Thursday, 26 August 2010

Beth, Row the Boat Ashore

Let's see, how can I put this delicately? I am the world's worst rower.

Put me on an erg in the gym and I get the best time of the beginner class (all 128 of us!), but put me on the water and I freeze. OK, so it is only week six – and I have missed two (crucial) weeks – but the other week I thought our cox would shove me into the water out of frustration. I couldn't remember which way my oar was supposed to go. I couldn't remember what was a backstop and a frontstop. I couldn't remember if I was stern side or bow side, stern pair or bow pair. It all kinda sorta matters when one move can capsize the boat.

Last night our cox at least was a little nicer to me, though puzzled as to why I seem to struggle so much. There are a couple of problems, I think: The first is that I missed week two, when everyone else seems to have nailed down the terminology (and some of the motions), and now I'm just hopelessly behind. The second is that I am at heart a daydreamer. You cannot daydream in team sports. Not for one second. And it matters to other people just how bad you are. This is why, I think, I prefer exercise like running and Pilates and yoga – I might not be very good at them, but at least it doesn't affect anyone else's workout (or whether they land in a disgusting river!)

I absolutely hate to quit, but I'm seriously debating not finishing out the last four weeks. While I think it's character-building to do things one is bad at, generally I like to at least enjoy the things I'm crap at (like dancing). I'm thinking my life is stressful enough without spending two hours on a Wednesday night – two hours that are supposed to be fun – completely anxious and very nearly in tears. It is a definite flashback to the fat-girl-never-picked-in-PE-class days in that I feel seriously eye-rolling and sighing from the other women who are unlucky enough to be in whatever boat I happen to be in.

And before you ask: No, it is actually not very good exercise because I am just that bad at it!

On top of all that, one of the coaches watched me on the erg and told me it was hard to judge part of my form because I had "weird-shaped elbows." Huh? Talk about a body part I never thought to worry about.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Running Against the Wind

I couldn't tell you exactly when it happened, but sometime in the past couple of months I stopped weighing myself completely.

Bear with me – this is, unfortunately, not going to be one of those posts where I tell you I've freed myself from scale tyranny.

My breakup with the scale started slowly: First I was just going to have a few days' alone time. I'd been weighing myself every day – too much – and I got more than a little disgusted after it crept up after a weekend when I ran 2 10ks in a 16-hour period (and had no extra food). I decided I was eating and exercising well, and sod it, I didn't need any scale to confirm it. (Ha.)

Then there was a binge or maybe two. Maybe it was denial. Maybe it was choosing not to beat myself up with a number. Maybe it was just that I put the scale somewhere very inconvenient and couldn't be bothered.

My jeans have been awfully tight and last week I put on a pencil skirt that was a squeeze.

This morning I hopped on the scale: I'm up about 10 pounds from the top of my happy range.

I am not happy about that.

(Lest it seem like I'm hiding something: If you need number porn, btw, I'm nearly 11 stone, whereas pre-Dorset I was around 10 stone 3, and despite my best efforts afterward, I couldn't get below 10 stone 6.)

Where has this weight come from? A series of binges that (mostly) have been documented here. They've occurred lately with disturbing frequency and, worse, very alarming intensity. (The most recent binge, on Tuesday, actually made me so ill I spent nearly all of Wednesday in bed – and I have been known to work through anything.) My clothes are tight and that makes me panic and I eat more and that makes me panic and I might get fat again and that makes me panic and people saw me eat like a crazy person (huge fistfuls of Twiglets and crisps) and that makes me panic and I might have to choose whether to move to New York and that makes me panic and I might be alone for the rest of my life and that makes me panic and oh, hell, I need a break from all of it and some food will do nicely.

I know you know this. I know this, too. But somehow knowing it does not translate to not doing it. Not yet, anyway.

