How a Puppy Changed My Life

I’m still not entirely sure why I decided to get a puppy.

I suppose it was partly the need to take my mind off a significant birthday. Also, now my youngest child is ten years old, life is getting much easier, and I think I felt this rather masochistic need to shake it up a bit. To get out of my comfort zone. And then there was the pester power. Once you let the word puppy out of the box, however tentatively and speculatively, you just can’t cram it back in.

And so it came to pass that, four weeks ago, Alby – a border terrier puppy, named after Dumbledore – came to live with us.

“A boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.”

Robert Benchley

Otto, our ten-year-old dog, dutifully played with the young pup for about half an hour, letting his toys be stolen and his ears be bitten. Then he looked at me, and his eyes said Okay, I’ve been a good host, now when is he going home? I did have some sympathy.

I’m often reminded of those Dutch day-care centres, where geriatrics and toddlers help look after each other. Otto and I are both a bit long in the tooth, a little jaded by life, but suddenly we’re in the company of this ball of energy and enthusiasm.

We’d both rather forgotten how to appreciate the joy of a good walk in the sunshine, a game of tug-of-war or an afternoon kip. Now we have a constant reminder of how incredible life really is.

“Dogs have boundless enthusiasm but no sense of shame. I should have a dog as a life coach.”

Moby

Alby has other skills too.

Things have been a bit stressful in our house over the past few weeks, as two of the the children have exams and I’ve been trying to finish the final edits on novel one while wrangling some sense into the outline of novel two, so the children have started calling Alby ‘Support Puppy.’

Whenever anyone is having a hard time, someone shouts: Bring in Support Puppy! and within moments a squirming, happy ball of fluff is placed in the arms of the sufferer. It’s totally impossible to feel stressed while holding a puppy.

“Happiness is a warm puppy.”

Charles Shultz

Alby doesn’t just spread the love in our house; he does it wherever he goes.

When you take a puppy on a walk, everyone you meet beams at you. Surly teenagers in hoodies turn into cooing children. Traffic Wardens put down their cameras. Everyone feels a little bit warmer, more gooey inside.

My son, now thirteen, and starting to be a bit interested in girls, has discovered the ultimate power of the puppy.

He asked me to bring Alby to the school gates at pick-up time yesterday. As soon as he spotted us, he rushed over, cradled the puppy in his arms, and walked back into the throng. Within seconds he was mobbed by girls, all desperate for his attention, all wanting him to shower the puppy love in their direction.

“My little dog – a heartbeat at my feet.”

Edith Wharton

So Alby, despite the hit-and-miss house training, and his fondness for chewing expensive trainers, is here to stay. Even Otto has fallen for him.

Just when you think your heart can’t possibly expand any further, you find a puppy shaped space, right in the middle.

As always, there’s more on the Life in the Hot lane Facebook Page, including Lisa Timoney on why men shouldn’t have the monopoly on the mid-life crisis! (Check out Lisa’s new website – Lisa Timoney Writes). There’s also Throwback Thursday, with a discussion about bizarre office rituals from the 80’s and 90’s. ‘Like’ the page to stay updated.

Why Life Really is Like a Butterfly

We have always been fascinated by the butterfly. The Victorians caught them in huge nets and pinned them under glass. They wore butterfly motifs as jewellery, in their hair and on their clothing. They believed that the butterfly symbolised the soul.

For as long as we’ve told each other stories, poems and painted pictures, the butterfly has been a powerful metaphor for change and for the different stages of life. And as I struggle with the reality of hitting fifty, I’ve been trying to channel my inner butterfly.

In a recent interview about her decision to enter politics for the first time at the age of 53, Rachel Johnson said The departure of oestrogen from the system means you don’t care whether the trainers are white or there’s milk in the fridge. I feel a woman’s fifties are her time.

I’m coming across increasing numbers of incredible women in their fifties and sixties who, rather than slide gently towards retirement, are re-inventing themselves, metamorphosing, finding their wings and starting a whole new third act.

Just when the caterpillar thought her life was over, she began to fly.

