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Passport Photos

There’s nothing like new middle-aged passport photos to bring on a bucket load of self-doubt.

In earlier years, a new passport photograph elicited excitement—there was international travel pending! But with age, the excitement is momentarily marred by the stark reminder that photoshopping and soft lighting is a valuable and most necessary tool. Instead, you are left in the questionable photographic hands of anyone who happens to be behind the post office counter.

Admittedly, you could have looked slightly better enlisting the help of a more sympathetic photographer. But who has the vanity or time?

So, there you are in all your glory, planted in front of a wonky white screen, totally at the mercy of ‘Barry’ brandishing a camera and trying to aim in your general direction. He is of course, totally unaware that you may well need counselling after the passport photo reveal. No, far more concerned is he that your ears and eyebrows are exposed because these are apparently telling. You know way before he’s even finished that the end result is not going to be good. And you can’t request a few more snaps just in case.

That would be vain. And what’s more, customers are watching.

As predicted, my picture looked exactly like the second to last mug shot in those photographic accounts of a drug addict’s demise. What I mean is that I didn’t look terribly gorgeous at all. Shadowed and a little liverish, more like it. So there I was, stuck for the next seven years and unceremoniously sent off to be sealed and silenced in my new passport.

Back home, with my spares for all to see, I asked the inevitable, “Be honest now, is this what I really look like?”

By now I’m hoping against logic that the camera sometimes lies. My daughter chooses to dodge the question.

“It’s not as though anyone’s actually going to see your passport,” she says.

Don’t think I didn’t see that half-suppressed snigger. Well, yes, actually they are. I’ve heard the LAX airport officials are rude to the point of plain facetious … will they laugh out loud, I wonder? And if they do, am I allowed to tell them they’re nasty. Apparently not. They won’t let me in if I do.

The truth is that no matter how youthful I felt pre-passport photo, that instantly disappeared in that one moment of photo reveal. Suddenly I need Botox, fillers (what are those anyway?), and anything else my smooth-faced eyebrow therapist should suggest. Is that why she sent me the buy one, get two face peel offers? It’s all making sense now.

Why didn’t she tell me my face had collapsed? And why didn’t my friends reveal? Or my husband? Please explain.

Perhaps it’s self-interest. Apparently we’d have to sell the house and one of my organs to pay for ‘those procedures’. I use plural because I’d imagine it’s a bit like renovating an old house. You start with one room and suddenly everything else needs refurbishment. I’m not ready to give up an organ. I’d far rather have an overseas holiday. And I can’t help thinking how many hungry mouths that ‘procedure’ would feed.

The heartening thought is that I’m not alone in my ageing process. And I’m delighted to say most of my close friends agree in theory—that with age, we should be more focussed on the inside.The exterior is bound to give up the ghost at some stage anyway. It’s been encouraging to see that on the whole these friends have kept their word. That said, one has already broken ranks. We all know who you are. And we’re watching you.

The rest of us, have been committed to growing old gracefully—some teetering towards disgracefully.

Admittedly it’s hard to tell, swollen goldfish lips aside, who’s had a refreshing holiday or who’s really kept their word. Participants don’t generally tuck and tell. One friend did. She went on a girls’ weekend away and decided to throw caution to the wind and sneak a little Botox on her frown lines.

My friend’s forehead became smooth as a baby’s bottom. She revealed that while she enjoyed being wrinkle free for a while, she felt as though she’d had a stroke. She couldn’t move her forehead for ages—her brow literally frozen in time. This explained Nicole Kidman’s face in the movie, ‘Australia’. My lasting impression was her singular expression of permanent surprise supposedly covering happy, sad or smouldering. There wasn’t a large range there.

And I suppose those are the immortals we should leave it to. The one’s with their faces plastered on billboards and movie screens. I’m yet to have my mug on a billboard but I can imagine the pressure to look pretty darn perfect.

I’m just going to remove my specs and take another look at myself … Soft focus, now that’s more like it.

Actually not half bad for an old girl.

© Lois Nicholls 2016

Lost for Words

Words I fear, are dearly departing.

Not permanently in a sinister, deeply sad early-onset Alzheimer’s sort of way. I mean temporarily. Going AWOL for a few minutes then reappearing with wanton abandon, casually, as though they hadn’t disappeared in the first place.

Their nonchalant “Gotcha!” reappearance can be while I’m in the shower, driving or performing some random task. They’ve been known to pop up while eating chocolate or while seeking out another word entirely. It’s that random – a game of hide and seek where they’re always doing the hiding.

