Category Archives: That was then & this is now

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.

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.

On thin ice

I hadn’t planned to write this today but I’m atrophying in my dressing gown still, mid-afternoon, on a Friday. It’s a snow day today. Yes, you read it right. A snow day. In Houston. Where there’s no snow. We’ve been building up to this for a day or two now. On Wednesday, iPhones were showing – dramatically and pictorially – freezing rain for today, like a beautiful but menacing iced-up waterfall high in the Derbyshire Dales mid-winter. (Oh, if only!) All day yesterday we debated whether or not the buses would run or school would be open, and even before the temperature started to drop a preemptory email arrived saying they/it might not and R, my 15 year old, tried hard not to get too excited about the prospect of an extra lie-in,  but he can’t help himself.

So the ice storm blustered in overnight with a swooshing dip of the mercury but otherwise not much else to show for itself,  but lo and behold we woke to messages confirming that school was shut. I roused R, then checked, then told him the good news as instructed by him (for the delicious pleasure of being able to roll right over and go straight back to sleep). I gave F an extra hour too. In the meantime, I made myself coffee and returned to bed, with iPad. Where I’ve been since. Flicking from email to Facebook to the Guardian and back again, commenting here, clicking on links there, watching clips, but mainly reading and contributing to the collectively amusing and sardonic posts about the weather non-situation. I thought about heading out for a spinning class and checked the timetable (on the screen) but couldn’t tear myself away from the cryptic crossword. Which I finished (though, to be scrupulously honest, with three word cheats, but I’d’ve got there eventually).  I forced R out of bed at 9, F was already hard at work. I brewed more coffee and retired again. I had a little read of my book. R decided to do some art, which was fine by me, so I helped him with his model-making (a New Orleans plantation house, since you’re asking) – holding together glued edges, that type of thing, all very constructive.  I made him bring it into my bedroom to do it, mind you.  I got up to grill a bagel for what I suppose you could call brunch, mumbled something encouraging to F doing his maths (can’t specifically help him there in any other way, of course), suggested R might take on something less entertaining and creative, and more academic and strictly necessary than his artwork – like chemistry homework, just as an example – but didn’t really press the point. The plantation house, I have to say, is looking good already.

If school was on I’d’ve been up and at the day. I’d’ve had a run and gone for coffee and cake to celebrate C’s birthday (cancelled due to too many people invited now with small children to care for – careless planning I’d say, next time C just invite those of us with teens!); maybe I’d have got on with some writing work too. At the very least, I’d have cleaned my teeth and be dressed by now.  But outside there’s a steely grey, flat sky; it’s bone-achingly cold and damp – and nothing like a proper, rip-roaring snow day:  there’s not even ice left (there wasn’t much to start with), let alone any fluffy white stuff. No drifts to jump in, drives don’t need shovelling clear. And even if there had been snow, there are no hills to go sledging down, or anyone out and about to throw snowballs at, no gritters and snow ploughs with their intoxicating wintery-ness, or trains and buses heroically forging through. It’s very quiet and there’s absolutely nothing to get excited about; on the contrary it’s chilly, overcast and boring.  Even the boys have been sighing. We’re stir-crazy but uninspired (and, I suspect, a bit uninspiring, sorry).

Ours is not the only school closed, all Houston schools are, along with most businesses. The main rationale behind this shutdown is that, because they build the roads so ludicrously high here, when it actually dips below freezing it can be quite slippy slidey up there on the freeway feeders, treacherous even for the otherwise apparently invincible Texan pick-ups. Today is the one day in a thousand that (maybe) justifies the year-round “Beware of ice on bridges” signs that quirkily adorn every single slight incline on the roads of this normally blisteringly hot city.

But still! It’s lame and unsatisfactory and disappointing and not like home and I blame it (yes! the freaking lack of weather) for this oxymoronic state of torpor and restlessness that I find myself in, which I’m trying to shake off by writing this.  Come ON girl, time to get dressed…

Romantic? Moi?

