Category Archives: adventures

A short story about Luther Vandross

My best friend from Ireland got married in Italy a week ago and I’m so glad that I was there to see it.

People I met at the wedding were asking how I knew her, as people do at weddings, and there’s no short answer. “Friend of the family” is sort of true because our dads worked together. “Childhood friend” doesn’t quite cut it, since we grew closer as we left childhood behind. We did a J1 summer in San Francisco together – a formative experience indeed – and we went to London together (and with a bunch of her college-mates) the summer after that. We did the same one-year post-grad course and shared a flat as adults. She was my only bridesmaid. She’d have been my firstborn’s godmother only we didn’t do the church thing. She’s basically been the closest thing I’ve had to a sister.

The wedding was just as beautiful, well-planned, thoughtfully put together and utterly perfect as I knew it would be. No need was left uncatered to, no want unanticipated, and if some of us only just squeaked into the ceremony with a minute to spare, that was nobody’s fault but our own for each assuming someone else knew exactly where the church was.

There was a tree in the area where we all milled around before and after dinner that they’d decorated with old family photos from both sides – pictures of the bride and groom as babies and children, of their parents as young adults and their parents’ weddings. There I was too in one of the photos, in all my metal-mouth, terrible hair, twelve-year-old glory. It made me feel like one of the family. I barely restrained myself from dragging all the new friends I’d just made during dinner over to show them.

After the amazing dinner, the even more amazing desserts, the cocktails and the conversation, after the most excellent swing band had played the first dance and all the dances that followed, there was a DJ. I made friends with the DJ.

If you’ve ever gone dancing with me, you may know that this is a thing I used to do, in my wild and shameless youth. I would always endeavour to “make friends” with the DJ – i.e. go up and talk to him, maybe make eyes a little, you know how it is, and ask him to play something good for dancing. Maybe ask him to play something “not crap.” DJs love that. It always works. Ahem.

But this time I actually did make friends with the DJ, because I met him in the queue for the loo. We exchanged a couple of sentences, and I was a little confused because he was dressed like a waiter (black trousers, white shirt) but seemed to have an Irish accent, like the guests. All was explained a few minutes later when I went back outside to find a tiny DJ station had been set up and my new buddy was standing beside it working the turntables.
“Are you the DJ?” I asked, putting my staggering intellect to good use.
“So . . . are you Irish?”
“Yeah, I’m Irish, but I was born in Rome,” he said. (When I recounted this to some of the other guests they shook their heads as if to say “Well then, he’s not Irish”, but evidently I’ve lived in America for too long because it made perfect sense to me. Maybe his parents are both Irish.) Anyway, he’d spent a fair few formative years in Ireland and now he lives back in Rome again.

And he didn’t have a playlist, just a vague instruction to play songs from the 60s to the 90s. He would welcome requests, he said. You don’t have to ask me twice. What an opportunity.

I pretty much squandered it because after “Love Cats” and “Kiss” I ran out of things I could remember I liked to dance to, but several other guests took up the cause and we ended up with a great selection of dancing tunes. There came a moment when I was bopping half-heartedly to something someone else had requested. I told her apologetically, “It’s a bit… Luther Vandross-y for me.” Even as I said it I thought to myself that that was a weirdly specific allusion that would probably be lost on her, as she was definitely younger than me, and I wondered why on earth that particular musician had come to mind just then.

“It IS Luther Vandross,” she said.

I was impressed by my astuteness. Is Luther Vandross back in the charts? I still don’t quite know how that happened.


You have reached your destination

So I have this reputation, let’s say, as someone who’s efficient. I can do stuff. I’m capable and sensible.

It’s all a sham.

Someone capable and sensible and efficient would not find themselves driving the same 15km stretch of road FOUR times in an hour – yes, that’s twice in one direction and twice in the other direction – because they trusted technology over just flippin’ looking at a map before they left, would they? Especially not when the technology had already proved itself to be somewhat untrustworthy.

And yet, in spite of my failings, I managed to get myself to Italy and back, to find where I was going, to catch my flights as scheduled, check into my hotels as planned, and not leave anything behind.

I did somehow forget to pack deodorant, but that’s what the supermercato is for.

