Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Another year, another landmark

My SD turned 11 last week. She's turning into a little lady before our very eyes!

And I'm happy to say that things there are on the up. It seems that SD is getting a little fed up of the BM's anti-Dad and Wicked Steppie campaign - it's getting a bit old now, she's kept it up for 2 months. So I can start to see my relationship with SD improving, little by little. She asked me if I'd take her to the hairdresser to have her hair done nice at some point. This was after I'd come back from the new salon I've tried after mine closed down, with THE most fab haircut ever - genius extremely camp hair-man managed to tame my thick mad hair into a funky edgy bob. BM cuts SD's hair, and more often than not, doesn't do it very evenly, so she's asked if I'll take her to have hers cut properly.

Now this is a difficult one. SD is growing up fast, and rapidly becoming interested in beauty related stuff - she's got more Impulse sprays than there are days of the week, she's always wanting me to paint her nails, and asking me for advice on what outfits she's wearing. BM isn't really into this sort of stuff, she's gay - not that being gay precludes an interest in nail polish, but BM's just not into girly grooming. I wouldn't have said I'm especially girly or high maintenance but I do like to look well turned out. However, I'm a little bothered that taking SD to the hairdresser might provoke World War Three.

DP is fine with it. He thinks it is another life skill SD will need to learn eventually so she might as well start getting experience now of going to the hairdresser, telling them what she wants, having her hair washed and dried all nice will be a nice experience for her. She only wants a trim, she is very proud of her long blonde hair so we wouldn't be doing anything drastic, no funky edgy bobs or coloured hair dye, just getting it even, getting rid of the split ends and she can have it styled nicely. But, I'm still worried BM is going to go mental and that I'll be guilty of serious overstepping of her motherly boundaries. I do try and respect that while I'm fond of SD and want the best for her, I am not her parent, and don't try and do "parental" things like parents evenings or medical appointments. But hairdressing is less clear, especially as now SD is suddenly turning pre-teen with a vengeance, she needs a female role model to teach her about that stuff, and BM doesn't seem to be doing it - as DP said, I'm filling the gap in the market right now! But - does that mean we should let her go have her hair done even when BM has said no and prefers to do it herself (no doubt a cost saving exercise, child's haircut or a pack of fags and a six pack of Stella, hmmm tough choice). We had a big hoo-haa last year about SD's Christmas play at school, BM wanted SD back on Sunday night so she could do her hair for the play, as she thought it was unacceptable that I performed that task. Like many other things in split families, even something as innocuous as a hairdo can easily become a stepfamily West Bank.

Well, I've done the Steppie's Cop-Out and left it in DP's hands. As far as I'm concerned, he's the parent, he makes the decision and he takes any flak for the decision he makes. I'm happy that SD has come to me and wants to do this, but DP has got to decide whether getting rid of a few split ends are worth the potential row.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Groundhog Day

So it's been a stink day at work.

Manager stomping round huffy, complaining that I didn't put enough information on a purchase order, annoyed with me over having 2 physio appointments next week and the sarcy raised eyebrow because one of them happens to be on Friday afternoon. Well actually, I made it that way because DP's physio appointment with the same guy is at 4pm, and I know if my appointment is right before his, he can come get me on his way back from picking SD up from school, and then give me a lift home after, because I can't drive myself and I can't walk, you jerk-off. I also don't have unlimited money for taxi fares, because you lot pay me such a bloody pittance. But never mind, I'll just wave a magic wand and make my knee better shall I, because clearly my torn ligament is inconveniencing the company too much. And while it may seem to you that most employees would craftily make their medical appointments for a Friday afternoon so they can get home early and crack open the bottle of red, what you don't realise is that most employees are not stepmothers, and you have no idea what the Friday evening adjustment period is like in the house of a weekend father. Put it this way - it's not something you hurry home to, let alone finish early for extra exposure.

I sometimes feel that I am reliving the same day over and over at work. The same finger pointing snippy crap. The same nitpicking over stupid things while ignoring the really big things that we have to get sorted. Staring at the same screen, and repeating the same stuff over and over.

