My child is not like me

Raging Bull reading a book‘I am a dumb reader!’ This is the Raging Bull’s damning verdict about herself. She hasn’t made a huge amount of progress with her reading at school. For her, progress is defined by the color of her reading book (color denotes level). She may not be able to read words very well, but she is very good with colors.

I say what every parent would say in the circumstance: ‘But you can be a good reader. You just need a bit more practice and to try a bit harder. You will eventually get better at it.’

This is not cutting it with my feisty five-year-old. ‘Reading is boring,’ she announces sulkily, shooting me a look that dares me to contradict her.

For someone who has loved reading all her life, this is basically like sticking a needle in my eye and twisting it.

The truth is, she may not actually like reading, and I’m going to have to come to terms with it. At the moment, I’m hoping this might have something to do with the fact that her ‘reading’ books consist of people called Pip and Kip and a dog named Fluffy. They are about as interesting as a week of rain in the middle of summer.

So I gamely say to her: ‘But the books get more interesting when they have chapters.’

I don’t think she buys this. She’s listened to me read chapter books to her big sister and she’d rather pick her toes.

It makes me wonder why it would bother me if my child turned out to dislike the things I love, because I think it would. I could pretend to be a cool-as-anything parent, who would not give a shit as long as the children are happy. And I do want them to be very happy, but is it so bad to want them to share my love of Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie?

(A disclaimer: if she didn’t like shopping and clothes, fine. She will actually save herself a lot of money and angst. But books, for crying out loud, she has to like books.)

Already, the Raging Bull has rejected another of my lifelong loves. She took a handful of ballet classes and concluded that they were ‘boring’.

Once she got over the novelty of the tutu and the pink leotard, she couldn’t be bothered with all the discipline. All she wanted was to leap through the air and pretend to be a fairy, so she didn’t see the point of doing repetitive exercises.

In fact, her attention span seems to be about five minutes unless she’s watching the television. If it’s related to watching a screen, she could be there for hours.

I think it’s easy to assume that our children will turn out a bit like us. We look for the similarities in our kids and not so much the differences; but the odds are that they will turn out more different than the same.

After all, they are individuals and not miniature versions of their parents. Believe me, I don’t want them to turn out like me, but I’d like my two girls to share some of my interests. I guess that’s what it comes down to.

In the eight years I’ve been a mother, I’ve concluded – very unscientifically – that the Chatterbox more closely resembles me, with the Raging Bull closer in personality to her ‘wild’ father.

At least her wild father likes books, though.

I am not yet teetering on the edge of total despair as far as the Raging Bull is concerned. I figure that once Kip and Pip are out of the way, she might come round to the idea of sitting down with a good book. She might even let me read a chapter book aloud without getting distracted before Chapter 2.

But I’m not entirely betting on it.

Have your kids started showing signs of not liking something you love and how do you feel about it?

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What price gentrification?

Starbucks

The new Starbucks at Finsbury Park

When I arrived in London almost 18 years ago this October I really didn’t know what I had coming in that first year. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have boarded the plane. Some of what I discovered shocked me. I do have this memory of walking around either in open-mouthed wonder or bafflement.

By accident more than design, I eventually crash landed in a place called Finsbury Park. How do I explain this place about 10 minutes to central London by train? To an American, it might have a lovely ring. Expansive green spaces, surrounded by independent shops, perhaps? Or an Agatha Christie English village relocated to north London? Hardly.

The only thing Finsbury Park had going for it when I moved in was the fact that you could very quickly leave and get somewhere else, thanks to its excellent transport links. Rent was pretty cheap, too, by London standards at least.

My early memories are dominated by snarling, traffic-clogged streets, pollution and dirt. To get to my flat I used to have to walk by a rotisserie chicken place, where the meat turned on a stick in the window, giving off an unusual sickly smell.

There was also the man who lived in the phone box – remember those? – with some leg condition that made walking nearly impossible. He also smelled, worse than the chicken I’m afraid to say.

