a marriage, children etc; these commitments will get in the way of any kind of interests and my knowledge of bands has suffered. Hence tonight, even though I’ve read who they are, I still have no idea who the support band are. In fact, there are two support bands, but being middle aged these days, the temptations of having a proper tea and staying in the warmth for a little bit longer meant that we weren’t out in time to be queuing at the doors and being two of the 23 people who may have watched the first support.

We make it in time to catch the second support though, although due to middle aged hearing and a lack of annunciation on the singer’s part I couldn’t tell you what they’re called. However, I can furnish you with a few observations. Firstly, they sound and dress a bit like Joy Division. There are hints of The Fall in there too. Secondly, they swear quite a bit. ‘Fuck’ this and ‘fuck’ that and no doubt ‘fuck’ the other as well. Risqué. Thirdly, they’re quite brave. Why? Well they follow one song that has a chorus of ‘this in not a joke, not a fucking joke’ with another that asks ‘Can I speak to a manager please?’ If you think about it there’s a certain level of confidence there, right?

Once they’ve left the stage a glance at my watch tells me that we’ve got about 25 minutes until our heroes, The Bluetones arrive. They’re touring their album Science and Nature, released in 2000, which for fans is a bit of a classic. Not only that though, having played the album through in its entirety, the lads would be back with a second ‘Greatest Hits’ set afterwards. This is great in theory; a real treat. However, given my age, it actually throws up another middle age gigging problem. By the end of these two sets, while I may experience a certain euphoria, to misquote Khia, my legs, my back, my everything is going to hurt. It’s bad enough having to stand still for this long, but tapping a foot, raising the odd hand, arm, pair of hands to clap, actual dancing, well of this is going to take its toll. And that was never a worry when I was a younger gig goer. And this is before we even give a thought to what state we’ll be in the next day.

Age is a constant concern at gigs these days and as such I find myself turning around to check the rest of the audience. I scan both balconies – although their more like ledges in the Stylus – and have a good look at everyone behind me and I’m more than a bit pleased to see so much grey and white hair, as well as many a bald head. We’re all middle aged gigging together and as far as I can see there’s not a hipster student type in site!

There is one more slight problem of a middle aged nature, however. It’s cold out tonight and I’m feeling the cold a little bit more these days – another reason to revoke my Geordie membership as well, I know. So I’m wearing a jacket. It’s not quite sitting at the football with a tartan blanket round my knees, but I feel that it marks me out as old. It reminds me, once again, that middle age has well and truly hit, but there’s nothing else for it. The days of being cool are sadly long gone.With a two hour set ahead of me I’m going to get hot, but there’s no way that I’m tying my jacket round my waist. I can’t avoid feeling like a bit of a twat though. That said, I’m surrounded by middle-aged gig goers, so I can afford to relax a little bit and it wouldn’t be a surprise to find more jackets knocking about. As long as there are no gilets, eh?

Whatever my age, the pre-gig excitement remains the same. So as 9pm approaches, I’m watching the door at the side of the stage like a hawk. And when it opens a fraction, letting in a tiny bit of light, my heart leaps a little bit. Seconds later and our heroes are taking to the stage. Without checking I’d say it’s around 24 years, maybe more, since I first saw them live, but just the sight of The Bluetones walking onstage still makes me smile. In fact, as I get older and especially as a few years ago we attended their ‘farewell’ tour and I thought I’d lost this forever, I think it makes me smile a whole lot more. It’s widened a little bit more tonight as well as the lads are resplendent in white jeans and white lab coats – Science and Nature, you see?

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The gig is an absolute triumph. Frontman Mark is on top form, regaling us with tale after tale of life in The Bluetones over the years. And the songs don’t sound bad either! First up it’s Science and Nature and we’re treated to a number of favourites. It’s an album I’ve always loved and the sound of opener Zorro immediately lifts my spirits a little bit more. Suddenly the self consciousness of the middle age gigger is gone. I don’t feel like a mature student or in fact a bloody English teacher and I’m shuffling from foot to foot in something that resembles at least a kind of rhythm.

We’re quickly in to ‘The Last of the Great Navigators’ and Mark is crooning the line about believing ‘there’s something good around the corner’ and do you know what, he’s never sounded more convincing. The beautiful ‘Tiger Lily’ is next before drummer Eds takes centre stage – kind of – with the ‘Ch-ch-ch-ch’ refrain from ‘Mudslide’. We’d been listening to this round the tea table before we came out and bizarrely none of the family can actually do it, apart from me. As I’m the bloke who always sings the wrong lyrics this is quite the achievement, believe me! As the song kicks in and I’m doing it – obviously – my wife turns around with a knowing smile. A knowing smile that says, ‘Yes, you can make a noise, but face facts love, when it comes to actual words you’re like a four-year-old.’ I don’t care and I’ll take any victory I can get, even if it is that I make noises better than anyone else.

