Monthly Archives: October 2013

Remember remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot…

It’s Halloween today, and I’m a bit bah-humbug about it all to be honest (if you can be bah-humbug about anything other than Christmas, that is). Maybe I’m just a cranky middle-aged killjoy but I particularly don’t like feeling obliged to hand over sweets to anyone who comes knocking at the door as soon as it gets dark, even if they’re little and cute and their parents are lurking at the bottom of the drive. This harks back to living in England and being frequented by groups of teenagers on the doorstep half-heartedly wearing plastic masks and rubbish costumes, frankly undeserving of any treats.

When I was a kid, we didn’t go trick or treating. This time of year was the build up to Bonfire Night, much much more of an event then, and possibly still, in England. Ooh the thrill of seeing the would-be funeral pyres getting bigger and bigger in the weeks leading up. Bonfires get built everywhere, in public parks, in local sports clubs, in schools (in my day, our school bonfire night was the bees’ knees), in farmers’ fields and, with those lucky enough to have the room, in people’s gardens.   We had an annual ‘build a guy’ competition – this being all about burning effigies of that rascally Catholic traitor Guy Fawkes who dared to try and blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.  You’d sometimes get accosted by rough kids with guys on street corners asking for ‘a penny for the guy’ which is about the nearest tradition to trick or treating we ever came across. Well, that or knock and run (bang on the front door, leg it to a hiding place with view of said front door and wait for them to come out and, if really brave, do it again a few minutes later) which, as a parent and mature adult now, I absolutely cannot sanction but it was super fun and heart in your mouth scary if you picked the right houses where the cantankerous and fist-shaking and ready-to-chase-after-you-and-try-and-catch-you folk lived. (We never got caught.)  Bonfire Night itself is a noisy, raucous night:  flames cracking and roaring, whole families out together, babies crying, children yelling, everyone oohing and aahing at the fireworks whizzing and popping and bang-bang-banging. There’s a smell to bonfire night, too, of gunpowder, smoke, sausages and baked beans and hot potatoes, soup, treacle toffee, a powerful autumnal olfactory onslaught that is as much a part of it as hot cheeks from the heat of the fire or the delicious contrast of the crispy cold air or the sparklers swishing white words temporarily against the black sky.  This is what I’ve always done at this time of year (5th November or nearest weekend for those of you who’ve never celebrated it).

So, never having gone trick or treating myself, and there not really being much of a tradition of it in England (I know it has its roots in a mishmash of pagan and Christian and Celtic and Irish traditions and ceremonies, and across mainland Europe as well as in Britain, but it did pretty much die out for most of the 20th century in most of England), I never let my children go trick or treating when they were growing up, not once.  It felt like I was sending them out begging, and anyway I really didn’t want them shovelling their faces with crap and on a sugar high till way past bedtime. I wasn’t so mean that I turned all the lights off and refused to answer the door (though that’s what Mr N would’ve had us do, really he would), I stocked up on the crap and duly handed it out (even when, predictably, no-one ever had a trick to play when I requested trick instead of treat). Now I love a bit of dressing up and a good old scary party, a spooky ghost story, and even a screamy horror film (sort of), so we’ve done our fair share of these things as well, the kids and Mr N and me, over the years. And we always had some gruesome looking bloodied spaghetti type teatime treats and did pumpkin carvings for the doorstep which was, I insisted, the fun bit…  But trick or treating?  No.  As  you might imagine, my kids complain of a deprived upbringing in this regard.

So here we are in America on Halloween, and of course there’s no avoiding it. The shops have been full of pumpkins and all the paraphernalia for weeks and weeks. Gardens are creepily and glowingly and tastefully and tastelessly (think big, blow-up, plastic)  bedecked. What we once did, America has embraced and amplified and blasted back out, unashamedly and gleefully, in that way that  America does.  There’s absolutely no room for my cynicism here, my boys are old enough to be out doing whatever they please tonight  and that’s exactly what they’ve done (without having carved any pumpkins for the doorstep before they went), so I guess I’ll have to muster some enthusiasm, get ghouled up and ready to answer the door.

But just for the record, I do really really wish I had Bonfire Night just round the corner instead. Like I said, maybe I’m just a cranky middle-aged killjoy…

On the right side of the gate?

