New year, new lessons …

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Four weeks after finishing 25 years as a class teacher and time for some musings.

Its strange, in a way, because really its only two weeks into the school term, so in a sense I’ve only just started ‘my new life’ but its almost as if I don’t recognise myself.

In short I now have what I’ve learned is called a ‘portfolio career’, which just means I’m doing a bit of this and that. ‘This and that’ so far means working as an Open University associate lecturer, which I’ve done for some time, and really love, being a bank health care assistant in a care home for people with neurological difficulties, working as a bank physiotherapy assistant, which I’ve only just started this week, and at some point this year, if they’ll have me, becoming a recruit in the Army reserves, as a medic, again. (“Bank”, if you didn’t know, means a zero hours contract). Alongside earning money I am continuing to study human biology and applying to universities for the chance at some point to be a physiotherapy student.

Education to health? … one public service to another? … ‘frying pan’ and ‘fire’ comes to mind, yes, I’m well aware of that, but I’m currently in the ‘grass is greener’ phase, aren’t I, which means all is well. Well perhaps not ‘all’ …

So far I’ve learned that caring for someone who can do almost nothing for themselves is a real privilege, to be entrusted to such intimacies gives me a profound sense of responsibility, even though I’m working for the minimum wage. I’ve learned much about the rich inner world of someone who to many walking past the wheelchair would be perceived as only a broken, maybe empty shell of a person. The stories, the history, the tragedy, the joy of family, the relationships … I’ve learned about choice, capacity and liberty and about how very significant these matters are in such a setting. I’ve also learned that minimum wage does not mean minimum skill, and have been in awe of the ability of colleagues meeting the most complex of needs and yet creating a relationship of equal status and ease.

I’ve also learned that actually mistakes and failings are part of the job, and that’s fine. I won’t be placed under capability proceedings, I just made a mistake. I’ll probably make a whole load more, and you know what? That’s fine too, because you’ll learn from them, others will learn from them, and sometimes we can even just not do anything about them at all.

Not working all the time is a bit weird.

Why am I not working all the time if I’m only on minimum wage? Well, my Open University work isn’t minimum wage and being bank staff doesn’t mean I’m sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, it means I can say “no” to work as well. So this gives me the freedom to accept extra work from the OU to cover for other colleagues’ sickness absence for the next three weeks, and to decline offers of work from elsewhere. So I’m sitting pretty this month, although doubtless there’ll be other months much leaner than this.

(Cue blog post in 8 months’ time when the work has dried up and bills are piling up … well I’ll cross that bridge when it comes, if it comes, and we have saved a bit of a pot for emergencies as well … )

Not fretting about the work I’m doing is really weird.

Why am I not fretting if I’m new and don’t have a clue what I’m doing? This is where I’m starting not to recognise myself. I’ve become a little bit awkward and assertive, and this isn’t me. If I’m doing something wrong, then show me again, say it more clearly, present the guidance differently, cut me some slack – I’m new. I’m keen and intelligent, so my mistakes and omissions can be corrected, but they are nothing to fret about. I was asked to produce a certificate of all my inoculations and my GP surgery wanted to charge me for this, so I refused … and guess what … it was FINE!!! They worked around it. This really isn’t the me I know, assuming that folk can just find a way around stuff, that actually, if I think I’m being asked to do something that is unreasonable I’ll just not do it? That isn’t me at all!

And I’ve never fretted about working for the Open University, because competence is assumed, its a given. which means mistakes would have to be pretty dire before any black marks or “Requires improvement” labels loom on the horizon. After all this time, I still get a bit of a thrill from participating in appraisals that leave me full of enthusiasm and new ideas and plans. Refreshing, isn’t it?

Biology is, in fact, interesting

I know words like “tri-doththyronine” (and no, I didn’t look it up, this was from memory, honest … and just to prove it I’ll give you another one, like the “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal gland axis” and yes, I can even tell you how it works!!). I’ve learned why runners use energy gels rather than butter during marathons, why people in Derbyshire used to get thick necks, that the pupil isn’t there, that emotional tears excrete toxins … I think I’ve been pushing my wife’s patience in sharing all these interesting facts with her, but yes, I’ve surprised myself that this might well be my thing … for now, anyway.

What’s with the photo, though?

