Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Story of My Life

I can hear the collective groan throughout the blogosphere but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the story of my life. It’s too long and convoluted and dull in so many ways. But I’ve been thinking about the days and the years of my life lately, analyzing them, and combing through their pesky and, sometimes painful, snarls with a fine-toothed comb. And you know what? I’m okay with the place that I’m in right now. Maybe I have a set of crampons and a gigantic pick-axe to grind or maybe I’m just trying to make sense of my place in this world. Who knows why I need to figure out if this is the 'right' life for me. I’ve struggled and I’ve felt conflicted and I’ve wondered if my university education is being wasted by staying home to raise my children. Have I become a June Cleaver housewife, a woman of no substance, a Stepford wife? I wasn’t that to begin with so why should I be that person now just because I made a choice to raise my own children?

Yes, I’m a stay at home mother. There, I’ve said it. Actually, I shouted it but you couldn’t hear it because you’re reading words on paper. There’s something else I want to say. I’m a writer. I’m not published but, by gum, I write. No, I’m not soaring upwards and crashing through the glass ceiling in a fancy office. That doesn’t make me a loser and it doesn't make me a hero. My life is not that black and white, it’s a lovely soft shade of grey, so flattering in these Northern Lights. The person I am today is about the choices I have made along the way. Is there really a good choice versus a bad choice? I don’t really think so. Sometimes it's about making your choices right.

You know how people are always asking that question: What if? What if I could change something about my life, what would it be? If I went down that road and wished that I could change something, go down a different path, where would I begin? What if I had pursued my passion and gone into a creative field, something that involved writing, when I graduated from university? What if I had published a book when I was 22 years old? Did I have anything to say when I was 22, before I really lived and experienced the pain and the pleasure, the clock-stalling tedium and the extraordinary? That book would have gone straight to the charity shop racks. What if I had stayed in New York and never accepted that transfer to London? And never gotten drunk on raspberry martinis in a bar with the man who later met me at the altar after I walked down the aisle to the strains of ‘Moon River’? How dismal would my life be if I didn’t have my fabulous, eccentric, cheeky Scrumptious or my gorgeous, brilliant Truly? What if I said ‘no’ when my lovely husband expressed a desire to relocate to Tokyo because I wanted to stay in London and pursue a career? And missed out on an opportunity to gorge myself on sushi and meet a beautiful, soul-mate friend, and give my daughters the experience of a lifetime?

So you know what I think about that What If game? I think it’s ludicrous and I think it’s self-absorbed rubbish. It’s like tossing a stone into a river and expecting that you can control the ripples, that each of the circles will return to you, as if you can forcibly change their direction or limit their reach, and that they won’t affect anything or anyone else unless you say so.

Hopefully, there will be a lot more chapters in the story of my life. As Truly said to me this evening, 'You still have time to become an English Lit professor or take an art class or write your book.' And she's right. I can choose to do those things or not. It's my choice. And that's why it's so much better to be a human being than to be a head of broccoli or a firefly.

I’m in reasonably sound mind, despite what my detractors might say, so the decisions I’ve made in my life have all been mine. I take responsibility for them, I embrace them like a familiar lover, and sometimes I curse them. Sometimes I wrap my arms around my knees, rock back and forth, and keel in misery. Other times, I jump up and down on my pogo stick and feel that I can just about touch the clouds with the tips of my fingers. At times I am quirky and corny and wrapped up in daydreams. I live in the clouds, I conjure up spirit worlds, I am often out of step with the parade. But it’s my parade and I’m high-stepping my way through a rousing rendition of a La Cage Aux Folles show tune, wielding a sparkly baton, and for some reason imagining that I look like Sienna Miller playing Edie Sedgwick in ‘The Factory Girl.’ It is, after all, my parade. And by golly, ‘I Am What I Am.’ And we all know that needs no excuses. I might be a stay at home mother but it doesn't mean that my life is small or that I have subjected myself to a life of servitude or that my life is in any way demeaning.

This is what I have figured out. Someday, when the days are long and the years are short, and I pray to the pagans and gods and anyone who will listen that it’s many years from now, I will look back and say ‘This is the Story of My Life.’ And I will remember the joy and the pain, the times when I patched things up with a Dora the Explorer plaster, and the sheer exhilaration that goes with living a life well, to the fullest, without making excuses for who I am and why I am not like everyone else. And, gods and pagans willing, when I’m drooling into my supper will I be proud of the story of my life? Hell, yes. Because it's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

What's Gonna Happen When Summer's Gone?

