You thought your smear test was bad?

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Being the feminist, strong-independent-woman type of lady that I am (because, obviously) I’ve been paying attention to the loud and proud ‘smear for smear’ campaign running riot on social media.

Being who I am I also, of course, couldn’t just post a quick boomerang of me smudging my lipstick all over my cheeks (in part because I’m an enormous lipcote fan and my bright red lip isn’t budging, babe) and have turned instead to writing – that being the way I peel open my skin and show you all my insides.

Now; to protect the innocent (and I mean you, not the characters involved) I will be naming no names in the following stories. The first tale is one my Grandmother – the incomparable Nanny B – told me when I was invited to my first smear test and called her to panic on the phone about the process.

Nanny B is a famous face in many of my stories; she was a powerful phenomenon – and her friends were cut from the same cloth.

Now; picture this. You are going for your own smear. It’s awkward. Nobody likes it. Not one of us want to be there, showing our muff to a stranger. Nobody wants to have their private places cranked open and discussed, and poked around. We KNOW we don’t like it. We know, ladies. But seriously – it could be so much worse…

FON (Friend Of Nanny) got The Letter. You know the one. THAT one. “Come and let a nice friendly young thing crank open your hoo-hoo and scrape things out of it. Wear fresh pants.”

And, because she was a responsible-lady-of-a-certain-age, she booked the appointment and went.

When she arrived at the surgery she had a call of nature and – as is so often the case (and, knowing what we do about NHS budgets, we can’t get mad) there was no toilet roll – so (again, being a responsible-lady-of-a-certain-age) she dug around in her handbag for a tissue to take care of business.

Mission accomplished, with an only-slightly-used kleenex from the depths of her handbag, she tootled back to the waiting room and listened for her name being called. When the call came, she was politely asked if she would mind (there being some history that made her interesting) if some student nurses were to witness proceedings, and she said she was absolutely fine with that.

Minutes later, she was lying on her back under a tissue-thin blanket, knickers removed and legs akimbo (we’ve all been there) and the doctor swept into the room with a gaggle of terribly young things (as FON called them) and someone off to the side ran the metal crank (I know, speculum, but crank is funnier) under a hot tap so she wasn’t uncomfortable (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!) and he asked a few questions, discussed the procedure, then lifted the tissue-thin-blanket.

There was a brief pause, a cough and a cleared throat, then things proceeded as expected – nice doctor talked the terribly young things through what he was doing, FON endured with as little discomfort as these things allow, and all in all it was rather brief and uneventful.

Until.

UNTIL.

As he folded the tissue-thin-blanket back over FON’s knees the nice Doctor met the eye of the supervising nurse, and, clearing his throat again, said “could you…” and, giant plastic tweasers in hand, supervising nurse stepped forward and dipped below the tissue-thin-blanket.

FON was a little confused, and felt a gentle tugging down below, then supervising nurse, pink in the face, appeared and thrust her giant tweasers at FON, saying quietly “will you be wanting this?”

Attached to the tweasers?

A second class stamp.

Clearly, the rummage through the handbag for a kleenex when the NHS failed to provide loo roll had some side effects!

 

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Panic, in the most logical of ways.

Today was a rather mundane way, in that delicious “everything is ok” kind of way.

I woke just before the alarm, and enjoyed the few minutes of space to think over my plans for the day.

I fed the kids breakfast, got them into the right pieces of School uniform, drank a coffee I forgot to add sugar to and didn’t really enjoy, and dropped them at school.

I ran some errands, picked up a few Christmas gifts, some fancy toilet roll I’ve fallen in love with from M&S because it smells of cinnamon (not even just in my mind, where scents often get muddled with the way things look, but for real) and then answered some work emails and calls and did some writing.

I wrapped the presents, put away the giant Christmas tesco delivery, collected the boys, fed them, had an evening of games and silliness (I am the reigning household twister champion!) and then had dinner with my late-home-very-important boyfriend before tucking the kids into bed, and knitting quietly on the sofa in front of the tv.

It was a lovely, ordinary, mundane Monday. It was blissful.

But from the instant I woke, I have been battling panic. Proper, heart pounding, joints weak, muscles burning, chest tightening “I can’t breathe and think I’m going to faint” panic.

