Monthly Archives: December 2013

Mixed blessings

red juggernautDecember has been a fraught and frenzied month.  Nothing new there for me, or for you, dear reader, I suspect. Christmas is just this massive, slow-rolling, red juggernaut of a thing that sets off on Dec 1 and rumbles its way right on through, till it comes to a halt, maybe the day after Boxing Day, and we’re all left thinking, phew!  (As an aside, why does anyone get married in December? I mean, birthday people can’t help it, but you choose your own wedding day, right?) Then there are these few glorious days of taking stock, clearing up, eating leftovers, calming down, lying-in, and any frustrations and disappointments and tensions and misunderstandings and outright arguments fold gently into the afterglow and become fond memories and funny anecdotes. It was great wasn’t it?

This year for me there has been a mash of other ex-pat kind of stuff jumbled in with the usual fray. A seemingly over-long list of new friends leaving Houston for good, long-time friends and family strands too far away, unsettling work situation for Mr N. For once Skype doesn’t cut the mustard: Grandma and Grandad, staying with other son down south (of England), miserable on the small screen on Christmas Day, in the dark and cold at the end of a three day post-storm power cut just like the 1970s, finishing off their Tesco salad for lunch.  I am at the same time sorry for them and profoundly guilty for being able to swim in the pool with the fat turkey deep-frying as I splish and splash.  As for all these goodbyes, I feel hard done-by – I miss my old friends very very much and coming here was a wrench, but I’ve always known that I’ll be going back. When you know it’s forever, then, it’s deeply sad, somehow made more so by the  short-lived nature of some friendships here which shine bright and generous and soul-warming in what is often a disconnected way of life.  As the doors close you feel sharply what might have been. And Mr N is discombobulated (look it up) by the end of one contract and the start of a new one which has meant lots of farewells for him too, a looming eight week stint away and vicarious stress and sleeplessness for me (he is unable to keep his insomnia to himself, lights go on, screens shine bright, doors slam).

But hey ho, on the bright side: oldest child home after five months (yay!) and first meeting of new boyf in the flesh (he passed); second Christmas in and we’ve been tripping over all the party invitations, so open-housed and friendly and ready to celebrate is everyone who stays for the season; potentially a new job on the horizon for Mr N. New connections are made all the time.

So it’s been a month (well, a year really) of mixed blessings, but on balance I’ve got much more to be thankful about than I have to moan about so I’ll shut the f*ck up and finish this year off by wishing everyone I know – new friends, old friends, recently lost friends, family near and far – and anyone I don’t know who might be reading this, a very happy, fulfilling and fun-filled 2014.  See you next year!

All back under the same roof :-)

I may be the mother of two adults, but I’m also still (just) the mother of three teenagers, and now that our firstborn, H, has breezed back to Houston for Christmas – with boyf in tow – we have four of them living in the house. Now, I’m keeping the boyf out of this as we’ve only just met and I might ruin any chance of a good and ongoing relationship if he finds out I’ve been blogging about him within 36 hours.  And anyway, I’m going to have a little beef about teen demeanour, and since he’s completely on his best behaviour (bless!), it wouldn’t be fair to tar him with the same lazy, messy brush as my lot, even if he is normally just like them at home.

So, on to my three.  Can I just tell you what annoys me most about them, collectively? I don’t want to get too personal or they’ll accuse me once again – see a few paras below*- of favouritism, but anyway I think what I’m about to list is probably generic enough to apply to many teens and not, therefore, be deemed too intimately insulting.

Firstly, there is a knot of annoyances that revolve around hygiene and the bathroom: they never, ever, change the loo roll, instead just leave the empty cardboard hanging and start a new roll, which then stays loose on top of the toilet or simply on the floor, and if it’s left long enough (by that I mean, if I leave it long enough) then two or three cardboard tubes roll around  in a vile cluster, being ignored (just to clarify, I don’t often use the same loo as them which is why there can be a build up); when they dry their hands, the towel usually comes out of its loop holder, but do they hang it back up (rhetorical question, obvs)?; bath towels collect damply and daily in each of their bedrooms until there are none to be had for anyone else.

