Monthly Archives: June 2014

A tangle of technology

IMG_1776 IMG_1775Back in the day we used to take the mickey out of our parents for being so useless at working their video recorders (I did, anyway).  Before BBC i-player and all the other channel equivalents, before Hulu and YouTube and Netflix and Apple TV and the rest of the stuff that’s out there now that I don’t even know about, we used to have to rely on VCRs [still don’t know what that ‘C’ in the middle stands for?] to record the telly we didn’t want to miss because we were out for the night or away. Do you remember that there was once a time when you could only set your video to record one programme? So, if you went on holiday for a couple of weeks in the middle of a gripping drama series on one channel and, say, had a regular soap habit on another, you had to get a relay of friends and family to tape them for you. And you had to ensure the tape was rewound to the beginning, and it wasn’t the one that had your favourite film on it. If they messed up, which our parents inevitably did, it was just tough shit. We didn’t have computers or anything more sophisticated than a Sony Walkman to listen to music on, but if we had I’m sure we’d’ve been equally disdainful about their technophobia in these things too.

Well. Now I kind of know how they must’ve felt. My techy ineptitude is not in the field of recording (only because we don’t need to be able to do that these days, you can just find what you missed any old place, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally).  No, my incompetence lies in the interweb of, not the information superhighway, no!, but of leads and chargers and plugs and USBs and all this connectivity paraphernalia.

We are packing our house up, ready to move from Houston back to England. I have to decide what we don’t need at all anymore, what we need but can do without for six weeks while it’s bobbing over the Atlantic, and what we absolutely can’t do without in the meantime.

The meantime includes time in the States plus time in the UK. Hot here. Changeable there. Can do Houston Summer and English Summer clothing, easily. But, iPods here, iPods there?  iPads here, iPads there? MacBooks here, MacBooks there?  Samsung here, Samsung there? Garmin here, Garmin there? Canon camera here, Canon camera there? Kindle here, Kindle there. And on and on and on. All this? C’est compliqué!

Even without the move I have massive connectivity issues.  All those different chargers! Some look like they’re going to fit, they’re the same colour (black or white) and appear to be the right size, but no, they’re not quite. Some work with multiple devices. “WHERE’S MY BLOODY PHONE CHARGER?” is not an unusual thing to hear bellowing from me around our house, because it works for R’s iPod too so, apparently, it’s ok to just take it away when he’s mislaid his.  Occasionally it’s wherever I last was charging my own phone [there is, admittedly, the occasional senior moment ingredient on my part, along with the need for readers, of course, which are never where you left them, possibly part of the seniority problem, and which you must have to look more closely at said charger to see if it fits your phone]. But, in the main, it’s actually not us (the parents), it’s them (the kids). We have a drawerful of leads, blocky piles of USBs into plugs into adaptors, quite a range of cables hanging out of the back of the desk-top, a whole other sub-section of car connectivity kit – for the sat nav, for the iPods, to charge the phones. A weave of wires which they can’t keep neatly, and they mix and match incessantly yet somehow seamlessly.

And then, with the move, there are the same connectivity issues PLUS adaptors and transformers and the freaking iTunes account.  Add to the mix a glass of wine in hand as the final evening before the packers descend draws ever closer to its end, and my flitting between the major task in hand to Wimbledon on the screen to sitting here writing this, and there’s potentially a dangerous tangle of technology looming.

The desk-top is going in the freight while pretty much all the rest of the computer-y stuff is sticking right with us. And that means, I have decided, so is everything in sight that’s on the end of a lead or could be (apart from the neighbours’ dog). There might well be a tangle, and I’m fairly sure I won’t be able to unravel it, but I’m not gonna be the one responsible for the early 21st century equivalent of video recording malfunction and the subsequent offspring disdain.

“So”, I will say to my darlings, “when you’ve found what you’re looking for, will you just……. well, y’know, connect me too? Just while you’re at it? Oh! Need a lead? It’s in that zip-loc bag right there, definitely, somewhere.”

