The problem with living in the Super-size Me land of the United States is that it encourages personal growth, and I have recently found that my own personal growth has resulted in me needing new jeans. I have no issue with the beautiful bodies of some of the Rubenesque women who grace my gym, it is just that my body doesn't seem to want to develop towards those proportions. I am at risk of overflowing from my jeans and developing a 'mono-boob' (when I explained my abject terror of developing a mono-boob to Nathan, he looked at me with complete puzzlement until I showed him the image of Les Dawson, left. Nathan now shares my terror).
My formative years of education occurred during the era of Tony Blair. There are many things about Blair that I would never wish to emulate: his overreaction to the fear of terrorism, his belief that all learning can be measured in very simple ways, his out-of-control ego, his financial greed; but he taught me that there is always a Third Way. Caught in the middle of two terrifying extremes, one can always find a middle path to follow. In the case of the impending mono-boob, I felt torn between the women who consider a carton of coconut water to constitute one of their three meals a day (what? No food??), and the women who shop for new clothing when their existing clothing grows too small. I love food and I hate shopping.
My mind told me that the Third Way had to be exercise, my subconscious was not so sure. On the same day that the top button of my jeans failed to fasten, I lost my sneakers. Nathan, motivated by the contagious fear of the mono-boob, encouraged me to go the local running shop to buy a new pair. This is, in my experience, even more terrifying than shopping for new clothes and reduces me to a gibbering wreck. The shop assistant was fit and muscled and watched me, the mother with newly enhanced waistband and two small children, enter the shop with my take-out coffee.
'What kind of distance do you run at the moment?'
'Well,' I answered, taking a gulp of coffee and trying to stop my hands from shaking, 'I used to do maintenance runs of about 3 m_' I meant to say miles - 3 miles was my basic training run - but my subconscious was having too much fun with me and 'miles' became 'meters'.
'Three meters?' asked the shop assistant loudly, and I found that I had acquired an audience. Their laughter did not make me feel better about the embarrassment of buying new sneakers and I didn't stop blushing until I had bought the first pair of sneakers that fitted and hurried from the shop.
My despondency would have continued if I hadn't found Alla.
Alla is a personal trainer at my gym. I don't normally have a personal trainer - my membership is expensive enough - but my gym put together one of those special offer things which make it appear that if you buy five sessions with a personal trainer it is far cheaper than not buying any (that economics is not my strong point also links back to Blair's influence upon my education). I also factored in the cost of new jeans and the possibility of having to find a new husband who liked mono-boobs.
The thing with gift horses, as with any member of the equine species, is that one should always look in their mouths. In my excitement about not having to drink coconut water or buy new clothes, I failed to pick up on the warning signals. Alla has a reputation as a hard-core trainer. As a child in Russia, she had a bad accident and broke many of the bones in her body, subsequently, she explained, she considers pain to be nothing more than a state of mind. She loves weight-lifting and trained regularly with the Russian Olympic weight-lifting team. The muscles on each of her thighs are wider than both of my legs together.
Together we began our war against the mono-boob: Alla speaking in broken English and me answering in broken American. We started out gently enough: practicing the movements of each exercise together. Easy enough, I thought and happily allowed myself to be lulled into a sense of security. Then we practiced the movements with small weights: Alla scrutinized every aspect of each movement. She doesn't believe in warming-up or stretching, and she's not a fan of cardio-vascular work. Her philosophy is that a correctly executed movement will cause no damage. She's very careful and none of her clients have had any injuries. I didn't understand why she didn't have many clients until our third session when she explained that we would now do the exercises properly. I haven't taken part in many extreme sports. I like horse-riding (preferably dressage) and biking (on roads which are tarmacked) and kayaking on quiet water. Sessions four and five with Alla are among the most extreme things I have ever asked my body to do - and I consider an unmedicated home birth to be in that category.
With extreme work-outs you narrow your focus to the exercise and need absolute trust in your trainer. Alla had worked her magic on me. Like a Pavlovian dog, I responded to each of her words without question. Each rep was counted down - five, four, three, two, one - and each set ended with a 'boom!' That 'boom' has been hard-wired into my subconscious. Need to buy a new pair of jeans? Walk into the store, find a pair that fit, hand over your credit card, and boom! Have a book to write? Switch on the computer, write as many words as you need, and boom! It's also become part of my vocabulary of parenting: Maya's homework - work through the questions, show it to Mmmmy and 'boom!'; Iola's eating - four more spoonfuls of squash and 'boom!'
I don't know Alla's ethnicity or why she came to America. I don't know if she is Muslim or Russian Orthodox or any other religion. I hope that I would never change how I think about her regardless of what I subsequently learnt about her. My novel is about the problems and dangers of making judgments based upon what you think you know about someone's background based around the little that you see and hear. I hope that, whether she is Chechnyan or Muslim, Alla is treated the same as every other person who has made this country their home and I hope that America can do that for all the people live here, without seeking any kind of exceptions or Third Ways or moral panics.
We heard the distant gun shots and explosions yesterday while Black Hawk helicopters circled overhead, but inside our locked-down apartment we practiced Iola's taekwondo and Maya's yoga. If you'd have been here, you'd have heard me encouraging them: 'And stretch a little bit more, girls, you can do better than that. Now, five, four, three, two, one and boom!'