Friday, December 21, 2012

On December 21, I was invited to the 23rd Annual Interfaith Homeless Memorial Service, a service which is held annually on the shortest day of the year. 
It wasn't a great day for arriving anywhere early: the tail-end of winter storms from the Midwest has saturated Boston with torrential rain and I was sodden. On the positive side, it certainly gave me a glimpse of empathy: there's nothing warm and hopeful about Christmas lights and winter decorations when your trousers are wet and your coat leaks. I was feeling rather sorry for myself by the time that an angry man in a green sweater cursed me, pushed me to one side and vigorously rattled the locked doors. He sloped away before the doors were opened, leaving me standing there, sheepish and alone on the stoop, apologizing in my awkward English accent as a man quickly hurried me into the church – afraid, no doubt, that I might otherwise break the door down – and then returned to the music rehearsal.
There were four men, each smartly dressed in black, rehearsing the songs for the service. I took a seat in one of the pews near the back, feeling conspicuous as the only person to have (accidentally) arrived. The church was filled with gray cardboard headstones. Some were propped against pews, some were taped to the walls, some leant drunkenly against the altar. Each carried a person’s name. Each was hand decorated: rainbows and flowers, love hearts and splashes of bright color.

A woman came and sat next to me. She travelled all over America giving homeless people vouchers that they could use in Dunkin Donuts. She was very polite and smiled a lot. She told me that she didn’t particularly like eating donuts herself. She had once bought a man in San Diego a chicken quesadilla, but he had refused to eat it. I asked her if she knew anything about the headstones: she told me that each one represented a homeless person who had died in the Boston area that year. She didn’t know how many there were. She came to this service each year, and once there had been 260. But, she mused, last winter hadn’t been as cold so there would probably be fewer.
I misread the name on one headstone - No Man – and I felt a rush of anger. These people weren’t invisible nobodies, anonymous no-mans. They were people’s friends, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, lovers, partners, parents, acquaintances. When I looked more closely, I could see the ‘r’, small and crooked and partially obscured by an enormous yellow felt-tipped sun, on Norman’s gravestone. He was one of 130 people to have died in the Boston area this year. During the service, each person’s name was read out and a candle was lit in their memory. Jeff Olivet, one of the musicians, reminded the congregation that, ‘We do justice to their memory by lighting candles but, God help us, we should be doing justice to them while they’re living!’ Throughout the service, people drifted in and drifted out like the ebb and flo of a tide. But, even at its fullest, the congregation held fewer people than the list of those that we commemorated.

There was one headstone which looked like one of Iola’s drawings: it was a square house with a symmetrical window on each side of a bright red front door and an inverted triangle for the roof. It was in remembrance to someone called Daniel. The woman next to me told me that the average age of a homeless person in Boston was eight years old.

The service lasted an hour, each group of recited names interspersed by a song from our four black-suited men. Each took a turn to sing a solo: a hymn called ‘It is Well with My Soul’, written by an American from the 1800s after he lost all his money and all his children were killed in a sinking ship; Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which soon became a very loud rendition as more and more people from the congregation joined in with the words that they knew; an operatic performance of ‘Empty Chairs on Empty Tables’ from the musical Les Miserables (‘There’s a grief that can’t be spoken, there’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables, now my friends are dead and gone’); and a rousing rendition of Leadbelly’s ‘Bourgeois Blues’ which, Jeff Olivet warned us, contained more than a little righteous anger.
I don’t think that I knew any of the people who were being commemorated: in Cambridge, people come and go and I’m not well enough established there to be able to put names to everyone’s faces, but I was welcomed anyway. The service ended with the congregation singing ‘Peace, Salaam, Shalom’. People rose to their feet and joined hands. It was a moving tribute to the people who had died and a powerful way to come together as a community. Afterwards, we were invited upstairs for a light luncheon and the opportunity to share and celebrate the memories of those who had died. The woman with the Dunkin Donut vouchers was one of the first in the queue. I lingered in the church for a while. A group of people had gathered around the piano and were having a raucous sing-a-long, the operatic baritone leading the way in a honky-tonk version of This Little Light of Mine, while an old man in a long tweed overcoat stamped the heel of his hand against the piano top. A woman leant towards me and told me that, if her friend had still been there among us, she would have been singing too.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Driving home for Christmas

There is a commonly held belief that people in countries other than England deal with snowfall and icy conditions better than we do. It doesn't seem that many years ago, although it probably is far more than it seems, that Stansted Airport had to be closed because of a snowfall of just over an inch. This could never, blurted out London's Evening Standard, happen in any other country.

I take a small measure of pride in my resilience. When we lived in the Lake District, my kitchen shelves were weighed down with enough food to feed a family of eight for two months. When we lived in the  North East of England we had winter tyres on the car, flashlights and blankets in the car boot. I've sought advice on driving in snowy and icy conditions: keep the car in a high gear with low revs, only lightly dab the brakes, work with the energy of the car, steer into skids etc.

And so, I thought that I knew a little. Perhaps even quite a lot, but only for an English woman. Nothing compared to that which a person in another country would know, right? I mean, in New England they have real snow and they know how to deal with it. You won't see airports closed and people keeping off the roads just because of a few snow flakes.

Last year there wasn't much snowfall in Cambridge - it's been nicknamed 'the winter that never was' - but even when there was enough snow on the ground for us to go sledging, there wasn't a flake upon the roads. At the first signs of snowfall, people would be out in their trucks with the snow shovels on the front. I was impressed.

Two days ago, Vermont received one of the first snow falls of this season. It was very, very pretty: just a few inches but beautiful to look at. I was staying in a writers' retreat just outside of Rochester. The snow was the icing (pardon the pun) on the cake - the entire stay was perfect. I even had the opportunity to go for a couple of walks in the snow (in the snowboots which I had remembered to pack - I was well-prepared, see!)

But, although I felt well-prepared for a little snow fall, the Vermonters who worked at the Retreat were not convinced by my competence. I needed to drive home. They conferred in the kitchen: two women and a chef called Paul.
'Had I', they called out to the dining room, 'any experience of driving in the snow?'
'A little,' I replied, fairly unperturbed. 'High gears, low speeds, avoid hard braking.'
There was a pause.
'Is there a way of putting an automatic gear box into a higher gear?' I asked more tentatively.
And my sense of preparedness gradually ebbed away. The hire car didn't have winter tires. It didn't have snow chains or ropes or flashlights or blankets. The safest route out of the Retreat and down to Rochester included a couple of very steep hills.

Paul, the chef, took off his chef's coat and took control. There were clearly two variables at stake here: the suitability of the vehicle and the suitability of the English woman who knew nothing about snow. He took the car for a drive around the block. It handled, in his opinion, acceptably well. The staff decided to give me a coaching session, telling me to go very slow, telling me who to call if I should end up in a ditch. I raised an eyebrow at the thought at ending up in a ditch or wrapped around a tree but they assured me that all Vermonters had this experience every now and again. Just take it steady, they said.

I took it very steady. Significantly steadier than the four cars behind me would have wished. It is possible that we could have all walked to Rochester in the time that I crept along the lanes.
But I was safe, the hire car was in one piece, and my wise Vermont counsellors had assured me that it would all be fine once I was on the interstate. And the interstate did seem fine. People were driving slightly slower than normal - around 60mph rather than 70 - but the tarmac was clear of snow and I passed a gritter. I smiled: I'd navigated the Vermont lanes and now it would all be plain sailing: these New Englanders know how to deal with snow, right?

