Morocco on My Mind

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Last year C took Z to Egypt. About the only thing I heard about that trip was how great the hotel swimming pools were. And the time Z locked himself in the bathroom and was chastised by a hotel employee who had to break the door lock with a screw driver. It’s almost impossible to figure out if a six year-old is reasonably impressed with 4000 year old pyramids. More often his memories seem to speak to his displeasures.

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“Dad made me eat eggplant. It was gross.”

This year I wanted to have my own African adventure with this little man, so we booked onto a Family Adventure Company trip to Morocco. Eight days in a desert country where I could get the moss baked off my skin, my son could play with other kids on the trip, and we adults could all benefit from passive babysitting. 

I must say again: it’s so amazing to get on a plane in London and be in a completely different culture in less than three hours. Unfortunately, that relatively short journey ended at 1:30 am. We arrived in the central town of Ouarzazate in total darkness, me buzzing from the wine I’d drunk in the transit terminal in Casablanca and Z hyper from the ice cream I couldn’t refuse him.

“Mom, you’re getting wine. Why can’t I get ice cream?”

Abdul rocks the foosball

Abdul rocks the foosball

“You’re right, honey. We all have our weaknesses.”

In the morning, the group of us met. Four kids ages 5, 6, 7 and 8 with Z the only boy. Four families, one like me, a single mom.  Our guide Abdul sat us down to fill out insurance paperwork and lower our expectations of the trip.

“Sometimes the electricity works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the hot water works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Fortunately he didn’t say, ‘Sometimes the van runs and sometimes it doesn’t.’ The van was actually quite nice and it even had air conditioning.

Our first stop was the 19th Century Taourirt Kasbah, the sprawling clan home to the former power players of the area, now frequently a Hollywood backdrop. The guide, though endearing, spoke English with such a heavy accent that I could only make out snippets of information. “Servants.” “Old wood.” “Wives.” “Children.” “Main wife.” Huh?

The curious twins

The curious twins

That afternoon we pitched up at a much smaller compound where we would be the guests of a Berber family. Their property was walled and made up of the gardens, the house with a large kitchen, indoor and outdoor eating areas and, dotted along the edges, big canvass tents layered with oriental carpets and threadbare sheeted sleepmats. At any given time - wandering the compound - were two bent over elders, three young boys, a set of female twin toddlers with short cropped hair and dressed in the old clothes of their brothers, and a newborn baby, swaddled and bound and looking like a fat pupa. You had to be careful not to step on that one. This family fed us, their water was mostly hot and they had wifi.

And wouldn’t you know, we were just a five minute drive to a nearby hotel, where the kids frolicked in the pool and the adults drank beer. I had hoped that by coming to Morocco I would get a break from two of my less healthy preoccupations: internet and alcohol. But now I know I’ll need to remove myself from the comforts of a tour group in order to break those habits. Until then, cold beer on a hot afternoon was pretty damn nice.

More fun than an amusement park

More fun than an amusement park

The next day we all piled into “local transportation” which meant this van had no real seats, no AC and had likely just ferried goats across the desert. But it put us in the necessary state of physical anxiety we needed to be in for our next mode of transport: the camel.

Now, this is where Z and I very much disagree: I view camel riding as every bit as amusing and loads less terrifying than a roller coaster that uses g-forces to scramble your brain. Z didn’t see it that way. In fact, if I didn’t have two arms around him as we tottered across the desert for an hour en route to our camp in the dunes, he would start whining. Give the kid a gravity-defying trip of terror on a rickety old pier and he’s in heaven. Place him atop a loping ungulate on terra firma and he’ll whimper the entire way.

Delight in flight

Delight in flight

But then we were in the dunes. Glorious, golden sand dunes. Our camp had been set up by a team of advance bedouins who were enjoying tea when we arrived. All the kids ran for the nearest dune as soon as they slid off their camels and the adults were close behind. The sun was near setting and we walked the spine of sand up to the point where it met a crop of rocks and the highest point in the area. Z and the 8 year-old became synchronized sand swimmers, jumping and rolling in tandem then scrambling back up to do it again.

Our trip ended in Marrakech. C once spent time with his mother and sister in Morocco over twenty years ago and his memories of that experience moved him to advise me to hire a local guide to wander the streets with and act as protector and repeller of all the men who were sure to hassle me. But that has all changed. Sure, people encourage you to come sit down at their restaurant, pet their monkey or buy their wares. But there was no hassle about it. It was relaxed, friendly and fun even. But the most fun of all was shopping with Z.

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Lord knows I don’t like to shop much. Even in an exotic place like Morocco, I’ve lost my interest in bringing more material goods into my life. What I didn’t expect was that shopping the souk with a seven year old was going to be, not about consumerism, but about interpersonal, cultural communication and the art of the deal. When Z first saw something he wanted, he blew it.

“Mom, mom, I want this, I really, really want this and it’s only 60 dirham!”

I pulled him outside the stall and had one of those very serious mother-son conversations with him, every bit as important as treating thy neighbor as thyself or your body is your temple.

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“Z," I kneeled down and put on my most serious face. "Never, ever pay full price.”

After that we were the bargaining dream team. We would very casually decide what it was we wanted to buy, add up the asking prices and then lower our voices.

“So what do you think? Should we offer 120 or go down to 100?”

“One hundred!” Z was always the low baller.

And by god, it worked. If I was the one proposing the absurd drop in price, the shopkeeper would look pained, as though he were having a moment of uncomfortable gas. Then Z would see the resistance and swoop in, repeating the low offer with a flourish of his arms and the vendor’s head would start to bobble, his eyes would close, he would get just the vaguest hint of a smile and then nod. I cautioned Z not to be too big headed, at least while we were still in the shop. After we moved into the crowd with our purchases, we’d give each other a triumphant high five.

We ended the trip with dinner in a courtyard restaurant, a riotous jungle of cultivated greenery contained by slabs of marble. I think Winston Churchill might have sipped his scotch there. I sipped gin and didn’t worry about the exchange rate.  The kids wandered on a scavenger hunt (find the elephant’s head…) and the adults grilled our guide Abdul about which tour company he liked the most (all the guides work for more than one).

