I’m used to be told off, it’s a part of life but it has been a number of years since my mum actually told me off. I’m well into my forties now and had thought that I’d passed that stage of my life. It appears that I haven’t.
I tend to have a weekly chat with my parents on the phone while I’m walking home from work. Although they’re only based 18 miles away, with three kids and lots of activities at the weekend, we only see them once every couple of months, so it’s good to keep in touch.
While I was chatting to mum yesterday, I mentioned that it’s great to be able to see what the boy has had for lunch- he’s newly started at secondary school and his school dinner money is done via biometrics- in this instance a thumb print. We can log on to an app and see what he’s spent and what he’s spent it on. Mum was impressed, I could tell. Mind you, a lot of technology impresses her generation, but even so, she said it was a shame that they didn’t have that sort of system when I was at school.
I was a creature of habit in my school days. Packed lunch containing:
two slices of Sainsbury wholemeal bread made into a Marmite sandwich (cut diagonally)
a bag of crisps (Ringos, Farmer Browns, Hula Hoops, Chipsticks)
a biscuit (orange/mint/fruit Club or a KitKat)
a carton of drink (5 Alive, Umbongo or something similar)
Blithely, I mentioned to mum I didn’t actually eat my packed lunch very often, instead I sold it to Mark Giltrow. Mark was on school dinners but didn’t like them and preferred a packed lunch, so I sold him mine for the equivalent of a school dinner, pocketing the money to fund my obsession with comics and computer games. Along with my 55p bus fare home I didn’t spend, choosing to walk instead, this added a huge £8.75 a week to my income. That was enough to buy a Megadrive game once a month!
There was silence on the other end of the phone. The silence extended and became awkward. Them mum replied, “You naughty boy, no wonder you were hungry when you got home, honestly Alex, I’m cross with you.”
I had to point out that we were talking about something that happened 30 years ago, and as a 43 year old parent of three I wasn’t about to take a telling off for something that happened so long ago but there was little I could say that would mollify her. I was in trouble!
It’s not getting any better. Whenever we have a big tidy up it seems like we’re just moving stuff about and relocating things rather than getting rid of stuff. Our house must weigh about twice as much as our neighbours because we’ve got so much darn stuff in it.
The kids don’t help the accumulation of detritus- attempt to get them to part with any old or broken toy they haven’t touched for years and they’ll wail and play with it incessantly until you leave the room and then revert to the scrumming wrestling game that is their preferred pastime.
Still I’m no better, I keep on finding stuff in the house that I bought years ago and in some instances haven’t actually opened. Take this for example:
The Dreamcast was Sega’s last (and ill-fated) console. It was released in 1999 and discontinued in 2001. This is a sealed box VMU (memory card) for a Dreamcast that’s sat in a box in our loft for many many years.
Still, I did manage somewhat of a breakthrough. I took 17 boxes down from the loft that contained old video consoles, games and various cables and power supplies. I only returned 7 boxes, which I count as a win, but I’m still a little nervous about some of the PSUs I threw away.
I mean, just because I haven’t used them in the last 15 years, doesn’t mean they’re not vital. Right? Right???
This year Nozstock celebrated it’s 20th birthday, no mean feat given how the festival market has burgeoned in recent years. The secret to their success is threefold- Nozstock has refused to grow to the size of a mega festival, it has great music, and it’s just incredibly friendly.
This year the weather gods were kind to us,it was gloriously hot and sunny where it had been rather wet the previous year. The weather does make a big difference at a festival, even one where they deal with the mud really well, and I have to say combined with the lovely local cider and the musical line up, this was probably the best Nozstock yet.
We started off Friday with We Are Scientists, before moving on to the Selector for a bit of ska. Both were ace, but simply a warm up for Chase & Status a bit later in the evening, who did an awesome set. Day time is quite chilled at Nozstock, with a mixture of mellow acoustic, folk, and guitar based pop/rock. Things get really banging in the evenings. The kids did well on the first night, managing to stay up until gone midnight.
On day 2 we were joined by the rest of our posse (the Friday had been year six leavers party, so my wife, the eldest, and one of our friends and their eldest came up first thing Saturday morning). The last sets of the previous night only finished at around 2/3am, so the morning was quite chilled. I’d made the cardinal mistake of not filling up my water bottle so had to start the day with a gin in a tin to wet my whistle – why not start as you mean to carry on eh?
