Monthly Archives: June 2012

And what do you do?

About three weeks ago I went to the dermatologist. The waiting room was an oasis of calm cleanliness. It’s not what I’m used to. I suspect living in London has taught me to accept a general state of shabbiness, especially in public places. I am at the dermatologist to get a growth on my nose removed. It’s something I’ve wanted to get rid of before, but in London I needed a referral from my doctor to get this little thing seen to. It might seem straightforward enough, but it was an exercise in exasperating bureaucracy – and I never got around to it.

I leave the doctor’s office feeling a bit like a tropical flower. I also now have a huge bandage on my nose.

Here, in the United States, getting the growth removed took less than an hour and only $200. I have no insurance, so I’m immensely glad not to be slapped with a huge bill. But I still feel uncomfortable every time I show up to a place where the receptionist asks patiently, ‘Do you have insurance?’ Saying no makes me feel irresponsible and, rather oddly, like a leech sucking the system dry. I don’t know why I should feel this way because I am paying for my treatment on this occasion.

My discomfort doesn’t end in the waiting room. I’m ushered into an inner office where I wait for the doctor to see me. He takes one look at my growth and says he’ll take it right off with a scalpel, but he’ll also do a biopsy to make sure it’s not cancer. As he prepares for this procedure, he says: ‘Wow, you have an interesting face. It’s unusual.’ His assistant adds: ‘Yes. I think it’s what you would call exotic.’

Exotic? I’m feeling a bit like a tropical flower that’s wandered in from the jungle. Is this how the Mona Lisa feels while tourists snap photographs from every conceivable angle? To make matters worse, this conversation is taking place while they both poke my nose.

‘You’re right, it is exotic,’ says the doctor, as he takes out a needle and injects it into my ‘wannabe mole’. I fake a laugh, trying not to betray my discomfort.

I have a follow-up appointment yesterday, and I’m inwardly cringing when my doctor and the same assistant walk into the sterile room I’ve been put in. ‘I remember you,’ the assistant says enthusiastically. I’m thinking, ‘Great, just what I wanted.’ They once again bring up my exotic looks, but then the conversation veers in another direction.

‘So, what do you do?’ says the doctor, trying to make conversation and put me at my ease. (He’s failing spectacularly.)

I really hate this question. It’s innocuous enough when you have a job and a purpose to your days, but when you spend most of your time trying to keep your children from destroying your mother’s house and each other, I feel like it’s loaded with potential misunderstanding.

‘I don’t have a job right now.’

‘So, what were you educated in?’ he persists, looking down at the book I have resting in my lap. It’s trashy, by the way, so I cover it with my hands.

‘Right now it seems I was educated to look after two kids,’ I reply with a straight face. This gets me a few laughs.

The doctor then launches into a lecture about how studying is important for meeting someone who is your equal. I suspect his children have been taught that anything less than a career in medicine, law or engineering is really not worth pursuing. I remember my dad, who is an engineer, once saying something similar when I told him that I was going to get a degree in communications. His look can only be described as crestfallen.

‘I don’t think you have to be educated to be intelligent or meet your equal,’ I say. He appraises me carefully, but I’m not sure what he is thinking.

‘Goodbye, Mom,’ he says, as he shakes my hand. I want to scream, I’m not your mother, but it’s useless to protest about this. I’ve encountered it many times before.

I leave the doctor’s office and replay the strange conversation in my head. Why should it matter to me what he thinks? Why should it matter to me that I don’t know what to answer when people ask me what I do, especially in professional spheres? It shouldn’t matter at all, but it leaves me feeling like I’ve tasted something bitter.

Next time someone asks me this I might tell them I am a hand model. I’ve always had good nails.

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Graduation

Kurt Vonnegut once said, ‘True terror is to wake up one morning and find out that your high school class is running the country.’ This line, uttered during a commencement speech, is one of the few things that made me laugh during a two-hour high school graduation ceremony last week. An hour of this was probably taken up with calling the graduates’ names one by one.