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After trips like this, I want to crawl inside Z’s brain and see what his memories are. What will have impressed him most? The swimming pool? The henna tattoo? Hours in the bus sitting next to girls singing Taylor Swift songs? I hope I’m around in twenty years to ask him, “Hey, do you remember that night in Marrakesh when the monkey jumped on my back?” “No, I don’t Mom, but I remember when that shopkeeper played Bionicle battle with me.”

Perfect enough...

 

Pest is Best

First, my apologies. To my mother, who is my number one fan and looks forward to these blog posts because I'm terrible at calling. And to Jackie, my dear Orcas Island friend, who wonders if I've fallen off the face to the earth. It's been a Spring of many changes and discombobulations. But without further excuses, let me take you back a month and tell you about the now-determinedly-annual girl's trip to Budapest.

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So even though last year we came back from Berlin with bad headaches and aching livers, my mates H & E agreed to take a trip with me again. Something about me booking the flights and the flat and then asking for money...the Brits are really too polite to say no sometimes.

Budapest is marvellous. Especially when the sun is shining, which it did for us all three days. Sometimes we would simply sit on a park bench, soak up the Vitamin D, and admire the grandeur of the pre-war buildings in a city that was, unlike London, spared of World War bombing raids. It helps to arrive in a new place and be struck with multiple magic moments within the first few hours. Our Air B&B flat was spacious, in a Jewish quarter building with a central courtyard n the Pest side of the river. If you squinted, you could almost see kids in wool caps and grandmothers in aprons going about their 1930's lives.

As we wandered the neighborhood we discovered these places called 'Ruin Pubs', restaurants and bars set up in derelict spaces between buildings. Some of them were open air, some had light-letting plexiglass roofing. They all had a feel of rustic, aka dilapidated, comfiness. The food was kosher and big on tabouleh and paprika. The pilsners were cheap and refreshingly cold and carbonated (as opposed to English brew, which I have still not taken to).

No longer a ruin

No longer a ruin

Certainly the highlight of the trip was a visit to one of the public bath houses. We went to Szechenyi Thermal Baths, situated in the center of a spacious park and looking like a miniature Russian Hermitage. I had forgotten to pack a swimsuit and since this wasn't Scandinavia, I was obliged to rent a utilitarian one piece. This made me feel like a throwback to Communist sensibilities when most of the other women were in bikinis. We started in the outdoor pool, warm and not the least bit sulfer smelling. The Hungarians keep everything tidy and polite so, even though you could drink a beer in your lounge chair, you couldn't get it anywhere near the pool. 

Bathe like a princess

Bathe like a princess

Inside were grand rooms containing pools at varying temperatures. I was happiest in the 34 degree water but E found the 18 degree plunge pool and she was hooked. This is a woman who loves an open water swim, so she was as happy as a starfish in the ocean with the water up to her neck and turning blue. H and I found it more trying, a special kind of torture, but endured in a spirit of friendship. After four hours, we languidly walked back to our neighborhood and had a final meal of hummus and roasted veggies at Mazel Tov before catching a cab to the airport.

Buda is better with besties

Buda is better with besties

These trips are really special to me. The hardest part about living abroad is not having a well-established community of people and family around. We're coming up on three years in England and I'm beginning to feel now that I've been blessed with some wonderful friends. And even though our length of stay here is uncertain, I'm grateful for what I've found on this side of the Atlantic. Come fall, however, if the option is to come back to President Trump, well, these annual mom getaways might continue into the next decade. 

 

Indelible Memories

My chicken-raising, snake-killing, sassy Aunt Kathie

My chicken-raising, snake-killing, sassy Aunt Kathie

The place where my childhood memories go to more than any other is my grandmother’s house in Columbus, Ohio. It’s gone now, swallowed up in the suburban development of the city. But unlike the many houses I lived in with my immediate family over the years, the Wilson Road house was a stable and unchanging place that always felt more like home than any other. The smell of that house, the expansive grandure of the sunken livingroom with the baby Grand piano, and the spooky chill of the basement cold storage locker, are all hardwired into my DNA.

A Bernie Democrat in the wilds of Louisiana

A Bernie Democrat in the wilds of Louisiana

The place in that house that influenced me most was my Aunt Kathie’s bedroom. My aunt had been a surprise baby, born when my grandmother was nearly 40, and a gaping 16 years younger than my mother. This made my aunt only 9 years older than I. So when she was away at college as a 20-year-old, I was 11 and ripe with the fantasies of who I might become because of my experience of her in her absence.  

Her room was a vision in lilac. The carpet was a plush periwinkle. The curtains, bedspread and pillows were all a matching shade of violet with flowered edges. She had a canopied double bed where, when I slept there, I felt like a Midwestern princess. Her matching furniture set included a mirrored vanity in front of which I spent hours perfecting my pout. Although the rest of the house had its own distinct odors, her room always smelled of perfumed talcum powder.

One of the two closets in her room was an odd space, reclaimed from the requirements of another room and completely dysfunctional for anything related to storing clothing. It had a bare bulb light and two levels of offset, deep shelves, like giant steps. She had covered the walls with posters of her girl crushes and 70’s rock bands. Davie Jones of The Monkeys looked down on me as I rifled through her possessions; photo albums, high school essays and diaries. 

I poured over not only the grainy, round-edged Instamatic photos of her own adolescence, but albums filled with the buttoned-up, lacy images of my grandparents as children. I was astounded to see that my great-grandmother actually once had dark hair, my grandmother’s dimples were much deeper on her baby face than her adult one, and that my grandfather looked just as sly at five as he did at fifty. Yes, I was a snoop, I invaded her privacy. But I was eleven. It would have been abnormal for me not to. And how else could I be transported into the glorious world of teen-dom, to understand a little better this exotic species of proto-humans, if I hadn't been very nosy. 

