Friday, November 02, 2012

This and that

This week we attempted to toilet train our two and a half-year-old son. Toilet training a child is a bit like trying to blow up a balloon. Nothing nothing nothing nothing, and then pffft! it happens. Or in the case of toilet training the 'nothing' refers to: Pee in pants, pee in pants and on carpet, pee in pants and on kitchen floor, pee in pants and cry about wee burning legs, pee in pants and on leather sofa, pee on sister's bedroom chair causing her to lament and announce that such things shouldn't happen because she is the president of her room all the while wearing a revolted expression. The 'pffft!' or rather psssss moment happens when on day four, just when you are thinking the whole thing is a bloody waste of time, you've washed 32 mini boxer shorts and trousers, your child is clearly not ready, and the nursery school that requires him to be 'dry' can go, well, you know what itself, he walks into the room and announces, "Mummy come see, I did it!" and shows you a potty with wee in it. Not only that, but he then carries the potty to the toilet, empties it, and flushes it. 

The challenge of potting training is not so much about changing the fact that the child pees or poos in a nappy to doing so in a toilet or potty, although this is of course the end objective. But more so about them gaining awareness of the initial need or sensation of needing to urinate or defecate, and then having the time to get themselves to a toilet or potty to do their business rather than it being a reflexive action. That awareness is what is key, which is why you have to go through that cruel sounding business of them peeing in their pants so many times. It is the discomfort of that procedure that somehow causes the switch whereby they suddenly pause and think 'Hang on a second, I need to wee.' To my husband's credit, he is quite adamant that even if we leave the house we do not regress to nappy use, and instead take out several pairs of trousers and underpants so we can change my son if we need to. We use nappies just ahead of bedtime only, but increasingly these themselves are dry in the morning. 

So many of these little microcosmic moments with children act as metaphors for life, learning, and the human condition. Aside from the incredible love one experiences for one's children, it is one of my best things about parenting.

Separately, but not entirely unrelated, I saw my optician some months ago. The man who works the front of house was telling me about his baby. He told me how much he loved being a parent despite the sleepless nights. He didn't have to tell me about those - he looked pale, gaunt, and a bit unhealthy. I conceded it was a wonderful thing and also hard work. He looked at me like he was about to cry and then with a burst, of what I suspected was a bunch of stuff lying beneath the surface, blurted out "Oh my god it's hard, it is so hard. I am so exhausted. And I try and help my wife, but I also have work, and I love my child, but I really really struggle with it you know? And the baby cries a lot." And I said yes, I knew, and it was OK to have ambivalent feelings about being a parent which seemed to give him some relief.

I think a lot of people really struggle with how life changing the experience is. But to admit to, or voice the fact that they struggle, or that they sometimes miss their pre parent life, that they miss being an individual who has the freedom to come and go and make choices without the enormous responsibility (physical and emotional) of having to consider a small person or several small people, feels like committing a kind of blasphemy.

To miss being able to lie in in the mornings, to go out and have a night of excess without worrying that you may have to get up in the night to see to a child, or achingly early the next morning to do the same.To be able to make love without the risk of a child walking in on you. Likewise going to the toilet. To book adventurous holidays where you don't have to worry about it being child friendly. To enjoy getting lost in a strange city. To eat popcorn for dinner instead of having to conjure a nutritious meal that inevitably gets only partially eaten - if at all. To lie at the pool and read a book until your fall asleep. To sit down and write when inspiration takes you, or play a video game, or read a book, without being asked to wipe a bottom or fetch a drink. To have a conversation with your partner when the need arises, as opposed to having to wait until evening when the children are in bed and you are too exhausted. And to be able to have an afternoon nap on the weekends. Ahh yes, the afternoon nap.

I think it's OK to say, you know, I miss this stuff, I really do, and I hate the worry that comes with being a parent - that constant overwhelming worry, which I'm told never stops, even when they are older and greying themselves. And at the same time saying this, acknowledging it, doesn't mean I don't love my children enormously and delight in their company, or that I wish them away.

I think much of the human condition, what makes us unique and interesting, is that we can have these mixed feelings about things. That it doesn't have to be one or the other because if it's the other, well then, I am a terrible person. It is important to embrace one's ambivalence for the sake of one's sanity. Oh yes, and a sense of humour. I am eternally grateful to god, the gods, evolution, science, the universe, the Spiritus Mundi - whatever you choose to believe in that had a hand in our making, for blessing us with the capacity for humour. It is, in my opinion, next to the opposable thumb and oxygen, essential and life sustaining.

I asked a mum of three this week (three under 5's - can you imagine?) how she manages, and she told me matter of frankly, "Wine, a glass of wine in the evenings. It's the only way I can do it." And then we discussed the merits of box wine, and having your tubes tied. She also looked me squarely in the eye and said, "And that thing people tell you about the difference between having two children and three not being so noticeable is a load of bollocks."

So, TV, I am really enjoying the new HBO series, 'Girls.' There is some homage within the programme and comparison in the reviews to the 'Sex and the City' TV series. I used to love SATC but thought the earlier series were better. They were gritty, well written and to a greater extent, certainly more so than the movies, a more realistic representation of life, and how some women think, talk and interact. Later they became, I don't know, some sort of fantasy aspirational world that annoyed me. Girls reminds me a lot of that early SATC stuff - very gritty, and frankly even more cringe worthy and difficult to watch at times. Despite the comparison - I don't entirely feel like I've seen it before, which in this day and age of remake after remake, is saying something. Also the narrative doesn't feel entirely predictable which is another achievement I think.  

I recently travelled to South Africa for my cousin's wedding. So there I am at the airport at immigration and the immigration officer, a surly man (immigration officers are always surly, I concede) asks me, "So, you are a South African citizen. Where is your SA passport?" Me: "No, I am a British citizen". Him: "Do not lie to me! You are South African, it is in the system." Me: "It is true I was born here and lived here, but I renounced my South African citizenship back in 2003 by failing to renew my passport and requesting dual citizenship." 

For people, like me, who were born in South Africa and are in possession of a SA passport, expired or not, there is some strange rule, that is causing much confusion even for the South African immigration department. It appears that if you are a South African citizen you must travel there on your South African passport, irrespective if you have another passport and are a citizen elsewhere.  I believe I got off lightly, because there is risk of arrest for not doing so. But then there is that weird thing about having renounced your citizenship, which is what I cited, which appears to be the loophole. To be honest no one really knows what the hell it's all about and exactly what the rules are - just be forewarned.

He gave me the third degree and a very hard time for renouncing (not consciously but more so through carelessness and ignorance) my SA citizenship, and told me that South Africa would always be my country, that my family and friends were there and that it was my home (wtf???!!!) and I should travel in on my SA passport in future. And I stood there feeling anger rise up inside of me because this man knew nothing about me or my life. And I felt like saying: 'Actually, you know, its not my country any more, I have very few family members still here likewise friends, and it's not my home and it hasn't been for some time. Home is where you make it, where your heart is, and for me this is where my family and my life is, where I earn my living and pay my taxes, and a country that has been good to me. And for me this is England and it has been for the past 15 years. And really all I want to do is come here for a long weekend, see my sisters, see my cousin get married, and spend my British pounds in your country. So for f-sakes, let me in already.'

But of course I didn't, because I needed to get on the other side of him so I could begin my short holiday. So I did what any other self respecting person in that position does, I rose up to my full height and lied: I agreed and said, "Yes, yes, you are quite right, this is home and I do miss it so. I will look into the matter of getting my dual citizenship reinstated asap, and I'll renew my passport." Which seemed to placate him and he waved me through with an undisguised look of repugnance on his face. Once on the other side my sister found the whole thing uproariously funny and said, "Oh, boy, that is funny, but you know what would have been even funnier? If they had given you a cavity search!" Yup, for that I nearly got arrested.