So the goal, again, is to get to 30 days without a binge. I'd like to do something drastic and lose a couple of pounds quickly – tight waistbands to me are like a daylong distress signal, and at least as distracting – but I know that that will do me no favors. If my goal is just not to binge I'm not guaranteed to lose any weight that way, but I can be reasonably sure of not putting more on. For now, that will have to do.

Six days clean.


Sunday – after three nights of horrible sleep (generalized job and life anxiety? Too much caffeine? Really, I have no idea) -- I did something crazy.

I have been dialling it in at the gym – turning up, yes, and for an hour five times a week, but for the past couple of months mostly without the usual energy and mix-ins (sprints, boxing, burpees, whatever...) I do a lot on the crosstrainer and not much else. I haven't run since my army assignment finished at the end of July, and haven't run more than six miles.

So what, exactly, I was doing running a half marathon Sunday is anybody's guess. The course wasn't far (away), I'd signed up for it months ago, and I figured I might as well go and at least get an hour's run in and I could always quit.

It was torture. London has some beautiful parks, but this particular one was not one of them. The course was six loops of the same circuit – my least favourite kind of run (I prefer out and back because it's hard to turn around otherwise). Less than a mile in I couldn't even imagine finishing one circuit.

I made a deal with myself: I would try to get through 4 loops – which would constitute an extra-long workout -- and then I could walk the rest. I focused on just getting to the next water station (about a mile apart), and on making a point of saying thank you to every race volunteer I made eye contact with, especially the ones picking up plastic cups the runners all drop on the ground after grabbing a few sips.

I felt like I had lead legs in cement shoes. I felt literally weighed down by my own extra weight.

Then somehow, sometime around mile 8 (somewhere in loop 4 – there were no mile markers) I picked up speed. Everything snapped into place. I stopped feeling like I was fighting for each step and felt more like I was flying.

It was glorious. (For at least a mile, anyway.)

In the fifth loop a guy bumped into me. "Sorry," he said. We exchanged the isn't-this-grim smile. "Just one and a bit more to go," he said.

"Even if we walked it we'd still finish," I said.

"But we're not going to, are we?" he said. No, I thought. We are not. I picked up speed again.

This race did not have chip timing, but I finished just under 2 hours 3 minutes – faster than last year's half marathon time.

Unbelievable. It's almost enough to make me want to enter another one... and oh yeah, maybe actually train for it.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Points of Light

The fog crept in on little cat feet – and now it's moving on.

Acknowledging it was the first step. Then I talked to one of my best friends in the US, one of the wisest, funniest people I know. (I would say she's the only big-city law firm partner you'll ever meet who also does improv comedy, but she left her big-city law firm job to go into... career counselling, among other things.) Anyway, she said something that lodged itself in my brain: "Everything changes. It will get worse or it will get better, but it will change."

And I thought: I don't want it to get worse.

And just like that, it isn't.

I did some workouts I didn't feel like doing (but felt better after every single one of them). I thought of loads of things I'd like to eat, but then ate safe food, not as a punishment, but because I knew the last thing I needed was to start getting in the habit of cheering myself up with food. If hunger is not the problem, food is not the solution.

I did a lot of thinking about what is making me unhappy, and why, and what control I have over any of it. Then I sang "Heads Carolina, Tails California" (a cheesy country song that makes me laugh) at the top of my lungs while writing an article about startups' contribution to job creation. (Clearly I live a wild and crazy life.) And I felt better.

I arranged to get a drink with a woman I only ever see at the gym. I made tentative plans to try a new yoga class with another friend. I also did something completely random and answered a personal ad. The guy wrote back to say that we went out three years ago and it didn't work out then. He lives around the corner. (And before you suggest that maybe it's fate, let me just say that I had zero trouble understanding why he was single then.) Instead of bemoaning the lack of single men and feeling sorry for myself – which I think would have been easy enough to do -- I just laughed.

