The Woman Divide

We need more of this. Everywhere.

We need more of this. Everywhere.

I returned recently from a trip to Washington D.C. where I joined over 500,000 of my fellow humans on the Women’s March; pink-hatted, sign-carrying and fired up. I didn’t see anyone famous, though I rubbed shoulders with a lot of good natured regular folks. Being on the streets of DC the day after the U.S. inauguration was like being a molecule of dust in a tornado. Even so, I represented just the 49%. When I heard that 51% of white women voted for Donald Trump I felt as though someone had punched me in the gut. Seriously? A sexist, misogynistic, pussy-grabbing flesh bag is preferable to a woman who accidentally deleted a few emails?

I’m mad. Really mad at these women. So mad I couldn’t possibly have a civil conversation with one of them. I tried. On the train into town from the airport, the evening of the actual inauguration (you know, the one that was viewed by more people than ever in the history of inaugurations - they just didn’t happen to be in Washington) a woman with a big 'Trump' button on her lapel sat down behind me. After a minute she leaned towards me.

“So what is this woman’s march anyway?”

“Well,” I started out calmly. “It’s a coming together of people who don’t agree with the policies the new administration wants to implement.” I couldn’t bring myself to say the word ‘Trump’.

We all deserve this

We all deserve this

“So what kind of things are you concerned about?” I believed she was genuinely curious.

“Things like health care, women’s rights, education, the environment.”

And then, out of the blue, she says, “Well, Obama never did anything for me! I’m a small business owner and my taxes went up.”

Rather than point out that I didn’t consider my vote to pertain only to my own economic self-interests I said, still keeping my cool, “What do you think Trump is going to do for you?”

She looked into the distance and began to nod her head, as though she were taking cues from an invisible coach on the other side of the train. “I think Trump is going to make America great again.”

She got out at the next stop before I’d had a chance to pick my chin up off the floor. Then I heard that unfiltered voice inside my head say, ‘Goddamn, idiotic woman!’

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I hate dividing people into demographics, but when it comes to self-interests, women are perhaps the most divided demographic in America. They divide themselves over race, economic status, abortion, motherhood, body size, religion, and work. Then we fight about it all. I haven't been as aware of this tendency as I am now. As a privileged white, middle class woman, I sometimes feel the only thing preventing me from doing what I want in the 21st Century - thanks to the tireless work of suffragettes, feminists and the men who supported them - is other women. Remember Phyllis Schlafly, the lawyer who led the rampage of a campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment? She once said a woman would be president of the United States “over my dead body.” Well, she died two months before the election and I thought it was a sign we were finally stepping over her. But apparently we have more than a few women to fill her shoes and believe, like she did that:

"The best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap."

What I think underlies the white female support of Trump is a deep seeded distrust of other women. Because even if a woman didn’t agree with Trump’s policies her vote was a repudiation of Hillary Clinton. Even if you thought Hillary was a deplorable candidate, to vote for Trump was to vote for a deplorable human being, one who gets his power from smashing apart anything in his way and has been reliably deemed a ‘malignant narcissist’ by more than a few psychiatrists. And his sexism is pathological.

Sadly, this attitude is wrapped up in the messages we received as kids concerning the role of men and women. As lovely as it might sound that women are of great support to their husbands and families, that has too often resulted in deference to the man, the father, the ‘head of the household’. As soon as our son’s see this happening, they will also begin to treat their mothers as second in the hierarchy. And our daughters will also internalize this. They may fight against it as they come of age, but our culture perpetuates image after image of women as things to be desired, taken care of, and relegated to the domestic sphere. 

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We also raise our boys and girls differently. There was a TED talk, given by Reshma Saujani founder of Girls Who Code, in which she stated that boys are encouraged to be brave and girls to be perfect. Some women may rise up in a chosen career, but they are still woefully underrepresented at all levels of government and business. And one of the reasons why, Saujani claims, is because women are more cautious and would rather not attempt a project, or apply for a job, unless they felt they couldn’t fail.  A report she cites found that men will apply for a job if they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women will apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications. Saujani says she thinks it's evidence that women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they're overly cautious.