I’m in a parched, sun-bleached school field, moments away from melting into a steaming puddle in the grass. I’m enduring this heat-induced coma for my cousin, who is graduating from a school that more closely resembles a correctional facility than an academic institution.

As I stare at the ugly, concrete school complex, with faded black roof and windows with bizarre blue frames, I consider Vonnegut’s comment. Most people would probably assume that the writer of Slaughterhouse Five meant it’s terrifying to see some of your ex-classmates doing things that could affect the lives of millions. After all, these are the people who used to think that the most important things in life were to get a driver’s license and bribe your older sibling to buy you beer. How could these children, perpetually frozen in my mind as careless 17-year-olds, be capable of doing anything but getting out of bed?

The popular kids would undoubtedly be the ones running the country. They would have been ASB president, worked on the school newspaper, participated in multiple after-school clubs and volunteered to be mentors. These are the ones who would have a GPA of over 4.0 (straight As) and would have been promised a place at an ivy-league school, the fast-track to success. On these revered campuses is where you are likely to rub shoulders with future politicians and world leaders. Having these contacts is probably more important than graduating with honors.

This year’s valedictorian at Valhalla High School has an astounding 4.8 GPA (which I thought was impossible) and was going to Stanford. She stood before us and gave a bizarre speech that seemed a tad bitter and heavy in irony. She had a good dig at the school district for not producing more outstanding students. This top-performing young woman may end up being a future leader, but she has a very long way to go before she can rival President Obama in delivering speeches.

Yet, as the school principal tallied off the amazing achievements of this year’s top graduates (all women, by the way), I did feel a bit inadequate. My graduation was two decades ago. I don’t remember much; the only thing that remains with me is the hope and excitement, the feeling that the world was mine to conquer. I don’t feel like this any more. I still look forward to the future, but I don’t fool myself into thinking that I am going to do something that will one day make headlines on the evening news.

It’s a bit deflating, and I do wonder if this is not the beginning of a midlife crisis. Is it waking up one morning and realizing that you are never going to be everything you thought? To realize that all this time has miraculously fallen away, as if from a cliff, and you’ve accomplished what seems to be so little? As a 17-year-old, I didn’t know what I was going to grow up to be, but I thought I’d be successful.

I wonder what my 17-year-old self would make of me now. Would she think ‘I’ve made it’? I suppose it depends on how you define success. Perhaps I am harsh, and harshest on myself, but I don’t really think I’m all that successful. I’m just ordinary.

So it comes to me, then, a second meaning to Vonnegut’s famous quote. Perhaps the writer also meant that there is terror in watching old schoolmates accomplishing so much when you have the nagging feeling that you’ve not done enough. I find it incredible to see people my age as doctors or lawyers or politicians. Some of them have written bestsellers and won awards in their field. Some are journalists working in war-torn countries, others might be researching potential cures to debilitating diseases. These people keep looking younger and younger.

My biggest daily worry these days is what the kids will have for dinner. Before I start to sound ungrateful, I know only too well how lucky I am not to worry about how I will put food on the table.

I should really try to be happy with this ordinary life, a little internal voice tells me, but I struggle with it sometimes. Graduation season has dislodged an uneasy truth: I feel like something is missing.

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When salads are bad

I got scared the other day. It didn’t have anything to do with losing my child in a clothes store, and half wondering if I’d have to contact the cashiers to put out an announcement over the intercom. It had to do with lunch. At my friend’s house in Los Angeles. Without any kids at all.

Trader Joe's kale and edamame salad

The culprit, in all its healthy-looking glory

Generally, I consider myself a healthy eater. I tend to prefer vegetables over heavier meals, and I haven’t eaten red meat since I was 16. This meat-free diet doesn’t come without its fair share of angst. Once when I was traveling in Amsterdam, I ordered a vegetable soup, assuming it would be a safe option. Turns out it came with meatballs.