And on Friday, although it was raining and grim and there were insane delays on the Tube, I dragged myself to Hammersmith to see a friend's boyfriend's shouty cover band play. Although my jeans felt too tight, I managed to forget about them for entire chunks of the evening, dancing and singing and jumping around like a mad thing. (And that was without the help of very much alcohol – I was very careful about drinking water.) I chatted and laughed and didn't for a second feel like bingeing.

It felt good.


So remember Mr. Afghanistan, the posh guy reading the book on the exercise bicycle I met more than two months ago?

We exchanged a couple of emails on Facebook, and he disappeared. I never bumped into him again and I'd given up hope.

On Friday -- so broken-out I looked like I was allergic to myself, and wearing a seriously grubby black race t-shirt -- I looked up from my triceps routine at the gym to find him standing in the doorway in his suit, watching me. (Note to self: Please, please PLEASE unearth your inner New Yorker – you were born there, for heaven's sake – and ditch the unflattering workout gear and maybe put on some tinted moisturizer. Hint: Groomed eyebrows would be a start. Love, me xxx)

I nearly had to be picked up the floor. Frankly, I should be writing "OMG he was sooooo gorgeous in his suit," because that would more appropriately reflect the mental age I was in his presence. As my gym friend, who was also there, later said, choking back hysterical laughter: "I have never ever in my life seen you so completely lose it." I should say for the record that this does not happen to me – even doing interviews for the Sexiest Man Alive (some of whom also are the flirtiest men alive) I never once fumbled.

I tried to recover, making a joke about having written so many thousand words in the past few days (not a lie) that I practically forgot my own name. He raised an eyebrow. "Beth," he offered helpfully.

He let it be known he had indeed Googled me (and found me lacking? I'm not sure). We talked books and Afghanistan and finding something interesting in even the most boring person (something we both believe is fun). At one point he teasingly called me "my dear." He said he'd been travelling and that he'd meant to answer my last email – that he'd enjoyed the correspondence – but that he was dealing with emails going back to January. (That to me screams: He's just not that into you.) He said he'd pick up the correspondence.

He's off to Spain for two and a half weeks' holiday. I'm not holding my breath, but oh, it was fun.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Diamonds on the Soles of His Shoes

And now, for something completely different. (Or, just when you thought I was all binge all the time...)

So Monday night I had to meet a flaky friend for a drink at the Mandarin Oriental, a hotel I will forever associate with Britney Spears (it used to be where she stayed in London and could still be – luckily I'm no longer up to date on such things) and hours spent at the bar waiting for the little pop tart, trying to pick out who at the bar was a hooker. Good times, I tell you.

Anyway. Flaky friend is predictably late, and so I sit at the bar, reading a book on the wives of Henry VIII and generally minding my own business. Yes, the bar is look-at-me gorgeous (beige-silk lined walls and handmade cocktail glasses) and the clientele usually eye-catching, but frankly, I can't actually see. I have an eye infection, cannot wear my contacts, and can't find my glasses.

Someone sends me a drink but of course I can't see him even when the bartender points him out. I raise my glass in his direction in the universal language of cheers and thanks, and return to my book. He comes over and sits next to me. Sigh. Queen Katherine Parr will have to wait.

Up close he's definitely at least in his 60s. Russian. A bit sweaty. I wonder if he thinks I'm a hooker, since Russian men tend to assume any woman alone at a bar is. I try to decide if being thought of as a hooker can in any way be construed as a compliment, and then remember some of the hookers I saw in Russia. Um, no way. Plus I don't have dyed blonde hair with appalling dark roots and dirty white stiletto boots.

We have a perfectly nice if awfully dull conversation, English spiked with Russian. I tell him about the random dialogues I had to memorize in Russian class ("What gender is the word 'studientka' – masculine, feminine, or neuter?" – I kid you not, I still remember them all) and about singing Rent on the Moscow metro with a friend, laughing hysterically, while all the commuters stared at us. He seems to think I am the most hilarious person he's ever met, and then tells me more than I ever wanted to know about all the expensive places he likes to eat in London, dripping the names like diamonds. I nod thoughtfully, sipping a glass of the £300-per-bottle vintage rose champagne he's insisted on buying me.

