Monthly Archives: February 2012

The most expensive children’s book ever?

Monkey book cover

I'll admit, the slim monkey book is hardcover

I am a bargain shopper and this philosophy extends to the books I buy. I used to frequent Amazon, but now that I have kids and limited funds, I tend to buy all of my books second-hand for no more than about $4. Mostly, I just borrow them from the library.

When the Chatterbox tells me that her school is holding a book fair, her enthusiasm is palpable. A week ago, her kindergarten class had been taken to view the books that would go on sale in an auditorium at her school. I get a flyer about the book fair with colorful illustrations and tempting blurbs about the educational value of buying your children books. I even get a note from the teacher reminding us to visit; the principal leaves a message on the phone. By the time the day of the fair arrives I feel like it would be a crime against humanity not to go. It will make my child happy to visit the book fair; not going would mar her childhood.

The high of shopping inhibits my judgement

We trundle over to the auditorium after school, where a tempting array of books have been set out on bookshelves. The Chatterbox runs to a book she’d obviously scoped out already and hands it to me – but I’m not satisfied with just one. This is my first-ever school book fair, and I feel like I should buy a small selection. The proceeds (or some percentage) will go to the school, so I feel good about my purchases.

We choose two more small books ($4 each) and then I feel guilty that I haven’t picked out anything for my two-year-old. I spot the perfect book as I approach the cash register. It’s a book about monkeys reading in bed – and the Raging Bull loves monkeys almost more than she loves candy. Almost.

I grab the book and hand it over for payment, never once glancing at the price. How much can a children’s book cost? It doesn’t even occur to me to look. I was having my shopping high and I was feeling good. This high lasted about three seconds, until I hear the amount being charged to my card.

Back in the car I look at the price on the books, and I realize that the Raging Bull’s 10-page monkey book has cost me $17 plus tax. I am in shock. I look at it again in disbelief – yep, it’s $17, more in Canada. I don’t think I have ever paid $17 for an adult book, let alone a child’s book.

A tough customer

That evening I show the book to the Raging Bull, who I am hoping will hug it tightly and make it her prized possession. This will go some way to justifying the cost. The Bull grabs it from me, roughly flips through two pages and then throws it to the ground and tries to stomp on it. I have to pull her off. After her bath I ask if she would like to read the monkey book. ‘No, no monkeys. I want Cat in the Hat,’ she orders. I try to persuade her to consider the monkey book, but once she has set her mind on something, it would take a trained UN diplomat to try to talk her out of it.

I give up and decide that I will try again tomorrow, but I am determined to drop the monkeys into the conversation as much as possible. My parental approach is to brainwash her into loving the book by bombarding her with subliminal messages. In other circles, this would be called advertising. Meanwhile, I am still trying to come to terms with the feeling that I’ve been ripped off. The only one who feels like a monkey around here is me.

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Another American pub

artwork

An aristocratic lion

I might be in danger of giving you the impression that I drink a fair amount. This is not entirely true. The Brother drinks a lot; I normally just tag along. Last night we attempted to do something a bit different and go to a gig at a live venue called the Belly Up Tavern. Located in wealthy Solana Beach, my brother tells me that it’s a great place to see a band. Prince Harry was spotted there a few months back when he was in California. I figure if it’s good enough for a prince, it is definitely good enough for a pauper.

The Belly Up was hosting Gomez, a band I first heard about in the late 90s. They are from Southport, England, and had some early success with their first two albums. They also won the highly coveted Mercury Music Prize in 1998. I lost track of them soon after this, but I was curious to see how they had evolved – and I remember that they were accomplished musicians. Since we tend to leave everything to the absolute last minute, I am dismayed to find that the gig is sold out on Tuesday afternoon, the day of the show.

So off we go to bar instead, and I’m moaning the whole way about what we might have missed. My brother blames me, I blame him. Nothing has changed since we were teenagers. We wash up at a place called The Lion’s Share in downtown San Diego. We have never been to this pub/bar before, but I’ve heard good things about it.