When I was young I imagined that my life was set to a soundtrack. You know, cut to the romantic first scene when our eyes meet across the room, they speak of longing and love and fresh promise and there’s a swell of ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’ The boy and I finally speak, we know we’ve found The One and Frank Sinatra is crooning ‘Come Rain or Come Shine.’ Now lovers, we are sitting in a cozy trattoria, gazing into each other’s eyes, sharing a single strand of spaghetti like the Lady and the Tramp, and Dean Martin is belting out ‘Mambo Italiano.’ Strangely, the soundtrack of my life never included current music and I always suspected that I was an anachronism, a black and white movie character time-transported to the wrong decade. Most likely, though, I’m kind of weird. None of my high school or college friends listened to ‘The Rat Pack’ and I suffered the sting of insult due to my musical predilections. Occasionally, my friends humoured me but grudgingly and not very graciously.

When I was 20, I spent a summer season in a chi chi East Coast beach town with my college roommate. We got waitressing jobs at a popular restaurant and found a room in a gigantic beachfront shack which the owner turned into 10 rooms, all rented out to college students. The rooms were crummy, but in a quaint way, and you could glimpse the pounding surf and acres of smooth white sand from our bathroom window. We had two twin beds, a dresser, two striped beach chairs and an antiquated record player. In less than a week, my roommate and I hooked up with two guys who were, conveniently, roommates as well.

You know how, in the old movies, the guy kisses the girl (‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’) and her feet come right out of her pumps? Well, that was me. My guy (H) was tall so when we kissed my feet dangled above my Havaianas, which were still firmly planted on terra firma. H and his friends were from Main Line Philadelphia. H was prep school and I was Catholic nuns smacking my knuckles with a ruler. H was trust fund and I was work/study program to fund the education and the beer. H was Mayflower and I was Ellis Island. You get the picture. But the great thing about living at the beach is that it’s a leveller so, naively, I didn’t realize how monied H was or how blue his blood ran. I lived in a bikini and flip-flops and H was always in a t-shirt and madras Bermuda shorts. Okay, whatever, it was before the days of Abercrombie and he made madras look pretty damn sexy.

H loved Frank Sinatra. He played it all the time while he mixed martinis in a silver shaker. Honestly. H and I agreed that ‘The Great Gatsby’, the novel, is nigh on perfect. We loved the same books and discussed them passionately. We laughed at the same jokes. In short, we ‘got’ each other and that doesn’t happen everyday. I loved H’s friends and he loved mine. I never felt so at home in my life. Finally. My own kind.

As the summer wore on, H and I pledged our undying love. We talked for hours, lying in a sand dune, planning our future together. When he looked at me, I felt more beautiful than I had ever felt before and in his eyes I saw hope, love, acceptance, joy, and belonging. I saw my life spread out before me, in all its Technicolor glory, because H brought the colours alive in my black and white movie world. If I could have read his soul I would have seen the word mate etched across it.

The summer ended as it often does (‘The Summer Wind’) and the season was officially over. H drove me home and met my family who loved him. He was witty and funny and polite and handsome. What’s not to love? My bronzed god, my summer love, promised to keep in touch. We had already arranged visits between each other’s colleges and promised to call and write everyday. When we said goodbye, I wrapped myself up in his strong arms and breathed in the scent of him. I closed my eyes to imprint a memory that would carry me through the cold months of separation.

H invited me for Thanksgiving dinner at his McMansion. It was lovely—the house, not the chilly atmosphere. ('Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread')

‘Where do you come from, dear?’

‘Other-side-of-the-tracks Town, do you know it?’

‘Oh. I see.’

‘Is your family related to the ‘A’s’ of Bryn Mawr.’

‘Um, no, I don’t think so.’

‘What do you plan to do when you graduate?’

‘Well, I got an internship in New York City, working for X tv show. I’m an English Lit major so I could go into anything, really.’

‘Oh. I see. No real focus, then. Well, H is going to medical school. Private practice. The poor darling doesn’t really have a head for business like his father and brother, do you dear?’

‘No, I guess I don’t,’ mumbled H, turning ten shades of fuchsia. I gave him an encouraging smile and was rewarded with a grimace.

After dinner, H showed me around the house, pointing out the gigantic star chart on the wall. It tracked the progress of H and his siblings. Dean’s List, Olympic team try-outs for swimming, acceptance into Harvard MBA program.

‘Oh man, there’s a lot to live up to here. Don’t you get a star for nice things?’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know. Like remembering Mother’s Day or getting your chores done without being asked.’