Unknown

Reflecting back on my forties, I see it as the decade of the caterpillar. I was exhausted by keeping all those little legs moving. My life felt, in many ways, very small – revolving around children, schools and home. I didn’t move – physically or mentally – very far from my leaf.

During those years, I also started to self-medicate with rather a lot of wine, wrapping silent threads around myself, which felt like a warm, comforting cocoon at the time, but turned out to be a straight-jacket.

Shrugging off that cocoon isn’t easy. However restrictive it feels, it’s what you know – it’s your comfort zone. And you have no idea what’s on the other side. Maybe you’ll discover wings, or maybe it’s just a leap off a high branch to certain death.

“How does one become a butterfly?” she asked pensively. “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”

Trina Paulus

What I discovered was that the tough times I went through in my forties – the struggle with addiction and then, at the age of forty-six, with cancer, were the experiences that helped to build those wings. And now, as I hit fifty, my children are more independent and I’m not such a slave to my home and my hormones and I, like Rachel Johnson, feel ready to fly.

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

Maya Angelou

So I was interested to learn from Chris Packham, presenter of Springwatch, that the butterfly can remember being a caterpillar. (Don’t ask me how he managed to work this out).

This blew my mind. And at first it bothered me. Why would the butterfly want to remember the crawling years? All the endless munching of leaves. All those legs. Surely you’d want to leave all that behind you?

Then I realised that there is no fun in having wings unless you can remember what it’s like to be tied to the ground.

As I enter my fifties, I am planning to fly. And to always feel grateful for being able to.

There’s lots more on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook Page, including Throwback Thursday (what was your favourite childhood pudding? Angel Delight? Arctic Roll?) and a fabulous article on why menopause is freedom by Eva Wiseman. ‘Like’ the page to stay updated.

For more on the addiction years and what happened next, read my memoir, The Sober Diaries.

What Has Happened to my Neck?

I never used to spend any time thinking about my neck. Or anyone else’s neck, for that matter. Necks were, in my younger years, just a bit of necessary engineering for holding up one’s head.

I do recall a brief fixation with Gwyneth Paltrow’s neck when she appeared in some film or other, playing a Jane Austen heroine. I remember thinking that her neck seemed to be an entirely different shape and construct from my own. It was ‘swan-like’. Mine was more guinea pig than swan. Then I moved on, and didn’t give my neck a second thought. Until recently.

I blame my iPhone for dragging me out of my blissful ignorance of neck-related issues. My children have an obsession with FaceTime. Even when we’re in the same building, they’ll FaceTime me to ask what’s for supper (pasta), or where they can find their socks (wherever the dog has hidden them).

I hate FaceTime. I loathe being forced to stare at my face, and I particularly hate the angle at which that super high-powered camera gets you. It’s usually pointing right at your neck and up to your chin.

I thought that maybe the camera lied. Then, one day about six months ago, one of my kids stared at me in horror and said “Mummy! What has happened to your neck?!?” Not for the first time, I looked back on all those hours of childbirth and years of nappies, sleepless nights and nose wiping and thought why?!?

Side note: Please don’t troll me. I love my kids more than life itself, obvs.

My neck has transformed – not into a Gywnnie-like swan, but into a turkey. And my chin has drooped, like a little hammock for all those words I can no longer remember to hang out in, swinging gently in the breeze.

I am doomed.

I Googled what to do about turkey neck. Plastic surgery is the most effective solution, apparently, including a technique called MST which is described as ‘minimally invasive’ and involves ‘rejuvenating the neck by tightening the skin with barbed threads.’ Yikes!

The truth is, I don’t want to resort to surgery as an antidote to ageing. I’d rather planned to just let it all hang down in as graceful a manner as possible. Also, I’m worried that it would be a bit like my home improvement operation. I paint one room, put down a new carpet and declutter. I then spend a few days feeling really chuffed with myself, before realising that my new shiny sitting room has just made the hallway look really shabby and tired.

If I sorted out my neck, I’d end up with a young-looking neck holding up and ancient-looking face. Where would it end? Ask Joan Collins.

There is some evidence, says Google, cautiously, that anti-ageing creams may help by firming and smoothing the skin, but – going back to my house decoration analogy – I worry that in my case it would be like tying to paint the hall with a bottle of Tippex.

