Monday, April 21, 2014

The final blog

It's time to move on.

This blog began in October 2011 when we emigrated from the UK to the US. Initially intended as a means of keeping family and friends up-to-date with our adventures, it quickly acquired a much larger following. Each month, around 300 people from around the world visit the blog, and I have made new friends through sharing our experiences of being an English family making sense of our new lives in the States.

This blog has been about the novelties and cultural shocks of living in the US: the complicated bureaucracies of renting an apartment and getting a driving license; the significance of cops carrying guns (even the Environmental Police are armed); the quality and the cost of the health care systems; the up-beat child-focused education systems; the frequency of elections and the overwhelming enthusiasm for an active democracy. I have also written about the crazy changes in weather which brought us snowstorms, Hurricane Sandy and the polar vortex, and the experience of living in a city under lockdown while the police hunted down Tsarnaev, the so-called 'Boston Bomber'.

The plan had been to live here for a year or two, to have a few adventures and new experiences, and to then return home to our more familiar lives in the UK. But plans change and we like it here.

Museum day at Maria L. Baldwin school
Each morning, Iola skips enthusiastically to school. The education system lacks some of the content-driven rigour of the English school system, but she benefits tremendously from being a learner within a system which is responsive to students' interests rather than being as standards-driven as the English system. For example, when Iola's class were given the opportunity to research animals, she made the choice to specialize on oxen. She devised her own research agenda and research questions, built a PowerPoint presentation which she presented to parents on 'Museum Day', sculpted a pair of oxen in art, wrote a series of poems, and drew a picture of oxen which has now been included in the mural on the school's library walls. Iola is 8 years old. (She also now speaks with a Boston accent so thick that strangers sometimes ask how we are related).
Maya as Abigail M. Alcott
Meanwhile, Maya's experience of education in Cambridge has been a broad mix of learning new social skills and hoovering up state-wide awards. In June, she will be representing Massachusetts in National History Day in Washington D.C., and she has brought home trophies for best Greater Boston Middle School negotiator for Model UN and best Middle School debater for Eastern Massachusetts. While we have had concerns about the quality of her school and her experiences of being bullied, it seems that endless doors are opened daily to children in New England - Maya's National History Day work, for example, has included correspondence with leading academics in this area, personal tours of local museums, and access to private libraries to view first editions of relevant books. As well as receiving a letter from the Chief Superintendent for Cambridge schools, Maya's success in the National History Day state finals has been acknowledged in a personal letter from a Massachusetts senator. Maya is 11 years old.

Nathan's work has taken him to Texas, Atlanta, Tennessee, New York, Washington D.C., Rhode Island, Colorado, Kentucky and Florida. We know he likes what he does, because he always looks tall when he is happy! His only real regret about life in the US is that he's not allowed to grow a beard (jeans are in, facial hair is most definitely out!)

And I've been fortunate enough to be part of several interesting writing communities here in New England, as well as having the opportunity to develop my virtual community of writers through my work with Cafe Aphra. I also write a fortnightly column for the local homeless newspaper, Spare Change News, and I help manage a local community meal each week. I have made lasting friendships with a diversity of wonderful people, completed my first novel, plunged midway into my second, and acquired a new library of books (mainly from skip-dipping and perusing the give-aways people leave in local 'free libraries').

But, in terms of this blog, it's time to move on. We're not newcomers, off-comers (to borrow from Cumbrian English), or outsiders these days, and the cultural shocks now work in reverse: when I visited the UK two weeks ago, I felt more like a foreigner than I do here in North America. We've made the decision to stay, to put down roots, to see what happens next. We'll be moving into a new house in Vermont at the end of May, and I've decided to move the blog too. Please visit us at I'll be writing about our new lives at the foot of Mount Mansfield, about life in a small Vermont community, and about settling down, growing-up and keeping chickens.

And thank you for visiting this blog, and for reading these posts. Not only have I loved writing them, but I've taken real joy in hearing what y'all think.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I can see clearly now...

For the final few months of last year and the beginning of 2014 I thought I was going blind.

I have always been short-sighted. I have no memories of a time when I didn't need glasses. and, because of the severity of my myopia, my family optician prescribed my first contact lenses when I was eleven years old. I have worn lenses continually since. For nearly thirty years my daily routine has barely changed: get out of bed, put in my lenses, clean my teeth, and do these in reverse at the end of the day. Within hours of both my daughters being born, I was wearing my lenses and the only times I would have been seen in public wearing spectacles was on a long haul flight.