Although the family camping has always been great at Nozstock (restricted to people with actual families and not groups of teenagers on their own like a few other festivals I could name), this year it really outdid itself with a bespoke adventure playground and some football goals. This is a really great addition when you have kids that get up at 7am and the festival proper doesn’t open until 10!
Of course the bigger acts were reserved for the (late) evenings but with the likes of Electric Swing Circus on earlier, it really wasn’t the case of having to sit through a lot of rubbish just to make sure you got to see the likes of GrandMaster Flash or Goldfrapp.
The thing that sets Nozstock apart (aside from the music, the food, and well lots of other things really) is the atmosphere though. It is so friendly. We had “merry” lads and lasses coming up and asking the kids who their favourite artists were, complementing us on making the kids wear ear defenders, and just being genuinely nice. There was none of the argy bargy jostling and queue jumping you see at larger festivals, everybody is out to have a good time and enjoy themselves.
Tickets are already available for Nozstock’s 21st Festival, and you can pick them up hereat an early bird rate. Don’t forget that kids under 12 go free, so it really is an awesome opportunity to spend a long weekend chilling.
Our house was built in the 1960s and one of the ways we get an insight every day to how different things are in 2018 to 1968 (Happy 50th Birthday house!) is the aggravation we inevitably have when it comes to plugging stuff in. Each room has at most two plug sockets, which in this day and age simply isn’t anywhere near enough. And boy do we have things plugged in- from computers to grills, to smart speakers, everything seems to come with a power brick and a plug today. Ironically, even the 1970s stereo we’ve recently inherited needs two plug sockets, which suggests that power strips were pretty common in the 70s too.
And it is true for us that almost every plug socket has a power strip on it, with various devices and chargers plugged in. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up in a cold sweat wondering how much electricity half our stuff uses on standby and whether cumulatively it would be enough to put one of our kids through university. Both our bigger tellies (50 and 60 inch respectively) don’t even have a physical on/off button; they’re either in standby or switched off at the wall and since the cables are tucked away from sight, turning them off at the wall every night is a bit of a chore, especially when one of the kids wakes you up at 6am because the TV doesn’t work.
British Gas have developed a game to let you see what uses electricity and how, with the idea that it creates an awareness of the things that use a lot of electricity. Much like a smart meter will let you see what is being used, and make you conscious of what needs turning off or using sparingly to save you money. I have a friend who was shocked to see the electricity usage of his big plasma TV after he got a smart meter fitted. He went away and looked up the actual power consumption and worked out that if he bought a similar size modern LCD TV the saving in electricity between the two would actually pay for his new telly before the warranty on it ran out.
The British Gas Smart Meter Maze game lets you get an idea of how much simple things like turning off lights or game consoles will save you, all wrapped up in a lovely retro pixel art style. I particularly like the way it shows the kids running around and turning everything on ALL THE TIME. It’s very realistic in that respect.
That’s the beauty of a smart meter really. It won’t magically save you energy on its own but there is something about seeing a £££ move that focuses the mind and makes you more energy conscious. I even did the experiment of setting our TV to ECO mode to see what difference it would make. Initially the screen looked a lot dimmer but since we mostly watch TV in the evening with the lights off, we soon adjusted as the saving, although small, was another step towards being more frugal with our energy usage.
And so my journey to owning my fear of an early death is drawing to an end and also entering a new and exciting chapter. My six months of blog posts and support calls from Becky at AXA PPP healthcare are drawing to an end but the process of empowering myself to continue the journey is ongoing.
When I started my journey back in January I was more interested in tips, tricks and shortcuts to getting my health back on track; I was hoping AXA PPP healthcare and Becky would be able to give me the professional equivalent of those “one weird tip the experts don’t want you to know” adverts you see out there, but as I began to buy in to the process, I realised it was as much a change of attitude as it was in the record-able metrics of what I wanted to achieve: setting myself up to fail by designating a weight loss target as the goal wasn’t a great idea because it ignored the reason for it, and the reason (wanting to be there for my kids) was more important and required a change in thinking, not just in eating.
I’m going to sound like one of those old hippies but in this instance the journey was definitely more important than the destination. And I say this with some authority, as the man who once reviewed a Slendertone in a not entirely serious manner much to the irritation of everyone who found it on the front page of Google for several years.