I enjoyed my stay, however brief. But Johannesburg has changed a lot since I lived there 15 years ago, and even from when I visited three years ago. There are people on pretty much every street corner hawking their wares or holding up cardboard signs begging for money - there is tremendous and visible poverty. And every time you park your car, even for 5 minutes,  someone asks for money to watch it for you so it doesn't get stolen or damaged - like it's a given that theft or damage is an inevitability. Not that I'm sure it's that easy to steal cars what with the state of the art laser beam shark infested moat technology they have over there, which is, tragically, why hijackings exist I imagine. And for those of you planning a visit thinking your pounds or dollars are going to give you an inexpensive holiday, think again. Inflation means food is pricey as are clothes and gifts. Still, there is fun to be had, and I regret not having a bit more time to catch up with those of my friends who have not scattered to the four corners of the world.

I recently sold my DSM IV - that is the bible of psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychotherapists - and translates to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I purchased it back in university, back at a time in my life when I genuinely intended to become a psychologist.  Later I started doing my masters degree, but things happened, well, life happened, and I didn't continue with it. My mother fervently believes I missed a beat and should go back to it. But I think I am genuinely OK with the fact that it's not something I want to do with my life any more - ergo the exodus of textbooks via eBay from my collection.

A friend of mine has been selling his textbooks too (an unrelated subject)  - another shutting of a door on something he thought, at some point in his life, he was going to do. I asked him how he felt about letting go of that chapter, and he said he found the experience strangely liberating, and I know what he means. Sometimes you hold on to this stuff from year to year despite you and your life changing. Like it somehow, I don't know, means something and would be an irreversible tragic loss if you were to give it up. And in reality it can just be clutter in your life, emotionally and spatially, and you need to move on and look to the future.

A few of my friends have been or are about to turn 40 and there's a lot of talk of the 'This is not where I thought I would be' variety going on. I'm not entirely sure where I thought I would be at 40. As a child I  remember loving a TV programme called 'Hart to Hart' - a husband and wife team, who along with their faithful dog and butler, had thrilling adventures mostly with them stumbling upon mysteries and crimes that needed solving, while living a fabulous millionaire's lifestyle of course. She also had great big auburn hair and a to die for wardrobe. I had no desire to play house and certainly no interest in having children - so I aspired to this jet set crime solving future. Later, when I became a teenager, I seriously doubted I'd ever find anyone to match my cynicism and love of Yoko Ono, and imagined myself in the future being single, driving an old Chevy (???), and living in an apartment exactly like the character Brontë's in 'Green Card'. I'd most likely be a writer or director, and have very interesting friends and fabulous affairs with brooding men in black polo neck jumpers, but never a husband.

And fast forward, not quite to 40, and I have a wonderfully good humoured and not in the least bit brooding husband (who occasionally wears black polo neck jumpers) and two lovely funny children, and I'm a stay at home mother and a not quite published writer.  A friend of mine who writes, occasionally asks me how I feel about not quite writing and being a stay at home mother, like she's expecting me to say how frustrated and unhappy I am about it all, but strangely enough, I'm not. I get days when I want to write and I cannot (see earlier paragraphs) and I feel annoyed and I have fantasies of living in the Brontë flat, but mostly I'm actually enjoying what I do now.  Raising my children and trying to give them a good start in life and a happy childhood; a job which is hard work, fun, frustrating, wonderful, exhausting, and all that mixed bag stuff being a parent involves. And when the time is right the other stuff will happen. In the mean time it's all part of the material.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The colour of love

Recently I had reason to call the Clairol hair dye hotline number. You know the one printed on the incredibly detailed instructions leaflet. For years I genuinely believed it to be a ghost number, or at the very least, one of those automated phone maze nightmares that goes nowhere except to elevate your blood pressure. But low and behold, after only two or so number pressing options, I got through to a real live person.

Theresa sounded bored. I imagined her sitting alone, in a factory-sized call centre somewhere in the desert (cheap rent), with every other desk empty. She'd be well dressed, with full makeup, holding her handbag - the only person to man the phones since no one ever calls that number anyway. Well, no one but me that is.

The presenting problem was that the 'medium auburn' shade in their Natural Instincts Creme range, didn't come out so much medium auburn as it did raspberry. And I'll be dammed, if after the fact, I didn't look at the top of the pack and see it actually says 'Raspberry Creme/Medium Auburn.' Not on the front by the good looking airbrushed model where it only says '23R Medium Auburn', but on the top! Which bloody genius came up with that I'd like to know? And I'll go further, your honour, and ask, in what way does the colour raspberry have anything to do with the hair shade auburn? 

I had visions of turning out looking like Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic, or Charlotte Rampling in Stardust Memories (although it was shot in black and white so who knows what her real colour was?), or vintage Jane Fonda (her Hanoi Jane days) - but not actual raspberry. And trust me, it was raspberry. 'Good lord, I've royally screwed up my hair this time,' I thought to myself. And there is a lot of hair to screw up at the moment, what with it nearly reaching to the small of my back.

Before I left England I texted my lovely stylist Ross and asked him what the store-bought equivalent of my colour was so I could DIY it. I mean, who doesn't trust a cheap off the shelf solution over a myriad of qualified professionals in New York right? Well, er, stupid me that is, on some illogical level. I don't know what I was thinking. In London I would never dream of doing my own hair colour because, well, it could turn out raspberry and there is a lot of it. I think we covered this already. So maybe I was swept up with the romantic atmosphere that is the K-Mart hair dye aisle and I thought 'What the hell?' But Ross wisely advised me that I should avoid a DIY job, and he would send me the colour spec to pass on to a NY stylist.  He didn't, but then I forgot to remind me, or ask him, or whatever.

So back to Theresa. Theresa, in her bored 'I'm the only person in this creepy Mexican call centre factory' voice, asked me if my hair was lighter or darker than a glass of red wine. Me: 'Well which wine in particular? Merlot, Shiraz, or perhaps a fence sitting slightly loose on morals Rose? And what year?' OK, so I didn't ask her that. Theresa didn't strike me as one who wanted to discuss vintage versus drinkable, and she genuinely sounded like someone who wanted to get back to the serious business of being bored.

Eventually we established the exact hue my hair had turned out; Me: "Um, well, it's kind of violet, but more magenta than a true orange red, and it's well, it's not quite purple, but it's sort of pinkish, but more on the red side of pinkish." Sheesh.  If the eejit that is me had looked on the top of the box as opposed to just the front, well I would never have used it in the first place. But, in the real world, if I had looked at the top of the box I would have realised that the product had indeed done exactly what it had said on the box, and that I wouldn't need to fish around for pantone adjectives. My hair was, quite accurately, raspberry. Evidently Theresa had had more than one person call her in her experience of being the hotline hair dye screw up adviser, and she cut to the chase. She advised me to get another specified shade, mix all the components with an equal amount of shampoo (any shampoo she answered), and keep it in for 10 minutes or so but checking it every 3 or so minutes.

