Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The bright side and the night side.

It has been a struggle to re-adapt to life in Cambridge after our wonderful summer in Vermont. Nathan is working long hours away from home throughout the week, the girls' return to school has brought some problems along with it, and the traffic is unremittingly horrific. Just when I was ready to pack up my bags and move elsewhere however, Cambridge reminded me of all its best qualities.

As part of the 'Play Me, I'm Yours' initiative, 75 pianos have been set up around the Cambridge and Boston area and the weather has been perfect for a little al fresco busking on the way to and from school. It's a joy to have fragments of piano music drifting down the street and I love the elements of surprise in what people elect to play: at the weekend I saw a teenager with bright purple hair perform an incredible Bach piece while an elderly lady in Harvard Square bashed out a great bit of honky-tonk to the whoops of admiration from her friends.

This weekend was also the New England Americana Festival in Harvard Square. The timing was perfect: Iola had a sleepover with a friend (apparently, first is worst, second is best, third is the one with the hairy chest... and so, Iola solemnly announced beforehand, this would be her friend's best sleepover ever whereas it would have a hairy chest for her!). Maya is old enough to come out with us in the evening, so we all headed out to Club Passim. It was a wonderfully eclectic mix of ukuleles, banjos and the amazing Roy Sludge (we've been singing 'Back the Truck Up' ever since!)

On Saturday, Maya took part in a cook-off competition - part of the City Sprouts scheme of which she had been an intern through the summer. Again, the weather was perfect, a local band were playing music, and local dignitaries evaluated the cooking. Cambridge is a great place to be a child: these kind of events seem to always be well-attended, the judges took their jobs seriously, and every child had something to celebrate (although, philosophically, I have some concerns that the children here have no opportunity to experience even minor defeats).

Saturday night was a revelation for me. For the past thirty years I have worn contact lenses. They give me a good quality of sight during the day but my night vision has never been fantastic. Two weeks ago, I was fitted for new contact lenses. Technology changes: three decades ago, my lenses were tiny convex circles of glass. After a couple of years, my eyes became too dry to wear these, so three tiny holes were drilled into each lens to enable greater oxygenation of my cornea. A few years later, I moved into gas-permeable lenses which allow some exchange of oxygen to the surface of the eye but also mould the cornea to their shape. This month, an optician measured the topography of my eye and fitted me with lenses which have the same rate of oxygen-exchange as the naked eye. My optician (think Woody Allen with more hair) was unremittingly enthusiastic about the potential of these lenses: I would see better, feel better, have greater comfort levels... However, it has been agony as my poor corneas have struggled to adapt to the new lenses and I began to believe that I was just too old and set in my ways to benefit from any more new technologies. As much as my optician bounced around the room with his relentless enthusiasm and waggly eyebrows, I no longer believed a word he said.

And then I went out in the dark.

I have always assumed that night-time has the opacity of mist. It doesn't - and that probably comes as no surprise to anyone reading this, because it was certainly of no surprise to poor Nathan who spent Saturday night being the audience to my wonder:
'Nathan, I can see the shapes of the cars behind their headlights! The buildings have edges! The lights don't have blurred halos around them! People have faces!!!'
The plan had been to walk over the river into Boston and enjoy a quiet drink in one of the pubs in Beacon Hill. In the end, we just walked and walked and walked. I was ecstatic about everything I could see and Nathan looking longingly into the windows of the bars and the restaurants we walked past. I know he was looking longingly, because I could see his face!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cowgirl up, princess!

We are fortunate to have wonderful neighbors, both in Cambridge, MA and in our new shack-in-the-woods in Vermont. In Cambridge, Maya takes cake-fuelled Mandarin lessons with our Chinese neighbors who supply me with exquisite teas and feed Ed the cat a series of delicacies; while Iola sits on Lollipop (the Cambridgian dog who lives on the other side) and takes the girl-across-the-road's bunnies on walks to the park. In Vermont, Iola runs wild with Grace, our neighbor's daughter, while Maya tells Raylene, our 'Vermont Nana', all about Cambridge and England (both equally foreign and glamorous in Raylene's mind).

It takes about two and a half hours to drive from Cambridge to Vermont, but they are worlds apart. Cambridge is a pocket of well-mannered liberal intelligentsia: morning conversations at the local dog park might range from discussions about astrophysics and neural pathways through to the advantages of linen bedsheets over starched cotton. Cambridge prides itself upon being 'the most opinionated zip code in America': I recently had a large bite on my arm and I was offered a plethora of opinions and advice from members of the dog-walking community, friends and neighbors. It was a poisonous spider, an earwig or a nasty mosquito. I should go to the pharmacy, I should go to my primary care provider, I should go to the accident and emergency room. I should take Advil (with plain yoghurt so that it didn't upset my stomach), anti-histamine, a herbal tincture; I should dress it with a steroid cream, leave it to breathe, cover it in tea tree oil.

The Cambridge day is always busy: rush hour starts before 7am and there seems to be a designated time for every activity. The passing months are dominated by elections, with ever-changing brightly colored bill boards in the majority of gardens, car bumpers adorned with political slogans, and canvassers urging people to vote. (I am still not familiar enough with American politics to fully comprehend the diversity of elections, but there seem to have been at least five this year). Cambridge abounds with well-dressed gray haired ladies leaning their bicycles against railings and making complicated coffee orders (half de-caf - single shot - soy latte); polished tanned men in casual clothing and expensive shoes discussing important things in very loud voices; children hurrying away from the school gates towards their soccer practice, (ice) hockey practice, softball and baseball and basketball practice; piano practice and choir. People here build complex, busy, achievement-filled lives. At the school gates, parents talk about the different savings schemes they have set up for their children's college expenses (in most cases, these funds were established before the children were conceived) and thoroughly assess the relative merits of the $2000 a term cello teacher over her slightly cheaper counterpart. The recession, which is still visible in some parts of the country, didn't even come close to touching this place: the average three bedroom condo sells for three-quarters of a million dollars and the property market is so buoyant that realtors rarely advertise properties. (There is, of course, a very real artery of poverty running through Cambridge - and I have discussed this in previous blogs - and many of the wealthy people we meet are, quietly and discretely, benefactors of art galleries and museums and charities, but poverty tends to be neither seen nor heard on the tree-lined streets of our immediate neighborhood).