The Lion's Share

A bunch of stuff thrown together (but trendily)

We had no idea it was Fat Tuesday, which is the culmination of Mardi Gras celebrations in various cities around the world. San Diego’s Mardi Gras celebrations are pretty tame, but the Lion’s Share has scattered some carnival beads and shiny masks around the tables. The bar is small and kind of cozy. I feel like I’ve seen the type before – there are ornate mirrors, funky orange lighting and lots of dark wood and dark tables; the artwork on the walls consists of animals dressed up as aristocrats. It’s a cross between a trendy bar and a toff’s study.

me

A mask for Mardi Gras

We order appetizers: there’s a cheese board, fried oyster sliders (in honor of Mardi Gras) and olives. It’s all perfectly decent, but not exactly cheap. I also order a cucumber gimlet (gin, pressed limes and cucumber). The Brother thinks it’s too tart, but I enjoy the slightly sweet/sour balance. I could have had more than one. The Brother orders a New York sour (rye whiskey, lemon and cabernet franc). It looks beautiful in the glass – it’s a pale lemon color with a vibrant splash of cranberry pink floating at the top. It reminds me of a sunset on a summer’s day.

I like the bar and won’t go on and on about it because I don’t know if any of you will ever find yourself at a strange intersection in San Diego (Kettner and Harbor) right beside a trolley stop. It’s not the kind of place you would stumble across unless you live across the street, where there are some pricey condos.

Maybe it’s because I feel flat after my trip to Los Angeles. Or maybe it’s the flat buzz you get from going out on a Tuesday; but I find myself wishing yet again for a traditional English pub. The Lion’s Share is kind of like the hip American cousin – cool and dressed up to the nines. What I want on an ordinary Tuesday night is the tatty, slightly nerdy relation who teams old cardigan sweaters with pearls. I can see myself curling up next to a fire in a pub and reading a good book or just enjoying a very quiet glass of red wine. Despite the fact that The Lion’s Share resembles a study, you aren’t going to hang around for too long and get comfortable in an armchair.

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36 hours in Los Angeles

Valerie, me, Vivian

Not dressed up like the girls from Sex and the City

I love big cities. The pulse of city life, the exhilaration, the feeling that anything could happen – and often would. I loved London for all of these things. But what I loved about big-city life is precisely what started to annoy me once I had children. The streets started to feel too crowded, the public transportation a nuisance. Bus drivers barely tolerate you. I would longingly look through the windows of independent shops, but I wouldn’t dare enter with two kids who might wail and break something. You curse the pace, and the people who huff as you try to negotiate a stroller up and down escalators on the tube. You sweat with the effort of trying to keep up. Everyone always seems to be in a huge hurry.

So why do I miss it? I think it’s the anticipation and the excitement of being in a place where anything still feels possible. Los Angeles feels like this to me – and over the weekend I got to visit the city without any children to distract me. I take the train up from San Diego and it goes along the coast. The view from the window is typical southern California – wealthy beach towns are perched on the edge of the Pacific ocean, and I see tiny surfers bob up and down on the waves. Things get more gritty as you approach Los Angeles Union Station in downtown.

My friend picks me up and we head straight to a bar. We aren’t wasting any time. But we no longer know what is trendy and how to find it. We choose a busy street in downtown Los Angeles – an area that has been regenerated over the last 20 years – and stumble across a door with no name. I figure that anything with no name and a black door with a lion knocker is bound to be trendy. We get lucky. It’s a bar with lots of seating, big mirrors and chandelier lights; there’s 80s music playing and, critically at my age, we can hear each other talk.

The atmosphere feels both decadent and warm. We later discover that we’re in The Association. The bartender asks us if we have ever been there before and we both shrug no. He informs us that the happy hour goes until 9pm, which explains the $5 cocktails on the menu. I don’t think I’ve ever paid $5 for a cocktail, and I’m giddy with the thought of it.

After three Palomas (a tequila-based drink with grapefruit and soda) we end up in a restaurant up the street. It’s the perfect evening out and we feel happy with ourselves for still knowing how to find a decent bar without having to stop and ask a 25-year-old wearing tight jeans.

The next day we eat and shop and drink, mostly in that order. I forgot how much I enjoy the company of my oldest friends. When you have a family and responsibilities, you lose touch with the person you once were because you are so often thinking about someone else. I feel like I am in college again, with the freedom to choose what I do. No wonder people say that youth is wasted on the young. I don’t regret my life now, but I do miss not answering to anyone else and occasionally eating cereal for dinner if I feel like it. All I would have to worry about was myself.

The night draws in and, at my urging, we stop off at a supermarket to buy some vodka in preparation for our night out. The three of us, who are old college friends from UCLA, dress up to go out to a bar and restaurant called The Tasting Kitchen in Venice. It’s crowded and we get pushed by loud drinkers brandishing cocktails. We order three different drinks (expertly made), which I do regret the next day, and we stop off for one more at a Parisian bistro-style bar on the way home. We fall into bed at about 3am after eating heart-shaped brownies we’d bought at a shop in Atwater. The memory is hazy but I think I ate mine in about two bites. It could be an episode of Sex and the City, minus the expensive clothes.