Once I entered the mindset of owning my fear of a premature death, I was liberated in that I could face the elephant in the room and do more than a desultory attempt to address it because lets not forget, a fear pushed to the back of your mind and not properly acknowledged won’t be dealt with properly and will demotivate you all the way as you try to change things.
There are four key things in the Own your fears campaign that worked really well for me:
Admitting to myself that I had a fear and it needed facing in the first place;
Embracing the positivity that the admission created and using it to drive change;
Having practical help in terms of support and guidance from Becky; and
Having someone to be accountable to.
Going forwards, now that my series of coaching calls has finished, I can still manage one and two, three is okay as I’ve got the practical help sitting in my G Drive, but point four was always going to be the issue- just who do I find to hold myself accountable to?
In the end the answer was obvious and staring me in the face for the whole time. After all the reason I decided to own my fear in the first instance was for my children, and the two older children are of an age that they can hold me accountable but also encourage me. I may have had one two many enjoying the football on a sunny Friday afternoon recently- when I got back home, my two eldest told me off. The younger made me drink two pints of water and the elder did an impromptu quiz (what’s the weight of Saturn? Is diamond harder than titanium? You know, sensible questions) to ascertain how naughty I’d been. He even wrote down my results and rated me. That’s the kind of being held to account I need, although he’d have done better had he removed my dinner plate from me before I decided to have a quick nap.
The best thing about owning my fear is I feel light. Weight wise I haven’t lost as much as I hoped to but that’s not really what I’m talking about. It’s about the metaphorical weight that’s been taken off my shoulders.
Taking that first step is hard though, but with AXA PPP healthcare there to help, you don’t have to do it on your own. Go on, what are you waiting for? This could be the start of something special!
On a baking hot Saturday a couple of weeks ago the boys and I drove down to Greenwich to sweat a lot in a concrete basement. I sweated so much I had to change every single item of clothing I was wearing. It turns out, having fun in the heat makes you sweat and we had so much fun playing Lazer M.A.D. that I must have lost a couple of pints of fluids.
Lazer M.A.D. is a blaster game that you can play in an underground bunker in Greenwich but you can also play at home, in your garden, or in the office (if your boss is understanding). I have to admit Ned’s enthusiasm and excitement as we headed to the event was probably matched by my scepticism- “toy” versions of almost everything tend to turn out to be rubbish, from low megapixel cameras, to drones that crash or fly off and get lost, the market doesn’t have a very good track record in making stuff that is good in anything other than an advert.
I have to say though that two weeks after the event, and two weeks playing quite a bit of Lazer M.A.D. at home with the kids, I’ve been proved pleasantly wrong.
Lets start with the equipment. In each pack of Lazer M.A.D. you get two blasters, with various modular attachments that affect the range and the rate of fire. you also get a little harness and a target (much like you would if you went to an actual Lazer Tag venue). The first thing that impressed me was the durability of the blasters and the add-ons. I could see that they had a bit of heft to them and didn’t look like they would break that easily. Build quality (and general style) is fairly similar to everyone’s favourite dart propelling blaster system and that’s no bad thing in my book. Each of the add-ons snicks on positively and after a few weeks of play haven’t i) been lost or ii) become loose.
Of course, like all these devices, the Lazer M.A.D. blasters aren’t really lasers, they use an IR transmitter that is pretty powerful and pretty focused. As a chap who has been on several 9/10 year old laser tag party teams, I really couldn’t tell the difference between the Lazer M.A.D. stuff and the “professional” gear.
Given that you can use the blaster in different modes, it’s great that you have to reload it (there is a pump action slider on the top, so you too can be Linda Hamilton from Terminator 2 and do it one handed if you really want to be). The target also shows the number of lives you have left, which is handy too.
Although there are no real set rules, since you can set the blasters and targets to “friend” or “foe”, it’s possible to play team games and also, if you set everyone to the A team on the blaster but the B team on the target, you can also play last man standing, or Fortnite in real life as the kids termed it.
Even with the two player advanced battle ops set we played with (and bought home with us), which retails for £59.99, you can have a lot of fun, although if you’ve got a few friends with a set, the fun exponentially increases. The price isn’t prohibitive either if you do want to add more sets to your collection and join in with your kids.