I decided while I was away in China that I really wasn't cut out for the corporate office environment, and that I am going to change careers. Gulp. A very scary thing, especially when re-training involves an unpaid year of study. When I thought back to all the things I'd enjoyed doing in the past, all of those things were when I was working with young people. I used to work in a wacky arts centre, doing an after school club for local teenagers with behavioural difficulties, and I have honestly never enjoyed a job so much in my life. I did it part time, as a student, and I wanted to go into some kind of youth work or work with special needs after uni, but went down the safe career path I did because it paid better and offered the steady and reliable career trajectory, instead of an uncertain life working in the nonprofit and badly funded public sectors. I thought I'd made the right choice for a while - good income, paid off my debts - but now I find myself in this eternal Groundhog Day scenario, and feeling like the place I spend most of my time in not only has no meaning and benefit to humankind, but is completely sucking my soul dry.

Now I work with a few people who LOVE IT. They like nothing better than to go downstairs to the canteen in their lunch hours, and discuss the finer points of TCP/IP networking, Linux versus Windows, and how many cores their processors have. I hobbled downstairs for my lunch today and overheard such a conversation, and it really made me smile. Why? No, not because I love all that stuff and am vastly interested in it. Precisely the opposite. Which is great - because it affirmed to me that I am not where I am supposed to be. I love seeing and hearing people be passionate about their work, and I wish that I could be one of them. But IT is not what I am passionate about. I've made the right decision to make this change to my life. Thanks, ubergeeks.

So, having made this decision, the scary part is setting about the How. I have started to do my application for the MA course that I am interested in, which is Youth and Community Development, which also carries the Professional Youth Worker accreditation for youth work in the UK. Assuming they even like my application (although the cynical part of me says that these days so long as you're willing to pay full fees they'll have you) I will have an interview to get through, in which I will no doubt have to explain why I am doing this since I haven't really done any work with young people for the past 2 years. Yes, I got swallowed up by the corporate machine and became more interested in spending my salary than the greater good of humanity for a while there, okaaaay? But I'm ready to give a shit again!

The other and infinitely more scary thing is how I am going to fund this. We're not exactly rolling in money - and although DP is firmly behind me and wants more than anything to see me happy, it is a slight worry. It kinda hinges on our mortgage going on to a variable rate next year and being able to take advantage of the very low interest rates, which will free up some funds in our kitty. The other thing it will hinge on is getting a Career Development loan, to fund day to day living costs while studying.

Now while I am excited about this potential new direction I'm going to take, anyone reading this who is a stepmum will probably also relate to the sense of guilt we often feel when we do something that is solely for us, especially when that may have repercussions for the rest of the family. I know that SD won't come to any harm if money is tight for a year - her needs will always be met, we will both make sure of that, but we won't be able to indulge nearly as many of her wants. And I've expressed concern on here before that my SD is, like many others of her generation, quite a materialistic child, and she's heading towards teenagerdom, when they are no longer so amused by simple free pleasures such as kicking through the autumn leaves in wellies, bike riding or playing board games. I worry that she'll blame me for a drop in our living standards, and resent it. While DP has quite rightly pointed out that I would be setting her a very good example by sacrificing some material pleasures for a while in order to study for my MA, which will provide me with the means to hopefully earn a better salary in future, doing something I enjoy, I doubt she will see that when she isn't able to buy the new Miley Cyrus album.

But none of this means I can't do it. Nowhere in the Manual of Stepmotherhood does it say "thou shalt sacrifice all thine ambitions at the altar of his children". It would be a sure-fire recipe for resentment if I was to carry on trying to plod on at this job for the sake of SD being able to buy a few more DS games. And at the back of my mind, there is also the situation of us having our own family gnawing away at me - I might never have children, that is something I may have to ultimately accept, but could I live with that AND knowing that I'd never fulfilled my career ambitions and found something that I loved to do with purpose and happiness? As stepmothers, we already sacrifice quite a lot in our lives. Our weekends. A carefree courtship with our loved ones. Money. Holidays. Being the first wife, having a first child with our partners, in some cases having children at all. And in some cases, our sanity! Bearing all this in mind, why is it we have such an issue when we need to ask for something for us?

But - something that actually has a massive bearing on how happy we are as stepmothers is how happy we are with ourselves. My other "Eureka" moment in China came when I realised that I'd actually be a better stepmother, role model, support, to SD if I was happier with myself, and followed the path I was meant to, rather than the path I thought others wanted me to follow. By plumping for the safe career with the reliable salary and job opportunities, I thought I'd be happy, but all I have is more stuff - and still no money at the end of the month. More than anything, I want to be able to teach my SD to listen to her heart, and I can't teach her that if I don't live that example myself.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

From Wall Walking to Walking Wounded

Boy, oh boy do I feel silly.