Most of my hilarious travel stories involve how the satnav sent me the wrong way, and those stories don’t really have much of a shelf life so I’m not sure how many of them I should trot out now. The rest of the time … well, I spent three days travelling for 48 hours of fun, and it was well worth it.

There was this other time, though, which I will illustrate with some diagrams I drew in my notebook on the flight home, the better to remember.

Quite often in dreams I have a stressful situation where I’m driving but I can’t keep my eyes open, or I can’t see properly, or I’m somehow hampered by having to drive from the back seat or the passenger seat, or I can’t operate the pedals. And sometimes I end up precariously dangling over precipices or teetering on the edge of canyons in vehicles. All fairly standard stuff. I never actually die, though sometimes I damage the car and am always relieved on waking to remember I didn’t.

So there I was on Friday afternoon, after a lovely lunch with my sister-in-law and her friend, and I had to find my way back to the main road I’d come off, for the last half hour or so of my journey to the wedding venue. Of course, I should just have turned around and gone back the way I’d come, but instead I thought I’d give the sat nav a try. I turned it on and programmed in the name of the town I was going to. It seemed to recognise it, so I set it down and started driving, anticpating the soothing voice of the nice lady who would tell me which way to turn. The nice lady spoke up, but in Italian. I wasn’t expecting that, because the on-screen instructions had been in English, but I gamely decided I could try. I know my sinistra from my destra.

She said something I didn’t quite understand. I decided maybe it was “Go straight on” so I went straight on. She said it again and I couldn’t help thinking it was more likely “Turn around when you can”, so with a bad grace I turned around and went back the way I’d come. Then she had me turn right, and left, and right again, and soon we were deep in the zigzags of the little town. Clearly, on paper this was the most direct route to wherever she thought I needed to be, but the map did not take into account the elevation. The map looked like this:

But if you could have seen the elevation, it was more like this:

Straight up one side of the hill, around in a big sweep to where I could admire the lovely view over the lake – that’s nice, I thought vaguely, not looking, as I gripped the steering wheel gamely and forged ahead down an increasingly narrow road – and down again, via some hairpin bends on roads that were not wide enough for my modest rental car (a Ford Fiesta; but a Fiat 500 would have been ideal here) to make the turn in one go.

And so it was that I found myself in a dreamscape, but not the good sort. I came slowly halfway around a hairpin bend and stopped, facing directly into a foot-high wall that offered scant protection from the sheer drop to the road below on the other side. In front of me was, once again, the beautiful vista of the lake. Once again I was not really appreciating it. “I’ve dreamed this,” I said out loud, with just an edge of hysteria. The challenge, I could tell, because I’m SMRT that way, was that this time I didn’t have the option of floating gently to the ground, or waking up, so I just had to pull the handbrake, push the gearstick firmly into reverse, rev until I felt the catch, and back up a bit. Reverse hillstarts, with an option of Death, in a rental car I mustn’t scratch, I thought: my favourite thing. Then forward, then back, lather rinse repeat, until the car was facing the right way. And on down, effing and blinding at the nice insane Italian lady in the sat nav who I would never listen to again.

Not, at least, until two days later when she disgorged me onto the wrong motorway, in the wrong direction, 200 km from the programmed endpoint, and blithely commented – in English, because I fixed that – “You have reached your destination. Please turn around.”

Here’s a nice picture of the lake in question. I took it from the bottom of the hill, not the top.

Presque – or maybe even Completement

Sometimes, all it takes is a road trip. Forced into a moving vehicle with no wi-fi access, in close proximity to your family members, on a sunny day… well, it’s either going to end well or really, really badly.

Our trip involved driving northwest for six hours for B to run a marathon, and then driving home. Our destination was exotic (no, it’s not) Erie, Pennsylvania. You may not have any preconceptions of what that would be like, but for me it was all quite a surprise (largely because I’d been busy with the book sale and recovering from the book sale and hadn’t given our trip a thought until about Thursday). Erie is in the top left-hand corner of the big rectangle that is Pennsylvania, and it’s on the coast of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. (Here’s a helpful map.)

Map showing northern Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Thank you, Google Maps. We came from halfway between Baltimore and Washington, drove along the bottom of PA, and up past Pittsburgh all the way to Erie.

I’ve been to Chicago, but otherwise haven’t experienced any of the lakes, and I never think of lakes as having beaches, even if they’re really darn big lakes. Not proper beaches. The website, when I finally looked at one, seemed to call Erie a beach town, but I was unconvinced.