Vermont runs to a different schedule and a different accounting system. Take George, for example. In May, I drove up to Vermont from Cambridge to discuss the possibility of sinking a well into our land with George; George drove over from the next town. I arrived on time, he was several hours late. In Cambridge, I would have been annoyed (we Cambridgians don't have time enough to wait around for tardy well-diggers), but in Vermont... well, I sat on the porch and listened to the silence and watched the shadows shorten and all seemed well with the world. When George arrived, we drank coffee together and talked about the view; he told me tales about a well he had dug for a strange eccentric who lived in a castellated property filled with guns, we talked about his father who had started his business, we talked about Vermont and we talked about my own roots in North Lincolnshire. It was one of those long, rambling conversations which make life richer, whose words stay at the front of your mind for days afterwards. We hoped to get the well sunk before we spent the summer at the cabin, but George's schedule is dependent upon the weather. His business only works in summer: during mud season, there is the danger that his rig might topple or sink; in winter the ground is too hard to drill. That means in summer, George works extraordinarily hard whenever the weather will allow. The well was finally sunk on the second-to-last day of our holiday. The next morning, Nathan and I woke at 5am: George was outside, ready to start his day's work. George's clock is set to Vermont time.

Yesterday, in Cambridge, our handyman - let's call him H - paid an impromptu visit. The landlady pays H a monthly retainer to maintain the property (and I use the verb 'maintain' in its very loosest possible sense). I see less of H than I used to: he has taught me the valuable lesson that it is far easier to fix things myself than to expend energy trying to persuade him to do anything for me. Also, the dog always tries to eat him.
Yesterday, H was very cross. He likes to keep a close eye on the property: not so much in terms of repairs, but in terms of making sure no-one else has been paid to do the things that he hasn't.
'Did you move the humidifier in the basement?' he asked. Most Americans begin their conversations by asking how you are, but H was in a straight-talking kind of a mood.
'No,' I answered, grabbing hold of Truff who had managed to get his mouth into dangerous proximity with H's leg.
There was a long moment's silence: an interrogative kind of silence filled only with the low, hungry rumblings our our little pet mongrel.
'Maybe,' I said tentatively, 'The electrician moved it.'
'You had an electrician?' Previously, our landlady has paid H extra to do the electrical work on our property. H is not a tall man, but he grew several inches in his outrage. The dog licked his lips.
'We had to, the inspection found bell-and-tube wiring from the 1920s feeding some of the plugs.'
'Plugs? By plugs, you mean electrical outlets.' He nodded wisely, evidently pleased by his linguistic dexterity. 'I have some bell-and-tube wiring in my house too.'
'It's illegal.'
'Illegal? By illegal, you mean there isn't an earth.' He nodded again.
'It's not safe.'
'You mean it's old-fashioned.'
The problem with English-American bilingualism is that even the simplest words can be wilfully misconstrued. I suspect H would have liked the conversation to continue for several more hours, but I decided it was a good time for a dog walk.

In Vermont, a neighbor, Matt, has been doing most of our handiwork for us. Like most of the Vermonters in that area, he has several different jobs. He has built up a large timber yard from scratch and sells firewood to residents within a fifty mile radius. Since the recession crippled Vermont, people haven't been buying as much firewood; some people can no longer afford sufficient firewood to keep them warm through the winter. Firewood is traditionally sold by the cord, which is meant to be 128 cubic feet. Some of the local families who have been struggling to make ends meet have found that Matt's cords mysteriously expand in direct relation to their need. Matt didn't tell us this - but word-of-mouth travels rapidly through this area. I imagine him as a kind of reverse Grinch: sneaking a bit of extra here and there for the cold days, the winter days, the holidays.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Matt's firewood business hasn't been as profitable these past few years, and he also works building roads and doing local handyman work. Over the past couple of months, he's made our lane driveable, prepared the site for the well-digging, mended the outside staircase. We always look forward to his visits. He pulls up in his blue truck and his daughter hares out to run wild with Iola (they catch frogs and put them in bottles, pick up snakes and salamanders, avoid the poisonous hairy caterpillars, investigate every rotting log, chalk patterns on the cave walls). He has an enormous German Shepherd dog who follows the girls around the property, rounding them up if it thinks they've strayed too far.

Matt takes his time finding a way into any conversation. His hands tend to be shoved deep in his pockets, his smile is as quiet as the sun behind the cloud of his beard.
'I did this... last time I was here,' he says - and points out some detail or other. The patched-up repair to the chimney ('I thought it would get a better draw for you'), the extra joist on the stairs ('I just wanted your girls to be safe'), the tree that he chopped down to make space for George's crew ('I thought it would be easier for them to have a bit more clearance for the rig').
Last time we saw him, we were stacking the firewood he had delivered for us. He showed us how to stack it the Vermont way and then, worried that the stack we had already made might fall, restacked it all, working happily alongside us while the girls' voices drifted through the trees.
He had a bandage wrapped around the index finger on his left hand.
'What happened?' I asked.
He smiled sheepishly. 'I was putting a new roof on my stepfather's house yesterday and the ladder slipped. A piece of tin sliced the top off my finger.'
'The top?'
'Yeah,' his smile became more rueful, 'straight through the bone.'
'Did they sew it back on?' I asked.
He didn't seem to hear my question, but looked at his finger. 'It was kinda difficult working with the finger stuck out at an angle - you wouldn't think one finger would cause so much trouble. If I caught it on anything then - oooh.' He grimaced his face and pursed his lips.
'Does it feel better now?' I said.
He grinned again, still not answering. 'There was so much blood, I wrote my name with it, right there on that roof.' He laughed loudly, enjoying the ridiculousness of it all and it dawned on me that he hadn't gone to A&E, that he hadn't, in fact, even stopped working.
Matt's story moved on to another incident when he chopped a finger off. He described a cold morning (in Vermont, cold normally means below 0F), how he was chopping timber, how his hands were so cold that he made a mistake and the blade sliced straight across the base of his little finger.
'I took my glove off and there was no finger there and I just kind of panicked.'
We nodded in sympathy.
'So I put my glove back on and kept working until I'd finished the load of wood I was cutting.'
'You kept working?'
'I finished the job and then went inside and had a soda. I think the sugar helped calm me down. I took my glove off again. Still no finger.'
'Did you call an ambulance?'
'Well, the sugar helped calm me down so I drove myself over to the doctors and he said he could sew it back on. I've no feeling there though.'
He flicked his little finger and grinned, 'See, no feeling. Nothing.'
As he left, we repeated our invitation for him to visit us in Cambridge. He looked at me with the same baffled gaze that H gave me when I talked about the safety of our electrical circuits. 'Cambridge? By Cambridge, you mean all those people, all that traffic, all that talking.' He shook his head. 'I like it here.'