Another suggestion is exercise. Try to sit up straight when on a computer or laptop, holding your head up high. That’s all very well, but how do I see the damn screen? Sleep with one pillow instead of two to reduce the angle between the face and the neck. I’m sorry, but no-one messes with my sleep.

There are, apparently, two ‘facial yoga’ moves which can help the whole neck situation. The first involves leaning your head back to look at the ceiling, then pouting your lips as if you’re kissing and holding for a few seconds. Repeat ten times. Do you feel like a total plonker? Yes, me too.

The second ‘yoga’ move is to ‘smile in six stages’, keeping the mouth closed. I don’t think I have six stages of smile! I look like the Joker in Batman.

I think I’m going to have to resort to the tried-and-tested solution that women of a certain age have used for ever: polo necks. And neck scarves.

So, if you’re walking down the street and you come across a woman who smiles at you in six stages and looks like a guinea pig wearing a jauntily tied scarf around its neck, that’ll be me.

There’s lots more on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook Page, including Ulrika Johnson in a brilliantly honest article about how her menopausal brain fog made her think she had early onset dementia. The fabulous Lisa Timoney has a hilarious piece on the late-middle-aged make-up routine, and, of course, there’s Throwback Thursday. Anyone else remember Jackie magazine? ‘Like’ the page to stay updated.

An Easy Way to Change Your Life

Albus Dumbledore said “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” The words we use to describe ourselves, our lives and our actions are really important – they have a huge impact on our self-esteem and our chances of success.

If you’ve read my memoir, The Sober Diaries, you’ll know that I spent many years trying to quit drinking. And that sentence illustrates the problem. I would tell myself I am going to try really hard not to drink. But within that thought there was already a get-out clause. I’m going to really try, but – obviously, I may fail. And so I did.

One of the main reasons my final attempt to quit worked was that I changed the language I used. Instead of telling myself that I was going to try to quit booze, I told myself that I was a non-drinker. The more often I thought this, and the more frequently I spoke those words, the more I started to believe it.

The trick is to picture yourself as you want to be, then start using the language, both to yourself and to others, that that person would use. That sober person, that happy person, that successful person.

We women are particularly bad at doing this. We speak to ourselves in a way we’d never let other people talk to us. We tell ourselves that we are fat, boring, unattractive or old. We constantly belittle ourselves to other people.

It’s really hard to break this habit, but when you do it can change your life. It transforms the way you see yourself, and then the way that other people see you.

So, here’s a really simple, but miraculous, self-esteem hack.

On the day I quit drinking, I changed all the passwords on all my various apps and shopping and banking accounts to iamsober. Every day I typed those words endless times, and the more I typed them, the more I believed them.

(Side note: If you are a cyber criminal, please note that I have now changed all these passwords to something entirely different involving lots of strange characters that even I can’t remember).

This trick can work with any change you want to make, or any self-esteem issue you need to address. Just make sure that you don’t use it on an account where you’ll need to disclose your password. No-one wants to tell their bank manager that their password is iamsosexy.

Try it, and see if you can stop using your words to put yourself down, and instead turn them into a source of magic.

I’m off to change all my passwords to ihatecake.

There’s lots more on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook page, including Lisa Timoney on the importance of our female friendships, and introducing Throwback Thursday for fabulous memories of the eighties (who else loved their Sony Walkman more than life itself?) If you ‘like’ the page it’ll keep you updated.

Should You Lie About Your Age?

Oscar Wilde said “One should never trust a woman who tells her real age; a woman who would tell one that would tell one anything.”

Well, that’s me bang to rights. As you’ll know if you’ve been reading my blog posts over the past four years, I will tell anyone pretty much anything.

I haven’t lied about my age since I was about sixteen, trying to buy a vodka and orange at The Shuckburgh Arms off the King’s Road in Chelsea.

Side note: For those of you now fondly remembering The Shuckburgh, notorious amongst school kids in the 1980’s for their lax checking of age ID. It eventually closed after a series of drug raids, and is now a branch of Baker and Spice.