‘Yeah, I see what you mean.’ They had a maid, for Chrissakes. She scurried past me in a uniform and white apron. Thanksgiving Day and the poor woman had to serve the Mayflower madam.

Soundtrack cuts to ‘I’m Beginning to See the Light’ and H explains that he needs to concentrate on school right now so his calls and writing might slack off in the lead-up to Christmas. I think we can all guess how this story ends (cue ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’). I saw H one more time. He visited my house over the Christmas break, bearing gifts, and told me that it couldn’t work out. H looked miserable---pale and gaunt—and he told me that he had developed an ulcer. Christ almighty. Bad livers, yes, but ulcers for college kids?

Years later, when I was living and working in Manhattan, I wondered if I would bump into him. He might be some fancy pants Park Avenue private practice doctor. But I never looked him up. For all our bravado, I could never be the Tracy Lord to his C.K. Dexter Haven in our version of The Philadelphia Story. Central Casting would have pegged me for the role of the wise-cracking reporter/photographer gal. And you know what? I’m okay with that. One more swell please, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me.’ Thanks for humouring me.

I wrote this post for Josie’s Writing Workshop at Sleep is for the Weak and chose the prompt Summer. Thanks, Josie, for your prompts and setting us loose with our own creativity, possibly not as dangerous as setting us loose with a box of matches but you never know. I’ve wanted to write for your workshop for months but keep missing it. Not this time though. Count me in. And thanks for all you do. Everyone, go check it out if you haven’t been there before.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Twizzlers, Root Beer, Cheez-its and My Credit Crunch Bloggy Lunch

A few weeks ago when the BBQ season had officially arrived, HRH and I were out in our postage stamp-sized garden, firing up the grill when my neighbor struck up a chat through the fence. Because we live in a fishbowl, a terraced house in London where everyone has done the side extensions in their kitchens, we’re used to our public lifestyle. If my neighbor is standing in her daughter’s bedroom on the first floor she can look down into my kitchen and vice versa. I never knew how detailed her view was until she started asking me for recipes for the food I’d made the previous evening.

Anyhow, my neighbor and I brought our glasses of wine to the fence and talked about warm-weather concerns---where to go for a good bikini wax, the best (cheapest, quickest, most hygienic) pedicure and the nicest spot for al fresco lunches. To be perfectly honest, I’m not a very high-maintenance girl and alluded to that through the fence.

‘I haven’t gotten my highlights done since January,’ I said.

‘Oh yes, credit crunch roots,’ she replied.

‘And you know I never go out to lunch. Unless it’s with the kids.’

‘That’s true. We’re good like that.’

HRH made a little throat-clearing sound which was not lost on the neighbor.

‘Perhaps, Nappy Valley Housewife, we should start leading the lives our husbands think we lead,’ she said.

‘Yes, make a reservation, dahling.’

So it was in that very spirit that I found myself heading out of Liverpool Street station on Saturday morning, on an Essex-bound train, all by myself. I met a few fellow bloggers in Saffron Walden for the expat meet-up. The absolutely fabulous and organized Michelle from Mid-Atlantic English picked me up at the station and kindly gave me a tour of the North Essex countryside. It was beautiful and green and covered in bluebells. Honestly, it was like a picture postcard, everything that Americans probably dream of when they try to conjure up an image of the English countryside.

We met the others at a local restaurant: Mike from Postcards from Across the Pond and his wife; Not From Around Here; and 3 Bedroom Bungalow. The great thing about meeting fellow bloggers besides, of course, getting out of the virtual world and into the real one is that you already have common ground. The fact that all the bloggers gathered were Americans made it that much easier to have a conversation. The conversation flowed, there were no awkward pauses and everyone was incredibly kind. It's kind of funny that whenever I get together with fellow American expats and we ask each other what we miss about America, the answers are mostly food-related.

The lunch was relaxed, friendly, fun, and entertaining. Who could ask for anything more from a lunch without the kids? Of all the positive things that blogging has brought into my life after only a few months, meeting the real people behind the blog has been the highlight to date. Social media networking is a great way to connect with people but email, twitter and blogging have their limits. There is still no substitute for sitting down with a person, talking to them face to face, and sharing a meal together. Oh, and I almost forgot--I'm pretty sure that Kat from 3 Bedroom Bungalow mentioned something about scoring some Twizzlers for me. At least I'm hoping. See that? Connections.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Is Brainy the New Black?