After an hour and a half, flaky friend texts to say she suddenly can't make it after all, and I'm becoming too uncomfortable and uneasy in the presence of the oligarch, who with each drink (rare for me, I don't try to keep pace) is becoming less Russian grandpa and more Russian bear. Or Russian sweaty old dude who suggests ever more expensive champagnes and retiring elsewhere to drink them. So I say I have gotten my bars mixed up and that I actually was supposed to meet my friend elsewhere and that she's waiting.

He says he'll be in London for a month and can he call me? He offers me his car and driver, which I decline, but it seems rude to refuse to give him my number. I figure I can always decline to meet up with him again should it come to that. I grab my book, dash out of the bar, and figure that's the end.

Yesterday afternoon my phone rings. It's a private number: A courier, saying he has a delivery for me but can I confirm my address? A shiver runs down my spine – too much time in war zones, I guess -- and I ask for a number I can call to verify that he is, indeed, a courier.

Said courier arrives with – by my best fashionista guess – luxury goods valued at more than £5,000. In the Russian style it is all Versace and Dior, logo-tastic and seriously ugly. Handbags and scarves and belts so bright and blingy I need sunglasses. (Luckily there is a pair, also Swarovski crystal-encrusted.)

With it is a note saying he wasn't sure what I'd like, but that he'd like to see me again.

I spend last night wondering how, exactly, one returns this sort of thing, because obviously I can't accept it. (I also think, somewhat ungratefully, about why there couldn't be, say, a nice tasteful and understated Hermes belt? Or perhaps a nice Smythson bag?) I'd have to ransom at scarf to pay for the return courier (the haul is way too much to carry, especially in its rather grand boxes), and there is the problem of what to say.

This morning I wake up to a text message from him saying he's had to go away unexpectedly on business but will be back in the springtime, and perhaps we can meet up then?

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

I'd Invite You In, But My Life's a Mess

So this is my life: Sitting at a wedding in Somerset with a handful of single women in their very late 30s and early 40s, listening to them and their carefully cultivated aren't-I-a-character stories. You could practically see them convincing themselves as much as the rest of us that they were having a grand old time.

I guess it could have been worse.

As for me, I didn't say a word. Because I couldn't have what I really wanted – the person, or a person, who literally makes my face light up as much as the bride's did whenever her intended would ring her – I proceeded to stuff my face with massive amounts of things I could have: (crummy) food. Bad hamburgers on (buttered) buns. Bad trifle. Some weird fig tart. Bad wedding cake with icing flowers of a bizarre consistency. And so when all of the single ladies were outdoing themselves with tales of their general fabulousness, I was sitting there just willing the minutes to pass until I felt a little less full. (Also a little less cold, but never mind about that.)

I was told upon arrival that there were no single men at the entire wedding (I've never met a guy at a wedding anyway, but you never know), but I did manage to find one. Turns out the backup guitar player for a friend of the bride's who performed a couple of songs was single. He was also Tom Thumb-sized. I literally could have rested my drink on his head. When he's not busking in various European countries, he sells chestnuts at the Manchester Christmas market. He travels everywhere with a tent so he doesn't have to pay for hotels. He doesn't like cake.


I'm not so much tired of being alone as I'm tired of being tired of being alone.

Last night after I spoke to the New York editor I thought about who to call first and burst into tears: The only person I wanted to speak to was my mother.

The last time I wanted to speak to my mother so badly was in the winter of 2004, a few months after she died, when I was offered a permanent job in London. I cried holding the offer letter, a good long cry for all the things that would happen in my life that I would never get to share with her. Then I folded up the idea of talking to her and stuck it in a drawer that hasn't been opened since.