Logically, I know that this is because the injections I was given to help with my endometriosis are wearing off (praise all that is good in the world for that, they have been hell, absolute hell, and if anyone ever offers them to you do NOT try them, I will elaborate in more detail in another post, just don’t do it!)

I know that as a result, my hormones are frantically rushing around my body trying to make sense of a nonsensical situation. They have been stopped, started, rebooted, frozen and juggled for months.

So logically, I know that’s what this is. I know that I am ok. That my life is ok. That my babies are ok.

As I am telling myself that I’m ok I walk up and down the stairs three times, counting the steps, so that I can keep my bearings in a fire.

I am using sat nav to navigate short journeys I know by heart, because I need to see the journey passing so I don’t faint.

I am counting the tiles in the kitchen. I am counting the light bulbs in the house. I am counting junctions, the number of ticks my indicators are allowed, the swipes of the windscreen wipers, the blinks in an advert break, the syllables in a chapter.

I am counting anything that distracts me from counting the beats of my heart that I can feel in my throat, because as soon as I start counting them, I remember they are counting down, and could stop at any moment, and I wouldn’t be here.

I am counting because once I am thinking about that countdown it scares me so much I wonder if it might be easier to fast forward, and take the pressure off.

I’m aware that these thoughts come from those hormones, dashing around in places they aren’t needed, and that the medicine is meant to help but hasn’t, and that there will be an alternative which doesn’t do this to my body, and that this will pass.

I have had a lovely, ordinary, beautifully mundane day made of all the simple things which make life so lovely.

And for every single second of it, I have battled my own body, battled panic and terror, and battled the urge to lie down and close my eyes and wish it all away.

Because that feeling isn’t me, it isn’t my life, and it isn’t allowed to win.

It’s a funny old day

It really is a funny old day. It’s a Tuesday – I usually spend a large proportion of a Tuesday napping, since I started a course of hormone treatments that have given me “the menopause” at (just) 34. 

It’s a day I left a bag of medication I keep quiet in another home too far away to pop and pick them up, because I am in a strange halfway state between house moves across many, many miles. 

It’s a day that Facebook memories is reminding me of jobs I had to leave, jobs I adored and which would have taken me to fantastic places, and of people I had to leave behind with them.

It’s a day that I cried in Boots and some lovely people chatted to me about cooking birthday cakes for small dogs as they popped pills into a bottle so I wasn’t overly upset by the blister packs not being symmetrical. 

It’s a day that people I adore are hurting over losses I can’t even comprehend, and all I have is platitudes. 

A day in which a friend I want to wrap my arms around is too far away and all I can give her is black comedy in a message to put a smile on her face when she’s struggling too. 

A day when my eldest child – the one with aspergers who, according to all definition, is supposed to struggle to factor in the feelings and needs of others – asked his Cubs cooking group to leave the Kiwi fruit out of the kebabs they made so he could share his with me, because I’m allergic but he thought I’d like to share. 

It’s a day when I am in the first place I’ve  ever lived that has felt like a true, safe, wonderful home – but it has become a suffocating box, and all I want is to move into my new home in my new location to embrace my new life.

A day when I’ve worked on a business plan, written content for clients, acted like a competent and successful business woman, and worn a fluffy poncho and comfy pants to do it. 

Another day when my kids made me laugh until I cried, and I’ve cried until I laugh at myself. 

It’s a funny old day. 

And now I think I’ll end it with some sleep. 

Grief is weird

Grief.

It’s not just a weird experience, it’s a weird word. Grief. It rhymes with ‘brief’, but it isn’t. It can follow ‘good’ but it isn’t that either. It is too many things, and – for the terribly British among us – more than a little uncomfortable to feel in a way that people can see.

I lost someone very important. It brought closer the losses of other very important people, and kicked the foundations out of my world a little. Grandparents who were so important, who took us in when we were young, who homed me when I was lost, who guided me and raised me and taught me and loved me. Who held me, and who offered the same to so many other people.

And my grief feels…raw. Lonely. Vast.

I haven’t just lost a Grandfather – I’ve lost a parent, a role model, a guiding star and a friend. I’ve lost a possibility of redemption, for the many times I should have called and didn’t, the visits I should have made and never made time for. I’ve lost the chance to fix all the ways I should have been better to him, and let him down.

