The cutest animal in the world

From LiveScience, via Animal Planet and Popbitch, comes a list – two years old, but I’ve never seen it before – of the 500 cutest animals in the world. Five hundred! I am not fully on board with all of their choices (the frilled neck lizard? Really?), but I can’t find it in myself to disagree with the winner, despite having never heard of it before today. I give you the North Pacific sea otter:

sea otter

sea otter

I don’t know if they always wave. They are waving in most of the pictures on the internet.

If you’re not convinced, here’s the killer – they sleep holding hands, so they don’t float apart:

sleeping sea otters

Amazing.

Update: After I posted this on Facebook, my friend Rachel pointed me towards this video, which I guarantee will make you smile, even if you have seen it before, which I hadn’t:

Beyond the pale

A few days after I got back from Cyprus, an acquaintance of mine – who was, to be fair, quite drunk at the time – commented on my tan and then said “You look completely different. Usually you look – and I mean this in a good way – like a pasty Jew.”

It’s taken me a while to process this and reach the conclusion that there is no “good way” to look like a pasty Jew. It simply isn’t, whichever way you parse it, a compliment.

It’s also factually incorrect: I may be Jewish (well, sort of, and only partly) but I am not and have never been “pasty”. Pasty means pale, and I am not pale. I know this because I have spent my life being asked “Where are you from? No, but where are you really from? No, but where are your parents from?”. Aged about eighteen I got bored with trying to convince people of the actual answers to those questions (London, London and London) and started making up alternatives. “Iran”, I used to say, or “New Zealand”. People seemed happier to accept that.

You can get stuck in a way of thinking, though. University was the first place I went which was full of people who looked like me, because at Essex the student population in the mid-mineties was about 10% Greek. Having never looked like I belonged even to my own (green-eyed, freckled) family, I suddenly looked like everybody else. It was great, and for the first time I felt pleased to look the way I did. Do.

At around that time I briefly went out with a man who was newly separated from his South American wife. Before he introduced me to his mother, who had Alzheimers, he warned me: “If she says anything strange, don’t worry about it; she doesn’t always know what she’s saying.”

“Strange how?”, I asked him.

“Well”, he said, “she might say something like you’re not as exotic-looking as Paola“.

Not as exotic-looking? Exotic-looking was all I had. It was my USP. If I couldn’t compete on that level, I had nothing left.

Of course, the mother was perfectly charming and I gradually came to realise that the problem in that relationship lay with the boyfriend and not his dementing parent. But it left its mark, because I’d just started to come to terms with the fact that I would never be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed princess, and suddenly I wasn’t  foreign-looking enough either. It took a while to get over that one.

These days, I avoid answering at all. “I’m just dark”, I say. “Just dark. Nothing else.”

Because the troubling aspect of this question, and the regularity with which it is asked, is that I don’t understand why it matters. What is it about me, about you, about my relationship with you, that means you need that particular piece of information? What difference does the answer make? It wouldn’t be so surprising if I lived in a country with a less diverse population, but in Britain, and especially in London, everybody is from everywhere. So since I am obviously English, what is it, really, that you want to know when you ask me that?

But part of the reason I think I like visiting Cyprus and Spain and Italy so much is that I look more like a local than I do at home – sunburn, poor command of the language and enormous straw hat aside.

Style spot

I saw this woman from the top of the 68 bus in Camberwell yesterday evening, and snuck a photo:

Woman in Camberwell

I really love the way she’s dressed, and I envy her her eye for an elegant combination: I probably wouldn’t have seen the potential of any of those items of clothing individually, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought of throwing them all together to create a look of casual insouciance that is only augmented by the two giant bags of Monster Munch.

You can’t tell in this shot, but the jacket is actually a tailored blazer with buttons. I have never known what to wear on cold summer’s days. She makes it look effortless.

Pilates

I’ve been going to Pilates classes for about ten years, on and off. Ten years ago I was working in a bookshop with a specialist line in what those in the business call “Mind, Body and Spirit”, though I can think of a few other names for it.

Sometimes, people would come to the shop and try to sell us books. One day, a man who looked a bit like God came in and tried to persuade us to buy twenty copies of his book about Pilates. Neither I nor the boss knew what Pilates was and so he gave us a thirty-minute lecture, after which we ungratefully didn’t buy the book (books about exercise regimes were already a bit old hat, even in those days of dial-up internet). But my curiosity was piqued and a short time afterwards I signed up for classes at Brockwell Lido.

Pilates suits me. I am quite bendy, so I get to feel as though I’m doing well at it right from the start – something which never happens to me with most forms of exercise. Plus, I like to do something where I have to be very intent and focused in the moment, rather than something like running or swimming which you can do mindlessly whilst still thinking about work and worrying about the gas bill. If you work hard at Pilates, there is no time or space to be doing anything other than Pilates, and being able to tune out of real life for an hour is a rare and valuable thing.

And then, the more you do of it, the better your posture is and the less likely you are to injure yourself in the course of other types of exercise, and those are both good things too.