Then there were the prostitutes on the corner near our flat. They used to hang out at the bus stop. One of them even showed up wearing a bandage on her head one morning. That didn’t stop her from trying to drum up a bit of business.

The only shops were depressing-looking places, badly lit, selling a variety of basic food staples: bread, tinned food, milk and of course alcohol. Almost every shop sold cheap beer.

Finsbury Park Theatre

The new local theatre

You could get coffee, but only if you were willing to walk into a place guarded by chain-smoking North African men who lingered in doorways. Women weren’t exactly welcomed into these establishments.

Once, someone tried to steal my wallet at the bus stop, only to scream obscenities at me when I caught him going through my bag. Yes, the thieves were brazen, but I always felt pretty safe because the streets were rarely empty.

The bright spots were the bagel place, with its smell of fresh bread wafting out the door, and a cavernous stationery store. It wasn’t exactly like Staples in the US, but I could find many things in there and it was run by a very cheerful Indian family.

‘It will improve one day,’ the English Husband used to say about our down-at-heel neighborhood. And we would both nod and talk about how it’s so close to zone 1 and so convenient for trains. As predicted, Finsbury Park has undergone quite a transformation.

The latest and most absolute sign that it’s totally gentrified is the opening of a brand-new Starbucks right across the street from the tube station. It has replaced a tatty old pub frequented by hardened Irish drinkers and the colourful locals.

They are gone, swept away by the new cream walls, tasteful furniture and the smell of fresh paint. Also gone are most of the coffee shops filled by idle men who called to you sometimes as you walked down the street.

You can now find a thriving local theatre, occupying what was once the mouth of a back alley; new restaurants, including a busy Korean; and an arts building with a café on the ground floor selling food and artisan bread. It’s probably organic bread too.

There are plenty of delis, some of them even offering wine-tasting evenings. There are still Afro Caribbean shops selling row upon row of wigs, but I suspect these will soon be gone, taking their smell of chemicals with them.

The old pubs have been tarted up and the shops that previously sold cheap beer have mostly been replaced by supermarket chains, all of them well lit and welcoming.

Arts Building

The ground floor of this building has a cafe and bakery

We own a small flat in Finsbury Park and undoubtedly we have benefited from this gentrification. The irony is that we can no longer afford to bring up our family here because the gulf between the price of our flat and a house might as well be as big as an ocean.

Where once I would have happily packed up and left, now I can’t afford 1,200 square feet.

According to the latest Land Registry figures, the value of property in London has increased by 21.6% since last year; prices have risen five-fold since 1995, the year before I got here. Needless to say, my salary has hardly kept pace.

So we continue to rent a slightly bigger flat than the one we own, and I can console myself with the knowledge that now at least I can find a coffee on almost every street corner – and Starbucks coffee at that.

Progress? It’s hard to say.

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On writing and aging

Sharpie permanent marker

Not really a greying writer’s best friend

Writing is a bit like exercise. There might a phase in your life when you’re at the gym three days a week, maybe running up and down hills or swimming lengths in the pool. But then you hit a slump and suddenly you fall out of the habit of doing it. It then becomes a struggle to get going again.

Writing can be like that. If it’s not a habit – a regular fixture in your week – something else will swallow up the time you set aside for it. It’s worse than writer’s block because you don’t even get the metaphorical blank page out to stare at it. You don’t even bother trying.

So that’s partly to explain why my blog has been frozen in July. I fell out of the habit of writing and couldn’t seem to get myself motivated.

In these two months I’ve been silent, not much of great consequence has happened. My life is a bit like Seinfeld. It’s a series of episodes about not very much. The only difference is that I’m not as funny as Jerry.

But I’ll relate this short, cautionary tale from a recent life episode.

It was an ordinary evening after work. The kids were sitting down to dinner. That is to say, one of the kids had practically inhaled her food while the other one was picking at it and claiming she wasn’t hungry.