Perhaps the last time I heard ‘Blood Bubble’ live was when we saw this album toured originally, although given my age and my memory, I could be wrong. But it’s sounding great tonight. I’m a sucker for an instrumental. And then we’re into the wonderful run of ‘Autophilia’ and ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’. By now I may well be singing – loosely – at the top of my voice. This makes me a little self conscious as you don’t want to spoil anyone else’s night, but gig after gig after gig I can’t help it. I suppose after all these years these songs just mean a lot and I rationalise my brief worries with the thought that the band’s amps and mikes might just make them a bit louder than me anyway. If you’re reading this and thinking you were stood near me as I yelled along and it spoilt your night, I’m sorry. And I’ll extend my apologies for getting the words wrong so much as well. I was in my element though!

The set ends in frankly remarkable fashion, even if it was completely scheduled and not a surprise to many present who simply know the album. I’d like to think I speak for a lot of Bluetones fans though when I express my total and utter undying love for ‘Slackjaw’, the band’s humble, beautiful and wonderful ode to lost love. It’s a song I could listen to again and again and not ever tire of, with the added bonus that it’s short enough even for a perennial lyric loser like myself to remember all the way through! And with that in mind, if you’re reading this Mr. Morriss (either of you) I’m available for back up vocals on this one in the future.

A brilliant set is ended with the wonderful ‘Emily’s Pine’ and the band are off stage as quick as a flash. We’re into what Mark has referred to as an interval for the benefit of an ageing audience and he’s even given us permission to retire to the foyer to purchase drinks and locally sourced ice creams, but apart from a few middle age bladders being emptied, as you’d expect, we’re going nowhere. (And I hope you appreciate the lack of a ‘never’ in there to avoid using an awful pun, Bluetones fans).

Before there’s time for my joints to seize up the boys are back on stage and we have the second half of the show to look forward to. This time it’s a ‘Greatest Hits’ set and we’re treated to a few that aren’t always played, like ‘Freeze Dried Pop’ – revealed by Mark as a potential top 27 hit that never happened – and ‘Fast Boy’.

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But it’s the old favourites that dominate and put the perfect glaze on tonight’s gig. ‘Bluetonic’, ‘Never Going Nowhere’ (with Mark chanelling The Eurythmics), ‘Solomon Bites The Worm’ and many more, as they say, are played to the delight of all in the crowd. We end with ‘If’ and a brilliant moment of Bluetones magic as Mark asks for the phone of the woman in front of us in order to film the whole thing for her. There are cameo appearances for the rest of the band including a lingering shot of Adam’s crotch before it’s handed back. Tomorrow, the video will ‘go viral’ as they say, albeit on a smallish, Bluetones sized scale and thousands will view it on Twitter. I will spend much of the day ruing the fact that it could have been me and thinking about the benefits it would have had for this blog! I gather myself, forget the blog – knowing my luck Mark wouldn’t have pressed ‘record’ anyway and look to the stage. After a well deserved bow The Bluetones are gone and it’s almost time to head home. But what a night!

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We end the night with a visit to the merchandise stall to make some apt age-related purchases, including a tea towel and some fridge magnets. Never has gigging felt so middle aged and yet so bloody brilliant. I’m shattered, my feet hurt, my ears are ringing and I know that Sunday is already even more of a write-off than usual, but boy am I happy! The Bluetones are a band to be cherished and thankfully – and you promised, Mark – they’ll be back again in 2020. And there are new songs to look forward to as well. Can’t wait. The battle for renewed gig fitness starts now for this middle-aged gig goer!

 

 

 

Parenthood: the dread of living with a teen!

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Once upon a time it was Hello Kitty and Barbie. Now? Make up…just make up. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a teenager.

At the end of June another chapter of my parenting journey came to a close. The baby years have gone and the toddler times flew by. Then we tackled life at primary school and all of the hurdles that would bring. Next, double figures happened and the end of the primary years, which was all too quickly followed by the challenges of high school. And now, it seems we’re to be in possession of one of those teenagers.

In the most stereotypical kind of truth, my daughter has been a teenager for years. Or at least she’s acted like one. And I know that not all teenagers are the same…but for the sake of a good read let’s stick to the stereotypes. I’ll write this with a caveat though. For all of her faults, my daughter is a sweet, caring and loveable kid. I’m very proud of what she is and what she’s becoming and, despite the fact that we clash and no doubt find each other equally irritating, I adore her. That said, if what’s gone in the previous 12 years is any kind of guide, then these teenage years promise to be interesting to say the least.