I may not have told an outright age fib since then, but I am guilty of obfuscating, skirting around the subject and not correcting assumptions.

When I was promoted to Advertising Account Director at the age of 25, I was aware that I was unlikely to be taken seriously by my ancient, experienced clients (who were probably only about 35, practically babies), so I’d imply that I was several years older.

More recently, I’ve avoided telling people how old I am because I’m aware of all the assumptions that are made about women ‘of a certain age.’ I don’t want to be written off as irrelevant, past-it or dull. Age shouldn’t be important, but other people always seem to find it so.

“Age is not important, unless you’re a cheese.”

Helen Hayes, American actress

I’ve discovered that avoiding telling people your age isn’t easy. In these days of endless security checks, the world and his wife seem to constantly need to know your exact date of birth.

I’m always doing the ‘scroll of shame’ on the internet, where I roll the date back further and further until eventually it lands on my birth year.

And if, like me, you’ve been unlucky enough to go through a major health issue, you find that every conversation with a medical professional starts with them asking for your birth date. I know this is necessary in order to ensure they don’t mix up two patients with similar names and lop a leg off someone waiting for a mastectomy, but even so, it just adds to the indignity.

Side note: I discovered that surgeons are so terrified of this happening, that – once you’ve disclosed your date of birth – they draw big arrows on your skin with an actual Sharpie, pointing at the body part requiring attention.

My children never let anyone forget my age either. They’ll announce to all and sundry, shop assistants, mums at the school gate and cold callers, whether they’re interested or not, that my mummy is fifty.

Lying about your age is even harder in this era of the internet and the digital footprint.

The singer, Sinitta, is often caught out lopping five years off her age. This made things tricky for Simon Cowell, who she dated in the 1980’s, since it implied he’d had a relationship with a 14 year-old. Knowing how upset Sinitta was about her approaching 50th birthday, Simon threw her a huge party. She told everyone it was actually her 45th.

Eventually The Sun published a copy of Sinitta’s birth certificate. It turns out she is now 55, but just two years ago, on Celebrity First Dates, she claimed to be 48. Viewers took to Twitter in their droves. There is no longer anywhere to hide.

The writer Liz Jones also found this out the hard way. She lied about her age for years, and talks openly about how hard it was having to remember that you’re supposedly too young to remember Bagpuss or The Clangers, having to hide your passport from your boyfriend and keep up with the endless cosmetic treatments required to maintain the illusion. Liz Jones only confessed her real age to her husband two weeks before her marriage, when forced to by the Hackney Town Hall registrar.

The truth is, denying your real age – either outright or by omission – means denying more than just a number.

For me, one of the great joys of the past few years has been reconnecting with old school and college friends. How can you go to a thirty year school reunion if you’re only 43? Liz Jones says “I was quite relieved when my mum developed dementia because it meant that she could no longer inadvertently blurt out my date of birth.” How is that okay?

Also, I have learned a huge amount over the past five years. I think I’m a wiser, more experienced, more compassionate person than I was at 45. Why would I want to deny that? Why can’t we celebrate everything that we’ve been through? Everything we’ve learned?

Anyhow, in denying our age, we are just accepting and propagating the horribly harmful myth that once a woman loses her youth, she loses everything. It’s no surprise that few men feel the need to fib about how old they are. Age is a feminist issue.

It’s time, my friends, to OWN our age, experience and wisdom. If we don’t, then how can we expect anyone else to?

I am 50. I got here via much trial and error and lots of ups and downs. I have much to teach, but still – I’m sure – a great deal to learn.

There’s lots more on ageing brilliantly and disgracefully on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook page, including a hilarious article by Lisa Timoney on all those little things that make us realise how old we are. Anyone else find themselves fancying Captain Birdseye? If you ‘like’ the Facebook page, it’ll keep you updated.

What You Learn From the Cancer Clinic

I have an appointment at the Breast Cancer Clinic tomorrow morning. I go three times a year; once for a mammogram, once for an ultrasound, and once for blood tests.

Tomorrow I have a mammogram, which feels much like having what remains of your boobs shoved into a Breville sandwich toaster, then waiting for what seems like hours while the chefs work out if there’s a fly trapped in there.