Vermont's influence colors our Cambridge lives. The girls seems easier, more relaxed; Nathan's beard flourished during those weeks in the summer and we all mourned its shaving; I ignored all the opinions that Cambridge gave me, and just ignored the bite on my arm until it went away by itself, and we found a new mantra on a fairground ringside in Vermont:
'Blood clots, sweat dries, bones heal. Cowgirl up, princess!'

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Day in the Book Fridge

Today was Rosh Hashanah (L'Shanah Tovah to all), which meant that the Cambridge Public Schools were closed for a day's holiday. It's okay to have a day's holiday two days after the start of the new school year, but I was feeling slightly aggrieved by the allocation of only one day's holiday a year to each religion. The Muslim and Jewish children have really happy holidays to celebrate, but Christianity has been given Good Friday. Good Friday?! Couldn't we at least have claimed Christmas, for God's sake? It won't be long, I am sure, before Hallmark develop a line of cards wishing friends and relatives a 'Happy Good Friday'. Perhaps they'll be adorned with brightly colored graphics of a smiling Christ strolling through the streets of Jerusalem with a cross perched lightly on his back....

Anyhow, now is not my time to reconcile my irritation: this blog is about Iola's day out in Boston, otherwise known as how to spend a day in a book fridge.

At 8.30 this morning (and it is important, here in America, not to say half-past eight as no-one knows what you mean), Iola and me joined the other sardines on the red line into Boston. At the first Boston stop, we leapt out of our subway carriage and collected one of Iola's best friends.
'Let's go to the library,' I said.
'I don't want to go to the library,' A replied.
'It's a nice library,' I said in my most coaxing of voices despite being already aggrieved by Cambridge Public School's religious policy.
'I want to stay at home with my cat.'
It's a nice cat - all fluffy and black; I would have quite liked to have stayed at home with my coffee.
'We could find books about cats,' I said wheedingly, wishing I had poured a second cup of that coffee before facing a truculent seven-year old.
'I don't like libraries,' said A. 'They're lame.'

It's probably perfectly reasonable to not like libraries when you are seven years old. The books that you are able to read by yourself are always much shinier in the book shop, they smell nicer and all the book shops in Cambridge let you eat cake while you are looking at them. Libraries have a lot to compete against - shabby books that another child has already read, a fierce librarian telling you to keep the noise down, a complete absence of anything eatable (unless you are a toddler who might gnaw discretely at the edges of each page). So, how to convince a 7 year old that a library would be good? How to rescue Rosh Hashanah before A dissolved into tears and A's mother had to take the  morning off work so that we could sit on her sofa all day with the cat?
'It's not really a library,' I said.
A looked at me with profound suspicion. 'Really?'
I looked at Iola and Iola smiled back at me before turning to A: 'It's a book fridge.'
'A book fridge?' It never fails to amaze me how much suspicion a seven year old can carry in their voice.
'Yes,' me and Iola vigorously nodded. 'With Harry Potter,' added Iola.
'Books about Harry Potter?' asked A.
'Ooooh no,' Iola said with an even bigger smile, 'With rooms out of Harry Potter.'
We were on our way.

Entering the Boston Athenaeum is breath-taking: there are long galleried rooms of books, there are high vaulted ceilings, there are huge arched windows looking out onto the graveyards which litter the center of Boston (it might seem unusual to an outside that this city centers around graveyards rather than financial institutions, but the costumed guides which hurry tourists through America's early history probably generate as much wealth here as banks and insurance companies put together. We'll leave the skyscraping corporate buildings to Houston, TX and London, England; in Boston we have dead bodies). Entering the Boston Athenaeum is particularly breath-taking when you are part of a cobbled together mission of Harry-Potter-meets-Spy-Kids-while-travelling-in-time.
Looking for clues
Harry Potter on the rooftops

Moving bookshelves

Creeping unnoticed with stealth and silence
I would like to offer my most humble apologies to any readers we disturbed while shuffling silently on our bellies along the glass floors above the reading rooms; I can give the greatest assurances that no books were harmed while we searched the pages of early volumes for clues to our mission; and I would like to stress that only a couple of fingers were squashed as we moved the book shelves using the amazing cog system. I would also like to offer my thanks to the janitor who turned a blind eye to our game and the librarians who were willing to play along.

And the outcome? Iola was utterly happy and fell asleep before 6.30 pm (not half-past six, remember); the children had an insight into book preservation, demonstrated that they were able to be absolutely silent; we had a fascinating discussion over which books the girls would like to have preserved for their own grandchildren; and, at the end of the outing, A begged me to take her to the library next time we go. Libraries aren't lame anymore apparently, they're cool ('of course,' Iola retorted, 'They're book fridges.')

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Destination 4: Gloucester, MA

I'm virtually out of words at the moment. My eyes are square, my mind is empty, and my book is two chapters short of the ending. But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so...

When the sun shines what better to do than bobbing about in a boat? Here's an assortment of photos for the grandparents, the wider family and every one else who is interested.

Playing cat's cradle on board the MV Lady Jillian.
The ship's captain showed the girls lots of magic tricks, but they couldn't make their fingers disappear no matter how they tried. 

Where Iola goes, the Truff follows...

... but he hasn't learnt to climb trees yet. 

This one is for Auntie Lucy... we found a ship with your name on it. 