I’ve lost hearing more stories of his time in the forces, his many and varied business investments, and the way he once helped an Escort to reclaim the cost of her stockings on a tax return as a business expense.

I distanced myself from him at a time I should have been by his side, giving support in the way he’d given so very much to me, because I was afraid.

I lost my Grampa, and feel anew the loss of two magnificent Grandmothers, and fear for what losses may come.

I lost someone who was so much more to the world than he was to just me – he was more than Grampa, he was adventures, tall tales, grand gestures, sound advice, hilarious anecdotes, witty responses and culinary genius (aside from the boil in the bag rice phase we should probably gloss over).

He spent the last days of his life eating only sweets and dessert – because, as he said, “I’m dying anyway, what the fuck does it matter?”

He loved beauty and grace, he married the most powerful feminist I’ve ever met in person, he fathered four children and they had dozens more. He headed an empire, and guided us all. He was hilarious, serious, incredibly bright and totally oblivious.

He was my Grampa. And he was a whole lot more.

And now I am supposed to say goodbye – and I don’t know how.

So instead, I am telling my very young children stories of him so they remember they knew him too, I am re-framing a beloved photograph, I am speaking more with my family, and I am eating a slice of battenberg because it was one of his favourites.

Elixir

via Daily Prompt: Elixir

So this is a first – I logged in to write a blog post about Iceland, and all the amazing food we had out there, and saw this ‘Daily Prompt’ title and thought I’d give it a go…

Initially I thought I could link it to that aforementioned Iceland food post – but that would be cheating!

Instead I’m going to write about the green smoothies I’m starting my day with and my addiction to caffeine!

I have – at various points in my life – been told to avoid caffeine. I’ve had caffeine poisoning, from guzzling far too many strong coffees, and had a few periods where my M.E. was terrible and my migraines were unbearable, and the caffeine made it all worse – I wasn’t allergic, but certainly had an intolerance to the magical beans. I’ve since pushed through the pain…

In my caffeine-free days I also had to avoid chocolate – which is NOT FUN – and I did search out caffeine-free chocolate. In one health food shop I found some and was over the moon, until I ate it; it looked like chocolate, it smelled like chocolate, and it tasted like absolutely nothing. Like the inside of my own mouth, with lumps. It was like eating a chocolate scented candle.

In my 30s now, one thing everyone who knows me knows is that I love coffee. Properly LOVE coffee. I’m a revolting snob, I won’t drink instant, and I start my day with two (or seven) strong coffees made with my magical aeropress. Pretty much every day I am tagged on Facebook with some coffee meme or funny story – and my friends have all started getting ‘proper coffee’ at home so I don’t pull awful faces when I visit!

But when I get palpitations, my anxiety ramps up and my sweat smells distinctly of coffee, even I have to admit there’s a problem brewing (see what I did there…) and make some changes.

The change I’ve made began – as with so many of my recent positive changes – in Iceland. As well as some amazing food – which I promise I will blog about next – one thing I really enjoyed was the ‘energy boost’ green smoothie at Blue Lagoon.

We got our hands on the recipe for their smoothie, and made some of our own at home. It’s now the start to my day every morning, sometimes followed by a coffee, sometimes not (and just the one if I do, not bottomless cups) and I’m becoming That Person who raves about her green smoothies making life magically better.

But in my case, I often suffer with low iron, dancing on the edge of anaemia pretty much permanently – so the iron boost I get from this is going to have a positive impact. The bananas I have in mine are full of potassium and goodness, and I’m sure there are health benefits in ginger and apples that I can’t be bothered to google – and it gives me a pack of vitamins, minerals, flavour and energy first thing, and it’s reduced the amount of caffeine I’ve been increasingly dependent on, which can only be a good thing. I’m not going to cut caffeine out of my life, I’ve had to do that before and MAN is it dull, but I’ve cut down – and I’m drinking more herbal teas in the afternoons and evenings.