The first three cars that I saw in ditches didn't worry me unnecessarily. The first had a young teenager girl sitting behind the wheel, facing the wrong way and obviously irritated that her car was in a ditch. The second had a tow truck slowly pulling him out. The third had been abandoned. I eased off the gas a little: I didn't want to end up in a ditch but I knew that I had a number in my phone that I could call if it happened. I wasn't worried: they must have been driving too fast; they must have been playing with their phones, not concentrating, changing the CD in the car stereo. The road looked fine.
The fourth car was upside down and the police had cordoned off one lane of the interstate. There was an ambulance with flashing blue lights. Within the next mile, I passed four more cars in ditches. They weren't there because of driver error as such, they were there because we were driving on sheet ice. The signs said that it was 12 miles until the next exit.

I love driving: the isolation of the road, music on the stereo, the shifting landscape and the sense of moving on. These past few months, I've daydreamed about being a long-distance lorry driver, leaving all my troubles behind and looking towards the horizon. Yesterday, I was almost sick with fright. Perhaps that's what's it like for people who are scared to drive: white knuckles tightly wrapped around the steering wheel ('grip the wheel lightly with both hands' a voice inside my head reminded me every time my hands clenched), driving more and more slowly ('keep moving in accordance with the flow of the traffic', the little voice reminded me - if I drove too slowly the car behind would need to brake and there'd be carnage), and desperately counting down the miles to the next exit.

I rolled into the gas station at the first exit. Unnerved, unsettled but in one piece. The gas attendant looked a bit cold, but otherwise fairly unconcerned about the weather.
'There's a lot of cars in ditches out there,' I said, careful to keep the tremor out of my voice.
'Which way you come from?' The attendant was perhaps eighteen, adolescent acne still decorating his chin, but his voice was that of a much older man.
'I'm heading East, from Vermont.'
'Ahh,' he looked unsurprised, almost uninterested. 'You always get a fair few in ditches on that stretch when it's cold. You keep going,' he indicated vaguely towards the East, 'And it will get better in ten miles of so.'
I waited until the gritter passed and then joined the slower cars who were crawling along behind. It took a long time to get home.
I'm no longer sure that New Englanders are inherently better at dealing with snow than Old Englanders, it's just that they're not as interested in making a fuss when things go wrong.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Riding donkeys to Brazil

I am guilty of neglecting my daughters' religious education.

Through their short migratory lives, the girls have attended a Church of England school, a primary school with a heavy Christian slant, a multi-denominational English primary school, and their current elementary and middle schools in Cambridge. Cambridge schools are without religion - religion is a subject which must not be touched upon within the school curriculum. There are no hymns. No carols. Lesson content must not link to religious stories. Within school, the only reference to God is through the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (the reference to 'one nation under God' having only been incorporated in the 1950s and not being part of the original, God-less, pledge).

With a very politically correct sense of equality, the 3 main religions have each been allocated one day's holiday apiece within the Cambridge pubic schools' calendar. Islam has Eid Al Adha (where Abraham agreed to sacrifice his eldest son as an act of submission to God); Judaism has Yom Kippur (where Jews atone for their sins across the previous year and make resolutions for the coming year, with the sorrowful recognition that these will, inevitably, be broken); and Christianity has Good Friday (where Christians commemorate the killing of the only son of God). The period of time which is called the 'Christmas' holidays in the English school calendar is referred to as a winter holiday and there are no Christmas concerts. As a liberal woman (with a gentle leaning towards the uber-liberalism of Quakerism), I think that I should think that the equality offered to these three religions is a good thing... it's just that I wish that the public school board had chosen more 'celebratory' holidays. Of course Good Friday is an important day within Christianity - kind of central to the entire plot of the New Testament - but wouldn't it have been nice if we'd recognized Easter Sunday instead. And Eid Al Fitr would be a more upbeat addition to the school calendar than Eid Al Adha - Muslims break their fast on Eid Al Fitr and they are encouraged to show adherence to Islam's basic principles of showing happiness through one's daily life (Mohammad, on that day, reprimanded a father who told his girls not to sing, saying 'Let them sing!' - that alone would  make for a great celebration - and offer an alternative insight to Islam than the media's preoccupation with showing heavily veiled apparently miserable and voiceless women). Perhaps, we could also have Hanukkah, a festival of lights, rather than Yom Kippur's atonement (Iola explained to me yesterday evening that Hanukkah celebrates the fact that some oil burnt for eight days rather than just one. I said that people believe that God is capable of creating all kinds of miracles. And she replied, with one of those 'mummy, you're really not very clever' kind of looks, 'Well, I read it in the library in a very scientific-y kind of a book so I know that it must be true').

In fact, why stop at only one festival of lights? Let's have Diwali and Tazaundiang too. The more, the merrier, I say.

I do, however, have concerns about the girls' lack of knowledge about things that I take for granted. A great deal of English literature is grounded in references to the old and new testaments - to be able to read well, the girls need to know some of the main tales from the Bible (and these overlap, of course, many of the stories from the Torah and the Quran). Because they will not be learning these stories in school, I need to teach them myself.

To be honest, I'm a bit nervous about my competence in teaching the Bible. My concept of God is fairly warm and fuzzy. The girls understand that people meet with God in different ways through whichever religion that they practice. They know that some people think that God is nothing more than the goodness which exists within humanity (and, God, I want my children to believe that some goodness exists across humanity because otherwise there is nothing more than a nihilistic pit of existentialism. That can wait until they're teenagers at least!)

So, we have a nice way of thinking about God, but it's not one which sits comfortably with the Bible. (Nathan, who has no God but a paranoid belief in the possibility of the Devil, has never fully recovered from reading Revelations in one sitting in a dark hotel room late at night and then watching The Shining).

About 3 years ago, while we were living in Newcastle, I planned to teach the girls a bible story... I chose Noah's Ark. It's important to know about Noah's Ark as it resonates with our thinking around rainbows, repentance and forgiveness, and probably has something to say about global warming. I figured that the girls needed to know the story. We were going to eat animal crackers, draw pictures of rainbows. Before I had even started to read out the story, Iola looked at the illustration in my 1970s Bible and asked, 'Why are the giraffes drowning?' The illustrations were fairly graphic. It wasn't just the giraffes who were drowning - Maya helpfully pointed out the drowning tigers, antelope, and the small dog in the corner of the picture (a far more graphic and disturbing image than the one I've included here in my blog). Iola started to cry. I explained that Noah saved two of each of the animals. Maya explained that this was completely injust as the animals had done nothing wrong. By the time I had told the story up to the release of the first bird (who presumably drowns because the waters have not yet receded), both girls had announced their unwillingness to believe in a God who would do such things and I realized that, even with a stash of animal crackers and wax crayons, religious education was not my forte.