Here I am going on about how I walked 65 miles of Great Wall, up and down massive steps, near vertical descents and tough inclines....I came back from holiday and played my first game of football last Sunday. Had a bit of a collision with another player. Nothing malicious, just both trying (and failing) to get the same ball, as one does in footy. I went over. Nothing too bad, I thought, and got up and carried on. As the game went on, I noticed my left knee getting sore, and progressively weaker. We had no subs, so coming off the field wasn't really an option, so I struggled through the rest of the second half, not really being any use to anybody but hey, I was on the field at least. Post-game, things really started to seize up, and by the evening it was difficult to put much weight on the knee without, well, agony. I rested it, did the old ice pack bit and a hot bath, hoping things would feel better the next day. Suffice to say, they didn't, and my knee gave out at work, prompting my boss to have to drive me to A&E. Rather embarrassing, having to lean on my boss's shoulder just to walk a few feet from the car to the check-in.

A week later and it's still not exactly clear what I've done to it. Two doctors, two different opinions - one said I'd torn "something" but didn't really have the inclination to find out what and sent me away with painkillers and told me to see my GP. Which I did, the next day, though he was not my normal GP, and after I came in to his surgery on crutches and unable to put any weight on the knee whatsoever, he did a bit of poking and prodding before deciding nothing was wrong except bruising! OK, so a bit of bruising usually renders you unable to walk 48 hours later does it? Hmmmm. He then advised me to take some anti inflammatories which I later found out were incompatible with some medication I already take - as he hadn't bothered to look what I was on. Yes, I'd like some life-threatening haemorrhage along with my busted knee please.

Now I'm all for the NHS. Yes, it's a good thing, universal free health care. A very good thing, and having lived in countries where they don't have it, I think it is better to have it than not to. I don't want to have to worry whether I'm skint or not before seeking medical attention, so I appreciate the fact that it doesn't cost me to see the doctor. However, on this occasion I have had to pay to see a physiotherapist to get any idea of what's wrong with my knee. I might add that I had to pay a physiotherapist to inflict a LOT OF PAIN on me to get any idea of what's wrong with my knee, and said physio is having to write a letter to the GP's surgery saying, actually, yes this person has more than just a bit of bruising and needs to be referred. Well, I knew that, and I could have told Dr Oxford-Medical-Degree-on-the-surgery-wall that there was more than just bruising there for God's sake, I'm no hypochondriac and I am certainly not a frequent botherer of the already overstretched doctors down there, but it's MY KNEE, dammit, and I know when my own knee is a bit more than just bruised. 5 years of football and martial arts tells me I know the difference between just bruising and something not being right.

So the long and short of it is, that after all my Great Wall walking, I am now not walking anywhere. Crutches are my new best friend, as is ibuprofen gel and Sex and the City re-runs. Bless my darling DP, even with all the commuting he is doing, he is emailing me every day from work asking what I want for tea, going and getting the things I like and cooking them for me, doing such a good job of it in fact I might just hand the cooking over to him full stop, his spag bol was that good I could eat it every night - never thought of putting bacon in the sauce, but it really worked, and he remembered the splash of red wine, and the bottle to go with it of course!

All this sitting around has also made me get a slight obsession with this year's X Factor. I'm not one for reality TV normally, and I know, I know everyone says that to justify their guilty pleasures, but my previous reality-show-watching efforts have often ended in objects being hurled across the living room. Seriously, for me it is a dangerous activity. I did start to watch X Factor a bit last year, I told myself mainly for the car-crash auditions, some of which were absolutely hilarious, despite the residual sense of guilt I felt for having a laugh at the expense of the hapless sods providing the entertainment. At least they got their 2 minutes of fame, albeit cut short by the shrilling of Simon Cowell's buzzer and being remembered more for their train wreck than their first steps on to the gravy train. They're braver than me anyway, it takes me several tequila shots to even pick a song in a karaoke bar, let alone get up and sing one, and I'd be more likely to throw a shoe at Simon Cowell than sing to him. In fact, maybe there's an act for Britain's Got Talent in the making....stiletto throwing. The only problem is that there are so many drunk girls in Leeds on a Friday night who can do it that much better than me, they might be loaded on cheap wine and sambuca shots but trust me, they can still hit a cheating boyfriend at fifty paces with a pair of Nine West's finest six-inch kitten heels. In fact, one of my football team-mates had an altercation with a stiletto-wielder recently while on a night out, having been accused of flirting with the girl's boyfriend. She had quite a shiner, I must say. "The cheap ones hurt more" she asserted, adding that these were definitely not Manolos, because some of the cheap paint on the shoes came off on her forehead. Being stilettoed on a night out is definitely the new throwing up, and the plus side is at least if your shoes are embedded in someone else's head, you can't be sick on them.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