Just off right this minute to make sure that zip-loc is in the ‘DON’T PACK’ pile…


It’s logistics not luxury

iahThis morning I was at the airport in Houston for the 52nd time since April 2012 when I first touched down for a flying visit to look at schools and houses.  By the time we leave for good in less than three weeks, that will have nudged up to 57 times.  That’s 57 times in 28 months, which is an average of almost once a fortnight. Now despite what Mr N would have you believe, this isn’t because I’ve had a holiday every two weeks or so (although, depending on one’s definition, I could be considered to have been on a permanent holiday for two years). I do acknowledge that 14 of the 57 will have been for holiday flights that have involved me. As these figures include both departures and arrivals, that’s seven holidays in 28 months which equates to one every four months. Possibly a little excessive, maybe, but four of these have been long weekends on cheap last sorts of deals, more like mini breaks than full blown vacations really, so ignore these and that’s three holidays in a bit over two years. (I’m not going to go down the road trip route today – don’t mind the pun – which are, well, arduous, driving-wise, not what everyone would typically define as a holiday and honestly quite certainly not restful.) So anyway, that means that 43 of these trips, predominantly to George Bush Intercontinental but also including William P Hobby, have not been for my holidays.  Rather, they have been, mainly, to pick up or drop off other people who have been coming here to see us, or to drop off and then pick up people who normally live here who have been going visiting somewhere else.

The point that I have rather laboriously been coming to is this: as an ex-pat, life revolves around airports and aeroplanes, and as an ex-pat in the US, where exploring the country means either getting cosy with your car for many hours on the road or flying because it’s vast and doesn’t really do trains, then it’s extra aero-centric.

Firstly, while Mr N can be a bit sniffy about my holiday habit (his terminology), back home in England we were not averse to regular weekends away in London and Edinburgh, say, as a family, or trips to the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Wales (north and south), holidays in Devon and Cornwall and Norfolk and the Highlands of Scotland, and further afield and for longer in Europe, and I had my fair share of girls’ weekends, most recently to Bath and Oxford and London and Anglesey.  The kids, too, had trips away – with school and, H and F at least, with friends and to festivals. We sometimes flew, but usually didn’t need to. Within America, more often than not we have flown, and that has included school trips – no puking on coaches for our little darlings out here! If you want to see places and visit people, air travel tends to be necessary. Now admittedly that’s “necessary” in the top-end terms of my first world privileged lifestyle, but in the context of home (UK) and here (US) and making the most of  these specific circumstances in which we find ourselves, I think I can just about justify use of the word necessary.

Secondly, we are a holiday destination!  In a period of 18 months we had 22 visitors in 11 separate visits.  Undeniably this visitation rate has noticeably diminished over the course of Year Two, after all it’s expensive to get here, a bit of a schlepp, it’s not New York, few people are gonna come twice (put your hand up the marvellous Mildred for that one!), and, of course, we’re coming home now so everyone can see us for free. Nevertheless, it’s a fact of peripatetic life that folks will want to come and stay with you and enjoy the country you’re in while they’ve got the chance. And being visited means airport pick-ups and drop-offs as well as mini-trips with the guests squashed into the itinerary: you’ve gotta give ‘em a good time, right?

Then there’s the reason you’re here in the first place – work. Actually Mr N has travelled less while here than he used to in his previous non-ex-pat job, but he’s had a few jollies as well as his 2014 exile to Oz that have required airport trips (I always take him and pick him up, he seems to have an aversion to taxis even though they’re on expenses. How good a wife am I? Thank you). Very many of my fellow trailing spouses’ spouses spend a lot of time in the air. It kind of comes with the territory.

Fourth, there’s the daughter thing. H is at university in England. She is by no means hard done by. We give her a very generous student allowance. She always seems to land on her feet (in the words of Grandma, “she could fall in a bog and come up smelling of roses”). She’s working in Italy right now. She has another job back in England in a few weeks. With the proceeds of both, she’s planning a trip to South Africa. She almost doesn’t need us (almost is the key word here). Frankly, it’s often fraught and sometimes edgy and always shouty when she’s here. But. She’s our daughter and she’s usually 5,000 miles away. I cannot, and do not want to, deny her opportunities to come to Houston to be with us. Mr N and I miss her, her brothers miss her (they might deny it but they do), she misses them (she might deny it but she does). Why be four when we can be five like we used to be? The only answer to that is why not?