I was thinking about writing my next blog about last Sunday’s Houston marathon and half marathon, in the context of how well Americans do big events compared to the Brits (I don’t mean the people taking part in them do better, of course, I mean specifically how well organised and supported they are). Possibly sounds a bit boring, but I’ll probably get round to it anyway sometime. But not here today, because,  while chatting with some pals this morning another thing struck me.

We were talking about the half marathon, which I took part in. [Before I go on, I should say that I know lots of people who did it, and some who did the full one, and as this was my tenth half, my slowest ever and I was the last to finish out of everyone I know, I’m honestly not angling for congratulations; the truth is that I had the best run in the best conditions that I could’ve hoped for given my crap training regime, less than sleek body and pre-, inter- and post-Christmas drinking (hence the crap training regime/less than sleek body) so I actually ENJOYED my run, and even had a wee glug of beer at 11.5 miles in celebration of the knowledge that I was, after all, going to get over the line both still running and happy, and if any congratulations are in order for my performance they go to Jill, Sian and Diesel the dog who accompanied me mentally and physically on my training runs listening to my whinging despite not entering the race themselves]. Anyway, as I was saying, we were talking about the half marathon this morning, and I mentioned that I arrived home afterwards to an empty house, euphoria ebbing and glutes already stiff, and, in that moment, really really missed Mr N.  [Drum roll.]

For those of you who are still loved up – I can think of two good friends not so long ago married/re-married and still in a mushy flush, as well as some of you who just, well, don’t seem to have ever lost it – then this might not seem that remarkable, let alone worthy of blogging about. But I suspect that for most of you, at least those who are 40 or 50 something and a good few years down the marriage/partnership line, then a little bit of wear might have crept in around the edges of your life-long and loving relationship from time to time. Forgive me my sighing cynicism [“the cynic is one who never sees a good quality in a man, and never fails to see a bad one”*], but through 25 years, three kids, stressful jobs, lack of stressful jobs, mad mother, strained friendships, fights with each other, fights with family, out and out shouty arguments, in and in stretches of silence, bad behaviour, wrong decisions, unwilling compromises, disappointments, disagreements, misunderstandings, mishaps, not enough dancing, way too much alcohol and did I mention three kids? – all of these things have led to a life together that I can safely say has been exciting and adventurous and active, and a bond that I would describe as irreplaceable … but romantic? Uh uh.

Regular and attentive readers will know that Mr N is away at the moment for quite a chunk of time. There is nothing new in this, and it’s not specifically an ex-pat thing for us – in fact he has been away far less with this Houston job than he ever was before I trailed after him here. When I had babies and toddlers, his trips away were a real trial. Relentless, thankless, tiring, tedious days followed one after another, and so I missed him, but mainly for the wrong reasons. I wished he was home to cook dinner, read the bedtime stories, take over at bath time, get up early, help me feel less tired, be there so I could not.  As the kids got older and I worked more, the trials were different – more juggling, more lift-sharing, more calendar co-ordinating, favour swapping, childcare reciprocating, work balancing kind of stuff; I had more energy and it was easier to get out of an evening, and – compared to when he was at home – I was way, way more organised, so I probably missed him less and certainly didn’t spare the time to think about it too much.

Now though? Life’s less frantic, my children don’t need me in the same sort of uncategorical way – yes they can do with a bit of a kick up their arses from time to time, occasionally ask my advice or opinion, and I can help R with his French and both boys with their English, but on a day to day basis, that’s about it frankly, if I’m honest. With oldest, H, in the UK, and the boys frequently still in bed, not in, incommunicado or simply not interested in doing/watching/discussing the same things as me, now when Mr N’s not here, his physical presence is notably absent. I miss talking to him, I miss his insights, his spontaneity, I miss sharing the funnies and annoyances and gripes from our days, I miss him in bed, I miss chewing the fat, in short, I miss his company. What hit me today was that (pass the bucket), turn up for the books, I’m missing him for all the right reasons!

