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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Kill Them with Kindness

This very day last year 

This very day last year 

I was going to post my typical somewhat serious, somewhat sarcastic piece today. But I'm in a yucky funk over Paris. I just don't get it. Does anyone really think they can achieve anything though violence? Certainly not sympathy. Excuse me if I'm wrong here, but aren't hearts and minds influenced the most through sympathy?

I don't really know what's going on in Syria.  Most days I don't read the world news. I don't know what it feels like to lose everything to war, especially one waged by my own government. I don't know what abject desperation coupled with zealous religion feels like. Obviously, for some, it feels bad enough to randomly attack other humans. I feel sad for the reverberations of grief that fan out over the world from the actions of a few.

You know where we succeed? Through kindness. Even in a war, and that's what terrorism is, we make progress through kindness. You know what's more effective than water boarding? Respect for and rapport with a detainee, known as the Humane Interrogation Technique. You know how attitudes changed, at least for awhile, in Afghanistan? Through community building between village leaders and the occupying military.  

So what to do with all these feelings of rage and hopelessness and grief? Not bomb the shit out of Syria. Not pray that the world will heal. The Pope said recently "You pray for the hungry and then you feed them. That's how prayer works."

How about we try to be kind, not just to our friends and family, but to everyone.  The cashier? He's a human, and humans respond to kindness. And maybe if that cashier were secretly studying jihadism on YouTube after work, he'd reconsider. Because he felt connected to his humanity - through your simple act of kindness. Who knows if it will work. But I think we do know what doesn't. 

 

A Room of My Own

Best housewarming gift ever

Best housewarming gift ever

You must get past the huskie and minion before entering

You must get past the huskie and minion before entering

If I were an all-powerful benevolent dictator, there are a few things I'd mandate: 1) marriage, reproduction and gun ownership would require a six month curriculum before a person could be licensed to do either. 2) all countries that lie at greater than 43 degrees latitude would have snow for Christmas, and 3) every young woman, by the time she is twenty-one, will have read Virginia Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own.'

I didn't read this book until I was twenty and I remember thinking I wish I had read it a few years earlier because it would have made me reconsider what I deserved and needed as a woman in a largely man's world. Even though I assumed I would have a career after college I also assumed that marriage and children would come along at some point and that the default scenario would be me staying at home to raise the kids. And that's pretty much what happened. It took us awhile to reproduce. But once that baby popped out, I felt satisfied to sit back with him latched onto my boob while I caught up on my New Yorker back issues.

Banksy with my breakfast

Banksy with my breakfast

After a few months of doing essentially the same damn thing every single day I started to remember that book. There is tremendous value in staying out of the M-F workforce to give our children the attachment they need to become empathetic creatures. But it is also important for that stay-at-home parent to have something to occupy her brain other than maintaining the domestic front and the metabolic functions of her progeny. Wolfe maintained that a woman needs financial security and her own space where she can be creative, or at least shut the world out and focus her mind on her own interests. And since housekeeping was, and still is, largely done by women raising kids, that personal space was rarely established. Who can afford an extra bedroom simply for a woman to think in?

I now make micro baked goods

I now make micro baked goods

I hear all the time from my women friends who work and raise kids that they are still the ones mentally and physically coordinating the day to day needs of the family. And it's this constant multi-tasking that begins its insidious work of eroding what our goals might be for ourselves. It seems too often our goals are simply to get to the end of the day having deposited children at school, attended to their meals, their afterschool programs, their homework. The time while they're at school we are getting the oil changed, the groceries bought, the bills paid, the laundry washed, the house cleaned (or in my case simply tidied - don't even think about getting close to my floor). When I come to the end of another day I can sometimes say I spent time writing or studying Google Analytics or figuring out a new plug-in for Word Press.

As close to Z's room as I'm allowed

As close to Z's room as I'm allowed

Now that I have my own flat, I don't feel as restless or resentful. I'm also terrified of how I'm going to be paying my rent in another year. But I try to ignore that screaming voice in my head in order to focus on what I might be passionate about doing for a living. Having my own place is helping. This space of my own, even though I share it with Z, is something I've missed and something I haven't had since I was a kid in my parent's house. As a girl I created an even more intimate space inside my closet. I constructed a desk from a cardboard box, ran an extension cord inside so I could place a lamp on my work area, and I would sit on a stool drawing pictures of young women in princess dresses with conspicuous cleavage. I would also write long, agonizing analyses of how my boy crush looked at me that day and what it might mean for our future together.