You may be surprised to learn that I have not taken her advice. Not because I don't believe she is qualified enough in the area of 'holy shit this is not the colour on the model on the box', field of expertise,  but  right now I am employing the 'rather the raspberry devil you know than the total f**k up you may know' kind of thinking. The good news is that it's a 28 washes out kind of thing, and as I wash my hair every day, I'm living in hope. Or rather, I'm hoping that it washes out of my hair better than it does out of my towels, which still resemble a rag in a butcher's shop. I have also booked the first available appointment with my stylist back in London to try and remedy the situation. I can see him looking at me with genuine pity, but not saying anything. He will try and be upbeat about the whole thing, but I know that deep in his heart, after our nine year relationship, he'll feel as though something has fundamentally changed between the two of us. It reminds me of that fantastic movie Steel Magnolias where Dolly Parton's character says, "Never trust a woman who does her own hair."

Today at the Children's Museum of the East End, a nanny asked me to keep any eye on a brother and sister that were sharing the table with my two at lunch, while she nipped to the loo. I asked the inconceivably beautiful boy (think model/air stewardess mother and millionaire father, or the other way around) what his name was. "Noah," he said in a nonchalant voice, blinking at me through his shaggy white-blonde hair with big blue eyes. This kid was already cool and has a whole bunch of coolness in his future, I could tell. His equally beautiful little sister piped in, "And I am Ella. He is six and I am three. We also have a bigger brother who is eight." Me: "Ah, and where is he today? Noah: Nonchalantly (of course), "Playing golf. This is one of the days he plays golf. He plays golf twice a week." Me: "Of course, as one does."

At the risk of generalising (so much fun and so much easier to support ones weak to begin with argument) a lot of women around here, including the mother of Noah and Ella and their golf-playing sibling I bet, are blond. Which of course serves as a painful reminder of how lovely my professionally salon coiffed blond streaked hair used to be before I screwed it up with my DIY crappy raspberry debacle.  But I digress. And they are also very thin and muscular. OK, so I have never been really thin and muscular - which saves a clever anecdotal comparison in this respect. Also they are usually in gym clothes, which may have something to do with a phenomenon, because that's what Vanity Fair are dubbing it, called SoulCycle around here. 

Basically a spinning class in a barn in Bridgehampton, with a sort of hotbox yoga temperature going on. But wait, there's more! The instructor shouts out motivational stuff to you while you are sweating like a madman. Things like: 'Be the same person you are on the outside as you are on the inside!' and 'Buy buy buy, sell, sell, buy!' (OK this last one not really). Apparently everyone gets into this heady psychobabble trance while losing half their body fat and getting buns of steel, and it's the most popular and sought after thing on the planet that is New York right now. And made even more so because as with most really really clever marketing ploys, they make it really really hard to get a place in the class, and really really pricey. Which, let's face it, rich people love. Really expensive and really exclusive. Genius.

Our house is on a busy road, which used to really bother me, but now, amazingly, I find the noise rather comforting, especially late at night. I'll hear a lone car whizz past and I imagine it's driver sitting there in the dark with the lights flashing across his face. A hamburger (cheese and bacon, naturally) on the seat next to him, a large coke in the drink holder, and something like Hendrix, but with a beat, playing on the radio. He is off on some or other cool mission. Like returning to a warm bed and an equally warm and sleepy unsuspecting girlfriend after months on an oil rig. Or perhaps off somewhere to reclaim a piece of land won in a half-forgotten poker game by a long lost grandfather. Yup, you can see I'm really mainlining Americana.

But I do find it comforting. It reminds me of a few years back being in Japan with my husband on the 30 somethingth floor of a hotel and waking up in the middle of the night in the midst of an earthquake. Our hotel was swaying, and the building opposite was swaying, and we were filled with the unquestionable certainty that we were going to die. And then, for some strange reason, I looked down, and I saw cars on the street below. And their lights were on, and they were driving along, and I thought, 'OK, so there are cars, and people driving those cars, so it's OK, we are going to be OK.' Now I realise this 2 plus 2 equals 9 manner of thinking can land you in all sorts of trouble. But you know, in this instance, it was kind of essential if the choice of expiration was between only the potential of being swallowed by a crack in the floor, and the certainty of self induced neurotic heart failure. At least that's my thinking. 

There's been all this talk about this crazy woman dubbed Tiger Mom. She wrote this book and contentious article about how Chinese mothers kick ass with their children which is why they do so much better at school, the violin, chess, etc. Her tone is superior, defensive, and well, crazy, so a lot of people disregard her off the bat. I tried to withhold knee jerk judgement and read the article, and there are bits and pieces that weren't all that bad, in and amongst the borderline abusive crazy that is. I think what stuck with me is that you have to kick a bit of ass with your kids sometimes, to you know, get them to do stuff and develop into human beings with some motivation and aspirations that extend beyond a desire to watch Dora the Explorer all day. And there is something to be said for instilling a work ethic. Even Hemingway, a functional or dysfunctional alcoholic, depending on how your view his work, never drank while he was writing and allocated morning till, probably cocktail hour, where he sat down and wrote come hail or high water.

Another article, by a much less crazy person, supports the well documented and tested argument that children should not be told how smart they are, but rather that tasks are achievable through hard work. In several experimental scenarios, the sample group who are told they are 'smart' lose confidence with increasingly difficult puzzles and don't even want to attempt them because they don't want to risk losing their status as being smart. Whereas the other group tackled the tough tasks with a lot of success. The article also had a massive impact on me (because I am guilty of it) because it discusses how people effectively rob young children of their yearned-for autonomy.

My son, at just over two, is incredibly independent. He will shout and scream if you try and do something for him, "I do it, I do it, I do it!!!" From buckling himself into his stroller, to walking down the stairs, to brushing his teeth, to eating, to well, everything except dressing himself (for now). My daughter at this age was the same. Now some people muscle right over their  kids and do stuff for them anyway, because, well, it saves time and mess, and its done 'right'. And I wonder at what point children have their instinctive independent spirit broken and think to themselves, 'You know, what the hell, it's not worth the fight. Let them feed me/brush my teeth/ put my shoes on.' Fast forward 30 or so years, and people are scratching their heads wondering why their son won't leave home and still asks his parents for petrol money.

I too muscled over my kids a lot of the time until I read the article, and it had such an impact on me that I not only stopped doing it, I have since increasingly encouraged them to do things for themselves. And here's the really cool science bit of it, they are not only up to the challenge but often do stuff that totally surprises me. The other day, without me ever having asked him to, my two year old son got home, took off his shoes, and took them to the hall closet and put them away with all the other shoes. He has done it every day since. My daughter now sings to her brother at night ( they share a room while we are on holiday), which means he no longer gets out of bed like a Jack in the box. Thanks to her  my husband and I have our evenings back - praise the lord!!!

It's like kids have this instinctive need to do things on their own so they can learn and grow, and if you encourage it, they go on to do even cooler things all of their own accord. What a great discovery.

And for those of you thinking I am bragging about my superior insights into children, let me share the following with you: My husband has been travelling back and forth to London over the summer, which means I do the heavy lifting with the kids in his absence. I have a heaven-sent lady who pronounces four as 'faw' and sure as 'shoewa' (I love the Long Island accent) come and help me for a few hours in the afternoons during the week, but the rest I am doing solo. And you know that's fine because let's face it, the majority of the world's population survive looking after their kids and doing housework and it doesn't scar them, well, not too much. 

Anyway, so I am at the beach, it's a Sunday, my husband has flown off to London and I'm taking the kids for some late afternoon fun before we start the evening routine of dinner, bath, stories and bed time. So one of them, my daughter, is on this really precarious (surprisingly so for Über cautious litigious USA that is), climbing frame living out some kind of circus girl/ferret fantasy, and my son is slowly disappearing up a grassy knoll that the local dogs favour for their toilet, while simultaneously, I hasten to add, attempting to take off his nappy.The last clean one I have with me.

