2013 Review Thingo (thanks, again, to Shauna…)

Like last year, I’m mercilessly plagiarising from  Shauna Reid (see hers at http://www.shaunareid.com/2013/01/2012-review-thingo.html). It’s a great way to figure out where your year went right, and where it went not-so-right, and what to focus on for the year to come. 2013 was relentless, surprising and more than a little surreal, and I’m looking forward to 2014 being a bit less of each, thank you.

1. What did you do this year that you’d never done before?

I took over as head of a large research programme following the death of a friend. Very, very big shoes to fill, and I’ve spent much of this year trying to re-imagine something already wonderful that didn’t belong to me in a way that’s respectful and doesn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. I’ve been to new countries, sat in the Emirates lounge, spoke in front of a number of senior policy makers a number of times. Lots and lots of new things from a work perspective. From a home perspective…? Still no sky diving, still no international espionage. Still need to work on that.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next this year?

Um, still didn’t manage to write resolutions for last year, and with the chaos following A’s death, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. But this year, I’m making three big resolutions: 1) this blog, 2) getting healthier and 3) investing something beyond our pensions/the kids’ college funds.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

My friend, Nick, had a little girl. Two dear friends had devastating miscarriages, though, and I feel their losses. I’m crocheting a blanket right now in the hopes that one of them will need it before 2014 is out.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

A, although I would never say I was very close to him. We were friends, though, and I’ve learned a great deal about him this year that I didn’t know before.

5. What countries did you visit?

USA, Australia, Singapore, India, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, UAE.

6. What would you like to have next year that you lacked in this one?

Time to breathe and to reflect on everything that’s happened. I’d also like to write a book.

7. What dates from this year will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

22nd November, when I was supposed to be in the States at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party but was instead at a policy event in Delhi, and then 30th November, when my family celebrated my grandmother’s birthday with me there.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Winning another new research contract, hiring several new colleagues (and, now, friends). Creating a ‘buzz’, from what I’ve been told. Getting promoted was pretty cool too.

9. What was your biggest failure?

One of my dearest friends lost his father in April, and I found out about it in November… My friendships have paid the dearest price for the relentlessness of this year. My children haven’t coped very well, either, with all of the travel, and nor has my long-suffering husband. Complaining about a colleague who was trying to undermine me behind his back, which is just as bad.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

No, thankfully!

11. What was the best thing you bought?

The perfect coffee table in a Red Cross shop for £30. And my kindle for off-line reading.

12. Where did most of your money go?

Interest and my children.

13. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Almost everything to do with this new research programme, but especially the chance to work with the loveliest team ever. Going to Australia. My sister’s first book selling fantastically well. Getting an assistant. Really, really excited about the last one!

Watching my husband up on stage with Gabby Young and Other Animals at my kids’ first ever live show was pretty cool too. It was only for a few minutes, but it’s a memory we’ll have for a long, long time.

14. What song will always remind you of this year?

Hmm…I don’t feel like I’ve listened to a lot of new music this year. I’ve subscribed to Rdio, and I’ve been listening to a lot of older music. Lots of Eagles in my office.

15. Compared to this time last year, are you:

a) happier or sadder?

Happier. Grateful. Blessed.

b) thinner or fatter?

Neither. I’m exactly the same as I was this time last year. Which is depressing and definitely needs to be remedied!

c) richer or poorer?

Richer, but only marginally. Need to get serious about saving.

16. What do you wish you’d done more of?

Writing for pleasure. Spending time with friends. Being in the moment with my kids. Sex.

17. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Up to a point, travelling. Too much of it all bunched together with no time to breathe.

18. How did you spend Christmas?

At home, as usual, and really chilled out.

19. Did you fall in love this year?

Nope.

20. What was your favorite TV program?

Luther on Netflix and on flights. Borgen. The Vikings.