She must have just saved them from a venomous snake

She must have just saved them from a venomous snake

Last week my Aunt Kathy passed away after many remarkable years living with breast cancer. Even though we all knew her death was coming, it’s hard when the “baby” of the family dies first, before her other four siblings. But life never marches along in the order we expect it to. I loved her, and the person I became inside her room.  I didn’t see her much throughout her life, as we lived on different sides of the country. But I hoped I might grow up to be like her, with long dark hair, a college education and the guts to go study in another country. She married a lovely man, had two great kids and then was dealt several seasons worth of emotional and logistical hurricanes. But just as she laughed through the evacuation from her hurricane-flooded house in Louisiana a few weeks before she died, she managed to laugh through a lot of shit through the years.

I last spoke with her over the phone near Christmas. She was delighted to hear how much I adore living in England. She had loved this country too, during her student days. We kept it light, upbeat, but I knew it was probably the last time I would hear her voice. I don’t think I told her I loved her. But I did. More than I realized, surely more than she knew. “Oh, but she knew, Karin.” my sweet cousin told me recently. And now I’m sure she does.

 

 

Mum's Day U.K.

This little guy was born happy. On a hillside in Iceland, 2009

This little guy was born happy. On a hillside in Iceland, 2009

He doesn't look too sure of me

He doesn't look too sure of me

Over here Mother's Day falls in March, perhaps the most miserable month of the year to be British. It rains buckets, blows a gale, teases you with sunshine in the morning then envelops you with black clouds by noon. There are no school holidays, the estate houses with playgrounds are still closed for the season and it gets dark by 6:00.

So the only reason we moms find the will to smile during the month of March is because the Brits treat all their mums like queens on Mother’s Day. Z was no exception.

“Here mom, let me get you a glass of water.”

“Thank you, darling. How about you vacuum the stairs now?”

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“No thanks, mom. I'm too tired.”

I asked him what he wanted to do for Mother's Day and he said what he always says when you ask him what he wants to do. “Go to Legoland!”

So I decided we would go to Legoland and that, on my day, I would willingly spend half of it nauseated and on the verge of vomiting. Only when I went online to see if it was less expensive to buy tickets ahead of time I found the total price for the two of us would come to $140, not including parking.

Next we looked into a treetop adventure park.

“Sorry, Z, you have to be 12 to get in.” He suddenly remembered the time I made him lie about his age at Legoland so he could get his Lego car drivers license.

“We can tell them I'm 12.”

“Honey, I'm sorry, but you don't look 12.”

“But we can just tell them I have a growing disability!”

I tell you, that quote alone will make me smile this entire miserable month.

"I've got you in my crosshairs, you buggers!"

"I've got you in my crosshairs, you buggers!"

So we decided to go to the local Willow’s Farm, a children's fun park specialising in bouncy castles, giant slides and ignored animals. Having been relieved of the possibility of motion sickness, I agreed to play what I call Chicken Ball. I insisted, since it was my day, that he had to gather a basket of balls for me. He complained but did it anyway since otherwise he’d have no one to shoot at.

Imagine a room about the size of a tennis court with two levels of protective barriers on either side facing each other. Mounted atop the barriers of each level are pneumatic air guns into which you feed a Nerf ball about the size of a navel orange. The guns pivot on a stand and you discharge the balls with an almighty “Thwap!” using a trigger on the steering handle. You could be a wimp and shoot your opponent while crouching behind the barrier. Or you could stand tall like a maniacal sniper and intimidate your offspring while trying to work out how far right you need to position your worthlessly calibrated gun in order to bean him in the face.

Z was pretty good. But not as good as I. And pretty soon not only was I shooting at him, my jaw aching because I was smiling so hard, I was also shooting all the other kids across from me. I was the No Mercy Mum unleashed.

“No! I don't want to wipe your ass anymore!”  Pow!  “Get your own damn milk!”  Bam!  “Stop asking me for more flippin’ screen time!”  Wap!

Mama kitty, baby kitty and stuffy kitty

Mama kitty, baby kitty and stuffy kitty

Pretty soon I was crawling around on the floor gathering more ammunition. Then I realised I was Piggy in a room full of Lord of the Flies little boys. Now I had balls flying at me from all directions, hitting me about the head, beaning my arms. One kid ran into no man's land with a pile of balls cradled in his arm and started wailing them at me point blank. Cheeky monkey!

So I surrendered. I made a dash for the door, and turned, once behind the glass, and like any self-respecting 50 year-old woman would do, stuck my tongue out at them. I sat down to catch my breath and chuckle. Because I was doing what all mothers do, at different levels, throughout the life we share with our children: we surrender. We cede control, we put down our weapons, and we let them be who they need to be. Then I watched him.  I love watching Z engage with the world from a distance. He is a fearless friend-maker, something I was never good at until recently. And then I love to take him in my arms and tell him how wonderful it is that he is such an outgoing, friendly person. He folds himself into me and purrs like a cat, licks me on the arm even.

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I like to think I have a lot of influence on how he is beginning to see himself. But I know there will be days when someone else will hurt him terribly with a thoughtless remark. That person might even be me. We've all been there; at the end of our rope, sarcastic, assuming our children will understand our criticism as contextual, rather than a judgement of their character. So I hope I'm doing a decent job of making deposits into his happy bank now so that when someone makes a withdrawal, he still has plenty of happy in reserve. I want to keep his account in The National Bank of Resilience forever in the black.

March is a little more sunny for me this year despite the absence of sunshine. I know this Mother’s Day, I'm deeply grateful to be this kid’s mother. Despite the fact he'd see me annihilated by Nerf balls.

On Turning Seven

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Just before Christmas, Z turned seven. Because of all the merrymaking, visiting and skiing, it wasn't until mid-January when I suddenly took notice of how he’s changed. It seems logical that the new year would mark the time for me to recognize his growth.  It could also be because we’re stuck inside and keep running into each other on the stairs.

What I think has changed the most at seven is the growth of his vocabulary. Also, his ability to string together long sentences. He will often start now with, “Take for instance…” “As a matter of fact…” or even “Mom, were you aware that…” I have to assume he’s picking these phrases up from his teachers. I’ve stopped saying “As a matter of fact,” because I can never get my facts straight. And he's talking more. In the past, he claimed to have forgotten everything that went on each day at school. Now he can at least tell me who got told off and why. As far as what he's learning academically, that's was still a bit vague. Until I attended a parent's evening and realized he's done more school work at seven than I did by seventeen. 