The creative area in my current flat is not a room, it is a space. To be exact, it's about three feet by four feet, in a bookcase alcove next to the fireplace. And because it's recessed like this, it almost feels as though I'm in my own room - it just lacks one wall and a door. I've hung a painting by my talented friend Roxanne who inspires me to simply keep doing the work and putting myself out there, as she has done. I have bulletin boards where I've tacked cards and photos that inspire me or challenge me (like the Spanish postcard that simply says 'Que es la veritat?' 'What is the truth?')

Come sit for awhile

Come sit for awhile

My bedroom is mostly bed, so I've put a lot of thought into how I want to feel when I'm there. I've made it so appealing that when I'm having a crap day I often just go crawl into it. My sitting room is dominated by the grand fireplace, which is half the reason I took this flat in the first place. That, and the fact I have big blocks of east and west facing windows which shower fantastic light inside all day. It also means the people at the pub across the street can watch me make dinner or dance around with my iPhone while doing the dishes. The only thing I really miss is having a table, a proper dining table, around which to bring friends for a meal. Last spring I had some friends over for dinner. We constructed pulled pork tacos in the kitchen then balanced our plates on our laps in the sitting room chairs. I'm thinking maybe I should invest in those finger food plates that hang off your wine glass. Then I become a whiz at hors' devours  and tapas. That's the only way I'm going to properly feed people my place. Unless all they want to do is drink wine. Which, in this country, is certainly an option.

Recharge central

Recharge central

Having this place is helping me figure out who I've become and where I want to go with my life. When we look for identity, we often point to the things we spend the most time doing. Is that work, parenting, our hobbies? I would like to think my identity is not primarily one thing, but the sum of all things that are important to me. What's most important to me is that I value and deepen my attachments to people and to my creative endeavors. That, and I prevent Z from eating all his Halloween candy in two days.

So how would Virginia Woolf feel about my 500 square foot flat? I think she would approve. This space is soothing and healing and I'm productive in it most days. Even if I never live in a big house again, I will make a space for myself, especially if the rest of the house is shared with other people. And I do want to share again some day. I will want the boisterous chaos of kids and visitors and big messy dinners that get to be enjoyed around a table. But I won't ever give up again having a room of my own. 

Yes. That is a washing machine in the kitchen. No dryer. Welcome to England  

Yes. That is a washing machine in the kitchen. No dryer. Welcome to England  

The Bromance

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I don't know how you feel or felt about your kids, but I'm finding a six year old is about the most amusing, adorable and lovable human on earth. He can speak in full sentences, defend his own point of view, and his jokes are so often bizarre and illogical that they're thigh-slapping hysterical. He can express strong likes and dislikes and is unafraid to shout, 'I love you!' across the playground during school drop off. I wouldn't say things are easy, especially now with having to divide his time between two households, but in many ways these feel like golden years for me and Z; years before the self-consciousness, the self-doubt, and the angsty disagreements with everything parental.

 

It wasn't always this sweet. Over the past two and a half years I've watched Z's behaviour and friendships form and shift, get shaped like Paydough, then mashed up in frustration. One day we were at the nearby crumbly nunnery ruins with other boys and other moms. A friend of Z's announced to his left-leaning, pacifist mother that, since women could marry women and men could marry men that he wanted to marry Z. I had a real 21st Century reaction when my first thought was, "That is super cool." And then I had a second thought which was, "You are way too gentle for my steamroller son and you had better reconsider." Within a week, Z had caused this friend near grievous bodily harm and threatened to punch his mother if she didn't let them have a play date. I pretty much lost it that day. How many times must I keep telling him that you get what you want by being nice, not by being a bully. What I really feel like saying sometimes is, "Do what you want with your own friendships, but don't screw up mine!"