As the teenage years begin I guess I have to face up to the fact that my little girl – for that’s what she always will be –  is going to turn into a woman. This is a tough reality for me, as I’m sure it will be for the majority of fathers. But it’s a reality that begins with those dreaded teen years. As many girls of her age will, she’s already moving on with her interests. She’s never been particularly interested in boys, viewing them as some kind of necessary irritant. However, just a few weeks ago I was present when she declared that a boy was ‘fit’ and a little bit of my heart broke, never to be repaired. The words were enough, but the delighted smile that spread across her face was the killer. The boy in question happened to be Zac Effron, so at least I can comfort myself with the fact that they’re very unlikely to meet and thus she can’t begin to explore what ‘fitness’ means and leads to.* Big sigh of relief. But it confirmed to me that my little girl is, in many ways, well and truly gone. And I feel sure that this side of things will go rapidly downhill now that the age of thirteen has been reached.

She confided in my wife that in Year 7 she’d had a boyfriend, but this had only lasted for a day! So there’s good and bad in that – bad = boy, while good = her boredom at him following her around like a lap dog. However, her choice of ‘boyfriend’ had been appalling – a ridiculous name, seemingly always in trouble at school etc. The kind of choice that was never going to impress her school teacher father, hence confiding in her mother!

I fear that this is the kind of choice that she’ll continue to make though. As teenhood – have I just invented a phrase – approaches she seems to label any boy who does any actual work or shows any sign of intelligence as a ‘geek’ and therefore untouchable, which for now is fine, but in the long term I’d rather she was going for the hard-working geeks than the ridiculous, half-witted bad boys that she seems to be attracted to. For now though, she seems a little behind the times in terms of her interest in boys. I teach kids of the same age and lots of them appear far more advanced than my own darling daughter, – goodness me I hope so – especially the girls. You only have to be on a corridor with them and you’re sure to overhear something that you really didn’t want to hear and that means you can never look them in the eye again. I sincerely hope that my nearly teen daughter isn’t thinking along the same lines for quite some time to come!

One thing that she is definitely advanced with is make-up. This is one that is very much against our wishes as well. I say ‘our’ wishes, but I suspect that my wife is ever so slightly in cahoots with my daughter on this one. I’ve been there when one of them has unintentionally mentioned some make-up that my daughter was going to get or had been promised, so the rules have definitely been relaxed without me knowing anything about it! My daughter also went through what can only be described as an out of character phase where she was regularly making her bed, hoovering her room, putting washing away etc, in order to gain pocket money. Now despite the incentive of money, she’s never been particularly interested in this before. But then, all of a sudden she’d be pointing out that her bed was made, or leaving the hoover outside her room to indicate that she’d been busy ridding her carpet of small animal carcasses or whatever disease had festered there in the years since the last time she’d hoovered. (And if you think this is unkind there’s an open invite to pop round and have a look at her room – enter at your peril).

It turned out that what she was doing was earning just enough money to go out and buy the odd bit of make-up in order to supplement the small amount that she already had. And as a result of this she’d also decided that she could walk all over the rules – a much more regular occurrence for her – and come down plastered in make up for no apparent reason. We’ve managed to curtail this to a point, by repeating the message that she looks so much better without it, and image being so important to a girl of her age, she’s listened to an extent. Still though, if we’re going out she tends to disappear for much of the afternoon, before emerging early evening looking like she’s wearing some kind of tribal mask. I expect this very much to continue as she moves through her teen years and the mask to get more and more colourful!

For as long as my daughter has been able to express an opinion she has done so, forcefully. Now, as she enters her teen years, I fear that her level of perceived expertise is going to see her opinions go into a potentially dangerous overdrive. Don’t get me wrong, on important issues like race, sexuality etc she has formed good, liberal, accepting opinions. She’s against no one (well apart from the aforementioned geeks and me) which is not only good, but a lot less time consuming than if she was forming dangerous opinions. In fact, she’s more likely, if we have an opinion against anyone or anything, to defend them, however unreasonable. As a staunch Newcastle fan I’ve found it quite disheartening and disturbing when she’s routinely defended Sunderland fans. Maybe she’s just incredibly chilled out – she’s really not – or maybe she’s just wrong.

As she enters her teenage years though, the one thing she has strong opinions on seems to be style. Now given her formative years, this is quite the surprise – many’s the time she’s come downstairs in a variety of colours and styles that simply didn’t match – reds, yellows, pinks, spots, stripes, you name it. But now my daughter has developed some kind of style. She likes nice clothes and is constantly telling us how she’s ‘planning an outfit’. I suppose that this is to be expected, especially when she’s not paying for said outfits! But the worrying thing seems to be that she has installed herself as some kind of fashion expert. And this is where her opinions come in.