21. What was the best book you read?

Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. Susan Cain’s Quiet. Joyce Maynard’s The Good Daughters. Graham Alcott’s Productivity Ninja. Lily Baldwin’s To Bewitch a Highlander (shameless plug for my sister’s book!).

22. What was your favorite film of this year?

Watching Pacific Rim in Imax 3-D with my 9 year old son was a real experience. Like being hit with a wall of sound. ‘Did you enjoy that?’ I asked him. ‘Hmm…on a scale of 1 to 10, I would give that A MILLION!’.

23. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I was 41. I was in the States with my own family for the first time in a long time. My parents made a great dinner, and all of my siblings came over. I spent much of it consoling one of my brothers who has gone through a rough divorce though. Come si, comme sa.

24. What kept you sane?

Sauvignon blanc and cups of tea with good friends.

25. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

At the risk of sounding very shallow, Travis Fimmel from Vikings. Kind of hard not to growl a little bit when he’s on screen.

26. Who did you miss?

My sister. Always my sister.

27. Who was the best new person you met?

The manager of my new research programme, Heather. I’m not sure I could love her any more if she actually was my sister.

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Starting my own ‘happiness project’?

I’m not a huge fan of happiness as a concept, to be honest. Just thought I’d get that out there from the beginning. Happiness is a fleeting moment in time, an emotion that goes hand in hand with its opposite, sadness. Joy and sorrow. We can live our lives in ways that create more space for happy moments, but ‘happiness’ isn’t really a state of being.

Instead, in 2014, I’m going to start my own ‘healthiness project’. Healthiness is both more tangible and something that you can actually work on. Healthiness can be body, spirit, mind, community, family…all that good stuff. And a lack of healthiness, overall, is definitely what I’m feeling right now.

With that in mind, I’m going to use Gretchen Rubin’s questions from her happiness project book to kick start my own project.

1. What makes you feel good? What activities do you find fun, satisfying or energising?

Reading for pleasure, whether curled up on the sofa under a blanket, or in a cafe with a warm chai, or in bed where I just want to have one more chapter. Going for long walks outdoors. Lying on a beach, with a book. Going to the cinema with my kids. Baking with my kids (when they’re not pestering me to lick the spoon). Going to the pub with friends. Cups of tea with friends after school. Mentoring junior colleagues. Working on strategies, whether for growth or for doing things better. Sitting in a sauna or steam room. Eating out in new countries. Cuddling. Taking photos. Blogging. Writing in my journal.

2. What makes you feel bad? What are sources of anger, irritation, boredom, frustration or anxiety in your life?

Having way too many things on my to-do list and not having good enough systems to cope with them. Feeling rushed in the morning or feeling distracted at bedtime. Not having time to sort out a budget. Being late. Missing birthdays. Never having time to go out with friends. Being surrounded by idiots. Clutter. Knowing my diet could be much better and my weight lower. Feeling more aches and pains than I should at this age. Email. Meetings that have no point and, seemingly, no end. Yelling at my kids. My kids yelling at each other. Being too tired for sex. Being pestered for electronic time.

3. Is there any way in which you don’t feel right about your life? Do you wish you could change your job, city, family situation, or other circumstances? Are you living up to your expectations for yourself? Does your life reflect your values?

Professionally, there are aspects where I’ve achieved much more that I ever thought possible at this stage, especially given the two maternity leaves I’ve had. But I’ve not published nearly as much as I should’ve (or could’ve), and I know that I need to write another book soon. My weight and overall health aren’t right. I give next to no thought or time to meals or scheduling exercise, even though I know enough about nutrition not to make really bad choices. But I’m not making good ones either, and I tend to rush headlong into carbs without thinking because I’ve not planned. I sleep later in the morning than I should, which leaves me rushing and grumpy with the kids when they dawdle. I’m distracted. I only read at bedtime. I’ve not written in my journal for months and haven’t written in it with any consistency for a few years. I play with productivity tools rather than being productive. Financially, I haven’t worked out a budget that’s equitable; though I make much more than my husband, I have larger student loans…but I still have more spare cash than he does. I don’t manage to budget every month, and we’re not saving. I’ve not seen some of my friends for months. One of my friends’ dad passed away, and I didn’t know about it. My parents need to hear from me more often. My husband and I don’t spend enough time alone, and I often go to sleep after him when I’m too tired for sex. I snap at the kids too easily. Basically, I feel like work takes up so much of my waking time and thinking that there’s very little left for me or people I love.