Ned, our six year old, loved Lazer M.A.D. more than I can really articulate. It took him most of the drive home to calm down, and the next hour or so getting excited about playing on his very own set. I was surprised and impressed too. Have I mentioned how hot and sweaty I got playing Lazer M.A.D? Yes? Well that’s probably testament to how much fun we had playing!
Last Sunday was the St Albans Half Marathon. I didn’t run the half marathon. I didn’t run in the 10K either but I did run with my kids in the 1.5 mile fun run, and that ladies and gentlemen is entirely down to AXA PPP healthcare helping me in owning my fear of decrepitude and channelling it into something positive!
Vangelis is blaring out; I’m running in slow motion, aiming for the 4(+6) minute mile and frankly I might as well be Roger Bannister. All five of us ran the fun run but the two older kids went off at blistering pace, and wifey followed to make sure they didn’t get lost in the throng at the end. That left we running with Ned, who is six. Ned is a natural at pretty much everything but his one weakness with running is not pacing himself. Fortunately, running with me he had no choice but to run a bit slower. Even so, we passed a lot of parents, kids, teenagers and sole runners, which was heartening.
I had a plan though, and it wasn’t entirely down to my fitness or Neds aged either. As we came into the home straight, with crowds down both sides of the course, I turned to Ned and said, “Do you think you can sprint as fast as you can to the finish?” and of course he could. He might as well be modelled on Dash from the Incredibles because when he started really running, I had to put everything into it to keep up with him. We must have overtaken 40 or 50 people on that stretch, me crying “Run Forrest Run!”, Ned weaving in and out of people and as we approached the finish line, being cheered on by the crowd, we held hands and crossed the line together!
I’ll tell you this, it might have been hard work getting even this far, but it felt damn satisfying to cross the finish line of a 14 minute run at full pelt, holding my six year olds hand.
My fear of dying prematurely and leaving my wife and kids on their own was crushing and it was holding me back in so many ways but I’ve owned it. Now you can too, you can submit your fears here on the AXA Own Your Fears website and start your journey too. Did you know that 60% fear dying early and leaving their children? I wasn’t alone and the chances are you aren’t either.
Just remember, pretending that everything is all right doesn’t make it so, and that anxiety will be sitting there at the back of your mind nagging away at you.
Aside from the culmination of the the fun run, this past month has seen me double down and concentrate on not stuffing up. For me apathy to change and general can’t be bothered-ness has always been a problem but having a target to aim for has helped tremendously.
Talking to Becky, my support from AXA PPP healthcare has given me some great tips for keeping going, focusing on the lifestyle I want to achieve, rather than just specific targets, like losing X kilos, or being able to run 10K. I’m never going to be the sort of bloke who appears in a shaving advert but I could easily be one of the people to appear in a popular lifestyle product advert if I put a bit more work in and that’s what its about in a daft way. It’s much easier to buy into a lifestyle than a set of dry specific targets and that piece of advice has really helped me a lot.
I like to think I’m a fairly typical bloke in many ways when it comes to health- I was three years late to having my 40+ medical check up for example- and I’m always happy to soldier on with a cold without making a martyr of myself but when Canesten® made me aware of their Talk Health campaign and that men could get thrush, and male thrush was actually a thing, I was a bit taken aback to be honest. So taken aback, I was actually motivated to find out more.
Thrush is a common yeast infection, experienced by both men and women, caused by an overgrowth of a yeast-
like fungus, Candida albicans. This fungus is naturally found on the skin of healthy people, however, when the natural balance of the skin flora is disturbed, the fungus can multiply excessively triggering the typical signs of the infection.
In men, thrush usually affects the head of the penis, with symptoms being similar to those of vaginal thrush:
First, the affected skin reddens. The inside of the foreskin can also swell
After a few days, itching can begin, often accompanied by a burning sensation which becomes stronger when passing urine or during sexual intercourse
Sometimes, a white discharge which looks like cottage cheese can be observed under the foreskin. There may also be an unpleasant smell in some cases
Difficulty in pulling back the foreskin is another frequent symptom
So yes gents, it basically hits you where it hurts and where you’d least like to get something like that and have to show a doctor. In fact since reading that men could get thrush, I went on to read up on thrush and found that if left untreated, in some instances it can prove fatal. Eeek! Fortunately it’s about as easy to treat as athlete’s foot and the biggest issue facing us chaps with thrush is an actual awareness that we can get it in the first place.