So are you thinking I have no stress and life is wonderful? Well we’re living on a tight budget now, so the cat is having to make do with the cheapest cat litter, we’re hardly eating out now at all, and I’m not entering races left, right and centre … mmm … running … that’s for another post, I think. That side of things I can manage and for now the simpler life appeals. And while I may not be spending every night marking essays now I’m ironing uniform instead, but actually ironing, I’ve learned, is fine, too. The biggest stressor now is socks … these are my socks – I have 26 pairs altogether, but the NHS requires I wear black socks. How many black pairs can you spot among my treasured collection? So life isn’t all a bed of roses … off now to buy black socks.

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“On track”

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The interview suit has gone to the back of the wardrobe and let me tell you how happy I feel this evening … happy enough to shelve the marking, to finish a whole bottle on a school night, PLUS chocolate, and TWO Nespressos!!!

So yes, this is a bit of an inebriated post … and right now I can’t even say ‘inebriated’ – it doesn’t take much these days – half a bottle will do it, but today I can, because I have worth … its official … someone else believes my contribution is worth paying for, and that makes me feel WELL GOOD !

In short I have been offered two jobs – but the best one came through today … I will be a ‘Bank physiotherapist assistant’, but there’s also an offer of care assistant work. There’s the rub … I accepted one before being offered the other, but physiotherapy is the direction I want to go, and after consulting with some of my most trusted friends (sorry if you didn’t come into this category, but I’m sure you’ll understand) I decided it was ok to be a tad naughty by interviewing for another job after accepting the first. Even my dad said that was sort of ok, and I value his judgement the most, so I sort of did. I haven’t made the phone call yet …

I cannot stop smiling – is my self esteem so fickle that it is rocketed so much by my success, or is this normal? I haven’t applied for many jobs, and in teaching, there often isn’t a lot of competition, so its difficult to judge how much you are valued. This matters a lot to me, and I am really looking forward to learning a new job, a whole load of new skills, and terms, and protocols … from scratch … I love learning, so the combination of being able to learn from scratch coupled with the fact of someone rating me enough to be prepared to pay me to be part of their work is just so exciting and exhilarating, and yes, I will be posting me in uniform on Facebook at some point.

I seem to have somehow applied to re-enlist into the army reserves as well – back to the medics … I am a few steps further on towards that now, and wondering quite what my motivation is about there. Is it that I just like being a bit butch, strutting around in polished boots with a rifle, or is it that it’ll enrich my experience, by training as a medic in preparation for applying for a physiotherapy course, or do I just want to earn more money? I think part of the attraction is to be trained from scratch again … its been such a long time since I was an army medic that I’d be starting as a private again, and that appeals, because its another chance to learn, to get it right, and to make sure I’m ticking all the boxes.

As I’m writing this, I realise that in my current fragile, alcohol-affected state I’m exposing my frailties somewhat … yes, I do want to get everything right, so yes, I am a perfectionist, and yes, it probably is a need for approval, and yes it probably is left over from some childhood hang up. And that’s just fine, I’m ok with that … especially after a job offer, and wine and chocolate. Well I’m fine with that anyway, quite frankly.

But will I be perfect? Of course not, but it’ll be good to try for a bit, and as a newbie, it’ll be a while before I’ll realise all the things I should be doing and aren’t, so I might even think I am getting it right – ignorance has its benefits.

In the meantime, I’ve been so distracted by job applications, interviews, study, learning, reading that running has been left well and truly by the wayside, and is down to one Parkrun a week … so now I can leave my nightly trawls through ‘Indeed’ and writing one supporting statement after another, I might even take myself out for a little jaunt next week sometime … after all, there’ll be an Army fitness test at some point!

And finally – my lovely wife … egged me on … was the edgy, risk taker when I wanted to play it safe and pay the bills. Coupledom is great, isn’t it, when one compliments the other, and gives just that little prod that is needed to take a risk and try something else? Thank you so much, Carol, for giving me that little push …

Time to stop, I’m getting all mushy now after my two and a half glasses of wine … 🙂

Happy days!

 

 

 

Full steam ahead, part two

images-4So what happens next?

Its a bit scary even beginning to write this, because in short, I don’t know. I’m stepping into the dark here, and taking risks, especially financial risks, is not my forté at all.