It hasn’t always been like this. Words would momentarily disappear for long enough to say, “Ummm …” and back they’d pop. With dependable regularity. But now? They get lost in transit. They worm their way to the back of my brain and have a fat party before deciding to return.

In the writing game, this does not bode well. It’s not as though any old word will do. Sometimes it’s the elusive one that I want, not a stand-in imposter. So I increasingly turn to my online thesaurus which, while very sensible, is less dependable when I want something a little less mainstream. Maybe even a word in another language. Is that too much to ask?

Slightly encouraging is that there does seem to be some benefit in eating copious amounts of brain food. A quick Google search revealed that if I ate more fish, legumes, grains, low-fat dairy and fruit, I could be in with a chance. The Western diet, often high in fat, sugar and with way too much meat is a recipe for disaster. I’m assuming then that Paleo’s bone broth, high fat and carnivorous approach isn’t going to cut it. Personally, I would find it rather difficult choosing mind over cheese platter.

Heartening again, however, is that many experts simply put the odd touch of forgetfulness down to a tad too much happening in our brains. Too much to remember. Too many passwords and emails. Too many meetings, appointments and a tugging of our time. Too much work and not enough play.

By far the most comforting discovery, however, is that I’m not alone. I visited a friend recently who had a shrub of pink rose-like flowers in her garden. I told her how much I loved “magnolias … gardenias …” their actual name escaped me. They weren’t magnolias or gardenias. And they weren’t ‘pink flower things’ either (her offering).

It was a day later while driving in a completely different neck of the woods that it came to me. Suddenly, with no prompting; Camellias. They were camellias! Back home I texted the friend: “They were camellias! “, I said, adding a light bulb emoji for good measure.

“What???” she texted back, adding a confused emoji for good measure. The truth is, she hadn’t a clue what I was talking about.

Love us.

A Bone to Pick with Paleo

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA — The beleaguered Pete Evans of paleo persuasion might just have an ally on the far-flung side of the world. His name is Professor Tim Noakes and I truly believe he and Pete should chew the cud, so to speak.

The renowned Cape Town based professor you see, is also under public scrutiny for his dietary views. He is a great protagonist of the Banting diet (very similar to Paleo but says yes to a little dairy). Sugar is pure evil. He’s also the author of The Real Meal Revolution. His original notoriety, however, was gained from a heavyweight book he once wrote, The Lore of Running.

Noakes’ recent media scrutiny stems from his complete backflip when it comes to his former high carb teachings. He’s been pretty vocal about his new high fat, low carb diet. He, like Pete has been publicly bashed by dieticians and worse, fellow Cape Town University academics. The public is also fed up, judging by a reliable source of scandal, Facebook.

Years ago, every running enthusiast I knew loaded with pasta pre-race because the professor told them to. They devoured his heavy tome and in pursuit of running excellence, ensured they followed his diet plan to the last pasta shell.

I was one such devotee, particularly when it came to pre-race diets and training plans. If Professor Noakes said it was true, so it was. He was a renowned sports scientist after all – not to mention a participant of 70 marathons and ultra-marathons. And now, all these years later, he has come out and said sorry, I was wrong. You know that bit where I said: let them eat pasta? Well, they should have eaten steak instead.

But really, is that enough? Just sorry? Sorry doesn’t quite cut it for the thousands of well-meaning runners who hosted hundreds of pre-race pasta parties.

Most deserving of a special apology, however, is the old man of the road, Wally Hayward. A former Olympian, he won the infamous Comrades Marathon five times (a gruelling 90 kilometres).

He completed his last Comrades just shy of eighty-one. His secret? Legend had it that he consumed a rather generous pre-race steak. Everyone thought he was slightly unhinged at the time. What would an old man know about diet anyway? What about carbs? How the tables turned. A decade or so later, steak became hero and carbs were unceremoniously dumped.

Coming back to Pete, while he and family did look marvelously healthy on their recent Current Affair plug, I couldn’t help thinking what sort of food recollections his sweet children will have.

My nostalgic food memories include ravenously devouring freshly baked white bread sandwiches oozing with butter and marmite. Will beetroot cake evoke the same warm and fuzzies?

The bone I have to pick with both Pete and the venerable professor, I might add, is that both diets are ever so slightly self-absorbed. Not to mention time-consuming. Pete’s bone broth, for example, not only involves a commitment to drink, but it requires pure fortitude to make. A health nut friend tried it for a while and seemed to spend her life shopping for organic chicken carcasses and bones. Note, organic. Sustainably farmed. Not any old chicken and beef bones would do. And they had to simmer for hours before the real goodness could be flushed from said bones.

