Thursday, 29 April 2010

Into the Wild: Are there any bears in the UK?

Sorry, but I have been so very busy. Panicking. And checking every two seconds. Unfortunately, our dry April is showing every sign of turning into a very wet May holiday weekend. This is very bad. Sure, it may be great for the plants and flowers. Bully for them. But it’s very bad for me. Because I’m venturing into uncharted territory this weekend.

You know how, sometimes in a marriage, you forget that there are two of you in it? Two people with completely different ideas and views on life. And you know how, sometimes, you have to cross over to the other side in order to make another person happy? Well, that’s marriage, isn’t it?

Back in January, HRH was saying that we needed to break out of our rut, be more adventurous, and be open to new ideas.

‘What, in the bedroom?’ I asked nervously.

‘That’s always welcome. But what I mean is that you don’t seem to be open to new things anymore.’

Uh-oh. I felt an argument coming on and I crossed my arms defensively. ‘How do you mean?’

‘We’re acting middle-aged.’

‘But isn’t that what we are?’

‘Well, we don’t have to act like it.’

The conversation continued over a bottle of red and, somehow, I agreed to listen to an idea and love it instead of dismissing it immediately.

‘Let’s go camping,’ HRH said.

Er. Huh. Um. I pictured the miserable, damp camping trips of my youth. Even as a kid, camping was something I never embraced and HRH knew that. Over the years, he has been on an evangelical mission to convert me. Albeit, rather covertly, lurking quietly on the sidelines and biding his time.

‘See, I knew you’d say no,’ he said.

‘I haven’t said a word.’

‘But you will. I can tell by that look on your face.’

‘Let’s go camping!’ Without thinking, I blurted it out. That’s the problem with me.

You know how sometimes your spouse says one thing and you hear something different? Ahem. In an effort to wrap my head around the whole camping thing, I did some research. I read about a London family who stayed in a Moroccan-themed yurt. It was spacious, luxurious, and totally cool. I could picture us there. And then I read about glamping. That would be a fantastic compromise, a way to ease into the whole camping concept. We could stay in one of those little huts all kitted out with Cabbages & Roses decor. And we could pick up a Daylesford Organic hamper.

But the buzz stopped there. HRH booked the campsite. In the New Forest. He unfurled his musty old sleeping bag. ‘This baby travelled with me when I cycled to India.’ Yeah, I think there’s still a bit of Kazakhstan mold clinging to the inside. He pulled out a leaky old tent and some tin bowls and cups, something the inmates might bang on the tables to signal an uprising. My imaginary glamping trip was tarnished by visions of refugee camps. But HRH was not to be thwarted. He did what I would have done and I grudgingly admire him for it. He blew the dust off the plastic and went shopping.

The camping gear arrived and filled up our hallway and Reception room. HRH bought so much that he had to get a Thule box for the roof of the car. And a bike rack. On Saturday morning, at the crack of dawn, the four of us will be heading to the New Forest with a 6-man tent complete with wall to wall carpeting and a walk-in closet, a kitchen, four bikes, one dog, food, clothes and wellies and the Royal Hound. In a Prius.

My god, what was I thinking? It's possible that I'm making myself sound kind of high-maintenance here, a regular princess. And I'm really not. It's just that I'm more of a city girl. I don't need 5-star hotels in exotic beach locales with Frette sheets on the bed and room service for breakfast (actually, that all sounds pretty nice). I think what puts me off about camping is the whole shower and toilet thing. And bugs. And mud. But HRH, Truly and Scrumptious are excited. And one of the rules of agreeing to something new is to enter into it with a joyous spirit and have a positive attitude. I will not moan (too much) or cast dispersions or in any way dampen the enthusiasm of my family. I’ll zip my lip. Wish me luck! I’m sure it will be great. And I'll probably end up loving it. See? Positive attitude.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Reading Lolita on the London Bus

A few weeks ago, I was taking the bus into Chelsea. One of the things I love about riding the bus is that I can read and nobody will bother me. About a year ago, I embarked on a personal reading journey. In addition to current fiction, I'm reading the classics from A-Z, choosing one author from each letter of the alphabet. Austen to Zola. I'm currently up to the letter N which is what got me into this mess.

Anyway, I was sitting in my favourite spot---top deck, front window seat. It was mid-afternoon so the bus was quiet with plenty of empty seats. So it was particularly annoying when, after a few stops a man got on and chose to sit next to me. I looked around the bus as if to say, hey, pick another seat, you're spoiled for choice. But the octogenarian in tweed and corduroy waited for me to remove my bag from the empty seat and, amidst a great deal of huffing and puffing, he settled his rotund self into the seat next to me. I got a whiff of musty wool and cherry pipe tobacco but kept my nose in my book. Mr. Tweedy fidgeted and uttered a tssk tssk. When the tssking refused to cease, I glanced over to make sure he wasn't having a gout attack or anything equally alarming. That’s where it all went wrong. He spoke to me but not, as you would hope, a friendly, ‘Good afternoon. Enjoy your reading.’ Oh no.