Until last night. I thought about calling my dad, but he projects his dreams onto me. He doesn't hear about the weeks of only peanut butter and porridge and the chasing of cheques; he only hears the glamour of living abroad, something he himself wants but may never do. My grandmother and my sister both want me to come home at any cost. Of the entire family, only my mother ever was capable of just listening, instead of projecting her own wants and dreams onto me. (She had just one want, which was for me to be happy. I remember making the dean's list in college, and my mother saying that was great, but that she hoped I also was having a good time.)

So I tried to figure out what to do with myself and eventually wrote an email to one of my best friends in the US, trying to sort out how I felt about the job. I found myself typing: This is the first I'm writing it – really admitting it, I guess – that I haven't been very happy in London lately.

I could pin it on lingering isolation from BN2, the financial straitjacket that's mostly kept me from going out, the lack of single female friends… But one thing is clear: I don't have control over whether and how and when I meet someone, if I ever do, but I think I'd care less about that if I were happier with the rest of my life, which is something I do have control over. I need to figure out whether the things that are making me unhappy will be fixed at all if I move, or if I'll just take them with me.

Deeply unhappy people are like drowning people. They can pull you under with them. I'm not deeply unhappy but I don't want to get so much as a step closer to it. I imagine it's like bingeing: It's never too late to stop going down that road. I don't want to waste any more time being less happy than I could be, feeling like there has to be more than this.

The question is: What is it?

Friday, 6 August 2010

Keep It Messy If You Can't Keep It Clean

So my chat with the New York editor got postponed until Monday. My dad asked about whether the delay carried any "negative implications," as he put it, and I realized – quite honestly – that I don't care. One thing I've realized in considering this job, or the possibility of it, is that no matter what happens I will be fine. These 18 months of freelancing have been absolutely gruelling, but I'm very cautiously optimistic that the worst is behind me. I'll be perfectly fine without a work blackberry, access to all the free magazines my heart desires, and a Conde Nast expense account. And if I take the job in NYC and I hate it? Well, I know now that I can freelance, and after a year in New York (which is all my little brain can handle thinking about) I'll probably have better contacts.

But I reserve the right to come completely unglued next week when faced with actual details and an actual timetable for decision-making, moving, the works...


Last night I managed to prevent overeating from turning into a binge – a major, major victory in my book. In a lot of ways, I find stopping overeating harder than not starting in the first place.

I did a massive gym session (about once a week I do an hour of arms and abs, and then about 50 minutes of cardio), then raced to meet a couple of friends for drinks. Tired and dehydrated, the first drink hit me hard, but of course I didn't quit while I was ahead. We had a couple more drinks waiting for our third friend to show up. She was nearly 45 minutes late – which, at 8.30ish, post-massive-gym-session and drinks, was becoming a fairly dangerous hour for me to first be contemplating food.

I ordered the first thing I knew would be OK: a sweet potato, mackerel and beet salad. My friends ordered the same thing. Too late, I realized it probably wouldn't be quite big enough and there was no bread or anything of the sort on the table. Not good.

I scarfed my dinner in record time and immediately started thinking about what shops were in the area and what I could get to eat. I wanted bread and cake and something with heft. I looked at the pudding menu: No cake. Definitely not good – I could see myself ordering something I didn't really want, then going and bingeing out of frustration.

Frankly, I already was frustrated. I ordered the same pavlova my friends ordered. Then I went to the bathroom to eat the chocolate bar and plot my binge. Then I stopped, thought about how less than 2 weeks ago I feared I'd never be able to stop eating, and thought about the wedding celebration I'm attending this weekend that is also a binge trigger. I won't know anyone there – do I really want to arrive feeling fat, exhausted, and crummy about myself post-binge? (It doesn't exactly make one the life of the party.)

So last night I told myself I could still binge but that I had to text a friend first. And I did. I went and ate my pavlova (a very, very poor substitute for Peridot's, it must be said), still thinking about bingeing. I was maybe an inch from the ledge.

Friend responds saying it is never too late not to keep going down "that road," and that her new motto is to keep it messy if she can't keep it clean – that anything is better than bingeing. "I'll try if you will," she writes. "And no judgements either way."