4. Do you have sources of an atmosphere of growth? In what elements of your life do you find progress, learning, challenge, improvement and increased mastery?

[kind of hard to write about this while being pestered by a teary 9 year old whose life is being ruined by not being allowed to play on the ipad…]

My new role at work gives me tremendous opportunities for growth…possibly too many opportunities! I’ll need to be strategic and selective. My new administrator is about to start work, which will hopefully ease some of the more mundane burdens. I don’t need to teach for the next 3 years, which means that I’ll have much more flexibility and freedom. Once this current very busy patch ends, and the new funding contract is secured, I’ll be able to take my foot off the pedal a little bit (famous last words?). I need to ensure that I don’t fill any time that’s freed up with yet more work.

At home…that’s where I’m not so sure. It feels like for the past 6-8 months, I’ve put so much into building this new research centre that there’s been nothing left. I guess…I have physical space to write, and I should make more of that. I have tremendous friends who make me feel grounded, and I need to find time for them. I’m able to budget enough for healthy food choices and have a husband who loves to cook. My kids are, more often than not, good company and increasingly independent. They’re at school all day now, and if I plan my day out right, I can find time during the day for exercise or for reading or writing.

I need to think about the next step, which is developing concrete resolutions, but it seems to be not all that complicated really. I seem to be a pretty simple soul, made happy by pretty easy things, but I’ve let work take over my life for years now. I haven’t placed appropriate boundaries around it. I love my work, and aspects of it are fulfilling and necessary for my well-being, but it’s not everything. My systems have broken, and I’ve not yet figured out what new ones should look like. I’ve not given enough priority to my own health, which impacts on the energy I have to be a productive academic, a loving wife, a gentle and fun mother and a fulfilled person. The trick will be in identifying clear resolutions, breaking these into very concrete tasks and then, for once, following through with them. The latter is not my strong point*, but I’m not getting any younger.

[* In a recent team building exercise, where we did personality tests, I scored 0 under ‘Completer/Finisher‘ (I’m a Resource Investigator/Shaper). How is it possible to score a 0 for this?? No wonder I have a house full of half-finished projects and a lifetime of broken resolutions!]

So what’s in an adjective?

Adjectives I’d like to people to be able to use to describe me in a year’s time – radiant, vibrant, ageless, light. I’d settle for ‘looks great for her age’, mind, but these would be nice!

Cozy mystery leads to rediscovery

My sister has just written her first novel, a romance novel set in medieval Scotland.  We’ve been discussing genre writing, and she introduced me to the concept of the ‘cozy mystery‘. I love crime fiction, but I tend to like my protagonists flawed, my settings dark and my crimes a bit twisted. I love novels that have a political message and reveal something of the human condition. My favourites by a long shot include Andrea CamilleriJo NesboHenning MankellMaj Sjowall & Per WalooArne DahlGianrico CarofiglioMichele Giuttari and Ian Rankin. I do occasionally read books that fall under the ‘cozy mystery’ banner – by Alexander McCall Smith or Colin Cotterill, for example – but most of the books I read in this genre are blisteringly dark.

rebusmontalbanonesbo (from Heather's Macbook Air)

When I sit down to write something non-academic, though, I can’t write like this (and not just because I have barely a whisper of the talent that these writers have!). I get through my ‘darkness’ through my academic writing, which is about the darker side of state-society relations, and when I’m off-duty, this girl just wants to have fun. And so my sister introduced me to the cozy mystery.