However, there is a small price to pay for all these benefits, and that comes in the shape of other people. Sometimes the other people in a Pilates class are fine. A lot of the time, they are a nightmare. Imagine the scene: you are lying on your back with your eyes closed, your arms at your side, your knees bent, your abdominal muscles engaged and your pelvis in a neutral position, focusing on your breathing. Your mind begins to go blank as you become as one with your body and the day’s stresses and minor inconveniences recede into the background. And then someone in the corner pipes up:

“Excuse me, should I be feeling this in my hamstrings? I’ve got an old shoulder injury, should I do this differently? Do you like my tight lycra pants? Gosh, I’m annoying, aren’t I?”

These are the people who see Pilates not as a much-needed respite from the rush of the working day or a way to improve their health and physical fitness, but as a competitive sport in which the challenge is to work hardest and bend furthest, and the prize is to get more attention from the instructor than anyone else does.

Here’s the thing. No Pilates instructor worthy of the name will start a class without checking whether anyone in that class is injured, or pregnant. If you are either of those things, she will be aware of it and will let you know if you need to do anything differently from the rest of the class. Otherwise, Pilates is not an impact sport; you don’t have to be able to do it faster than anyone else, and you should probably just shut up so that everyone else in the room can carry on with the class, rather than sitting around waiting for the instructor, who is too polite to tell you to shut up, to come up with an answer to your inane question.

So here are my simple rules for attending a Pilates class. (They work for yoga too.)

  1. Tell the instructor in advance if you are injured or pregnant. (If you are both, consider whether you ought to be at a Pilates class. Some days it really is a better idea just to lie down and eat chocolate.)
  2. Save your questions for the end. You are paying for the instructor’s time, but you are paying to share it with fifteen other people. If the answer to your question is not going to interest them, ask it afterwards.
  3. Good grief, breathe normally! There is no award for effort for the person who sounds most like Ivor the Engine on each exhalation. It is both possible and desirable to breathe out through your mouth without sounding like an elephant. I don’t want to hear your breath any more than I want to smell it.
  4. A tricky one this: try not to fart too close to anyone’s face. I know you can’t always help it. But, you know, I can manage it, so it technically possible. That’s all I’m saying.
  5. Talking of which: when the instructor tells you to swing your arms out to the side, do check that you’re not about to hit someone over the head before you do it. It’s so much easier and more elegant than having to apologise afterwards.

There. Just five rules, but you will find that your experience, and those of the people around you, is wonderfully enhanced by following them.

My sixth personal rule is “remember to get changed back into your work clothes after the class and before leaving work”. Since I am still sitting here in my tracksuit bottoms and hoodie* I will now go and obey that rule. Laters.

*the hoodie is actually also part of my work clothes, but there should be a dress under it rather than a vest.

Advice for parents

I live opposite a primary school. On mornings when I start work at the usual time rather than in the middle of the night, I leave home just as a stream of Joshuas and Emilys, accompanied by their parents, au pairs, younger siblings and family pets, are making their way across the park in the opposite direction from me. Sometimes we play a hilarious game which involves me standing still for minutes at a time as the parade of mummies and buggies moves ceaselessly forward and I wait patiently for a gap large enough to allow me through the park gates.

It’s OK, I’m fine with that. Well, mostly.

Anyway, it gives me a good chance to peer closely at today’s five-to-eleven-year-olds, and I’ve noticed something which makes me anxious. The gender of small children, you see, is not always easily discernible from their outward physical appearance, which is why we have a tradition of offering clues to the innocent observer in the way we dress them and cut their hair. However, this tradition seems to have gone by the wayside in the last few years, with alarming results. There is a whole swathe of small children whose gender I simply can’t determine, because they have shoulder-length hair and wear dungarees, and none of that is enough of a clue for me.

Well, it doesn’t matter on the school run, because I’m not some kind of freak who befriends small children in the street. But it can make life more difficult when you meet the children of people you have met, whose gender you ought either to know or be able to discern. A couple of summers ago the beloved and I were at a garden party full of other people’s children, and were befriended by an angelic little blonde thing who might have been either or both. After close observation we agreed, it must be a girl. She has a girl’s face. We thought we’d confirm it.

“You’re a very pretty little girl, aren’t you?”, said my beloved. She nodded, bashfully. Phew, got it right.

After a while her father came over to retrieve her. “She’s lovely”, we said. He looked at us angrily. “His name is Oliver*”, he said. We felt bad.

So this is my advice for parents: by all means, have an androgenous-looking child. But either have an androgenous-looking child, or get cross when people can’t tell what sex it is. Not both.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent

Friday stuff

I am working up to another mammoth books post, whenever I find time to write it. I’ve been too busy writing other people’s profiles on My Single Friend (and I don’t know why I’m linking to them really, because their system is SHODDY, but the front end is quite good and it’s fun writing about other people).

In the meantime, here are some links to enliven your Friday afternoon:

  • Russel Brand on Jade Goody is the first really personal and thoughtful thing I’ve read about the whole affair
  • In lieu of my increasingly forlorn attempts to look for a new job, ten ways to make your boss love you
  • A really tasty chicken stew with a summery twist which I made yesterday.  I found it by googling “chicken radish”, those being two of the three things I had an abundance of in my fridge. As luck would have it, the third thing I had an abundance of was cucumber, and this recipe calls for that, too.

(An underexplored measure of adulthood is one’s ability to use up salad vegetables before they go old. This is the first time I have ever finished a whole cucumber.  I made cucumber sandwiches on Sunday, a salad on Monday and a stew on Thursday. I’m so grown-up I’m practically dead.)