Monthly Archives: August 2012

A child’s party

Birthday girl

The Chatterbox turns 6. Am I sending her the wrong message about what real life is like and does it matter?

I celebrated my child’s 6th birthday over the weekend with a small party for a few kids. Like all children’s parties, expectations were running high. As the day approaches, I feel the pressure that President Obama must have felt when he was trying to push through his deeply unpopular healthcare bill.

After a year in the United States, where children’s parties are bigger and better, I fear I might be deemed a failure if I don’t produce a helicopter landing on our tiny patch of grass, a magician who can make children disappear into a hat, or a cake that wouldn’t look out of place at a wedding reception.

The entertainment is one 41-year-old English husband, whose future as an event organizer I now seriously call into question. The entire party’s success seems to hinge on a game called ‘Pass the Parcel’ in the UK.

For those unfamiliar with the rules, here they are: children pass a gift wrapped in several layers of paper with music playing in the background; when the music stops, the child holding the parcel unwraps as much as they can before the music starts again (unwritten rules decree that it should be no more than a layer); the child who unwraps the final layer with the gift is the winner.

‘Modern Pass the Parcel’ has a slight twist: a treat or small gift is wrapped in each layer of paper so that every child who participates wins something – no one is left out. (As an aside, I’ve never seen anyone play the first version.)

The English Husband, being older than modern times, has only played the ancient version and hadn’t noticed the game had evolved. We argue about the rules the night before, while trying to assemble a toy kitchen, and settle on a gift in every other layer. It seems like the worst of both versions to me: some kids get gifts and others don’t. In the end, we decide to play the game twice and give everyone something.

As I replay the events in my head, I realize there is something wrong with the message we are sending to modern-day children. The message is clear, no one is a loser. Well, guess what, sometimes you are. Tough. Everyone has to learn this lesson at some stage and you might as well learn it while you’re three when there’s less at stake.

I’m not entirely sure why parents shy away from this. Heaven forbid your child attend a party and not get something. That’s a cardinal sin in parenting etiquette. If you veer from this commandment, you might as well accept that you will no longer be invited to people’s houses for play dates. Your child will become unpopular through association.

I don’t think it was like this when I was growing up. There were always winners and losers, at parties and at school. I was generally on the losing side, but I got over the crushing disappointment. I also got over never being much good at sports. Have I been scarred for life? I doubt it, although I avoid bikes, soccer balls, volleyballs, golf balls, basketballs, softballs, baseballs, footballs and hopscotch. I know my limits.

I think it’s important for children to understand that you won’t win at everything. Only robots and ridiculous overachievers do. But it seems that, in the 21st century, this is just a bit too much of real life for children to handle. We sell kids short. Most of them would accept it and move on, if we weren’t always there to cushion their fall. Why are we afraid to let children lose? Why do we sanitize things for them all the time?

As an adult I’ve come to understand that most of us aren’t winners or losers, we are both at one time or another. Sometimes you get the promotion and the job, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you get ‘let go’. There is no shame in this if you did your best – and it’s a lesson I intend to teach my children.

The Chatterbox loved her party, even without all the fancy games and big cakes. She was happy with what she got. On that day she was a winner and so was I.

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To Kindle or not to Kindle

I just finished my first book on Kindle and the experience hasn’t made me want to throw the electronic device in the bath. I’m still rather ambivalent about wanting to take it to bed, though. I know some purists wouldn’t touch this piece of capitalist evil; they’d rather starve themselves of books and go hungry for the rest of their lives.

I’m not that politically extreme, although I used to talk about how I thought anything other than the solidity of a book in your hands was just plain unsatisfying and vaguely traitorous to booksellers.

My moral climbdown came at Christmas when I was looking for something to buy the English Husband. I had an Amazon gift certificate lying around, and I thought I might as well use it for something useful. More importantly, I’d be buying something that he wasn’t actually paying for himself, since I haven’t had any money of my own for over a year.  He’s a man, he likes gadgets, I reasoned. He’s a man, he’ll want to save money, I concluded.