I dread these check-ups, as I know that, in the space of minutes, my life could go from being as good as it’s ever been to totally destroyed. However, I have learned some really important lessons from the cancer clinic. Here’s what they are:

Gratitude

Lots of very wise and clever people swear that a daily gratitude practice has changed their lives. We should, they say, keep a gratitude diary, or at least recite every day the things we are thankful for. Studies have linked gratitude to better sleep, reduced anxiety and depression, better relationships and higher satisfaction with life. All of that – for free.

However, it’s easy to forget to be grateful for the simple, but fundamental, things that we have – our families, our health, our homes. We naturally focus on all the general day-to-day niggles instead. Human beings are programmed to want more.

Every time I visit the cancer clinic I see women with no hair or eyebrows, destroyed by chemotherapy. I see people pale-faced and silent in shock from an initial diagnosis. I see men reeling from imaging life without their partners, the mothers of their children. It’s impossible to witness that and to not feel grateful, for just being here.

Fearlessness

Confronting fear is like working a muscle. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

I spent many years avoiding fear. Whenever I was anxious about anything, I’d numb that feeling with booze. I wrote a whole book about that one: The Sober Diaries. Now I realise that all the best things in life lie beyond that point of maximum fear. If you avoid fear, you avoid growth.

Learning to confront my fears and work through them has changed my life. I’d always wanted to write, but was scared of failure, of rejection, of just not being good enough. My first novel is being published next year, and I’ve just started writing the second.

Connection

I spend much of my life with people just like me. Women with children the same age, people who live in my ‘hood, friends from university or school.

At the cancer clinic, you meet people of all ages and backgrounds, from all over London and further afield. Total strangers, but people with whom you feel a deep connection. It’s like meeting people at a baby clinic, but more morbid, obviously. You know that you have been through a similar life-changing experience, and that these strangers may understand you better than some of your closest friends.

Last year, I met a lady as I was leaving. We exchanged diagnoses, and congratulated each other warmly on not being dead yet. She looked at me intently and said “No-one really gets it unless they’ve been there, do they?” And at that point, I felt like I’d known her forever.

Empathy

When I see someone in the waiting room who’s in the middle of treatment, I’m reminded of how it changes you. It can make you swing between being angry, absent-minded, selfish, withdrawn, reckless or fearful.

It makes me remember not to judge people – the guy who yelled at you when you were driving too slowly, or the friend who’s not returned your calls. We usually have no idea what’s going on in other people’s lives. If they’re not dealing with cancer, it could be divorce, redundancy or bereavement.

Action

I used to feel immortal. There are loads of things I want to do with my life, but I always thought I had time. Now I know that that’s never necessarily the case. We have no idea what lies around the next corner, so you have to get on and do it. Now.

I’ve achieved more in the last two years than in the previous ten. And, instead of spending money on things, I’ve spent it on experiences, on building memories for my children, of incredible places and unforgettable adventures.

I know that cancer has made me a stronger, wiser and nicer person. So, am I glad I have to go through it? No way, but it does make me feel a little bit better about the whole thing. As does cake.

By the way, eagle-eyed readers may remember I promised a post this week titled Inappropriate Lust. I’m afraid I lost my nerve on that one. Maybe later! Stay tuned…

There’s lots more on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook Page including Mary Beard on how society is prejudiced against women who go grey, and Emma Thompson on why ‘being old is heaven.’ Keep your eyes peeled for a brilliant new post by Lisa Timoney on why she hates her husband for being thin, coming soon. If you ‘like’ the Facebook page, it should keep you updated.

Pelvic Floored!

When I was at an ante-natal class, back in the mists of time, I remember the midwife describing the pelvic floor as a hammock. It’s a kind of sling of muscles down below that keeps everything supported.

Well, back then, my pelvic floor was one of those tightly strung hammocks, the sort that’s pretty tricky to get into and has a habit of summarily ejecting you straight out the other side.

Now, however, three children and fifteen years later, my hammock is more of a low slung one that you climb into, only to find that your bum is actually resting on the floor.