Officially I finish teaching at the end of this term, in December and then I have no full time job, and neither will my wife.

We have downsized to a small house with solar panels, so hopefully our bills will be a bit lower. I have some money saved, but that won’t last forever, so I’m not retiring yet.

So what’s my dream job? Over months and months of deliberation, I realise that different sides of my personality appeal to different areas of work, so here are my criteria –

Meaningful – there has to be a point to my work, I’m a right-on lesbian who eats kale, therefore I can’t just make loads of money without caring about others, so CEO of Wonga is out.

Money – enough to pay the bills, so actually much less than now would be ok, but I would rather avoid threats of redundancy every year (out of the pan and all that).

Status – for me this is about competency rather than hierarchy. I want to be really good at my job and knowing that would tick the ‘status’ box. I’m not ambitious, so being in charge or moving up the ladder doesn’t interest me that much.

Interest – there are a lot of jobs that strike me as interesting, for different reasons. I’m an extravert so people work is good, but I like solitude, too. I’m a perfectionist so like to tick every box, if possible, and I absolutely love learning, so work with on-going developmental opportunities would be lovely. I like to think hard about the best way to do something, think on my feet sometimes, be organised and methodical, but now and again get the chance to be innovative as well.

My train of opportunity has visited a few stations already. I got to the interview stage for a place on a doctorate in educational psychology last year. This would’ve been a move up. I was unsuccessful, and on reflection, I really couldn’t see myself having a better answer about how to help a school help a young person with complex needs than a special needs coordinator who has been helping children like that for over twenty years. So money and status, but not competency, probably – I want to be good, really good as well, and I don’t think I’d be that good an educational psychologist.

The next station was trainee train driver. I am exceedingly proud to be able to say I beat 900 applicants to interview! This would’ve been a big move up, money wise, but I was unsuccessful. Learning the job would’ve been good, and the money would’ve been great, but me, driving trains? I couldn’t quite see it, quite honestly, and I guess the managers couldn’t either.

And my train is now approaching a junction … or it might run out of track (eeek!).

It might go towards Open University country. I love this university – from both sides of the desk. My undergraduate and postgraduate psychology degrees were both with the OU, and I have been privileged enough to work part-time as an Associate Lecturer for the past six years. I don’t earn enough to live off this, but maybe, just maybe, I might gradually get more contracts until its enough to pay the bills. So money, no, but status, yes, I’m good at it, and find it really rewarding work.

Or it might go towards the NHS – yes, I know, I know – from one poorly funded public service to another … but there are crucial differences here, and I absolutely get that this is purely conjecture, as I am not within this organisation, so I’m guessing here, BUT … I don’t think managers will think its my fault if a patient doesn’t attend their appointment, follow their medical advice / regime or get better. Yes, there won’t be enough time to do everything, but I won’t be bringing any patients home, or responding to emails from them at home either. The politics, the lack of funding and investment? Yes,  its certainly a challenging environment, but I survived twenty years in education, so I’m hoping I’d manage a similar length of service in the NHS.

Right now I’m thinking of physiotherapy – I’m not about to try and compete with those wonderfully experienced folk getting runners back out after injuries, but rather to be that one link in the chain that helps an immobile patient to cough so as to avoid getting a chest infection, or to help a child with cystic fibrosis spend less time on their ventilator, or help a stroke victim to sit up again. I reckon I’d be good at that …

Or something else entirely? I’ve interviewed to be a water quality sampler for Yorkshire Water, applied to be a part-time funeral director, and have an open mind every time I go on Indeed. I’ve also applied to go back to the Reserves as a medic as well – the Army wasn’t top of my list when I quit teaching, but it’ll bring in a bit of pocket money, if they’ll have me back.

So the next few weeks will consist of putting many feelers out to obtain some health care / work shadowing experience in order to be ready to apply for a physiotherapy course, alongside looking for any reasonable means to pay the bills … if the worst comes to the worst, then I guess it might have to be supply teaching … shudders at the thought …

Of course, this is only until the next hair brained idea comes along – I’m open to any suggestions? !

 

Full steam ahead

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This post will be in two parts. First I will let off steam and then I can share with you where my train is heading.