China Part 3

On our third day of trekking, we got up to a beautiful sunny morning. Sadly breakfast was more concrete toast and floppy fried eggs, with some kind of spam-like substance, so I made a note to pack an extra Mule Bar for the day. As usual, The Terminator was ready with the warm-ups and stretches, cue much groaning.

Today we would get to meet the local "Wall Catchers". These are locals who live in the villages near the Wall, usually from farming families, who supplement their income by helping tourists and trekkers on the Wall, to carry their bags. A couple of our number decided to take advantage and let one of the wall catchers take their pack for the day, leaving them free to enjoy the scenery and take pictures. They were quite amazing, like mountain goats they scrambled up the steep paths where some of us stumbled and slipped. The joys of knowing the terrain like the back of your hand. They were very sweet, but a little irritating after a while having a shadow constantly grabbing at your backpack and saying "me carry, me carry". But 100 yuan for a day's bag carrying to them was a lot of money. Farmers in China earn very little, and as a result many of the younger generation have deserted the countryside for the cities, overpopulating the main cities and leaving a shortage of people to farm the land and provide the nation's food. The Chinese government has attempted to combat this trend by allowing farming families to have two children instead of the regulation one, and also making farmers largely tax-exempt. This has also gone some way towards combatting the awful trend in some more traditional rural communities of abandoning baby girls, because they want sons, but of course with the One Child Policy they only get one shot. When James the Chinese trek leader was explaining all this to us, he chose the unfortunate phrase "The Chinese, they love their little boys" prompting sniggers from the more sewer-minded in the group!

The Wall Catchers, once those not saddled with a backpack had realised they weren't needed for the day, eventually melted away, and we were left walking the Wild Wall, which is mostly ruins. In some places, the path was only a metre wide, with no sides to the wall this time, which again caused some problems for the vertigo afflicted. The grit and determination of some of those people to overcome their fears and get through that trek was truly awe-inspiring, and it was a privilege to be trekking with them and offering them support or a friendly hand or word when needed, or even at times a verbal kick up the backside!

The scenery began to be stunning, we had perfect clear weather and we were getting a sense of the sheer scale of the Great Wall, the way it snaked across the mountain tops, what a sheer feat of construction it was, and just how many lives paid for its construction.

The Wall Catchers returned at the end of the trek, with bags full of souvenirs. It was bargaining time, as we haggled for postcards and mementoes of our day. We bought a book on the history of the wall, feeling that we should at least buy something seeing as they had walked all that way with their bags of wares. However, once we had done our buying, we got a little fed up with being followed, and to try and get rid of one of the hawkers, DP said to him that we didn't want any postcards but if he could find us some beer, we'd pay him 20 yuan a pop! He sprinted off like a cheetah and in no time at all, he was back with an armful of beer cans. We gave him our 20 yuan notes gladly for the cold beer after a hard day's trekking, happily glugging it down as we walked the final half mile to the hotel in the village of Jinshanling. DP said "Now we'll call you Beer Man!" to the hawker who'd got us the beer, and he grinned with a wide smile, pointed to himself and said "Me, Beer Man!" and skipped off to tell all his friends his new nickname, all the way down pointing to us, chattering in Chinese punctuated by shouts of "Beer Man!"

That night we were all in an upbeat happy mood. So many fears had been quashed, such achievements had been made walking that wall, so we gathered in the hotel courtyards for TsingTao and chat. We had a demonstration of the local traditional paper cutting, which is just incredible, and the shop opened late for us. I bought a traditional Year of the Tiger cutting for SD, as it's her 11th birthday in a couple of weeks, and her Chinese astrological sign is the Tiger. I also found a beautiful little cutting for my Nana, who is in her late 70s, with the Chinese character for longevity in the middle. My eye was drawn to it before the owner told me what it meant, and he smiled and told me it was perfect for a grandparent, because the elderly are revered in traditional Chinese culture, longevity is prized.