Last night I went to The School of Life. Don't laugh. I know what you're thinking. Sounds a bit hokey, maybe even nerdy, right? But it was great. The class was called 'How to Make a Difference.' I read about the school in January, in the Times Style Magazine and I was intrigued. Admittedly, reading about it in the Style Magazine was half the charm because it meant that intellectual can also be stylish. And I really liked the idea of sitting around and philosophizing freely, stretching the brain in a different direction, something that hasn't been a part of my daily life since my university days.

I had no idea what to expect. The school is in Bloomsbury so, romantically, I anticipated a bit of a Virginia Woolf Bloomsbury Group vibe. The class ran the gamut, from the lecturer quoting great philosophers to discussing people who effect change, anyone from a guy who has single-handedly improved his town by picking up rubbish everyday to Greg Mortenson, the adventurer who has dedicated his life to promoting education and literacy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We debated topics such as politics and power, cultural changes, and how it is far better to be a participant rather than a spectator in life. Through it all, there was a spirit of belief that each of us really could effect change in our own way. We broke into small groups and discussed what you would change in the world and how you would go about doing it. It was idealism peppered with realistic solutions. The group of 20-25 students were in their 30's and 40's, well-educated, well-dressed and with good jobs. We bonded over wine and baguettes stuffed with parma ham and rocket.

As I said to a a fellow student, 'I don't know what I expected. Maybe a group of zealots or soapbox warriors?'
She said, 'Yeah, but they wouldn't be here because they're far too busy saving the world.'
Good point.

On the way home, I started thinking about what really resonated for me. One of the things that the lecturer discussed is that it's dangerous to place a hierarchy on the good that people do. It's true that Bill Gates donates millions and millions of his own money to charitable causes but does that make his deeds more important than a parent who is raising responsible, kind, emotionally intelligent children? Maybe there is greatness in each of us. And maybe, in order to tap into that greatness, we first have to be honest with ourselves. We need to know who we truly are and to ensure that we're not operating on an empty reserve tank before we can give freely. That way, when an opportunity to make a difference does present itself, we will be in a position to do something about it. We don't have to be Mother Theresa to make a difference. Personally, I'm no saint and don't really want to be. But I quite like the idea of random acts of kindess or paying it forward. Anyway, it's all food for thought that I got from The School of Life.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Borneo, Bats and Vampires

Back in April I wrote a post about an upcoming camping trip and how I really did not want to go. But you know what? I loved it. Food tastes better when you cook it on a Coleman and eat it outside. We stayed dry and cozy in our tent and slept soundly on our air mattresses and duvets. For the first time in more years than I can count, I went horseback riding with Truly. We rode out on two treks through the beautiful New Forest and I felt so brave and adventurous and filled with joy, that fresh wonder you experience when you’re young and trying something for the first time.

So I got to thinking about other adventures that I never wanted to try but, when push came to shove (sometimes literally), I tried and ended up loving. And it doesn’t have to be adventurous. It could be a new way of approaching a problem, a different genre of books, a horror film that you enjoyed even though you’ve always hated horror films. So, off the top of my head, here are a few things that I ended up enjoying despite myself:

Trekking through the Rainforest in Borneo. I planned the wedding and HRH was in charge of the honeymoon. He kept it a surprise. On our way to the airport, he spilled the beans, and it all became clear why he kept the plans under his hat. The first week was to be the adventurous portion of the holiday and we would stay in Borneo, in the Mulu National Park. The second week was the luxury part, a week in Tanjong Jara on the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsula. I thought I would try to make it through the first half and be rewarded for my pain and suffering in the second half. But you know what? I loved Borneo. We watched millions of bats come out of Deer Cave, drank Tiger beers in a little dive bar, got soaking wet in the Rainforest, and got up close and personal with the orangutans. We ate street food, fresh produce and fish stir-fried in gigantic woks, and one of the dishes included chicken feet. I even tried spelunking, climbing and clawing my way through tight crevices in a cave, and sometimes wading through chest-deep water. The whole experience was completely exhilarating. The second half of the holiday was nice too but Borneo is the part I remember most.

Tarzania. A few years ago, we took my older daughter and my niece to one of those places where you attach yourself to a harness and a zip line and swing, ape-like, from tree to tree on a thick cable. My palms were sweaty and my stomach churned as I climbed the ladder to get to the jump-off point. Those trees were tall. I tried not to look down but who has that kind of self-control. After what seemed like a short lifetime compressed in a heart-flipping few moments, I let go and slid across the cable. It was fast. My stomach jumped into my throat and I couldn’t breathe. It was amazing. I went on to do the whole circuit.

The Twilight series. I really don’t like vampires. I never got into them. For years, Truly tried to get me to read the Twilight books and I resisted. Finally, I picked one up. I couldn’t put it down. I fell in love with Edward. And the thought of becoming a vampire was almost appealing, except for the staying out of the sun bit.