We have lost one of our two gate clickers, the things that allow us to get into the subdivision [ooh look at me, all American!  I mean housing estate] where we live without queuing up at the main entrance in the visitors’ line.  First world problem, I know, but stick with me, I’m leading on somewhere.

So now, whichever one of us has the clicker-less car (that would usually be Mr N of course, he being the loser as it were, but I do sometimes forget to ensure the remaining one is in the right car) must either go the long way round to the main entrance to be let in, or take a punt that someone will be coming in or out of the residents-only back gate at the same time. If no-one else is entering or exiting, you just have to sit there, gate closed firmly in front of you, until someone turns up.

And here’s the thing: twice now I’ve been sitting there waiting when the car arriving behind me refuses to open the gate because he (or she – it’s been one of each so far) doesn’t want to let me in. Obviously, they think I’m not a resident because I have no clicker, and that’s precisely what the gate is for, to keep non-residents out. And you’re not meant to sit and wait like that, nor are you meant to tailgate cars through. And if I’ve lost my clicker, why don’t I just go and buy another one? [Short answer: still hoping it’ll turn up, trying to save myself $40.] I can almost hear them snarking, “If you’ve got a valid reason to come in, then go and tell the gate-keeper at the main entrance!”  Which sounds a bit like the people who say, “If you’ve nothing to hide then there’s nothing to fear about state-sponsored surveillance of innocent people”. But I digress, wildly. What I’m getting at is it makes me feel, sitting there not being let in, a little bit of a non-person, inferior, not welcome, even though I know that I’m not any of these things.

I never thought I’d live in a gated community, right up until 18 months ago, when quite suddenly we did. I didn’t think we’d ever afford it, for one, but more than that, I didn’t think it would be for us – too artificial, too perfect, too exclusive, no community. A whole jumble of reasons that are not easy to explore without sounding insulting and, indeed, hypocritical.

We’ve ended up here also for a whole jumble of reasons, two being the school bus stop and its proximity to Mr N’s workplace, but perhaps the over-riding one was safeness. I don’t mean safety, like away from bad people with guns  – many people’s reason for choosing to go gated but not ours. No,  I mean it was a risk-averse decision at a time when we had just made a sack load of great big risk-inclined decisions linked to jacking in two jobs, a 17 year cosy small-town we-know-everybody-here existence, and wrenching a then 18, 16 and 13 year old from friends and family and everything they’d ever known. In choosing to live where we do (and remember, this is Houston, it’s MASSIVE and we’d never been here before and I didn’t know a single person), we guaranteed that our kids would be surrounded by school friends, and that Mr N would have an ok commute to work. And that was it really, because we didn’t have much else to go on.

For the record, I still think it’s a little too artificial and perfect, and very definitely exclusive, but there is a community, or more accurately, communities, with lots of lovely folk and it’s great living here, it really is.  But that awkward scratchy niggle I get waiting to be let in without my clicker does remind me which side of the gate I used to be on not so very long ago.

How careless can you get?

messageThere are electronic message boards alongside the highways of Houston just like by the motorways back home and we occasionally get some quite exciting, un-British communications, like It’s Hurricane Season: Be Prepared, or directions to a gun show.  Mostly, we get much the same as anywhere else:   traffic updates, travel times, warnings – congestion, accidents, roadworks, incidents, and when everything’s running smoothly we’re reminded to wear our seat belts, not to text, nor drink and drive.

But there is one type of bulletin which is strange and disconcerting, and I know I’m not alone amongst my family and ex-pat pals here in thinking so. Every few days the signs display the alarming message: Missing Elderly. The screen alternates between vehicle details, place name and  the contact number to ring if you can help.  When I first got here, I thought these were about stolen cars, but that didn’t explain why  Missing New or Missing Nearly New weren’t ever posted. And when I really thought about it (I have to admit that it became a minor obsession for a short time), there weren’t nearly enough of these alerts to account for the 100,000 cars which get nicked every year in Texas. Indeed, they’d have to be flashing up a new one every five minutes or so. We drivers would be bombarded, we’d never clock the number plates. Clearly these were not about motor vehicle theft.