Maya smiles all day long...

... while Nathan goes for a more contemplative approach.

See what happens when I try to get on camera?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Fire fighters

It is one of the simplest things to understand about living in America: fire fighters are heroes. There might be television shows and books galore about corrupt cops and disillusioned doctors, but I can't think of anyone who'd try to do the same with American firefighters. They're the good guys, period.

In England, fire fighters have been through a lot: cost-cutting, changes in employment law, and the fact that most of their call-outs now relate to traffic accidents. I know this because I had a very long conversation two years ago with a firefighter who was showcasing his equipment in Newcastle's Eldon Square. I felt sorry for him - no-one else seemed to want to talk to him because the next stall was giving away free food.

In Massachusetts, firefighters attend every emergency call. According to the City of Cambridge Fire Department:
The mission of the Cambridge Fire Department is to protect the lives and property of the people of Cambridge from fires, natural and man-made disasters, and hazardous materials incidents; to save lives by providing emergency medical services; to prevent fires through prevention and education programs; to provide defense against terrorist attacks.
It's possible to make that description even simpler: if something bad happens in Cambridge, you call 911, and a fire truck appears with firefighters who will make everything better. When Iola had her bicycle accident last year, a fire truck was the first thing that arrived at the scene and one of the fire fighters sorted out emergency childcare for Maya, the best hospital for Iola to attend, and a dog walker for Truff (who was a new puppy), while his colleagues cut the bike away from Iola's trapped foot with industrial metal cutters.

Every local neighborhood has its own fire station: this one is ours. It's a few hundred yards from our home - Taylor Square, Neighborhood 8. The building has been there for more than a hundred years. Nowadays, it houses two fire engines and an assortment of fire-fighting and emergency-related equipment; in the past it probably had horses and horse-drawn wagons. Children are always welcome. Iola likes to visit and climb up into the cab of the fire trucks and look at all the equipment. In the olden days, children probably stopped by to feed the horses. They give away bags of candy at Hallowe'en.

As heroes, fire fighters here aren't surrounded by discourses about cost-cutting or strikes or trade unions. The general sense seems to be that they are an incorruptible, essential public service and their level of funding reflects the value of the work that they do. Certainly, becoming a fire fighter is a popular career choice. There are annual recruitments which are advertised across the city. It's one of the most competitive job recruitment processes (and that in a city which houses Harvard, MIT and many world-leading technology and biotech companies).

A few months ago, some of the local firefighters gave a talk at Iola's taekwondo class. They showed the children the equipment they wear. It weighs more than 30lbs. Today, I had a conversation with a local firefighter who also undertook training at Boston airport. The emergency crews there have special state-of-the-art equipment which weighs virtually nothing and protects the body from almost unimaginable temperatures. 'It's amazing stuff,' he said and described how kerosene had been ignited, the flames covered him and he was unhurt except for a burn on his forehead where he hadn't secured his helmet properly. 'Not a serious burn,' he was keen to point out, 'not a third degree one. Probably just first degree.'

It was the same kind of material which the Arizona fire shelters were made from. The fire shelters which were meant to be almost fail safe in the event of a fire-fighting emergency. The material is amazing, almost fail-safe, ground-breaking... the kind of material you would expect a twenty-first century fire-fighter to wear, the kind of material you would expect a superhero to wear.

And it's easy to think the firefighters are superheroes: they turn up in any emergency and make everything better. But that's my naivete. They're not really super-heroes, are they? Super-heroes don't die.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Running, 5k, Title 1X, and Happiness...

Today, Sunday June 30th, I ran my first 5k... It was named "Take the Lake" and took place at Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield MA.

I ran this race with a running club (Title 1X) which I have been participating in for 8 weeks... This, as Stacey (our main coach) told us, "is our race. It is the race we have been working towards. Now, lets take the lake!" 

We (me and the rest of Title 1X) walked to the start... We had warmed up already and we were ready to start to run... But it was a big race; there must have been over 1,000 people; and we were near the back. So we count down "5, 4, 3, 2, 1" and we do not take off... We stand in place. Then we start a slow jog. Or, we started a slow jog and then we remembered that children are small, adults aren't crammed together that much, and we can dart between them, just to go ahead. 

Then we started to run. Not a jog, a run, because we were there to run, right? That was when we started...

Ahh, I love running. The freedom, the way of escaping the world, and the thrill of it. It certainly is exciting to weave through people, to overtake runners slower then you, and also to know that you have a pace and they will fall behind you... So we wove in and out. Then we found our pace. My pace was just over 6 mph. That's good. That's steady...

A coach caught up to me. She is called Jesse... We started up a conversation. I kept my pace and she ran along with me. Once in a while we would stop talking. Each time we did I would check my breathing was steady and I would "listen" to my body as we had been taught. I was running well. I was enjoying it, sorry, no, I was loving it.

I would just like to tell you a bit about what we saw as we were running. I look ahead when running, I don't look behind. Wakefield seems like a quaint little town, stuck in two different times. First of you have the rows of bungalows and curving roads... Those seem pretty modern. Then you have old, brick churches, and lush greenery around the lake. This has not purposely been preserved, it was the people who don't litter, and are respectful of the environment. It seemed a very modest town.

The town was missing one thing, music. I love music! I want music to always play. I wanted music on that run. I wouldn't have cared how it was played, but I wanted music! My longing for a bit of music meant I overtook even more people. I wanted to hear what they were playing.

Then I was half way... Water and walking break... Only half of the water I ended up drinking, the rest I threw on myself. Then (surprisingly enough) we littered!!! We got to throw are cups on the ground and keep walking/running. So that was the end of our ten-second water and walking break. Lets keep running!

Then we were lead onto a dirt path... It was a bit downhill, more chance of overtaking! I slowed down a bit but kept on running.

After around 5 mins we came to the 2 mile marker. More water, no walking. I then realized that drinking water while running doesn't quite work out... So I poured the rest on me and threw the cup down. 

"I am ti-red, I am ti-red" was what my legs were telling me. Instead of listening to them I asked Jesse to talk. Jesse talked and I kept moving. "I can do this, I can do this." I knew I could so I slowed down and kept moving.