 

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Things are a lot better now. Friendships are pretty well established now in Year 2, usually orbiting around a predilection for or avoidance of rough housing. Z doesn't hang out with girls really, though I'm often witnessing him shouting to them in greeting. When this happens he suddenly transforms into a swaggering, brash teenager who is grooming himself to be irresistible. But with the boys he is all boy. And this boy tribe is getting better at handling their emotions. Even when it looks as though the scrum of them is going to come to blows, they usually manage to work things out. When I was Z's age, these kind of schoolyard altercations would really shake me up. When kids started pushing it felt to me as though a blood feud had been proclaimed. This is about the same time I took up journal writing and set up a cardboard desk inside my closet. No, Z and his friends seem to be getting over things in about forty-five seconds. And now his buddies seem to be Z's very reason for living. Getting him out the door for school feels like getting a three-toed sloth to do jumping jacks. But once he sees a mate I can't keep up.  As we were walking to school the other day and ran into one of the kids we see all the time on our way to school Z was so elated he shouted, 'Alex! Wow! I can't believe you're here!'

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One friend in particular has Z acting downright smitten. They already seem like the old couple who can finish each other's sentences. They both soured on karate lessons when it became clear they weren't going to be taught ninja moves. On a recent sleepover, N's mom told me they went to sleep spooning each other in the single bed. When it comes to saying goodbye, they usually bring out the plastic swords and lightsabers and try to keep me at bay. By the time I'm literally dragging Z to the door they usually break away one last time and cling to each other as though they were going down on the Titanic. 

 

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Fortunately, N's mom S is a good friend of mine (see 'A World of Misadventure'). She makes me laugh and they live across the road from my new flat. The teachers and staff at school don't usually like releasing your kid to anyone who doesn't have written permission from you to do so, but they finally seem OK with the boys getting picked up by one or the other of us, just as long as they are taken punctually so the teachers can recover from the tornado of energy the boys leave in their wake. 

 

Seeing Z get on with such synchronicity with his boy friends has me hopeful for the young man he will become here. I have a male friend who has lived in Boston, London and Paris and in the European cities he is more comfortable than he ever was in the States. He says European men are more at ease in their bodies. They are less afraid of casually touching or hugging. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state's ability to ban gay marriage my English friends just shook their heads and said, 'What took you so long?'

 

So I hope Z keeps hugging his friends, hugging me and his dad. I hope he'll grow up understanding that love doesn't have to be reserved for your family and your romantic partner. I also hope he'll stop tackling the smaller ones in order to get his point across. 

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Venice for the Underachiever

Not exactly the crack of dawn, but early enough for me

Not exactly the crack of dawn, but early enough for me

I flew to Venice recently for a long weekend. I've told you about the crazy low airline prices in Europe, but what I don't think I've gotten across is how painful it is to take advantage of these deals. The cheap fares are always, that's always, at the extreme end of the functioning human day. You leave at o' dark thirty and return at an hour of semi-consciousness. Unlike American airports, where these hours mean empty terminals when you can actually get your Starbucks coffee in under thirty minutes, in England our little airports are primarily mobbed in the wee hours. If you're a fan of urban zombie movies, you'd feel right at home in an English airport at 4 am.

The cheap airlines also fly in and out of small airports, the ones originally built to service the supply needs of industry miles and miles away from the city it's named for. So touch down simply means you're in a new country. It doesn't mean you're at your final destination. Add the airport transfer at $20, the cost of airport parking, the restaurant take-away because I wasn't awake enough at 3:30 to feed myself, and I'm probably spending as much to go to Venice as it would cost me to fly to Las Vegas and stay at the Venetian.

There's always someone around the backstreets of Venice to prove you were there

There's always someone around the backstreets of Venice to prove you were there

The upside was I was in Venice before noon with a full day ahead of me. I met my Airbnb host and sat down with him in the apartment where he pulled out a city map and proceeded to mark every fabulous restaurant, pizzeria and gelato store on the map. When my stomach started growling I begged him to stop. 

 

"Oh, no! I should stop? I haven't yet told you about the bakeries!"

"Yes. Stop right there and take me to one of these bakeries."

 

Old world laundry

Old world laundry

The weather was lovely and my host took me to "the BEST!" bakery in town. I ordered a flaky biscuit topped with pesto and cheese and a cream puff that looked as though a can of shaving cream had exploded inside it.  I finished off with a Macchiato and set off to explore, figuring my energy stores wouldn't need replacing for at least an hour.

Everyone says, 'Get lost in Venice!' as though you'd need to be deliberate about it. I say, manage to not get lost in Venice and you truly deserve an award. Half the people on the car-less streets have their faces buried in their smart phones trying to follow the little blue arrow on the little blue line. Trouble is, the building walls are so tall and so close together that often the little blue arrow can't lock onto a signal and is dancing to its own little drummer. This makes Venice a hoot for people watching. Pitch up at a small square off of which branch five different streets and you will observe the head bobbing, body twirling confusion of non-natives trying to line up with their destination street.