I have a wonderfully dear, and deeply devout, friend, Lucy, who sends the girls an advent calendar each year. This year I decided to be proactive. Last night, the girls and I sat with the calendar and talked about the significance of the images. Maya knows the story of the Advent very well (probably thanks to her English education) but Iola was a little confused on some of the details. She liked the picture of Mary riding the donkey and looked at this while Maya and I discussed the political and cultural implications of the decree to pay a special tax which meant that they needed to leave Nazareth (it's the kind of detail that Maya really likes to discuss - she uses words such as 'fiscal cliff' in relation to the governance of Judea). I tried to steer the conversation back to include Iola, who was losing interest in the picture of the donkey.
'Iola, can you remember where they needed to ride to?'
Iola has a habit of putting her head slightly to one side and sucking on one of her braids when she doesn't know an answer.
'It's the place where Jesus was born?'
'Oh, I know that bit - he was born in one of those long things which animals eat out of - I can't remember their name.'
'Yes, a manger - but can you remember what town the manger was in?'
More braid chewing.
'It begins with a 'B'.'
Iola pulled her braid out of her mouth and looked really happy. 'I know! I know!' She beamed at knowing the answer to my question. 'Was it Brazil?'

Sunday, October 21, 2012

It's all about the Truff!

It hasn't been the best of weeks.... we have been without hot water for most of the week, without any water for some of the week, and Iola succeeded in her ambition to find out what happens when one calls 911 (in her case, a fire engine and crew cut one's leg free from the bicycle wheel in which it is mangled, the police introduce themselves to you and give you a free teddy bear, and the ambulance crew race you to the nearest accident and emergency...) Rather than dwelling upon the dismal aspects of our week however, this blog is all about The Truff.

On Friday, Iola spent much of the day lying on the sofa with her broken foot elevated. The Truff made her feel much better by bringing her every one of his toys (the Truff's stuff!) and putting them on the floor next to her sofa.

Once again we have a wheelchair parked on our front porch and a daughter with limited mobility. The Truff takes his wheelchair duties very seriously. Iola hopes that we might design a harness so that he can pull the wheelchair along by himself (and we think that, once the snow falls, we might have the fastest sled in Massachusetts).

Maya plays with the dog more than anyone else. They have a very close relationship: the Truff lets her know when he needs to go out into the garden to pee, when he wants a walk, and comments on her trumpet practice with the occasional woof.

Here, she is walking The Truff across Radcliffe Yard...

... and here they are on the banks of the River Charles. 

The Truff is only eleven months old and, as a rescue dog, has had very little experience at walking on the leash. 

But he is already learning to walk to heel and to sit on command. 

When he arrived last weekend, he had no experience of being in a city. Since then, he's seen school buses, trucks, subway cars, trains, and about three hundred rowing squads competing in the Head of the Charles Rowing Festival this weekend. 

It's hard work being a young dog in the Fowler Family Parry household. Alongside all of the playing, training, and childcare duties, he also has a lot of growing to do.
 Look at the length of those legs which he needs to grow into!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ten things Americans have said when they find out I'm English.

1. My cousin went to Edinburgh once.
2. What about that Tony Blair, eh!
3. I really really loved the Queen Mother. Did you know her?
4. Do you have your Thanksgiving at the same time that we do?
5. Oooh, I bet you watched the Olympics.
6. Do you celebrate Christmas over there?
7. Is your Christmas at the same time as ours?
8. I'm meeting the Dalai Lama tomorrow. Do you have him in England?
9. I love England! I've never been. But my sister went to New Zealand. They're near to one another.
10. I watched a film set in London once. It had that guy in it.Tall. I'm sure you'd know him if I could remember the name.

(And I need to contextualise just a little: some of the questions were asked in a small town called Herkimer in upstate New York. The guy we spoke to was excited that we came from Boston, which seemed like another world to him. When he found out we were English, it was as though we came from another planet. It was a great conversation, but I have never felt so foreign to someone in my life. Some of the other questions come from our school crossing guard, our plumber, a woman we met on the bus, and random strangers. I have asked each of them, unintentionally stupid, questions too.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Twelve hundred miles on the American highway...

For our first really big road trip, we drove out of America. It was Canadian Thanksgiving last weekend and friends invited us to celebrate. They offered good music, excellent food, and wonderful company - how could we refuse? There was the small matter of how to keep two grown-ups and two children happy for 1200 miles, but where there's a will (and a full tank of gas) there's always a way.

Had we been in England, which is roughly 400 miles long, we'd have had to drive the length of the country at least three times, but in American terms the trip wasn't seen as remotely excessive. Here, the roads just keep on going. We've a map of the United States pinned to the wall and a thirst to see as much of this country as possible. Reflecting on the weekend, we've put together a survival guide for the big American road trip.

1. Get a Sat-Nav...
I love maps. I really love maps. I like understanding where roads go; I like the aesthetic of reading strange place names out loud and exploring different possible pronunciations; I like the intellectual challenge of taking unplanned diversions and still arriving where I want to be. I also love driving.

I don't, however, like being a passenger and Nathan doesn't like map-reading. If you find yourself lost in the mist on the side of a bleak mountainside, you would do well to have Nathan beside you. He's the kind of man who can take compass readings, do funny little equations to account for North not quite being in the north, and work out where to go from studying which side of the tree has moss on it. Put him on a highway (or any kind of signposted thoroughfare) and you might wish for an alternative navigator. I'm training Maya up but, in the meantime, we hired a sat-nav which got us to Canada and back, but expressed increasing irritation whenever I tried to take a short-cut.

Sat-Nav: In 300 yards, turn left.
Zoe: I'm not turning left. The traffic isn't moving there. I'm sure I can take a short cut by turning right.
Sat-Nav: Turn left.
Zoe (turning the wheel to the right): No.
Sat-Nav: Recalculating... recalculating. At the next intersection, do a u-turn and proceed 0.4 mile before turning right.
Zoe: No. I don't want to do a u-turn. I want to see what happens if I go up here.
Sat-Nav: Recalculating... recalculating. At the next intersection, do a u-turn and proceed for 2.2 miles before turning right.
Zoe: Now, I'm fairly sure that if I take a sneaky left here, I can skip a junction... Girls, there's a sign there for Herkimer. Shall we go take a look?

2. ... and avoid traffic jams
I tried to take quite a lot of short-cuts because I don't like traffic jams. There seems to be no logic to the sudden traffic jams which occur on American freeways. One minute everyone is merrily speeding along, bumper-to-bumper, undercutting and overtaking with joy and abandon... and the next minute, the traffic squeals to a halt.

Everyone sits in their cars. Children read books, cuddle teddies, play complicated games on their Nooks, and tell the same joke over and over and over (Iola: 'What's a ghost's favorite food?' Maya: 'I don't know, what is a ghost's favorite food?' Iola: 'I SCREAM!' And how we laughed for the first seventeen times we heard the punchline). Grown-ups fidget with their stereos, telephone those mysterious people they don't know whose names are somehow stored in their mobile phone's memories, and eat all of their children's sweets. The sat-nav shows that one's estimated time of arrival is slipping slowly away... it had told you that you would arrive at tea time but the minutes slip away and it seems that you might not arrive before your own bed time.

Then - as if by a miracle - the traffic zooms away. I have been unable to understand what makes the traffic stop, and what happens to make the traffic move again. Nathan thinks that there might be a possible equation for this in Chaos Theory - it's the kind of thing you hypothesize when you're sitting on the tarmac for an hour.

3. Visit people you love...
The drive wasn't that bad - not even with the occasional traffic jam - but even if it had been terrible, it would have been worthwhile. We spent Friday night and Saturday morning in Guelph with our friend Meg who plays the piano endlessly for the girls while they sit at her feet, wide-eyed and adoring, then allows them to make chocolate chip cookies in their pajamas before serving up pancakes for breakfast. (You can get a taster of Meg's music at Meg's website, but you'll have to just imagine how good those cookies were!)