Kindle Touch

Not quite the same as a book you hold in your hands, but I might be able to get used to it

You’d have thought I handed him a loaded grenade, wrapped innocently in Christmas paper, instead of a Kindle. ‘What’s this?’ he asked, shooting me a skeptical, confused look. ‘I thought you’d never buy One of These.’ Christmas makes people do desperate things, I thought.

Instead I said, ‘I changed my mind. I thought you might like it. I put some books on it for you.’ This was a lie: I couldn’t figure out how to get books loaded onto the Kindle and they were apparently floating around in a cloud somewhere. I won’t go into the tawdry details, but buying the Kindle with my father’s Amazon Prime account created a huge number of problems. For quite a while, the Kindle kept addressing my English husband ‘Manuel’.

‘I just don’t know if I want it,’ he said disdainfully. We’ve always been a bit too honest when the Christmas presents don’t make us spontaneously hum ‘Jingle Bells’.

The Kindle never got returned, but it sat – untouched and unloved – for the rest of the Christmas period. I later found out, over Skype, that the English Husband had used it ‘a few times’.

I decide to try reading The Hunger Games on the Kindle. I find holding the device is comfortable. Reading the type is no problem, either, and it’s all adjustable to your own taste. But I don’t like the fact that you can’t easily flip back to pages you might want to read again. In an old-fashioned book you always have a vague idea of where certain events occurred; with a Kindle it feels like you are lost in a Black Hole. It’s how an astronaut must feel when he first observes the infinity of space.

Occasionally, the damn thing doesn’t flip to the right page and I need to flip back and there can be a slight lag; it inexplicably skips about 10 pages another time, and I spend five minutes trying to find my place; and I really don’t like entering a code every time I want to pick up the book after I’ve put it down. Then it runs out of battery, just as I was getting addicted. I let out a groan. This definitely wouldn’t happen with a physical book. There are also passages that are highlighted, but I’m not sure why, so I ignore them.

I like the feeling of a book in your hands and the satisfaction you get when you see how much you have read. There is also the smell of books – old books have that slightly musty smell along the crease. It reminds me of time. I just don’t get this warmth from a Kindle, and I don’t spend time examining the cover. But if I was going on holiday I would probably want to take it along with me. And I suppose it could be useful if you want to read Fifty Shades of Grey and don’t want anyone else to know.

What does anyone else think? Any readers out there want to wade in with an opinion?

As a footnote, I liked The Hunger Games and wished I had thought of this plot myself. Suzanne Collins has hit a goldmine with the ultimate crossover novel. I’ve had to stop myself from reading the second book right away, I was that addicted. I’m a sucker for a love story interspersed with killing and violence. Not sure what that says about me.

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A vacation in Norfolk

Norfolk countryside

Typical Norfolk countryside

The biggest problem with English holidays is that you take a serious gamble with the weather. It doesn’t matter that it’s the sticky height of summer – it could still be miserable. I’m not a meteorologist, but I’ve learned enough to know that the British Isles suffer from something called ‘persistent low-pressure disorder’. This illness can affect the UK at any time of the year and make the weather unseasonably cold and horribly wet. The start of this summer, for instance, will go down as one of the worst in living memory. I escaped most of it – I was hiding away in Califorinia – but it was the wettest and possibly the coldest since records began.

Still, the English aren’t the types to be put off by a few gale-force winds and lashing rain. Their resolve and optimism in the face of changeable weather patterns is admirable. I can only assume it’s a hangover from the Second World War. If you’ve lived through that, a few bad summers aren’t going to push you over the edge.

Railway sign

At least the English confront their problems head-on

The English Husband and I decided to gamble on a short vacation in Norfolk in the middle of August. Norfolk is a county on the far east coast of England, which leaves it rather exposed to the North Sea. The north-west part of Norfolk is bordered by The Wash, one of the largest estuaries in the UK. Its countryside is incredibly flat and the area is famous for lavender. Pretty purple fields are bordered by straw-colored wheat fields and green fields, often dotted with a row of leafy trees. If you looked at it from the sky, it would look like an enormous jigsaw puzzle.

Norwich is the largest city in what is mostly a rural county. According to Wikipedia, the county is also 98% white. Frankly, I can kind of believe it.