Atwater village

My friend's old neighborhood has two new organic supermarkets - a sure sign of its gentrification

I mostly sleep on the train home, trying not to focus on the queasy belly that tightens sporadically. It chastises me for thinking that I am still in my twenties. I think quite a bit about London and my friends. I miss them and I think about them often. I wonder if they have forgotten about me. I wonder if a year away has cured them of any nostalgia for our friendship, or if they have deleted me from their mobile phone contacts. Everyone is so busy in a city like London. There is hardly time to think about anyone else. And everything in London is incredibly transient – people come and go all the time.

San Clemente

View from the train - Los Angeles to San Diego

It has been a long time since I lived in Los Angeles. When I left the city I was still a naive college girl with a car that looked like a golf cart. I had bad clothes and made some questionable choices. The friends who knew me then have not been ever-present in my adult life. All of us have lived in various cities and countries in the last 15 years since we graduated from college. And, still, I feel like I can just fall into a conversation with them without any effort. We don’t need to say anything; I don’t feel uncomfortable with silence either. It’s what I want from my friends in London. I want to know that if I can very rarely go back to the UK, they will still know me and still accept me without all the preliminary niceties of a new acquaintance. And I’d expect to be taken to a bar where we could reminisce over, and laugh about, our youth.

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Goats have accents – I kid you not

goats

In England we say baaah

I’ve been thinking about accents a lot lately because my London-born children are developing an American twang. (I wrote a blog about it earlier this month.)

It’s not surprising that children pick up different accents … but goats? Scientists at the University of London have discovered that goats develop different accents depending on their environment. Dr Alan McElligott, a researcher at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, told a program on NPR that the calls of goats varied in pitch based on the ‘creches’ they were raised in.

The radio segment aired an audio clip of the different goat calls, but I couldn’t really tell one baa from another baa. Dr McElligott said that humans don’t have an ear for it. ‘I’m sure that if a goat listened to a person, they probably couldn’t tell the difference between a Boston accent and a New York accent.’

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A Valentine’s Day surprise

Homemade card

A card is not that exciting without candy attached to it

I suspect I might be more British than I realized. This awareness hits me this afternoon when I pick up the Chatterbox from school. Last week my five-year-old had been sent home with a note telling parents that the kindergarten class would celebrate Valentine’s Day. There were specific instructions that each child should receive a Valentine. (I’m guessing this is to avoid the mortification I felt as a child – some people, you discover pretty early on in life, are more popular than others. Counting the number of Valentines you got each February 14 was one way of denoting your popularity or lack of it. This cutthroat approach to a day celebrating love is no longer in vogue, I gather.)

I take this note at its word and dutifully buy a Valentine for each child at the dollar store. It doesn’t occur to me to do anything else. I also agree to do this for the Raging Bull’s nursery class (12 children under 3). Feeling obliged to go the extra parental mile, I also sign up to take jello to a Valentine’s Day party at the Bull’s daycare. Last night, after getting home late from drinks with the Brother, I feel virtuous because I have actually bothered to use a cookie cutter to make jello heart shapes. This is as domestic as I tend to get, and I feel kind of proud of myself for how the jello shapes have turned out.

This feeling of motherly accomplishment is short-lived because I realize that almost all of the parents have gone to far more trouble and expense than I have. As I walk the Chatterbox back to the car after school today, she is lugging two bags full of Valentines; all of them have chocolates, candies and treats attached to them. I ask the Chatterbox if she got candy from her friends and she says nonchalantly, ‘Oh no, I got some toys too.’

candy

The Chatterbox's Valentine's Day hoard

I guess I should have seen this coming. Why would you send boring paper Valentines that have someone’s scribbled signature on it when you can buy cute little bags and fill them with toys and treats? Yes, it costs more money, but it will also make your child the most popular kid in the playground. Or at least a tad more popular than the one who just sent some scratch-and-sniff cardboard.

The second wave

I get a second wave of guilt and nausea when the Raging Bull, who is only two and a half, comes home with another bag full of goodies. She’s even received a stuffed toy monkey with candy bananas. (She loves monkeys and I have no idea how her Valentine knows this.)

Monkey!

The Raging Bull got her favorite toy from a Valentine

And so it hits me: I have lived abroad in a nation of relative indifference for far too long, and I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be an American. The British don’t tend to go all out for holidays such as Valentine’s Day. Last year we did nothing at all for the Chatterbox’s class at her English school; the day went by totally unremarked and, consequently, February 14 became unremarkable in my eyes.