Me: "Please don't climb any higher, I have a bad back and I cannot come up there after you. Don't go any further! Dammit, do not walk over there, there is doggy poo-poo. For Christ sakes, do not remove your nappy. No!!! Please get off that bloody thing, you are going to hurt yourself. No, we are leaving now. Come back here, come back here, do not go any further. No! Dont' take off your nappy. For god sakes, will you please stop climbing that bloody thing!"

I am not exaggerating. A relaxed, tanned father stood by with his mouth open in what was obviously shock. I'd like to say awe, but even I am not that delusional. I felt like saying, 'Really I'm not usually like this, it's just well, it's been a long day, and my husband travels a lot, and well, it's really tough keeping an eye on two in a place like this.' But I thought, no, one of these days he will be minus his (very attractive and suggestively dressed, in a cut off jean shorts and small T-shirt-kind of way) nanny, and he will know exactly what I am going through. Or maybe he won't and I really am just neurotic, impatient and profane.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It's the little differences

One of my favourite memories as a child is shopping with my mother. It' so simple really, but it meant that for that hour or two I had her absolutely to myself, while my siblings were at school. It also meant that while she was choosing condiments she could chat with me, and pay me attention, without being totally engrossed with the housework, the cooking and the ironing. Things which managed to be a full-time occupation for her with four children and a stoic refusal to hire help.

I don't take my children shopping if I can help it. They hate it, probably because they so seldom do it with me. In this wondrous time of internet shopping for everything from groceries to shoes, my kids are more used to the Amazon delivery guy than the inside of a mall. I think a 20 minute visit to Tesco to get the daily shop is probably their limit, and only because it usually involves the promise of Hula Hoops or a doughnut. I tried to sell Isaac on the wonders of K-Mart over here, but he was having none of it. He kept pointing to things in the trolley and saying 'Have it peas,'and I'd respond with, 'Why do you want my exfoliating cotton pads?' If I did give in, it involved the inevitable consumption of plastic or cardboard. A bad idea, and one I won't repeat if I can help it. 

My husband is planning a trip to the aquarium in Riverhead with the children this week, which means one thing and one thing only for me: Being dropped off at TARGET!!! I love love love Target. My friend Lori calls is the 100 dollar store, because she says despite the good value of its merchandise, you never leave without spending less than 100 dollars. Think Ikea mixed with a mega Boots, mixed with a Toys R Us, mixed with, well, you get the picture. They have everything and anything at great prices.

I've been trying to find help to clean my house here in the Hamptons and it's proving about as easy as acquiring the holy grail. We had one woman, which our friends here use, come on a Monday and agree with me to come every Monday thereafter. Trust me I would have liked her to come more often than once a week, but desperation made me agree to it. The following Sunday evening I texted her to confirm the time - no answer. The Monday I made two calls and left two messages and to date have not heard back. You might think she didn't like me, but I was in New York City at the time she cleaned my house, so I can't take credit for that. Mysterious. When I asked our friends if they had any ideas,  they shook their heads and said, "Yeah, well, Suzie can be a bit flaky." And that was that.

My friend then sent in her other cleaner, an attractive Eastern European woman. She arrived while I was home and seemed nice enough. She explained that the summers were crazy busy and she wasn't sure if she could fit me in again before we left for London. She did 3 hours, charged me $69 dollars and didn't even manage to make the beds. Her work was, well, perfunctory.

Yesterday I emailed a cleaning agency service that is apparently based in our town and as yet have heard nothing back. I wonder if news from London about my anal cleaning requirements have made it across the pond.

The pool guys arrived on Monday. I know this because as I was making a cup of tea at 8.30am I saw two young men in my yard cleaning the pool with the pool cover only three quarters of the way retracted, and pregnant with rain water on top. I asked them if they had heard of arriving at someone's home and announcing themselves first, you know, the small matter of ringing the bell or knocking on the front door before entering the property through the back gate. They looked confused. Then I asked them if they planned on pumping the water off of the pool cover so that they could fully retract it and clean beneath it. A lot of umming and ahhing as though what I had proposed what a totally novel idea. 

Today I found the local Thai/Mexican nail bar and had a pedicure. The girls kept asking me what different treatments cost in London, whistled through their teeth, and then said something to each other in what I can only describe as a Thai/Mex pigeon language. I tried explaining that the prices I was telling them were those charged by a single beautician that had her own business, but that you could also find larger nail bars that charged pretty much the same as they did.  But they were so fixated with the previous more expensive estimates I had cited, that I wouldn't be surprised if a new price board goes up tomorrow.

I take my children to this fantastic place called the CMEE - the Children's Museum of the East End. It is a haven for the under 5 crowd - full of pretend play stations (a pirate ship, a fire truck, an old fashioned diner where you can pretend pull sodas etc), an art room that anyone can use at any time (stocked with art supplies), and a great outside play area. It's always interesting to observe how kids play, and more interestingly, how parents allow their children to play. More often than not you see kids engrossed in an activity, really focused and enjoying themselves, and then a parent will say in an uber enthusiastic voice, "Come on Kennedy, let's go see something else. Come on, come on, let's go and do X Y or Z!" The child reluctantly stopping what they are doing before being dragged off to the next attraction.

I do wonder if this short attention span by proxy contributes later to children having to be constantly entertained or even lacking the ability to sit still and focus on a single activity for an extended period of time. One of the best bits of advice I got from my a friend when I had my daughter was to not feel the need to constantly stimulate my baby. That it was important at certain times of the day that she was allowed to lie on her play mat with her toys and just play by herself (me being there naturally), not to be interrupted if she was involved in an activity, and to let her figure things out - i.e. not always rush to step in and solve a task she is trying to tackle herself. It was invaluable advice and I think it continues to be important for children of all ages.

There's a very relaxed attitude around here, which probably accounts for the pool guys just entering through the back gate and getting on with their job, albeit in a half arsed manner. And although it irritated me, I also quite like the trusting nature of it. And how I come home and there's a delivery sitting on my porch (I love that word 'porch'), or by the garage, as opposed to that ever irritating note in the postbox 'We tried delivering but you weren't home, your parcel is at *indecipherable scribble*'. It feels like the way the world used to be before it became such a paranoid place, or I became such a paranoid person. Sag Harbor is also a historical town and a lot of the houses here date back to whaling times. The church over the road from us, with the Reverend Michael Jackson in the house, has a secret entrance to an underground tunnel from a front row pew where slaves (freed by the whalers), would duck into when there were raids. When you walk down the street you could be in any era, and it's only the cars that give it away.

A friend of mine came to visit and her opinion is that people here are abrupt. I can't say that's my experience, although there is a somewhat different way of interacting that's, well, different from London. I'd say people talk straight and are quite open and chatty. They'll think nothing to ask you where you are from, what you do, and how the money in that is. Fairly intimate questions given you have never met them before and only happened upon them because your animal-mad daughter is stroking their dog on the street.

My experience of living in London for going on 15 years is that people don't really like to talk about money. It's considered bad taste and leaves them feeling very uncomfortable. It's one thing saying, 'Oh I bought this dress at Zara on sale', and quite another talking about the cost of your holiday to Barbados, even if it is by way of griping about it. Whereas here it doesn't appear such a taboo. 

They have all the back to school stuff on display here, as I imagine the London shops do too, what with school starting in September. I still get a wave of excitement when I see all that lovely brightly coloured stationary. I love it, and it was the single thing that made me look forward to each new school year. My mother would always let me choose new stuff, and then we had to cover our books and the choosing of the wrapping paper or picture for each exercise book was a whole other bag of joy. Yep, times were different back then as were expectations, although Julia is very keen on the idea of having her own pencil case and scissors with her name on.