It’s been a case of logistics over luxury, without a doubt.  However, very soon, visit number 57 will kick-start our final journey home and my relationship with the airports of Houston will be over. As it’s our “demobilisation” flight we get to go business class so the luxury, temporarily, is going to take over. But it’s the logistics that win, and right now I’m wishing they weren’t being quite so final.

Shifting and sliding on by (life, that is)

If life is a journey, we’re crossing a boundary and moving into a new place. And I don’t say that because we are, literally, moving (house, from Houston to the UK). Rather, there’s a rumbling shift in our family dynamics. It’s that time of our lives and, adding to the mood, it’s that irregular time of year. I’m all out of sorts with my days. On Tuesday this week it felt like Friday, so much so (that’s my excuse anyway) I had a 5pm poolside gin and tonic with ice and a slice. Nice.

Our school’s not yet out, but the local American ones are, so some friends are already off and away for the start of their Summer hols. For anyone still in school, it’s exam time. When he has no exams, R is allowed to be at home, so he’s been abnormally present. F finished his final IB exams and so his school career over two weeks ago and is on holiday with gorgeous girlfriend, so evenings are quieter (deadly quiet if R’s out). H doesn’t even live in the same country as us at the moment. And to cap the lack of routine, Mr N, of course, is Down Under. Still.

Much to R’s chagrin, he has benefited from no lie-ins from his exam timetable, with not one single free morning scheduled. From my perspective this is good. Normal. We have to get up. There’s a reason. R has to have breakfast, shower and be out of the door at 7.20am to get on the school bus. That means I, too, keep running/swimming/dog walking/playing tennis from the bus stop. Without this, I suspect my 5pm poolside gin and tonic would have become more than just the fake mistake one-off of Tuesday evening.

Life has just changed gear. The cliché is that it whizzes by and before you know it your babies have left home. This does seem to happen, which is why, like all clichés, it resonates. But along the way, and in-between the major milestones, there are switches  and vacillations; the changing down from third to second, sliding into the fast lane, slowing gently kind of stuff that carries us along, not the emergency stops, reverse gear, foot down 0-60 acceleration moments that stop and shock us.

For me and Mr N, we’re two-thirds of the way through our child-rearing. Now I suppose that, until (and if) we reach the point that they start to look after us, it’s probably never really going to be over while we’re alive, but legally at least, if we wanted to we could wash our hands of H and F, since they’re 20 and 18.  R (15) is our sole charge now. It didn’t just happen, it’s two years and four months since H turned 18, and seven months since F’s big day. But they were the way-markers, while now it feels more like just some flutterings-by, but flutterings that nevertheless are part of our continual repositioning as a family. Living in the house right at this moment, two not five. We’re in four different places, three different continents. Two adult children, one on an American road trip, one flying to Italy for a summer job. One part-boy-part-man, a lazy teen who can’t converse before noon or go to sleep before midnight but knows his own mind, is sharp and sensitive and funny and is old enough for study leave.  Mr N home in two weeks, didgeridoo in hand to add to the trumpets. Me, well, adjusting.

So, two down, one to go; it’s really real.

I think I’ve just nudged into cruise control.

G&T anyone?


The boy, the Beagle, Diesel and me

the boy, the beagle, diesel and meTwice this last week I have had to look after a little spotty boy (chicken pox). Well, ‘have had to’ is not true, I offered, willingly. And ‘I’ should read ‘we’ as it became a joint effort, both times  veritable cluck-fests of mother hens round chick. So the title of this piece should really be ‘The boy, the Beagle, Diesel and us’ but it didn’t have quite the cadence.