* HW Beecher Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit


Back to normality (aka abnormality)

I’ve been a bit lazy with this blog-writing over the last few weeks, not up to the previous number of self-imposed target pieces which I’ve set myself. I do this (target-setting) to provide some discipline, which is a bit missing from this job-free, trailing, lunching, sportive, ex-pat life of mine. It’s not the only reason I write the blog (I really like writing is another big one!) but it’s what has kept me churning it out regularly so far. The only other things in my life right now which ensure normality stays on my radar are a) being the first out of bed every morning  to make coffee and breakfasts, sort out packed lunches and basically underline my only proper role in this household which is getter-upper and getter-out-of-the-house-in-timer,  b) my regular volunteering work which requires me to be downtown by 8am a couple of times a week, and c) getting drunk. So you see it’s important for maintaining a sensible perspective (and sobriety) that I have something else that makes me think a little bit, and which requires a semblance of mental effort and application, without which I would undoubtedly begin to flail around in the self-reproach of my hedonic existence.

But I think I can be forgiven for a bit of a lapse lately as we’ve had a houseful for more than three weeks, it’s of course been Christmas and New Year and the daily routine has disappeared. Even now, although the boys are back at school, routine has not yet resumed. Oldest offspring H plus boyf are still here (hooray), with two more days to go before they return to university in the UK, but even more unusually, Mr N has been off work –  for the whole of 2014 so far – prior to a very long trip to Australia starting from tomorrow.

Quite clearly, then, I have had to keep busy this whole time. No little restorative afternoon snoozes or cheeky day-time trips to the cinema to be had while he’s been hanging around, no no no, busy busy busy I’ve been with cleaning the house and washing the shower curtains and all the sheets and towels and stuff like that that I should always be much more vigilant about but can’t usually be bothered with or even find the time to do.  The truth is, of course,  I live a privileged, charmed life which I thoroughly enjoy, am thankful for and appreciative of, but – and it’s a big but – also feel deeply guilty about.  So I’m not always completely forthcoming about how I’ve spent my time while he’s been at the office not enjoying himself one bit: a long, lazy lunch out with friends and Sauvignon Blanc in the warm sunshine perhaps overlooked in place of the food shopping at Kroger; a bit of culture at an art gallery, a coffee after a long run, a mid-morning tennis lesson – all things sometimes forgotten about in the retelling of the day.

Actually though, these recent days we’ve also been out and about a lot, showing the boyf a bit of Houston and beyond [subsequent blog post coming about small town Texas btw], making the most of his first trip to the States, and of Mr N’s relaxed frame of mind after a stressful last few months. It’s been unhurried and companionable and restorative, everyone in a good mood – the family’s been together, Mr N’s sanity is renewed, and for once I’m not the only one who’s not been working. I guess  what I’m saying is that’s why I’ve not felt compelled to bash out this blog quite as frequently as I have been doing.

But, oh my days, this halcyon interlude is coming to an end very soon, with Mr N due Down Under in less than 24 hours and H off over the Atlantic less than 24 hours after that.  Six will become three, just me and the boys, and – some time for self-indulgent sadness aside – absolutely no excuses for the reintroduction of control and intellectual goal-setting.  You can expect my blog posts to ramp up again to their more usual frequency as everyone else returns to their rigorous and important and, well, real, roles while I flounder back to the simultaneous normality and abnormality of mine.

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!

Behind the smiles

This last week I’ve read two blogs which caught my eye because they were observing differences in Texan/US vs English/UK culture, albeit from different perspectives. One was by Judith Hackitt who is the Chair of the Health & Safety Executive [HSE] in the UK (past life, if you’re wondering why I was reading it), and one was by someone called Dawn Rutherford Marchant which appeared on Facebook.  They both made interesting reading, but, at least I thought, missed something fundamental.