Recently she’s decided that she must have her bedroom decorated. Grey and pinks, dahling, don’t you know. And such is her sure and certain belief in her status as some kind of style guru that she literally won’t listen to anyone else’s opinion. The fact that she currently resides in a room that look like squatters must have invaded years ago doesn’t seem to occur to her at all. She simply cannot keep it tidy. And I won’t embarrass her here by detailing the levels of untidiness, but suffice to say, you need to take your own ideas and multiply them by around a million to even get close.

We recently went on a shopping trip – a speculative one where we were more looking for ideas than actually buying anything. We found countless grey items, probably in even more than fifty shades, and yet she rejected them time after time. And this is understandable for a short while, but when it becomes clear that this is just because she is adamant that she knows better than you do on every subject ever, it gets a little frustrating. And again, I can only see this getting worse as the teen years advance. I imagine we’re leaving behind the years of buying her clothes from George at Asda that’s for sure, which will leave me as the only one in our house still wearing stuff from that particular designer!

Which brings me nicely onto clothes. As a self identified style guru my teen daughter has also decided that it’s perfectly within her remit to be openly critical of what her family are wearing. In fact, she seems to be making it her business to pass judgement on the style decisions of almost anyone and everyone, family or not. The ‘wrong’ t-shirt will instantly – and loudly – be deemed ’embarrassing’, while she herself is wearing something like a crop top with a coat over it…on the hottest day of the year. But it gets worse. She sees no problem, no lack of simple manners even, in declaring an item of clothing ‘ugly’. And why? Well, because teen wisdom seems to dictate that she must know so much better than anyone else.

Worse than the loudly proclaimed opinions is the choices that she wants to now be making. As a toddler and even as a primary school kid, we could get away with sticking to a budget and to an extent dressing her head to toe in clothes from a supermarket. But then she began to grow out of this. And we tried to accommodate it, but it’s quite a balance trying to buy your kid the ‘right’ clothes while also attempting not to bring up a spoilt brat. So now we’re told (and she really does tell as opposed to asking), ‘I need a Tommy Hilfiger top’ or ‘We have to get me a pair of Adidas leggings’. And this becomes a problem for me, personally. I was brought up in a household where the things that I wanted were often out of reach of my parents’ pockets, so to speak. So I became used to not getting most of what I wanted and I quickly realised that there wasn’t much point in asking, but also that it was a bit unfair on my parents to ask anyway.

As such, my daughter’s demands cut no ice with me. I want her to have the types of things that I didn’t have, but I also want her to appreciate them. And her teenage way of demanding stuff can be quite difficult to live with. So again, it’s going to feel like an eternity seeing her through these next 6 or 7 years!

I hope that seeing my daughter through her teenage years will be a largely enjoyable and ultimately rewarding experience. I know that there will undoubtedly be trials and tribulations along the way. But I hope that she begins to see that we’re not the enemy and that she simply doesn’t have all of the answers. That way harmony lies. Let’s wait and see!

 

  • Just in case your reading this, Zac Effron, should you ever turn up on my doorstep, asking for my daughter, you’ll be given very short shrift indeed. Take your fame, your Hollywood riches and even your impressive pecs, and nick off.

 

Some Thoughts on Father’s Day

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Because nothing quite says Happy Father’s Day like fruit does!

As the father of two young children I look forward to Father’s Day every year. I’m lucky; I have two great kids – lively, thoughtful, caring and loving. Granted, they’re not always like this and like many parents, I assume, I spend several hours a week quietly calling them names under my breath and wishing they’d leave me alone! This isn’t being unkind, just honest. Sometimes, my lively, thoughtful, caring, loving kids are complete pricks. And despite loving them with all of my heart, I can’t deny it. But they never let me down come Father’s Day.

Now I suspect that we can attribute a lot of the credit for a succession of successful Father’s Days to my wife. She loves to plan. She explores ideas, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of the perfect gift. And she has a way of making the kids think that this particular idea was there’s all along and that this gift choice was the kind of thing they meant when they told her that they thought I needed more socks. Don’t get me wrong, I know for a fact that the kids themselves – my daughter can be particularly thoughtful – have come up with some great gift ideas, but they still often need the wife’s guiding hand. And that of my Amazon Wishlist! However, the gift is just a part of why I love this particular day.