So, you see, I had no idea that it would be such a big deal here. I thought I’d simply buy a few cheap cards and that would be that. I have learned my lesson. Luckily, I have learned this lesson before the children start keeping track of these subtle rituals such as giving candy and toys. As they get older, I’m guessing some will become quite adept at keeping track of who gives the best stuff. You would make the most generous your lifelong friends and not your enemies if you had any common sense. Funny how the same rule basically applies to adult life, but you are just substituting candy for money or favors.

If you want to know the origins of this holiday, read this article from NPR. It states that Valentine’s Day sales are expected to total $18.6bn this year. Now, that doesn’t surprise me at all.

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Romance is in the air

Romance Cover

The blurb for this book says that Cindy's high school crush arrives to play guitar at the retirement home where she works, and conjures up a pack of bad memories more embarrassing than her old perm

I could do without Valentine’s Day. This probably stems from one Valentine’s meal I had with the English Husband many years ago, well before children spoiled spontaneous romance. On the spur of the moment we booked a romantic meal at a restaurant near the Husband’s work. I dressed up for the occasion in a soft, newly bought cream sweater (dry clean only). I don’t remember much about the meal apart from the fish soup. It was a bad choice for a date. The soup had seafood that required eating with your hands, and one particular prawn – still in its shell – ended up squirting brown fish sauce all over the sweater. The Husband made the mistake of laughing, and everything went downhill from there. We’ve avoided expensive restaurants and set menus on Valentine’s Day ever since.

Fiction and fantasy – not as messy as the real thing

Anyone who has been in love knows that it is messy and full of compromise. No wonder people get swept up in fictional romance instead. A lot of women fall for the myth of the brooding hero who rescues a pretty girl from a life of penury and hardship. It’s a tried-and-tested formula in fiction – and it sells in vast quantities. So I was curious when I found out that my local library was hosting a session with four romance writers, who would talk about their craft. The flyer teasingly said that romance is the second-most popular genre in the library. Really? It did not say what the first was, but I am putting my money on mystery/thrillers. My half-baked theory is that rubbing shoulders with writers might actually inspire me to start writing the book I always half compose in my head, in dozens of variations. And it gets me out of the house.

I feel nervous as I drive over to the library, which is conveniently located across the street from a retirement community. Ironically, I feel a bit like I am going on a date. I am worried that there will only be about five people there and that we’ll be required to talk about how much we adore romance fiction. This would mean lying, unconvincingly. My fear doesn’t materialize because there are about 20 people in the room when I arrive. Since this session starts at 11am on a Friday, I was expecting people who don’t lead highly productive working lives. In other words, women over 55 who live across the street. I am right. I see a lot of turtlenecks, fleecy fabrics and elastic trouser waistlines. I hide out in the back row, slump in my seat and try to look invisible. This is always my strategy when confronted with a roomful of strangers.

The session kicks off with a discussion about how these authors fell into writing. One was a history teacher who liked telling stories about her eccentric family members; another an unsuccessful screenwriter; while yet another, who I would put at about 76, was writing for 14 years before she had her first book published electronically in 2009. The most interesting writer in the group managed to combine the paranormal with romance. I suspect this means writing about good-looking werewolves and vampires who fall in love with humans. She was visiting New Orleans when a palm reader predicted she would be a professional writer. ‘I ended up writing the plot for my first novel on cocktail napkins at the airport because it was the only thing I could get my hands on,’ she told us. She’s been writing for several years and still juggles a day job and two kids. Alarm bells rang in my head – writing does not mean you can give up your day job, even when you get several books published. It only means that you end up writing at night, when you are tired. You are probably always tired.

How hot is hot?

I was hoping for some tips about writing sizzling bedroom scenes, but the discussion never veered in that direction. I blame the time of day and lack of alcohol. Still, there was quite a bit of giggling about dukes and earls with big houses; there was a lot of talk about men in uniform rescuing heroines from steep cliffs. I couldn’t help but picture these women – two of them looked like grandmothers, with wavy white hair and prim clothes – writing about sex. I saw them sitting at their computers, trying to come up with different ways of spelling out the same thing. I didn’t ponder this for long. I did learn that there are different ‘heat levels’, an insider’s phrase for how hot the romance gets. Apparently you should communicate this to your reader so that they know what they are delving into. How you communicate it is a mystery to me. Do they have some sort of code on the cover? The bigger the bosom, the hotter the prose? I was too shy to raise my hand and ask.

