Let’s All Stop Hating On February

It’s the month when things start to change for the better – just not fast enough

Original images: Prawny, Darwin Laganzon, Clear Free Vector Images (all via Pixabay)

IF EVER A MONTH had no mates, it would surely be February.

The 28 days we’re currently living through – or should that be enduring? – have had no end of detractors. In word and song, as well as in real life.

Perhaps its most famous rinsing came 50 years ago, when Don McLean sang: “February made me shiver/with every paper I’d deliver”.

And since then, a long queue of writers and musicians has formed to give our least favourite month a proper kicking.

Author Anna Quindlen, for example, once called Feb “a suitable month for dying”.

“Everything around is dead,” she added, “the trees black and frozen so that the appearance of green shoots two months hence seems preposterous, the ground hard and cold, the snow dirty, the winter hateful, hanging on too long.”

Alice McDermott asked: “late afternoon in early February, was there a moment of the year better suited for despair?”

Terrible, dreepy, dark”

Sebastian Barry, meanwhile, called the year’s second month: “Terrible, dreepy, dark”, and Clive Barker likened it to a monster, writing: “The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.”

But, personally, I think we should be laying off February: for me it’s nowhere near as horrible as it’s made out to be, at least on this side of The Pond.

In fact, February is the month when things start to change for the better – it’s real problem is that it doesn’t change things quickly enough.

Continue reading “Let’s All Stop Hating On February”

Scared of Running? It’s Just Your Inner Caveperson Talking

Understanding why I get stressed before a workout has helped make running fun again

Original images: Artur Luczka and Ryan McGuire/Pixabay

WHEN I WERE a teenager, Space Invaders machines were the latest thing, jazz-funk bands like Linx and Shakatak were riding high in the charts*, and I used to go to swimming club every week.

I bloody hated swimming club.  

It was stress, you see: I dreaded the hard, physical work so much that my Mum got into the habit of driving me to the pool early, so I could spend half an hour in the toilets beforehand.

We’d always start with the dreaded, mile-long, warm-up – four lengths of Butterfly, followed by three of Backstroke, two of Breaststroke, and one of Crawl, rotating each stroke through 4-3-2-1 until we’d completed 64 lengths.

But I could barely manage 25 metres of Fly, so those first four lengths were more a case of half-drowning than swimming.

Then, after the warm-up, there were still another couple of miles to get through – constantly fighting to catch my breath, trying to control my panic underwater at every Tumble Turn.

And all the while, our Fred Flintstone lookey-likey coach would be further ramping up our arousal levels, prowling along the poolside, yelling at us to go faster and defy the lactate weighing down our limbs.

I’ve started to experience feelings of dread before running”

Swimming club has been front of mind recently because I’ve started to experience the same feelings of dread before running, of all things – even though a run is something I’ve always adored and looked forward to.

It’s true that I’ve always struggled a little with the first few hundred metres of any run – until I give up the fight to actively control my breath, and my body just starts breathing in tune with the work it’s being asked to do.

But, lately, I’ve been worrying more and more about my age, my (probably) arthritic knees, my lockdown-stiff hips, and the bad eating and drinking habits I’ve taken up during the pandemic.

I feel short of breath even before I set off, and my tummy grumbles in a way it hasn’t done since I was 14, trying to pluck up some courage in the swimming pool sheds.

I don’t need to be scared”

Thank goodness, then, for University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, whose new book Chatter has helped me understand that I don’t need to be scared of running.

According to Kross, the butterflies, shortness of breath, and the raised heartbeat I’m experiencing before a run are just an “adaptive evolutionary reaction” that our cave-dwelling ancestors developed in order to respond to threats.

“Threat includes physical danger,” Kross writes, “but it also encompasses a range of more common experiences. For example, when we encounter situations that we aren’t sure we can handle.”

So, if I keep telling myself that I can’t handle a five-mile run, I start to see the run as a threat – perhaps to my knees, or more existentially, my self-esteem – which then ramps up the stress response even more.

It’s just my Inner Caveman, trying to get me round the park five times”

If, however, I can tell myself that my physical discomfort is just a sign that my body is getting ready to perform, the task ahead can start to look like an achievable challenge rather than an ordeal.

“In other words,” Kross writes, “tell yourself that your sudden rapid breathing, pounding heartbeat and sweaty palms are not there to sabotage you but to help you respond to a challenge.”  

As I stood at the start of my last run, I tried to remember Kross’s words – and they worked.

I noticed my slightly raised heart rate and smiled inside, because I knew that it was just my Inner Caveman, trying to help me get around the park five times.

Instead of consciously trying to regulate my breathing, I was happy to let my body take over, because after millennia of human experience, it already knew what to do.

The fear was suddenly gone: I just wish I’d known all this back in swimming club.


* Unfortunately

Getting The Caramel Going

With its gibberish subtitles, India v England cricket on Channel Four is a sweet experience

Ravi Ashwin, cunningly lobbing sweeties at our batters

A CERTAIN SORT of English person is really quite excited at the moment because, for once, we can watch our national team play cricket on the TV without having to fork out for the privilege.  

The four-match series against India is currently being screened free-to-air on Channel Four – the first time we’ve seen our heroes in action abroad for nowt since the mid-1980s.

It’s difficult to express the uplift in mood that these pictures from sunny Chennai have given to the lockdown-weary, snowed-in and Brexit-battered people of these isles over the last five days – especially as England wasn’t having its arse handed to it, for a change.

And, having been denied the chance to travel pretty much anywhere because of Covid-19, there’s something more than usually awesome about having satellite pictures of the world’s best players beamed 5,099 miles, straight into your living room.

