It always feels weird to return to posting after a long absence without explaining what life-changing events have prevented me from spilling the contents of my brain over these hallowed pages, so here we go. I’ll try and be brief, but it’s highly likely I’ll fail, so I shall at least endeavour to make it entertaining.
The last time I blogged regulary, I’d broken myself from too much running and most of my regular training was yoga, and most of my regular blog posts were on the same subject. I was living in Chalk Farm (right across the road from the yoga studio – very much in keeping with my opinion that any kind of hobby needs to be convenient for it to stick!), in a somewhat unusual situation which I never spoke about in order not to infringe upon the privacy of the person involved. Since I’ve now moved out, in my biggest life change since coming back from Japan, I figured I’d hammer out a quick post which should answer the question burning the tips of the tongues of all my avid readers: where the fuck have you been?!
A few years ago, an old friend mentioned that a friend of hers was looking for someone to live with her elderly mum, who was still in their family home in North London, one which really was too big for just her (she became a widow a few years ago). Since the lady concerned was adamant she didn’t want to move, a deal was struck with her worried daughters: she could stay if she got a lodger. Someone to take the bins out, fix the wifi and, it turned out, remember lots and lots of things. So after an “interview” – drinking tea round a big old wooden table in one of the homeliest rooms I’ve ever been to in London – it turns out I was going to be that person. In return for providing this help and a rent so small that I’m embarrassed to put it here, I got a large loft bedroom and similarly sized studio/office/spare room, my own bathroom, and the pleasure of Marta – a cleaner that came once a week. The house, whilst entirely ramshackle, was homely and spacious, and we were also lucky enough to have a very charming garden.
Charlotte is an incredibly smart lady, degree-educated and who worked as a restorer of architectural drawings and manuscripts at several leading museums and galleries in London. Her husband, who died eight years ago, was a Cambridge-educated art historian, highly respected, author of several books, lecturer at Camberwell art college, and recipient of a CBE. She remains a member of the Royal Academy, Tate, attendee of various drawing and art history classes, and avid do-er of the Guardian crossword. All in all, a pretty smart cookie.
She also has dementia. I didn’t know this when I moved in – presumably her family didn’t want to scare me off, and it’s not the sort of thing she’d have said directly. But after realising that it was more than being a “bit vague” and hearing her refer to her “memory doctor”, I figured it out. In a day-to-day sense, the biggest effect on me was having to remember stuff: where she was supposed to be, checking she knew how to get there (and writing a bullet-pointed Post It with instructions if she didn’t!), noting which magazines her MacBook Air was nestled between, keeping an eye on where she left shopping and her handbag when she came in (although occasionally I found them outside the front door), reminding her to return calls, and just dealing with things that were stressful or confusing. This has given me the recall skills of Neo.
Mostly, though, our time together was spent chatting over breakfast (it turned out that we have almost the exact same rise and eat routine), helping with the crossword and pottering around, sometimes in the garden (I’d also steal her plants from work whenever there were some going free).
Whilst it’s given me an appreciation for just how awful it is being old – you lose your mobility (and marbles), your friends die, life becomes a constant round of doctors appointments, buying hearing aid batteries, dental check ups and other assorted medical annoyances – it’s also given me an appreciation for the fact that, despite this, elderly people are just the same as other people. They worry, get scared or angry just like anyone, but also have a filthy sense of humour and a quick wit, as fast as any younger person. All too often I’d see her patronised by people, who’d speak slowly as if she was a bird that would fly away if they moved suddenly, or a three year old who wouldn’t understand, or they’d get aggressive when they didn’t actually explain properly and she was confused. I guess, like mine, a lot of people’s relationship with the elderly extends to their grandparents when they were kids, and I feel lucky to have had the chance to form this relationship when I am an adult. In a weird way it’s filled that gap in my knowledge and experience of people, and I’ve learnt things from it that I would never even have thought about was in a regular house share .
Needless to say I’ve also learnt a lot about what is a truly horrible condition. Imagine (if you can) being stoned all the time, and this being punctuated by drinking binges when you’d wake up without a hangover but being unable to remember large swathes of the previous hours, days or even weeks. Imagine the uncertainty you’d live you life with, and how this would gradually erode the confidence you had in yourself, and your ability just to get through your day to day life. It’s a disease that’s getting more and more common, and I seem to come across more and more people whose parents are, or have been affected. It’s very sad and not something I’d wish on anyone. In fact if I was to pick a terminal illness, I think I’d go for a serious cancer over a serious case of dementia.