The former talked about her visit to Texas [] and the latter about moving to England from the US [].  Judith on Texas more or less reaffirmed the stereotypes, but with little insight. Firstly the size of stuff –  “found it really is true that everything is bigger – the buildings, the cars, the restaurant portions…”. She’s right, but I think she ought to have mentioned the roads in this context, which are massive – wide, harshly concreted, noisy, multi-laned, and just so extremely high, looping up and down and around each other like Spaghetti Junctions* on growth hormones. Texas makes a statement out of its big city roads and decorates them with the Lone Star to prove it, and it’s every man and woman for themselves when you’re driving on them. So I’m surprised that Judith made no mention.

Then she moved seamlessly on to the famous American service culture –  “we experienced outstanding customer service – people who want to help, who are pleasant and polite. A real contrast with many of the appalling examples of customer service here in the UK…”  And I found myself bristling a little bit. There is a stark contrast between the Texan you meet behind the counter working hard to win your business, and the Texan behind the wheel owning the road. But they could be the very same person, and that’s an interesting dichotomy.

It is very true that the service you get in shops and restaurants here is usually exemplary. Staff will fall over themselves to greet you, offer help and keep checking that everything’s ok. Your waiter or waitress will introduce themselves by name, and run through all the menu specials, emphasising their particular favourites. But there is a flip side. Often, these places are over-staffed so there are almost as many ‘associates’ as customers which can make you feel a little bombarded. It’s normal to fend off three or four different members of staff in a ten minute browsing session round the liquor store, for example.  Mr N and I weave a complex route in one specific branch of Specs avoiding the very avid and in your face “Richard”.  And, just sometimes, there is something a little too off-pat about the waiter’s delivery and you’re reminded that these people need the tips/sales commission to make up their low wages and it’s a dog eat dog world behind their perfect, straight, shiny white American smiles.

Now don’t get me wrong,  the best servers genuinely do make you feel welcome and help you make good choices, and when it’s right, it’s immeasurably better than your average UK food or retail experience, and leaves behind a real and pleasing afterglow.  But in the US, if you’re eating out, or in a myriad of other situations (at the hairdresser, in a taxi, in a bar, on a guided tour, and more) you’ve gotta tip no matter how good or bad the service. Back home, at least if it’s bad you can demonstrate your displeasure.  And you can take your time over a meal, too, however poorly attended to. One thing at which these consummate customer carers are truly masterful is moving you swiftly through your dining experience to make room for the next sitting… Bit like their mastery of the ‘swoop and swerve’ from lane to lane as they forge along the freeways.

So on to Dawn Rutherford Marchant’s piece on England. She makes lots of compelling observations, but I disagree with her when it comes to the laundry.  Yes,  American washers and dryers are bigger (not just a Texan thing for once, it’s US-wide) and she’s right, it’s still common to hang your washing on the line to dry back home which, I agree, is an anachronism in a country renowned for its rain. But you don’t have to do it, you can get dryers there y’know Dawn, they’re just a bit smaller and front-loading.  No, what’s odd, to me, is that no-one hangs the washing out  here and,  in fact,  you’re actually not allowed to in many suburbs! Here! Where it’s hot, windy and frequently not raining and your clothes would dry in a jiffy on a line!  (Lowers the tone don’t you know.)

She writes also about lack of space (there) and the wastefulness of the culture (here) – and I think these things are connected. We don’t much use dryers in the UK because we don’t always have the space and even when we do we think they’re uneconomical and not very environmentally friendly. (Not me, I’m afraid though – in a household with three kids and two full-time jobbers and lots of stinking sports gear constantly being washed and with an aversion to ironing [- that was then, see my first blog to learn all about my Stateside change of heart in this pressing matter -]  I swallowed my green principles some years ago, put away the pegs and tumble-dried EVERYTHING to within its life. Sorry.)