Without lenses, I can't see the optician's wall chart, let alone see the letters written on it. Without lenses, I can't see my feet in the shower, I can't see people's faces when I talk with them, I can't count my fingers with my hand outstretched. But, because of the time and place I live within, I have never had a real lived sense of being short-sighted. I have always had access to contact lenses or glasses. I have always been able to see. I have always been lucky.

Everything changed in September 2013. I visited a new optician in a shiny shop in Boston's financial district. He was a hairy little squirrel of a man, reminiscent of Woody Allen and almost Dickensian in his obsequiousness and hand-rubbing. I trusted his eccentricities were illustrative of his competence and made the error of expressing my frustration that I could not fully relax while sea-kayaking in case sea-spray knocked out my lenses. It was a foolish concern and has sparked a series of events which make me grateful now to be able to see my computer screen as I sit here in thick-lensed glasses typing this blog.

The optician, let's call him Doctor Uriah Heep, was excitable, as squirrels often are. Using handfuls of long words, he showed me his latest technologies and enthused about a new contact lens designed for cases like mine. He cited statistics and research. In real terms, he told me, these new lenses wouldn't wash out if a wave hit my face or I found myself underwater.  I would be able to see in the dark. And, he said rubbing his palms together, surely I deserved a bespoke pair of lenses after all the years I had endured a one-size-fits-all technology.

I am naturally an optimist. I believe the best in people. I give generously to pan-handlers and street musicians, on the off-chance that the money might be well spent. I bear no ill-will to the persons who twice burgled our home in London or the air crew member who stole all my jewelry when we flew to America. After my fifteenth visit to Dr. Heep's optical practice, I realized Dr. Heep had taken my 'glass-half-full' approach to life and turned it into something very dark indeed. It is possible that if I saw Dr. Heep on a dark night - unlikely, I grant, now that I no longer have any kind of night vision - I would hit the gas pedal rather than the brake. On that final visit, I sat in his black leather optician's chair and waited for him to make the magical adjustment which would allow me to read the letters on the board. The tears streaming down my face probably didn't help me focus, but there was no denying that whatever he did, I couldn't see the letters. I saw him clearly enough, however, and he shrugged.

To be technical for a moment, part of my short-sightedness is caused by an astigmatism - a bulging at the front of the eye. The front of the eye is covered by the cornea, and my cornea is shaped like an American football. (It's only writing this now, that I finally understand why both Dr. Heep and the subsequent Dr. Pugh, kept making comparisons with footballs. All this time, I have wondered why they have been referring to a non-symmetrical bulge as a football, but we're in America now and, Toto, it sure ain't soccer).

If Dr. Heep had had more sense he might have anticipated the extent to which my cornea has been moulded by rigid plastic lenses for more than 12 hours a day for nearly 30 years. Taking away the rigid plastic lenses, therefore, resulted in fairly significant changes in the shape of my cornea. Which meant my focusing power could shift significantly during the course of the day. Which meant my brain would struggle to process the distorted data it received from my troubled eyes. Which meant some days I wouldn't be able to see, even with glasses, and other days I would have double vision. If Dr. Heep had had an ounce of compassion in his little rodent body, he might have mentioned to me that, for the next few months at least - if I was lucky - my eyesight would be wrecked. If he had had the honesty and integrity which make the best of us human, he might have mentioned it was possible I might never be able to see properly again.

He didn't, of course. He had a few attempts at trying to fit me with lenses through which I could see. He failed. He shrugged.

Without good sight the world becomes a very different place. I can't use our local subway because,when I step onto the escalator I feel as though I am about to fall: my eyes don't read enough information for me to have a sense of depth. I can't use the computer for more than an hour at a time because I lose my focus and can no longer see the screen. I can't drive at night because my eyes are unable to decipher what they see outside of the halo of oncoming headlights. Over Christmas, the deterioration in my vision coincided with a trip to England to see family and friends. By late afternoon each day. I had double-vision. Ordinarily I would have made jokes about seeing two of my favourite people in the same place, but I was exhausted and spent most of the trip wanting to lie quietly in a darkened room.