moon spinners

I read very little American fiction nowadays, despite having spent the first 25 years of my life in the US, and I don’t have any favourite US crime writers. I toured the cozy mystery section of Barnes & Noble as a complete novice, sure only that I have my limits when it comes to ‘cozy’. I definitely didn’t want Christian and cozy. I didn’t want peach pie baking and cozy. I didn’t want poodle-breeding and cozy. I mean, seriously. I finally settled on Sally Goldenbaum‘s Seaside Knitters series. Set in the North Shore of Massachusetts, just south of where I was born and where I lived very happily for five years before moving to the UK, the series follows a group of women of a range of ages who meet up once a week for a knitting club and end up solving murders. (yes…I am perfectly aware that there’s the finest of lines between knitting books and pie baking books…) I like all of the characters, and the murders are often pretty dark, if not graphic. But the cozy comes through in the setting, which takes me right back to my own time living in a little cottage on the North Shore. The characters are fairly affluent, and so there’s an appeal in their gentle, middle-class lifestyles, filled with good food, original art, charity work and beautiful wraparound decks for drinks parties, particularly as – in good New England fashion – no one is very ‘showy’. And then there’s the knitting. Sometimes the knitting metaphors get in the way and have clearly been placed in order to fit the genre, but I closed the first one that I read (‘Moon Spinners’, third in the series) and went straight away to get my plastic tub full of yarn from the garage.

crochet

I like crocheting, not knitting, but the effect is the same, at least in terms of well-being. In the last month, I crocheted a scarf for my daughter, and am about a quarter of the way through an absolutely gorgeous blanket. Instead of spending the last couple of hours at the end of the day in front of the tv flicking around on my iPhone, I’m crocheting my beautiful blanket, something that will hopefully become an heirloom. I’ve made my way back into the local yarn shop, and I’ve not been able to resist buying yarn already for my own winter scarf, which will come after this blanket is done. As far as hobbies go, crocheting is tactile and soft and warm and colourful and soothing and, let’s face it, cozy.

I may be no closer to penning my own first novel, but at least if I do continue on with it as a winter project, I’ll be able to do it lying under my own handmade and very cozy blanket.

Why 2014 may be the year of the ‘happiness project’ for me…

Heathrow hell

I’ve spent a lot of time in the air recently, in airport lounges, in restaurants and at hotel breakfasts. For the past seven weeks, I have spent four of those overseas, which is a lot for many people, but it’s especially a lot with two fairly small children. Much of that time I’ve spent in the company of two of my colleagues, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about what’s important to us. It’s what you do when you’re together more than you are with your respective spouses!

One of my colleagues (and dear friends) seems to have many things sussed, not by accident but by design. He’s a long distance runner, in better shape in his mid-thirties than when I met him in his early twenties. He is organised, calm, gentle, side-slittingly funny, deep. He’s also dad to a two-year old and a loving and sharing husband. We’ve had a lot of time to talk about what’s working for us and what isn’t, and he swears, among many things, by Gertrude Rubin’s ‘The Happiness Project‘. So in between long-haul flights I picked up a copy of her book for myself and fell in love with the concept.

I worry too, like Rubin, that focusing on my own happiness may be a bit indulgent. Certainly, blogging about it may be. But I have just spent a long weekend with my parents, people who have never put their own happiness first, and they continue to pay for it. They pay for it in ill health, in stress, in not saying ‘no’, in weariness. I love them, but I don’t want to be them someday. I feel galvanised; life is too short to have it slip through my fingers in the rough and tumble of a busy everyday life. My husband and I feel, for a number of reasons, like 2013 is a year that has barely registered; where good times outweigh the bad but they don’t outweigh the times we barely remember. I want 2014 to count.