The latest trend in the healthy-eating world seems to be eating food as raw as possible. The rougher the better. What could be more rough-and-ready than kale. I admit, I’m not a huge fan of kale. How far removed is this from cabbage? I’d rather something leafier and softer. Kale is the kind of thing you have to chop into a million pieces to make edible or, if you’re my husband, you would boil it until it’s slimy.

I’ve been in Los Angeles for a couple of days already, and stuffing myself with whatever I feel like: coffee, cocktails and greasy Mexican food have been consumed, not necessarily in that order. I’ve even been nibbling at kettle chips and Thai food. On my last afternoon in the city before heading back to San Diego, I am looking for the healthiest thing I can find. I stumble across Trader Joe’s Kale and Edamame salad. I might as well say it now – I am a sucker for anything with a Japanese twist.

The salad has sweetened dried cranberries, grape tomatoes, slivered almonds, scallions and a lemon-herb dressing. I am being virtuous. My body is going to thank me for this. Yes, I will feel like I’ve just had colonic irrigation.

I’m probably into my third or fourth bite when my friend interrupts my health-food reverie by announcing in disbelief: ‘Oh my god, this salad has 38 grams of fat.’ I don’t believe her. I look at the label hidden beneath the plastic container. She is right. This little bit of green, from-the-earth roughage with salad dressing (550 calories) has more calories and fat than a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s (440 calories, 23 grams of fat).

So be warned: it might look healthy, but check the nutritional content before you buy. I’m not saying I’d rather have a cheeseburger, but I don’t want to feel like I’m somehow being duped into thinking I’m being healthy. I promptly went to the kitchen sink and washed off the dressing, which contained 200 calories and 23 grams of fat. I’d rather swallow bits of dry kale. I imagine it’s not unlike eating small bits of sandpaper, but more organic and earthy.

You know what, I’d rather just eat cake.

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To hell with Martha Stewart

1950s housewife

Just another happy day in the kitchen

Nearly a year ago I left my job. I thought, ‘This is my chance to reinvent myself.’ It might have helped to know what I wanted to become or how I might get there. Instead, I hoped my new self might appear to me miraculously, in much the same way the image of Jesus appears in unexpected places. I recently heard on the news that an image of Jesus appeared in a moldy bathroom in Texas. No such thing has ever happened to me, although I stare at the computer like it might contain the secret to life.

I did learn some things about myself, and one of the most important is this: I am not a happy homemaker. If I thought my year at home would transform me into a contented housewife who spends her afternoons in the kitchen, looking up ambitious recipes in large tomes called ‘The Joy of Cooking’, I was seriously way off the mark.

Undoubtedly, I had the best intentions. I was going to learn to make Mexican food the way my mother does; I was going to clean up the house, and declutter and paint my bedroom; I was going to take an online course on social media and brush up on things like twitter, which were meant to make me more employable; I was going to bake cakes and cookies and learn to make lasagne, which I can never get right. I did none of these.

The furthest I got with the Mexican cooking is asking my mother how she makes beans in the crock pot overnight. The kids, frankly, eat whatever I can scrounge from the kitchen in about 15 minutes. Every evening I open the refrigerator door and half expect/half hope that something will occur to me if I stare at the food long enough.

My cleaning has got no further than picking food off the floor when I see it. I occasionally take the vacuum out of its resting place in the closet, but only if I am threatened with a visit from someone from ‘The Outside’. Dusting is laughable. I wipe at surfaces in the bathroom with the nearest thing to hand, normally a piece of wet tissue paper. I barely bother with chemicals.

Do I feel guilty about my lack of Domestic Goddess skills? Sometimes. I wish I could be a bit more interested in the home, but I think I’d rather go back to work and have a good excuse for the clothes that pile up in the bedroom and, irritatingly, need me to put them back in drawers and closets.

A crash course in psychology

Because I’m an American woman, I like to analyze things to death. So this is my theory, with no scientific proof to back it up: women in the 1950s aspired to be happy homemakers. This was very much their job and where they exercised control of their lives. They learned skills that helped them be good at it, such as cooking and sewing. I’m not saying all women were happy doing this, but it was many a woman’s ambition to be fulfilled in the home.