He is also becoming the master of negotiation. Not long ago we were going in a bad direction when his negotiation tactics centred on what he wouldn’t do if we didn’t give him what he wanted.

“If I don’t get ice cream I won’t be your best kid anymore.”

“Z, you’re my only kid.”

“Well, I won’t be very good then.”

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I’ve made it a mantra in my house now to remind him that nice people generally get what they want. People who slam doors, hit or yell are only demonstrating the immaturity of their neocortex. He cares about his brain, so this one is starting to pay off. Now he’s much more likely to sweeten the deal with me by offering a positive outcome.

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“Mom, if you give me a wipe, I’ll get my shoes and coat on.”

“But Z, it’s already your responsibility to get your shoes and coat on.”

“But I’ll do it really fast. And I promise not to get distracted.”

I always fall for this one because getting him out the door in the morning is like wrestling with a nine-headed hydra. Every little thing on the very short path between the sitting room and the door appears to him to be something shiny and in need of investigation. I have to literally hold onto both his hands and guide him to the coat rack. But if he tells me he’ll do something, he will. And so, at seven, I am still occasionally wiping his butt.

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We used to attend a Waldorf school in Seattle. In the Waldorf world, the period from six to seven is considered the “first puberty.”  In my snider moments I refer to it as “six going on sixteen” and roll my eyes. But I think these Waldorfians are onto something. I think this really is a transformative time in a child’s life when they are becoming more aware of the world and their place in it. And that can be frightening. It can scare the child too, only they’re not willing to admit it.

But essentially, seven is a blast. Z still wants to play with me, jumps into my arms when I come to pick him up from school, even though I’ve told him many times he’s going to break my back one of these days. This morning he asked me to come sit with him while he ate his breakfast. These are good days for us. And I do need to remind myself to park my butt on the sofa and give him the time he craves. Because I’m sure, in not too long, I’ll be the one begging him to sit down with me.

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Mud Season

Winter footwear 

Winter footwear 

Around this time last year I told you a little about the rainy English winter. It’s not unlike a rainy Seattle winter. But when people here ask me where I’m from, and I say Seattle, they have no idea that winters there can be just as dismal.

“Hope our miserable winter isn’t gett-in ya down, love.”

“Not at all! I’m quite used to miserable winters. Makes me feel right at home.”

But aside from the annual precipitation (London – 23.4 inches; Seattle – 38.6 inches) and the similar latitude (London – 51.5 degrees N; Seattle – 47.6 degrees N), there’s one thing which is relatively benign in the Pacific Northwest but often injurious in England: mud. Thick.  Peanut butter. Mud.

We got our first taste of the English Mud Phenomenon in July, a few weeks after having just moved here.  We enthusiastically packed up a rented camper van and headed to our first English music festival. The sun was shining, the grass was green, everyone was walking around in hippy chick tank tops and…rain boots.

I thought the rain boots, Wellies as they're called here, were simply a fashion statement or protection from an overflowing porta-potty. Personally, I had only brought my nice, strappy leather sandals. On day two it became overcast and by the evening a steady rain began to fall. Within the time it takes to say “Bloody Hell,” the event grounds had transformed from a field of trampled grass to a bog of clay-like mud, perfect for an extreme sporting event.

Is it a road or a trail? Why, yes!

Is it a road or a trail? Why, yes!

At least in the summer things dry out quickly. Once the rains come in winter you start planning your day around the route with the most asphalt. Our old walk to school was ten minutes but lengthened to twenty when the riverside went squishy and we had to change course. I tried a few times to walk the river path in January, putting Z in his boots and carrying his school shoes. That ended the day he slipped and got up looking like he’d stood too near the backside of a cow with diarrhea.

Our neighbour in the old house decided he would DIY his back yard so dug out all the concrete and laid sod on top of the dirt. Though this guy was American, he’d been living in England for sixteen years. Even I could see he was going to have a problem on his hands. Sure enough, in the Spring all the sod was underwater and the neighbourhood kids had a party in his yard, sinking shin-high in the results of his labour.

C gets particularly annoyed with the mud in winter because he mountain bikes year round. When the mud runs deep, he and his bike get so caked it takes almost as long to clean up as it did to ride.

Stepping stones only get you so far 

Stepping stones only get you so far 

I've decided to let go of my aversion to mud. My Wellies are knee high and I can step into them like a pair of favourite slippers. Country walks are slippery and gooey and challenge my aging proprioception. But I see that as a good thing. Plus, my legs look thinner in boots. And no pub will refuse you because you’ve got mud splattered half-way up your back. I think one of the reasons there are so many pubs in England is because people had to stop every few miles to rest from the effort.

So if you’re an enthusiastic hiker, come to England prepared to get dirty. Bring a walking stick, tall boots and putty coloured clothing. Don’t assume the summers are any less messy, though if we have more than three days in a row of sun they can be relatively tidy. It’s part of what makes this country emerald green. Like the yin and the yang, mud simply counters the unbearable beauty of the English countryside. At least that’s what I tell myself. Now excuse me - I need to go chisel the gunk off Z's football cleats.

 

 

Letter to the New Year

Dear 2016,

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Let me introduce myself. My name is Karin. I’m sorry I don’t look very presentable but, you see, 2015 really kicked me around, took me out back and beat me up a bit. Thank god that year finally took a hike. 

So I just want to sit down with you and make a few suggestions for how we might have a better year than 2015. Not simply for me, although I would really like some relief from this ulcer in my stomach. Let’s talk about how you, 2016, might be better for all of us - in positive terms. OK?

How about you give Donald Trump a very long, non-painful case of laryngitis. Don’t you think his voice needs a rest anyway? Oh, and how about somehow turning all his Tweets into quotes from Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. I have serious concerns that my home country might elect Trump President. In which case you, 2016, can also go to hell.

What? I can't hear you

What? I can't hear you

Oops, I was going to stay positive.