The rest of Saturday and Sunday was spent with other friends - Linda Dawn, Beth, Shannon, Violet and the new grandpuppy, Peggy - in Toronto. We were so busy eating traditional Canadian Thanksgiving fare, enjoying the company, chatting about Beth's next novel and my attempts at my first, and chasing children and dogs around the park that we didn't manage to take any photos for our blog. The memories, however, are beautiful.

4. ... in places that you love to visit
Guelph is quirky and filled with independent shops, a bustling farmers' market, and a strong hippy vibe. We never have enough time there, and we're already planning our next visit.

Linda Dawn lives in my favorite part of Toronto - just by the University of Toronto, close to Chinatown and on the doorstep of Kensington. As part of the sleepover, Iola found herself in a house filled with toys and more adoring grown-ups, while Maya, Nathan and I spent the first few hours of Sunday morning walking around Kensington, fuelled up on good coffee and cakes from Moonbeam Coffee Company, and enjoying the street art. 

5. Plan good places to stop...
The girls' Auntie Jess has introduced us to the glories of American diners and barbecue joints. With a little bit of forward planning (and a word or two with the sat-nav), we found great stops all over upstate New York. 

Nathan is tall and slim, once described by a Jewish waiter in the Upper East Side as a 'tall drink of water', but his appetite is colossal. There are not many people who can eat an entire 'Trainwreck' (as Nathan's epic meal was affectionately called), but Nathan is part of that elite (he went a bit pale when we suggested dessert).

6. ... and better places to sleep
By Sunday evening, we were completely exhausted. Our cheeks ached from smiling, our mouths had nearly (but not quite) run out of words, we'd listened to the entire CD of the first Harry Potter book, and we felt that our bodies were beginning to resemble the shape of our car's seats.

Niagara Falls is conveniently situated somewhere between our house and our friends' houses, so we found ourselves a room with a view and spent the evening watching the light change color across the Falls.

It was a great trip and we have much for which to give thanks. American Thanksgiving is here soon. We just need to decide where to go....

Thursday, October 4, 2012

All weather cycling

Autumn has arrived earlier than last year. We remember landing in Cambridge nearly a year ago and wearing summer clothes for several more weeks. We haven't reached our first anniversary of being here, but already we are wearing our waterproofs and sweaters. Today it seems that the clouds are too heavy for the sky to hold: the tops of the Boston skyscrapers are shrouded in gray and the air is so damp that it feels that you could wring it out like a wet face cloth. I rode into Boston this morning in a rain coat with both my bike lights flashing. The roads are still busy with cyclists, but there is a shared feeling that winter is close at hand.

For the past couple of months we have cycled everywhere. We bought a second-hand cargo bike, thinking that it would be useful for our weekly grocery shop (we're still a car-free household), but we soon realized that both girls could happily sit on the back. They love it! The cargo bike is big and orange and has become affectionately known as Bob (the Big Orange Bike). It's fantastic to ride in traffic as we are very large and very visible - cars slow down to look at us (normally because the girls are waving at them or singing loudly) and tend to stay out of our way (we have mastered the art of the occasional 'wobble' if cars have got a little bit too close, and this seems to be very effective in encouraging other vehicles to give us more space). The girls have a little cushion which fastens onto the back so that they can have a more comfortable ride and we've added a little set of handlebars so that they can hold on more safely.

We also have the tandem which was originally a wedding gift from Nathan's grandmother. Both Maya and Iola enjoy taking turns on the tandem - and it's proved very useful for visiting grandparents (see photo to the left). So, as a family of four we can manage quite well on two bikes. But two bikes are never enough! Nathan got a Surly cyclocross (see right) for his birthday - good for commuting and getting muddy on the tracks around the reservoir. Maya has an under-sized 1970s racing bike which we bought for next to nothing from a local shop and she's beginning to discover the joys of going fast. Iola has a children's mountain bike and takes her pleasures in haring across fields and down steep slopes with Nathan shouting encouragement and me covering my eyes in fear. When I'm not on Bob, I have a nippy roadster which is great for commuting... and Nathan has a unicycle (but is yet to let me take photographs of him riding this).
Cambridge is fairly good for cycling. The girls go to school about 3.5 miles from our house and we take a route which is primarily on cycle paths and relatively quiet roads. My route to the library is on busier roads and today I really noticed that the change in weather seems to bring about a change in the attitudes of motorists. I had the sense that people weren't really looking out through their windscreens. I understand that the weather is a bit dismal, and the view isn't as enjoyable as it normally would be, but I found it difficult to get car drivers to notice me (even with my fluorescent yellow jacket and flashing lights). I remember this from commuting in London: drivers put on their heaters, turn up the radio and their awareness of other road users dips. The council is being encouraged to make better provision for cyclists, but there is a backlash from motorists who object to cyclists who jump lights or zigzag about within traffic jams. Overall, the roads aren't as safe as they should be, but there is a chicken-and-egg aspect to the argument: better provision needs to be made for cyclists, but cyclists need to ride with respect for existing traffic. If you're interested (and there are lots of shots in the video clip of the roads where we ride) then you might want to look at this news story about cycling in Cambridge. I ride respectfully: I stop at red lights, stay close to the kerb, clearly indicate when I'm about to turn.... but today I spent a lot of the time just wanting to shout 'HELLO!!! I'M HERE! CAN YOU SEE ME!!'
I haven't tried to ride through a New England winter as yet. Last year, we didn't have most of these bikes and the bikes that we brought from England were still in transit. A local cargo bike rider has advised me that I will need snow tires for Bob and neoprene socks, gloves and hats for me. I don't want to just be a fair weather cyclist, but I'll let you know how far into the winter I manage to ride. In the meantime, if anyone has any advice on getting noticed by passing cars, please let me know...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Saturday in Cambridge

I have moments when I still can't believe that we live in Cambridge. Some things have grown familiar - the sounds of fire engines and cicadas on summer evenings, the sight of electricity wires drooping across the roads, the damp fresh water smell of the river Charles... but other things still stop us dead in our tracks and make us say, 'Wow! We're living in America.'

Today was typical of our lives here, but totally alien to the lives that we were living in Newcastle only a year ago.

Breakfast was pancakes with maple syrup and apple sauce made from apples we collected from an orchard last weekend (we have a freezer filled with bags of apple sauce and bags of tomato sauce and now understand why a New England friend recommended that we canned the tomatoes instead). Then we strolled down to Harvard Square. Iola has made friends with one of the local eccentrics who begs outside our church. This morning she and Bobbie chatted about her birthday (which isn't until March but was at the front of her mind) and then he serenaded her with a Rod Stewart song. She loves music, and sat herself down at his feet and stared up with puppy-dog eyes while he crooned, 'Have I told you lately that I love you...'

We walked through Harvard, over the river, and arrived at the Harvard Stadium for the first football game of the season. I've never seen an American football game before, but my experience of watching basketball and (ice) hockey and softball has proved to me that you don't need to know much about a sport to enjoy the event. The Harvard stadium, built in 1903, is the oldest continuously used football stadium in the US. Like much of the early 1900s Harvard architecture, it looks like it belongs elsewhere - imagine the Colosseum popped up on top of huge ranks of concrete steps. It can hold more than 50,000 people (note: this is for college football, not the professional league) so it looked relatively empty with only 5,000 people in the audience. That's 5,000 people for a college football game on a Saturday afternoon - more than my parents' home town's football team gets for most of its games - and the stadium looked almost empty.