Now this was also the night of the Termination of the Terminator.

DP and some of the other lads had decided to get together and buy the Terminator's drinks for the night, and at some point while merry after a few beers, Terminator decided to challenge DP to out-drink him. Needless to say, he wasn't successful - the fitter they are, the harder they fall, and while DP's physique is much more suited to beer drinking than the gym, the Terminator is the opposite. DP earned himself the nickname "John Connor" that night, for being the only man able to defeat the Terminator. Needless to say, he wasn't up to leading any energetic warm-ups the next morning!

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

China Part 2

Our second day of trekking took us to the beautiful Black Dragon Paw National Park in Beijing Province. The Terminator started the day with one of his usual "light" warm up sessions, leaving us breathless and wondering if trekking could, really, be any worse than our morning gym sessions! Eager to get trekking, we started out past a few smallholdings where local subsistence farmers peered around the corn at the strange group of foreigners stomping past with their big boots and poles. Used to walking the terrain every day, the local Chinese were sometimes seen ambling up the hills that we found so difficult just in flimsy canvas shoes.

The sun came out for us on Day 2, illuminating the surrounding mountains just before we disappeared into the undergrowth. Several cries of "ooh, I feel like Indiana Jones" were heard as we battled through the overgrown path. Some parts were very steep and slippy, nothing to grip to but loose earth, needing our hands as well to scramble up. DP and the other guys were chivalrous in helping the ladies down the steep descents, and we reached our first stop quicker than expected at the mouth of the gorge that we would be descending the side of next. At the bottom of the descent we found what seemed like a popular destination for local families. There was a pool at the mouth of the cave with old truck tyres that had been turned into boats floating there for kids, and an ice cream stand. Chinese characters had been carved into the rock all along the side of the stream.

Finally, we had some reasonably flat walking along the side of the stream to our lunch stop for the day. There was a hairy moment for some when we had to come down a long metal ladder into a cave, and there were a few who had to put many fears aside to do it with the help of their comrades. The lunch stop was welcome relief - a mobile noodle kitchen this time, noodles and veg with a Chinese version of KFC. I don't think I have ever eaten so quickly in my life, as soon as I saw that food I realised just how hungry I was.

The afternoon was the piece de resistance . We had to climb up to a watchtower that used to be part of the Wall. We had noticed it on the way in, but not thought for a minute that we'd actually have to climb it! It was steep, tough and slippy in places, and considerate DP stayed with the back of the group to help a few of the less sure-footed up the steep bits bless him. The view was worth it, we could see for miles across the Hidden Dragon Valley and Crouching Tiger mountains, OK, so a lot of the scenery was sweetcorn fields, but they were Chinese sweetcorn fields, OK?

Strangely enough, the toughest part of the day was walking back down the road. The hot tarmac was unyielding on our already well worn feet, and the hot sun was unrelenting as there was no shade, unlike when we had been scrambling through the shade of the undergrowth or had the cool of the water nearby. It was also a very bad time for Beijing Belly to strike, and there being a choice between some dubious toilets at the end of the trek and some bushes, I opted for the bush. Having snuck off quietly, I managed to escape the humiliation of one of my trek buddies who "mistook" the shed for the toilets, and earned herself the nickname "Shitty Shed" for the rest of the trip. Thankfully she's a good humoured Geordie lass so took it all in her stride - and she might have been pointed in the, ahem, wrong direction, by one of her so-called trek buddies!

That night, we spent at the Longevity Travelling Palace just over the border in Hubei Province, which used to be a place of rest for the emperor and his entourage once. It was traditional, with proper kang beds, which looked very lovely but were, being made of concrete, not that comfortable. They told us in the olden days they used to have a fire burning underneath the kang to keep the bed's inhabitants warm, but as far as I could tell the only benefit to that would have been that while your bum might have been numb, at least it was warm. And the shower in this place at least worked. There was a 60th birthday that night in our group, another tooth-rottingly sweet Chinese cake, and of course, plenty more of that fabulous local beer.