Anyhow, let’s move onto more cheerful matters. The cheap rent I was paying meant I was able to save a decent amount of money for the first time since I left home, which enabled me to take a big step forward in adulting, and buy my own flat. A long and somewhat stressful process, made worse by the vendor’s insistence on using an elderly Turkish solicitor who didn’t use email, it finally came to fruition and I moved in in May.
Less yay was the fact that not only had I bought at the top end of my budget but that I hadn’t really costed out what has pretty much turned out to be a total refurbishment of everything apart from the plaster on the walls (although I have gone through several boxes of filler). Although I’d saved a bit up for the things I knew needed doing (and they were plentiful: replacing all the windows, installing gas, fitting radiators, getting a boiler, a new kitchen, a new bathroom and painting and flooring throughout) I was so keen to get the flat (it’s absolutely brilliant and I love it) that I quietly brushed all thoughts of “how the hell am I going to afford to get all this work done?” under the carpet. At least I would’ve done if I actually had any carpet.
This has resulted in a situation where things are getting done, but very slowly. Bit by bit. So far, I have employed people to install a new front door, wall to ceiling patio doors in the living room (which lead onto a large and slowly-becoming-beautiful roof terrace) and ultra bright white PVC windows, and another guy who’s got radiators fitted in every room, installed a boiler and done the kitchen. The gas company came and dug up the pavement and ran gas up the side of the shop below, which was pretty cool.
Before and after shots of the kitchen, taken from the living room. I got extra cupboards on the dining table side to get extra storage.
Everything else I’ve been doing myself: repairing cracked plaster, sanding and prepping the walls then painting them. I bought a sander for £5.21 on eBay which is so powerful that I have to use two hands, and the slightest lapse in concentration sends it skittering off, leaving a dent in its wake. I’ve mostly laid laminate flooring in the living room and kitchen, removed the carpet from the stairs, removed the nails, staples and glue (with two goes of white spirit – ugh) which held said carpet in place, and sanded them back to a glorious red-brown which happens to work wonderfully with my chosen laminate floor colour.
I was very pleased that I managed to cut and lay both the laminate flooring and the door mat absolutely perfectly!
I recently moved onto harder things, fitting two highly cool lights from Ikea, which involved drilling into the wall, rawl plugs, filling holes and wiring in LED’s. Not having a sprit level, they aren’t quite straight and I also didn’t realise that the wall switch should be in the “off” position when you fit them, so one switch is the opposite to each other. Luckily they are physically opposite each other – on facing walls – so this last issue isn’t so noticeable. From there it was onwards to fitting my gymnastics rings to the ceiling, using things called “pigtail hooks” which Foz, and incredibly kind and helpful obstacle racing friend, gave me, along with the correct drill bit and a set of wooden nunchucks to hang off them! I’ll do a quick post on how I did this, should anyone want to do the same.
Tiling the kitchen windowsill :)
That doesn’t sound so bad, but the things I don’t have include: a tested and serviceable boiler (i.e. central heating and hot water), a bathroom I can bathe in (it’s so revolting that even brushing my teeth there makes me feel a little uneasy), a bed to sleep in (I am using a memory foam matress topper that Charlotte let me take), an oven, any kind of flooring upstairs… the list goes on.
Whilst I don’t want to sound like one of those self-entitled fucks who whines about how life is so hard because the children’s private school fees went up to £25,000pa and their favourite chardonnnay is now £14 instead of the previous £12, it has not been easy, and has resulted in a downward spiral of chaos, stress and all-round misery that I am only finally starting to drag my sorry arse out of.
It’s been incredibly demanding and stressful to do all this DIY, to do my actual work in order to make money (and be able to afford the rest of the work I need doing), to train, have a social life and generally not go crazy. I’ve slightly failed in that last point and would not say that my mental health has been the best it’s ever been. The chaotic life combined with a few other difficult, sad and stressful situations in my personal life has tipped me over the edge.
It took me a while to realise this, and that bad habit I have of setting somewhat unrealistically high standards I set for myself and then repeatedly (but metaphorically) punching myself in the face when I fail to achieve them have meant I haven’t been a happy bunny. I realised when I backed out of a friends birthday party in a bar in a noisy part of town because I couldn’t face being around so many people that I wasn’t right.