The other thing you get told to do when visiting a new country is to be an adventurous eater. Since I was sleep deprived and giddy, I ordered something off the menu my first night which, in Italian, sounded like nothing familiar and, since it was the'specialità della casa' I figured I couldn't go wrong. Sometimes adventure can go wrong.  Placed in front of me was a pile of cheese chunks flanked by three types of jam; red, yellow and green. This wouldn't have been so wrong had I not eaten, a few hours earlier, a pile of cheese chunks with jam. So piles of cheese on a plate are the special in more than a few Venetian restaurants. Be adventurous, but get a translation first.

Instead of taking in an opera at Teatro la Fenice, where tickets were a minimum of $300 each, I found Musica a Palazzo. For $90 you experience opera in the round.  That evening I saw the highlights of La Traviata performed inside a gorgeous Baroque building to an audience of around eighty. There were three acts and after each we moved to a different room for the next scene. Each room was painted with a dizzying collage of angels and saints and puffy clouds. There were gold gilded mirrors on every wall, candles lit on sills and surfaces. The audience members sat on folded chairs around the performers, who were close enough to touch.  The singers' proximity created a lot of added drama, especially near the end when Violetta kept fainting to the floor during her protracted aria towards death. Her performance is what saved the person next to me from getting drooled on as I kept nodding off. Not even I can sleep through the wails of a soprano dying of tuberculosis.

Without a doubt I needed to sleep in the next day. Until ten o'clock no less. And then I needed to read a good book because I had no small human to tease out of bed with words of encouragement then threats and finally the kind of bodily harm that sets him to laughing until he can't breathe. So I enjoyed a good book in bed until at least noon when I could feel a caffeine withdrawal headache coming on.

Off the tourist trail

Off the tourist trail

When walking in Venice you have a few options. Stay on the main roads near the Grand Canal and you're likely to stay oriented and never be in want of food. But you're also going to be weaving around mobs of tourists, walking through other people's photos, and fending off the advances of selfie stick vendors. Or you can venture off into the lesser known areas where you quite likely will see only laundrettes, shoe repair stores and find yourself heading down dead ends or into side canals without a bridge. Fortunately, even the sleepy parts of Venice have coffee. A few hours later I'd seek out a bar serving cicchetti (the Italian version of tapas) and spritz. I don't normally drink alcohol before five pm, but I don't normally live in Italy. So I figured since it was the Italian thing to do, I might as well play along. A spritz is an easy habit to get into. It's light, refreshing and pretty. You mix prosecco with soda water, add a splash of Campari, a few slices of orange, and you get a nice little buzz on to take you through to dinner.


Burano without the fog

Burano without the fog

Even though I diligently put together a 'must do' list of the sites I wanted to see, I essentially did none of them. Why? Because they were expensive and I preferred to spend my limited funds on platters of thinly sliced prosciutto and heaving plates of al dente pasta. I needed at least two scoops of gelato daily. Besides, I could listen to the duelling orchestras in the Piazza San Marco and pay 2 euros instead of 12 for my coffee by standing at the bar behind the stage instead of taking a seat on the square. I could travel to the outlying islands by way of my 48 hours vaporetto water bus pass and snap photos of the brightly painted houses of Burano's fishing village. More than once I walked through open doors just to see what I would find. One evening I found myself inside an eclectic gallery filled with abstract paintings and contortionist sculpture. The owner was so desperate for human contact he spent a half hour explaining to me how one of the artists captured his photographs in complete darkness using a flashlight. I ate pizza along the shorefront and watch the towering metropolis of a cruise ship float by, flanked on all sides by tug boats. But mostly I walked. And walked. And walked. The fact that no cars exist in Venice just makes you want to cover every little, medieval, meandering side street in site. Often you're rewarded with the appearance of a perfumery, a handmade shoe store or a tiny shop selling paper printed with the wood cut crests of old Venetian gentry.