We like to eat in the local Thai restaurant called Phao. It's really really good, by any standards - NYC or London. Twice now we've had the same waitress who talks and behaves like someone that is more comfortable smoking interesting cigarettes and surfing than serving food. She'll come round and ask you how your food is and before you've had a chance to lower your fork and respond she says, 'Excellent riiiight?' One day, just to see her reaction, I'd like to interject, 'Actually no, it's bloody awful.' 

The weather here has been beautiful. Perhaps three days where it has rained part of the day and one day where it was a rainy day. But in three weeks of vacation, I can handle that. I think I was becoming depressed in London. It's worse when you have small children because there are only so many indoor activities you can do with them including painting, play dough, watching Diego, baking, and preventing them from injuring themselves as they race around the furniture in an attempt to expend all that energy. And yes, there are the indoor play places like Topsy Turvy, but that requires driving to and there are days you just want to plonk them outside with a sandpit and read a magazine instead of schlepping around in rainy London traffic.

I can see it with the little kids in my music class. When the weather is good (hard to remember when that was), they seem more relaxed and focused. When it's been a week of rain or more, its like a scene from the Battleship Potemkin. I spend the half hour shout-singing over the chaos of crazed cabin feverish toddlers and wondering why it is I'm doing this again.

I don't think I'm alone when I say the morbid weather in England has prompted a serious consideration to move somewhere where our children can have a more outdoorsy life. But then I get an email from Hobbs showing their new autumn collection which is stunningly Hitchcock in its silhouette. And then there's the promise of my lovely, sane, and regular cleaner who will be there to take care of our home when we get back. Did I mention regularly? And I think, well maybe, just maybe, I can handle a bit of rain.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

And the think that he thunk...

I have a guilty confession to make - I've just purchased one of those wooden board signs that has a little message or mantra on it. You know, the kind that says 'You are the milk in my coffee, the shoelace in my sneaker, the sick bucket when I read this schmaltz.' OK, so mine isn't of that particular ilk, something my high school art teacher would call a definitive example of kitsch. But the one I happened upon has a message on it I liked, and I thought I might get away with putting it in a house by the sea. The message is one I keep coming back to in my own interior musings - the need to simplify. And I like the idea of cooking, or sitting on the loo (I've yet to decide where I'm going to put it), and meditating on those words.

There's something about being on holiday or indeed sleeping on a friend's sofa in a time of need that teaches you an important lesson: You do not need a bunch of stuff to live, and I'd go further and say you do not need a bunch of stuff to be happy. It's often the simplest things that make us happiest, and indeed simplifying the way we live and the way we approach things is fundamental to finding some sort of centerdness or peace I think. At least this is true for me. 

Back in London and keeping with the theme of simplifying, I'm seriously considering getting one of those home organiser people in ahead of our house move next year. You know, the kind you see on Oprah, only less irritating. I want someone to help me organise my house because I feel overwhelmed by all the stuff I have to sort through. I remind myself that the clutter is a direct result of not actually having time on my hands to sort through it regularly, because I have two small children, one of which is a toddler that is not in nursery and who has recently dropped his daytime nap. And then there is the small matter of me having an unhealthy need to accumulate that I don't quite understand. We also have a garage full of things that was previously in storage that my husband is threatening to get rid of en masse. Some of the boxes contain my diaries (a lifelong compulsion to document long before blogs were invented), and there's the usual old household stuff from both my husband and my previous lives etc. But an hour here and there is not going to cut it, I genuinely need a week to deal with it, and then probably some more on top to eBay some things. That's why maybe it might just be easier to get some help - someone who is not going to spend an hour musing over the nostalgia of a pile of old dusty stuff, but just sort it out matter of factly, and hopefully, quickly.

To my credit, I have began to put some things onto a website called Freegle - which allows people to give away or ask for things but without any money involved. Basically a recycling system. If you need a baby stair gate or a table for your garage etc, someone on there is bound to have one they are getting rid of. I imagine there is the odd reprobate that gets free stuff only to go and sell it on eBay, but as with most situations in life I think the majority of people are inherently honest and it's only a handful by comparison, that aren't. I also figure that if someone is really hard up and takes something from me only to sell it and use the money to say, stave off the menacing advances of a muscled debt collector, then who am I to judge right? It all comes down to the same thing in the end - helping people out.

In the last month, my children have started to play together. Not parallel play, but interactive play. My son turned two in May, and come to think of it I remember my daughter moving from parallel to interactive play around that time too. It's a joy, genuinely. For the most part they get on really well - and their play involves her dictating some overly complicated rules which he ignores. But mostly he is just happy to be a part of whatever she is doing. Sounds a bit like the modern relationship between men and women right? Sometimes their play is more wrestle mania than happy families, but they are playing and interacting and I can really see their relationship taking shape. She recently told me that one day she will pay him to be the father of her children. I considered launching into a discussion detailing the downside of doing business with family, but opted instead for an 'Oh really? Well that sounds interesting,' response. I have to confess this is fast becoming my rote response to a lot of the quirkier things she comes up with these days.

I recently watched the film Cinema Vertite - a film about the first reality TV show following a family in 1970's America. A true story. None of the staged rubbish you see today that bills itself as 'reality TV', but genuine documentary stuff, warts and all. And they weren't paid, which I think makes all the difference on both sides of the arrangement. 

Overridingly it's about the breakdown of a marriage and breakup of the family, which was purely coincidental. I.e. at the outset the producer wanted to make a documentary about a typical (albeit middle class) family, and while they are making it, the wife finds out about her husband's numerous infidelities and the marriage unravels in front of the cameras. So it's not exactly cheerful stuff, although there are definitely some lovely moments. What I took away from it was the closeness of the family, especially the children - of which there were four. Whenever I see big families I think to myself, 'Ah, it would be nice to have a big(ger) family.' But (and there's always a but with me when it comes to this), I think I'm done with having babies. Perhaps if my husband and I had met earlier and started having our children earlier, then maybe, but not now.

We are just over the hump of that really tough baby and teetering injury prone toddler stage, and while my son cannot yet be trusted on his own (he has the knack of a bloodhound for sniffing out electrical wires or carefully hidden bottles of bleach), I can now put the children into my bedroom with a bunch of toys or Diego on my iPad and steal a quick shower. Make that a very quick shower. And with them playing together it's even easier. They also now play together while I cook, which is a heaven send.

There are moments I look at the two of them and wish I could bottle this time. A time, while exhausting, where my children are so incredibly loving and cute and in need of me. And while there are days I'd love to just sit and read a copy of Vanity Fair with my feet up instead of managing WW III between them, I remind myself that this time when your children think you are everything, and are desperate for your touch and to be in your company, and to please you, and for you to acknowledge how special they are, and where they ask you to sing for them and sing along with you, and they run around naked, and think it's uproariously funny when you tell them they have smelly bottoms, and well I could go on. All of this, in the broader scheme of things, constitutes a very small window in your life and theirs. And it's wise to acknowledge this, slow down, be present, and enjoy it. The other stuff - the vacuming, the laundry, the magazine reading, the sorting out of boxes - all of that crap can wait. It will be there tomorrow and it will always be there. Whereas this time, this right now, will not.

I struggle even to remember, in a tangible physical sense, my daughter as a baby. I have photos and films I've made, but even those are somehow fleeting and transient, as the moments themselves. It reminds me of a couple of years ago sitting in an airline lounge - my husband and I each with a child on our laps either reading to them or playing dollies. And another family with older children at the opposite table - every family member on a device of sorts - the iPad, the iPhone, the Nintendo - everyone absorbed in his or her activity and not really communicating. The mother and I looked at each other with what felt like a mutual thought: 'That looks like bliss'.