Anyone who can keep this ritual up forever deserves a medal. More importantly, they must be well-heeled. To truly follow the diets, one must preferably buy organic. My dear husband who is slightly on the gullible side with the odd food fad, is currently dabbling in Paleo. By dabbling I mean he’s cut out sugar and is drinking sludge. It started when told by a friend that berry and kale breakfast smoothies kept him alert and super-charged. Not any old berries, mind you, they had to be organic because ordinary blueberries were ‘doused with pesticides’.

Turns out organic berries are exactly double the price of their non-organic cousins.

The same applies to anything given the ‘organic’ blessing.

The real good news to emerge from all of this is that finally, my chocolate stash is quite safe. For now, it seems I can indulge in my daily fix all by myself. It may be short-lived. If history repeats itself, I give Kale Man two weeks max.

And as for Paleo Pete et al, I would take them with a hearty pinch of salt. Just make it Himalayan.

© Copyright Lois Nicholls 2016

Drop ‘organic’ for one Elle of a 50th

There’s been a lot written lately about Elle turning 50 next year.
I take an interest because I am almost the same vintage and so, share a particular affinity with the magnificently proportioned and ageless model known as The Body. In case you’re wondering, the tag mentioned above justifiably stuck after her five cover appearances on the iconic Sports Illustrated magazine.

I was born in July ‘63 – my friend Elle in March ’64 – which makes us a mere eight months apart. We both finished school in ‘81 so could, theoretically, have been classmates. We could have enjoyed the same movies – For Your Eyes Only, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Raiders of the Lost Ark … remember those? We probably listened to the same music, boogied on the disco floor to Blondie’s Call Me and went through a phase of schoolgirl anarchy with Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. We could well have slow-danced to Captain and Tennille’s Do That to Me One More Time … aah, the memories. The similarity, I am sad to say, ends there.

I recently mentioned to my teens that: “Did you know Elle is turning 50 next year? We’re almost the same vintage,” after showing them an especially fetching newspaper shot of her sporting surfboard and trademark bikini at Bondi. “No ways! I can’t believe it!” My daughter gushed with a tad more enthusiasm than entirely necessary, followed by a telling look at the apparition next to her – me, basking unashamedly in a state of early morning glory – a bra-less wonder in sleep shorts and faded T-shirt.

Yes, I concede, Elle is drop-dead gorgeous. She also looks a decade or two younger than her age, but I fear that through her sheer air of perfection, she has made herself untouchable. Perhaps it is time to let go a bit. For example, just yesterday I read yet another article about her impending 50th birthday and yet another boring interviewer asking how she managed to retain such eternal youthfulness.

I didn’t have to know what she said – I knew exactly what the publicity machine would pontificate. “Organic food, exercise and three litres of water a day.” And, of course, seven hours of sleep a night. Personally, the bit that fascinated me most was the three litres of water. I would be up all night.

I happened to mention this tiresome interview to a friend who is also on the slippery cusp of turning 50. She too was skeptical. “Pullllease … organic? This is organic,“ she said, outlining her comfortably rounded figure. I’m with her. Just once, I wish Elle would own up. Her popularity would not wane if she casually suggested that: “Actually, sometimes I polish off a whole slab of chocolate, and I’m more than a little partial to the odd drop.”

Just once, I wish she would let loose and say something vaguely outrageous like: “Pass me the chips, I’m almost 50 for goodness sake, not 20. And, by the way, all that stuff about organic food is codswallop – I have had a teeny weeny bit of work done. And, yes, my knees occasionally ache when I jog.”

In fact, I would dare suggest she practices embracing her 50’s with a new sense of honesty. There is still an entire year to become the people’s person. There’s plenty of opportunity for a career change and how less stressful that would be – for the rest of her contemporaries too.

One totally plausible possibility is the role of talk show host – a replacement for Oprah, perhaps. I would call it ‘Elle Talks … at last’. I predict soaring popularity when she spills the beans on how hard it was to keep up the pretence and pressure of being The Body. Oh, the relief of revealing she is human, after all. I predict a swarm of ageing actresses lining up to tell their story – of publicly renouncing Botox, body sculpting and buckwheat.

But I fear this revelation won’t happen anytime soon. Elle is the face of Brand Elle – of sun, surf and eternally fresh-faced, lithe-bodied beauty. But Oh Elle, what pressure! Maintaining that whippet body, perfect skin, hair and make-up must be immense. I would suggest fifty will be a timely age to finally hang up the string bikini and tell the world to find themselves another Body – that this one is tired. And at times, rather sore.