I’m doing my best to ignore them because I’m smearing on some makeup before a night out with a group of friends. Looking in the mirror surprises me these days; I’m always mildly surprised not to look about 30. On this occasion my gaze zooms in on all the silvery strands of hair. If that gives you the impression they are silky, think again. These hairs are wiry. You could probably use them to scour a pan if you collected enough of them.

Yep, my grey hairs have ramped up some sort of military campaign – and they’ve reached the point of launching an assault on all fronts. It’s another joyous part of aging, a process that has picked up some pace in the last three or four years.

I haven’t quite decided what to do about all these white hairs. So far I’ve been yanking them out, which makes them come out even more wiry. They are now sticking out of my head at weird angles and looking more obvious than if I’d left them alone.

But I stumble upon what I think might be a solution, albeit a very temporary one. What if I used a black marker – my hair is black – to blend them in with the other hair? Yes, this is desperate.

I borrow a marker from the Chatterbox but it’s not really doing anything at all, so I trade up to the permanent marker. The results are marginally better, I note, but I don’t suddenly feel like a new woman with glossy hair.

The other thing I notice is that my head smells like permanent marker. I should have really foreseen this problem. Not that you’d ever be tempted to replicate this at home, but I’m just saying, don’t.

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A slide fit for a royal

Blue Whale slide

Jupiduu’s artwork shows what the slide looks like at the royal residence

I don’t have much curiosity about the royal family in England. I don’t spend my days wondering how Kate Middleton keeps her hair looking good in high humidity. But I couldn’t resist this little piece of royal tittle-tattle.

Prince George, the heir to the throne, will turn one on July 22. According to a press release that landed in my email, the lucky birthday boy will be getting a new blue whale slide from a German start-up company called Jupiduu.

The company is clearly happy to trumpet this announcement and have backed up their claims by saying that the order was placed by Prince George’s nanny. They supposedly name-checked her by going to various British tabloids.

I guess what tipped them off was the delivery address of ‘Kensington Gardens’.

So I thought I’d let you see what a baby slide fit for a king looks like. And you can treat your prince or princess to the handmade slide, too, since it’s available to buy from Amazon. I am in no way endorsing it, though, since I’m far too big to test it out.

 

 

 

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Happy July 4th

American flag

The Chatterbox’s impression of the Stars and Stripes

Happy 4th of July! Here are some little facts to ponder on the day America declared its independence from the British.

According to the Pew Research Center, over half of Americans are proud of their nationality (56%) but only 44% still think the country’s best years are to come, with the younger generations being the most optimistic.

The percentage of Americans who think the U.S. is the #1 country in the world has dropped by 10% since 2011. Only 28% now believe it holds top status, perhaps a reflection of China’s rising influence.

But 58% of Americans still believe the USA is one of the greatest countries in the world.

In my hometown of London, obviously no one makes much of Independence Day apart from a passing curiosity.

People might occasionally ask what’s traditional, which leaves me kind of stumped. I usually end up muttering something about barbecues, beer and fireworks. Not exactly the most inspiring answer, but it’s what I remember doing.

I’m out of touch with what it means to be American these days. I feel like it’s an integral part of my identity and yet I now find it harder and harder to pinpoint precisely what makes me American apart from my accent.

The weirdest thing is watching your kids grow up to have a national identity totally distinct from yours. I know it’s what my Mexican parents went through, but I never appreciated how strange it is to let go of traditions you grew up with.

If I mention July 4th to my kids, they wouldn’t have a clue what it means. Theirs is a world inhabited by kings and queens, not presidents and pioneers.

But after nearly half my life spent somewhere other than where I was born, I’ve started to question whether I’m now nothing more than a mix of clashing cultures.

