Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Exorcising the Exercises 10/21/09

Seven months after joining the Beverly Hills branch of Sports Club LA, I am no nearer to finding a group sport that I enjoy.

My daily workouts are undoubtedly enhanced and encouraged by seeing the exquisite form of Victoria Beckham on a nearby treadmill, and even more so last week when Mr Beckham also turned up in the gym, a sight that induced in me so severe a case of Beckhamitis, I swear I had two birthdays in the time it took the paramedics to bring me round.

Exercising by myself enables me to go at my own pace, and I have discovered that if I exercise to music rather than watching marathons of Law and Order or NCIS, I go a lot faster on the treadmill.

Musicals are particularly effective, and this week alone I have exercised my way out of prison (Les Miserables), shot my twin brother (Blood Brothers), and had plastic surgery to enable me to sing Tits and Ass with sufficient verve (A Chorus Line).

I gave Phantom of the Opera a miss because Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber was very offhand with me at Simon Cowell’s 50th birthday party. I can be mean like that.

But put me in a class, and all my concentration and good intentions go to pieces.

First, I tried boxing, because I have always been a huge fan of the sport. As a child, my brother and I were allowed to watch Mohammed Ali’s fights, which always began at 8pm – but only if we first went to bed at six and slept for two hours. Punching somebody’s lights out took on metaphorical as well as real significance in our household, and to this day I love watching boxing.

Before LA, I had tried it just once before, in the St David’s gym in Cardiff, where, in a class of young men, I felt I had to compete - despite being a 40-something woman.

I managed to push the enormous punch-bag on its stand more quickly to the other end of the room than they did (I am, and have always been, extremely competitive), but did in my knee in the process and couldn’t exercise again for six weeks.

My first and only boxing class in LA ended in similar disaster. When I entered the empty gym, I just wasn’t prepared for the rotating mechanical punch-bags zipping their way round as I waited in line for the class to start. Zap! The first one arrived and smacked me square on the gob.

After that, I found the class a little stressful. “I give you ten seconds, I give you nine seconds, I give you eight seconds . . . “ On and on and on. The teacher counted every damned second of the hour-long class to every single movement we made – all accompanied by ear-splitting disco music.

Having enquired at reception as to what might be a quieter, less dangerous class, I decided to try Anusara Yoga. It was very, very calming.

At the start, the teacher said she had been “talking” to a 16 month old child, with whom she had been sharing the youngster’s enthusiasm of the new world the little girl was experiencing.

Enthusiasm. That was the “intention” she asked us to focus upon over the next 75 minutes; or, failing that, any other intention (mine was ensuring that I record the last episode of Sunday’s My Antonio, a show for which I have immense enthusiasm, so I felt I was killing two – actually, I don’t think killing is a Yogic term, so let’s say I was anaesthetising two – birds/intentions with one stone).

It was all going well up until the Cobra position, lying on our stomachs with our chests stretched upwards and our backs in an arc. Then we had to move into an arch, passing a child/cat/dog/antelope position (I was losing concentration, if I’m being honest), with our backs in the air.

It was an exercise I had done in the past, when I taught myself a bit of yoga and needed to release trapped gas. I tell you: the class was the entire wind section of the LA Philharmonic.

If the point of yoga was to co-ordinate breathing with movement, I couldn’t see that having to hold my breath for the next five minutes to avoid the smell was going to do me any good at all.

I tried Power Yoga instead, in the hope that the speed of the thing might at least circulate any bad odours that might manage to permeate the room. This time I lasted just half an hour, when the teacher encouraged the class to make noises while they inhaled and exhaled – “like sea-shells”.

Somehow I found myself among the tidal wave contingent and just wanted to tell them all to shut the hell up.

My concentration also wasn’t helped by the teacher again telling us to focus on any “intention” we liked – world hunger, if we so wanted: something that, he added, was always on his mind . . . starving people the world over . . . and yet nothing was ever done about it . . .

Look, mate: I know, but you’ve just said that this is MY time, MY space, and MY body to do with what I like with MY intention. Now you’ve gone and blown My Antonio right out of my psyche. I rolled up my mat and skulked out.