200 yards to go. We do double that for warm up so I sprint. When I say sprint I don't mean "go a bit faster", I mean "how many people can you overtake." Jesse said "lets overtake her, nice and slowly..." I zoomed ahead.

Then I remembered I was tired and 200 yards isn't as short as it sounds. Then I saw mummy. She was cheering and I sprinted again. I didn't care how tired I was, I was happy...

So I did it, I completed my first 5k under 30 mins with a little help from my friends (and mummy)!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Destination 3: Gifford Woods State Park

We arrived in America carrying the usual stereotypes, including the well worn assumption that everything in the United States is BIGGER. Generally, I'm wary of stereotypes: in my experience, stereotypes tend to humiliate the person who holds them by revealing how little they actually know about the world. In Cambridge, MA, the notion that things are 'bigger' in the US isn't very accurate:  the average person is no bigger than anywhere else (although I have seen some sizeable biceps being flexed at my gym); the houses are generally smaller because land is so expensive; and the amount of SUVs and gas guzzling people carriers is balanced by an equivalent amount of Toyota Prius and little city toy cars. So, if you had asked me on Friday whether I felt that things tended to be bigger in the US, I would have put my head onto one side and thought for a few moments.... maybe the muffins? But no, not generally.

Then we went camping.

We've camped a fair bit in the UK. Pre-children we toured Scotland with a dog who looked liked the Truff, a small tent, a couple of sleeping bags, and rucksacks which jangled with the pots and pans hanging on the outside. The overall effect was more hobo than boy scout, but we were fairly self-sufficient, carrying what we needed on our backs. Our only moment of true envy was when two German bikers turned up on huge Harleys and unpacked a tiny gas stove and an espresso maker. The smell of their coffee mixed with the spray coming off Thurso Bay still haunts me, and I wish that I had had the courage to speak to them (and then cadge a coffee). After children, we camped a lot in our little red VW van and, when we'd grown too big to all fit into the van, we migrated to an awning fastened to its side. I love camping: the setting up a temporary home, the connection with the night when you are somewhere without electricity, the early morning first-light coffee when the birds are practicing the opening bars of their dawn chorus. I also love the people watching because camping in the UK (unless you are wild camping) tends to pack you cheek to jowl with other campers.

This weekend we went camping in Gifford Woods State Park. We have a new tent (which is enormous), and new sleeping bags (which are huge - for the first time in his life, long tall Nathan has a sleeping bag which covers him from his chin to his toes). The campsite we chose seemed typical of most campsites in the State Parks - about 30 pitches, a couple of toilet blocks, and signposted walking trails. This was camping on a whole new scale and our jaws dropped when we were given an entire corner of the forest to ourselves. Everything seemed super-sized to our English eyes: the trees, the amount of firewood we were give to burn in our enormous campfire (an unexpected boon when we realized that the tiny camping stove we had bought didn't work), the warning signs about hiding our food from the forest's black bears.

The next morning we followed one of the signposted trails. Vermont is skiing country and the route was also part of the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail. The gradient took us almost vertically up a mountainside. The views were stunning (but if you look closely at Maya's face, you'll see that her vertigo is alive and well!)

The girls and the dog proved themselves to be brilliant hikers. The girls were rewarded by suitably American-sized ice-creams on the drive home, the dog slept for fifteen hours straight.

Meanwhile, I needed a bit of time to process the enormity of it all and attended a Quaker meeting that evening. I arrived at the Friends' meeting house with only a few minutes to spare. There was only one other person in the meeting house. This is unusual for a meeting, but the only criteria for a Quaker meeting is where two or more people come together for prayer and worship. The thing I love about Quakers is the absence of ceremony: the meeting starts when people arrive and sit down, and the hour might pass without anyone saying anything or might be interspersed by someone feeling moved to say something. Normally these words are quite spiritual, and are referred to as a 'ministry'. After about fifteen minutes, the only other person in the meeting house spoke.
"Do you think we're in the right place?" he asked. "I'm Mike. I've not been here before."
It took me a few minutes to process his words - my mind was elsewhere, and I wondered for a moment of two whether he was speaking metaphysically, offering a ministry reflecting upon our place in the world perhaps, or literally. He kept looking at me as though expecting me to say something, so I decided he probably wasn't speaking to God.
"I've not been to this meeting either," I said.
"I think we should be somewhere else."
I often have that feeling, but felt that now wasn't a good time to tell him this. I offered a non-committal 'oh' and avoided the temptation to say 'let's stay here, this silence feels good.' Now that we had spoken to one another, it would have felt uncomfortably intimate to sit alone for the rest of the hour in a Meeting Hall where we shouldn't have been.

We found the other meeting together - it was in a different room within the Meeting Hall. About twenty people looked up from their meditations as we apologetically entered the room. There was a lot of fidgeting after we took our seats: we had disturbed the silence. Afterwards, I was invited to stay for tea but, seeking solitude, I cycled slowly home. I've left a little bit of my heart on a mountain side in Vermont and I'm looking forward to my next opportunity to collect it.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Summer 2013: Porchfest

Although summer officially begins on Memorial Day (Americans liking to keep their calendars simple), the warm weather brings a plethora of festivals and celebrations to our area. There are disadvantages to living in a densely populated area - the traffic and the difficulty in escaping to the countryside, for example - but there is a lot to be said for being able to walk to at least two different festivals every weekend from May through to the middle of October.

Today, we faced the difficult decision of attending EarthFest or PorchFest. EarthFest is sponsored by Whole Foods... think live music on a big stage, free food, a range of stalls, and that sunshine-y festival vibe on the banks of the River Charles. Nice.