First the rant. I’ve been a teacher for twenty years, and each year that the workload cranked up a little bit more from the year before, I sucked it up, employed all my creative juices, and found a way to at least make it look as if I’m encompassing the new expectations, the additional progress monitoring or the extra teaching element. I have loved teaching so very much, and never stopped seeing my role as the greatest privilege and the most profound responsibility, sending young people on their way into the adult world.

I get that managers live in mortal fear of the big bad Ofsted, and that all these new initiatives are just attempts to keep the Ofsted savagery at bay. I also get that not all managers have the quite the sensitivity towards staff morale as they could have.

I get all that, but I also have a limit to my ability to take criticism. I’m a sensitive soul, and, if I’m honest, have probably spent most of my life looking for approval from authority. Its very hard indeed to get that approval in teaching. I will explain, so now here comes the boring bit … either take a deep breath, or skip the next four paragraphs …

In my current role, gaining approval means teaching, marking and reporting – fine, its always been that, what’s the problem? Ok, so let’s start with the teaching bit, well, to pass a lesson observation these days generally takes me at about 8 hours of preparation – the assessment criteria is on an A3 sheet, there are too many boxes to tick they don’t fit onto A4. You have just 20-25 minutes to meet all these criteria, and you don’t know which 20 minutes of your lesson will be observed, so you have to plan to meet all these criteria repeatedly during your lesson.

The reality is, though, that really, teachers should be teaching lessons like this all the time. This is the standard that Ofsted has set, and the game is that when Ofsted or lesson observations come around, we all pretend that all of our teaching is like this. Sometimes the observer checks this out with the students in the class, and if you’re lucky, the students will assist in the game play as well.

Next the reporting bit – within the past half term I have had to report on over 120 students, commenting on their readiness for learning, their effort, the standard of their homework, their ability to learn independently, the grade they’re achieving at the moment, the grade they’re likely to get in 18 month’s time, the grade they got in their first two assessments, their attendance, their punctuality and the quality of their contributions in class. I then have to agree with a colleague on the grade we both think they’ll get in 18 months’ time. I don’t just predict an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ or a ‘C’, I have to predict either a ‘B1’, which means that they will probably get a B, but with a specific intervention from me they could get an A, or a B2, which means they’ll probably get a B, but without a specific intervention from me they might get a C, or a B3, which means without a specific intervention from me there’s a real danger they might get a C. I have to make these predictions of their performance on a new course that no one has actually taught before. I’ve just completed this cycle for the second time in seven weeks, because the first was called a ‘settling in check’ so didn’t count as an actual report, apparently.

The marking – yes, this is very important, and I regularly mark until past 11 o’clock at night. Every couple of weeks I have to mark in more detail, when the comments have to be printed onto blue paper, so that managers can find them easily when they conduct a work scrutiny. All these key marked pieces should have ‘What Went Well’ and ‘To Improve Further’ comments. This should then be followed by interventions, that are recorded into a file, along with the outcome, because all students who failed to meet their target grade are expected to be given some kind of intervention designed to raise their performance up their target grade standard. In addition to this, I have to find time in the following lesson to go through my feedback with the students, so that the students can all write down, in red pen, what their response to this feedback is going to be. In reality this means my students re-submit their assessment, so I have marked the work of about 50 of my students twice, with some of them submitting up to four pieces of work for marking a second time. I actually don’t mind this, and am thrilled when they are so motivated – this has been a labour of love, no really, it has.

In the summer term, after twenty years in the job, the feedback after a lesson observation was a ‘weak good’. It seems I should have named each student when I spoke to them to help the observer notice that every student was making progress. The printed copy of my marks sheet should have been colour coded (on Excel it was, but lacking access to a colour printer apparently I should have coloured all the boxes in with felt tip instead). I received this feedback in the same week that I had the nicest ever ‘Thank You’ card from a student. She’s going to train to be a teacher, and said that I was so dedicated, it was clear that teaching was not just a job to me, and that I had really inspired her to become a teacher herself. I was so touched by this, and wanted to share it with my appraiser, but he flatly refused to even look at it, saying it was not part of the appraisal process. Sadly, he’s right – the only thing that counts in management’s assessment of my contribution to the profession is the evidence I presented during those twenty minutes.