Maya plays the trumpet in a local band, so she struck up a conversation with one of the musicians in the marching band. Music is important here. Every sports game we have attended, even the women's basketball match which only had a dozen people in the audience, has a band in attendance who play prior to the event, during any pauses that occur in the game (quite a lot in football), and then march loudly and ceremoniously through Harvard following the match.

The guys warming up on the pitch were enormous - imagine Nathan crossed with an American refrigerator - and there were hundreds of them. As sports go, football is fairly slow and very labor intensive. Two teams of eleven players come onto the pitch. Everyone cheers. A player from one team kicks the ball as hard as they can to the other side of the pitch where a player from the other team tries to catch it. Then both teams come off the pitch. Everyone cheers. Then all the players from both teams are replaced with other members of their team. The 'offensive' team try to get the ball from where it has landed to the other end of the pitch by moving it 10 yards at a time while the opposing 'defensive' team try to sit on them. If, after four attempts, the offensive team haven't managed to move the ball 10 yards, then everyone comes off the pitch. Everyone cheers. Then a whole set of new players come on as the defensive team swap and play their offensive players, and the offensive team switch to their defensive players. There might be more to it than that brief summary.... Meanwhile, in the serried concrete ranks of the Colosseum, children run frenziedly around hoping that the ball will be kicked into the seating area; people watch and eat bbq; a crowd of gymnasts and cheerleaders entertain the people on the Harvard side of the stadium and keep their backs turned resolutely against the poor few who have traveled from San Diego for this game, and, throughout it all, the band plays on.

We realized that the game had nearly finished because San Diego's quarterback had started to plead with his coach each time he was sent back on. He'd had a bad game, but it didn't seem to matter how much he limped, his coach kept forcing him back out onto the astro-turf, with a smile and a pat on the back, so that the Harvard team could knock him over once more. The quarterback's obvious fear didn't impress the rest of his team members: by the end of the game, each time the quarter back threw the ball at his team mates, they ignored him and deliberately looked the other way. As game strategies go, this doesn't seem to be the best route to winning a game: Harvard won by a huge amount.

Our experiences of American sport have been relaxing, enjoyable, and governed by the good manners which are rife in this area of New England. I have never heard anyone boo or swear or cuss a player or a coach. The crowd fall silent as soon as the play commences and watch attentively. At the end of the match, all the players shake hands and then the crowd files out. There were about 10 policemen in attendance for a crowd of 5000. Even the visitors from San Diego were smiling.

We walked back over the River Charles (the Harvard stadiums are all on the Boston side of the river) and then found an Americana music festival taking place in Harvard Square. Nathan and I settled down to listen to the music while the girls were entertained with sack races and chalking on the sidewalks. It's heading towards the end of summer here, but it's still warm enough to sit outside in t-shirts.

Finally we headed home by walking up through Harvard. There were buskers on nearly every corner, but we were music-ed out from the festival and kept walking, stopping only so that Iola could pet every dog that we passed. We took a short cut through Radcliffe Quad where new students were out in their deck chairs working away on their laptops and then we paused for a while to chat with neighbors, before chivying the girls up our stairs for a quick tea, hot bath and bedtime story.

Saturday evening is just beginning and I'm on-line. There's a Harvard vs. Yale football game coming up in a few weeks time and I want to make sure that I get hold of some tickets...

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Public vs. Private

America continues to beguile, bewitch and baffle us. Each time we think that we have begun to understand this country, something happens to dislocate us and leave us feeling like outsiders once more. My accent will, of course, always place me as a 'foreigner'. This evening in the pizza shop, a charmingly garrulous old man engaged me in a conversation about the Queen Mother - he told me about his admiration for both her knowledge of horse-racing and her ability to consume vast quantities of alcohol, he described how much he had learned from her, 'God Bless Her Soul', and praised her wonderful attitude towards the fall of a previously great Empire... Then, before I could place my pizza order, he segued into a critique of 'Charlie', his predictions for William and Kate, and his opinions regarding the future of 'Great' Britain. Unwilling to interrupt, I listened with a smile on my face and watched the people on each side of me place their orders and then leave with their takeaway pizzas. Eventually the old man left too and I asked the staff, politely and in my very English accent, for a cheese and pineapple pizza to go.

For me, the big cultural struggles currently relate to the environment. As newcomers from England we are struggling to acclimatize to the relentless heat and humidity. I've watched some of my neighbors (the ones who always look cool and collected and impeccably dressed regardless of the heat) and I know that to live like a local is to turn on the air conditioning in one's car for 10 minutes before starting a 1km journey to the supermarket. To live like a local is to have an air conditioning unit buzzing cool air into every room of one's house through carefully sealed windows. I can understand the logic, but I can't quieten my environmental conscience. The girls and I walk everywhere, although our pace is slow and lethargic and the air feels like treacle around us. At home we quietly sweat and hope for a moment's breeze to come through sash windows which are propped wide open. We hang out our laundry on a washing line rather than using a dryer, water our gardens with a watering can rather than an automatic-electronic-state-of-the-art-climate-controlled sprinkler system, and cause chaos by cycling along the road to the local cycling lanes rather than driving there. I generalize, of course - to live like a local, in many cases, is to leave the city and head North for the summer.

Any sense of belonging is precarious and begs the question of what anyone can actually access. Not all of America is available to all Americans, let alone to fresh-off-the-boat immigrants like ourselves. While this area is wonderful because of the public spaces, other things remain strictly private. This is a nation where things are 'owned' by the individual, where society is supported primarily through philanthropic benefactors rather than through a government-facilitated 'common good', where recycling is seen to be a means for poor people to gather together a few dollars by taking people's plastic bottles to a reclamation center (and the white bearded man who looks through our wheelie bin before the garbage collection is made is greeted by the local dog walkers, praised for his industry, and eats at the local soup kitchen). This is a country where the state motto for New Hampshire, which borders Massachusetts, is 'Live Free or Die'.

And so we decided to live a little bit more like the locals and we went on holiday to Maine. I imagined a seaside holiday where we would spend each day swimming in the sea and building sandcastles on the beach. We hired a cabin close to the sea shore and our imaginations were fed with descriptions of a wooden cabin where one could shower out under the stars, cook in the garden, and live beyond the pressures of modern-day life. In fairness, the cottage's amenities were fairly described - the only washing facilities were in the yard and we gained a sense of how life might have been when the current owner's grandmother had holidayed there in the 1950s. The locale, meanwhile, had changed drastically during that time. Other 'cottages' had been rebuilt as contemporary homes with air conditioning units, double driveways for the family's SUV collection, huge windows which offered residents the possibility of glimpsing the sea in the tiny gaps between the other newly developed houses. This is the America that we had imagined from the UK: big and modern and brash. Showering outside in the middle of this suburbia-by-the-sea certainly identified us as 'outsiders': when we looked at the estate agent's spec for a nearby property there were 4 bathrooms to the property's 3 bedrooms. We had one room and an inside loo.