We lived in Pennsylvania for a couple of years before we were married, and I think of it as a state of rolling, tree-covered hills punctuated with big red barns and domed grain silos. Amish and Mennonite people. Scrapple. Placenames that make you giggle. (Intercourse, Blue Knob, and Blue Ball, to cite a few.)

On the way we stopped at Fallingwater, which is a very famous house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s. It’s tucked away on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, which is somewhere we’re not usually passing, so this was a good opportunity. B and I visited it once before, in 2000, which was a long time ago. The thing about Fallingwater is it’s a perfect time capsule, this ahead-of-its-time architecture right on top of a waterfall, with all the original furniture and fittings still in place. We did the tour and the kids acquitted themselves really well, managing not to touch or break or leap upon anything that was not meant to be touched, broken or leapt upon.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

Look familiar?

(It’s so famous it even has a Lego incarnation.)

Anyway. That’s proper Pennsylvania. When we got to Erie,
it suddenly didn’t feel like Pennsylvania any more at all. (Okay, it takes way too long to type Pennsylvania. I’m just going to say PA now.) Erie may be PA but it felt a lot more like TX to me. Or maybe SC. It’s a beach town. (I’d say it’s like Florida but I haven’t actually been to Florida.) We didn’t see the city proper, we only saw the slightly scrubby suburb near the peninsula where the marathon took place, but its wide streets and cheap motels and tattoo shops and warm wind felt like nothing so much as South Padre Island, that we lived near in Texas.

So that was the first surprise.

We arrived after dinner on Friday so there was no time to explore. On Saturday morning we headed out for breakfast and a drive around, and found ourselves on the peninsula that’s almost an island (that’s its name: Presque Isle) where the marathon would be the next day. It’s a little blob that sticks out into the lake – except everything’s much bigger than you think when you’re talking about a Great Lake, so it’s actually a 13-mile drive around the little blob.

Map showing Presque Isle and Erie, PA

Nearly an island

Going up the inland side, we stopped about halfway along and got out to take in the bay. It was overcast and very choppy, though still warm. The kids scrubbed around for stones to throw in the water, and there were a couple of fishermen. It was pleasant to be out in the wind, but not what you’d call glorious, though the sun was starting to come out.

Kids playing by grey, choppy water

Crappy phone photo

Then we got back in the car and drove down to the end, around the tip, and started up the other side. The kids were grumpy and didn’t want to get out of the car again, but I convinced them that we should stop and see if we could wave across at Canada. (Or maybe we just stopped the car and said “Deal with it.”)

We stopped at a deserted parking area and crossed the small dunes to see what we could see. The wind had died down. The sun was shining. The water was bright blue fading to almost tropical green at the edges. There wasn’t another person in sight, just a few gulls and some artistically scattered driftwood. I felt as if we’d walked through a portal to the Caribbean. (I’ve never been to the Caribbean, though, so my impressions may be off.)

B and the kids on a beach with calm blue water and clear blue sky.

This is a proper beach. It really is.

It was so unexpectedly lovely, this magical Other Side of the Island, that I just stood there with a big grin plastered to my face while everyone else started paddling and skimming more stones and writing in the sand with sticks. Everything was just generally delightful and it was worth the six hour drive each way and the crappy motel room with no wi-fi there and then.

We went back in the afternoon and found a different beach, with a lifeguard and swimming. So, totally without planning it, we managed to bring the children to the beach this summer after all. Juuust under the wire.

Kids playing in sand at beach

Classic game of bury-your-father



The vultures

I have to tell you about the book dealers.

Book dealers are not people I’d ever given any thought to before this time last year. I’d heard the phrase, I suppose; I knew it was a job; but if you’d asked me I would have imagined them as little old men in dusty shops, surrounded by heavy leather-bound tomes of great antiquity. If you wanted to buy or sell a particular hard-to-find book, you’d go there and have a conversation in hushed tones.

Of course, now there’s the Internet, so everyone can be an armchair book dealer if they want to. You can sell your granny’s collection of Barbara Cartlands on e-Bay or Craigslist or or just get someone to take them away from Freecycle.