I hear the thoughts of the mothers and fathers reading this who say, 'Yes, that's all very well and fine, but we still need the time outside of our children to do things; work, run a house, study, have an uninterrupted thought etc' and I agree. My son will start nursery come September - three hours in the morning. And you bet your bottom dollar I will be having a coffee with my friends on ocassion, one I will get to finish without raisins being dropped in it, and without having to stop my son from struggling out of his high chair in an attempt to run wild. I will start sorting through my cluttered house. I will start getting my book together and start sourcing potential publishing houses (and anticipate the inevitable rejection letters). I will call friends I have long since deserted. I will reply to emails. I might even sneak in the occasional cookery class. Oh yes, and I will probably get on with work I have promised people and failed to deliver, months, years ago. 

And in and amongst all of this I am also going to try and find a moment to just, you know, breathe. I think that might be interesting.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The other side of the story

There's a scene in the film Annie Hall, where Alvy and Annie are at their respective therapists (on a split screen). Their therapists ask them how often they have sex. Alvy responds with: Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week. Annie says: Constantly. I'd say three times a week. 

It's become one of film's most classic and quotable scenes and also encapsulates how very differently two people can see the same thing.

This past weekend I was chatting at a party and the subject of commuting to and from London came up. I told the story (admittedly a passed on one) of a man and his wife who moved out of London so they could afford the big dreamy family home outside of the hustle and bustle. He got a place in London for work, and did the commute back and forth. A year or so later he turns around and tells his wife he's been having an affair for the last 5 months. He's in love, and he's leaving her for this other woman. And by virtue of that, leaving his two small children too. 

The couple I am telling this story to fall silent, exchange looks, and he says to me, "I guess that's what my ex-wife says about me, that I left her and the children. But as you can see (gesturing to his kids that are playing happily with mine), I never left my children, I left her."

I'd say I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me, but I've become so adept at sticking my foot in my mouth over the years that I just went with it. There was also that moment where I could have furiously backtracked to spare any feelings or embarrassment, but I suppose I saw it as an opportunity to educate myself.

I asked him if his wife was surprised when he told he he was leaving. "Yes, she was," he answered honestly. Me: "But this stuff doesn't just happen overnight does it?  Surely you don't just wake up one day and decide you aren't in love and have met someone else? There must be some kind of build up where you are unhappy and then you feel something is missing and you are open to meeting someone else? But if you are feeling this don't you talk about the fact that you are unhappy in the first place?" Him: "I did, and I tried, a lot, but she didn't want to talk about it, I think she was in some kind of denial. I guess for her, we were happy, but I wasn't happy. And we hadn't had sex in months. That was fine with her, but it wasn't fine with me."

I admired his honesty and the fact that he didn't just tell me to sod off. On some level, perhaps, it was also important for him to express his motivation, relay his side of the story,  and express the fact that he wasn't this terrible stereotype for doing what he did.

It's genuinely difficult for me to objective about this, because I'm a woman at home raising small children. And a lot of my friends are in the same situation. We have husbands going off to work and travelling, and I imagine there are a bunch of very smart, successful, and interesting people they meet along the way. It's not something I obsess about, but when you hear stories like this, always, and I mean, always, pre-empted with the caveat "But he was such a nice guy, no one saw this coming, not even his friends," well, it does worry me a bit. My husband is one of those really nice guys too.

But it's also vitally important for me to put my emotional response aside and to try and see this for what it is, and from both sides, because I've heard approximately six of these stories in the last few months. If something is happening this much, perhaps it's worth trying to understand why.

This man, at the party, is a nice guy. And I genuinely believe him when he says he wasn't happy and that he tried to talk to his wife about it. He also strikes me as a great father, and his kids evidently adore him. He loves the woman he is married to now, and they make a nice couple and the children appear happy with them as a family unit. They don't appear to be tortured souls, although perhaps there is a flicker of always wishing just maybe mom and dad would get together again, I don't know.

But, if we look at it from his wife's perspective, this man did leave her with two small children. And even though he says he didn't leave his kids, well in a literal physical sense, he did. By virtue of the fact that they live with their mother, and he isn't living there any more, she has to do all the child rearing herself, apart from the allocated time he has with them. Emotionally he has never left his children he continues to love them, I get that, but from a practical perspective, he is not there physically for them as much as he was before.

I think of all those nights when I am about to tear my hair out from running around and cleaning up after my children all day (my god 2-year-old boys create such havoc in their wake), and my husband gets home, changes out of his suit, and says to me: "Go sit down with a cup of tea, I'll take it from here." And then he baths them and gets them ready for bed before I join him to do the bedtime stories. And before we had my son, I'd sometimes fall asleep on the sofa and wake up to him having put my daughter to bed. He is a saint, but he is also, in my opinion, what a father should be. A father who wants a long lasting good relationship with his children puts in the work to build that relationship from when they are little. He loves his children, and he is as involved with their rearing as his time allows him. When he travels and I have to do it all on my own, it's tough. And don't even get me started on how terrifically frightening it can be when you are on your own with them and they get sick. I always spare a thought for all those single parents doing it alone.

The couple that were the subject of the story that got me into the foot in mouth incident in the first place sent shivers down the collective spines of the school-run community. All their friends thought they were happy, they bought this lovely home, they appeared to have it all. Oh yes, and lest we forget, he was such a nice guy. Then BAM! he leaves her, for (from what I hear) a not particularly attractive younger woman with a penchant for illiterate Twitter posts. His wife stops eating and falls to pieces with friends having to take it in turns to help pick her up and look after her children. She is devastated.

But come on, you ask, she MUST have known something, it couldn't have been that much of a surprise? And I believe she had her suspicions, but I think there's a part of you that overrides this and says, 'Well, OK, so we aren't as in love and fun loving with each other as we were before we had the children. But come on, I mean, we work, we raise our kids, we go on holidays, we worry about money, we're tired all the time, and the children always come first. We could have sex more, but how often do other people have it? This is real life, and how many people after x amount of years together and x amount of children, are that happy anyway?'

But perhaps the biggest thing we tell ourselves, mistakenly, is: "There is no way, ever, that he/she would ever leave us. He/she has responsibilities, and he/she loves me, and they love the kids." 

And then that haunting refrain surfaces, 'Ah, but how well do any of us really know each other anyway?'

I don't believe in being unhappy if there is something you can do about it. You know, sticking with something for the sake of it. But kids are a big reason to try and work things out. To  take your relationship and turn it upside down and inside out, and look at it from every conceivable angle, before you walk away from it. Children are the biggest co-investment you make together and you do every damn thing you can to repair the damage before deciding that it's unfixable. Because you aren't just walking away from each other, you are creating a fundamental fault line in the lives of those children.

I say this, and I also think - much better having two families that are healthy and happy that the children spend time with than parents who are miserable and are sticking it out for their sake.

This is not a black and white issue, evidently.

I also think it is fundamental to nip the looking around or being amenable to the charms of other people business in the bud. Again, apart from people who have an appetite for chasing tail, most people I don't think make a habit of having affairs or falling in love with people that are not their spouse. But it happens, so why does it happen? Because something is missing and that person goes looking for it, perhaps not overtly, but they see it. Perhaps when that feeling of something being missing arises, that's when the conversation needs to happen. Actually I think a successful relationship requires a constant stream of communication. Granted, not all of us are interested in a 24/7 autopsy of our feelings, but certainly important stuff like: 'I'm not feeling all that loved by you right now'. Or, 'I just don't feel physically attractive/attracted to/by you.' I mean, surely that stuff is important enough to warrant a conversation, albeit accompanied by a glass of wine once the kids have gone to bed?