Denied stimulation of all sorts in lockdown, it’s been particularly poignant to watch our captain, Joe Root, smack 258 runs off India’s formidable bowlers during the course of the first match.

It was even better watching our plucky spinner Dom Bess dismiss the mighty Indian captain Virat Kohli for bugger all in the first test, and then follically-challenged Jack ‘The Nut’ Leach bamboozle Rohit Sharma with his mastery of dip and turn.

But perhaps the very bestest thing about Channel Four’s coverage is the way that its live commentary subtitles mangle both the game and the English language in the most surreal manner. It’s really worth the price of a subscription on all its own.

Continue reading “Getting The Caramel Going”

You Are Now Entering A Testosterone Free Zone

I’m increasingly risk-averse these days – is it just another sign of ageing?  

THERE’S STILL A LITTLE bit of snow lying around here, left over from the flurry at the weekend.  

Today, I was thinking about going to the shops on my bike, but I didn’t fancy it: I was a bit worried about hitting a frozen patch, and tumbling off.  

I haven’t been running for a while, either – partly because of the still-icy pavements and the possibility of a slip, followed by yet another muscle tear or strain.

And while I was thinking all this, I asked myself: “When did you become such an old man? What happened to all that testosterone?”  

Continue reading “You Are Now Entering A Testosterone Free Zone”

Thighs Don’t Lie

My knees and hips are also furious about my new exercise regime

OF COURSE I’m on a health kick at the moment.

It’s January, season of new starts. And anyway, what else is there to do these days if you’re not a sainted Key Worker?

From what I can work out, everybody else’s motivation and productivity seem to have fallen off a cliff while we mooch around at home, waiting for our distant vaccinations and the post-Covid New Dawn.

Despite this (and as if there wasn’t enough for us to be down about already) many of us still feel we should be achieving something with all this lockdown downtime.

So I’ve decided to try and turn back the clock, yet again, to when I was thin and thirty-ish.

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Hiding From Covid In Another Century

In times like these, being stuck in the past can be a comfort  

Original image: girlfeet/Pixabay

WHEN I THINK BACK about what I did during the Covid-19 pandemic, I wonder if I’ll remember how much time I spent not being there.

What I mean is, I’ve spent a lot of this year hiding in books, which is something I’ve done to distract myself from sadness and worry ever since I was small.

But for some reason, most of my lockdown reading has been about history – whether it’s a novel set in times gone by, or an academic account of what went down back then.  

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You Only Ride Twice

Finding it hard to sleep? Imagine being back on your bike…

Original image: Rudy and Peter Skitterians/Pixabay

SINCE I TURNED 40, and started getting up at least once a night to visit the bathroom, I’ve found it increasingly tough to get back to sleep in the small hours.

As well as my glitchy personal plumbing, work and life stresses gradually helped me to perfect the art of waking up at about 4am, and then failing to drop off again.

Typically, I’d spend a couple of hours a night lying awake with my worst, most useless, thoughts – about someone horrible at work, for example, or being mean to an ex-girlfriend 20 years before.

And then, when I finally gave up on the prospect of sleep at around 6.30, I’d get up to start another day – gloomy and totally keyed up, as well as just fucking tired.

Lately, however, I’ve stumbled upon an unexpected solution to my insomnia. 

Continue reading “You Only Ride Twice”

Rioting And The Over-50s

I never dreamed older people would try to overthrow The State in their spare time – until I saw pictures from The Capitol

It’s striking how many people in and around The Capitol were middle-aged or older

WHEN I STARTED writing this blog, I wondered what the future might hold for me and other 50-somethings.

I thought – correctly as it turned out – that I’d be writing mostly about dodgy knees, grey pubes, baldness, and binge drinking.

But, until I saw the pictures from The Capitol, I never thought about us rioting.

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How To Flip A Heavy Day Like A Judo Throw

Surprisingly, happiness lies in a blast of adverse weather

Original image: giografiche/Pixabay

TODAY WAS THE SORT of January day we all dread – cold and grey, with north winds driving tiny needles of sleety rain hard into your face.

We don’t have the world’s harshest weather here in the north temperate zone but – trust me – today was horrible enough.

When you threw in the post-Christmas comedown, worrying rates of Covid infections, and the Government announcing another six-weeks of lockdown, it added up to the perfect excuse for just sitting around and feeling fed up.

Which is precisely why I went outside…

Continue reading “How To Flip A Heavy Day Like A Judo Throw”

They Can Cancel Our Christmas, But They Can’t Stop The Solstice!

It’s the shortest day today, which always means there’s light after the darkness  

Original images: Kira auf der Heide/Unsplash and Mike Peel/Wikimedia Commons

THERE’S BEEN a lorra lorra gnashing and wailing in the UK this week, after the Government did yet another U-turn and cancelled Christmas.

Faced with a highly infectious new coronavirus strain in London and the south east of England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson banned Christmas travel to and from the capital – and restricted festive visiting nationwide to December 25.

While no-one is arguing much with the need for stricter measures, pretty much everybody thinks the timing of Johnson’s announcement stinks.

Just days earlier, he had said it would be “inhuman” to deny Brits a proper Christmas after nine months of worry, sacrifice and hardship.  

Yet the announcement did precisely that, coming just as millions were putting presents under the tree for relatives who now won’t be able to open them – and buying Christmas treats that now can’t be shared with loved ones.

Continue reading “They Can Cancel Our Christmas, But They Can’t Stop The Solstice!”