Night Walker cover

This vampire works out (at night, presumably)

Afterwards, there were some heart-shaped cakes. I had two and quickly headed for the door. But not before I collected my free library bag. I don’t know whether this provided the inspiration for writing I wanted, but I felt a tad better about my prospects. If someone can get published for the first time in their 70s, I figure I have over 30 years before I really need to start worrying.

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Super Bowl XLVI (that’s 46 to you and me)

Super Bowl logo

Ex-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle started the use of Roman numerals in 1971, to give the game an added bit of mystique

There isn’t much that embraces American life quite like Super Bowl Sunday. It’s both sport and spectacle. It’s a chance to gawk at the incredible expense and commercialization of sports. I am the ultimate sports bystander; I’ll watch just about anything on television, whether it’s tennis, golf, American football or European football. I’ve even been known to spend entire evenings watching snooker, darts and bowling. I may not be enthusiastic, but I’ll watch it. The only sport I actively participate in is shopping – and I’m pretty good at it. I can spot designer gear amongst aisles of crappy second-hand clothes in the local Goodwill, and I can size up the quality of the stock in the time it takes Usain Bolt to run the 200m.

While New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was stretching his throwing arm and saying a few prayers, I spent the run-up to the Super Bowl flexing my shopping muscles at my favorite department store, Target. For those not familiar with Target, it’s a massive, very reasonably priced shop that has everything you could ever want and more. If you can think of it, they probably have it.

February 5 had been seared into my mind, not because of the football game, but because designer Jason Wu was releasing his highly anticipated clothes line for Target. I fell for two pieces: a soft, dusky-rose tee with a black bow around the collar and a colorful, beach-inspired dress that had some understated sex appeal. I could have bought more, but restrained myself. Luckily, the accessories sold out in half an hour or I probably would have been tempted by those too.

Jason Wu for Target

These clothes are like my Super Bowl ring but much cheaper

Armed with my new purchases, I felt like I was now suitably prepared for the Big Game – the New England Patriots versus the New York Giants. These teams mean nothing to me, so I usually end up rooting for the best-looking quarterback. It’s hands down Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has the all-American good looks and Gisele Bundchen. What more could he want? He wanted another tacky Super Bowl ring, clearly.

Show me the money!

The first half passes in a blur of average football and commercial breaks. For my British friends, who are not aware of the Big Game’s traditions, securing a commercial ad break during the Super Bowl is not for the fainthearted or light of wallet. Ads for this year’s Super Bowl sold out by Thanksgiving, with each 30-second spot selling for $3.5 million. That’s why the ads are usually as anticipated as the game. Companies pay big money to air brilliant commercials that are never seen again. Often, the same company will have a series of ads that form a story arc over the four-hour game. This year I saw a lot of dogs, cars and dancing chocolates. I liked a Volkswagen ad with a dog who loses weight to chase a Beetle car down the street and then segues into a Star Wars reference. It was clever and funny.

Madonna came out for the halftime show, dragged onto the field by beefy Roman soldiers. She opened the show with Vogue and showed off her shapely legs in a tasteful black dress with fabulous accessories and high-heeled boots. She looked great, but I thought she seemed very tentative. Despite doing some cartwheels, I really just wanted her to kick off those treacherous, spindly boots and put on some sensible shoes she could actually dance in. She appeared terrified of slipping on the many steps – and nearly did. In honor of the occasion, she brought out some gold pom-poms and sang a catchy new song called Give Me All Your Lovin’ with guest singer M.I.A., who flipped off the audience to the horror of the broadcaster. I wasn’t sure about the pom-poms. If anything is going to age you, it’s standing next to a girl more than half your age and trying to look like a cheerleader who buys her uniform from Prada or Miu Miu.

The nail-biting final quarter ended with a win for Eli Manning and the New York Giants (21 to 17). It got a bit exciting towards the end, but I was feeling a bit flat on the way home. I was missing my husband and missing my friends. Sometimes the party atmosphere merely highlights my sense of loneliness. I was surrounded by extended family, but I didn’t feel like I was truly part of the group. I’m trying my best to find my way in the United States, but it’s a struggle. Sometimes I want to be here, particularly when it’s a balmy 75 degrees during the winter, but sometimes I want to go running back to London.

Jason Wu

Jason (aka one of my therapists)

Thank goodness I have my new Jason Wu dress and top to cheer me up. Shopping is more than a sport, you see, it’s a form of counseling. Now I just need to find somewhere to wear my clothes, preferably where they won’t be pawed by grubby, sticky hands.

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