‘That book is nothing but filth,’ he said. He raised his white bushy eyebrows, a few stragglers comically long and heading in a gravity-defying northern direction.

‘Er, sorry?’

‘Nabokov. He wrote about that nymphet Lolita. It was banned in this country, you know.’

‘Yes, I did read that somewhere. But the ban was lifted.’

‘Shouldn’t have been.’

‘Hmm. Yes, well.’

‘Do you have any children?’

‘Um, yes. Two.’

‘Boys or girls?’

‘Two daughters.’

‘Daughters, eh? Well, how would you feel if you read that story in the newspaper? That an old man was lusting after a schoolgirl?’

‘Um, I’d feel upset?’

‘Bloody right you would. He was nothing but a paedophile. A very sick man.’

‘Do you mean Nabokov or Humbert Humbert?’

‘Ach. What’s the difference? The author and the character are one and the same.’

‘But it’s fiction. It’s a classic. I showed him the Penguin logo as proof.’

‘Harrumph. It’s porn.’ He whistled through his nose in protest.

‘But the language is lovely. And some parts are very funny.’ That was a mistake.

Mr. Tweedy used Nabokov as a springboard to leap onto a tangent. He said that society is so confused that we don’t even know what’s funny anymore. He talked about ASBOs and young girls getting pregnant so they can take money from the government. The rant kept going and going like the Duracell bunny. When he had to pause and wind himself up with the key again, he returned to Lolita.

‘Maybe you should choose your reading material more wisely, young lady. Stay away from this smut.’ He spat the last word and a bit of dribble slid from the corner of his mouth.

‘Yes, well, thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I’m getting off at the next stop.’ I got off the bus before my stop because Mr. Tweedy had the appearance of a man who was in it for the long haul.

So what did I take away from that? Freedom of speech is alive and well. Clearly. I am free to read whatever I choose. However, if I’m taking public transport I may be forced to deal with the, er, public. And maybe I should wrap the cover of my books in brown paper. Because I am a whimp and I hate confrontation, even if it's to defend my choice of reading material.

Perhaps Orwell will be less controversial.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Limbo, Limbo, Limbo

In many ways, choosing to make your home in another country, a place in which you were not born and raised, means living in a state of limbo. At least, that’s how I sometimes feel. The last time I visited the States, I was discussing American politics with a friend. As you do. Naturally, this led to related issues such as gun laws, education, Michelle Obama and the state of the health care system. It was all very Michael Moore-ish, warm and fuzzy. Rather annoyingly, I may have used the line, ‘Well, in the UK, they do such and such’ one too many times. As somebody once said, comparisons are odious. So, unsurprisingly, my friend stopped me halfway through my rant and said, ‘No offence. But how could you possibly know? You haven’t lived here in a decade.’ Hmmph.

I think she went on to say that I sounded un-American, a regular turncoat. In a way, she was right. Because, when it comes to the really important issues, I want to choose from the a la carte menu, not the set menu. I want to do a pick-n-mix from all the issues and solutions on offer and come up with the ‘perfect’ combination. But we all know that it doesn’t work that way.

On the flip side of that coin, if I venture into similar weighty discussions here in the UK, I get the old ‘Yeah but you weren’t born and raised here. You’re an American.’ So where does that leave me? Stretched tautly across the breadth of the Atlantic, one big toe digging into the ‘Land of the Free and the Brave’ and a sinewy hand grasping for This Sceptred Isle?

I don’t really consider myself an expat. The UK is my home, albeit an adopted home. We own a house here and have no plans to move away any time soon. When we lived in Japan, we were ‘expats.’ We knew it would be temporary and treated it differently. We never tried to ‘blend in,’ which would have been challenging for my blonde Amazonian family anyway. We tried to experience as much of the culture as possible but Japan was our host country and we were the visitors, the outsiders, the Gaijin.

As anyone who holds more than one passport knows, having a British passport does not a Brit make me. I will always be an American. Straddling two nations is not for the thin-skinned. As an American living in the UK, I get a special insight into the British view of Americans. Sometimes it’s lovely and sometimes it’s not. But it has opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing America, my birth country. Perhaps one of the benefits of dual citizenship is that, distancing myself from one country and familiarizing myself with another one, affords me a fresh perspective on both my adopted country and my birth country.