Not so, the feminist of the 60’s and 70’s. They rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty. By the time I got to college in the 1980’s we didn’t feel we needed to fight for much more. And we weren’t sure we wanted to be associated with the radical, hairy armpitted feminist. So we took it for granted that many of those battles to be treated as equals had been won and we could simply get on with our lives as females without impediments. Then in the 90’s we embraced the cult of motherhood which rewarded - not with any real support systems in place such as paid maternity and subsidized child care - the stay-at-home mother. She was praised foremost for her selfless devotion to the household (Hello, Martha Stewart), the kids (Hothouse/Helicopter Parent), and the husband (Victoria’s Secret was suddenly everywhere). I blame Martha Stewart for single handedly perpetuating the cult of female perfection among us high achieving women who made the domestic front their new career.

Amy Chua, author of ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ justifies her relentless drive for perfection from her own daughters. She rails against the slide into self-indulgence she sees in kids. But even though Chua claims it was a self-mocking memoir, it stirred a lot of debate regarding the responsibility of parents to drive their children to succeed. And since Chua had two girls, we read how their spirits are nearly broken by the incessant browbeating from their mother to do better, to practice until they were perfect. 

So now the US has a president who would rather see a woman walk down a catwalk in a swimsuit than pilot a spacecraft. I guess my only hope is that the women who supported Trump, will continue to die out and we’ll replace them with women who are not afraid to be brave well before they need to be perfect. This upheaval has also helped me become aware of my own sexism. I assume a man can fix my car better. I like to see men deliver the news (although Leslie Stahl of '60 Minutes' smoked them all). I even berated my son once for hitting a girl when, really, it shouldn’t matter that she was a girl and I’d just sent him a message that hitting a girl was worse than hitting a boy. 

I truly believe the future of our society starts at home with how we raise our kids. And even if you don’t have daughters, it’s essential that we raise our sons to believe that men and women are equally capable. I may never be able to be a firefighter or solve complicated math formulas, but that doesn’t mean I’m better suited to staying home and cleaning the house. That means women have to first and foremost believe in themselves, dispense with perfection and take risks. The confidence we exude when we are grounded in a strong sense of ourselves as women will affect our kids more than anything we will ever say to them. And it will be harder to comprehend ever giving power again to a hateful man who prefers women be pretty and quiet. 

Marching with my strong girl niece and her dad, C's brother. Nana was along as well, so we had three generations of passion

Marching with my strong girl niece and her dad, C's brother. Nana was along as well, so we had three generations of passion

Letter to my Eight Year Old American White Male

Dear Zander,

Think very hard, my dear

Think very hard, my dear

Very soon Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. I know you’ve heard us talk about how we don’t like this man. We’ve told you we don’t agree with many of the things he’d like to do as president. But one thing you can’t possibly fathom at your age is how the 2016 election feels so horrible to me inside, not just as a woman and a mother, but as a human being. Because Donald Trump is mean. And the more he doesn’t like something, the meaner he gets. Even though he will be our president, I don’t want you to follow his example. What I want you to do is to think hard about how you are going to be in this world. Because even though your choices may seem few at this point, now is the time to start making some important ones about who you are.

You’re at an age now where you don’t identify with any particular group. Sure, you’re a boy, but that doesn’t yet define you. You’re a kid, going to school, playing with kids from different grades and different families. I don’t know yet if you’ll be straight or gay, democrat or republican, rich or poor. But people are going to expect you to categorize yourself eventually and I want to challenge you not to. I don’t want you to think of yourself as a white male in America. I want you to identify first and foremost as an ethical citizen of the world, an empathetic person and someone who is a walking orb of kindness.

Keep those arms wide open

Keep those arms wide open

You know I’ve told you that the best solution to any problem is one we can both feel good about, where we each get to air our concerns, but since I’ve had more experience on this earth you might want to give my opinion a little more consideration. Sometimes I try to lighten the mood, like the time I told you if you kept asking me for screen time my head was going to pop off and it was going to be a bloody mess so just save yourself the cleanup and and stop asking already. No matter how we come about a solution, I hope you feel heard, I hope you feel I’ve acknowledge your desires, even if I don’t agree that more chocolate and video games are going to make you happy.

What I hope you feel is respected, even as a child. Because, you see, respecting and wanting the best for people is such a deeply held value of mine. It’s what burns in my core, like the molten fires of a volcano. It’s treating others the way you want to be treated - the Golden Rule. It’s saying, yes, I see that you’re different than I am but that doesn’t make you any less. It is being curious, not closed. You may decide you don’t like Mexican food (god forbid), or learning French (I could never do it; English is hard enough), but I ask you not to look at differences as bad. How people act upon their differences reveals the truth of their character.