Still I think about what I can eat on the way home. Instead I order a tea, which I know will come with biscuits, and it does. I eat my two (so do the friends) and somehow feel calmer.

I still want cake and about 10 other things – want them so badly I can taste them, and can picture exactly where I'll go and what I'll do. But more than I want anything else to eat, I realize, I want to wake up the next morning not having binged.

And amazingly, that is what happens.

Honestly, I could have cartwheeled. I could have hugged strangers on the street. I did none of those things, but despite a day filled with little slights and big stresses, I walked around with a huge, stupid grin.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

You Set Up Your Place in My Thoughts / Moved In and Made My Thinking Crowded

This morning I counted I have at least a dozen kinds of chocolate in my flat, ranging from Noir Quinoa (haven't tried it yet – think it may be the grown up, French version of a Nestle's Crunch) and Montezuma to a leftover Snickers bar from my army exercises and M&S milk chocolate Easter eggs I was never particularly interested in eating (guess I should throw them out.)

I also have two kinds of biscuits, and when I opened one box yesterday I was amused to note how pleased I was that inside, the 16 biscuits were divided into 2 sealed bags. "Oh, that's good," I thought. "I won't have to eat them for every snack for the next couple of days to keep them from going off."

Me! The person who – if there's a calorie count on an item in the shop -- still can't help calculating how much damage I'd do if I ate the whole box/bag/etc.

It all feels especially sweet when I remember that barely 10 days ago, I feared I would never ever be able to stop bingeing again. Lest I give myself too much credit, I should point out that I very rarely if ever binge at home, though there was certainly a point when I'm not sure any of those items would have made it intact from the shop to my flat in the first place (or if they did, lasted more than a day).


So, a magazine in New York I really like came a-callin' with a job last week. It's the same magazine that approached me about a job last summer, and this job actually sounds like a better one than that one. (And last year's sounded pretty good, frankly.)

I don't know all the details about it yet – only that even though the job is better than last year's, it is not the job of my dreams. This is because it is primarily an editing job, not a writing job. It would require moving to New York, the editor wrote, adding: "I am ever hopeful you can be tempted." (Ah, flattery!)

I won't know more until tomorrow, but the uncertainty and the fear and the nostalgia for a city I have not (and may not) leave is overwhelming. Ah, it would be so much easier to eat to blot it all out, but so far I haven't.

It's been awfully tough to live my life in the present over the past few days, and to make even the smallest decision. Should I buy that box of cereal? Well, if I'm moving I should use up what's in my flat. My dad was here yesterday and – in a fit of London checking-off-the-list -- I dragged him to St Pauls Cathedral, whose audio tour has been on my list of things to do since a friend said it was the best one she's ever heard. Inside, I remembered going to hear Handel's Messiah there my first Christmas in London in 2002 (and sneaking out to binge and bumping into the man who would later become my boss, but never mind about that). And last night, my path took me through some particularly lovely north London neighborhoods I've barely explored, and now wonder if I will. I thought of all the people I'd quite literally never see again if I moved -- all the people who are not good enough friends to stay in touch with, but are part of the fabric of my life here, and the handful of people I wonder about but would lose the chance even of bumping into.

Six months ago I might well have leaped at any job that came my way, but lately I've been cautiously optimistic about Beth Inc., aka freelancing. July was a record month for me, although (a) that's not very hard when you consider just how poorly I was doing, and (b) I still have to collect the money, which I've discovered is no mean feat. I am slowly, slowly feeling possibility again -- something that has been mostly absent in my life thanks to the crushing weight of financial distress -- and now, suddenly, there is this particular possibility.

It's been making me think a lot about what I'm doing in London and why I live here. Some of the reasons are long-held romantic dreams that are out of my control to make come true. Just as when you procrastinate, sometimes it is a relief to just decide not to do something at all, I wonder if it would be a relief to give up some dreams. The question is: Can I?