Both of my children are capable of terrible behaviour. Both struggle to control their emotions and tears are commonplace in our house. I suppose, for their age, in some ways they’re just a little bit immature, like their dad. It can be frustrating, but I’d rather this than a pair of emotional vacuums, holding everything in. They’re typical kids and I feel sure that as they grow they’ll learn to supress their reactions while retaining that emotion and knowing how to deal with it. And this is part of the reason why I enjoy Father’s Day so much. My kids both seem to make a conscious effort to behave. It’s usually payed back ten-fold on the following day, but on that particular Sunday, they suddenly learn to breath and reign their emotions in somewhat. As a result, Father’s Day seems peaceful. An island of calm waiting to be battered by a storm of emotion for most of the rest of the year. There have been exceptions, when one child has decided that they couldn’t possibly not speak up or cause a commotion, but largely speaking Father’s Day is fun.

Another reason to enjoy Father’s Day in our house is because my kids still haven’t lost their enthusiasm for it. Myself, I switched to just giving or sending a card decades ago. Me and my old man get along, but he sees no great need to be showered with gifts – or affection for that matter – and I see no great need to keep buying him stuff he won’t really appreciate now that I’m an adult. I sat through years of Christmas, birthday and Father’s Day present giving with much the same reaction – ‘Aye, that’s nice. Thank you.’ *Puts present on the floor by the side of his armchair – he’ll make it disappear later*. Eventually there seemed little point in the gift side of things. If I was doing it seeking some kind of love or affection, it wasn’t forthcoming and if I thought my present was going to change my dad’s life, then that idea was quickly shot down by his reaction.

My own children, on the other hand, excel at showing their enthusiasm for Father’s Day. The routine is always the same. We’ll decide when they’re going to give their gifts and then they’ll go out to retrieve them. The gifts are always ‘hidden’, adding to the excitement (they’re in the hallway, I’m just not allowed to leave the room). They will then re-enter the room, with their gifts still ‘hidden’ behind their backs. And here’s where the absolute joy of this day kicks in for me. They can’t contain their excitement. Both faces are plastered with wide grins. They can’t stand still, even though they’re lining up as though they’re about to be inspected. And they both have a present held, and usually only partially hidden, behind their back – there are probably others, hidden in plain sight this time, in a gift bag on the floor. Every year I pretend that I can’t see any of them.

They take turns in giving the first gift. Each year they start with something small, usually of their choice; something they’ve generally bought to make up the numbers a little bit. This is where Disney dad takes over, although it’s never a difficult role to adopt. By now I’m genuinely thrilled at what’s going on. My kids are practically quivering with excitement, almost unable to contain themselves and I am the focus of their attention. Brilliant!

After each gift or card I get hugs. If they’ve added kisses to a card – and they always do – I indulge myself, forcing them to give me every last kiss that they’d drawn on their greeting. If the kiss is in any way more of a glance I’ll not count it, just to get more. We squeeze each other tightly and even with my general fear of hugs I could stay like this all day. Even though I absolutely love a present, this is the best part of Father’s Day and the main reason why I love it. We may argue and fall out throughout the year, but for this 10 minute period we have all the love in the world for each other.

On the subject of gifts, over the years I’ve had some memorable ones. I still have a bar of chocolate that’s wrapped in personalised packaging, telling me that I’m the best dad in the world. I think this makes it official. I can’t bring myself to eat it, because of course it’s much more than just a bar of chocolate. I’ve also had brilliant books and CDs – yes, some of us still live in the past – as well as the obligatory pack of socks, because everybody needs socks.

The most memorable gifts though have both come from my son. My daughter has given fantastic gifts too, but the ones that will always stick in my mind just happen to have come from my son. He’s always been a thoughtful boy. Since he could read properly he has taken the time to scrutinise greetings cards so that he finds just the right message for the recipient. And he’s always given lots of thought to his presents. Both gifts, although very well meaning, undoubtedly fall into the category of ‘quirky’. The first one that springs to mind was a banana. Not a bunch mind, just a single banana. I got other gifts too, but the one that he was most excited about was the banana. He was about 5 at the time. He knew that this was a fruit that I liked, so it was definitely appropriate. However, his reasoning was slightly more complex than this. Apparently, he’d told my wife that he had to buy daddy a banana ‘to make sure he’s healthy’. Given my heart problems of last year, it may be accurate to wonder if he’s actually some kind of wizard. Maybe he had watched his dad snaffling one too many chocolates or bags of crisps and thought, ‘this bloke’s out of control, here’s me being force fed fruit my whole life and my dad seems to be working far too hard cultivating a belly that he’s going to really regret in a few years time.’ Whatever the thought process, it was a gift that made me smile and one that I’ll remember forever.

The other most memorable gift though was a bible. No really. As ever, Louise checked and checked that this was really the present that he wanted to buy, in the hope that he’d change his mind, but no; he was adamant. The reason he wanted to buy me a bible? ‘Because that way God will keep daddy safe’. He was only about 6 at the time and of course that’s not an age when you question God, but either way it was incredibly sweet. So although it was a gift with a limited shelf life, when you consider the old maxim about it being the thought that counts, it was lovely.