So the lesson observation counts, along with my exam results – these were the best the school had had for some time – during the year that the other psychology teacher was off on maternity and I had had to pick up some of her classes as well. The year that the time allocated to deliver the course was dropped from five hours a week to four. The year that the amount of content on the course increased from 15 pieces of research to 20. Despite all this, I am deemed a ‘Weak good’.

So what was I to do? Continue another twenty years of finding ways to make it look like I’m ticking all the boxes and work on my robustness, so I can shrug off a ‘weak good’ summation of my contribution to the profession, focusing instead on the many ‘Thank you’ cards and emails from students to feed my need for my positive strokes of approval?

The trouble is, I’m just so sensitive and such a perfectionist. I want to get everything right and tick all the boxes, for real. There’s no way any teacher can do that and still have a life outside of work. Its hard for me to be ok with all the things I’m failing to do because there just isn’t time to cover everything. The holidays allow time to rest and recuperate, but they don’t make up for the frustration of having left so much undone during term time.

When did our society become one that is obsessed with continual improvement? When did we start relentlessly demanding more and more output for less and less investment? When did we become so greedy and target driven? When did ‘satisfactory’ stop being good enough? I don’t think any political party sees this as a problem, so it isn’t going to change any time soon. However good we are, further improvement is still expected.

So I quit … I’m leaving at the end of this term. I have twenty years of work ahead of me, and I can’t face the feeling of having never quite reached the grade.

I was criticised again yesterday. A student was upset because my progress tracker (that is colour coded when its on a computer screen) showed her progress to be red, whilst everyone else’s was a healthy green or blue. Evidently it was my fault that she was almost the only student in the class that hadn’t re-submitted any of her assessments in order to make her progress colour change upwards. When I suggested we get together for me to give her one-to-one feedback, it was my fault that she had not chosen to do this. Oh yes, and the student was upset because I hadn’t given her ‘What Went Well’ feedback on her test. I considered asking for training on how to give positive feedback that doesn’t sound condescending when a student scores 1/20.

So I am well aware that I would be far better off just letting all this go and not fretting about it – life’s too short. Rumination is bad for the soul … but each little knock on top of the last little knock takes longer each time to bounce back from, and I know now that leaving the profession is right for my psychological health. So perhaps the positive take on all this is that each little knock will now actually be an affirmation that I’m doing the right thing to get out of the ring …

Hats off to all teachers – I salute your resilience – truly you’re made of stern stuff and I think that you’re all amazing.

I’m coming out … I think

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My dad is a reserved man of few words, and he never shared his political beliefs with me. To this day I don’t know what he votes, although I suspect he’s a conservative. It was as if laying out your political persuasions was considered a little, well, uncouth.

And so I’ve followed his example, all these years – I’ve shared my political leanings with only a very small group of close friends.

Until now.

The last few weeks have been a turbulent time for our country, to say the least, and whilst I won’t try and pretend I’m knowledgeable about all or even most of the issues, I had my opinion about what I wanted for the UK, and most of my friends agreed with me, well my Facebook friends anyway. I didn’t get what I wanted, well not yet, anyhow, but apart from what I wanted, I’ve been mesmerised by what the country’s response has been. It started with the initial backlash – the racist comments, the economic changes, and the finger pointing, squarely at Corbyn, it seemed. The summary of his crimes seemed to be he wasn’t seen doing enough campaigning for Remain and must therefore go.

And then the inconsistencies and confusion seemed to reign upon everything I started to focus my attention on. First – Corbyn gets slammed for not doing enough for Remain, and yet Teresa May gets to be prime minister for doing even less. Secondly, Corbyn is shunned by his MPs, and yet the Labour party enjoys a massive swell in numbers, presumably of people like myself, who see Corbyn as a genuine guy with the right values and a refreshing lack of interest in playing ‘the Westminster Game’. What is it that the MPs see, or fail to see, in Corbyn, that these new members don’t? Why haven’t the MPs spelled out the details of their insight, in order to disavow all these new Labour members of their illusions?

