Ready, steady, cook! Oh… wait…

September 25, 2013 § 5 Comments

Maybe I’m just too competitive, but if you’re going to invite me to something that’s labelled a challenge, and there are other teams doing the same challenge, I quite like the idea that there’ll be judging of some sort – even if it’s just all in the name of fun.

I bring this up, because yesterday, having been dropped in the deep end by my friend, Sharon, I headed off to the Good Food and Wine Show  to cook a mystery box with her in the Woolworths kitchen.

I was a little nervous, I admit. But it turned out I didn’t have to be – all we had to do was cook breakfast, ensure we used coffee in our dish, and use the ingredients supplied to come up with a delicious breakfast. There were some odd ingredients, most of which were ignored by the ‘contestants’, so we came up with a pretty good plan – keep it simple and tasty – and commenced.

But here’s the thing. We had an hour to cook breakfast. An hour? Seriously? Halfway through, having sat down for a bit of a tweet break to pass the time, I decided to bake scones. Why not? We still had half an hour to go.

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Now don’t get me wrong – I’m no Masterchef. I’m just a home cook who’s used to having to make breakfast, chivvy sleepy kids along, make school lunches, write excuse notes for Phys. Ed., remind same sleepy children about violins and sports kit and music books, and yell at the dogs – all in less than an hour. Oh, and I usually tweet a bit while I’m doing it too. An hour seemed positively luxurious.

And then – get this – there was no judging? We just kind of plonked our food on the table, half-heartedly picked at some of the other teams’ food and then shuffled off to see the rest of the show.

Yes, the local Masterchef winner was there, and so was one of the finalists, but I’m not sure if that was supposed to be a thing? Were we supposed to be impressed and fawning, and thrilled to have met these mere mortals? Really? Really really?

To be honest, the most fun came from the Twitter folk who had come to support us. They laughed and cheered and offered us wine (after all, it was noon somewhere in the world) and generally made the whole thing a lot more fun.

Sharon made a deliciously toothsome omelette with sundried tomatoes and pumpkin seeds, and I made French toast with honeyed bananas and pecans, and a chocolate, coffee and orange sauce. Oh, and the scones  – which I couldn’t have done nearly as fast as I did without Sharon’s help. We made an excellent team, I thought.

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And I suppose it was fun to cook something – in this case my sauce – without having to worry about whether or not the kids would eat it. But in the end, no-one ate it anyway, so it was a little like cooking at home in some ways.

When I finally got home late yesterday afternoon, I proudly showed my husband the pictures of our efforts. He took one look at my plate and asked: “Who splattered all over your plate?”

Sigh. Everyone’s a critic.

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Those three little words

September 18, 2013 § 9 Comments

I’m going to be in trouble with my friend, Clive Simpkins, for saying this, but in case you hadn’t noticed, I am fat.

Does that make you uncomfortable? Let me say it again.

I AM FAT.

Are you cringing a little? Squirming in your chair as you read it? Good. My perception is that it always makes people uncomfortable when I say those three words. Call yourself fat and people will use words like ‘voluptuous’, ‘curvy’ and even ‘Rubinesque’. They’ll tell you that “men like women with a bit of meat on their bones” as if being fat is a ploy to attract a mate.

People think I’m being negative about myself, that I am exaggerating, but really, I’m not. Objectively speaking, I’m fat. If you worked out my body mass index (BMI) you would find that I’m squarely in the obese category that has medical professionals adopting their sternest faces and warning you about lifestyle diseases. And it’s not because I’m muscle-bound, before you leap into that defence. I really am fat.

You see, I’m lucky. I’m fairly tall, and my fat is quite evenly distributed, so I can carry it well. I even had to persuade a cardiologist once that I really was fatter than I seem. He hauled out his calculator, punched in the numbers and had to pick up his jaw from the floor when he realised I was right.

But it’s an interesting thing, being fat. People like to offer you weight loss tips as if they have found the Holy Grail and all you need to do is emulate them. And they make massive assumptions. For example, I complimented an acquaintance the other day. She’d slimmed down a lot, and I commented that she was looking lovely. I didn’t even ask, but she told me. “You know,” she said. “I just don’t eat junk. Nothing special.” And that’s the most common assumption – that if you’re fat, you must eat a lot of junk, that you load up on sugar and take-aways. And then the fat-shaming begins.

Well here’s the thing, fat-shamers. You can congratulate yourself all you want; pat yourselves on the back for the clever comment you made about that person who’s fatter than you are, but there’s nothing you can say that will make us feel worse than we already do about ourselves. Nothing. We are way ahead of you.