I didn’t realise that bibles could cost quite a bit and apparently with this in mind, my wife and son trawled around the local charity shops so that they could buy a cheaper one and still have money left to spend on me elsewhere. Maybe I was being upgraded to a whole bunch of bananas, I can’t remember. In the end they settled on a hardback children’s bible with shortened versions of all the stories and some pictures to boot. So you can probably imagine my confusion when I opened it up!

As a matter of course we would then spend time reading it together, at Dylan’s request. We’d lie on our bed, cuddled up and read after his shower at nights, with me rationing the amount of stories, so that we’d get more times reading together! This really was the Father’s Day gift that kept on giving. And an even bigger bonus was that sometimes Dylan would fall asleep on me as we read and so we’d then just lie there for a while longer, warm and cosy with me content to just cuddle him in and listen to his breathing.  So in the end, perhaps it really was a blessing that he bought me such a leftfield gift!

 

 

 

Fighting the flab – my battle with ‘Dad bod’!

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So many temptations with which to add to that dad bod!

As a young man I never dreamed I’d have any kind of problem with ‘body image’. I’d grown up a skinny kid, partly down to health problems and partly down to being a fussy eater who was indulged by a somewhat doting mother. I was active and sporty, meaning that I struggled to gain weight as I was always on the move. Therefore, as the possessor of barely any noticeable muscle at all this led to sometimes merciless name-calling and cruel comments about my size. They’d call it bullying nowadays, but at my rough comprehensive school it was just a way of life. Some people would exploit any weakness that they detected and unfortunately, my lack of bulk and legs that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a passing flamingo, were often a target, especially as I got older and everybody else filled out. As I got older and stayed relatively small those that grew to be more of an adult size would find fun in pushing me around. Still though, it didn’t particularly bother me and I was never unable to function as a result of it.

However, it must have been something that sat there, dormant, waiting for its chance as in adult life it became a problem that would hold me back. Not in a terribly debilitating way, but in a self-conscious sort of way. I have a seven inch scar down my chest which stopped me from removing my shirt on sunny days. I’m hardly well built either, which made t-shirts my friends at all times! As previously referred to, I also have legs that would look better on certain types of wildlife, meaning that shorts were often in, well, short supply I suppose.

The notion of ‘body image’ however, seems to be a relatively recent thing and at the risk of sounding like my dad, they didn’t have it when I was younger. I was always conscious of my size or of my body, but it was just something else to deal with. I never thought to talk to anyone about it, let alone write anything down. Until I was around 15 I was only just over 5ft in height as well, so bodywise I had literally nothing going for me save for a Hollywood smile and an earlier than most bumfluff ‘tache!

For a short while I joined a gym in the hope that lifting weights and exercising in different ways would help me to bulk up. It didn’t and more to the point it bored me and ended with me feeling even more self conscious. After a while I just accepted what I was and eventually (and I really mean eventually) when girls started taking an interest I began to feel a little more confident in myself. I could make people laugh and hold the interest of at least some girls; I didn’t feel the need to lift heavy weights, wear vests and sweat like a stallion. But I still didn’t like my body. The skinny legs, the stick-like arms, the scar on the chest…I didn’t particularly feel manly. Add to this the fact that one side of my ribs juts out at the bottom as a result of not being put back together properly after my heart operation – surgery wasn’t as precise a science in the 70s – and you begin to feel like you should have been picked up by the circus at some point.

University helped me to love myself a little bit more (not like that; stop sniggering). Maybe it was being away from some of the same people I’d been around for years who’d possibly gotten used to their own clever banter and didn’t feel that it could possibly be hurtful. My dad, for instance, was forever mocking my legs – if I played football in shorts he’d tell me to put my legs away because – and I quote – ‘there’s a spuggy up there feeding young ‘uns. She’ll think there’s two worms down here.’ Classic. No, really, hilarious. Especially when it’s repeated three or four times a week. Maybe it was the sudden independence that somehow boosted my confidence or maybe it was the fact that I was now around a foot taller and at least felt I finally had something going for me. Whatever it was, those three years made me feel a lot better about myself in terms of my body. I simply wasn’t mocked anymore and as a result I felt at least a little bit of confidence.

The issue of body confidence has never gone away though. And annoyingly, with the onset of middle age it feels like it’s getting worse. I think the young people call it a dad  bod, but whatever it is, it’s not particularly comfortable.