First morning, I picked up little spotty boy from home, along with bag (swimmers, towel, water, ice for pox, iPad in case of need for emergency game of Paw something-or-other, pet poo bags, sun cream), Diesel (the chocolate Lab) and the Beagle. Little spotty boy’s mum, S, is dog-sitting the Beagle whilst also incapacitated by an ACL repair knee op and, latterly, dealing with her son’s varicella virus. And Diesel is theirs too. So it was really the least I could do to offer to have them all for a couple of hours while she had physio. I, of course, have nothing more pressing on my calendar, which is full but feeble: the long run could wait (and anyway, it’s getting way too hot and humid at 30º and 98% humidity at 7.30am); the nearest deadline for my freelance work – already half done – not for two more days; moving home and country jobs all on the to-do list and getting ticked off at an ahead-of-schedule pace; lunch plans unaffected. Plus, F’s at home now he’s finished school for ever, and therefore able to be my Kroger-walla/ sous-chef/ maths tutor for R and general keep-the-house-clean slave.

Truth be told, I was quite excited by the thought of a morning’s dog- and child-minding, especially in the company of friends. The evening before, the i-Messenger-sphere over our little corner of Houston was aswirl with entertainment plans – swimming, cakes, ice creams, toys, meet here, stop off there, finish elsewhere. Too many middle-aged women with husbands away, J dryly pointed out. But my, we clucked!

So me and the boy and the Beagle and Diesel met up first with M, dropped the bag off at my house, picked up J, shared the poo pick ups (M and me, not little spotty boy or J, both refusers), pit-stopped at J’s for lollies (80% fruit), walked the lake loop, perfectly timed our snack-stop at J2’s for banana cake hot out of the oven, coffee, juice, chocolate ice cream (little spotty boy), a dip in her pool (Diesel), some patio chalking (little spotty boy), and lots of snaps. We finished up at our house, in the pool (little spotty boy and me), still there when S got back. No time for the Paws-whatsit game on the iPad.

Second time, two days later, we met at the neighbourhood pool, did some proper swimming (M and I had a front crawl race, which M won – of course I’d never have challenged her if I’d thought that would be the result; V did 70 lengths; J did a few less than that; little spotty boy did some good arms) then mozied down the road for lemon drizzle cake, coffee and sticker books.

Never did a kid have such fun with chicken pox! But then never did I have such fun looking after a kid with chicken pox. When F then H, my two oldest, had it one immediately after the other, I was seven months pregnant with R, the youngest, and recovering from a chest infection, working, knackered and massive, and then one of H’s pox became infected. When R got it as a baby it meant keeping inside with him and juggling the other two to and from school and nursery. All three times Mr N was away. So it basically boiled down to stress added to stress on top of not enough sleep. Which is, of course, what it’s like having small children. But just as with the searing, measureless, primeval pain that is childbirth, you forget.  My children’s toddlerhood was for me, I think, a combination of hassle, exhaustion, tedium and exasperation punctuated by cuteness, hilarity, pride, awe and the warmth of the rumbling roots of lifelong friendships, both theirs and mine.  But the good bits, at the time, whilst not exactly out-weighed by the bad bits, are often overwhelmed by them, so it’s only at the end of the day when they’re in bed and limbs-flung-wide asleep and you’ve got a glass of wine in your hand and your bloke home that you can laugh and enjoy. And, actually, sometimes you still can’t even laugh then because you’re asleep yourself.

Being in charge, temporarily, of little spotty boy, was, therefore, pure, unadulterated joy. We struggled with the Beagle’s bungee lead, dawdled along the shady sidewalks, dilly-dallied with the dogs as they stopped and sniffed and wee-ed. He started off quiet and ended up chatty. We made the same jokes over and over (“It’s your job to pick up the poo, mummy said so!”). We pointed out squirrels and turtles and red cardinal birds. We tried to give interesting and simple but educational answers to blunt questions (“What is a spot?”). We admired his hopping. We ruffled his hair and put ice on his itches. We sang him a song about sharks (well, J did). He sat on my knee and gave us all cuddles. He even had a tumble and a scraped, bloody knee so I had tears to wipe and chase away, and briefly had to carry him, the bag, and hold on to the two dogs, bungee lead not helping, under the hot sun. But we made it home all smiles, him asking for a band-aid not a plaster after a distracting discussion about the different words in American and English.

So thanks to the boy, the Beagle and Diesel, I’ve had a delicious taste of the past, all too often unappreciated and not thought about. And now, little spotty boy is spotty no more and back at nursery school. Sigh.