I'm not entirely sure what I set out to do by writing this. I want to tie it all up with a neat little conclusion, perhaps having some or other 'we can learn from this by ...' sentiment, but I find I cannot. It's genuinely inconclusive for me.

However, these are the things I know to be true for myself:
I would work at and fight tooth and nail for my relationship to save it from any sort of adversity, children or not. I could never be apart from my children physically, in terms of not being their primary care giver on a day to day basis, so I would never leave if it meant leaving my children, and I pray there would never be cause for me to have to consider this. I believe that we age and change and evolve, and sometimes the two people you were when you started out your life together aren't necessarily the same people you are 10 or 20 years down the line. Sometimes people fall in love with someone else, and it makes me terrifically sad to say that, but I also know it's true.  And sometimes it is better to be apart for the sake of the children spending time with two happy parents individually, rather than two miserable parents as a couple. I believe that some people do get lucky enough to meet the love of their life, but even this takes work. I believe that everyone deserves to be happy although the pursuit of this does not necessarily guarantee the happiness of others in your life. And I believe that regular date nights should be heavily subsidised by the government.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I'll take Manhattan

There's always that first bit where you're in the back of a yellow cab (piloted by a psychotic driver) en route from the airport. Clenching the handle that hangs from the ceiling as if it would make any real difference should he collide into the car in front of him/ to the sides of him, as he weaves into yet another lane without signalling. And then, suddenly, you come up and over the rise and that awe inspiring skyline comes into view. It never fails to take my breath away. For that brief moment I forget about my fear of imminent death or mutilation, and a ball of excitement fizzes in my belly as we drive into the magic that is Manhattan.

Unlike most things, where people say 'Oh it's nothing like in the movies', well Manhattan is everything like in the movies. There are always works going on in the streets, with manholes emitting great gaseous plumes from the bowels of the city.  The construction workers in their yellow vests and hard hats eating sandwiches and swapping stories. The non-stop police sirens, like there is a crime happening every hour around every corner. The men and women of all ages - impeccably groomed and well heeled on their way to some or other power lunch or meeting, I imagine. The strange and sometimes sad people who seem to live on a different frequency to the rest of us, eccentrically dressed or undressed in some cases, talking to an invisible audience. The fast talking vendors selling hot dogs and pretzels. The flower adorned horse-drawn carriages that unfortunately never fail to remind me of an East End funeral. The suited doormen outside of the large park facing apartment buildings, hailing cabs for beautifully dressed older women, ever so vaguely familiar, wearing sunglasses and clutching Kelly bags.  The vast sea of human traffic coming in waves towards you. And that unbelievably green and immense other world that is Central Park. 

And the best part of it is, it doesn't change, well for me that is. Even if you find the pace too frenetic, it's a familiar frenetic pace. Somehow, I find that comforting. A lot more comforting than were I to find myself in the middle of the country with only the mosquitoes for company. Give me the city, and more so give me this city, any day.

I had a couple of days with my husband in Manhattan recently, and yes, the kids weren't with us. I see these short breaks together as a necessary move towards each other and ourselves, rather than a getting away from the children. But I don't see these two things as mutually exclusive - ergo, I love my children and the 99.9% of time I spend with them, and I also love time alone with my husband and with myself. There, I said it, and I'm OK with that. And having a parent who generously and lovingly takes care of my children so we can take this time out together is, I appreciate, a blessing and one I'm extremely grateful for.

The occasional mini break, even if it's only an overnight stay just outside of London, has become an enjoyable and what feels like necessary addition to our lives. We turn into different people on these occasions. Instead of talking about our kids all of the time, we talk about them about 80% of the time. Also, instead of the usual boring tautological exchange about stuff we need to do, should have done, bills to pay, school things, the horrible economy, our mutual loathing of the Daily Mail etc, we find ourselves talking about books we have read and enjoyed. Films we like and would like to see, some day. Ideas we have, things we would like to do, may do, if we won the lottery, and even if we don't. And yes, our mutual loathing of the Daily Mail.  

And then there are the old stories from our pasts we've told each other a million times before but still relish in retelling and enjoy hearing. And dare I say it, we find each other, and ourselves, interesting again. There is an immense magic that comes from feeling interesting, and not just the kind of interesting people think they are when they've consumed vast amounts of cocaine. But the kind of interesting you feel when your mind is stimulated and firing on all cylinders and you can draw someone into that incredibly tantalising web with your novel thoughts, observations, and charming wit.

OK, so perhaps this is how people feel when they are on coke, and in fact those of us with a very inflated sense of self - so, bad analogy. Regardless, the non drug induced kind, which is my experience of it, even if it is a tad narcissistic, is wonderful and invigorating. This kind of thing happens rarely, and usually when you've had time to rest, refuel, and are enjoying a particularly good glass of wine or a cocktail in the company of someone you find equally interesting and engrossing. What follows is an irresistibly fun and sexy intellectual dance - a kind of oxygen to a long term relationship I think. 

We also visit places we've heard about or had recommended and that look interesting, and which don't have to be family friendly or have high chairs. We drink a bit too much wine, we flirt, we laugh, we have fun. It's like the us before all the other stuff. Which isn't to say I long for a time before my kids, but you know, sometimes, for a couple of hours or days, it's nice to get back to that time in our life before we had children. To be reminded, and indeed to feel, that there is still a me in an amongst the me that loves and feels so incredibly responsible for the happiness, health, and basically everything, of two small people as well as a not so small one. And I'd bet my bottom dollar my husband feels the same, but wouldn't feel quite so guilty admitting it.

In terms of having time to myself, this is not so much to finish a meal uninterrupted, to shop, have massages, read a biography from cover to cover, have long deep baths, and catch up with friends. All of which, given the opportunity, I would do, and do so ambitiously. But it's more about having that time to think and write. It's very hard to have an articulate creative thought when your head space is so filled with the day to day details of child rearing. Did I pack the ballet bag? Are his shots up to date? When is his nursery assessment again? Where could he have possibly put my shoe?  Mustn't forget the swimming bag that needs packing for Mondays. Must remember the teachers end of year gift to contribute to. The play dates I need to initiate and remember. And on the weekends remembering to diarise the endless stream of kids parties, plus the gifts.

There are meals and snacks to suit a variety of tastes and moods, the emotional plate balancing (their emotions that you have to keep up that is), squabbles to settle, quality parenting time to put it (reading, puzzles, values), preventing serious self-inflicted injuries. Bathing, tidying, laundry etc. Wake up, do all of the above, go to sleep, wake up and repeat.

At the end of a day or week like this and I am exhausted. Literally. Like someone who has woken up at dawn and ploughed fields all day only stopping long enough to gather the cows and feed the hens, but without the great abdominal muscles. Somehow even extreme parenting doesn't give you great abs, no idea why. But it would be a super side effect if it did. 

I recently lost a shoe; a partner in a pair of incredibly nice and not inexpensive leather ballet pumps. Three days of playing the whole 'where is that shoe?' not so fun game, and it suddenly occurred to me to check the trash. Usually it's a hassle that our local council only collects the trash once a week but on this occasion it was a blessing. On the eve of collection, there was my shoe in the black plastic sack outside, sticking up, miraculously, without a single rotting morsel on it. It looked as if it was saying, in a relieved breathless tone, 'Ahhh you've found me!' But in retrospect, and as much as it pains me to say it, I probably should have left it in there.