And thirdly, and this is where, for me, things seem to fall apart … what does democracy, actually mean, in the UK, in these ‘modern’ times? Yes, I’ve joined the Labour party – I never, ever thought I’d be saying this. I never even thought I’d ever do more about my political beliefs than put my cross in the box in a general election. But I wanted to vote for Corbyn to remain as the leader, because I wanted to see a shift in the political climate away from the slick spin, the eye watering expense claims and middle ground policies that try to be all things to all people. I don’t know if he’s electable, and in a sense I don’t care, because if his influence brings a change in attitude, then it may well take a very long time indeed for our culture to change and to embrace the style of politics that Corbyn represents.

So there it is, I’m come out of my political closet – I’m a paid up member … does that make me a political activist? Well more of one than I was before, certainly. But the next episode is that my membership doesn’t count, and the fee I paid is suddenly not enough, and I should now pay another £25. Yes, I can afford it, but there are many 1000s of other people who can’t, and so here it is the principle I strongly object to. Imagine if I bought new trainers, paid my money and took them home, only to have the shop assistant come to my house and take them off me a couple of days later saying the price has gone up, and I should pay more.

There’s always a work around, these days – no Pokemon Go in the UK, but there’s a work around by going through the US site … and for the work around in this case, Unite opened its arms and offered participation in the leadership election through affiliated membership of the union. So I did that … although still couldn’t work out why I needed to do this – I still couldn’t quite believe that the party I had joined didn’t want my voice to be heard. If that wasn’t frustrating enough, the next development is that that all Labour meetings are now cancelled until after the leadership election. My attempts to get involved and try to make a difference are met with what feels like a gagging order. I can’t vote without paying extra fees, and I can’t even meet with local members to explore what others opinions are. And this evening I read that even those who have taken affiliated membership through the unions can’t vote either.

This has left me feeling confused and insecure. I have always trusted in the democratic process of my country, and yet now it seems that this democracy is being manipulated and controlled by ‘them’ … like some kind of fascist dictatorship that happens in countries you don’t go to on holiday … that you hear about in documentaries … not here, in Britain.

Does my voice count, or not?

 

To bike or not to bike …

… that is the question.2016-05-02 13.24.11

Its been an interesting turn of events recently, well ‘turn of thinking’ to be precise. For a few weeks I’ve wanted to write a blog post about cycling, but couldn’t quite work out how it would end, but now I really need to find an ending. Perhaps you could help me?

Running-wise, this year has been such a buzz for me so far. For some, running twice a week, extending the run by just 5 minutes each week may not be everyone’s idea of a ‘buzz’, but as each week passed, I’ve been feeling more and more myself again. Its cheesy, I know, but getting past the hour mark has made me start to feel like I’m getting back to ‘proper’ running, especially now I have a race pass, because my physio says I’m good to race shorter distances. So now, I’m back at club training sometimes, off-road races every fortnight and long runs with Parkrun on Saturdays … happy days.

I’ve started to look ahead, at longer races, marathons, ultras … and then I try to reign myself back in. Its still early days, I’m running pain-free, but I have only just reached the 10 mile point, I have a long way to go yet, time and rehab-wise. I’m still at the ‘suck it and see’ stage with my knee, now supported by stronger muscles after hundreds and hundreds of one-legged squats and leg presses in the gym. Therefore I’m still not entirely sure that I’ll get back to marathon / ultra distance, or to a heavier training load at all yet … but its lovely to dream and I usually have a positive take on life.

The thing is, what happens with my cycling now? My road bike is now very dusty and has actually gone mouldy in places (see picture – I think the old garage had a hole in the roof above the saddle or something). Its looking so sad and unloved that I try not to even look at it when I go in the garage now, and yet a year ago, I kept my bike in the house and used to stroke it now and again – honestly, I did! I’ve stopped reading the Facebook posts from the two cycling clubs I have ridden with, and haven’t renewed my membership with them either.

I could say this is because I’m back running again, and cycling will never compete with running. I was beginning to think I should sell it, but knew at the same time that its a good bike and I’d regret it at some point if I did, because cycling is good cross training, and I did used to like my long training rides when I was ironman training. But the truth is, I’m scared of cycling, but more recently I’ve begun to understand this fear better.