But what shocked me, really shocked me, was that the sea shore was owned. The coast was private. We were able to walk about a mile in either direction to reach a stretch of public beach, but the majority of the coastline was private. I am aware that small sections of the English coast are privately owned, but most of it is public land isn't it? If you go for a walk near the coast, there are public paths which allow one to access the seashore, right? I tried to go for a walk one hot afternoon while the children played miniature golf with their dad. I walked four  miles, paralleling the coast on the hard shoulder of a freeway. I could see the sea, I could hear the gulls, but every track or road which led off the freeway had a large sign forbidding intruders. Quite a lot of the signs included a graphic image of a gun. I kept on walking until I eventually turned about and returned the way that I had come.

The conundrum is that America isn't unthinking. There is a widely shared perception that children need access to water when the temperatures are up near 100F and the humidity levels are high. This is, after all, a child-focused culture where every possible opportunity is provided for (most) children. The coast is owned, and that means that children can't swim in that bit of the sea, or go crabbing along the shore line, or scrabble about looking into the rock pools. And so, Americans have dipped into their 'tax dollars' to provide free outdoor swimming for children throughout the summer.

This is more radical than it sounds from an English perspective. There are very few 'tax dollars' available (and Romney is currently canvassing the promise that there will be far fewer tax dollars to play with in the future if he is elected). Any expenditure of these 'tax dollars' is hotly debated and carefully justified: there are, for example, large signs on the subway trains at the moment advising people that their 'tax dollars' will need to be spent on cleaning up the carriages if people do not remove their own waste. The signs work well: I eavesdropped a debate between two strangers where one advised another to take his newspaper off the train with him - the man with the newspaper listened, and then picked up his discarded newspaper and took it with him as he exited the train while the woman next to me, with her large shopping bags pressed firmly against her ample stomach, nodded her approval and muttered, 'Dat's right, boy, dat's right'. And yet, out of a tiny stash of 'tax dollars' which is carefully protected from unnecessary expenditure on public goods (such as a public health service or universities), a huge amount of money is being spent on free public swimming. These swimming pools are built on valuable real estate, staffed with huge amounts of life guards, filled with carefully treated tap water which is tested every couple of hours, and allocated huge parking lots. And the pools are needed, really needed, because the summer vacation is long and the climate is overbearingly hot and because the sea is private.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


It's amazing how quickly one can become familiar with something new. I now take it for granted that every time I go to the doctors with one or other of the children, I will introduce myself to the receptionist ("Hi. How are you?...") and then produce my insurance card and allow them to swipe my credit card. I'm buying a service, right? It's not all that different from shoe-shopping.

We regularly attend four different clinics (I sometimes feel as though my life is being lived out in waiting rooms). The Boston Children's Hospital is huge - an industry in itself. The entrance foyer is filled with sculptures and art work. There are several different cafes and food outlets to choose from. There are car parking valets, rows of wheelchairs of all shapes and sizes (think about the banks of shopping trolleys that you see at the supermarket - it's not that different).

We are registered as patients of the Harvard Vanguard practice. To understand the practice, one would need to imagine something midway between a hospital and a GP's surgery. The girls have a nurse who regularly phones us for a chat to see how they are both getting along. The accounts manager now knows me very well (although that might relate more closely to the amount of bills we have recently generated rather than as a principle of the practice). Our general doctors are located at the local Harvard Vanguard practice; Iola's ear and nose specialist is at a larger Harvard Vanguard practice in Boston. The practice has it's own pharmacy who will telephone me when Maya's inhalers need updating. They have cafes and smart waiting areas. They employ all kinds of doctors from general practitioners thru oncologists, orthopaedic specialists, midwives, behavioral therapists and acupuncturists.

And, last but not least, we attend twice-weekly appointments at a physical therapists (where I continue to confuse the receptionist by talking about physio). Again, the practice is glossy and comfortable. Maya has worked closely with a physical therapist who is 'awesome' and she's now walking without crutches, to the amazement of her surgeon. They have equipment which would not look out of place in a top-of-the-range gym and they have a swimming pool.

There are themes to these experiences which contrast to our experiences in the UK, and most of them relate to money.

Money buys time. The old adage that 'time is money' is turned upside down when you look at health care. These practices are not being subjected to huge cost cutting, which means that they have more time than one can imagine within a UK context. When we attend an appointment with our general practitioner, we can expect the appointment to last at least half an hour.  A nurse will weigh the girls, measure their growth, take their temperature, chat to us about any general concerns and then escort us to a room where the doctor will see us. There is no sense that we have 6 minutes (or however long a UK GP would have for a standard appointment). We are given as much time as we need. It's nice for us, it must be wonderful for the doctor to have fewer patients to that they can spend more time considering their case.

Money buys stuff - lots of stuff. There is no shortage of equipment, medicines or technology. This is the 'all-singing, all-dancing' end of the health system. When Maya was in hospital in Albuquerque, she had a bed which vibrated and moved to ensure that she did not get bed sores; she had an inflating cuff on her non-broken leg to reduce the chance of clotting in that leg; she had a choice of 6 different menus at every meal; she had a television with hundreds of channels; her own en-suite; an arts specialist; three physical therapist; a nurse who was allocated to only 3 patients...

Money makes stuff work. The computers in the hospitals talk to one another because there has been the money to pay the technical experts who can make this happen. I don't know if the computer strategy for the NHS has been resolved, but when we left the UK it had been a very expensive failure.

Money buys space. These hospitals and health centers are vast. They are surrounded by acres of car-parking (free in Albuquerque, affordable in Boston). The corridors are crammed with art work and sculptures (Iola and I spent over an hour trying to look at all of the art work in the Children's Hospital in Albuquerque).

Money buys good manners - it shouldn't, but it probably does. When you get lost, people stop to help you - lots of people - nurses, volunteers, doctors, surgeons. Because they don't have to treat as many patients, they probably have more time to stop and help people... they probably have more time to be human. When Iola went through her endless weeks in oxygen tents in Lancaster hospital, we saw different doctors. We didn't have a choice, it was just that whichever doctor was allocated to our ward would appear. Some of them were very good, but they didn't all say the same thing. It's confusing and terrifying as a parent to meet different people and to hear their different opinions about how your child should be treated. Maya has had two doctors for her broken leg - Taylor Jobe in Albuquerqe, who looks and talks like a surf dude and still telephones us to see how she is getting on, and Dr Kasser in Boston who, despite being one of the world experts in pediatric orthopedics, has the time to be polite and gracious and to listen to what Maya has to say (which often takes quite a lot of time).

Money makes things ridiculous. I was charged $100 for a bottle of ear drops; our helicopter ride to hospital cost $48,000, the hospital bills continue to land on our doorstep. However, when I talked to a friend whose father visited from England, without insurance, and had a heart attack, she told me that when you explain that you have no insurance the bills tend to be instantly halved. There is little logic to the numbers of dollars written onto the bills that you are given. We have insurance and savings and we would pay (and are paying) whatever we could to mend Maya's leg and to ensure that both girls are healthy. Not everyone has that choice and that's the ongoing debate in Senate at the moment. There are philanthropists everywhere - no-one would be turned away from either the Boston Children's Hospital or the Children's Hospital in Albuquerque because they couldn't pay their bills - and that is highly commendable. But, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are also whole industries growing rich, really rich, out of the amount of money which is pumped into the medical care system in this country. Coming from a country with the NHS, I struggle with the ethics of people making sizeable profits from healthcare when there are so many people who struggle to pay their medical insurance each month and have to pay the excess of their copay with credit cards.