Yoga. I never wanted to jump on that whole yoga craze bandwagon. It seemed boring, something more suited for a vegan or a holistic medicine man or a joss stick burning meditating type, but not for me. Not that I have anything against all that but it’s not really me. Then a friend told me she was doing Ashtanga yoga and it was amazing and a great workout. Life-changing, she may have said. She mentioned Madonna and Sting. Have you seen Sting recently? Enough said. I tried it. Loved it. Ashtanga yoga is great.

The next thing on my list to try, something that has made me balk at the prospect for years, is the summer festival. HRH has been talking up Glastonbury since the day we met. No way, I said. Not me. Well, many summers have passed and I have finally purchased tickets for a festival. We're starting out with a family festival, Camp Bestival, which I first heard about through Deer Baby. The kids are excited. HRH is excited. I am embracing my adventurous side, the part of me that would normally say no, but has detoured into yes territory. So I am excited too. In fact, I've been reading up on the festivals and there are quite a few that appeal to me (I'd love to see Vampire Weekend). We may become the Festival Family. Although, it must be said that I did say ‘no way’ when HRH said he wanted to buy a camper van. Who knows what will be next on my list? Perhaps the best is yet to come. Can anyone else think of something they thought they would hate but ended up loving?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Sushi for Beginners

On Fridays Scrumptious only goes to school for a half day. That’s rather inconvenient, mostly because it means that she finishes school before eating her lunch or her afternoon snack. So it’s become our custom to stop at Waitrose and pick up a sandwich which she eats on the fly or on a park bench if we’re lucky enough to have sunshine. Last Friday we went to Waitrose and they didn’t have her usual ham and cheddar baguette. Scrumptious browsed the aisle and came back with a plastic container of edamame and a California roll which came with soy sauce in a plastic fish-shaped squeezy bottle. We sat on a bench and she ate her Japanese bento and I told her that I’d never even tried sushi until I was 21 years old.

‘Wow, Mummy, that is sooo old.’

Yeah, I thought, you don’t know the half of it. I won’t even tell you how many Prime Ministers have been carried over the threshold of 10 Downing Street since then.

I was 21 years old and working in a corporate office in Midtown Manhattan. Fresh off the boat from small-town America , I was so green the hayseeds hadn’t fallen out of my hair yet. There was a guy in the office, Charlie (Chaw-ley), a New Yorker born and raised. Charlie took me under his wing and taught me the ropes. He was a Vietnam vet, a Marine, and everything about him was square and wide and bigger than life---his jaw, his head, his shoulders and his personality. When he spoke it sounded like a foghorn. Charlie was a little bit crazy, an eccentric character, but in the very best way. The great thing about Charlie is that he never made you feel stupid for not knowing something. For someone who had learned about life through hard knocks and unspeakable horrors, he was a surprisingly gentle teacher. He was, as they say in New York, a real mensch.

Anyway, back to the sushi. One day Charlie told me he had a special surprise planned for me. We met at the elevators at noon and I followed him through the streets to a little restaurant. When we entered through the sliding door, it smelled of the sea and I could almost feel the brine tickle my nostrils. The restaurant was all blonde wood and clean and spare. Charlie said I didn’t need to see the menu because he would order for both of us. He didn’t start me out on California rolls either. Oh no, he was far too hard core for that. The sushi and sashimi came out on a wooden board with legs and they placed it in the middle of our table. I took the chopstick and gingerly nudged a piece of bright pink fish, so raw it quivered, and Charlie laughed. He showed me how to hold the chopsticks and in his big, square hands they looked so delicate and precarious. Then he showed me how to dip the sushi into wasabi and soy sauce. I dipped and ate and dipped and ate. I couldn’t get enough.

‘Do you want more?’ he asked.

‘Bring it on,’ I said.

I felt like Anthony Bourdain in ‘Kitchen Confidential.’ I couldn’t get enough. Who knew that raw fish with rice and seaweed and green horseradish could taste this good? There we were in this tiny little Japanese restaurant, the big burly New Yorker who had been around the block and had the scars to prove it and the fresh-faced kid in a navy blue Brooks Brothers suit and a white button down shirt. And we shared this common love. Sushi. I don’t know if that was the best sushi I ever ate but it was the first sushi I ever had. And even though I’ve had a lot of sushi since then, you never really forget your first time. When you’re trying something new or daring, I think it’s important to do it with someone who makes you feel comfortable. Can you remember your first time?