Spring is a time that a lot of us get more energy and drive, and feel more ready to make positive health changes – I started my diet just after Christmas and have been doing ok, but trips away and indulgent weekends mean I’ve only really lost a few pounds – then been putting the same few back on and off every month. So I’m going to take that more seriously, and this green energy boost to start my day is just part of it. This elixir (see, I’m tying it all back to the prompt!) is part of a bigger picture in which I’m also outside a lot more, going to bed earlier, and have gone back to the gym – where I was pleased with how much I could do as much as I was frustrated with how much I couldn’t compared to last summer.

The Blue Lagoon recipe uses orange juice as a base, and mango in the mix – I changed mine to use water as a base (because the kids had guzzled all my orange juice the first day and I realised it tastes just as good this way!) and I throw in two apples, two bananas, a good chunk of ginger root and a few handfuls of spinach. There’s very little measuring (by which I mean none) and I just poke it around the blender until it’s all smooth (which with my crap kitchen appliances takes ages) and then I feel all smug and healthy and superhuman, even if I am drinking it through a novelty straw.

I live in a body that sometimes feels like it hates me – with constant pain, bloating, and bone-deep fatigue that stops me from functioning at the level I want to. I can’t cure my endometriosis, or my M.E. or even determine if they are separate issues or just different manifestations of the same problem – but I can stop damaging myself more by using caffeine as a prop and actually start to take care of myself, with diet, fitness and being outdoors. I KNOW all these things work, and I know that I feel less unwell when I’m doing them properly – but I also know that when I’m unwell and I’m struggling, I just can’t take care of myself, and I have to ride through the gloom before I start to perk up again, and only when I’m already perking up can I begin to take the steps I need to.

I want to be as comfortable as I can be in this sack of skin and bones that rebels.

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I’ve never been a together girl

When I think of the women I admire, and aspire to be, I think of women who fill a room with their presence, who laugh loud, speak up and engage people. 

Women want to be their friend, men want to…well, be their friend, because why the hell wouldn’t they?! 

These women – the ‘together women’ as I call them – have their shit together. They are smart, talented, witty and confident. They don’t fall when they stumble, they keep going on their way. They brush off adversity, and they power through from dreams to doing, to find success and achievement and reach their goals. They don’t think “I wish” and sit back down, they get up and go. 

I have these women in my life. I love them with a fierce flame, and feel grateful to have their influence in my life. 

I was raised around these women – the strong, successful women who influence the world around them; who change lives, with passion and fight, or with a kind of inner peace that spreads by osmosis. Women who make the people close to them want to be the best version of themselves. 

I am friends with these women; I draw them around me like a safety blanket of power and good. Of strength and kindness. Gentle but immense. 

I also know that the ‘together’ that I see, admire and aspire to isn’t the version of themselves that they see. 

Where I see a confident woman who strides into a room, fills it with warmth and draws everyone to her, I also know that before the door opened she was taking deep breaths and clenching her hands together, psyching herself up first. 

Where I see a smart, witty, brilliant woman heading a growing business empire and attracting all the right attention for the success she so very much deserves, I also see someone who has questioned her decisions over and over and worried she’d fall – but who loved what she was doing enough to never give up. 

And the older I get, the more I realise that for every moment in which the together girl truly has all her shit together, there are many more moments in which she’s trying to, failing to and salvaging the pieces that survived the last drop from the mountain top. For every perfectly groomed moment played out to the crowd, there’s the sweaty palmed anxiety behind the scenes. 

I’ve also realised that for every moment I am panicking that someone might see through my facade to the angsty, madly paddling wannabe I see in the mirror, there’s someone who sees me stride into a room with my bright lipstick, big smiles and a firm handshake – and buys into it. 

For all the times I’ve looked at those other women and dreamed of one day being who they are, perhaps I’ve missed that I already am – and that these snatched moments of appearing to be a together girl is all we get? 

If we can walk the walk and talk the talk, and we can make that room full of people think we have our shit together, are we already there? 

Whether it’s true or not, I feel far more like a true together girl when the lipstick goes on. 


Here I am last week; last week I bought a car. The salesman had a weak handshake and told me I’d been a pleasure to do business with, and admitted he finds confident women a little intimidating. 

I threw up before I went, and had been awake most of the night with stomach cramps and anxiety. He had absolutely no idea that I’d cried for an hour before I did my make up – purely because I had never bought a car from a dealership before! 