I remember the first time I gave any thought to pelvic muscle tone. I was about sixteen, and going to stay with a friend. She said by the way, don’t make my mother laugh. I asked why not. I shouldn’t have done, because she answered when she laughs her Tampax falls out. Needless to say, I spent all weekend terrified that I might be inadvertently amusing, and find Mrs Ponsonby’s (not her real name) tampon skittering across the kitchen floor.

About three years later, I encountered the other end of the pelvic spectrum, so to speak. I was travelling in the Far East, and was hanging out with an international group of backpackers who decided to go to one of the ‘girlie bars’ on Pat Pong. It was all part of the authentic Bangkok experience, they said.

They found a bar which didn’t charge an entry fee (we were all surviving on about $5 a day), but we discovered, once it was rather too late to back out, that they charged a fortune for drinks.

I paid for a small beer, which I knew would have to last me for as long as I was there. I feel deeply uncomfortable now, knowing how badly the women in that bar were being exploited. I didn’t understand any of that back then, I just thought what incredible muscle tone they had. They did a show where they fired ping-pong balls from their vaginas, as fast as bullets, into the audience. 

With a sickening ‘plop’ one landed directly into my very expensive beer. I left, but never forgot what could be done with an impressively trained pelvic floor.

My pelvic floor has held its own fairly well, all things considered. But there are times when I become rather aware of its age. My trampolining days are, for example, behind me. 

I also had a number of rather tortuous experiences a few years back, when some friends of mine and I clubbed together to hire a personal trainer once a week, to put us through our middle-aged paces in the park. On the upside, he was utterly gorgeous. On the downside, he had a penchant for a skipping rope. Every time he produced the rope, my pelvic floor and I would groan inwardly, and I was way too embarrassed to confess the reason why I hated skipping.

I’m aware that the gradual slackening of the old pelvic muscles is common in women of my age. I know this because I am being stalked all over the internet by advertisements for Tena Lady pads and something called pee-proof pants. I accept that my days of wearing Agent Provocateur are behind me, but waterproof undies really is a step too far.

Pelvic-floor wise, things are only going to get worse. I know that the trick is to do regular pelvic floor exercises, or ‘kegels.’ But, like flossing, they’re the sort of thing you do for a while, in a flurry of righteous enthusiasm, then forget all about. Someone told me that the way to remember was to get into the habit of doing your exercises whenever you’re stopped at a red traffic light. 

I tried this for a bit, but just became obsessed with looking at the other female drivers around me, trying to work out whether they were doing the same. What expression do you wear on your face, I’d wonder, when you’re tightening your pelvic floor muscles? Slight surprise? Mild pain? Or just a faraway stare?

In the interests of this blog post, I thought I’d Google how to strengthen the pelvic floor, to see if there was any alternative to boring exercises. I realise that typing that into a search engine will result in a doubling of the incontinence stalking. I’m taking one for the team here, you understand.

Anyhow, it turns out there are these devices called intra-vaginal probes (I kid you not. How long did it take the marketing department to come up with something that sounds so alluring, I wonder?) 

The claims made about these things are pretty impressive: no more frequent visits to the loo, no more accidentally passing wind (those embarrassing moments in the yoga class could be over), and even no more lack-lustre love life: you and your partner will both notice the difference. Gosh. I hadn’t actually worried about my love life, but now I’m paranoid that it’s a bit like waving an arm in the Royal Albert Hall. 

So, time for some reader feedback. Has anyone tried one of these things? Do you think that it’s worth buying one of these lovely gadgets and giving it a whirl? (Gosh, I hope they don’t whirl. That could be painful). Please let me know in the comments below. My pelvic floor is in your hands.

I’ll leave you with that unnerving image, and a reminder to check out the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook Page. This week there’s an excerpt from the brilliant book by my friends over at the Age Well Project, a wonderful blog post on mid-life crisis underwear by Lisa Timoney, and the genius monologue from Fleabag by Kristin Scott Thomas on why you should look forward to the menopause. ‘Like’ the page to stay updated!

Coming up on the blog next week: INAPPROPRIATE LUST!