When we returned to the US, I bought a new computer which had good voice recognition technologies and a large screen. And I found a new optician. She's plump and middle-aged, a committed lifelong spinster with an enthusiasm for fluffy jumpers and cats. She used to teach science in high school, but prefers ophthalmology to the classroom. We have spent a lot of time together recently and she's told me a lot about her life. The first time we met we both hoped it might be a fleeting encounter: she was relatively unconcerned and I still hoped that Dr. Heep's incompetence might be easily remedied. My new optician, let's call her Dr. Pugh, examined my eyes for an hour and we agreed things were looking good. Just to be on the safe side - and Dr. Pugh is a big believer in living on the safe side - she asked me to return for some minor tests at the end of that day, by which time my eyes had changed radically in both shape and power. Since then, there have been a plethora of consultant appointments, additional tests, and brightly colored charts which map my cornea's gradient and shifting nature. Some days it feels a bit like trying to understand what's happening in Antartica: we all agree there are changes and deteriorations, but there are varied explanations on how we got to this point and what we might do to repair some of the damage. The latest plan involves a new pair of lenses which will gradually mould my cornea back into something an optician might hope to see.

I've been wearing them for a few hours a day and I'm hopeful they might work. When I walk into coffee shops, they don't steam up. I've even done some driving in the dark and it's felt fairly safe. I haven't tried out the subway escalator yet, but I'm gradually starting to look on the bright side again. In all likelihood, it's going to be a fairly slow process, but I appreciate my glasses now in a way I never have before and I value all the things my eyesight allows me to do. It's a good place to start afresh.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Frozen rivers and meditating hobos

It's getting a little warmer, so I wanted to share a few pictures before the polar vortex heads North and everything melts.

Ice has formed on the insides of the windows in our apartment, and different rooms have generated different ice formations.

The ice is nothing, however, compared to a tale that a fellow dog walker told me today about his father-in-law's house in Wisconsin. He lives in a hemicycle house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and underfloor heating. On very cold days, the ice on the inside of the windows can be up to 4 inches thick!

Cambridge looks beautiful in the cold. The River Charles has frozen: milky white ice reflecting a low winter sun. It's a shame in a way that there aren't more tourists here to witness this transformation of the Harvard buildings: the few people who are outside are hurrying towards their destinations, wrapped in layers of hats and scarves.

Every generalization, of course, has an exception. I met a boy called Ezekiel today. He's dreadlocked. A traveller. He told me about how he's been Kerouac-ing across the States, finding rides on freight trains and hitch-hiking. He pays his way through selling hand-written books of his poetry.

Ezekiel - 'call me Zeke' - sat down on the kerb to dig a book of poems he had written from his bag and, almost instantly, a police car pulled up and a cop wound down his window to ask Ezekiel if he was ok. Having been assured that there was no problem, the cop drove away.
'Do you get much trouble from the police?' I asked.
'Man, it's like you wouldn't believe some days. Like yesterday...' Ezekiel paused and coughed. 'I was having a great time. The sky was so beautiful, man! I was on my back on the Common - meditating and everything - and the next thing, there were cops and an ambulance and all that shit.'
'Were you ill?' I asked.
'I don't remember anything about it,' he grinned, standing up with his poetry book in his hand.
He read me a couple of poems, swaying slightly from the effort of staying upright. His poems were good. I bought myself a copy and recommended he sold some of his work to Spare Change News, the homeless newspaper. As we said goodbye, I thought about advising him to keep warm, but realized how useless such advice would be.
'Go to California,' I said. 'The skies are meant to be even more beautiful out there.'
He grinned, shook the dreadlocks out of his face, and raised a hand in farewell.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Iced coffee

They're calling it a "polar vortex", which sounds more like a new type of ice cream than the current weather. While it is nothing like the images being shown on the news for the MidWest, the temperature in Cambridge this morning is around 11F (about -12C) and the windchill (a really mean NorthEaster) is bringing the 'Real Feel' down to -16F (-26C). However, the schools are open, the roads are passable, and two cyclists passed me on the school run this morning  (which does seem a little keen even by my standards).

The most challenging aspect of the New England winter isn't the temperatures, as much as the length of the season. The first year we were here, there was no real winter: November was bright and sunny, we had a little cold weather in December and January, and spring arrived early in March. That's atypical. Last year, winter lasted a full six months with the first snow fall in November and the final snow dump in April. Even we - bright eyed and enthusiastic little Englanders - were bored of snow by April.