No. The plain truth, it would appear,  is that Texas is very careless with its old people!  And specifically, its old people in cars! If the signs are anything to go by, there is a mini epidemic of wayward pensioners driving, well, who knows where? Round and round? To Florida?  The more you think about it, the more mind-boggling it gets. Who is losing them? Their spouses, their relatives, their care homes? I mean, how?  I can’t think of a single case in the UK of a senior vanishing in their Nissan Micra that has hit the headlines, let alone the matrix boards on the roadside.  Yeah sure, we get the occasional elder from Eastbourne obliviously cruising round the M25 on the wrong side of the road and lucky to be alive, or simply just cruising round the M25 unable to get off. Or an OAP from Oldham who’s been crawling at 20 miles an hour in the fast lane.  And they’re always getting massively lost, yes, in the ‘off-course’ sense of the word. In fact, that happened to my mum quite a lot before she completely lost her marbles. But missing? Not ever.

Here in Texas they’ve vanished from all corners of the state and in-between, it’s not just a Houston thing by any means. They’ve gone from towns called  Albany, Fredericksburg, Waco, Spring, Canadian, Lubbock, Marathon, Colorado City, and from the cities of Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio too. It seems there’s nowhere safe here if you’re still driving over the age of 65.  How weird is that?

Squeaky clean or squew-whiff?

When we got in the other night my house was messier than my neighbours’, the K family, despite the fact that we‘d spent the evening eating  there. Granted, it was the end of a Saturday during which the whole family had been in at various times, but then so had the Ks, and they have two teenage boys too. So that’s no excuse. And we’re one down, our messiest offspring, H, being 5,000 miles away, so I can no longer chalk up the third child thing. And of course it’s been more than a year since working full time has been a reasonably valid claim for the clutter.

The reality is that some people manage to keep their houses tidy no matter what their circumstances and some people just can’t. I have friends who could  move house and you wouldn’t know it the day after, who can juggle babies, toddlers, teens, girls and boys, working, partying, you name it, and their homes remain spotless. I mean clean as well as tidy. I just can’t seem to do either very well, and certainly rarely both. Even when I had a cleaner, our place was scruffy not sparkling for six days out of seven.

It doesn’t help that my whole family is a bit slovenly with a high threshold for mess tolerance. It probably only needs one of the adults in a household to abhor a bit of dust or a pile of unfiled papers for the order to be restored frequently, but if both of you don’t care quite enough then it’s a recipe for, well, disorder.  Don’t get me wrong, ours is an organised mess: it’s rare that we can’t find the important things we frequently need to find (not so my reading glasses though), and things have their place and at times make it back there, and I’ve always managed to keep on top of the bathrooms and the washing and the washing up, but I do find that those last three seem to take up an awful lot of time and energy, always, and there is often simply not enough left to get round to the less health impacting stuff.

Saturday’s late night disarray comprised in part:

Not a clear surface anywhere

Not a clear surface anywhere

  • Two saucepans and a mug all containing remains of custard; R’s offer of  help with sherry trifle led to use of three pans – two to make custard for trifle itself (one turned out not to be big enough) and another to make more custard for himself which he then drank out of said mug; (he washed up one pan and some bowls and spoons etc;)
  • a pile of school photo proofs which we don’t like but haven’t got round to discarding (should we just order some for grandma and granddad anyway?);
  • two bowls with dried and hardened sausage stew scrapings which the boys had both eaten “to keep us going” right before heading next door for a meal;
  • large pan of above sausage stew, originally from Friday, still on hob, ladle on counter in smeary pool;
  • (obviously) empty beer bottles and wine glasses, remnants of apéros before dinner date;
  • several (in fact many) items of clothing, including but not exclusively: random socks and pants [British] (boys’); emergency cardy for cold shops and restaurants (mine); two cycling tops and four towels and a pair of running shoes snatched in from outside as it started raining (everybody’s);  a brand new pair of stripey happy socks and Breaking Bad t-shirt, two of Mr N’s birthday presents still lying around from Tuesday;
  • brand new margarita glass, cycling top, books (two), Empire State model (not yet built), and three bottles of whisky/whiskey – the rest of Mr N’s birthday presents still lying around from Tuesday;
  • a one-third completed, long-since abandoned jigsaw puzzle taking up loads of room on the table;
  • a horrid little cluster of small items such as calculator, broken bike light, tape measure, bag of coins, watch, adaptor plug, and shoelaces which has festered into a permanent home on the corner of one of the shelves;
  • a mute, sheet music, at least one trumpet and other trumpeting paraphernalia;
  • shoes EVERYWHERE;
  • and more, much, much more.