But living in the US, it gets easier and easier to be wasteful, to drive ever shorter distances, to do the laundry without restraint, to eat out more, and chuck out more, to turn down the a/c or up the heating without blinking or thinking about it. Because stuff is cheap and easily available and plentiful, but time is not (all the school sports and activities and lack of holidays and paid days off work, maybe? Hmm, to be discussed another time…).

Of course, we should all take personal responsibility, but there’s an extravagance and demand for cheapness in the very fabric of American life that doesn’t sit easily with that philosophy. And, I think what I’m saying is, there’s something fundamental about that which both blogs missed in their observations of the differences, and which has struck me gradually, but nevertheless now it has struck it has done so quite forcibly, since I came to live here.

*The UK’s biggest and busiest motorway intersection which I used to find impressive and imposing but now realise is neither of these things.

The boring bits might just be the best, if only I could remember them all…


lollipops in the parkF, our middle child, turned 18 today.

This makes me and Mr N the mum and dad of not just three kids, but of two adults too. It’s enough to set you on a nostalgic train of thought…

If you’re reading this as a parent, or maybe aunty (or uncle? any blokes out there?), or even a grandparent – do you ever think about all the ‘last times’ with the weenies that have come and gone your way, disregarded?  I don’t mean the things you can pin a date to, like cheering at sports day or watching the nativity play, I mean the mundane, everyday stuff that simply goes on and on happening when you’re  in charge of small children. I’m doing it now, trying to remember, and it’s making me feel kind of ‘awwww’.

There would’ve been a point when I pushed one of them on the swings for the last time, right before they finally got the legs-out-lean-back/legs-in-lean-forward motion. But I never knew it was the last time. If I had, I’d have rejoiced, I’m sure (I can, vaguely, still remember the tedium of trips to the park and swing-pushing and roundabout-spinning and slide-catching, often in the cold and the drizzle with just myself for adult company, desperate to get them out of the house but counting out the time I can fill); but for now indulge me, I’m picturing it in a blue-skied, carefree, breezy, hazy, fun- and friend-filled wash, my arms outstretched from that ultimate shove, hovering, way back when.

There was, certainly, a last middle of the night that one of them clambered into our bed, turned sideways, stretched all limbs out, fell fast asleep and wriggled and poked us till the morning. Oh, if only I’d known it, I’d have been glad to stay awake and breathe in all the delicious, warm, cuddly, sleepy, toddlery-ness. But then? No; frankly we were probably relieved the next night and the next and the next until it became normal to sleep undisturbed and we forgot to think about it.

As an aside, there are, in fact, two humdrum ‘lasts’ that I do remember. The first was when I came to the realisation, all of a sudden one (probably rainy) day that I’d had enough of buttoning up coats and pulling down hats and shoving fingers into gloves and feet into socks and buckling up shoes, and for a reason that now escapes me, the socks were the bête noir, the straw that broke the camel’s back, the ENOUGH point; I declared that they all had to put their own socks on thereafter, and so they did, unmatched or otherwise.  The second was the terminal outing for the youngest in the hand-me-down McClaren buggy  which buckled with R still in it after some uproarious downhill racing. He was very small, but from then on, he had to walk.

But for the most part, these subtle yet momentous moments in our lives slip by unseen. When was the last time ever that I choo-chooed a spoonful of food into their little mouths? Or tickled a tummy? Or Mr N threw them up in the air? Or I washed their hair? Or we turned the pages of our favourite read ‘The Little Boat’ (“We are invincible, my boat and me!”)? Or chanted about “Hairy McClary from Donaldson’s Dairy, and Hercules Morse as big as a horse, and Schnitzel von Krum with the very low tum” (oh it’s all still there)?  Sigh. They just stopped and we didn’t notice. Yet these are the strands that weave into memories and become lives, our and theirs.  There would have been fanfares and photos and framings and ceremonial laying down of books and plastic spoons and all sorts, if only we’d known that was it, all these instants.

But we didn’t and then they’re not little children any more, they’re grown-ups.