Do you honestly think we like feeling clumsy and awkward and ungainly and wobbly? Do you think we look in the mirror and like what we see? Do you think we don’t spend endless energy worrying about the fact that we’re fat? Or hating ourselves because we are? Trust me, we do. And you can fat-shame us all you like: your cruelty is nothing like the inner dialogue that goes on in my head, trust me. Next to me, you’re a, um, lightweight.

I know what you’re thinking – that I’m in denial about how much I eat. I must be overeating if I’m as fat as I am. So here’s the skinny, if you’ll pardon the expression: I have an egg and toast for breakfast, a sandwich or a salad or soup for lunch (when I remember) and some lean meat and vegetables for dinner. Plus a mini-rusk at 11am and a piece or two of fruit during the day if I’m peckish. I cook everything from scratch; no readymade meals for me. I rarely drink sodas – diet or otherwise. I don’t drink fruit juice. I drink tea and coffee, with milk, and water, and have the occasional glass of wine. I don’t have a sweet tooth, so there’s no regular bingeing on chocolate or sweets, and while I bake a lot, I alsmost never partake of anything I bake.

I could use a bit more exercise, I know, but in terms of what I eat, I don’t think I’m eating nearly as much as you imagine I do. And that’s not to say I never have a packet of crisps or a chocolate, but I can probably count those instances on my ten fingers over the course of a year. Honestly.

The thing that really pisses me off about the fat-shaming I see is the arrogance that accompanies it. And when I read the ‘jokes’ that people have made online, where fat-shaming seems to be rife, I confess I wish obesity on the joke makers. Obesity that won’t shift, no matter what they try. Obesity that wobbles and bulges and pushes out of their clothes no matter how cleverly they shop for something flattering to wear. Obesity that sees them injecting themselves with mystery formulations in an attempt to try the latest ‘magic bullet’ when everything else fails. Obesity that sees them subsisting on air and water – and that’s on the day they’re allowed to cheat. Obesity that makes them want to stay at home and not go out and socialise, for fear that people will talk about them after they’ve left: “Gosh, she’s put on so much weight!”

Wishing that on someone is not one of my finer moments, I admit, but there you have it.

And believe me when I say that I’ve tried enough diets (and been writing about health for long enough) to know that they are all, without exception, a complete scam. I put on weight on Weigh-Less and Weight Watchers. I’ve been on diets where you had to weigh a tomato, for crying out loud – one of the healthiest foods on the planet! I’ve been told not to mix my proteins; I’ve drunk shakes and supplements and injected myself and food combined and been weighed and measured and prodded and poked until I couldn’t stand it anymore. And you can Paleo me and LCHF me until you’re blue in the face – they are all fads, and they are unsustainable in the long run, and you are doing your metabolism a great disservice.

So here’s what’s working for me, finally, after all these years. For the most part, I’ve stopped dieting; stopped using up so much of my creative energy thinking about every morsel that passes my lips. Every now and then I have a mild panic – and force a lowest-calories-possible-salad down my throat when all I want is a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich. And then I watch the backlash as my body rebels against my brain and I eat three times the calories I’d have ingested if I’d just had the sandwich to begin with. And it’s a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of process, but I eat whatever the hell I want to eat.

No more obsessing about every bite and its fat, sugar and/or calorie content. No more beating myself up over the spoonful of cheesecake I had or the bacon and egg when I ‘should’ have had the muesli and yoghurt for breakfast. Some days I eat more, some days I eat less. And slowly, incrementally, the weight is coming off.

With any luck, that trend will continue. With any luck, some day in the future, I won’t be fat anymore. Or perhaps I will. But I refuse to diet anymore.

Until then, I have a simple request. Please just leave my fat friends and me alone. We’ll be over here, kickstarting Boeings and looking for new clothes at rent-a-tent until you can learn some manners.

The magic sentence: a conversation

September 11, 2013 § 7 Comments

Russell Lynes, a former editor of Harper’s Bazaar, famously quipped that, “Every good journalist has a novel in him – which is an excellent place for it.” Having worked on my first novel for the last three to four years, I’m inclined to agree with him. In fact, a week or two ago I got to the point where I realised it needed yet another rewrite and I didn’t really know how to begin. I just couldn’t see the proverbial wood for the trees.

Editing the language is not the part I struggle with. I’ve been writing for a living for more than twenty years, so I know how to pare things back, be concise, make every word beg for its place on the page. No, I needed an approach to doing the same to the plot and structure of the book, a way to look at the story beyond the words, and question that.

And so I did what I find myself doing more and more these days – I turned to some friendly folk on Twitter, and asked them for advice. I began with two of the authors I’ve ‘met’ online: Richard de Nooy and Fiona Snyckers. In the process of talking to them, two other authors joined the conversation: Gail Schimmel and  Karen Jeynes, who is a playwright as well as the author of books for children and young adults.