PorchFest is a little bit different. It's not sponsored by a big organization, it doesn't sell anything, it doesn't have any stalls, and it doesn't have a single venue. PorchFest takes places on people's porches all over Somerville (the neighboring city whose city limits jut up against Cambridge just a 10 minute walk from our house). Musicians from all over the United States set themselves up on people's porches and play music. There were about 100 porch-venues today - we only saw a handful, but we'll be back next year. Here's a visual guide for one of the strangest, eccentric, and most enjoyable festivals we've ever done.
Step 1: Fill up with food at a favorite local diner
(Baby back ribs, collard greens, cornbread and pulled pork at Redbones Barbeque). 
Step 2: Find a porch.
(Hornography - trumpets, trombones, saxophones of all shapes and sizes, a melodica and a woman playing a triangle. Their set included the theme tune to the A Team, a medley of Inspector Gadget and the Pink Panther, and a few A-ha covers).
Step 3: Find another porch.
(The Hot Porch Mamas - intricate melodies, wistful country tunes, and a fast few jigs on the fiddle. Awesome music. We knew they were good and had this confirmed by eavesdropping on the excited recording agents who were sitting in deck chairs next to us).
Step 4: Take a break and climb a tree. Just because...

Step 5: Have a parenting dilemma.
(Amazing funk band, fantastic front man, but - ahem - how to explain to Iola not to copy the crotch-grabbing bit of the dancing. Maya blushed beetroot and said it was a bit 'too sexy').

Step 6: Find some local art (in this case, the painted pet shop) and have a photo session.

Step 7: Repeat step 3... (Appalachian country band with beautiful melodies between an old guy and a teenaged girl. Magic).
Step 8: Abandon the map that you've been using from your mobile phone, and just follow your ears
(I have never heard such happy musicians - the singer was still at High School, sang like an angel and was quite possibly the happiest person I've ever met).

Step 9: Revisit previous blog on popularity (this band drew a crowd because they're hip and popular. They are also unremittingly miserable. Think Leonard Cohen without the music or the poetry of his lyrics). 

Step 10: Head for home with smiles on your face and your toes tapping to the tunes that you've heard. 
We'll be back next year - one of the best festivals ever. If anyone wants to join us - it's the week before summer starts....

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A perfect world...

Radcliffe Quad
After six months of winter, Cambridge has been given one of the best springs in living memory. As Iola said on her way home from school a few days ago, "Mummy, all the gardens are exploding with flowers". The pictures to the left were taken today between Harvard Square and our house - just under a mile. The weather was perfect. A temperature in the 80s (about 28C according to my American-English conversion system) and the humidity was low. The world seemed to be a perfect place.

First Church, Garden Street
My current theory is that one of the reasons that Americans pay so little attention to issues of the environment and global warming is because the world appears to be in excellent condition when you walk along these streets. The air is rich with the smell of blossom, the leaves are green, and the sidewalks are filled with pools of cool shade. It's an illusion, of course, but melting polar ice caps and the desertification of entire countries seems far distant... I mean, just look at the color of the leaves on that horse chestnut! I have even heard Americans who will ask why global warming is such a problem: the seas getting warmer means that there have been bumper crops of lobsters over the past two years; and the possibility of rising temperatures might mean that people don't have to jet down to Florida for their winter vacation.

Raymond Street
So, given this sense of well-being and optimism, how does one cultivate an environmental consciousness? It's on the policy agenda, it's just that it doesn't get very much air time. It is illegal not to recycle bottles, plastics and cans in Cambridge, but I'm not sure that many people know that. Leaded gas (a.k.a. petrol) was phased out across the US from the mid-1990s and the stricter US emissions policy (stricter than the UK and Europe!) mean that there are few diesel cars on the road here. Conversely, car manufacturers boast if cars have more than 20mpg; people still drive huge gas-guzzling SUVs; and there is no legislation about running parked cars' engines, which, I believe, is now forbidden in many European countries. Since we moved here, there have been pamphlets delivered through our door about improving insulation in houses, but this is within the context of most houses having virtually no insulation because fuel costs are so cheap.

Huron Avenue
So how can one promote an awareness of the environment into the New England consciousness? We're seeing a few more baby-steps towards this. This weekend EarthFest is being held in Boston and Whole Foods run endless campaigns to promote environmental awareness: but Whole Foods is a successful corporate venture and, while well-meaning, commands a massive profit. With the advent of summer, local farmers' markets are popping up all over Greater Boston and there is a steady increase in Community Supported Agriculture, where people buy shares in farms in exchange for a box of fruit, vegetables and/or flowers during the growing season.

The desire to 'think small, think local' is positive in terms of yard sales (each weekend there are at least half a dozen within a few blocks of our house); buying fruit and veg from farmstands; hanging out at trendy farmers' markets; and supporting initiatives such as the man to the left who was selling books from his car roof in Harvard this morning. But the downside to thinking locally is that things really seem to be quite marvelously well in our little corner of the universe. The sun is shining, the weather is warm, and the trees are looking spectacular. And, while I might be a doom-monger and try my hardest to spread the word about the importance of treading lightly upon the earth, I'm also going to enjoy the weather while we can.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What's so great about being popular?

Maya has been having a hard time at school because she's not one of the 'popular' girls in her class. She has good friends - both boys and girls - but it's tough being eleven and not being part of the 'in' crowd.

I mentioned this to a neighbor and explained how my friends had all offered Maya lots of support following an incident of cyber-bullying.
'You didn't tell them, did you?' asked the neighbor with apparent horror.
'Didn't tell them what?'
'That your daughter was being bullied.'
'Well, it's not bullying as such, it's just not very nice.'
'But you mustn't tell anyone,' the woman counselled earnestly, 'They'll think that Maya isn't popular.'

There are many things that I wouldn't want to tell people about my children: the particular color and shade of their stools, for example, or the fact that they insist upon wearing underwear with holes in. And there are many things that I would choose not to know about friends' and neighbors' children: the clothing that they imagine that they would like their, as yet unconceived, children to wear, for example, or the lengthy word-by-word explanation of everything that was said at the last parent's evening. But why would anyone choose to misrepresent their child's experiences so that people would think she was popular? What's so great about appearing popular?

I can imagine a conversation between Mrs. Hitler and her neighbor as they leant on their garden fences in 1937:
'How's little Adolf doing these days, Klara?'
'Oh, you know, we've had a few issues with tendency towards genocide and unjustifiable violence, but he's very popular you know.'
'Oooooh, isn't that lovely. You must be so  proud of him.'

