It’s the month when things start to change for the better – just not fast enough
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.
Understanding why I get stressed before a workout has helped make running fun again…
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.
With its gibberish subtitles, India v England cricket on Channel Four is a sweet experience
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.
Surprisingly, happiness lies in a blast of adverse weather
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.
It’s the shortest day today, which always means there’s light after the darkness
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.