My view on being an American is similar to my view on family. I didn’t get to choose them but, if I had, I would choose my family and my country all over again. I’d protect them in a fight, take their side against enemies, and brag and complain about them in equal measure. Whereas living in the UK is, for me, like choosing your friends. You’d take a bullet for them, celebrate their victories and empathize with their pain. With friends and your adopted country, you embrace their fabulous qualities, their endearing eccentricities and learn to live with their annoying habits. Because you love ‘em, warts and all.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Guest Blogging

Today I am guest blogging at Michelle's Mid-Atlantic English. Michelle and I are both Americans who married Brits and chose the UK as our 'home.' I love her blog and her writing style. There is always great content in her posts that make me stop and think about something in a different way. Lately, she's been educating me about the finer points of gardening, at which I'm totally useless and know virtually nothing.

HRH is the gardener in our house. He loves to muck in and get his hands dirty and Scrumptious has inherited his country-lovin' genes. This was the inspiration for my post at Michelle's. It's about the debate over city living versus country living. So please visit Michelle's blog and read about it there.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Why I Write

"I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it." –William Faulkner

My daughters are still on Easter break. It’s been a long holiday. And I cannot write. I need peace and solitude to write.

I’m not a writer. I don’t earn a crust from it. I’m not a published author. My name does not grace the cover of a book or appear in the by-line of a magazine article. I wish it did.

Sometimes I fantasize about turning back the clock, returning to the time when I chose my path in life. If I could go back, I would choose the writer’s way. I wish that I had been brave enough to pursue my passion, instead of settling for a soulless desk job with a pay check at the end of the week. I wish that I had made writing my craft, my art, my life’s work, my trade. But I don’t have a time machine and I can no sooner go back in time than I could fly to the moon in my daughter’s fairy costume with the pink gossamer wings. Even the magic wand and the fairy dust won’t help me make that journey.

The truth is that I don’t need a psychic or a life coach to tell me why I didn’t pursue my passion. I was afraid. Afraid of the critics, afraid of putting myself out there, afraid to find out that everything I have ever written is boring, unoriginal, caricature-inhabited, cliché-ridden crap. It is my fear that encourages me to write privately, to save my work on the computer, to hide it away in a secret file. I’m not afraid of the perspiration or the hard graft. But if I write and I am exposed as a fraud, who will I be?

But still I write. I write for myself, tapping away at the keyboard, wrenching words out of the cobweb-infested nether regions of my brain, slitting my wrists and hemorrhaging all over the screen of my laptop. I write because I can’t stop writing. I write because there has never been a time when I haven’t written. Writing helps me make sense of my world. I cannot fathom my life without it.

Sometimes when I read a beautifully written book, filled with prose so lucid and vivid that it makes my heart sing, I back away from the keyboard, and I take a sabbatical from my private life of fiction writing. Because I think that there is no way that I could ever come within a fraction of the power or the humour or the thought-provoking genius of a book that made me laugh and cry and turned my world upside down, shaking loose my preconceptions.

When that happens, if I stay away from writing for too long, I start to itch. My life careens and tips into a chaos and I feel slightly lost. Something is missing from the finely wrought balance of my daily life. I feel slovenly yet edgy, dissatisfied with everyone and everything. And then I know I have to get back to my writing, to flex the muscles and stretch the imagination.

So why do I write? I write to express my feelings. I write because I need a creative outlet. When I write, I can be my best self. When I come to the page, I come to it honestly. When I write from the heart, in a free flowing stream of consciousness, my life is illuminated. When I give birth to my fictional characters, if I am true to them, they grow from needy newborns to toddlers discovering their independence. Pretty soon they are skipping and running across the page, telling me what they plan to do. And I have no choice but to tell the truth. Because anything less is an insult to my private stash of saved documents.

Someday I may take back the power I’ve given to my fear. It’s not too late to send my baby out into the world. I hope that I’ll have the courage to finish my book and choose the writer’s path. Until then, I will continue to write for myself.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Sisterhood

Scrumptious was born 8 years and 9 months after Truly. Did we plan it that way? Ha Ha. Ha Ha. The universe scoffed at my family planning attempts. Besides, I’m really not that organized. My sister, on the other hand, is that organized. She had three children, each one exactly two years apart, and all three born in the same month. Now that’s family planning. I would have loved for it to happen that way for me too. But it didn’t. So I reconciled myself with it. And I have come to realize that, while my sister got what she wanted, I got what I needed.

My daughters may not be playmates in the sense that siblings closer in age are playmates. They will never pass each other in the school corridors because they will never be in the same school together. They won’t share Legos and Barbies and clothes and shoes. They may not bond in the same way as two sisters who are closer in age. But, nevertheless, they are extraordinarily close.

And, over the years, I have come to see that there are some real perks to a wide age gap between siblings:

Babysitting services. Truly is 14 and Scrumptious is 5 so it’s legal now (I think). However, advance booking is essential. Because the social life of a 14-year-old is a lot busier, a lot more important, and a lot more difficult to rearrange than theatre tickets for ‘Jerusalem’ (according to the 14-year-old in my house).