The fear is about numbers. Since my bike accident last June I have done two sportives, and one group ride where I spent the first twenty minutes just fighting back the tears and a real urge to turn around and go home. In my quieter moments at home, my rational self also says, ‘cycling is dangerous – your next fall could kill you’. This is true, it could … and I admit that I am very risk averse in life generally. No one would blame me, or judge me, because my head injury took a good few weeks to recover from, and it natural to be hesitant to get back on after that. I’ve never enjoyed cycling in tight groups anyway – I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy the company, but I’ve always been anxious of being surrounded by bikes and having to trust that everyone around me would cycle predictably and in a straight line. But one day they didn’t … and I’m beginning to realise that perhaps that’s what I’ll never get over – I’m not sure I’ll ever find group riding enjoyable if I can’t trust what others will do.

But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t cycle at all. I have a cyclocross bike (that’s one for rougher tracks) that I’ve used for commuting, and I’ve done the odd errand on it now and then, and been reminded how much fun it can be – just pedalling along, being confident and assertive in traffic, working hard with my pace … if you’re a cyclist, you know the feeling. Its made me smile – I’ve always liked my cyclocross – its always felt more fun to ride, because its robust and I don’t need to get kitted out to ride it. But then a quick errand around town whets my appetite and gets me thinking about all the other ‘proper’ stuff I used to do.

In the midst of all this to-ing and fro-ing with the whole cycling thing, I have just spent a weekend with some triathletes on a DIY Pirate half ironman event. (Google it – otherwise this post will be far too long, and I’ve already rambled on quite a bit). Old friends, new friends, no pretentions, no stressin’, and no cycling, or swimming (for me, anyway) – I just did a run, and sat around and talked, a lot. There’s something about the Pirates … and the DIY event in particular, that makes me feel all warm and safe, and, well, inspired. I enjoyed listening to people’s plans and feelings about forthcoming ironman events, and was reminded that I did enjoy the commitment of training for my own ironman, and the day itself was really something to be proud of. I like feeling proud, and sometimes I think I’d like to be more than a ‘oneathlete’ when I’m in my pirate colours. Plus, no one rides in a group in triathlon, its not allowed, so what’s to be frightened of?

And THEN … I got a message from an old acquaintance who’d been selected to join a work team to cycle LEJOG, and would I come out training with her? OMG …, thought I, – she’s been training since January, and is already doing 54 mile rides at nearly 14 mph. I know I’m not up to that sort of distance / speed now. Dilemma!!! Do I politely decline, saying I’m too slow, too nervous and wouldn’t be much help, or do I take this as an opportunity to replace the mouldy bar tape, hit those hills, build up my speed again, and join her … because maybe that will be the incentive I need to get back in the saddle again, and maybe after a while, into triathlon as well?

I really don’t know – the thing is, I’m happy – really happy. We’ve moved into a lovely little bungalow, the job is going fine, family life is nice these days, I’m enjoying my running, and my allotment, and my greenhouse, and … and … and … Which doesn’t really drive me to look for other ways of being happy. Its like taking a second helping when you’re already full. Neither do all these lovely pastimes leave much time for anything else.

So do I move other pleasures aside and find time and the courage to get bike fit again, and then join my friend on some training rides for LEJOG, or settle back into my comfortable life, with a bit of running, and maybe a marathon at some point in the future, and a glut of home grown courgettes?

 

 

Healed and ready

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This time last year I saw 2015 as my healing year, because I knew what was ahead, and I was right, although I did get a little more than I was expecting. So first let me summarise two expected and two unexpected healings …

The kidney donation was textbook in the end – the healing was swift and almost complete. Home the next day, the pain subsided in just a few days, my strength returned pretty quickly, and I did Parkrun three weeks later. The numb hip and leg is very slowly improving, but its an irritation more than anything else. There is some, erm, tidying up to do, still – I don’t think whoever finished off was ever a tailor in a previous life, shall we say. Unfortunately my appointment about that was cancelled, and hasn’t been rescheduled yet. The best bit of all, though, was getting a letter from the recipient – I shall treasure that for the rest of my life, what a privilege that was.

The injury after my cycle accident taught me a lot about mental health. It was a strange experience – not being able to speak properly, or remember things, or make decisions, and its made me realise the importance of looking after my mental health as much as my physical health. My functioning has returned to normal now, I think – although I shall be using my head injury to excuse everything I ever forget to do for the next twenty years. My cycling confidence hasn’t returned though, but more of that later.