Shopfront reminder

2012 Review Thingo (in the style of Shauna)

This is mercilessly plagiarised from the delightful Shauna Reid (see hers at http://www.shaunareid.com/2013/01/2012-review-thingo.html). It’s a great way to figure out where your year went right, and where it went not-so-right, and what to focus on for the year to come. Clearly I need to shake up this year a bit and try something new!

1. What did you do this year that you’d never done before?

Am really struggling to think of anything! I wish I could say sky diving, or spending the night in the desert, or taking up international espionage, but 2012 hasn’t been that exciting.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next this year?

Nope, not even close. I think I really should’ve printed them out kept them close by and reviewed on a fairly regular basis. If I don’t really know what my resolutions are, it’s pretty hard to keep them!

I will do new resolutions. Really.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

Yes, my friend, Rachel, had a little girl, and Hugh had a little boy. A couple more are due in 2013, however, most of my friends are past having babies.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

My Uncle Chris, who was also my godfather.

5. What countries did you visit?

USA, Germany, Sweden. I was supposed to go to Brazil but didn’t fancy the very long flight to Brasilia.

6. What would you like to have next year that you lacked in this one?

A trip back to the USA with the whole family. It’s been far too long since the kids have been there.

7. What dates from this year will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

January 25 and April 9, when both my husband and I turned 40.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Winning a new research contract, securing the jobs of several of my favourite colleagues.

9. What was your biggest failure?

Buying my husband tickets to see Pearl Jam in Berlin, but then not being able to sort out babysitting. Not only did we lose over €100 on the tickets, but we had a dream snatched from our hands. So much for his 40th birthday present…

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

No, thankfully! I had a blood pressure scare, but that turned out to be nothing.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

Hard to say. I should say my iPad, but that was bought with research money so doesn’t count. I think it might be my Marimekko oilcloth, which I bought as an off-cut in a shop in Gothenburg. Everything about it gives me pleasure, and as I sit at the kitchen table at least three times a day, it gives me pleasure often.

12. Where did most of your money go?

If I’m honest, I’d say on interest on debt repayment. Also, my children. Always my children…

13. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Excited may be the wrong word…relieved more like…but Obama’s re-election.

14. What song will always remind you of this year?

‘Little Talk’ by Of Monsters and Men. I first heard it on breakfast tv in Berlin, and it’s been part of the soundtrack of the year.

The other song would be ‘I’m Yours’ by Jason Mraz. My sister and I stayed up late on her sofa talking well into the night, crying as we listened to it. It was her pregnancy song. Floods of tears.

15. Compared to this time last year, are you:

a) happier or sadder?

Happier, I think. I’m living in a bigger house that gives us enough space to breathe as a family, and my career is definitely on the way up.

b) thinner or fatter?

Neither. I’m exactly the same as I was this time last year. Which is depressing.

c) richer or poorer?

Unfortunately, neither. I’m making quite a bit more money, but we’ve lost money out to the house move. I was really hoping to be much better off at this point, but que sera sera.

16. What do you wish you’d done more of?

Chilling out. I wish I’d kept up with meditation as it was making me feel much more relaxed. Resolution number one!

17. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Procrastinating. I did have far too much work on this year, but I also spent a lot of time faffing about online and not getting down to what needed to be done. I put it down to exhaustion.

18. How did you spend Christmas?

At home, as usual. We had family from the US over on Boxing Day, whom I’ve not seen in about 10 years, and it was a real treat.

19. Did you fall in love this year?

Nope, unless you count my kitchen table, complete with Marimekko oilcloth. I do really love having an eat-in kitchen!

20. What was your favorite TV program?

Anything Scandinavian. Borgen, The Killing, The Bridge…I’ve loved them all.

21. What was the best book you read?

New Andrea Camillieri books. Rory Stewart’s ‘The Places in Between’.

22. What was your favorite film of this year?

Not sure I’ve seen many non-kid films this year…

23. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I was 40. I worked a bit on a research bid (sigh…) and went out for french food with my family. Escargot with kids is a real treat! Not exactly what we had planned.