What happened with this past election is that half the voters seem to be saying that manners don’t matter, respect doesn’t matter and that intolerance is ok. I disagree. In fact, I disagree so strongly that it makes me want to scream. But as soon as you start screaming, people stop listening to you. Or they start screaming themselves and then no one gets heard. So think about this; always try to get your point across in a way that says, ‘This is my truth, and that doesn’t mean your truth isn’t valid, only that I see things from a different perspective.’ When you shout at someone that their truth is bad or worthless or that other people wouldn’t agree with them, you are cutting them down. You are saying they don’t matter. As soon as you respect the truth of another person, you are exuding dignity. You are allowing them their own dignity and you are proving yourself to be someone who has grace and a golden core.

I love being your reading companion

I love being your reading companion

There are many ways you can build up your golden core. First, be kind. Kindness can defeat fear, both yours and other people’s. Smile. Say hello. Shake a hand. Ask someone how they are feeling. Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth it to make the effort, but as soon as you do, I guarantee you will be met with gratitude and kindness in return. And that creates a fusion of energy powerful enough to pick you up from the depths of your gloominess. And if you’re not feeling gloomy, that power will shoot moonbeams from your eyeballs and you’ll move across the earth casting light, not shadows. You will walk through this world undaunted. When you give kindness and grace to someone, they often give it back and you will both leave stronger than you arrived. And your golden core will grow.

Some people might criticise you for acting too kind or showing off your exuberance or even just expressing an opinion. They won’t like the way you walk or talk or hug them. And if they cut you down, you’ve got to resist the urge to fight back. It will happen; you’ll want to hurt someone’s feelings back by using harsh words or writing hateful emails or Tweets. Don’t do it. If you practice getting back at people or sending nastygrams, you’re going to turn into a well oiled hate machine, one that manufactures stinky, rotten word garbage.

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At eight years old you have almost limitless time and imagination ahead of you. I see your light  looking out into the world and seeking direction. There will be many examples to follow; our new president will be one. But before you decide on your own path define who you are in your core; will you be a seeker of truth, a spreader of love, and a force for good? Will you value and judge all people equally, not just people who look like you? Will you take care of those weaker than yourself, help those more frightened and comfort those more angry? It’s your choice as a person, not a category or a demographic. As a human being. And whatever kind of person you become, remember that I will love who you are, regardless of who you are, now and for all our uncertain days ahead.

Love, Mom


 

Have a Hygge New Year

Hygge happiness  

Hygge happiness  

So last year on New Year’s eve, I wrote a post about why 2015 was a pretty crap year for a lot of the world, myself included. But I couldn’t have predicted that 2016 could be a whole lot worse. I mean Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen? Then there was that thing in Novemeber where America managed for a second time to elect a man who lost the popular vote. But you know what saved 2016? Hygge.

 

It started with The Year of Living Danishly which triggered an avalanche of books on the benefits of simple, cosy living - with an emphasis on cosy. Hygge is most commonly depicted as feet covered in thick wool socks propped up in front of a wood burning stove, or mugs of hot chocolate against the backdrop of an unadorned plaster wall. It’s blankets in a basket. Felt slippers by the door. It’s like sitting in an IKEA display pretending candles are providing all the light you need and there aren’t five thousand other shoppers milling about. In fact, I’m a bit suspicious that IKEA might have had a hand in promoting this trend. It wasn’t enough that every apartment I’ve visited since 2008 has a Billy Bookcase. Soon we’ll all be eating pickled herring on rye bread from the same ivory colored IKEA plates.

A simple, cosy meal

A simple, cosy meal

 

But if Hygge promotes decluttering one’s surroundings, this could certainly be the first step in decluttering one’s mind. After so much death, shock and sorrow in 2016, I’d love to wipe my mind clean of the news, the angst and keeping track of which new billionaire Donald Trump has appointed to his cabinet. (Just watch; I bet he’ll try to get a New York Knicks referee to sit on the Supreme Court.)