Now, I wouldn’t say I’m any kind of mess. But moving into my forties, and speeding towards my fifties has definitely brought plenty of unexpected body issues to go alongside the ones that I’ve carried around since my teens. Actually they’re more irritations than issues, but still, they bother me enough to actually spend time thinking about them. And that’s quite a surprise to me.

The biggest body irritant has to be my belly. I’ve never been in possession of a six-pack; not a proper one, anyway. In my early twenties, when I played football and ran a lot more often there was a lot less flab and some definite abs and even now I don’t exactly look like I might be 7 months pregnant. But there is a belly. And, try as I might to reason with myself about age, lifestyle and the stress of work, it really bothers me. Having spent most of my life worrying about being underweight I never thought I’d have a belly, especially as I’m still probably underweight! But it’s definitely there. And because it’s so unexpected I think I overplay its importance and worry about it far more than is healthy or even reasonable.

Nowadays, for the style conscious middle aged man, having a belly is a bit of problem whether it bothers you or not. You see, clothes are a lot closer fitting. Everything you look at is available in ‘slim fit’ and some even in ‘skinny’ fit. Style wise this is great. I can remember the 80s and 90s when clothes would literally hang off me and so now, when things actually fit properly, it’s much better. But things fit everywhere. So any slim fitting t-shirts that I might buy are sure to hug. But they can’t hug my belly. Not enough to actually hug it away. And so I find myself feeling self conscious a lot more. About four months ago my wife bought me an expensive compression top which I could wear while out running, but when I put it on I was appalled. It’s incredibly tight fitting, but despite its quality it couldn’t contain my belly and looking at myself in the mirror, I felt ridiculous. Needless to say it went back in the wardrobe and it’s only appeared in public in the last week or so.

In truth, I find that I try to hold my stomach in these days. On holiday, or if we go swimming it’s a conscious decision. While I have no real problem with the scar on my chest anymore, I now feel self conscious about a paunch that my wife assures me isn’t really there. I find myself walking around just that little bit more tense and sucking in the belly. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m not kidding myself that women (or men, the cheeky devils) may still cast a glance in my direction. But I do try to hold my belly in when I remember. I don’t want to feel like I’m being judged and I don’t want to feel like my nearest and dearest are quietly thinking, ‘he’s let himself go’.

On the belly front I’ve tried various things to help out. Sit ups, weights, running, walking, cutting back on certain foods like chocolate, crisps and beer, but I simply don’t seem to have the long term will power to make a difference. When I was exercising regularly and for a more significant and sustained amount of time it did make a difference and you could actually see the beginnings of a six-pack. But nobody’s impressed by a two-pack, least of all because actually divulging such information makes it sound like all you’re actually doing is informing them that you’ve got testicles. Even something as simple as a mere glance at my name tells you that there’s a fair chance I’ve got them anyway. And so, the exercise and the food sacrifice went south…a little bit like my belly.

With body image in mind, I’m currently trying to be much more disciplined about what I eat and drink. As lots of you will be aware I had a health scare last year and while I wouldn’t say it had a profound effect, it did make me think about my choices in terms of food and exercise. I’ve never been a big drinker, but for the last 6 months or so I’ve managed to restrict beer consumption to at the most 3 times a week. And even then it’s very rare that I’ll ever have more than one drink.

I’ve almost completely cut out crisps, which have always been my nemesis in terms of fighting the flab. Crisps have always had a heroin-like pull on me and I could eat them all day and still not have had enough. Even the thought of them makes me kind of wistful! The box of chocolate biscuits that used to reside in my desk draw at work has also now gone and has been replaced by two bananas a day. And even as I type I’m munching on my most recent dietary addition – a small daily tub containing pumpkin seeds, cashews and macadamia nuts.

But am I only kidding myself? Despite my size I’ve always loved my food and I live in constant fear of some kind of relapse. Walking around Asda on a Saturday morning can feel like some kind of purgatory as I try to avoid aisle after aisle of delicious fatty rollbacks! In fact, I can’t even walk down the biscuit or crisp aisles anymore, which I suppose is some display of discipline, however sad it might seem. Such is the hold that body image can have though. And it must be the same for thousands of middle aged men. We’re at a certain age; our bodies simply can’t exercise enough anymore and years and years of sampling various foods has led to this – a belly that suggests that you might just be about to go into labour.

And then there’s man boobs, or moobs as we’ve christened them for short. I can’t lie; I’ve spent a lifetime in love with lady bumps, but I’ve never actually wanted a pair myself. And it’s so far so good on this front, but I worry that it’s only a matter of time. While I don’t have impressive pecs, I do have something that actually resembles a masculine and muscular chest (small, but definitely made of muscle, all the same) and the thought that this could turn into something resembling snooker balls in a sock dangling from my chest area terrifies me. Because if slim fitting shirts and t-shirts bother me now, imagine how I’m going to feel if I develop moobs! Consequently, I don’t think I’ve ever been more serious about exercise!