Next, they put empty packets, cartons, boxes of biscuits/milk/juice/snacks/cereals back in the cupboard/fridge/freezer and then complain that there’s nothing nice to eat because I haven’t stocked up again. Well how the bloody hell am I supposed to know we’ve run out!  Or, they put potatoes into the oven to bake and then moan, an hour and a half later without having thought once in that time to check, that there’s no tuna to put on them.  Or, they just say, “What’s for tea?” in that carelessly assuming, entitled way that brooks no possibility that I might have absolutely no idea, quite yet, what’s for tea. Now, I know that it’s not unreasonable for a child to expect to be fed by its parent, but it does just go on and on, this hunger of theirs and has been doing, in one way or another, since they were born; I don’t think I realised how relentless it would be.

They still kick their shoes off and drop their bags (and coats when worn) right in front of the door as soon as they get in. This is what they’ve been doing since they were three. When will it stop?

They are physically unable to concentrate properly on tidying their bedrooms (whilst being perfectly capable of interacting with a screen – small or large – for several hours), so what should take 20 minutes, even for a big mess, takes half a day and doesn’t look so different even then. [This is not true of F in the middle, but two out of three still counts as a collective I think.]

They keep tally of who’s been given what and how many gifts and when,  what chores they’ve each been asked to do, the places they’ve been, what treats they’ve had, just to be sure it’s all fair and there are no favourites*. This fairness count appears to last a lifetime. They never forget, and they hold a grudge. H is still not over the time I took F and R to Splash Landings water park when they had an inset day off school and she didn’t; this happened when she was 11 and she’s 19 now.

They are always incredibly tired, though at different times of the day. R, the youngest at 15, can barely function in the mornings or within a couple of hours of getting up which, if it’s the weekend, takes him well into the afternoon before we can have a sensible conversation (this morning before school he had to lie down with his eyes closed for a few minutes on the sofa post-shower but pre-breakfast); F is so exhausted by all his schoolwork and homework that he can’t keep going beyond 10 o’clock during the week; H rarely gets through a day without a nap. [Was it really only into my twenties that I began to easily be able to party until the small hours and hold down a day’s work? Blimey, it’s quite a small window of candle-burning at both ends then, unable as I have been since before I hit 40 to operate with a hangover or manage two late nights in a row without a lie-in or a snooze!]

I am, of course, completely aware that one of the things that annoys them most about me – apart from dancing in their presence – is talking about them with my friends or posting stuff publicly behind their backs and that this blog totally counts as exactly that. So – should any one of them find themselves reading this – I’ll finish off by saying that there are loads of really nice things about them too (which I suspect would be more embarrassing to read about) only one of which is just HOW FANTASTIC IT IS to have them all here together under one roof again after five months without H – mess, laziness, competitiveness, grievances, complaining and cooking included. Oh bring it all on, I’m so ready!

Christmas decorations? Could do better!

IMG_1117 IMG_1118 IMG_1109 IMG_1122 IMG_1127 IMG_1129 IMG_1115



My friend Sue (she knows I’m writing this) isn’t American but she has been here for 12 years.   I took these pictures of her house today specifically for this blog.  And I didn’t even bother to include her three Christmas trees. Yes, she does have three.

Sue may be the Queeof Christmas in my book, but she’s got serious competition from countless others. Did you know that you can buy Christmas pictures, banners, cushions, tea-towels, hand towels, crockery, serving bowls and plates and jugs and glasses and mugs, tree skirts and mats, table runners, table mats, doormats, salt and pepper grinders, nutcrackers, corkscrews, loo roll, kitchen roll, bedding, dog bedding, dog bowls, and, actually, absolutely anything that goes in a home?  And folk do.  The shops are bursting with it all and it’s being bought, more and more of it to add to last year’s and the year before that’s.

It is difficult to comprehend the scale of the standard interior yuletide decor unless you’ve experienced it. Even these pictures of Sue’s place don’t do it justice. You walk in and you’re suffused with it, suddenly wishing you had a glass of mulled wine in your hand and resisting the urge to burst out with a carol or two. Last year I was quite overwhelmed, although this year I’m much less fazed. I believe it seeps beneath your skin until you become immune to the glorious, cheesy, over-the-topness and eventually start kitsching up like a true native. At a do the other night where we exchanged secret santa gifts, I was genuinely taken by a festive apron and a nodding reindeer candle holder, so you see it’s already happening to me.  (Last year I took a pepper spray as a bit of a, I thought, fun gift to a secret santa party which didn’t go down well. If it’s not Christmas themed and preferably decorative and made of china then, well, you really shouldn’t bother.  And everyone knew it was mine because a) I was the only non-American and b) I hadn’t put enough effort into its presentation – it was just a very small wrapped parcel when, as an absolute minimum, it ought to have involved some tissue paper and a gift bag or box. Mortified I was.)