Waiting for my crepe  

Waiting for my crepe  

Then Z and I took a trip to Copenhagen, the capital of Hygge. Sure, the buses and streets were clean, everyone was on bicycles and there were Danish modern furniture stores on every block. But Hygge didn’t really hit me until we spent a day at Tivoli Gardens, one of Europe’s oldest amusement parks. When we walked into a coffee shop, staffed by pierced and bearded hipsters, there were lit candles everywhere. Later that night I nearly singed myself waiting for food at a crepe stand, because the candle burning on the stainless steel countertop wasn’t an LED; it was real. But the best Hygge delight was huddling next to the open vats of red hot coals warming our hands with other park visitors. I looked around for stumbling 20-something English men about to go crashing into the inferno. But it didn’t happen. Maybe Hygge is an antidote to getting shitfaced.

More Hygge in the food hall

More Hygge in the food hall

 

As we brace ourselves for what’s to come in 2017, I’m not going to say things couldn’t possibly get worse. They could get very bad. But I look forward to seeing how many ways people will stand up to the other populist trend; the xenophobic, fear mongering rhetoric which is also sweeping our lands. And though I don’t like to reduce things to black and white, it’s feeling like dark vs light to me. It’s the cold hand of tyranny against the warm embrace of inclusion. It’s walls vs windows. And if ever there was a time we needed to embrace the glowing warmth of Hygge, it’s now. Happy New Year!




 

The Car Rental: a Midlife Metaphor

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I didn’t buy my first car until I was thirty-one and was told I needed to have one in order to meet the requirements of my medical school rotations. So I saved my money and bought an old, but reliable, Toyota Tercel with a leaky sunroof. As I set off across the country I felt glorious. I was a single woman exploring the backroads of the Western U.S., setting up my tent each night in an uncrowded forest service campground, and every morning my trusted car would transport me to a new destination.

 

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Making that trip, before the days of GPS when all I used were those excruciatingly detailed gazetteers, was an exercise in self-reliance. I traveled the backroads and poked down dirt tracks. After I married, and took nearly every road trip with C, I still did plenty of driving. But I was no longer in charge. Which was generally a good thing given the terrain we traversed from Australia to Zambia. It was an incredible adventure and a privilege to travel with an irrefutably car-competent man. But I gave up something when I relinquished the care and feeding of a vehicle.

When Z and I flew into Menorca, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Western Mediterranean, I rented a car, the first car I’d ever rented in my life. I had never been the only name on a car rental contract and I suddenly felt responsible and grown up (as opposed to all those other times I travel with my son and I feel clueless and immature). Better yet, the car we rented was a Fiat Bambino, cute as a bug and this woman’s midlife fantasy ride. We had a full tank of gas and could return it on empty. We did a little high five and set off.

 

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Every time we drove the Fiat to a new location and got out, I’d look around and think, ‘Yeah, this is my stinkin’ cute car and my stinkin’ cute son, and no, there’s no man in the picture because I rented this car by myself!’ I actually felt myself swagger.

But it was also the trip itself that lent me a new sense of self-reliance. I had traveled with Z to Morocco, but we were taken care of there by the tour company. This was the first time Z and I had flown to a place we’d never been and were on our own. And it was fantastic. We quickly became friendly with the restaurant staff and made friends on the beach. And Z had his own lesson in life skills when I sent him off to the shop on his own. He wanted to buy a Capri Sun for 45 cents. I gave him a 20 euro bill and he worked out how much change he would get back. Off he went, through the sprawling hotel complex, across a road, up two sets of vertiginous stairs to the shop selling everything you needed on a beach holiday and were willing to pay twice as much for. I was relieved and elated when he returned, and so was he. In his bag was an underwater camera, a frisbee, a Lego-like robot, a Kit Kat bar and a Star Wars pellet candy dispenser.

“Where’s the Capri Sun, mister?”

“Oh, I forgot about that.” Sadly, this is where he takes after his mother.

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When you’re recreating a life as a single person after decades as a married person, there are certain moments when you feel the discomfort of having to take on the tasks that were once the responsibility of your spouse. A few months ago, after noticing a foul smell in my sitting room, I discovered the decomposing body of a rat in one of the fireplace cabinets. My first reaction was to leave my house, call up C,  and beg him to come dispose of it for me. But I didn’t live with C any longer. And he wasn’t calling me up and asking me to come cook his dinner. So I had to deal with the damn rat. And once I tied the bandana over my nose and mouth, picked the creature up with a pair of tongs and disposed of it in the outside garbage bin, I felt a great sense of accomplishment.

And so I felt with the Menorcan car rental.