But, when I attend our appointments (about 3 a week at the moment), I obediently open my wallet and take out that credit card. The time and place for ethical dilemmas is elsewhere. We've been told that Maya can start running on July 1st.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Maya and Iola's school

The girls have picked up various Americanisms and a current favourite is the word ‘awesome!’ Lots of things are awesome: chocolate cookies, the Museum of Science, the new ‘jump-kick’ that Iola has mastered at taekwon-do, a really good thunder storm. It’s not an adjective that Nathan and I use as frequently – the word feels slightly overblown on our tongues. We are, however, all in agreement that the girls’ current school is awesome.

The girls go to school in the South-East corner of Cambridge. Their school is within walking distance to the MIT, Google’s offices, and various bio-tech companies. This is an area of huge industrial development: new drugs companies and computer software firms move in almost daily. People with disposable incomes commute into this area to work: you see them at lunchtime queuing outside designer sandwich bars and coffee shops. In terms of housing, however, it is the poor corner of Cambridge. Properties around here are almost affordable and the streets around the school house a diverse mix of long-term Cambridge residents and new communities, particularly from the Azores and Haiti.

The girls’ school is housed in an ugly brick and concrete building. From the outside and the inside, the school looks poor. It was built in the 1970s and, visually, it has not aged well: the metal-framed windows look shabby; the breezeblock interior walls are cracked in places; the floors are not particularly clean; the toilet blocks stink. But, on the positive side, students’ work is everywhere: art displays cover every notice board, and there are bits of paper and notices that children have made sellotaped onto nearly every surface. Wherever you look there is a chaos of felt-tipped paper. There is no litter anywhere.

The building’s strengths were probably envisaged in relation to its functionality rather than its appearance. There are three floors of classrooms. The school has an auditorium which has theatre-style seating for 500. The gymnasium is large. There is a purpose-built canteen. The school library is larger than our local library. There are several art rooms, including one with a pottery kiln. There are science labs and music rooms and playgrounds and a basketball court and city garden spaces where students grow fruit and vegetables. From an English perspective, it’s just really really big. And it currently only houses around 400 students between the ages of 4-14. 

Iola’s kindergarten class (which now has only 15 students) has a classroom which is larger than the entire downstairs floor space of our flat. Within the classroom there is a reading area, an art area, a work area where desks are arranged, a large cloakroom and a small toilet block. The school has two kindergarten classes. Each employs two full-time teaching staff and both have similar numbers of students. The kindergarten classes also have separate specialist teachers for Italian, art, physical education, and music. There is no national curriculum here in the United States, although Massachusetts has developed some curriculum guidelines. Iola’s learning this year has contrasted with her experience in England last year where there was much greater focus upon literacy and numeracy. The focus here is upon learning through creativity. For example, the students ‘worked’ as researchers on the rain forest for several months. Each child became an expert upon an animal of their choice. Iola can now talk extensively about bush-master snakes (not particularly nice animals, but our familiarity with them makes us feel quite fond of the poisonous little critters). Iola has made a pottery snake, made observational drawings, written poetry, produced a research report on bush-masters which has been published as a virtual book on the school ipads, and prepared and given a presentation on the snakes which was recorded and is now stored as an audio-book on another part of the school’s software. I have had periods when I have worried that she doesn’t bring home a book each evening, but she has become a confident reader over the past few months and her number work is excellent. In music, the class focus upon a ‘composer of the month’. These composers have included Mozart, Louis Armstrong, and Stevie Wonder. Iola is learning to read music, discuss musical form, and work out dance routines.

Maya’s learning is closer to the English model. She has daily homework in maths and English. Her class of fourteen students have one full-time teacher but also receive lessons from specialists in Spanish, information technology, physical education, art and music. Every child is required to learn a musical instrument. Each student has access to a Macbook and the class also work in the computer suite which is crammed with Macs, provided as part of a research project by Lesley University. Each student has an on-line mentor (a ‘keypal’) based at MIT. The children have written stories and published these online. They have had science lessons based around the CSI television program, using new forensic technologies facilitated by local drugs companies. They have been judges for the Massachusetts Children’s Book Award.

And this school is widely seen to be the poor relation in the Cambridge Public Schools system!

This September the school system for Cambridge is changing. Rather than the elementary schools catering for 4-14 year olds, a new system of middle schools is being introduced for grades 5-8 (students aged 11-14). I have been fascinated by the way that this policy has been developed. I don’t know how typically American this process has been. The chief superintendent of schools is extremely laid back with a ready smile to any question and an absolute commitment to deferring any answer. His staff are a diverse mix who like to spend meetings publicly congratulating one another, which means that every meeting is a very upbeat experience although sometimes light on actual content. 
The 11-14 year olds from nine elementary schools will move into three newly-formed middle schools. A new curriculum is being developed for these schools and new buildings will be built to house these new schools. It takes at least three years to build a new school around here so, in the meantime, the new middle schools will be squeezed into the elementary schools which the children already attend.  

There is much about the new curriculum which is exciting. The English Language Arts curriculum includes journalism, on-line publishing, and the negotiation of a range of different literacy demands as well as creative writing and analysis of more traditional literature. The Mathematics curriculum is extensive and covers areas of mathematics upon which I am unable to comment (too many squiggles and apparently random numbers). Maya’s grade will study Spanish, French and Mandarin and then elect the language in which they would like to specialize for grades 7 and 8. Large amounts of the timetable are given over to drama and music, with the potential for every student to elect to take individual music lessons and to play in a school orchestra and marching band. Awesome.

But with all of this innovation, some areas of traditional schooling have had to be compromised. The curriculum is based around 6 day curriculum blocks, so the second Tuesday is the new Monday and the following Wednesday will be day 1 of week 3. Confused? Try organizing forty-odd eleven year olds. And students will only be offered two 45 minute periods of physical education over each 6 day period. The physical education department are completely disenfranchised by this (I spoke with them on Wednesday evening and ended up feeling quite depressed myself) and have decided to maximize the time for activities by abandoning the requirement for students to shower and change. Really? Imagine teaching an afternoon class of ‘aromatic’ thirteen year old boys and girls who have been running around the gymnasium that morning. And it seems as though history and geography have been amalgamated into a social sciences department which is trying to serve so many different masters that it’s not quite sure what to include and what to leave out.

Maya’s new principal is young, ambitious, and optimistic. He talks a good talk with his speech peppered with words such as ‘possibility’ and ‘opportunity’. I asked him what the weekly timetable would actually look like, but he couldn’t say exactly as there are ‘various possibilities’ being developed. I asked what the new school’s mission statement might be, but he wants to develop this with the students in September (and I think that this is highly commendable). I asked where the classrooms would be and he said that there were lots of ‘exciting opportunities’ that they were currently working through and showed me a heavily annotated sketch which had been worked out on a scrap of paper. I asked how large his staff would be and he explained that they are still in the process of finalizing the recruitment process. 

Teaching staff are not contracted to work the summer vacation period, which stretches from June 15th through to the first week in September. That gives the new principal a fortnight to finalize things. I’m not sure if my anxiety about this timing is a throwback to my Englishness, but I am very glad that I’m not in his shoes. I’m sure that Iola’s music teacher would tell us that ‘it’ll be alright on the night’, but if the principal manages to pull this one off I think that that will be truly ‘awesome’.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

More police

I've been thinking about the police a lot today. They were busy this weekend, managing memorial day parades all over the state. Then this morning I rode the bus past a huge funeral with tens of shining police motorbikes and row upon row of polished police cars. Some police attendants were in their full blue uniform, others were wearing hats which looked more like something you would expect on a Canadian Mountie. They were waiting for the funeral to begin, I think; standing around in the sunshine chatting before the kick-off.