So, squeaky clean or squew-whiff – how do your surfaces scrub up?

The government’s not working; join the club..

Can’t escape from the trials of daily life  to a State Park or expand my American history knowledge at a national monument or feel pleasantly cultured at a museum just at the moment. And apparently, I can’t  go and buy a gun either, not even here in Texas, because the government shutdown is affecting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the national parks and museums. Now I really don’t want to get political (not right here anyway) so I’ll not make any judgemental comment on Congress’s continuing (as I write) impasse over agreeing the government budget and the funding of the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare. No.

But I am prepared to pass judgement on one aspect of the shutdown: idle government workers (and I stress here that I mean the people on the enforced ‘furlough’* who are not choosing to be idle in this way, not just any old plain lazy folk who happen to work for the government).  I can empathise, because you could say that I’m on a sort of enforced furlough (see my ‘About Anthea’ page if you don’t understand why).  I can tell you that it certainly does have its up-sides: time to plan holidays and birthdays and social events, time to read and write, time to exercise and play sport, time to cook and clean (second thoughts, scrub that last one, ‘scuse the pun), time to spend with the kids (that would be the quality time I didn’t have so much of in days of yore, now it’s largely FaceTime and driving time,  but I guess it’s still an upside of sorts).

Of course, I’m trivialising it. The furloughed workers have had no choice about their situation and many will be severely affected by this time without pay. But even for those who are fortunate enough to be able to cope financially, it’s not quite so straightforward as just having the time to do all of these things; if you’re disjointed, as they will be by this, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to relax into your new situation enough to make the most of what would be, if planned, a break from your daily grind.  But even if you could, I and many in my privileged situation can affirm that having time that is free from the responsibility of  work (and I include the care of babies and young children in this definition of work) does not always a fulfilled life make.  That bit comes with also using your head,  exploring your talents and interests,  expending physical and mental energy, and contributing something to someone or thing that is not yourself.    And for many of us, a bit of all of this can come through  volunteering – for school or activities linked to our children, for charities, for the community, but basically for the wider good of society.

It takes time (there’s that word again) to find your niche in this free-giving world but not if you’re fitting right in to what you usually do. So, hey, there might just be some of America’s furloughed non-essential government employees who normally run the parks and museums that are twiddling their thumbs and wanting, even only temporarily, to make a difference, who could get at least one or two of those parks and museums out there  opened up?  But here’s the thing: they’re not allowed to do their jobs unpaid (there’s a 19th century law forbidding it) in case the government finds itself liable for back-pay once the shutdown is over.  With not even altruism allowed there are gonna be some mightily unfulfilled people swelling our ranks.

*Furlough is one of those odd words that Americans are so fond of  – I’ll save a fuller discussion on this broad subject for a different blog but as a teaser another that springs to mind is hose, as in tights – meaning a leave of absence from duty (and pay).

I woke up this morning married to a 50 year old

The evening it is and I’m writing this with a gin & tonic freshly concocted, because after all, what worthier time for a damn fine g&t than when you’ve spent your first day married to a 50 year old? No, we didn’t get wed last night, Mr N just had a birthday.

And that’s quite something to make you wake up. (I know this is all about me and really shouldn’t be on this milestone of a day for my husband, but bear with me, do…) Here I am on the wrong side of the Atlantic nearly 5,000 miles away from: H, our lovely, lively, sassy, but still needy, 19 year old daughter currently having a crisis about her choice of university course; my warm and funny and long-standing and shared-history-with like got-lashed-with/ laughed-with/ cried-with Derbyshire pals (many of whom, incidentally, have just had a girls’ weekend away in a house on a small island on a slightly bigger island in Wales without me);  my rocks, the parents-in-law, stoically keeping the threads weaved; my three small-ish nephews and nieces growing up without us; a job I loved being done at least as competently by someone else recruited by me; my poor mum in her crazy diminishing world on her own; oh, I could go on…  Instead I’m  on the right side of the Atlantic with a husband who’s HALF A CENTURY OLD but doesn’t want to celebrate!