Let’s throw a big party for the government of Syria, ISIS, and the Taliban. We’ll serve everyone Mountain Dew containing MDMA and Ambien and make sure they have a never-ending supply. This would certainly cost less than the refugee crisis, drones and carpet bombing. 

Everybody party! 

Everybody party! 

Let’s get the Jet Stream to chillax. Floods and earthquakes and hurricanes are really taking a toll on the kind people of this world. Can you convince the Niños and their whole damn family that they don’t need to keep competing for ‘The World’s Most Devastating’ in 2016? Let’s just clean up the mess and get on with life, how about it?

Really? 

Really? 

And guns. 2015 had this crazy love fest with guns and people getting killed by guns. There were 330 mass shootings in America in 2015. That’s almost one mass shooting every day. That doesn’t even include the other 52,000 acts of gun violence that year. Sweet Jesus. How about the last f#ck you legislation President Obama gets passed before he leaves office is a bill that would require every gun owner to buy liability insurance. That way we could sit back and watch the insurance industry bury the gun lobby, all without any bloodshed.

I don’t think these are impossible requests, do you 2016? But if you don’t think you’ll get around to all of them how about you and I work together on a few simpler ideas for myself and my family. 

My son is seven now. According to some developmental theories, this is the age when he starts to become aware of himself within the larger context of the world. This world is amazing and I want to show him how wonderful it can be. I feel so lucky that we live right in the middle of it. So help me continue to be patient with him and myself. Help me accept that he might not quite get the grandeur of a cathedral or the significance of Roman ruins in the middle of England. But I know the time is coming when he’ll begin to look at things in wonder. I want to be present and aware of those moments.  

See, those eyes are getting bigger! 

See, those eyes are getting bigger! 

I want him to grow up without fear as his point of engagement. How about you help me find the trailhead to the Path of Love and Courage even though that one is all uphill and the Trail of Fear is a much less strenuous hike - but I know the fear trail only takes us to shitty places.

How about you help us find more happiness in the face of uncertainty? How about I find the guts to dare greatly and take some risks knowing that I have lots of hands to help me up again if I fall on my face? 

Would you do some of these things for me 2016? I’ll work right alongside you to make them happen. I promise.

Most Sincerely, Karin

 

Confessions from a half century

So after this blog post I'm going to shut up about being fifty. I know most of you are really sick of me telling you, "Hey, I'm fifty!" Frankly, I'm sick of it too. But I still can't quite get my head around it, this age I'm at. Instead of taking stock of all that I've done, and the things I keep intending to do, like lose those last ten pounds I've been carrying around since 1984, I thought I'd make a few confessions. I want to commence the next decade feeling that I have less and less to hide, and therefore, be burdened with. If you are someone who has nearly unsubscribed from this blog because you didn't like my cheeky side, well, I'd suggest you skip this post and wait for the next one. Here we go...

This is me on my 40th birthday. Even then I look as though I've forgotten something

This is me on my 40th birthday. Even then I look as though I've forgotten something

I have a deplorable memory. I try to warn people of this, but I keep forgetting who I've told. So I'm just going to announce it to the world here. It will take me half a dozen encounters before I remember your name. I am constantly walking into rooms and wondering why I'm there. I've even left a room in frustration, remembered what it was I meant to do and, by the time I'd returned, forgotten again. Seriously. My mother has a really great memory. In fact, she usually reminds me of what happened during my childhood and adolescence, most of which I've forgotten. Except for that time I stepped on a slug in my bare feet, right after she told me that's exactly what would happen.  I'm just glad she wasn't around when I went to college and grad school. I have vague memories of stupid behavior, and it would probably make good material for a book, but if you knew me between 1984-1994, your secrets are safe with me - if, in fact, we had any. My friend Roxanne had this adorable habit of taping the Spanish word for just about everything in her house on the thing itself. Someday, I will do that as well. Only my words will be in English.

Nothing but sweetness from his mouth - on the other side of the door

Nothing but sweetness from his mouth - on the other side of the door

I let my kid swear like a sailor. I don't ascribe to the "Do what I say, not what I do." style of parenting. I teach by example, which means my son is fluent in profanities. When Z first discovered bad words he was, naturally, just starting to talk. Rather than try to explain to a three year old, who is loving every word coming from his mouth, that certain words mustn't be said - even though we said them all the time - we convinced him that those potty words could be spoken but only in the potty. This worked fine when it was just me and C at home. We got busted when he started singing "F***- y, f***, f***" while pooping with the door open on vacation with my extended family. At least now that he's nearly seven, he understands that these words mustn't be spoken in public or around his friends. We talk a lot about context and appropriateness. For instant, he doesn't get to ask for a f-ing cheese stick. I'm not cool with that. But if he stubs his toe on the way to the refrigerator, well... Sometimes I question my decision to let him swear when I hear him shout four letter words while looking for the right Lego piece. But nothing drives us into hysterics faster than when I whisper in his ear, "You're sh** tons of fun, man!" and he replies, "I f***in love you mom!"

Paralized muscles means no wrinkles! But that's as far as my eyes open... 

Paralized muscles means no wrinkles! But that's as far as my eyes open... 

My youthful looks are not natural. I am starting to feel like a real fraud when people gasp and tell me. "You don't look fifty!" I could say it's the exercise, the water and the daily avocado. But I'd be lying. It's BOTOX! I started getting poison injected into my face a year ago and I'm never going back. The wrinkles I acquired in my thirties and forties - worrying about getting older - have essentially disappeared. Now that I've confessed, I do not have to feel like a liar. From here on out, when people act surprised that I'm old enough to be a grandmother, I'll just wave my hand and say, "Oh, it's just the Botox." And they'll assume I'm joking!

I have a secret love for Beyoncé, Rihanna, and, yes, Britney Spears. I'm deeply ambivalent about this. Mostly because their lyrics talk about not taking crap from deadbeats and working hard to get what you want - but they sing these songs while wearing practically nothing. Do they really think they're going to attract the kind of man who helps with the laundry by dressing like pole dancers? Since I've gone through a lot of lows over the past few years, these women are helping me cultivate that little bad-assitude that lends a nice zing to my day. I usually listen to Girl Power music when I'm going to the gym on my kick scooter. Sometimes I'll even sing the words as I whiz past people on the sidewalk. This qualifies me as certifiably ridiculous, especially for a fifty year old woman. But you know what? Screw it. I'm fifty.