I have decided that I am just not a group exercise sort of person and am therefore returning to the treadmill and the stepper with just my ear-phones and the TV on the machine for company. And Dave and Vic, of course. Now there’s a couple you won’t hear breaking wind in public.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How To Kill A Pumpkin In 3000 Easy Moves 10/17/09

Before I moved to LA, I could think of no circumstances in which it would be necessary for me to purchase a Pumpkin Carving Kit.

But then before I moved to LA, I could think of no situation in adulthood (given that I don’t have kids) that would ever require me to go out and buy a pumpkin.

Pumpkins, like dolls, are something you grow out of. Every Halloween during my childhood, days would be spent hollowing out pumpkins with . . . Well, what did they use before Pumpkin Carving Kits came into being? Chisels, I suspect . . . and shopping for apples in readiness to stand around in the cold, choking to death in a bucket of water for an apple that you could just as easily have taken from the fruit bowl.

The work didn’t stop once you had removed the innards, either. Next, you had to make a mouth and two triangles for eyes (by which time you had usually made such a mess of it, you had to go out and buy another pumpkin).

On the one occasion my mother decided not to waste the insides of the beast and make pumpkin soup (not great – and she was an amazing cook; seriously bad product), I think we all decided that enough was enough. Too much work. Too old.

If, as Shirley Conran said, life was too short to stuff a mushroom, it was certainly too short to hollow out a pumpkin.

But this week, I found myself at a local store, Crate and Barrel, ardently trying to work out which tool did what in the Pumpkin Carving Kit (as I see it, you can prepare the thing in just marginally less time than it would take you to build a house) and contemplating Halloween.

It’s difficult to escape it here. My neighbour has a 20-foot shroud in her garden, complete with an iron chain of Alcatraz proportions, and topped with an all too realistic skull.

On the 1st of October, everyone put pumpkins out – on their lawns, in their windows, on their steps. They are there for any closet pumpkin kleptomaniac to steal at any time, yet nobody touches them; they have an air of the Holy relic about them, and people pass the best displays with reverent awe, almost bowing at the altar of pumpkin-ness they see before them.

For me, it is just an excuse to buy another appliance that I will use once and then put in a drawer and forget about.

Crate and Barrel is my second favourite kitchen/furniture store in Beverly Hills, surpassed only by Pottery Barn (I want to roll up in one of their bath towels and hibernate) and, for kitchen equipment alone, Williams Sonoma.

So regular are my appearances in Williams Sonoma, I dreamt that I had created a successful TV detective series, the hero of which was called William Sonoma. I think it’s not a bad idea: he could solve a series of murders that had been committed with kitchen implements alone . . . But I digress.

I love Williams Sonoma. I love the French, country-style pasta dishes with paintings of vegetables; I love the rows of shiny toasters as big as baking ovens; I love the $2000 dollar collections of saucepan craters that I pine for, as I contemplate the three egg-cup sized ones I bought from IKEA.

I specially love the e-mails they send me that have such an air of exotic mystery, I am back at the store within the hour to conduct further investigations on the latest pointless invention they have written to me about.

Take the ”mandolin chipper”. Was it a mandolin-shaped contraption that chipped potatoes, or a machine that cut potatoes into the shape of baby mandolins? Or was it a machine for those odd occasions in life when you find yourself with an excess of mandolins in your closet and you say: “Oh, if only I had a mandolin chipper to reduce these down to trashable size”?

Whatever it was, I wanted that mandolin chipper. No: I had to have that mandolin chipper. Unfortunately, I never made it to the store to see it, as I had to take back the pressure cooker I had bought from World Market because it didn’t work, and the mandolin chippers went like hot . . . er, chipped potatoes.

Why I suddenly thought I needed a pressure cooker when I haven’t had one since I was a student in the late seventies, I don’t quite know, but they didn’t work then and they don’t work now.

By the time I made it back to base, my detective was no longer featuring mandolin chippers as the definitive buy of the week. That will teach me to be nostalgic.

Williams Sonoma hasn’t been too hot in the pumpkin assassination department, though, hence my going to Crate and Barrel – although I have to confess to being slightly tempted by WS’s No-Bake Halloween Haunted House: an edible house, complete with icing “glue” and candy decorations of bats and ghosts. Maybe I’ve already been living here too long.