But if you run a used-book sale every year, even just a local PTA one, and it’s quite big and contains books donated by many different and interesting people, word gets out. And the book dealers find out about it (especially if you advertise on one of their websites), and they come to your sale.

And these people are intense. This is not a hobby. This is life or death, I’m telling you. It’s a cut-throat business.

For one thing, someone tried to sabotage our ad listing on the dealer website last year by changing it to say that the books had already been picked over by a dealer. This would make the other dealers think it was less worth their while coming. They tried to do this in an email using the (misspelt) name of the PTA president so it would look as if it was an instruction coming from us. Luckily we caught it and changed it back, because our books are never picked over. Something similar happened again this year. They don’t back down.

On the day the sale starts, we bring all the books to the venue and set them up on tables under a tent, usually by about 2pm. Then one or two of us stays to put up lights and get everything in order, and to make sure nobody runs off with the books. By 2:30 that afternoon, there was a guy wandering around, looking interestedly at the books. He was friendly and polite, and he didn’t touch anything, but he wasn’t just an idle passerby. There was another one by 3pm. The sale doesn’t open till 6. All afternoon they arrived in ones and twos, some with bags on little trundle trolleys, ready to take away a haul. They ranged themselves around the sale, and I started to kick them out of the middle rows where they were too obviously poking around.

Some of them are lovely, friendly, polite people who don’t like others giving the profession a bad name. They all see each other at events like this regularly – every weekend, maybe. I was amazed by how many of them I recognized from last year. Some of them are a little grumpy and unfriendly. But they all did what I asked and stayed out of the stacks as soon as I said they needed to move.

To be honest, it was a little bit of a power trip, having all these people do what I told them. The volunteers staffing the sale from six o’clock on hadn’t arrived yet, so I was singlehandedly holding back the tide. The semblance of perfect authority was slightly marred by my children, who were also there, dancing along behind me demanding ice cream and lollipops and whatever they thought they might get at the festival that was setting up all around us. All these adults, perfect strangers, hanging on my every word … and these two short people who came out of my own uterus, ignoring me. I caught a few amused eyes in the crowd.

I told the dealers there was no touching until six. I emphasized that we were going by my clock, not anyone else’s. I swear I saw someone synchronize their watch. They inched ever closer to the tarps tantalizingly covering up the books and the CDs (we have a media section too). At 5:50 I had to start removing the tarps. You could have cut the tension with a knife. Their eyes were bulging out of their heads and their fingers were itching to grab a box of books or riffle through a tray of music. I held all the power. I restrained myself from letting out a maniacal laugh. I watched the second hand tick by. I wondered if I could mess with them by never announcing that the sale was open.

My relief shift began to show up, and I hugged them, because the tension was getting to me, and I really couldn’t open at six if nobody else was there to run it. Three minutes later I said the word, and the surge of book dealers broke over the books. I had to leave then, because it was carnage. I*’d spent all month sorting and packing and stacking those boxes full of books and these ingrates were pulling them all out and throwing them around willy nilly.

The next morning I prowled around the now-much-calmer sale grumbling about how people should be banned because they just mess everything up, and how book sales would be much better without any customers at all.

This is probably how the people who work in Old Navy feel every single day. It’s a good exercise in letting go.

Many people milling around and under a large canopy tent

Let loose the dogs of… oh well.

*Not just me, of course. Me and quite a few other volunteers who enjoy sorting things of similar sizes neatly into boxes. But for the purposes of dramatic retelling, me.

Mothballed memories

I wasn’t blogging much ten years ago, what with the move and the baby – a glance at my archives shows one short (but lyrical) entry from early August, and nothing else until the following January. So I never did write down what that road trip was like. I wrote a big screed about the first one, two years earlier, in the other direction, with the television sitting in the laundry basket on the back seat, but I haven’t been able to find it. For some reason I didn’t put it on the blog. So here are my road-trip memories, pulled out of the mothballs of my mind.

I remember that the baby cried and cried on the long highway up from Brownsville to San Antonio and on to Houston, and I made B pull over so that I could give him (the baby, that is) some boob, because apparently he was hungry, and then we’d start driving again and he’d start crying again and I’d look at him in despair because I’ve just fed you so there can’t be anything wrong, and I can’t hold you because we’re in a car, and you’ll just have to fall asleep. Eventually, he would fall asleep, but it was stressful driving.