This is how I dance to Girl Power music

This is how I dance to Girl Power music

I was addicted to online dating. When sites like Match.com popped up I remember thinking, 'Oh, now that's a great idea. Too bad I'll never get to try it.' But not long ago, a twenty-two year old barista told me about Tinder. The first few weeks I was on that site I had a split personality disorder. One of me was locked in the bathroom texting a man who asked that I come watch him bare knuckle fight. The other was pounding on the door pleading for me to take a shower and pay attention to my son. I was ever so relieved when Tinder started charging for its service so I could quit. Then I discovered OK Cupid, which uses mathematical algorithms to show you who you are most likely to get along with based on how you answer their questions. This made the decision to meet for coffee really quite easy.  I would search for whether my suitor thought flag burning or book burning was more heinous, and I had my answer. But internet dating took up way too much time; texts, emails, coordinating dates, going into London. I shut it down. I had a relapse one night when I was premenstrual and wanted some attention. I watched my inbox fill up with requests for a conversation and it was like smoking crack (I confess, I have never smoked crack, but I can imagine it was like smoking crack). I'm glad to say I've been clean and sober now for over six months, mostly because I met a man who laughs at all my jokes, even the lame ones. Hey people, priorities change when you're fifty!

See? He's laughing at one of my jokes

See? He's laughing at one of my jokes

Whew. Now that that's over I can get on with this next decade. It already feels like a good one. I'm getting paid to write! Yeah, almost enough to buy beer! Some day soon I'm hoping to afford Prosecco from my royalties. Until then, head down, back to work. Have a wonderful Christmas!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New York Affair

Inanimate happiness

Inanimate happiness

America is variety

America is variety

I am usually in a super good mood when I get on a transatlantic flight. It means I get to actually sit for over eight hours, watch movies and drink wine. Now, how often does that happen? Z was off to D.C. for Thanksgiving with C. I had the hairbrained idea that I should spend a week on my own during the most hallowed American holiday of the year. Not surprisingly, soon after I got onto the plane, I fell into a funk. Then they ran out of chicken and I had to eat overcooked macaroni and cheese. That put me in a really bad mood.

But eventually I landed in New York City. I didn't have to wait in the non-native line for over an hour because, hey, I was an American! The customs officer, who looked like Andy Garcia in The Untouchables, with slicked back hair and an Italian nose, asked me why I had come to New York.

"Uh, I'm celebrating my fiftieth birthday." not sure if 'celebration' was the right word.

Without glancing back up at me he said, "Well, you don't look anywhere near fifty. Have a good time."

And a good time I had...

You know that feeling you get when you're totally infatuated with someone new? When you're together, time flies. You lose sleep because you can't wait to see them again. You never want your nights with them to end. That's how I felt about New York. It was as though someone had given me a serotonin/dopamine cocktail that first morning in my coffee, and the effect never wore off.

"Get this damn wreath off me!" 

"Get this damn wreath off me!" 

I figured I'd feel rather lonely, having gone by myself.  But New York doesn't let you feel lonely. Because people keep reminding you that you're part of this mass of humanity. They keep interacting with you.  From the moment I dragged my suitcase up from the subway into Greenwich Village, I felt welcomed. People made eye contact with me. That's something you rarely get in London, even when you're face is painted like a cat (I know, because I tried it.). When I pulled out my map, someone came up to me and asked if I needed help finding my way.  I walked into a tea shop and every person working there greeted me. I stood staring at the yogurt selection at a grocery store and someone approached to ask if I needed help with anything. Honestly, what I needed help with was understanding how yogurt had suddenly become $6.00 for a single serving container.

I was constantly asking directions. I am terribly directionally challenged, especially when I'm in a flat city full of skyscrapers and without a data plan on my phone.  Just when I thought I had a handle on where I was going, I'd realize I was traveling the complete opposite direction. But everyone went out of their way to get me to my destination. They seemed genuinely proud to do so.

New Yorkers are unabashedly unreserved. They are the polar opposite of the British. Don't get me wrong - the Brits are wonderfully nice and some of the greatest people on the planet. Not to mention kick ass funny. But as one of my friends has said, 'You have to break through the membrane of Britishness' before they show you their wisecracking take on anything. Let alone give you directions.

In contrast, New Yorkers just assume you should be comfortable with them before you've even met. At least that's how it felt. Women young enough to be my daughters were calling me 'Sweetie.' Here's an example of the difference between London and New York, based on my real life experiences:

Me, on a London train - "Dang, did I just get on an express train?"

Brit, reading The Metro - First, he looks at me trying to make out if I'm actually talking to him. 'Yes.' he replies, then goes back to reading The Metro.

Me, on a New York subway - "Dang, did I just get on an express train?"

Brooklyn is a canvas  

Brooklyn is a canvas  

New Yorker - "Yep, you sure did, Honey. Where you trying to get to? Oh, really? Well, just get off at 125th, walk up and over the tracks and get on the southbound. Now make sure you get the express and not the local, otherwise you're never gonna make that show. Where you from? Oh yeah? I've always wanted to go to London!" And on, and on, and on...

After a day of people falling over themselves with friendliness, it put me in the mood to be outgoing myself. At the Guggenheim there were docents standing around wearing buttons that said, 'Ask me about art!' So I did.

"Say, how much would it cost to buy an Alberto Burri piece for my home?"

"Well," the twenty-something starving artist who wanders the Guggenheim with a large button on his lapel said, "Last time one sold at auction, I think it went for 3 million dollars."

"Dang. I guess I'll have to settle for the postcards." But I didn't stop there. "So what kind of art do you do?" His eyes lit up and I learned about the big show he was heading to soon, in Miami of all places, where he had twelve paintings for sale. He asked me what I thought of the photography exhibit in the other wing of the museum.