Elsewhere today, a guy called John was stopped by the police. It wasn't anything out of the usual: he slipped through the subway gates behind me and the police saw him. Because he hadn't used his own ticket, they took his details and fined him $15. John was just out of hospital: he's had a hip replacement and is currently out of work. The policeman was sympathetic. John doesn't have a lot of money at the moment and is clearly in pain. The policeman empathized and explained that John has a year to pay the fine. He said that he hopes that John is 'back on his feet' by then - I don't think that he was talking literally. John called the policeman 'sir' whenever he answered a question. He was very polite. In return, the policeman called him 'John'. He was also very polite, although his police badge looked slightly incongruous against his civvies - he was wearing a Boston Red Socks sports shirt and shorts.

Workmen are digging up the road at the junction on the corner of where we live. They look as though they are working hard. Whenever I walk past they are covered in sweat (it's hot and humid at the moment) and I have seen no evidence of tea breaks. Two police officers are managing the traffic at the junction. They've got their sunglasses on and they chat back and forth to one another. They are not sweating. When they see me trying to cross, they stop the cars and call me 'ma'am' and tell me to 'have a nice day'. I feel very grown-up (too grown-up, if truth be told, with my bag of groceries and my respectable moniker of 'ma'am') and I feel responsible to cross at exactly the moment that the police tell me to. The police around here instill that kind of respect in people. You'd never disagree with a Cambridge cop.

When Maya was in hospital in New Mexico (a time so very awful that I am reluctant to write about it here), we stayed in the Ronald MacDonald House for the parents of sick kids. I had breakfast several mornings with an amazing woman called Bonnie. She was in her forties, recently remarried, and she was staying in Albuquerque to take care of her new husband's young nephew while her sister-in-law traveled backwards and forwards to visit her brand new and very premature baby who was in a nearby hospital. I really liked Bonnie. She was down-to-earth and had a great sense of humor. Her new husband is a State Trooper in Wyoming. On the morning that we left, she told me how excited she was that her husband was driving down to Albuquerque that day. He was bringing two guns with him, she told me. One to carry with him and one to keep in his car. He thought that it was important to plan to be on the safe side. I didn't ask Bonnie if she kept a gun in her car. There was a big sign on the entrance to the Ronald MacDonald house stating that guns, smoking and alcohol were not allowed on the premises. It seemed to me to be highly unlikely that Bonnie would have broken the rules: most people here don't.

It's easy to be flippant and the temptation is always there. I suspect that the two policemen at the end of my road are more expensive to fund than the temporary traffic lights that accompany roadworks in England and I'm not completely sure that they are doing a better job. Critics argue that the Cambridge police generate a disproportionate amount of funding through the statutory requirement that police must be paid to be present at every piece of roadwork in the city. There aren't a lot of crimes in Cambridge, compared to many places in both England and America. So, either the police strategy is working well, or there really isn't that much for the police to be doing around here (except stopping derelicts who lack subway tickets and masterminding road-building operations). There have been no recorded murders in 2012, and the most common crime is bicycle larceny - 66 bicycles have been stolen so far this year. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, police can normally be seen cruising around in their huge cars while drinking huge coffees. It doesn't seem to be the worst job in the world!

One morning, Bonnie and I shared a few tears. We were talking about how happy she was in her second marriage and the romantic moments of serendipity which had led her to  meet up with her new husband. She was a charge nurse in a trauma unit. He had been badly shot. She helped him in his recovery. Every day when he goes to work, she worries that he might be shot again. Every time that he stops a car, she worries that the drivers might be armed. As with traffic control at building sites, that's just part of their job.

Monday, May 28, 2012


We have sent the wheelchair back to the company from which it was leased and Maya is now able to walk around on one crutch. This seems like a good place to reflect upon walking around Cambridge.

To be honest, it is probably easier to drive. The sidewalks are made of red bricks which are buckled and weed-filled in places. Cars are legally required to stop for pedestrians at the crosswalks, but cannot be relied upon to do so. The gardens of some houses have branches and shrubs that block the sidewalks and mean that passers-by have to pass by on the road. But - if you manage not to trip on the paving, avoid being run over by errant drivers, and don't have your eyes poked out by the stray rose bush - walking around Cambridge can be a lovely way to spend a little time.

Maya, Iola and I have taken to going for a walk in the evening, after the dish-washing has been finished (and Maya's recovery means that this has returned to being a collaborative activity) and before the bedtime story. We have our favorite gardens in the neighborhood and stop by their fences to look at and smell some of the flowers. I would think that this was eccentric if there weren't so many other people here who do the same. Many of the people who are in their gardens take delight in curating their flowerbeds on our behalf. There is the man on Upland Road who has a cardinal's nest in one of his shrubs and who spends time updating the girls with news of the cardinals' progress. There is the old lady who loves to pause from her weeding to ask the girls how their day has been. There are many dog-walkers who stop for chats while the girls pet their dogs - and the girls are now experienced enough to know which dogs they can cuddle and which they should cross the road to avoid.

Walking around the neighborhood on a Sunday night has added bonuses: it's the evening when people put out any furniture or books that they no longer want. We've picked up a range of things from our evening walks - today I brought home a huge folder of colored sugar paper for Iola's art, last week Nathan acquired a batch of science fiction paperbacks. We've also collected a few larger items: an old-fashioned telephone table which just needed a bit of a scrub and a polish, a desk-chair which now sits out on our balcony.

We've the space to bring things home from the sidewalks because we recycled a lot of our own things before we moved here. A year ago we moved from a large house with five bedrooms and endless shelving to a tiny two-bedroomed flat. This meant that we had to reduce our "stuff" by more than half. As part of that downsizing, we gave away about half of our furniture through Freecycle, donated more than 500 books to Amnesty International, raised nearly a thousand pounds for Barnados from the children's toys and bikes, and donated two vinyl LPs (out of Nathan's collection of more than 700) to the local Oxfam. It felt like a good thing to do - the furniture would still be used (and we met some fascinating people while engaged together in activities such as dismantling trampolines or pushing sofas into the back of borrowed vans), the books would still be read, the toys would still be enjoyed, and someone somewhere would acquire two recordings of authentic Greek dances from the 1960s.

In the area where we now live there isn't a culture of charity shops. When we left England, there were charity shops on every high street. These accept used items and then sell them to raise money for whichever good cause the store represents. Most are well worth a visit. Me and the girls still have items of clothing which had been 'gently used' before we got them (or, in my preferred terminology, we have 'experienced clothing'). We also had a much broader assortment of jigsaws and books than if we had only bought new. There are some thrift shops in Boston, but I haven't seen very many: it doesn't seem to be part of the culture in the way that it is in England. Several of the thrift shops which I have seen are privately owned and run as a profit-making enterprise rather than as a means of raising money for charity. But the street recycling is another way of free-cycling or rehousing things which might be useful for someone else.

After our walk around the neighborhood, the girls get into their pyjamas and we settle down for our bedtime story. We're reading Roald Dahl again at the moment. Incidentally, his daughter lives around the corner. Perhaps I ought to start walking past her house on a Sunday evening.... you never know what might find its way out onto the sidewalks.