Falling in love with Holkham

The highlight of the trip was a visit to Holkham Beach, famous for being featured in  Shakespeare in Love. It’s a beautiful stretch of pristine coastline. There is nothing to mar your view of the tranquil beach – not even a solitary toilet is allowed to be built there. The shallow water is as still as a lake and you can walk out for ages before needing to swim.

The walk to the beach is impressive. You pass a belt of tight pine trees reaching out for the sky, and there are sand dunes and wet meadows. Shells crunched underfoot as we walked 20 minutes to finally reach the shore. There is even a section of dunes for naturists.

Beach at Holkham

A summer shadow at Holkham beach

I’ve been to many beaches in my life, but this mixture of countryside, trees, meadows and dunes is unusual and gives Holkham a windswept, desolate beauty. I don’t know if I’d like to be standing on this beach in the middle of winter, buffeted by the persistent wind, but it does feel a bit like you’ve reached the end of the world.

An ode to the potato

The English Husband will tell you that I’m not the type to defend England against its many criticisms when I’m on UK soil. We don’t see eye to eye on many things related to our national identities. I am more prone to defend England when it is being attacked by an American. Hence, I spend a great deal of time explaining to my friends and family that, no, the food is not as bad as everyone claims. I’m having some second thoughts, though.

London is not really like the rest of England. The food here is reflective of the fact that there are so many different nationalities and cultures. There is so much competition in the capital, and restaurant owners really need to up their game if they are going to survive. So I’ve generally never had much of a problem getting decent food in London. It’s not all ridiculously expensive either. You can eat well in places that won’t send you running for a loan from the bank.

Norfolk, though, is not London. By and large, most food is served with a derivative of the potato. Everything is also fried, deeply. It doesn’t help that I don’t eat meat, but I can’t believe that in the 21st century you will be served a side salad with no dressing. The only thing I could find on the table was salad cream.

In one pub I overheard a very portly guest exclaim loudly, ‘Well, I am all chipped out.’ And that pretty much is the long and short of it. There are too many things served with fried potatoes, not enough imagination and too much mayonnaise.

Do the English have some of the worst food in the world? You’d have to ask the English Husband who ate what appeared to be a carcass of pork from a pub down the road from our cottage. It was sweating under a heat lamp and looked to have been there for many hours. I’m not entirely sure a vulture would have touched it. You know things are bad when you wonder what’s least likely to give you food poisoning.

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An inflatable Stonehenge

Bouncy Stonehenge

The inflatable Stonehenge – it was made by the inventors of the bouncy castle, Inflatable World in Nottingham

Going to see an art exhibition in a gallery is the kind of thing I used to do Pre-K (pre-kids). Galleries and small children don’t tend to mix well. The last time I went to a musuem with four children, we ended up bypassing all the artwork and headed straight for the cafe. On the way out we had to frantically pull the children off a marble statue that looked to have been there for 200 years. It would have taken them about 20 seconds to wreck it.

So, generally, I avoid this kind of stressful outing. Today, though, I got a chance to take the kids to an interactive art installation they could actually enjoy and which they couldn’t casually destroy.

Sacrilege, by artist Jeremy Deller, is a life-sized Stonehenge made out of the materials used for bouncy castles (jumpies in the United States). The inflatable replica of Stonehenge is touring the country (today it was at Alexandra Palace, a 10-minute bus ride from me) as part of the mayor’s cultural events in London this summer. People are encouraged to jump around the rubbery Stonehenge on a green bouncy platform. Best of all, this cultural event is free.

In a short video about Sacrilege, Deller says he likes looking at history in serious, intense and playful ways. This work is both playful and perhaps a bit controversial. ‘Some people would be very annoyed by it, which is why I called it Sacrilege. Might as well get the criticism in first,’ the artist explains.

I love this kind of art. Of course I enjoy pensively looking at paintings and pretending I have a clue what the artist intended (I always have to read the caption), but this is far more fun. The kids really enjoyed bouncing around the fake stones, too. You get 10 minutes per session and it’s enough. The combination of a rare heatwave and a mild hangover made me feel like an old penny flying loose in someone’s handbag.

Chatterbox

The Chatterbox in one of her more pensive moments. ‘We went to see art today,’ she said afterwards.