24. What kept you sane?

My family, my sister and N.B.D. This is our new family phrase to remind us that most things are N.B.D. (No Big Deal).

25. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

The husband on Borgen (Danish actor Mikael Birkkjaer).

26. Who did you miss?

My family overall, but especially my sister. I miss her everyday and would give just about anything to have her living next door to me.

27. Who was the best new person you met?

My new neighbour, Clara. It’s nice to have someone so simpatico living right across the street.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Lalo’s Famous Cookies (aka be careful before baking something made up by a gizillionaire…)

lalo cookie

In a quest to eat healthy and yummy food, I decided to make these cookies from Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook, Notes from my Kitchen Table. The ‘Lalo’ in the name is what her children call her mother, and these are great cookies to give young ones as they are very healthy. However, in order to make them according to the recipe you really do need to have the bank account of an Oscar-winning actress/wife of giant rock star! I reckon the recipe in the book will leave you with little change from £15, so I’ll include her recipe and my own adaptations. I think this still came close to £10, which is not something I can justify very often, but they are lovely.

450 g barley flour (I didn’t have barley flour in the cupboard, so used half plain flour and half spelt flour)

450 g unblanched whole almonds, crushed in a food processor (I don’t think I crushed mine enough, which is fine from a taste perspective but which means they didn’t hold together as well as they might. I also wonder if it would be cheaper to use ground almonds with a handful of crushed whole almonds to give them crunch. This is over £5 worth of almonds after all!)

1 tsp fine salt

1 tsp ground cinnamon

250 ml rapeseed oil (I only had sunflower oil in the house but rapeseed oil is better for you overall. On my shopping list for next time.)

250 ml real Vermont maple syrup (This is the real killer, cost-wise, at least in the UK. A 250ml bottle of maple syrup set me back over £6! What I did was use half maple syrup and half Sweet Freedom. Still expensive but a savings, without resorting to sugar.)

Your favourite jam (I used cherry, but also experimented with Nutella and peanut butter. All very yummy!)

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Combine all the ingredients except for the jam together in a large bowl with a wooden spoon. Form tablespoons into balls and space them evenly on baking sheets. Using your index finger, make an indent in each cookie. Fill each indent with a small spoonful of jam. Bake until cookies are evenly browned, about 20 minutes. Let cool before eating.

These aren’t low-calorie, and my adaptations still left this at 5 ProPoints, if you’re using Weight Watchers (which I am). However, it goes to show that while healthy may not always equal low-cal, it’s still very yummy, very filling and good for the soul, if not for the wallet.

There are some great looking recipes on her website, including these granola bars which I might make this week.

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

My second easy, cheerful purchase from the Red Cross Bookshop is Alexander McCall Smith’s Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, from his Isabel Dalhousie series. I’m right in the middle of it, so I won’t review it just yet, but I had a horrible realisation this morning.

I’ve always pictured Isabel as someone who is ever so slightly like Miss Marple, an aging spinster who wears a grey skirt when she works and has male friends, but not lovers. Imagine my horror when I discovered that she is, in fact, in her early 40s. Her early 40s??!! My age! How many women in the early 40s wear grey skirts when they’re working at home, or diamante earrings when they go out to meet a new gentleman. How many spend hours in the company of an attractive man in his mid-20s without at least imagining a wee bit of depravity? They might not act on it, but they certainly would be imagining it!

The reason why these are lovely little petit fours of books is because they’re in no way dark, but are instead gentle and cozy – gezzelig, as the Dutch say. But there’s no excuse for entirely desexualising a 40 year old woman, nor for making a real-life 40 year old woman go into semi-shock!

Just to make it clear…

Aging spinster in grey skirt and cream cardigan =  

Women in her 40s in grey = 

Can you spot the difference? Answers in an SAE please…