And so, Elle, I beseech you, drop your guard. We will love you even more, I promise. And all the millions of women facing a scarily imminent fifty will breathe a sigh of relief and reach, guilt-free for the double chocolate cheesecake and full cream latte.

We, your presumptuous peers wait with bated breath. And we’re here for you, glass of cheeky Riesling in hand (or perhaps you would prefer a full-bodied Cab Sav?) if you need us.

© Lois Nicholls

An edited version of this article appeared in The Sunday Mail, 3rd March 2013 – Click to view.

Let us grow old without the guilt

IN MY MOTHER’S ERA, middle-aged women were content to be middle-aged women. They wouldn’t dream of trying to fit into their teenage daughter’s jeans or befriend their friends on Facebook, if there was such a thing back then.

I remember whispered concern about a particular woman who would walk miles to maintain a stick-like figure but, mostly, women had a healthy approach to life. Manic walker aside, I don’t remember anyone looking like a whippet unless born that way and there was no power walking with weights or hiring a personal trainer to work on “abs”. Cross-fit? That would be exercising with a bad attitude.

There were no gym junkies because there were no gyms and a weekly game of tennis was the sociable exercise of choice. My mother had a friend called Lorna Jane but she wasn’t a gym clothing icon, her surname was Smith, not Clarkson.

The more adventurous souls took up yoga when the fad hit my little country town and I recall my nicely rounded mum proudly showing us how she could balance on her head on the lounge room carpet. She and her peers settled into middle-age with an accepting sigh and laughed off a couple of gained kilos or a midriff that bore testimony to three children and the odd cream scone.

These women occasionally went on a diet “on Monday” after a particularly “naughty” weekend of too much Chicken a la King and Rhubarb Fool at Dorothy’s (such a good cook) but, generally, everyone embraced their age without much fanfare.

Interestingly, they’ve mostly all reached a ripe old age of 80 and beyond.

Now that I’m middle-aged myself, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Some of my peers are buying into the idea that middle age is the new 30-something. Here’s the thing, it’s not.

When you’re 30 your perfect Cindy-esque moles don’t start propagating and your eyebrows don’t gain a life of their own.

One of the blessings in disguise about growing older is the eyes grow dim just at a time when every minute detail needs attention before leaving the house. I say blessing because soft focus is what I get when I peer in the mirror sans reading glasses.

It’s not that I am against the middle-aged embracing health, I just don’t like them sharing their fads with me. By all means, limit your intake of processed carbs and sugar. Feel free to partake in age-defying potions or even take up triathlons, just don’t let us lesser mortals know about it particularly since we’ve just discovered macaroons.

And, anyhow, fresh from watching the French movie, A Lady in Paris, I am certain it’s the character, not the body we need to be working on. The embittered, lonely, acerbic, wealthy, glamorous and once-feted old woman at the heart of the story was reason enough to forget the body and hone the character.

And while this grumpy middle-aged woman is at it, please don’t do selfies on Facebook. Leave that to teens. And don’t change your profile pic every week. Enough said. Oh, one more thing, I’m not advocating letting it all hang out, I walk regularly and eat healthily, I promise. All I’m saying is please give the rest of us middle-aged women a break. Let us eat, drink and be merry should we choose to do so. And let us grow old gracefully, graciously but, most of all, guilt-free. We’ve earned it.

This article was published in The Courier Mail, 8th August 2013

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Happy Campers

Camping is a bit like childbirth, you forget the pain until you go through it all again.

The main problem with our family is that no matter how organised we think we are when embarking on a camping expedition, we’re very soon proved otherwise. This is a fact I have come to not only expect but accept. Our latest mission did, however, have all the potential for a smooth operation. This lay mainly in the recent acquisition of a second-hand box trailer so no-one had to endure a two-hour journey enveloped in bedding and the occasional cooking pot.

Yes, we were well and truly ready for Fraser Island. So we thought. The truth is, our camping is too sporadic to be truly organised. Years may elapse before we say yes to the pleas of friends and our children who are now old enough to toss around guilt-inducing comments such as: “We never do anything exciting”.

So, the preparation began. Probably not soon enough, now that I think about it. I did Google a camping list, having mislaid a highly organised friend’s personalised list and being too proud to ask for a reprint. I do recall trawling through reams of camping advice but was distracted a few times by things like how much food a 16-year-old might need over a four-day period, given that he’s prone to eating a full dinner again after dinner.