All three of us walk off the bouncy Stonehenge feeling winded, thirsty and with a mild degree of heat stroke. I also had that fleeting parental feeling which I find hard to identify because it’s rare. I think it’s what you’d call a sense of wellbeing or maybe it’s satisfaction.

We managed to combine something fun, cultural, educational and free – and I didn’t lose my sanity in the process. The long walk home – over half an hour with a moaning, tired child – did nearly tip me over the edge, but I held it together.

My kids still don’t have a clue what Stonehenge is – and will probably forever associate it with rubber – but that’s just a minor matter.

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Olympics 2012: Archery

Brady Ellison

The no.1 archer in the world, American Brady Ellison

I’m indifferent to archery. The only time I’ve watched archery with any interest is during Disney’s Pixar movie Brave. This is the Olympics, however, and you find yourself rooting for sports you previously would have shunned for an afternoon of mowing the lawn or organizing your cupboards. Greco Roman wrestling? Handball? Suddenly they have acquired an appreciative audience.

Over a year ago I applied for Olympics tickets in a range of sports. I got nothing, the English husband got archery. It’s being held at Lord’s cricket ground, the spiritual home of cricket. Located in St John’s Wood, northwest London, it has been a hallowed sporting ground since 1814 (cricket dates back to 1787). During the Olympics, Lord’s serves as the stunning backdrop to the archery.

Getting to the venue is not difficult from where we live, but entering Lord’s requires us to put all our possessions through an airport-style security process. We are not allowed to come in with drinks either. Police officers walk up and down the outside of Lord’s carrying huge guns like mothers cradling children. Cars are also subjected to checks.

On target

The archers come out to an impressive green field. The target they have to hit looks to be miles away. In reality, it’s a 70-metre distance. Big television screens show you how close the archers come to hitting the mark, because it’s difficult to see how close the arrow gets with the naked eye.

I’m not that familiar with the rules, but it’s like hitting a bull’s eye – you simply have to come as close to the target as possible. You get three arrows for one round, with a maximum of 10 points scored for each. We saw one person score a perfect 30, but this is rare. If the score is the same at the end of a round, the players enter a shoot-off.

The big story of the day seems to center around an American called Brady Ellison, who comes from Glendale, Arizona, and looks like a surfer who spends a significant amount of time in the sun. (For my San Diego friends, Ellison trains in Chula Vista.) He’s the no. 1 player in the world and is expected to win. He’s up against an Australian called Taylor Worth in the round of 16.

The English Husband and I

Inside Lord’s cricket ground

It’s not Ellison’s day, though, and he loses to Worth in a tight match. The crowd likes an underdog and cheers enthusiastically. I wanted to see Ellison win, but I am consoled by the fact that a Mexican woman goes through in her match.

My biggest shock of the day has nothing to do with Ellison’s upset. When English archer Simon Terry comes out to rousing applause, my friend turns to me and says, ‘How old would you say he is?’ I squint into the distance; my eyesight is not what it used to be. I see a large man with salt-and-pepper hair (what’s left of it). He looks to be about twice the age of his competitors.

‘I don’t know,’ I reply. ‘I would guess around 50.’

It turns out that Terry was born in 1974, a year after me. This would make him between 37 and 38. I am worried that I look every bit as old as he does, but I just don’t know it. I always wonder if I look older to strangers than I look to myself.

This is what I have noticed about the Olympics: everyone is so ridiculously young. There are 15-year-olds winning medals in the pool. Did they come of the womb swimming 50m? It dawns on me that I could have children competing in the Olympics. This is seriously disturbing.London 2012 banner

If you see an Olympian approaching 40, they look ancient, like a grandpa competing with a team of fresh-faced upstarts. Some of these archers look to be teenagers, I notice with growing unease. The Olympics only confirm what I have long suspected – I am now entering an age of decrepitude.

But there are upsides. Our day out is blessed with good weather despite predictions of rain. Soft, billowy clouds scud across the sky; they look no more menacing than large balls of cotton wool. We drink champagne in the sun, and I am old enough to appreciate it and can just about afford it very occasionally. Yes, there are upsides to getting older, competitive sports notwithstanding.

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