At the start of winter, everyone is excited by snow - especially on weekends, especially if you have children, and especially if you enjoy tobogganing, skating, skiing, or snow-shoeing. We've not been skiing yet - a matter of time and money both being in short supply - but snow means people snow-shoe and Nordic ski around the local golf course, skate on a nearby pond, and toboggan down every slope in Cambridge.

And at the start of winter it doesn't seem too arduous to dig out the front of one's house. In fact, Nathan and I are so enamored by snow that we also dig out our more elderly neighbors on each side of our house. The city places legal responsibility on householders to keep the sidewalks outside their properties free of snow, and a plethora of small local businesses are paid by the council to clear and grit the roads. If you don't keep your sidewalk free of snow, you are fined by the city. If the roads aren't kept relatively free of snow, I suspect that people start to sue the council.

The major challenge for us is keeping the house warm. I'm writing this  now in fingerless gloves, several sweaters (I've been Americanized enough to no longer say 'jumpers') and a hat. I fixed a cup of coffee to drink when I sat down at my desk, but it's already cold (I love iced coffee in summer, but I can't quite face the idea at the moment!) I could turn up the heating, but our oil bill last month cost $800. We keep the thermostat low, but the apartment we live in is part of an old wooden house. Earlier this year, I convinced the landlord to have insulation put into the walls (the previous two years we lived here there was nothing between the external aluminum sidings and internal plaster board walls), but the windows don't comfortably fit into their frames and, at the moment, there is ice on the inside of the glass in most of our rooms. It seems strange that such an extreme climate (in summer, the temperature can peak above 100F) can generate so little interest in insulating and weather-proofing one's property. The city has been advertizing a few funding schemes to support people in better insulating their homes, but there has been little uptake and, despite the lack of insulation, it is normal for people to talk about keeping their thermostats around 70F during the day, 65F at night. We live in an area where people have a ridiculous amount of disposable income, but the wastefulness shocks me.

Of course, we're lucky to have a house, even if it's cold enough to freeze my coffee and make me wear a hat indoors. In Harvard Square, there are a few homeless people who have not managed to secure places at hostels and who continue to sleep rough. Alastair, for example, had a bed in the local Harvard University hostel for two weeks over the Christmas period, but is now back on the streets. It's bearable, he says, as long as you have enough corrugated cardboard between you and the ground and a really good sleeping bag. The girls and I like Alastair: we always stop by for a chat when we're in Harvard, and buy him a bowl of his favorite broccoli and cheddar soup. He says it warms him up far better than a cup of coffee. We take him hand warmers and Iola has decided to save up her pocket money to buy him a new fleece top. Once you're on the streets, there aren't many ways to get your life back on track. The safety net of the welfare state might have increasingly big holes in the UK, but in the US it doesn't really exist at all.

A few days ago, we became very concerned about how Alastair would manage when the weather was so cold that it made the inside of our noses hurt when we breathed. Throughout the day we kept thinking about him sitting there on his cardboard box, hoping that the day would bring him enough money to keep him keeping on. Eventually, I jumped into the car, drove down to Harvard, parked in the bus stop and ran across to Alastair's pitch. It was so cold that my fingers started to hurt before I crossed the road, and I realized that I should have put on a coat before rushing out of the house.

'Hello,' he said, raising an eyebrow at my coatlessness.
'It's really cold.' My ability to state the obvious sometimes surprises other people as much as it surprises me.
'The girls and I.... we were thinking... do you want to come to our house for a bath?'
From the stories I have heard Alastair tell, I know that he has been propositioned in many ways over the years. He used to work as a roadie for a couple of punk bands in the 70s and 80s, and has told me stories that stretch my imagination beyond anything I have read in books. But, despite his many varied experiences, the look on Alastair's face clearly told me he had never before been invited to have a bath by a shivering English woman in the middle of a polar vortex.
'Errr, I'm fine here,' he replied.
A long pause stretched out between us. I wrapped my arms around myself to try and keep the last bit of warmth in my sweater and fidgeted from foot to foot.
'You were in your house thinking about me out here,' he said more quietly.
'It was more the girls really... it's really cold... they were worried about you.'
He gave me one of those smiles which look sad even though they reach the eyes. 'Thank you.'
'You're welcome.' (Iola has taught me to say 'you're welcome' every time someone says thank you).
Alastair coughed lightly. 'It's really cold,' he said, looking at me standing there shivering. 'Go back home and get warm.'