I knew my anxiety was ridiculous – but buying this car shows how far my life has come in the past two years, from a position where I was feeling completely lost, in a financial hole and believed I had no way out, to sitting down and making a plan, and sticking to it for two years, building up a business from nothing, clearing debts and improving my credit, all very boring and grown up things, and achieving it. 

So many times I have doubted myself, my abilities to do any of this, whether I’d ever make anything of myself. 

And here I am. My business is going great, I support myself and my children and have a comfortable life, we have a nice home, we do fun things, they get new clothes when they need them – I’m not wealthy of course and the clothes are generally from Tesco, but still! 

And I can see all of that and take pride in it – but I still have moments when I feel like the broken shell who was lost all that time ago, and have to remind myself that she’s gone. 

I am the lipstick wearing, room filling smile with a firm handshake. I am a together girl. I am that woman. 

When I need to be. 

Arriving in Iceland

 

For many years I have longed to go to Iceland – of all the places I wanted to travel, it has forever been top of the list, for a string of reasons which include a childhood fondness for Norse Mythology, and the adventures the Vikings had rampaging around Northern Europe, landing on Iceland and creating a new culture because they’d pretty much made themselves unwelcome elsewhere, and a dream of seeing the magical Northern Lights!

Now, I know that isn’t really how it works – you don’t rock up to Iceland in a silly pom-pom hat and just…see the Aurora Borealis – nobody is that lucky, and the chances of getting the right conditions and a clear sky are slim at best – but Iceland has so much more to offer that when the chance came for me to actually go, I threw myself at it, and set to with my notebooks and travel guides, putting together a list of adventures I wanted to have, places I wanted to visit, and experiences I wanted to share – with, of course, the hope that I’d at least see a glimpse of green dancing in the sky at some point.

Our adventures in Iceland were five nights and six days that felt – in all the right ways – like a lifetime of magic and adventure, and I’ll be sharing different aspects of it over a few blog posts in coming days. Nobody in the world ever has a holiday that looks or feels anything like the way a travel magazine or blog can make it seem – but I think my time in Iceland wasn’t just ‘Travel Blog Good’ it was PHENOMENAL, and we got ridiculously lucky with the way we got to experience the country.

It was my first time – but my lovely man has been a few times before, so was able to help me prepare with the right clothes (thermals, waterproof/windproof coat, a ridiculous pom-pom hat and some very good socks!) and to manage my expectations for the Aurora and seeing actual Vikings.

We set off, after some delay (thanks Storm Doris!) and the first excitement was that the Weasley Twins were on our flight out – and I did get a photo with JamesOrOliver Phelps (both of whom were LOVELY, and who only laughed at me a bit when I was the least cool person who has ever accosted them in an airport) but my hands were shaking so much that you can’t really tell who we are, so I shan’t bother sharing it here! My kids were as excited as I was when I told them, so at least they think I’m cool!

Our plans for the first night were to drive north up the coast to our first hotel – the Borealis Hotel, a ten minute drive from Thingvellir National Park, in preparation for starting there to do the Golden Circle (visiting the main highlights of the famous Icelandic natural springs, waterfalls, geyser and such!) before heading a little further north the following evening for a night in a fancy-schmancy hotel with our own private hot-tub under the stars.

That isn’t quite how that panned out!

The storm we’d left England through was heading north, and it hit Iceland as we arrived, with heavy snow the day we arrived, which made our journey to the Borealis Hotel a little nerve-wracking. The roads were covered in snow and ice, visibility was poor, our hire car was dainty, and the sat-nav was determined to send us up what the locals call ‘summer roads’ – narrow lanes that wind through mountains that aren’t passable in winter, and are in fact closed at all times apart from the height of summer!

After battling through the weather, reversing down a mountain with no visibility, getting briefly stuck in a snowdrift, and finally making it to our hotel three hours later than planned (only getting to the door thanks to a tractor with a plough clearing the way up the drive as we approached!) never have I been more pleased to see a welcoming light!

Once we got inside it was even more welcoming, and the glorious barmaid/receptionist told us that we’d missed dinner and the kitchen was closed, but that she could whip up some carbonara for us if we wanted…we wanted!

A (very) short while later, with a bowl of pasta and a beer inside us, we were too giddy to sit in the bar or head to our beds, so we decided to go outside and – as the clouds had momentarily cleared – do a bit of stargazing, take a couple of photos of the night sky, and play in the snow!