Knee next – this was the biggie for me this year, because York marathon 2014 was my last marathon, I didn’t cross the line with a smile on my face and it signalled the point at which I accepted that I needed to stop running and get it fixed. So the arthroscopy would reveal what state my knee was in. I was preparing to be told it was riddled with arthritis and my running days were over – the consultant had suggested that at my initial appointment. I was relieved, therefore, to be told by him that I could still run, but his summary of my knee was puzzling. The ligament reconstruction had re-ruptured, apparently, which I don’t understand, because every assessment of the function of the reconstruction has been positive. Also, I’ve had no trauma to the knee that may have caused this. He also said the kneecap was worn, but I don’t know what this means.

So I came home, with a follow up appointment which was subsequently cancelled – there’s a bit of a theme here, isn’t there?! So I still wasn’t sure where that left me, running-wise.

A friend of mine recommended a different physio – ok, he’s a rehabilitation therapist to be precise, but ‘physio’ is much easier to say. And he wins races … so he knows about running. This is where the spark of optimism is kindled. He did all the tests I’ve had many times and told me my VMO was very weak. I had no idea what he meant – for the uninitiated ‘VMO’ is ‘vastus medialis oblique’ and is the teardrop quad on the inside of one’s thigh. I know I’ve said this already on my last blog, but this is important … he explained how the mechanics of that muscle are related to my knee problems and it fitted with the type of pain I’ve been having. So three months on I’ve done lots and lots of strengthening exercises, and been so committed I’ve actually joined a gym.

There’s something unexpected – I’ve enjoyed gym work enough to make that dreaded 12 month commitment. I’ve been here before, twice – and wasted a lot of money, joining gyms and then not going. The difference this time is that I was already committed to the program before I joined. I’ve been using the gym at work, and liking it – I even like the music, sometimes. And I’ve been going since I signed on the dotted line, and actually loving it … I can’t believe I’m writing this, but yes, gyms and me to mix, it seems, after all.

And the tentative healing, then, is that I am running pain-free, only for 20 minutes, mind. Kris says I can run twice a week, for 5 minutes extra each week. Its not a marathon distance, but its wonderful to be out of the house, running again, really great. So am I healed? Can I sign up for umpteen marathons for 2016? Well not yet – the pain would typically kick in around mile 7 on long runs, and I’m way off that yet, so no race entries right now. I will follow Kris’ advice religiously, and see what the next couple of months bring. But running is great, really great.

The other unexpected healing was to do with grief. It been two years since my daughter died, but it has taken this long for the serious case review to be published. It opened wounds and I wasn’t expecting this. I realised that for most of the autumn my wife and I have been retreating into ourselves, cancelling social engagements, and staying in, together, being safe and comforted. I think I needed some of this, partly as this was linked to my recovery from the cycle accident, but partly the grief of facing press interest in our daughter’s story again, but I think partly habit as well.

Everyone’s grief and mental health is different, so this is nothing about anyone else’s story, but I think I had got into a habit of feeling sad, being quiet, retreating from folk. This may be linked with having stopped training as well – doing one-legged squats in an empty school gym is not really going to get the endorphins flowing in quite the same way as a 50 mile cycle ride with a bunch of chatty females will, or tucking into a bacon sandwich after an 18 mile run including Parkrun. I was starting to think that I perhaps needed to make a decision to stop being like this.

The day the local paper published the review’s findings, we’d got tickets to see Sarah Millican, by chance. This was quite the rip-roaring belly busting laugh fest I’d hoped for, but it got us out of the house, and gave us the lift we needed to start picking ourselves up again. And this has continued.  Buying a house has helped – the chance to start nesting again, and creating a cosy little pad in new surroundings, to make new memories and new associations. And then the end of term – a break from work – bliss! I can even see how going to the gym is good for my mental health, and I have now learned to look after my mental health as well as my physical fitness. I’m not taking mental health for granted now.

So that completes my year of healing – I’m not saying my grief has gone now, but the cloud has certainly lifted again, and I have a few things to look forward to next year, hopefully. Maybe I’ll realise the importance of cycling for my mental health, and that this will be enough to force me out and get over my fear of group riding. This would be an achievement in itself.

But more importantly, how thrilled would I be to be writing a marathon race report before Christmas 2016? Fingers crossed, eh? Did I mention that running is great?

Happy new year, everyone – I think mine will be … 🙂