We gave ourselves five days to do the trip, so that there was plenty of time for pulling over, and so we weren’t imprisoning the poor child in his car seat for eight hours a day. We probably sang “Don’t Fence Me In” to him a lot, because that was his theme song.

I remember thinking that it should be interesting driving through the deep south, but that the Interstate looked like the Interstate pretty much wherever you were, especially when it had those big pinkish sound-muffling walls on either side, as it so often did. We didn’t see anything of the leftovers of Hurricane Katrina even though I’m sure the towns around Mobile, Alabama, where we spent an unmemorable night, were still very much in recovery.

We had a night in Jacksonville, Florida, and I’d never been to Florida so I looked out the window with interest, trying to take it in and see something special or different about it. It was only Jacksonville, which is one of those armpit places, I’m told, so there wasn’t really anything to see. I still feel that I’ve never really been to Florida.

Trees in a square

A Savannah square

We stopped in Savannah, Georgia, because it sounded romantic and like the sort of place we’d like to see. It was very pretty, with its dangling greenery and intricate wrought-iron-work. I remember an ambulance coming past us with its siren going, waking the baby and terrifying him, making me furious at its thoughtlessness. We stayed in a cool-looking retro motel where the person who’d checked out before us hadn’t bothered taking their stuff with them: the closets still held suits and jackets and shoes. We told reception and they took care of it, as if it was a perfectly normal occurrence, but I couldn’t help wondering what sort of person just wouldn’t bother packing before they left.

South Carolina had long sandy beaches, not very wonderful to our eyes as we’d just come from the environs of the similarly long sandy beaches of South Padre Island, Texas. We stopped near Myrtle Beach and got out to take a good look. There were wooden boardwalks out over the dunes, which were pleasantly novel. And it was very windy at the Atlantic. I thought the Atlantic should feel more like home than the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s all the same water really, and it was still the wrong side of the Atlantic from the one that would feel like home.

Beach houses and boardwalks on the dunes

South Carolina coast

We had been planning to head to somewhere like Newport News, Virginia, the sort of area where Dawson’s Creek was filmed, which would probably look nothing like the peaceful inlets and idyllic tiny docks of the show, but we were being tailed by a hurricane (Ernesto, it must have been), so we headed inland instead and stopped in some tiny place whose name escapes me instead. It turned out to have nothing but a very nice Holiday Inn with a restaurant where I ordered shrimp and grits and enjoyed them mightily. I was quite getting the hang of this southern eating.

When we finally got to Maryland, we stopped in a town called Waldorf to stay at a Super8 and eat at an Olive Garden, and I wondered what sort of place this was. When you’ve lived somewhere all your life, the very sound of a placename seems onomatopoeic: you can tell that it’s rough or posh or the back of beyond or the most Stepfordesque of suburbia just from the sound of the word. But all Waldorf said to me was salad. Apples and walnuts in the Home Ec book. I still don’t know what Waldorf is like, because we haven’t been down that end of the state since, but I know the motel wasn’t very upmarket.

We had to take shifts over our dinner that night, I remember, because the baby wasn’t in the mood to sit around and watch us eat. The waiter was very understanding and kept things warm as first one of us and then the other paced up and down outside with the tetchy four-month-old. You poor thing, I thought, whisked away from everywhere you’ve ever known and staying in a new place every night for a week, no wonder you’re grumpy.

But we’re still here. We’re your people, and we’re here. Isn’t that enough?

He was a baby. That was enough.




We were at a wedding last night, and, as I somewhat effusively told the happy couple, it brought out all the feels.

It was really a milestone event, because it’s the first wedding we’ve been to where we’re “of the older generation.” As B is the baby of his family, he and I are the youngest of our rung on the ladder, and the nephew getting married is the oldest of my kids’ cousins, so the gap in years might not be a whole generation’s worth, but symbolically it remains true.

It was also my first non-church wedding. It took place in a hotel, just like in the movies. At first I thought it might be a little soulless (I’m such a hypocrite, an atheist who says it’s not a real wedding if it’s not in a church), but I cried just as much as I ever would at the lovely self-written  vows, and as a parent of two squirmy, unreliable children, I very much appreciated the tidy length of the ceremony. And it was nice not to have to worry about transporting ourselves from the ceremony to the reception, as all we had to do was step into the elevator and out again a floor above.