Here’s why I might not be as American as apple pie:

  • I hate driving. At some point in the last 18 years, I Iost my love for cars. Driving a car, in fact, fills me with fear not a feeling of freedom.
  • I like walking places. Despite my southern California upbringing, one in which I never even walked to the local shop, I now find myself relying on my two legs to get me around.
  • I’m not a great fan of the great outdoors. I don’t know if it’s the inhospitable weather in the UK, but you won’t catch me climbing mountains, camping or making smores by a fire.
  • I don’t like baseball. To be fair, I hate cricket too and don’t have a clue how it’s played.
  • I don’t know the words to the Star Spangled Banner. Yes, it pains me to admit this, but I get lost somewhere after ‘twilight’s last gleaming’ and have to fake it. Mind you, I wouldn’t be the first to mime along to it. Beyoncé, anyone?
  • My knowledge of American history is hazy to say the least. Yes, I know the dates of the Civil War but don’t ask me to explain anything about the Boston Tea Party or American politics. Some of the scenes in House of Cards, for instance, are as incomprehensible to me as a foreign language.
  • I have a peculiar English habit of apologizing for stuff that isn’t my fault.

Despite my persistent doubts about my nationality, I still consider myself more or less an American. What is America, anyway, but a confusing mix of different identities thrown together?

A little related news from the other side of the pond: one of the 12 surviving copies of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence will be on display at the British Library from next year as part of an exhibition about the Magna Carta.

Since I have never in my life seen these important documents in America’s history, I will be visiting. I suspect this still won’t help me decipher the plot of House of Cards.

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Love is in the air

Raging Bull in back garden

The Raging Bull knows more about flirting than I do

It’s summer and love is in the air. The Raging Bull, four and three quarters, has (at last count) 100 billion boyfriends. She tells me this nonchalantly one afternoon, flashing me her innocent puppy-dog eyes. It’s a figure she enjoys repeating to anyone who will listen.

I’ve only met a couple of the boyfriends so far. One is an older ‘man’, about 7, who was mortified when the Raging Bull grabbed his hand as we were walking down the street. She then ramped up her affections slightly by leaning over to kiss him. I’m afraid this didn’t go over too well, but she was nonplussed.

The other little boy has been chosen as the Raging Bull’s next playdate friend. They’ve spent a good while jumping off sofas and laughing with each other at the local coffee shop. They seem to have bonded over their babyccinos.

Meawhile, I have it on good authority (her older sister’s) that she is actually engaged to be married to someone else.

It’s all very cute, and I laugh along with her games of chasing boys in the playground, which currently has the innocence of a kitten playing with a ball of yarn.

Part of me wonders, though, if there comes a time when a playdate between a boy and a girl is considered awkward. I can’t imagine inviting a boy over for a playdate when he’s approaching double digits. It just seems a violation of some sort of unwritten rule.

Playdates seem to be governed by a secret code that goes something like this:

  1. Don’t assume you can go to someone’s house over and over again. Eventually you will need to reciprocate or face a shrivelling up of invitations.
  2. Children with working parents might not be popular playdate friends for the reason stated above.
  3. Some playdates will involve dinner or lunch; others never will. But if your child has eaten at someone else’s house, you should probably think about doing the same for their little angel.
  4. At some point the parents don’t expect you to tag along on the playdate; they’d prefer it if you just made yourself scarce (unless you happen to be friends).
  5. Boys and girls don’t tend to mix very much unless the parents know each other.
  6. Some playdates will involve numerous emails, text messages and planning. Others will happen spontaneously.

I can only assume (hope?) that one day the Raging Bull will snap out of her boyfriend phase and find the male sex repulsive. Isn’t this what happens to all little girls? It certainly happened to me for more years than some would say is healthy. The British Husband will argue that I still hold the male sex in suspicion. They are to be tolerated, of course, but not always trusted. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Father’s Day

Father's day messageI don’t know whether this is a Freudian slip or if it’s just a straightforward spelling mistake, but the message came out as: ‘Happy farter’s day’.

Whether she intended to or not, the Chatterbox has managed to capture an essence of her father’s personality.

To all dads out there, happy father’s day.

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