As a middle aged man I’ve started to worry about lots of different aspects of my body. One of the more unusual aspects that I’ve begun to consider is the state of my backside. And no, I’m not about to reveal that I’ve got piles or anything like that. I’ve written some awkward paragraphs in my time on this blog, but the piles paragraph simply won’t be one of them. For one, thankfully middle age hasn’t brought that particular horror and for another thing, I don’t think I’d ever write about it if it had happened. I want to be sure that people can still look me in the eye if need be.

In fact, and almost as embarrassingly, what I worry about in an arse sense is actually whether or not it’s still pert. Yes, you read that right. As a slim fella I’ve always had a small bum. Pert too. But recently it occurred to me that, given my age, this might not be so anymore. I’ve even gone as far as checking it out. Not in an obsessive way, but briefly having a quick glance in the mirror. Thankfully, it’s not threatening to start hanging behind my knees or anything like that, so for the time being I’m fairly pleased. But of all the things I thought may concern me as I got older, this wasn’t one.

I think it says a lot about body image that as a man in my forties I’m concerned about having a saggy arse and it made me wonder if this is the kind of thing that other middle aged men worry about. I couldn’t bring myself to ask though. I mean, if it’s not considered wholly masculine to worry too much about your body shape, then I’m sure I’d be derided for asking that kind of question of any of my mates. However lads, if any of you have any concerns or have conducted any of your own personal market research, then I’m happy to talk. We could make a night of it – a proper boys’ night with some takeaway, a nice bottle of wine, candlight and a romcom. You know where I am…

Gaining grey hair was a sign that middle age was approaching. However, what sealed the deal with middle age, and simultaneously started me worrying was when I noticed that it wasn’t just the hair on my head that was changing colour; my chest hair was also going grey…and white in some places. I can’t lie…I began to pluck. And I kept on plucking. This was a visible sign of my body’s failure and its obvious lack of youth and I hated it with a passion. I’m not young enough in my outlook to think that shaving my chest is OK. That’s for a different, weirder generation. For me chest hair is cool and it made me feel decidedly masculine. But grey chest hair? This was calamitous.  But the more I envisaged it this way, the worse it got. I seemed to be forever spotting new grey and as a result, forever plucking. In turn, my worry grew more. I didn’t want to be old!

In the end a combination of being unable to keep up with their growth and a gradual acceptance that I couldn’t win helped me relax. Nowadays I’m comfortable with it and in actual fact, this metamorphosis has slowed. I only really have a small patch of grey and white on my chest and the rest, perhaps due to my more relaxed attitude, has remained resolutely black. So while I have I kind of Cruella de Ville look going on with my chest, it’s not up there with the belly in terms of how it dominates my life. In terms of my body image and my ‘dad bod’, it’s OK.

The final area that concerns me more and more with my middle age is what it’s doing to my skin. Specifically, my face. I’m getting wrinkles. Not loads. I don’t yet look like I’m made of leather, but there are definite wrinkles and again it’s a concern. Vanity plays its part here. I think it’s widely accepted that men age better than women in general and they’re certainly not judged by how they look as they get older in anything like the way that women are. But I can’t shake the worry of wrinkles. I don’t see that wrinkles may make me look more dignified, full of character or interesting; I just see age catching up with me.

I’ve tried to combat this particular body image worry for years. I’ve used moisturiser for some time now in order to keep my skin looking at the very least acceptable. But even that is a balancing act. While vanity tugs at me urgently to look after my skin and not worry about what people might think should they find out about me using moisturiser, some misguided sense of masculinity tells me I’m committing some kind of crime against manhood. You see, where I’m from – and my dad and many uncles will back me up on this, once they’ve gotten over the shock of my skincare revelation – men don’t put cream on their face. And all joking aside, I think I’m from an era where lots of my peers probably don’t see it as normal either. And thus, although I use moisturiser to try and keep age at bay at bit, I don’t use it anywhere near enough for fear that I might just turn into a girl or something!

As someone who’s regularly been told that he doesn’t look his age, actual middle age has come as quite a shock and body image, something that’s always been quite an issue for me, has crept more and more into my thinking. I’m not prepared to accept my fate though. The idea of a ‘dad bod’ is fine, but let it happen to someone else’s dad. The belly can wait, as can the moobs and I’ll keep kidding myself that people – not just women, but people, after all I’m a modern man – are checking out my pert little behind. I don’t think I mind being objectified (or at least telling myself I’m being objectified), but I’m damned if I’m not going to fight middle age all the way!