Another distraction was the impending campsite midnight loo visits. I was determined to nip any dingo angst in the bud by finally acquiring my own throne. This took some searching – yes, camping stores have ample loos, but I wanted something a little more subtle and given our infrequent camping, a little less costly. My journey took me to my local army surplus store which I know from experience stocks everything but bazookas.

I had a feeling they would have exactly what I was looking for. And of course, they did. Even though the helpful assistant first mistook my clandestine whisper of; ‘Do you have a potty?’ for ‘Do you have a patty?’ She found what I was looking for in no time at all once I’d spelled out ‘P-O-T-T-Y’.

So for a slightly inflated twenty bucks, I obtained a toilet seat that fits snugly onto a bucket. Better still, I discovered a novelty UFO torch – a disc shape that lit up exactly like a real UFO – enough to scare the living daylights out of any dingo that came within a whisker of my tent.

After days of preparation, we were finally ready to embark on the camping journey. It did seem strange that we were packed to the rafters once more in spite of newly acquired trailer. Our retriever stared forlornly as we trundled off with trailer and loaded roof racks.

We had organised house sitters so our eight chickens, one chick, one dog and a cat who thinks it’s a dog would be well taken care of. Our rendezvous was 5 am. We set off at 4.30am. Way on schedule. Smugness set in. This soon dissipated when we realised we had not left a key for our house sitters. Long story cut short…there was a brief delay as we retraced our steps to deliver said key.

We realised we were outclassed by our fellow campers rather early on in the equation. Immediately, in fact. As we took off, we were handed a walkie-talkie through the window.

“So we can communicate while in convoy …”

The instructions were swift.

“This is ‘Eagle’, could you tell me your name, over”.

A brief consensus resulted in ‘Night Hawk’. Our third car was ‘Rover One’. We practiced our repertoire.
My husband took on a different persona each time he relayed a message. His voice became a deep drawl – slow and suspiciously emulating one of those old war movies. So slow and deep it was soon wrenched from his hands from his long-suffering children.

After a three hour’s drive, we arrived at the ferry.

A long drive later and with much: “Night Hawk, this is Rover 1. Where are you? Over.” sort of talk, we arrived at our campsite. Oh, the joys. There was a communal, powered kitchen with a fridge, a shop stocking essentials within walking distance. Pure luxury compared to previous trips.

The tent was erected without fanfare and tables and chairs laid out in a more or less organised fashion. Or so we thought. We happened to glance over at our neighbours. Both layouts were perfect. The one had a cupboard – a sort of fold up apparition that housed their tinned goods, eating and cooking utensils. They also had a special ground cover. This, I later discovered, allowed sand and water to filter through rather than pool in an uncomfortable muddy mixture underfoot after an early morning downpour.

Their site remained pristine for four days. Our site, on the other hand, had all the haphazard charm of a hoarder’s hovel. Where to put everything? A perusal of fellow campers made it clear that we were alone in our disorder. These were seasoned campers. Everything had a place. They were not swamped by towels hanging from every tent rope but had neat little fold up mini clothes drier. They didn’t bring two camping toasters because unlike yours truly, they had reviewed the contents of their old camping container prior to leaving.

Come evening, I discovered another oversight – no pillows, save one lone one belonging to my youngest son. I shamelessly offered him $10 for a four-day loan. A pitiful sum perhaps but I promised to make him one out of my beach bag and spare t-shirts.

My throne was also proving a little inefficient. Terrified of the dingoes I heard pattering around the campsite at night, I decided the throne was a viable option. But where to dispose of contents in the morning? Surrounded by busy Easter campers, were I to walk to the ablution block carrying anointed black receptacle, it all but screamed: “Wee bucket coming through!” So after one night’s use, I chose the dangerous method of waking up husband and dragging him to the loo – and playing ‘scary UFO’s’ with my new light en-route.

Once I’d got over an extreme bout of camper envy, I settled into my surroundings. Accepted that sand underfoot was unavoidable on a sandy campsite. Embraced midnight dingo encounters, the night sounds and blissful lack of computers, mobile phones and schedules. Loved the laughter brought on by card games, campsite chatter, the sleepy tent banter of my precious family as we settled in for the night.

I reveled in the waves crashing onto the beach as I drifted off to sleep. By day, was infatuated with the beauty of inland lakes, of unspoiled beaches and unbearably beautiful rain forests.
Another bout of camping? I know that in spite of myself, I’ll be there trailer and all. The pain will again be a distant memory.

And I’ll be organised this time, because, you see, I found the old camping list … folded neatly alongside the two unused camping toasters.