Popularity is seductive. Many people lack the courage of their convictions and trust instead the opinions of the majority - that's why democracy is such a flawed political system (as Churchill once said, 'Democracy is by far the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried'.) It seems far better within our society to like the band that everyone else professes to like rather than risking having an unusual taste in music; far better to wear the season's latest fashions and fit in with the majority rather than risk being laughed at for wearing clothes that other people might not like; far better to make friends with the girl who has the most friends rather than trusting yourself to like someone who might not be to everyone else's tastes.

Look, for example, at the run up to the last US election. Mitt Romney wasn't seen as a credible candidate until he gained a critical mass of supporters. The critical mass wasn't defined in terms of enough people to elect him, but enough people to make him appear a popular candidate. He didn't need to change his policies, he just needed to appear more popular: people vote for people who other people vote for. It's popularity, stupid.

And there's the problem with popularity - it is essentially no different from the Emperor's New Clothes: you can be duped into believing in its worth, or you can make your own independent judgments.  I don't consider that UKIP's policies are more credible, for example, because they have become more popular as a political party. I don't consider that the bands which head up the American or English Top 20s are better musicians than a thousand less popular bands in either country. And I don't assume that the most popular children in Maya's class are somehow brighter, more intelligent, or generally better than the other children in her class.

I am fortunate to have great friends who I love - people whose views I value, whose opinions I trust, whose company I adore. Friends are important, and I couldn't imagine my life without mine. But I love my friends because of who they are, not because of what other people think of them. And I know that my daughter is as unique and special as every other child in her class, regardless of the views that a very small group of eleven and twelve year old girls might have of her. Their views do not alter my opinion of the talented, beautiful, thoughtful young woman she is growing up to be.

Glen Forde - one of my good friends for about two decades now - accused me once of being an iconoclast. I'm happy to make my own decisions rather than following the herd. In terms of my opinions of my daughter, I also happen to be right. Luckily, all my friends agree.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The glory of Alla and the fear of the mono-boob

It has been a week which has left us all mind-wearied and saddened. I have no words to talk about the bombings, about Maya's favorite teacher being hospitalized with shrapnel wounds, about the ominous silence of the lock-down across Cambridge, and about the boy at the center of this entire mess, little more than a school boy himself, who was good friends with the downstairs neighbor who babysits our girls. There are many people's stories to be told, but this isn't the place for any of them. I'll leave the big stuff for presidents, politicians and newspapers, and tell you instead about the glory of Alla.

The problem with living in the Super-size Me land of the United States is that it encourages personal growth, and I have recently found that my own personal growth has resulted in me needing new jeans. I have no issue with the beautiful bodies of some of the Rubenesque women who grace my gym, it is just that my body doesn't seem to want to develop towards those proportions. I am at risk of overflowing from my jeans and developing a 'mono-boob' (when I explained my abject terror of developing a mono-boob to Nathan, he looked at me with complete puzzlement until I showed him the image of Les Dawson, left. Nathan now shares my terror). 

My formative years of education occurred during the era of Tony Blair. There are many things about Blair that I would never wish to emulate: his overreaction to the fear of terrorism, his belief that all learning can be measured in very simple ways, his out-of-control ego, his financial greed; but he taught me that there is always a Third Way. Caught in the middle of two terrifying extremes, one can always find a middle path to follow. In the case of the impending mono-boob, I felt torn between the women who consider a carton of coconut water to constitute one of their three meals a day (what? No food??), and the women who shop for new clothing when their existing clothing grows too small. I love food and I hate shopping. 

My mind told me that the Third Way had to be exercise, my subconscious was not so sure. On the same day that the top button of my jeans failed to fasten, I lost my sneakers. Nathan, motivated by the contagious fear of the mono-boob, encouraged me to go the local running shop to buy a new pair. This is, in my experience, even more terrifying than shopping for new clothes and reduces me to a gibbering wreck. The shop assistant was fit and muscled and watched me, the mother with newly enhanced waistband and two small children, enter the shop with my take-out coffee.
'What kind of distance do you run at the moment?'
'Well,' I answered, taking a gulp of coffee and trying to stop my hands from shaking, 'I used to do maintenance runs of about 3 m_' I meant to say miles - 3 miles was my basic training run - but my subconscious was having too much fun with me and 'miles' became 'meters'.  
'Three meters?' asked the shop assistant loudly, and I found that I had acquired an audience. Their laughter did not make me feel better about the embarrassment of buying new sneakers and I didn't stop blushing until I had bought the first pair of sneakers that fitted and hurried from the shop.

My despondency would have continued if I hadn't found Alla. 
Alla is a personal trainer at my gym. I don't normally have a personal trainer - my membership is expensive enough - but my gym put together one of those special offer things which make it appear that if you buy five sessions with a personal trainer it is far cheaper than not buying any (that economics is not my strong point also links back to Blair's influence upon my education). I also factored in the cost of new jeans and the possibility of having to find a new husband who liked mono-boobs.

The thing with gift horses, as with any member of the equine species, is that one should always look in their mouths. In my excitement about not having to drink coconut water or buy new clothes, I failed to pick up on the warning signals. Alla has a reputation as a hard-core trainer. As a child in Russia, she had a bad accident and broke many of the bones in her body, subsequently, she explained, she considers pain to be nothing more than a state of mind. She loves weight-lifting and trained regularly with the Russian Olympic weight-lifting team. The muscles on each of her thighs are wider than both of my legs together. 

Together we began our war against the mono-boob: Alla speaking in broken English and me answering in broken American. We started out gently enough: practicing the movements of each exercise together. Easy enough, I thought and happily allowed myself to be lulled into a sense of security. Then we practiced the movements with small weights: Alla scrutinized every aspect of each movement. She doesn't believe in warming-up or stretching, and she's not a fan of cardio-vascular work. Her philosophy is that a correctly executed movement will cause no damage. She's very careful and none of her clients have had any injuries. I didn't understand why she didn't have many clients until our third session when she explained that we would now do the exercises properly. I haven't taken part in many extreme sports. I like horse-riding (preferably dressage) and biking (on roads which are tarmacked) and kayaking on quiet water. Sessions four and five with Alla are among the most extreme things I have ever asked my body to do - and I consider an unmedicated home birth to be in that category.  