Not unlike the deeply disturbing book 'Pet Sematary,' my shoe looked the same and even fit the same, but following its (what I imagine) deeply traumatic three day stint with the rotting remnants of three barbecues (decaying meat, salads, and a sad polenta which didn't quite turn out as expected), soiled nappies and related household debris, it was different. It had been changed by its experience. And by this I mean that despite not actually having any food marks on it, the shoe stank. Actually stank does not do the hellish odour justice - more so, it reeked of decay - that sweet awful decomposing smell you find on a street corner the eve before garbage collection. I thought it was just newly smelly and a bit of fresh air would soon fix it. But even after a day on the outside, that smell appeared to have penetrated into the very fibre of the leather. I stupidly packed the pair in my hand luggage for the Manhattan trip and mid flight nearly passed out upon opening my bag to extricate my tic tacs. 

But I'm digressing... 

Even those of them that damage perfectly good footwear by throwing them in the trash,  I miss my children when I travel. I think three days is the maximum I can manage before I physically ache for them - holding them and having them close to me. I usually spend an inordinate amount of time on said break in toy shops and kids clothing stores getting them stuff, because I love this idea of getting home and them being excited to see me and knowing, having evidence, that I was thinking about them even though I was away enjoying time to myself. OK, so maybe this is the guilt talking. 

It feels somehow fitting that my trip to Manhattan both started and concluded with a psychotic cab driver. Now you would be hard pressed to find a bona fide American driving a yellow cab in NY anymore, and my driver back to the airport was no exception. A large man with great big hams for hands, he hailed from Russia. He told me he had spent five hours that morning contesting a parking ticket, which I suppose went some ways to explaining his mood. He was cynical and brooding, and made a point of telling me I had chosen a really bad time to travel to Newark airport, despite giving myself plenty of time. Yes because what I really needed to hear was that I could potentially miss my flight and not be home in time to see my kids before school the following morning after being away from them for three days.

He drove like a maniac. When I asked him if he had driven in Russia (you know, hoping a bit of conversation might take his mind off of the tailgating, weaving, and general harassment of other drivers at breakneck speed), he sucked the air between his teeth, took a dramatic pause, and said, "Yes, but not taxi," failing to elaborate. I braced the handle, then thought better of it (if he stops at this speed, suddenly, I will break my arm or worse - best just to relax and be limp - and in the event of a sudden collision - less breakage).

The non disclosure and admittedly his terrifying driving style, led me to imagine his previous driving job back in Russia involved working for the mafia or similar criminal types. He was uniquely suited to drive-by shootings, quick get aways, and police chases, or rather, being chased by the police and escaping, but not before creating a 10-car pile up in his wake. When he eventually dispatched me at the airport, I shakenly paid him, and told him to take care and be safe. He looked at me with an amused and surprised expression, laughed and said "OK, sure, you too", before speeding off in a plume of exhaust fumes back in the direction of that incredible city.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

These foolish things

I visited a mall on the weekend. Yes, an infinitely stupid idea I appreciate, but it was either that, or the humid confines of the indoor kids playground that smells like a cocktail of excrement, bean sprouts and burnt sugar. 

The mall management has evidently been clever about how they rent their space. Not only are there shops on either side of the 
corridor, but there are now people selling things and offering services in the corridors themselves. Peanuts and a variety of chocolate coated nuts (yes, a really good idea in a mall frequented by kids who could potentially go into anaphylactic shock at a mere whiff), D.I.Y yoghurt sundaes, a woman selling pseudo vintage tat, and about four young Indian girls doing threading, to name a few.

Threading is a 
procedure whereby hair, specifically facial hair, is removed with a piece of ordinary cotton string being sort of see-sawed back and forth between the threaders hands and mouth. Apparently it's been big in India for decades. It's quick and I have to admit, rather precise. I like to get my eyebrows threaded, when my lovely Polish beautician is on holidays that is. She'd never forgive me if she knew because she doesn't believe in threading - says it breaks the hair. Sometimes we have to agree to disagree.

Anyway, so I walked past this threading booth on Saturday and there was a woman getting her moustache threaded while her husband played with his phone and looked bored.

OK, stop the bus, hang on a second...

I have difficulty with grooming in public to begin with. When I 
apply lipstick or powder in front of people on a night out, it's always with a flicker of trepidation. I don't know, it's just, well, kind of intimate, and people don't generally like to be privy to that sort of thing. Having my eyebrows threaded in a mall with a bunch of people looking on as they walk past - that is pushing it. But having my moustache (I mean, people aren't even supposed to know you have one of those!!!) removed in front of said husband and hundreds of strangers in the middle of a mall? 

In that moment, I knew, like you know about a  bad melon, that the magic and mystery in their relationship was long gone. 

I appreciate this is a long standing (yawn inducing) theme with me - the whole cringe and want the floor to open up if my partner sees I have a spot, or knows I wax my bikini line, kind of thing. But in my defence, now that I have kids, I have genuinely mellowed. I mean, you have to when you are bent over removing poo from the bath, or having a conversation about why eating what your body excretes is a bad idea; "Because it gets rid of that stuff for a reason. Why would you want to put it back in again???!!!"

But I still believe that not a hell of a lot of effort is required to keep a few things to yourself when it comes to your relationship. 
Your partner really doesn't need to know your facial expression while making a number two, do they? Is it crucial that they see you plucking, squeezing, clenching, pushing, grunting, burping, etc? 

My kids do this kind of thing because, quite rightly, they have absolutely no vested interest in impressing me or maintaining a degree of attraction, mystery and sexiness between us. But having an access all areas policy with my husband? Well, it's a bit like being asked to sign up to a Pyramid scheme; it just feels like a really bad idea on a gut instinct level.

At this point I always include a caveat which is that without doubt this stuff becomes pretty trivial and redundant when we are ill or getting older, and we hope to be afforded the dignity we deserve even when our bodies have their own ideas. Likewise, one should never make someone feel embarrassed about the day to day business of their functioning. And 
I parent my kids accordingly - i.e. that it's all fine and dandy and biology and stuff. 
I do however make a special exception for people who feel it OK to purge their phlegm in a gelatinous puddle as I happen to walk past on a street or sidewalk. Bloody hell, haven't you heard of a tissues or a hanky? This is how disease is spread people. 

But this is not what I'm talking about. I talking about being with someone for 5 months or 15 years, and still taking that mere fraction of a second to close the door when you go to the loo. To groom in your own time. To emerge from the bathroom looking dashing and lovely to your partner without them knowing that 30 seconds earlier you were wrestling with an ingrown hair. 

It reminds me of a visit I made for the first time to the casino in Monaco. I know it sounds completely ridiculous, but there was a part of me that was genuinely expecting men in white dinner jackets, and women with sequenced floor length dresses - cleavage and jewels on display. I wasn't particularly well travelled, and I had romantic ideas based on films and TV. How incredibly disappointed I was to discover the majority of people to be tourists  - all shorts and flip flops playing slot machines. Really? You're in one of the most romantic, glamorous, and cinematic places in the world that you've evidently paid a good deal of money and effort to come and see. Couldn't you stick on some chinos, a shirt and shoes? 

I appreciate that this little Monaco burst bubble anecdote probably has a much bigger analogous potential (with appropriately witty psychoanalytical interpretation), but it's late and I'm tired.

Recently a friend told me about a completely prior to this undiscovered tribe being spotted by a plane somewhere extremely remote.  I had the same reaction to this as I have to the nightmarish scenario of my husband ever happening upon me while I am on the loo - No no no no no!!!!! Keep moving mister. Some things are best left undiscovered and unknown.