Canesten® itself is something I am aware of, it’s a popular treatment for thrush, I actually used it on the back on my leg to treat a fungal infection many many years ago (at the recommendation of my GP I hasten to add) but it’s one of those creams that’s found in the “scary aisle” at Boots, along with other stuff that no self respecting bury his head in the sand at all things medical chap would ever look at.
In fact it’s this general lack of awareness centred around male thrush has prompted Canesten, the top brand in women’s intimate health, to launch a ‘Let’s Talk Health’ campaign. This campaign focuses on improving conversation around the topic of thrush, and how it is important for everyone to understand common health conditions.
As I’ve already alluded to, us chaps are quite good at not talking about medical stuff in the first place, in the good old fashioned hope that it will simply “go away”, so it’s hats off to Canesten® for starting the conversation!
This post has been supported by Canesten®, but all thoughts are my own.
AXA PPP healthcare have made me realise that owning my fears is structured much like a blockbuster movie or bestselling novel, just without the film stars or edge of the seat action sequences (if you don’t count me out on my bike, which you shouldn’t as it’s not very action packed).
Any good film starts with the set up, the heroes find out their challenge and go about achieving their goals, suffer a potentially fatal setback but then struggle through to redemption at the end. Unfortunately I’m at the “suffering a potentially fatal set back” phase in the movie of owning my fears and I’m very much hoping I’ll be able to power through to the final act and big climatic finale but you just never know do you?
As I mentioned last time, my big issue has always been sticking things out. Whether it’s failing to watch Breaking Bad, or neglecting not to eat all the chocolate in the house (including the stuff badly hidden behind the aubergines and eggs at the back of the top shelf of the fridge), I always get off to a good start with the best intentions but fail to stick it out. I’ve managed to get off to a good start owning my fear of an impending early death by making adjustments to my diet and lifestyle but now I’m facing a set back, like our nameless movie heroes. That set back is my arch nemesis: Apathy.
I don’t know about you but I tend to suffer from the process that when an immediate shock wears off or the initial impetus of doing something dwindles, I convince myself that things will be all right in the long run because things always tend to sort themselves out in the end anyway. It’s a comforting lie but it’s a lie none the less.
In the last 3 months I’ve lost almost six kilos and feel much healthier. I’m also sleeping better (both in terms of length of kip and how deep I’m sleeping) and feel generally quite a bit more energised than I have in the last few years.
This month has seen me backslide slightly. My alcohol consumption has gone up from nothing to not very much and I’ve had a ****** (a calorific sandwich with lot of sauce from a popular fast food establishment). Many would poo-poo the consumption of a ****** but for me it’s akin to a gateway drug; the first step towards a downward spiral that will eventually see me sitting down with a four pack of lager and an entire KFC Bargain Bucket to myself. Nobody wants to be that person do they?
It’s been a struggle because there are things I miss like bingeing on chocolate (the pre-diabetes scare has held this in check), eating lots of chips, battered sausages and assorted other junk food, and sitting around on my backside playing video games and watching TV. When the news reports said drinking a certain amount of alcohol could reduce your life expectancy by a few months, I thought, well that’s a pretty good trade off because life probably isn’t going to be much fun when I’m a creaky old 80 year old.
And the thing is, it isn’t fairly weighted. If I want to eat a bag of crisps, something that can be done sitting on one’s posterior on the sofa, I have to be aware that it’s going to require 10 minutes of jogging to burn through those calories. That’s almost criminal and probably the single biggest reason that I’ve always reached the “potentially fatal set back” part of the movie narrative and failed. You don’t see that in the cinema, apart from perhaps at the end of Terminator 3, where Judgement Day actually does happen, much to everyone’s surprise.
This is where being held accountable to someone has really really helped. Becky from AXA PPP healthcare hasn’t only been there to hear my moaning (she hasn’t even been silently reproachful down the phone for goodness sake), but she has provided positive action to help me muddle through the difficult third album phase of my challenge.