Also, there were babysitters laid on, so that we were able to send our children away to play raucous games of musical chairs and do crafts while we were civilized and ate our dinners and drank all the fizzy wine and danced to the Sinatra songs they played not intending people to dance to them. Our offspring did come back to us after a little while, but we enticed them onto the dance floor and ended the night with all four of us tearing it up to Uptown Funk at 11:30pm. That was a good moment.

These moments of ritual, though. Those were what got me thinking. The bride had a little trouble getting the groom’s ring over his knuckle; I remember exactly the same struggle and the same nervous giggle welling up when it happened to me. The groom is a marathon runner, like his uncle. She and he are two strong, determined, uber-smart people who will go far and do amazing things together.

A wedding date is really an arbitrary day to start counting from when you’ve been living together for a few years already; and yet, it’s important. This is why.

It’s important though, to mark this, to stand up, to have the planning and the party and the ceremony and the drama that goes with it all, because in some ways it’s one of your first challenges. It’s a time you’ll go through, and then you’ll look back and remember it at every other wedding you go to: we did this too, you’ll say, or we didn’t do that. And you’ll think about all you’ve done since, the twists and turns your lives have taken together, the glue that holds you together, the ritual and the symbolism and the flowers and the dances and the meals and the friends and the family.

And most of all it marks the point where you started out together to be a new family of your own, breaking free from everything you wanted to let go of, no longer forced into your role as son, daughter, sister, brother; the over-achiever, the stubborn middle, the baby of the family.

You get to go out there and be yourself, with your teammate, grownups together, to dance your dance to your own soundtrack whatever way you want to do it.

B and children dancing, blurry

On the dance floor

The Bad Parent, skiing edition

You know when you talk your child into doing something, and then they hate it, and there they are trying not to cry in front of a well-meaning stranger who is invested in this thing and to whom you’ve paid money for it, wailing, “I never even wanted to come in the first place. I knew I’d hate this,” and you haven’t a leg to stand on because that’s exactly what happened and I thought you’d change your mind once you tried it is no defence at all and you feel like an idiot and a terrible parent …

Well, that’s nearly what it was like.

A month ago:
Me: Guess what, guys? We’re going skiing! It’s going to be fun!
Mabel: I don’t want to go. I don’t like skiing.
Me, to self: She’s just saying that because she doesn’t like the unknown.

Two weeks ago:
Me: Yay, skiing will be great!
Mabel: I don’t want to go! I can’t miss my ceramics class!
Me, to self: She’s just annoyed about missing ceramics. She’ll love it once she tries it.

A few days ago:
Me: Mabel, good news! The forecast says it’s going to be really really cold on Saturday so I’ve cancelled the second day of skiing. You won’t miss ceramics after all.
Mabel: Yay ceramics. But boo skiing. I still don’t want to go.
Me, to self: Yeah, yeah.

Yesterday, on the slopes, standing in front of our private ski instructor:
Me: Come on, put your boot in there.
Mabel: Noooooo! Waaaahhhhh! I never wanted to come but you made me!


Somehow, I managed to exude “We’re doing this” vibes instead of “Oh crap you meant it all along” ones, or maybe she decided it did look like it might be some fun, or maybe anything at all because the machinery in a seven-year-old’s mind works in mysterious ways, but she deigned to click her boots into her skis and shuffle over to the lift. And once you’re at the top, there’s only one way down, right?

The poor instructor had a quick introduction to all the things Mabel doesn’t like – being told she’s doing well, being called a princess, having anyone be nice to her when she’s on the verge of tears, being complimented, being told she’s smiling when she’s not… – and he soldiered on. I tried to keep out of it, and, well, there we were, with Mabel being towed down the mountain by a bearded guy skiing backwards. I swooshed and swooped and it all started to come back to me and I did not manage not to say “Whee” out loud at every turn, because skiing, even slowly, is exhilarating.

Mabel skiing with her instructor

Most expensive babysitter ever

We went up and down three times, and by then our hour was almost up and Mabel was done. We said thank-you to the very patient instructor (well, I did; Mabel growled) and went inside to warm up, where she had a full-on breakdown at me about how much she hated it and how she wasn’t going to ski any more and how we had to go home right now.