I was born in the 1970s. The women’s liberation movement had come and gone. The feminists burned bras and looked on breastfeeding as an evil chore. Convenient baby bottles, better formula and diapers had been invented. Women started to look beyond the home.

I was taught by my parents that education was my ticket to better things. I’d have more choices and opportunities; I would take control of my destiny. Education would save me from my mother’s fate of toiling in the house, or so I naively thought when I was a teenager. I spurned anything my mother tried to teach me in the kitchen. Why learn to cook? I was going to earn money and go out to eat. I would pay a housekeeper to clean the toilets and do the endless dusting.

Not surprisingly, this didn’t quite happen as I envisioned. I did get the education and graduated from college with two degrees. I learned the lines to epic poems such as Beowulf and studied Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. No one taught me how to sew a button or make a basic white sauce.

I fell in love, got married and, over time, unwittingly ended up responsible for what we eat at the dinner table and how the house looks. I didn’t connect the dots early on and see where it was headed. In a nutshell, I feel kind of unprepared for the job of domestic wife and mother, and there isn’t enough money to employ someone else to do the many overwhelming chores that mysteriously multiply as I get older.

I’m kind of learning on the job and making loads of mistakes. I fear I’ve become the lazy employee, who sits all day in the office looking busy but accomplishing little. I get defensive when people ask me what I do all day. As if keeping two children from scratching each other like feral cats, and looking vaguely presentable and human-like isn’t enough.

My friend Martha

I thumb through my mother’s copy of Martha Stewart Living magazine, waiting for inspiration to strike. There are beautiful pictures, tantalizing drinks and food, with dinner tables set in bold, primary colors. There are tips for summer barbecues – a feature helpfully suggests placing wine (red/white/rose) in different-colored buckets. Update your outside table with pretty ferns. There’s a list of things to give a hostess, in case you worry about this sort of thing. A letter to the magazine asks what material to use when making pillows that will remain outside. The writer from North Carolina probably doesn’t find sewing in a straight line as challenging as I found geometry.

I’d rather be reading an issue of InStyle

It’s a simple truth: I’m not great in the home. It could be that I’ve been living with my mother for nearly a year and have regressed to the state of teenager. Or, as I’ve come to realize, I’m not a Martha Stewart clone, nor do I aspire to be. Being a mother and homemaker is a tough, tough job. Which is why I’m now a firm believer that it’d probably be easier to go back to work in an office and let the house continue to look much like it does already. Maybe one day I’ll even be able to afford a cleaner.

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Memories

‘Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.’

-Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami

Not a book for people who like neat endings

I read this line in Murakami’s dreamlike book, published in 2002, and it struck me immediately. The character speaking this sentence is a 50-year-old woman trapped between two worlds, the world of the living and the dead. My situation is not nearly as dramatic, but I do feel like I am living between two worlds. It’s partly what this blog was supposed to be about, although it has meandered a little.

For those who have not read this from the beginning, a quick recap: I am American, but I have lived most of my adult life in the UK. After so much time abroad, I missed what I thought of as home. I’d never known the United States as a responsible, grown woman, and I wanted to find out if it’s somewhere I could see myself. I lived with this feeling for many years, and I decided to do something about it. I moved back to California, where I was born, about a year ago. The decision was taken quickly, and I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.

Yet I have not totally let go of the UK. In fact, I am planning to return there next month – and the move is permanent. It’s not necessarily the outcome I would have wanted, but times are tough in the United States. Unemployment remains high, and despite one job offer on the other side of the country, I’ve not found anything else that would support a small family on the west coast. It would be a case of risking it all and continuing to live with my mother in San Diego until I could be financially independent. It could take a while.

Since my husband remained in London for work, I needed to make a decision one way or another. To stay or to go back to something more financially secure? I decided to go and cut my losses for now. We can’t survive another year apart.