Part of that is looking at it positively- I’ve consciously not used the word struggle because that has negative connotations- I can look behind me and know that I’ve succeeded so far rather than looking ahead and seeing failure. Becky has also helped in practical terms too, she sent me some really excellent advice on habit stacking, which you can see from the infographic below, involves taking an existing routine or habit and “stacking” a new positive routine you want on to it in order to make it stick more.
I am a creature of routine and this had never occurred to me but it’s genius, especially when the good habits you want to build aren’t particularly fun or something that might come naturally to you!
As I work in an office environment, it’s quite easy for me to append a 15 minute walk onto my lunch every day (weather permitting). I’m a creature of habit and always tend to eat my lunch at about 12:15 everyday, so at 12:30 I now go for a 15 minute stroll around the block. It’s a simple as that and after a couple of weeks I already associate lunch with a bit of exercise- hurrah! This is something I’m looking to extend to drinking a pint of water after my morning ablutions to make sure I’m properly hydrated and having a vitamin D tablet with my first cup of tea of the day in the office to make sure my vitamin D levels are kept up (I’ve tested low for this in the past).
In some of my other posts I’ve started off with a quote from a film and then applied that to my situation. I had a couple of ideas how to end this post with something similar. I was going to quote the rather excellent Hey Duggee! Stick Song:
Because sticking with something is really powerful but in the end, although my youngest loves Hey Duggee, I’m slightly less enamoured by it and there is no excuse to not shoehorn a Star Wars quote in wherever possible.
During the attack run on the Death Star at the end of Star Wars (or a New Hope if you’re not as old as I am), Gold Leader starts his attack run, covered by a couple of support craft, including Gold Five. Gold Five constantly reminds Gold Leader to “Stay on target” and that they’re “Almost there” as Darth Vader and a couple of Tie Fighters come to attack. Those words of encouragement are important because without support, we all have a tendency to doubt ourselves and once you start doubting yourself, you’re in trouble. Actually, thinking about it, that’s a bit of flawed analogy because Gold Leader, Gold Five and the rest of that squadron all get blown up by Vader, because nobody but the named hero, Luke Skywalker, is allowed to blow up the Death Star, but you get my point don’t you?
At completely the opposite end of the board game spectrum from last months Catan, is Concept, a board game built around using visual clues to guess a word or phrase. Concept is dead easy to play but like any good board game, the more people you have, the more fun and frantic things get.
Concept is the latest game we’ve been sent by the board game club to expand our board gaming vistas beyond the traditional games of Monopoly and Cluedo that are pretty much all I ever managed to progress to after I got bored playing chess.
Concept has a board with four columns and a row of colours. The idea is to string together a cryptic set of icons from the columns to describe a word or phrase from a card. Each card has three words or phrases on for three different difficulty levels.
In the picture above, for the word “Zebra”, I put the starter piece (a question mark) on the animal icon in the first column, and then two cubes on the black and white colours. This says to the other players on my team that they’re looking for an animal that’s black and white. So far so simple but what if the card had “Jaws” on it? That’s a bit more complicated. I might put the question mark starter on film or TV, then a cube on animals (both of these are in the first column), then a cube on hare in the second column to denote “speed”, and finally a cube on the water icon in the third column to denote it’s an aquatic animal. Hopefully that would be enough for someone to guess the movie as “Jaws” and not Free Willy or The Penguins of Madagascar!
Those are the basic rules but they do get more complex- you can effectively give separate sub-clues by using different coloured cubes, and other players should pay particularly close attention to the order that the cubes are laid down as they can give important clues themselves.
I’ve read some stinking reviews of Concept online from board game enthusiasts and if you google Concept you’ll probably find some yourself but I found myself enjoying the game immensely and finding completely the opposite to these negative reviews. Them great thing about Concept is the limitations to what you can select in terms of icons/clues. You sometimes have to use a large degree of lateral thinking to get to an answer that might seem obvious to you but everyone else is struggling to get to grips with. This creates great tension and allows for a lot of banter during a game (which typically lasts around 40 minutes). The more people you have, the more fun you will have as it can get quite competitive in the way that a slower, more complex game doesn’t.
Concept is aimed at 10+ year olds, and although it’s easy to CRUSH your kids while playing, it is also a genuine learning experience for them as they’re learning all sorts of logic puzzles and semiotics(!) Concept is available from all good retailers for an RRP of £30.99.