"It's alright." I said. "I prefer mobile photography. Any idea where I could find some?" That question threw him so I pulled out my iPhone and showed him the last artful image I'd created by superimposing bubbles over my face. He definitely did not know where I could find a gallery of that.

At Strand 'Eighteen Miles of Books' Book Store, I asked an employee if they had a coat check.

"No. We have a bag check." Then he looked at my sub-zero, down sleeping bag of a coat that makes me look like The Michelin Princess and said, "I have an idea. Follow me." He took me to the front desk, compressed my coat into a bookstore bag and handed me a bag check token. I spent the next two hours comfortably wandering the store and had a little spending accident as a result. Probably because that guy was so cool. And I wasn't overheating.

The watery grave

The watery grave

I asked my Airbnb host if it was my imagination that people were really nice in New York City. She told me she thought 9/11 had made people nicer. I went to the 9/11 memorial and museum and I could kind of understand why. I started crying just looking at the two big holes in the ground, water cascading down all four sides as though the space was continually falling in on itself. Then I wandered through the collection of twisted metal, images, artefacts (teddy bears that had fallen from the sky), and I experienced the whole horror of it again. I left wondering why terrorists might believe that attacks like 9/11 would weaken a country. Far from it. I've never been particularly patriotic, and I'm embarrassed with how often the U.S. gets into other people's business. But damn if I didn't feel like hugging every person I met on the way out and saying, "We can make the best of this. We're Americans!"

Only the essentials

Only the essentials

After I figured out the bike sharing system, I was tooling around Manhattan on a three speed cruiser listening to 'The Gorillaz' and getting lost. But I intentionally cycled right into the middle of Times Square after dark. The amount of electricity fuelling that seizure-inducing nut house of advertising is no doubt enough to power a small country for a year. Being on a bike, however, made it more tolerable since the sidewalks were heaving with people and the streets were absent of cars. There were neon-vested security people everywhere. And when I stopped for a red light, one of them simply raised his hand in a high five and I slapped it with mine as though I'd just sunk the winning basket. He smiled. I smiled. Then I peddled on.

"You want my picture? Yeah, what the hell." 

"You want my picture? Yeah, what the hell." 

But the biggest surprise was what I wandered into on Thanksgiving. I signed up to eat at a stranger's place. That's right. It's like Airbnb for dining. I did this with a friend in Paris, and in Rome as well. At 6:30 I rang the doorbell of a 17th floor apartment on Union Square. My hostess Michelle answered wearing a plaid mini dress and knee-high black stiletto boots. I kid you not. This woman cooked a turkey in those boots. She was awesome. And so were her friends, most of whom were recent transplants. We drank a lot and laughed a lot and talked about how insanely expensive Manhattan was and whether we liked our jobs, and how to save for a house, and who can afford to save for a house when you live in New York City anyway?

Deli legend

Deli legend

I did the usual tourist stuff. The museums are cool. The art deco buildings are gorgeous. The stores are enormous. I saw La Boheme at the Met, just like Cher and Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck. I ate a Reuben at Katz's Deli, just like Meg Ryan when she performed her fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. I even went into Trump tower to see if I could make myself vomit. But no such luck. I never was any good at throwing up.

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But it was the people who I fell for the most. The people made me feel fabulous, and now that I'm back in England and it's raining, I still feel fabulous. My Greenwich Village loft hostess is an amazing artist and I've already booked a trip to Rome for her installation opening in April. Sure, I know, it's not all rosy and if I lived there full time I'd probably get sick of it and want to escape. The infatuation would end. I'd start to notice its faults. I'd start to see all the dirty underwear on the floor and decide that was a deal-breaker.

But for a week I fell in love with New York. And if I hadn't been fifty years old, I might not have felt so free and easy about engaging with all those people. So it was indeed a celebration. A celebration of the positive side to aging, a celebration of America, and a celebration of the good energy a lively city can generate. It was a lovely affair.

 

 

Leaving Brooklyn

Leaving Brooklyn

The Blackpool Diaries

Ah, no. Most definitely not Paris

Ah, no. Most definitely not Paris

Before Z and I leave on the train to Blackpool for the half-term holiday, everyone who hears where we're going has the same reaction; eyebrows raise, heads shake and they grin in a way that says, 'I feel a bit embarrassed at your ignorance but since I'm British I'm not going to say anything.' These people were going to the Canaries or Mallorca.  Z and I were headed north, towards Scotland. In late October. Here's the story.

Day One: Our train leaves from Euston Station which is the only place in central London that has been completely neglected since 1976. It smells of diesel fumes the moment you enter and if you get too close to the corners you start to wonder if the toilets are out of service. Hundreds of people stand transfixed to the digital reader boards, waiting for their platform to be announced. Ten minutes before your scheduled departure, your platform is posted and mad dash ensues to the coaches. Small children are heard screaming for air.

A half hour into the journey an older gentleman, who has heaved his bag up and down the isle looking for a seat and announced to everyone that he's three hours late to his destination, has a seizure. I go to offer my dubious medical assistance and when I crouch down near his face realize that alcohol might have something to do with his sudden fit. I try to roll him onto his side so if he vomits we won't have a worse situation on our hands. He awakens and cries out in pain, saying his back is bad, and everyone gives me the evil eye. Before I can say, 'Fine then, call me back when he's inhaling his own puke.' a doctor arrives and I slink away from the scrum of hostile good Samaritans. 

Okay then, I'm inn!

Okay then, I'm inn!

It's drizzling in Blackpool when we arrive. I have a vague sense that our hotel is north of the station and close to the sea, so we start wandering in that general direction. Z is surprisingly unbothered by having to walk and I attribute that to giving him my new carry-on bag, the kind that pivots and rolls on four wheels in any direction.  He looks like a ballroom dancer making his way down the sidewalk with his Samsonite partner. The only reason he has a suitcase is because he insisted on bringing all his cat stuffies so they "wouldn't be lonely." On this issue, I have stopped trying to convince him otherwise. Pick your battles, I say.