So lordy lordy, the pressure’s really mounting to get our house decorated. And that would be outside as well as in. Now that our neighbours, the Ks, have switched on their lights, ours is the last of the five in our little crescent to remain dark. This happened last year,  our first Christmas in America. Mr N was away in the build-up, and I just couldn’t leave it any longer without us being considered the miserable British b*stards in the corner not joining in.  So I got myself a string of lights, visualising something of an ‘understated but classy’ look, and set boldly forth with the stepladders, hammer and nails.  Well, our house is not the biggest or the highest, but blimey, the ladders were heavy and hard to manoeuvre  round the shrubbery and the nails I was using were actually flimsy picture hooks which kept falling out of the fascia boards, which themselves were very hard to reach, and the line of lights quickly became an uneven series of slumps between the fixings, not a neat, tight contour of the roof as originally envisaged. But having lugged the ladders to the front of the house and got started there was to be no turning back. Three hours later (honestly, three), with a right sweat on and, frankly, feeling more than a bit cross, I’m at the end of the light string but, sadly, not at the end of the house. I have two choices: i) go and buy another set, or ii) make do. I made do.  The lights sagged a bit dismally from the eaves at the left, over the windows and door, to three-quarters of the way across the front of the house, where they abruptly took a straight line down. ‘Unusual’, I would say, rather than ‘understated but classy’.

Two days later, things took a turn for the worse. We had a storm. I feared my lights wouldn’t survive at all. But they did! Partially. The full string was still up, but one half, in a block to the left, had gone out, leaving alight just a couple of droopy dips in the middle and the straight down bit. They had now become officially ‘sad’ and, I’m ashamed to admit, that’s how they stayed for the season. While out walking the neighbours’ dog (thankfully they at least were abroad and would not, therefore, be witness), a lady from somewhere else in the neighbourhood stopped to introduce herself because she recognised the dog. “Oh”, she exclaimed with a dawning realisation after a couple of minutes of chat, “yours is the house with the lights!”  ‘Nuff said. I have no photo to show, but our holiday guests, Helen and Mark, can vouch for the awfulness, shamed as they were by having to stay in said house with the lights.

As I write this, all we’ve managed so far is an advent calendar inside and a big fat zero outside so we’ve got some serious santa-fying ahead of us this weekend.  Back home it wasn’t unusual for us to put the tree up on the night the kids broke up from school, but here it starts with a vengeance right after Thanksgiving so we’re well behind and I’m starting to feel that I can’t have anyone round until some more energy’s been spent on it.

But the funny thing is, despite the early clamour to get extravagantly Christmassy, your typical Yank heads straight back to work on Boxing Day (which simply doesn’t exist here – I never knew that till last year!) so it’s all over in a flash. We of course like to slum it out for days, gorging on leftover turkey and chocolates, watching films and TV specials, playing board games, doing the quiz of the year, certainly not working, and of course drinking too much and inappropriately early in the afternoon. We really should, then, make more of an effort with the decorations. Yes indeedy, most certainly could do better!


Going postal

usps logoIn US slang, ‘going postal’ means becoming extremely and uncontrollably angry, often to the point of violence, in a workplace environment. It derives from a series of unrelated incidents in the 80s and 90s where postal workers did just that, in post offices. Without meaning to trivialise these tragedies, I have to say that going to the post office here in America makes me feel right on the edge of going postal myself. Let me tell you why.

Firstly and mainly, in my local post office there is always a queue but never any queue discipline.  Now, I know that us Brits are queuers by nature and queue discipline is in our DNA in a way that it isn’t for the rest of the world, so if you’re not British, just humour me for this bit, there are some other reasons why the post office can send one over the precipice into insanity that I’m sure you’ll identify with as you read on.