No competition. Scrumptious is crossing hurdles that are so far back in the dust for Truly that there is no need for crowing, ‘Oh yeah? You may be able to read that Jelly Bean book but I can read ‘Catcher in the Rye.’ So there.’

No ‘borrowing’ or exchange of goods. Truly doesn't want to borrow her little sister's Groovy Girls, crayons or Charlie & Lola books any more than Scrumptious wants to borrow her big sister’s Hollister jumper, Ugg boots or 1,001 cheapo Top Shop bangles.

Historical reference (aka Did Mummy really traumatize/screw you up/give you a reason to spend 25% of your salary and 10 years of your life on the therapist’s couch?) As it turns out, this one is proving the most useful lately.

A few weeks ago, I took Scrumptious to a birthday party. When we got there every little girl in the room was wearing a dressing up costume. Except Scrumptious. I re-read the invitation. Nothing. No mention of coming in costume. How did all the mothers know? I really let my little girl down and the misery showed in her crumpled face. Eventually, she rallied and joined in the dancing (she learned from Truly) and it was okay. But still. I failed her.

I told a friend of mine about it and she said, ‘Do you really think she’ll be traumatized by this? Will she really remember it as one of life’s major disappointments when she’s older?’

Well, I really don’t know. It’s kind of funny the little things you remember from childhood.

So I asked Truly, ‘Do you remember the time you had to miss your best friend’s party when you were six because I punished you for fibbing?’

‘Um, no. I don’t remember that.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘So it didn’t scar you for life, then?’

‘I guess not if I can’t even remember it. But I do remember my 7th birthday party when I had all my friends for my first sleepover.’

‘Huh. That's good. Do you remember the time we were in the States and I lost you in Macy’s?’

‘You LOST me? Geez, Mum, how could you?’

‘Yeah, but do you remember it?’

‘No, not really. How did you find me?’

‘A lady took you to the desk and you had me paged and I came and picked you up.’

‘Mum, I wish you hadn’t told me that because now it will haunt me. It will be one of my bad memories from childhood.’

Hang on, how does that work? I don't know. But I have some hope that our kids will cut us mothers a bit of slack in the memory department. I'm hoping that they'll remember the time we played the 3-hour marathon game of Monopoly or the time we took them to their first concert or let them bake bread and get flour all over the newly cleaned kitchen. Hopefully, the Easter bonnet parade and the birthday party without a Princess Jasmine costume will not measure on the mother failure richter scale at such a high level as we think it will.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Mad Hatter

When will I ever learn? Two weeks ago a note was sent home to the parents in Reception class. The kids had to decorate an Easter bonnet at home and wear it to school today. There will be an Easter Parade with prizes awarded for the best bonnets. I thought back to the last time this happened, 8 or 9 years ago, when Truly was in Reception and I felt that old familiar queasiness. Arts & Crafts and I make for strange bedfellows. We do not get along. I'm lousy at all things artsy or crafty. Always have been.

It seems that whenever the mummy stakes are set the highest, I have a tendency to aim low. That way I won't miss my mark. So, in the two weeks leading up to the grand Easter Parade, I stalled in anticipation. Finally, two days before the big event I sent Truly off to Poundland with a few loose coins. She returned with a treasure trove of festive holiday hat making goodies. Not wanting to get in the way, I sat back and let Truly assist Scrumptious with her millinery creation.

This morning Scrumptious donned her hat, pools of the copious amounts of glue still tacky to the touch. Luckily, the little £1 hat that could has an elastic chin strap because it's a teensy bit too small. So it sat on the top of Scrumptious' head, perched at a jaunty angle. A few anaemic little yellow chicks (most likely battery instead of free range) clung to the glue with spindly plastic feet. On top of the hat there was a nest of purple straw with three Cadbury's creme eggs nestled inside, all that could be spared from a jumbo bag. It appears that milliners require sustenance to complete such a technical marvel.

When we got to school, it happened the way it always does. The other children turned up in hats that stepped off a Philip Treacy catwalk. I'm envisioning the Isabella Blows and Mad Hatters strutting in the Parade with Scrumptious pulling up the rear, looking for all the world like Minnie Pearl taking to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. If she belts out her own rendition of 'Howdy!' I will not be surprised.

So yet again, I am the mother of a daughter who will be sorely disappointed when she is not awarded a chocolate egg the size of her torso. And yet again, I will most likely be buying her a big chocolate egg to compensate for my shortcomings. The good news is that Scrumptious was proud of her hat and didn't seem to notice that the other kids had much more talented mummys who excel at Arts & Crafts.