 

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I’m not suggesting that a woman needs to be single in order to feel that she can get by on her own. In fact, it’s probably more important while we’re partnered to leave the comfort zone of that backup person and practice these small moments of independence. Like my married girlfriends who backpack solo in the wilderness, nurturing our own self-reliance will serve us in the long run. We generally live a lot longer than our male mates and I don’t want to feel my life shrink if the person I’ve been living my life with is suddenly gone.

So I’ve scheduled a bunch of new adventures on my own and with Z. I want him to grow up thinking it’s normal for a woman to rent cars and dispose of dead rats on her own. And pretty soon he will be taught to do his own laundry. To his future girlfriends I say, you’re welcome.

 

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Menopause Madness

Me before hormones

Me before hormones

I've finally figured it out. It only took about a year. But the clues kept piling up and I had to look at myself one day in the mirror and shout, “Who ARE you?” I wasn't having hot flashes or night sweats. No insomnia and my clothes pretty much fit the same as they have for the past several years (not counting my new British beer belly, which is an inevitable side effect of living here). My body did what I wanted it to at the gym and, honestly, I felt as though I was still operating as a forty year old.

But I was losing my mind.

Now, menopausal brain fog is frustrating enough for the average woman. But for someone like me, who routinely suffers from absent mindedness and borderline clinical attention deficit, it's downright terrifying. It wasn't just walking into a room and wondering why I was there. It was the inability to focus enough to finish a single paragraph, the anxiety of feeling I was no longer capable of completing a project, let alone writing a book, and fear that nothing I did was any good or mattered to anyone. And that led to the crying.

This is what it feels like to be fifty

This is what it feels like to be fifty

I would cry over sad songs. I would cry walking down the diaper aisle knowing my son would never again be a stinkin’ cute two year old. I cried reading Captain Underpants. I know. That makes me want to cry.

And the thing is, you don't really know you're in menopausal brain fog until you've had about two hundred and sixteen mortifying moments. Then, when you notice the tampon box is gathering dust, you put it all together and realize, ‘Crap. This is it. This is the slippery slope to old age and I just stepped off the trail.’

What’s interesting is that I am part of an entirely new demographic of menopausal women. I'm leaving behind my fertile years while I still have a young child at home. We are the mature mamas. This is menopause meets puberty. And things could get ugly. Did you know that progesterone is responsible for nurturing, bonding and remembering your mother’s birthday? And that when you lose that progesterone, it's very possible you'll buy a Vespa and flip everyone the bird as you're riding off into the sunset?

But this is also how midlife can feel

But this is also how midlife can feel

I think there's a few ways this could go. Just about the time my son begins acting like an adolescent asshole, I will start throwing dishes OR I will account for the fact that we’re both experiencing raging hormones and realize I need to be the adult. I'm trying to do the latter. When I ask Z to do something and he stomps his feet and announces, “THAT’S not gonna happen!” I look at him and try to admit that’s exactly how I felt about a dozen times already that day.

I feel lucky I'm not suffering from the severity of physical symptoms many women go through. I once watched a woman going through a hot flash. She went from looking normal to looking as though she'd just run up fifty flights of stairs in 96% humidity. Dripping, I tell you.

But I had no idea the moody roller coaster could be so unrelenting. I didn't realise I would become so spacey, feel that my emotions were a lead apron around me, or that I could be incredibly thoughtless.

So if I haven't already asked for your forgiveness, I'll ask for it now, because I've still got a few more years to go before my menopause has officially ended. And I may still manage to piss you off. Hopefully not. Hopefully, now that I'm aware of this particular type of insanity, I can make up for it in other ways. I'm practicing Unconditional Positive Regard which means you can get mad at me and I'll just think you're having a bad day and bring you some chocolate.

I'm trying... 

I'm trying... 

The upside of menopause is that it feels like a fresh start. Even though we may be quick to snap at our children, there's a new kind of energy in midlife. Personally, I've decided that I will likely never practice medicine again. That's scary and liberating. I want to follow my old dream of living by my words - even though it's one of the toughest times to make a living as a writer. But menopause means less fear of failure. Less fear in general. And I've made enough friends now that if I get really desperate, I can move into someone’s basement.

You're going to hear more and more about menopause in the media. Women between 40-60 are now the largest demographic in the United States. And, now that I've realised I'm part of this new tribe, I'm going to be one of the voices writing about it. Stay tuned...

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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