With extreme work-outs you narrow your focus to the exercise and need absolute trust in your trainer. Alla had worked her magic on me. Like a Pavlovian dog, I responded to each of her words without question. Each rep was counted down - five, four, three, two, one - and each set ended with a 'boom!' That 'boom' has been hard-wired into my subconscious. Need to buy a new pair of jeans? Walk into the store, find a pair that fit, hand over your credit card, and boom! Have a book to write? Switch on the computer, write as many words as you need, and boom! It's also become part of my vocabulary of parenting: Maya's homework - work through the questions, show it to Mmmmy and 'boom!'; Iola's eating - four more spoonfuls of squash and 'boom!'

I don't know Alla's ethnicity or why she came to America. I don't know if she is Muslim or Russian Orthodox or any other religion. I hope that I would never change how I think about her regardless of what I subsequently learnt about her. My novel is about the problems and dangers of making judgments based upon what you think you know about someone's background based around the little that you see and hear. I hope that, whether she is Chechnyan or Muslim, Alla is treated the same as every other person who has made this country their home and I hope that America can do that for all the people live here, without seeking any kind of exceptions or Third Ways or moral panics. 

We heard the distant gun shots and explosions yesterday while Black Hawk helicopters circled overhead, but inside our locked-down apartment we practiced Iola's taekwondo and Maya's yoga. If you'd have been here, you'd have heard me encouraging them: 'And stretch a little bit more, girls, you can do better than that. Now, five, four, three, two, one and boom!'   

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sugaring in Vermont

I won a writers' retreat in Vermont. No-one could have been more surprised than me: I am the kind of woman who normally doesn't even manage to win the home-made ash tray in the church fete's tombola.

Vermont is very similar to the Lake District... with more trees, fewer sheep and bigger mountains. Whereas spring is well-established in Cambridge now, Vermont remains in winter. Eager to walk, I headed up the lane and found a maple syrup shack. Last time I was here, I had walked past the hut oblivious to its purpose, but this time it was a hive of smoke and activity.

I would have stayed outside, taking a few photographs of the quaintness of the building, but Harold's wife invited me in to meet Harold whose family have been sugaring on this site for generations, and in this particular shack since Harold's father built it in 1946. The things that I had mistaken for ropes coiled around the winter trees were, on closer inspection, a complex network of pipes. In the olden days, syrup was taken from the maple trees through hammering in a tap and hanging a bucket underneath, into which the sap would drip as it made its way up the tree. Now the maple syrup farmers use vacuum pipes which carry the sap to the shack. The sap runs at the end of the winter when the nights are cold but the days are warm. This year, the sap had been running for about 6 weeks.

I'd seen the sugar shacks last time I was here. They are slightly dilapidated wooden buildings with elevated roofs. During sugaring, the roofs are further elevated to let the smoke and steam escape. The smoke comes from huge log burners which are used to heat the shallow pans of sap which sit on top of them. The sap boils down until only syrup remains. I know all of this because I bombarded Harold and his wife with questions. I didn't mean to, but from the minute that she invited me in I was in a fever of excitement: gabbling away about a chapter I had once read in Laura Ingalls Wilder about the maple syrup harvest, and how we had sugar beet in Lincolnshire where I'd grown up, and had it been a good winter for her, and how I hadn't tasted maple syrup until my friend Meg brought us some from Canada. It was possible that Harold's wife was regretting inviting me in before we reached the threshold of the shack, and I was regretting my children's absence. Normally, they can be trusted to ask the same questions as me so that I don't talk quite as much.

There are times when I wish that I was a photographer. I'm not a visual person and prefer to play with words, but the inside of the shack was a world that I would have loved to have had the expertise to catch on camera. Two naked light bulbs illuminated the top of the stove where five long pans of syrup were simmering. Steam and smoke filled the shack like a thick sea mist, through which Harold's white-bearded face swam in and out of focus. I paused for breath long enough for him to tell me some of the logistics of the harvest: each tree produces a quart of syrup and, as a small scale producer, Harold runs a thousand taps. They export their syrup directly all over the States. The early syrup is pale and delicate, the later syrup is dark and rich and better suited for baking. This was their last tapping and he allowed me to take a taste. It was as thick and rich as black treacle.

In terms of harvesting the syrup, little has really changed for decades, but in terms of marketing and sales, the modern world has intervened. The making of traditional tin containers, for example, has been outsourced to China with the result that - Harold gave me a sly look as though testing out my political leanings - the tin is contaminated and he now has to use glass bottles. He lowered his voice and grinned. England apparently exports tin containers as well, but they're badly designed so he loses a quarter of an ounce per can and, therefore, can't use them. Unable to think of an appropriate response, I asked after the weather.

We talked about the mildness of last winter which had resulted in virtually no syrup harvest. Did this mean, I asked, that syrup was being sold for a higher price this year? By this time, I think that he had begun to feel quite sorry for the English woman who clearly knew nothing about the wider world and the scandals which abound in every aspect of farming. He paused in his work.

'The thing is,' Harold said, 'major buyers are trying to drive down the price they are willing to pay to local producers because they claim to have accumulated a stock pile of syrup.'
'Oh.' I tried to remember if I had read this anywhere - perhaps in the New York Times. I thought of twenty-year old news stories from the Daily Mail which criticized the EU's stockpiling of butter and wheat. My thoughts had drifted to thinking of pancakes when Harold brought me back to reality: 'If they do have a stock pile, it's because of the illegal harvest they stole from the forests in Quebec.'

I said goodbye to Harold and continued walking down the lane which looked as though it should have been in the English Lake District with a head filled with images of contaminated Chinese tin, badly constructed English gallon pots, and stockpiles of stolen Canadian syrup.

Back at the retreat, I carefully recounted the things that Harold had told me to the other writers gathered at the dining table. One of the writers was also a professional photographer. He hoped to visit Harold the next day to take photographs but we were snowed in and by the time we could walk up the lane the harvest had finished, the stove was cold, and the shack had been left until the following year.