So while I wait for the inevitable, I feel like I am already living amongst memories. It’s a strange feeling. When you know that you will be leaving friends and family for a permanent move many thousands of miles away, ordinary moments take on a new dimension. It’s a bit like looking at things through the viewfinder of a camera. You focus in on the small details, trying to make them sharper; you take everything in and hope to remember it like a series of snapshots.

Unfortunately, memory is such a slippery thing. Like time, it doesn’t stay static or still. It squirms and wriggles, even though all you want to do is hold it tight. Already, my life in London feels incredibly distant, like I am watching scenes played out on a stage with opera glasses. I am totally disconnected from those experiences now. I have memories, of course, but I can see that with time they would start to feel like they belong to someone else.

As a parent I am already familiar with the feeling of seeing things for perhaps the last time. It happens nearly every day in the life of small children. They don’t notice it, of course, but you do. I watch my two-year-old turning into a child – I see her little belly grow flatter, her chubby face start to sharpen; the baby curls are loosening as her hair grows; her legs drape well below my waist when I pick her up. As she perfects her vocabulary, she is leaving her baby babble behind. I watch her sometimes when she is asleep, and I know that she will one day look like a girl and not a baby with the tiny heart-shaped face. I’ve seen this change in another child once already. It’s a natural process, but it’s still a little painful.

I think about trying to slow time down, more than once. I know from experience that this last month will instead feel like it’s accelerating. The days will run away from me, faster than a sprinter on a track field.

This is how Murakami puts it: ‘Time weighs down on you like an old, ambiguous dream. You keep on moving, trying to slip through it. But even if you go to the ends of the earth, you won’t be able to escape it.’

By the way, I highly recommend this book if you can deal with an ending that will leave you with more questions than answers.

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Diamond Jubilee

The Queen on her coronation day. My daughter says, ‘She is wearing a lot of clothes.’
(pic courtesy of Newsweek)

It’s a big weekend in the UK, where Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her 60 years on the throne. My daughter, who considers herself a princess, watches snippets on television with a certain level of curious amusement.

Katie Couric, one of our stalwart television presenters, was sent to stand in front of Buckingham Palace, wearing a delicate-looking hat that looked like it would blow off in the wind. She interviewed Princes Harry and William, among others, for a special on the Queen. I didn’t watch this, but I did overhear one question. ‘Do you have to make an appointment to see your grandmother?’ she asked earnestly.

The Chatterbox, who will be six in August, tells me this morning, ‘I saw the Queen on the television. She looked old.’

‘She is old, ‘ I reply. ‘Do you know she’s been the Queen of England for 60 years? That’s what England is celebrating.’

My daughter looks at me while she dangles herself from the kitchen counter from her arms: ‘How long is 60 years? Is it 27?’

‘Um, no, it’s 60.’

She pauses a moment, lost in thought, and then asks me, ‘How old was the Queen when she didn’t look old?’

I contemplate this. I think I know why she might be asking the question. Yesterday we were looking at a feature in Newsweek about the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, written by historian Simon Schama. There was a picture of a young Queen Elizabeth II, looking resplendent on her coronation day in her robes and glittering crown in Westminster Abbey. She looks a little overawed as she stars vacantly into the distance. Perhaps she is contemplating the huge amount of responsibility, perhaps she is thinking about how much her clothes and crown weigh. Maybe she is thinking about how much her life will be lived in the shadow of duty. She was only 27.

I show the picture to my daughter. ‘This is the Queen at 27. She was young and pretty. Is this the Queen you were thinking of?’

She nods. ‘Did she have kids?’

When I tell her that Princes Harry and William are two of her grandchildren, she looks surprised. I’m guessing this knowledge probably makes the Queen seem slightly more human.

Today I was discussing the English Husband’s plans to celebrate via Skype. He was a bit subdued about it. There is a street party in Stoke Newington and another further afield in Kingston. Friends will be at both. The weather, however, threatens to be typically British. Rain and cold weather is forecast and the idea of a street party leaves me shivering. Bank holidays are so often a washout it’s a bit of a national joke – so I’m hardly surprised. Those who celebrate will brave the worst of it and hope for the best.

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