The day my flight was scheduled to leave at 10pm I figured I should make an appearance at the basilica which dominates the Piazza San Marco. I arrived ten minutes after it closed. With the exception of the night at the opera, where I could hardly keep my eyes open, I managed to miss every tourist highlight of the city. Even the famous Rialto bridge was buried deep beneath restoration scaffolding. But I left Venice completely satisfied and happy. I had absorbed the charm of the winding, watery city, eaten oodles of perfect pasta and swoon-worthy gelato. Travelled up and down the canal, even managing one morning to get up early and onto a boat before the cruise ship masses descended. The weather was perfect. A cat joined me most days on the apartment terrace. I left feeling full up with satisfying experiences and realized that my mom pace and philosophy had carried over to my new adult life: never schedule more than one thing per day, preferably inexpensive or free, eat frequently and smile a lot. Now, time for another spritz.

My terrace interloper

My terrace interloper

Mom, this is the best pizza you’ve ever made. It tastes better than chocolate!
— ZFW

 

(Fabulous) Fast Food U.K.

Or above ground if it's not raining

Or above ground if it's not raining

One of the things I appreciate most about living in the U.K. is the fast food. Really. It's not that I've suddenly taken a liking to McDonald's and KFC, both of which are abundant here. Anyone who knows me knows I'd rather give money to the Republican party than eat fast food. I'm quite proud of the fact that the only time Z was taken to McDonald's in St. Albans was with a friend, and he came home to tell me that he had been to "Old McDonald's" for dinner. "You went where? You mean McDonald's?"  
"No mom! OLD McDonald's." You gotta love that the kid can associate that word, not with Big Macs, but with a perennial children's song.

What England seems to do better than most any other country I've visited is the healthy take-away and the high class chain restaurant. Whereas in the U.S., if we were going on a car trip of any length over 30 minutes, which is about how often I need to put something into my mouth, I would obsessively pack cut veggies, hummus, easy-peel satsumas, almonds and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. If I were premenstrual, we would all be treated to Pringles. 

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Here I don't have to do that. The motorway rest areas are a beacon every 20 miles or so. One can almost always count on there being a small Waitrose or Marks & Spencer grocery there, each stocked with all manner of take-away items that I would be hard pressed to duplicate after a full day of cooking up lentils, carrots, quinoa, tomatoes, blanched beans and a tasty vinagrette. The sandwiches are worthy of a gourmet caterer with fillings such as tikka masala chicken, smoked salmon, egg salad with capers, or avocado and humus. There is a menagerie of cut fruits, satay sticks, Scotch eggs, veggie-filled pot stickers and arugula salads. Can you imagine coming across this cornucopia of nourishment at a 7-11 or a Chevron service station?

After picking out two or three grain salads and the child-friendly ham with butter bread, we grab a few truffle chocolate bars near the check out and head to Starbucks next door. Now how civilized a pit stop is that?

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The same well above average-ness applies to chain restaurants in this country. When we first arrived in St. Albans I was astonished by the number of restaurants. I didn't recognize any of them - no Olive Gardens, no Paneras, no Dennys. Since I'd never heard of these new restaurants, I assumed we'd landed in the epicenter of independent gastronomy. But I was wrong. Jamie's Italian, Zizzi, Slug and Lettuce, Brasserie Blanc, even the high class Loch Fyne, specializing in seafood, all turn out to be chains and can all be found, some repeatedly, in every major city in England. 

Unfortunately, this healthy abundance has only further encouraged me to slack off on cooking and attempting to get my kid to try new things. I keep telling myself that he'll be just fine. After all, I survived more than a decade of pigs in a blanket and Hamburger Helper, tater tot casserole with cream of mushroom soup and sloppy joes. My mother was a diligent cook but let's face it, no one really knew what food was doing to us in the 70's. To her credit, my mother fed us soy products before it was cool. She was no hippie so it wasn't for the sake of the animals or the earth but because it was half the price of hamburger. She also cut our skim milk with powdered milk. Now what kind of unique torture is that for your crap milk to be mixed with even crappier milk? I think that was the first thing she dispensed with when my father got a raise.

So I'm relieved to say I've never bought a Happy Meal for Z, not because I'm nutritionally virtuous but because I'm not likely to resist getting myself a McFlurry. The fact is England has options when it comes to a quick meal. If I were an ambitious entrepreneur I'd bring one of these healthy chains to the U.S., start in California and work my way north. For now I'll keep enjoying my four bean salad from Marks and Spencer on my weekly trips into London.

What is it going to be? Sugar or screen time? Your choice.
— Z to me at the end of a school day