I am not going quite so far as to organise my own Halloween party, although I might just knock on the door of the Addams Family with the skeleton garden shroud on the actual night.

Or I might just buy a pastry case, open a can of ready pureed, ready-cooked pumpkin, bake a pie and watch Halloween on the telly. Who needs a Pumpkin Carving Kit when you have a tin-opener.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

My Role In The Jackson Five K 10/11/09

For ten minutes this week, I had more in common with La Toya Jackson than any other human being on the planet.

Waiting to board an Air New Zealand flight to Los Angeles, I was sitting in the Star Alliance lounge (more of that horror later), when an announcement came over the speaker: “Would passenger Stephen please come to the reception desk.”

Given the dreadful year I have so far had in every respect, I was expecting another bereavement, or at the very least a doctor standing by advising me not to travel, as I had less time to live than the flight took.

I was therefore shaking when I went up to the desk, where I was greeted by a lady speaking in hushed tones. “Miss Stephen?” “Yeeeeeees.” “We wondered whether you would be willing to change your seat on the airline.”

Now, whenever I travel, I am extremely particular about my seating arrangements. Eurostar: have to be travelling backwards, odd number in the aisle and near a toilet (73, 77, 11, 13), but not right next to the staff kitchen where they uproariously get the meals together (usually carriage 8).

Flying: next to the window, provided there is no one seated next to me, near an emergency exit, no upper levels, near a toilet (I have a very small bladder and drink at least three litres of water a day, hence the toilet obsession).

On Virgin Atlantic, I am less fussy, as I love their Upper Class lounge so much, I am so relaxed by boarding time, they could strap me to a wing and I wouldn’t care.

I have no idea about BA because I refuse to fly with them at the moment. I am still chasing a claim from 16 months ago, when they lost my luggage on a flight to Toulouse, and I had to re-schedule meetings, cancel the flight back, and take the Eurostar to Paris.

This week, they wrote to say they had credited me with £3.60 and thanked me profusely for choosing my "preferred airline". I will strap myself to a pigeon before I fly with them again.

But on Air New Zealand, I am quite particular about my seat. Their LA service (where they break before travelling on to Australia and New Zealand) is second to none. Terrific food, wonderful staff onboard, and although they don’t have a great lounge, they know how to look after people.

At the LA end, I have the amazing Lounge Concierge, Thierry. He sees me on and off the aircraft, gets me through Customs, and looks after me so well I think he now even beats the Virgin lounge in terms of my priorities.

The problem for ANZ is the Star Alliance lounge in the UK, which they share with what seems to be 100 other airlines. Awful food, screaming kids, bad lighting and, this week, no internet.

And then the request: would you give up your seat, because . . . even more hushed tones: “We have a celebrity on board who would like it.”

Oh, for God’s sake: who is it? La Toya Jackson.

United, at last: she wants 7K; I have it. But I melted. I have a soft spot for her, after her appearance on I’m a Celebrity last year, and it is clear what terrible pain she has been going through since her brother’s death.

So I said, okay: suddenly, 7K was gone. My seat. My special, special seat, quiet, away from the throng. I had surrendered it in a rare act of martyrdom to someone not who I thought deserved it more than I, but who I thought really needed the privacy more.

“Okay,” I said, “as it’s her.”

“If it was a Royal, I’d have TOLD you to,” I was informed.

Then I saw red. Quite frankly, if it had been a Royal, I would have told them where to go. And it’s a darn sight further down under than even New Zealand is.

My friends are mystified as to why I did it, but I was quick to point out that I expect an upgrade next time I travel, as reward for my sacrifice.

I had also requested that La Toya thank me in person – which she did. I suspect that if the poor lamb had realised she was going to have to show grateful thanks for the entire 11 hour journey, she would have stayed in 5K.

Anyway, at least it got me talking to her wonderful business manager Jeffre (lost the card, J – please get in touch!), and in La Toya I found a person of such extraordinary gentleness, sweetness and charm, I was even more won over by her than ever.

Mind you, if I’d had the chance to spend 11 hours in 7K, I’d have been Miss Sweetness and Light when I landed, too. Thierry, poor man, ended up seeing what 5K can do to a girl.