Beam me up, Mama

Beam me up, Mama

We have the good fortune of being given a sea view room. It's mostly a view of the four lane road that fronts the sea, but we can see the water beyond that. The room smells of decades-old carpet and chlorine bleach, and intermittently, cigarettes from people smoking in front of the hotel doors. 

Blackpool is home to The Illuminations, which generations of Brits have been flocking to since 1879.  Most of my friends here describe a childhood memory of the Illuminations, when the city is bedecked in more twinkling lights than even the most Christmas-crazed city in America. It's an LED bonanza, the focal point being the Blackpool tower, which is shaped a bit like the Eifel tower with a bulge at the top. Z, however, is much more interested in the blinking plastic swords and light sabers that are being sold from vending carts every ten feet. 

"I'm sure she's someone famous, Darling." 

"I'm sure she's someone famous, Darling." 

I don't want to eat at the tourist restaurants on the main drag, so we wander down backstreets to see what we might find. Pizza Express is going gangbusters and says it could seat us in about an hour. Further up the road a cosy Italian place says maybe we could get a seat in 45 minutes. Irritable now, we cross the street to a Thai restaurant. Inside there are two people eating and no one at the reception area. Eventually, two employees, one a young white guy and the other an older Thai guy, walk past us without saying a word and disappear into the kitchen. After another minute of silence, I grab Zander's hand and tell him that indifference is a quiet form of rudeness. We cross the street again, this time to a steak house. Z will eat meat. The steak was done nicely and the waitress filled my wine glass all the way up to the brim.

He's cute, but I still won't let him beat me

He's cute, but I still won't let him beat me

Day Two: A tram stops in front of the hotel every ten minutes. We squeeze on and when the ticket seller hears my accent he wants to know where we're from. He tells me he very much wants to visit Seattle, something about being a big fan of the TV show, 'Frazier'. I always find this odd because the half dozen times I've watched that show, the only thing that says you're in Seattle is the fake skyline out the window of his studio and his penthouse. Why does that make people want to visit Seattle? But then, this guy grew up in Blackpool, so I can understand why even an artificial skyline looks more appealing than staying home.

After several fierce games of air hockey and simulated motorcycle races through Dubai and Paris, we wander down to the beach. One of Z's outstanding traits is that he is a fearless friend-maker. He asks me to roll his pants up past his knees and before I know it he has joined a girl, a bit older than himself, in building a sand castle with a moat. As I watch them, I wonder when it is that we no longer feel comfortable approaching strangers and asking them to play. I suppose we still do as adults, but it generally involves alcohol. I vow to try living again with outgoing friendliness. So when it's time to leave, I strike up a conversation with the girl's father. It's very standard and pleasant but reminds me that, for the most part, humans are nice and we're usually happy  to make connections, even if ever so briefly.

Making friends the Z way

Making friends the Z way

We take a break at the hotel before heading to dinner. Downstairs is a bar and restaurant and guests are drinking and waiting for the dining room to open. A few kids are playing hide and seek and Z eagerly joins them. Pretty soon he's got them watching him perform his ninja moves. While performing spinjitzu, Z knocks over another kid's soda when his helicopter hands get too close to the table. Z shamefully requests a towel from the bar and cleans up the spill. I insist on paying for a replacement, but the kid's dad won't hear of it. His north English accent is so thick, and more than a few of his teeth are missing, that I can scarcely understand a word he's saying. But he's a great reminder that self-effacing kindness is often inversely correlated to socio-economic status.

Day Three: Yay, it's raining. Time to check out the pool. One of the kids Z met before dinner last night is already there. His name is Jack. Jack and Z take turns trying to bean me and a man who is certainly Jack's grandfather, with a rubber ball. Z encourages Jack to "Get your dad!" which could mean he thinks everyone's parents are over fifty. I think of correcting him until I consider that the man might be on his third wife and actually be Jack's dad. 

I hope he doesn't drive like this at sixteen

I hope he doesn't drive like this at sixteen

We decide to go see a movie.  At 1 pm  'Hotel Transylvania 2' is starting and we are digging into our giant bags of candy, for which I spent about sixteen dollars. I can easily bypass a five dollar box of Junior Mints, but give me a bag, a scoop and a wall full of candy bins, and all my self-control evaporates. I spend half the movie telling Z not to eat his all at once because of how very unhealthy that would be. Then I quickly stuff my empty bag into the knapsack when the lights go up. 

We take the trolley to the far end of the beach to dine at a recommended pizza place. We walk home past dozens of sponsored, neon bedecked displays of unrelated themes. For instance, the NHS, the UK government's health care system, has a video on loop with a jingle sung to the tune of YMCA. It's all about staying out of the Emergancy Room. For instance, how can you forget, "Young man, up all night on the loo", "if you have diarrhea or been stung by a bee, you should head to your pharmacy!" and ,"for ongoing backache and blood in your pee, you need to see your GP!"  I think the States should adopt a similar unselfconscious public service campaign to avoid treating people. 

I had pizza with my salad

I had pizza with my salad

Day Four: I'm psyched to take Z to the UK's largest indoor water park for the entire day. I'm a little nervous that I will drown trying to keep up with him. After breakfast, as he is saying goodbye to his friend Jack, Z sprains his finger. He won't even use his hand. Scratch the water park. Instead, we spend too many hours playing air hockey, race car driving, and watching fathers hold semi-automatic weapons in their three year old's hands and shooting aliens.

Day Five: Return to London!  I am practically skipping to the train station. I am so excited the whole journey that I buy Z four cupcakes piled high with frosting at our layover station. When we walk into London's Euston station, I almost don't mind that is smells like pee. Faces seem familiar to me again. I admit that I am a card-carrying member of the Southeast England Tribe. I realise that this tiny island is not dissimilar to the differences you find in the US between Arizona and Arkansas.  Ok, so I like my fair trade, freshly ground coffee and my veggies steamed rather than deep fried. I would rather dig my heels into the sand than feed two penny pieces into a slot machine. But places like Blackpool serve a deep need in us. That need to disregard our diets, our banks accounts, and our entertainment standards, just for a few days. But the sea is lovely. 

 

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