It makes you wonder, when you wake up married to a 50 year old in these circumstances, what’s it all about? Indeed, is ‘it’ (what?) worth it? So I’ve  pulled my socks up and found some of the green grass that’s right here (albeit thanks to the sprinklers): –

Between us we’ve seen snow in New York and drunk cocktails in NOLA and ridden a trident over the Golden Gate Bridge and down Lombard Street in San Fran and been dwarfed by redwoods and climbed hills looking down on Highway 1 and been simultaneously awestruck and wrinkle-nosed at Niagara and chilled in Toronto and cheered the Reds in Cincinnati and RV’d in Austin and been on the edge at the Grand Canyon; we’ve deep-fried a turkey and come to love kolaches and camped in Texan State Parks and seen gators and armadillos and now understand baseball (but not American football, yet) and embraced the truly universal adaptability of “y’all” and say “sir” and “ma’am” to strangers and are just about coping with the full-on friendliness and adore bunco (even couples’  bunco) and have happily downed the ‘ritas and boiled the crawfish and gawped at the holiday decs and admired the art cars and two-stepped and line-danced and ridden horses at a dude ranch and yee-ha’d at the rodeo and worn our cowboy boots with pride; we’ve made new friends –  real friends – who are American, Australian, Belgian, Brazilian, Dutch, English, Filipino, Finnish, French, Indian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Pakistani, Scottish (aka the Scottish mafia),  South African, Thai, Welsh,  Zimbabwean (I do hope I’ve not missed out someone here, I’m so sorry if I have);  we’ve bathed in the sunshine and swum outdoors all year round and cycled and run for charity and volunteered with the homeless and partied and dined out and hosted friends and helped at school. And of course Mr N has worked and worked.

It’s really not bad for one year, let alone 50. We should (and will, tonight, with a few more drinks down) count our blessings.  But, blimey,  I’m married to a 50 year old!

I do the ironing now!

Well who’d’ve believed it: I do the ironing now!  You see, in my previous life (see ‘About Anthea’ page) I NEVER did the ironing. I didn’t have the time for it and I didn’t like it either. I mean this; I can count on the fingers of one hand, and specify, the garments I took the trouble to press. Mr N ironed his own work shirts and the kids, from a very  young age (before which they were at the always -grubby-covered-in-food-snot-and-paint stage anyway so what did it matter?), did their own stuff too if they really wanted to, which they mainly didn’t. My crease-free requirements were limited to important meetings at work, not an everyday occurrence by any means, and generally accomplished through dry-clean-only gear or, more usually, a quick exit from the dryer and a snappy fold. It helped that the kids didn’t have to wear school uniform, but nevertheless I’m pretty sure that we didn’t go about looking especially un-ironed.

So how is it, then, that nowadays I have PILES of the stuff? Maybe the teachers did share a running joke about our ever-crumpled kids, or our friends about our furrowed family? But I don’t really think so. No, rather, it’s just further proof of the maxim: work expands to fill the time.  In this life, I even have an ironing routine! Late Monday afternoon when the boys are home from school, listening along to the Archers Omnibus on BBC Radio 4 i-player, is my soothing, smoothing slot.  D’you see what’s been happening here? I’m even beginning to like it! This follows Sunday’s big wash, dry and sort: work shirts, school shirts, sweaty sports stuff, end of week catch-all of itinerant pants and socks; one week’s big pile of things to fold and stow, one week’s bigger pile of things to iron. Blimey, I didn’t even used to pile, fold and stow; finding your own clean clothes in our house was a bun-fight through one of the several baskets of done washing, wherever they might be.

But that’s because, back then in that life, I had a different role. Actually, it might be more accurate to just say I had a role. I went to work doing a job I enjoyed, earning a nice little salary that contributed significantly to our necessities and to our luxuries. And because of this, I was worthy of any time for myself in which I could (and did!) do nothing if I wanted to.  (I used to listen to the Archers Omnibus live on Sunday mornings, doing nothing.) Here, it’s not so much a role I have as a capacity. I can attend all the school meetings, I can commit to committees, I can keep the house clean myself (although for some reason I’m not very good at doing this), I can volunteer with the homeless, I can be the family taxi-driver (someone has to be in Houston, believe me) and the family correspondent, I can do all the shopping and cook all the meals and make healthy lunch boxes for my boys, I can write, I can lunch, I can run and cycle and play tennis. And of course, I can iron.

This has been my first blog and I can hardly believe it myself that it’s about ironing. Oh well!  I’d like to thank the Website Set Up Guide site for setting me off on my blogging way.