So, back to the queue issue for the moment and picture the scene. You wait a while. Shuffle forward. People  join the queue behind you. A member of staff approaches smilingly, not you though, instead the person behind you. Let’s be clear here, that would be the person who came in after you who has not been queuing for as long as you have been. This person gets personal service from the smiling queue server. They’re taken out of the queue and, you notice ten minutes later, have finished whatever their postal business was before you’ve moved a full foot. You wait some more. You watch Mr Smile approach someone else in the queue. Who is of course behind you. You continue your waiting. You get to the front. A man who has been wrapping  something somewhere else in the room, but not in the queue, comes now and stands in front of you, ready to take the next free counter. You let him go, grudgingly. Maybe, you think (at least the first time it happens), this person has already queued once. Another minute or seven’s wait. And then who should turn up next to stand at the front? That second jammy bugger who got the personal bloody service from Mr Effing Smiler. Well, you know that she hasn’t been in the queue already. In my book, that’s plain pushing in – with permission! – and it’s simply not cricket.

[As a little aside, I have, once only, been the recipient of The Smile’s benevolence.  I was queuing to buy one stamp for one card, idiot glutton for punishment that I am, when he asked if he could help me, disappeared off, and came back with the stamp and a “No charge, ma’am” flourish! How peculiar, but I did come away feeling pleased, like the golden light of the lucky had shone down on me. Maybe it’s a strategy – if you do it enough, eventually everyone who’s ever queued at the post office will get Old Smiler’s blessing in the end?]

Secondly, there is some kind of weird reverse resource/efficiency time warp going on in the post office whereby the more staff there are, the longer your business takes you.  So, in view of this USPS-specific distortion at play, and the fact that there are always loads of staff (some at the counters, some being busy behind the scenes with boxes and tape and weighing and things, some hanging around the self-service and PO Box section of the building you have to walk through first doing who-knows-what but not serving, and of course, our old chum Smiles wandering up and down randomly bestowing his charity), it follows that the inevitability of a long queue ahead is a given, no matter what time of day you go. There’s no order or sanity to the whole experience.

Thirdly, there may well be lots of staff at hand, but whether any of them are competent enough to ensure your stuff will get to where you want it to is completely in the lap of the gods.  In our one year and four months here, we have had several no shows (letters/cards etc that have simply never got there), one item returned before it left the country for not enough postage paid, and one big box of stuff that went all the way to the UK and then came all the way back to Houston. Do let me explain to you about the latter. It was gifts for my small niece and nephews who celebrate their birthdays in the same month. They are siblings so we’re talking same address, one big box. I had queued, of course, and then been sent to the side of the room to complete the address and customs forms. Then, it goes without saying, queued again. Eventually I made the counter, the forms were checked, the weighing and labelling and taping up was done, I was asked the value, I paid the fee which covered postage and customs and insurance. Just as it was ready to go, I read on a poster on the wall some “dos and don’ts” for the customs paperwork. Don’t, it advised, use general terms like ‘sporting goods'; be specific. I had used that very term. Furthermore, don’t, it cautioned, put just one total value; itemise. I had put just one total value.  My particular “associate” that day was incontestably incapable and I should’ve known there and then that this package was doomed. Own stupid fault I know, but instead of taking my business elsewhere, I duly refilled out the customs form correctly and off it went, for “guaranteed delivery”, apparently, “in five business days”.  Fifteen or so business days later, and still not having heard from my sister-in-law, C, about the safe arrival of the much-awaited presents, I contact her. No, she confirms, they haven’t arrived yet. But she has just received a card from a mailing depot miles away from where she lives, round the M25 and then some, saying there’s a package requiring a £28 excess charge waiting to be picked up. It’s obviously mine and I’ve not paid enough postage or tax this end. So I transfer £28 to C’s bank so she’s not out of pocket on what are now very late presents for her kids and she’s pretty sure that she or my brother should be able to get to the depot the weekend after next. Imagine then my surprise (that’s a calm word for how I actually felt) when, ding dong, perhaps a week later, there’s a USPS delivery at my door and, how did you guess dear reader, hello box of pressies!  And with absolutely no explanation why. It’s still here in my house, the box, I can see it from where I’m sitting typing right now. (Sorry F, B and R, hoping still to get them to you one day!)

I’ve not even touched on the Bermuda triangle-like hole that stuff sent the other way falls into. Or at least, stuff that is sent to our house. Like my original marriage certificate. And one of F’s 18th birthday presents. Try tracking them, I hear you say?  Well, track them I have, but can get no further than US customs in New York. I’ve tried phoning, I’ve tried emailing, I’ve even tried via my favourite ol’ post office down the road, who proved concerned but useless. It seems that once anything addressed to us makes it over the Atlantic and hits land, it has a high risk of vanishing.