I’ll write more about this in further posts, but the up-shot is that I went to the doctor, broke down in tears and explained my whole sorry story. They’ve given me some anti-anxiety/depressants and a course of CBT. I’m not normally one for taking medicine and the times I go to the doctors are rare, let alone come away with a prescription, but I have to say they seem to be working great. They have, as I said to the doctor, “lessened my urge to give a shit”. This may sound like a bad thing, but for me it’s what I needed. The best thing is that I can SLEEP! I’ve always been a crappy sleeper, waking up early and lying awake feeling annoyed I couldn’t sleep, but now I can sleep till 8.30am if I want. Total luxury. I wouldn’t say I feel noticeably different, but they have certainly chilled me the fuck out about the state of my flat and lessened some of the oppressive cloud of anxiousness which was like a fog around me. Things seem a lot more manageable, and I’m approaching life in a calmer and more patient manner. I’ve got into a really good routine of working from home, and with the help of my trusty whiteboard, being productive in a less haphazard manner. Also, I seem to be having a very prolific writing phase, which I’m loving.
Aaaaaannnnnnyhow, I’ll come back to all that, as this is totally deviating from the point of this post, and increasing the number of good photos I’ll have to find to illustrate it in order that people don’t baulk or get bored with the sheer number of uninterrupted words.
In training terms, after a fantastic six months of doing hot yoga (which I stopped when I moved house), I returned to running in the spring. The yoga has made a world of diffrence to my body, strengthening bits I didn’t even know were weak (hello, hip flexors) and evening out and generally robustifying the rest of me. My strength training has been pretty even throughout – I’ve not particularly been chasing any skills or goals, just trying to get a bit better at things I’m bad at (overhead strength) and playing on the toys I like (rings). I did spend a few months working on strength endurance and got an easy 15 pull ups and 25 dips in order to attend an invitation-only event with Zef, one of the founders of the Bar-barians and all-round calisthenics legend. That was quite a cool experience and spurred me to get back to that style of hardcore training, which I’d moved away from over the past few years.
I had an epic couple of races over the summer, and long training runs got up to 35km, but like all good things, it couldn’t last. My knee felt a bit off a few weeks ago, and since then the closing in of the seasons seem to have knocked my motivation on the head. Luckily I am now making a concerted effort to learn handstands, to become more flexible, and to get stronger on the rings (and in general).
Work has pretty much been the same, with spates of being overwhelmingly busy interspersed with phases of doing sweet FA. I much prefer the former, not just because I need the money due to all the events in the previous paragraphs, but also because it stops me sitting around my filthy building-site of a home, eating peanut butter and feeling anxious and slightly bereft.
My freelancing life consists of regular clients and some very cool part-timers, including a guy who seems to only get absolutely huge projects in the countryside and only requires the favourite part of my graphics ninja services: creating lovely visuals to show off his designs to his clients. My most regular client is also one of my favourites, and has built up a really busy practise since graduating from college a few years ago. She also has a lovely but slightly crazy dog called Wafer, who knows that I’m a sucker for throwing tennis balls I’ve had to stop doing that though as last time it ended with him sitting by my desk and howling miserably because I wouldn’t play and more, leaving me crippled with guilt.
The biggest work change is that I am now a proper bona-fide teacher, at a proper college, with a teachers pension, and an actual pay check (my first in nearly a decade!) standing up and delivering classes on CAD and 3D modelling software. I am running a 10 week evening course on 2D CAD (Vectorworks) and also teach part of the Garden Design Diploma and the Plants and Plant Design course. I’ve also been invited to teach a course on SketchUp, so am starting to put together a syllabus for that. It’s all quite exciting, and so far the feedback has been great. I’m still at my usual college, where I tutor once a month or so, which is always a pleasure, as one of the guys who runs it is one of the best teachers I’ve seen and has been in inspiration to me in how I teach others.
I guess that’s pretty much it. I tend to keep my personal life personal, but had a slightly traumatic relationship break up, which was sad and made somewhat tricky by the fact we remain very close friends, but hey – things could be a lot worse. My family are all fine, I think, although I’m pretty sure one of my parents is losing the plot but at the moment they both point the finger at each other so it’s hard to tell which. My youngest sister has returned from lengthy travels and is also engaged to an entirely agreeable man, and my middle one remains in Wales (unfortunately!). My parents are clinging onto a modicum of health, sometimes apparently by a short length of spider’s silk, but we live in hope that one day they will heed our advice and start taking better care of themselves! In February we are off for my first family holiday in many, many years – two and a half weeks in India.
So yeah, I think that answers the question that is this post’s headline! It’s been something of a roller coaster but hopefully the mode of transport will change to be more akin to a regular train, pootling through commuterville in an entirely predictable manner. I’ll leave you with a picture of my favourite part of the flat: my sofa and arm chair (giant bean bags), my Ikea hacked light and my TV (since replaced by an actual TV – woohoo).