I found the response I got from them so useful, that I thought I would share it, so here (slightly edited for ease of reading) is what they said:

Fiona Snyckers: Have you had a useful, clear response from your beta readers? If it’s only a matter of tidying up language and expression, then just do it, but a complete redraft needs a strategy. Have you done the ‘put it in a drawer and leave it for a month’ thing?

Mandy Collins: Twice. It’s been almost four years in the writing, on and off. That’s the trouble, I think.

Richard de Nooy: Step back and get the full picture. Pretend you’re telling us the story and we have a plane to catch in an hour. That will trim off all the fat. Now ask yourself: do I still like this story?

Karen Jeynes: May I offer some scriptwriterly advice? My experience of my own writing, scripts I edit, etc. is that the ones which work have a great “logline” [A logline tells the reader who must do what in order to prevent what from happening.] and their writers can complete the magic sentence: This story is about [name] who wants [x] but [y].” If those are clear then all edits, etc. are done to fit the logline. It helps focus.

Fiona Snyckers: I like that very much. It’s a good way to overcome the old ‘can’t see the wood for the trees problem’.

Karen Jeynes: Yes, exactly. And often “favourite bits” are actually standing in the way, and need cutting.

Richard de Nooy: I’m with Karen on this. I write chapter breakdowns with key action and what I want the reader to know or feel. The truth is that most of my insight into structure comes from film writing. I use a big board with a smallish Post-It for each chapter. I need to see it as a whole.

Gail Schimmel: I believe that many writers have a book that must come out before they can write the books they ACTUALLY should write. So I suggest you start something new. Maybe this book was your practice – that was true for me.  My first novel will never see the light of day. Two published novels later, I understand why I needed to write it first. Don’t give up; but also don’t get trapped into “it’s this or nothing”.

I found all of that very useful – it’s simple, clear and gives me an approach. And the good news is that I started my (hopefully final) rewrite the very next day with a framework I could use, and a reminder that as hard as it might be, I need to be objective about whether this novel has any merit.

I think it does. I hope I’m right and Russell Lynes – at least in my case – is wrong.

A point of view

September 4, 2013 § 10 Comments

Monday did not start well. By the time I’d finished mind dumping my to-do list into my diary, there were 13 items, which I took to be unlucky. Then I missed the back step and fell clumsily into the kitchen, banging my elbows on the tiles. All of this happened before 8am, which did not bode well for the rest of the day.

And then, to add insult to injury, the first item on my agenda was buying a new school jersey and blazer for my daughter, which didn’t really feel like something to look forward to. Apart from the expense, the prospect of the back-to-school queues in the school clothing shop could make even the most hardened shopper shake at the knees.

But as I drove to the shops, a throwaway comment by my 11-year-old gave me pause. I was busy warning her that we didn’t have a lot of time in which to complete our errand, and that we might have to go in search of the shop, which was in temporary premises while its usual home was being renovated.

“That’s okay, Mom,” she piped up from the back seat. “We can think of it as a treasure hunt.”

I should make it clear that I’m not a huge fan of the all-pervasive motivational, inspirational think-yourself-thin-and-successful-and-rich brigade. But I did like the way she reframed that; it’s typical of the way children think. And it got me thinking: when did I become a grown-up? And why?

Why don’t I run and jump anymore? When did I stop splashing in puddles? Why don’t I climb trees? Or run up the stairs? Or slide down banisters? When did I become this responsible, obsessive planner of my every minute and forget to be spontaneous?

Last week, when I was back in my hometown, I took my girls to one of the favourite beaches of my childhood, a beach famous for its huge sand dunes and wild cross-currents. We were there to walk and splash and be blown about by the wind for an hour or two. As we looked down at the waves from the top of a dune, they remarked that it was a pity we didn’t have something to slide down on.

When I told them they could simply roll down the dunes, and it was a lot of fun, they didn’t believe me, so I lay down in the sand and demonstrated. With some cajoling, they followed suit. And I can’t speak for them, but it might have been the best thing I did all day, even if it was undignified and slightly terrifying. Even if I did sit in the sand for a bit while the world stopped whirling. It left me feeling exhilarated from the sheer silliness of it all.

Of course, I can’t get away from my responsibilities completely – that’s ridiculous. I do still need to do a lot of grown-up things, but I hope I remember to be a child sometimes; to build that spontaneity into my day and remember to see life as an adventure or a treasure hunt rather than an endless list of chores and tasks to be completed.

And I’m grateful for the sand that found its way into the strangest places – my pockets, my ears, my shoes. I hope that when I find a stray grain that has stubbornly resisted washing and shaking out, that I’ll remember to lie down and roll down that sand dune, just because it’s fun.

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