Those little white USPS vans with their blue and red stripes, our mailbox at the front of our house – love ‘em both. But I love them because they’re iconic symbols of America like the yellow school bus that have become a familiar part of our lives. The reality of the postal service itself, though, I’m finding really much harder to love, except in a masochistic sort of way.  Like I said, I’m on the edge of going postal.

All that jazz!

American high school football is a thing to behold.  Not having any children who go to a local public (i.e. state) school here, it has taken us over a year to see our first high school game, and we only just managed to get that in as the season is drawing to a close and semi-finals and finals are in full swing. But my oh my, what a glorious, leg-kicking, band-marching, pom pom shimmering, back-flipping, baton-twirling, musical blast it is, and that’s even before the game itself has kicked off!  It is sheer excess.

this is how big a sousaphone is

This is how big a sousaphone is

I counted at least 60 players lined up for each team, all fully helmeted and padded up, little white towels dangling archly from the back of their trews. (Why? Someone said it’s to wipe the sweat off their hands, someone said “because it’s cool”, I’m guessing it’s a status thing as it denotes you’re a ball handler… But then again, what the bloody hell do I know?) I counted 13 sousaphone players in the opposing team’s band alone. Do you know how big a sousaphone is? I counted more than 52 skirt dancers during the home side’s half-time ents slot. That’s more than 52 specially made long black swishy silky skirts with brightly coloured linings that whip on and off with a flicking of wrist and rasping of velcro.

skirt dancers

The actual skirt dancers

I lost count of all the cheerleaders, pom pom girls,  flag wavers, acrobats, dancers. We were introduced to coaches, team captains, some of the cheerleaders, mascots, in fact anyone and everyone who was special for some reason. They   somersaulted or high-kicked or whoop-whooped their way through their introductions.

There is, to be sure, something quite quaint and old-fashioned about the whole set-up, almost 1950s-ish. Of course we sang the Star Spangled Banner to get it all going, but that goes without saying (every cycling event, running race, sporting clash big or small, charity do, you name it, we sing it at the start), so I think it’s more to do with the clear division of roles. The girls look good (without exception they had swinging ponytails), and they charm, cheer, entertain and, I’m afraid I have to say it, play hostess to the players with the refreshments. The boys, mainly, are there for their footballing prowess. In truth, though, it’s not that simple. Firstly, the bands are mixed. But secondly, cheerleading is considered a sport in itself and one in which competition for university scholarships is fierce. Top cheerleaders, I’m told, must not only be stellar athletes with tumbling skills, but have a presence that gets a response from the crowd.  But because of its origins and its shimmer and – I don’t think there’s any getting away from it –  its fundamentally supporting role, it still doesn’t feel entirely 21st century to me.

But anyway, back to the hullaballoo of it all. The human time and effort, not to say cost, that is caught up in the razzmatazz of the game is truly staggering.   I think all in all there must have been upwards of 400 girls and boys on that field at some point during the evening. Nor is it only the kids themselves, it’s the coaches – that’s football coaches, band coaches (would that be conductors?), dance and acrobatics and cheerleading and pom pom coaches (choreographers?) – and the parents who have to fetch and watch, not just the games but all the training. And then who designs the outfits, and who makes them? How many outfits a season does, say, a cheerleader need? Time and effort aside, it can’t be cheap to be a part of the football entourage, whether playing or entertaining.

We were watching the Cy-Fair Bobcats vs the North Shore Mustangs, a semi-final match between the varsity (top level) teams of the Texas 5A Region III District 17 high schools. Now I don’t really know what that means either, but it does suggest that there would’ve been an awful lot of similar games happening round about the same time in Houston and state-wide.  Presumably the finals are even bigger and jazzier and louder affairs. Earlier in the season, every school has its ‘homecoming’ – where its alumni return and the school hosts a week long celebration that might include a parade or a ball but always focusses around a big football game. Maybe that’s the one to go to next year!

This one was played out in a nearby stadium which is a shared facility for the local schools’  bigger games.  The loos were clean and there were lots of them, and there was hot food and drink for sale (including a Chick-fil-A concession) and plenty of room to sit on the bleachers (capacity: 15,000!) with a big electronic scoreboard with all the stats, and live commentary to help us along.

It beats the standing-on-the-sidelines-in-the-pouring-rain-with-a-bad-cup-of-instant-coffee UK school sporting experience. Even if we didn’t completely understand all the rules. And all for $7. Just wow!