We literally stepped outside and walked a few metres to get behind the main building and as he set his camera up, I stood and looked at the sky. We knew we weren’t going to see the Aurora, because the weather was bad and the predictions for Aurora were pretty poor…only, when I looked up…

“Is that the thing? Am I imagining it or is that green? Because it looks green…”

OH MY GOD!

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Image copyright Alex Speed

Look at it! It’s right there! Just…in the sky!

So he panicked and took photos and got very excited, because it NEVER HAPPENS, and I stood like a useless moron and cried at the skies as the colours danced and span and twirled above us, all shades of green, and the camera caught the reds and every hue in between, and we leapt around like crazy people.

Within ten minutes the clouds had flooded back in, the snow had begun to flurry again, and the Aurora had disappeared – and just as we were ready to head inside, another couple came out with a camera and asked if we thought there was any chance the lights would appear tonight…

A couple of snow angels later we headed inside, drank more beer, then hung our wet clothes on radiators and fell into the most comfortable twin beds we’ve ever known (possibly simply because we were so exhausted!)

The following morning, we awoke to even more snow, and severe weather warnings. Our plans for the Golden Circle were off…and our chances of making it to our hotel for the evening, up in the mountains, with the sexy outdoor hot tub…nope. No way we could get close – the roads that way were closed all day because they were too dangerous in the storm – but there was a chance we might make it into Reykjavik if we left immediately. Well, immediately after the plough cleared the road to the hotel, where we were currently stranded…

 

There is only one ‘main’ road in Iceland – the 1 – it circles the country and though there are some good B roads, they aren’t cleared as often by the ploughs as the 1, and so our route of choice to Reykjavik was the 1 – only, as you see in the image above, our simple, 45 minute direct route was…well, not an option! The main road was closed – high winds made driving across the mountain route too dangerous. We spoke to the police manning this blockade and they said our only option to possibly make it to the city was the coastal road. We asked if it was safe. He said “well, it’s not closed yet!” and with that dubious reassurance, off we went!

You can see all the data here from the weather, road closures and wind warnings from the drive. We battled for hours through a blizzard trying to just get to somewhere we could stay – ideally Reykjavik, but as the day wore on and we seemed to be driving for hours without getting anywhere, we just wanted to be somewhere safe.

We ended up making it to a small harbour town on the south coast called Grindavik. Here we were told that every road was closed, that they might open in the early evening if the storm blew over as it was expected to, but that the next few hours were too wild and dangerous for people to be out in.

We found a tiny, harbour side café where we could hole up for some food and warmth while we waited to see what would happen – and were a little thrilled (once we’d managed to battle from the car to get inside, the wind was so strong I could barely take a step, and his glasses were blown straight off his head and the length of the street before landing, chipped, in a snowdrift!) to find absolutely delicious coffee, and the tastiest lobster soup we’ve ever had – salty, packed with chunky lobster pieces, served with fresh bread and bottomless refills!

We spend a lovely few hours in our safe haven – I wrote in my travel journal and filled up on the soup and coffee, enjoying the sense of adventure and uncertainty. My poor chap enjoyed it a little less as he kept tabs on the weather and road updates and tried to find somewhere we could stay, since we weren’t getting to the hotel we had booked, but with all flights grounded and all roads closed, Reykjavik was full and it took a lot of searching and worrying before we managed to book the last room available in the entire city (in a hotel I won’t link to, because though it was beautiful we got overcharged because of the storm, and had no sleep because the staff clattered around in the kitchen – which was next to our room – until well past midnight and from 5am!)

Eventually, as evening began to fall, the roads were opened between Grindavik and Reykjavik – so we jumped into the car and raced (carefully crawled) up the now surprisingly clear road to the city – and once we’d parked and confirmed we had a bed for the night, we found a safe place to sit and enjoy a well deserved beer!

Our first 24 hours in Iceland weren’t anything like we expected – but what an adventure, what a sense of magic and wonder, what an incredible range of emotions and experiences, and thank goodness for beer and brennivin! (That’s the shot you see above; I can’t really describe what it tastes of, but it’s the Icelandic schnapps that certainly warms you after you get lost in the snow!)