That was the lowest point, right there. After a little while we found B and Dash, who had had their own lesson wherein Dash had proved to be a natural and was immediately promoted to stage 4 and taken down the even bigger slope, and decided it was time for an early lunch.

Once large slice of pizza and an ice-cream sandwich later:
Me: So, do you think we might ski a bit more after all?
Mabel: Okay.
Me, to self: PHEW. And also, VINDICATED!!!

Dash skiing

Dash about to leave me in the dust

So then we all went back out and skied some more. And slept well last night. Ow, my legs.

Looking up the ski-slope

View from the lift

Dance now

We went out, but not very far. I’d booked a babysitter (yay, we have a babysitter again!) but there was nothing on at the movies and we didn’t really feel the urge for Indian food or Thai food or anything far flung. So we went to our local bar, where there is live music with no cover, and they have Lebanese food and good beer.

The demographic is … well, it’s a bit on the older side. It’s sort of middle aged, let’s say. I don’t know where the young people of my town go to socialise, but it’s clearly a bit further away. Like, downtown DC or something. I really have no idea, never having been a young person who went socialising in this neck of the woods. But let’s just say that B and I were the youngest people in the room, probably all night or close to it.

The bands that play there are eclectic; you never really know what you’re going to get, from smooth jazz to down-home bluegrass to Bolivian pan pipes. (Okay, not so much the punk or the heavy metal.) But tonight even the band seemed a little on the mature side. It was an all-female ensemble, and the two of us spent some enjoyable minutes pinning down their imaginary day jobs as they started up – the drummer was a librarian, the bassist was your friend’s mum, the trumpeter was an elementary school teacher, and the lead singer works in the credit union. Probably. Something like that.

It was extraordinary, actually, watching these women who probably have very mundane other lives, up on the little stage belting out some wonderful standards, great close harmonies, amazing jazz numbers, sexy trumpet solos, scatting and crooning like nothing else. (Some people’s thing is drums; some people might think a girl with a guitar is a fine sight; but for me, it’s always the brass player that makes me smile.)

The crowd wore hawaiian shirts and unironic moustaches, sandals that were almost but maybe not quite orthopedic; they looked like science teachers from 1984, like my aunty, like Tom Petty. They were a motley crew. But I realised that if you transplanted the whole lot of them into an Irish pub – not a trendy one, but the naff one whose doorway you’d never darken because you’d meet your friend’s mum there and the lady from the newsagent’s – that was exactly who these people were. They’d look perfectly at home on the plush pink seats and low stools of a plain old Irish pub, sitting in front of its polished dark wood tables with their pints of Guinness and glasses of port or whatnot. (Except Tom Petty. He’s vintage Woodstock, through and through.)

And then I looked at the band and my view shifted again and I realised it was exactly as if we’d crashed a wedding. These were, in fact, your aunty and the lady from the newsagent’s and my mum’s friend, and they were up in front of the stage giving it socks just like the young people they used to be not so very many moons ago, and they had every right to be there.

The highlight was when one single customer, of fairly advanced age and indeterminate gender, clad in a sort of Andean hoodie, shimmied up to the top of the room, danced all alone to the song of the moment, spun around to point fingers at the crowd, smiled gap-toothedly at us all, and shimmied back out again. We should all be so lucky as to be in fine dancing fettle at that stage of our lives.

We didn’t dance, in the end, because B had been up since 5am and the music suddenly got less like music we wanted to dance to, and because we were shy, and our pints had run dry, and we were in the company of all our elders. Maybe we didn’t want to show them up; or maybe we didn’t think we were up to their standards, because to tell the truth they were all pretty good. But we’ll be back – not too soon, but some time – and maybe we’ll dance the next time.

There are so many lessons to take away. Dance now, because who knows what the music will be like next time round. Stop caring about how you look, just dance anyway. Be the guy who’s up on the dance floor regardless. Order the chicken. Hang out with old people because they make you feel young. Support live music because there’s nothing like it.

Never forget that no matter how pedestrian someone might seem, they could be an amazing sexy-cool jazz trumpet player by night.

Learn the trumpet, so you can be that person.

Dance now.

Playing tourist

Saturday’s lovely weather inspired me – me, the effort-averse home-lover – to suggest we go downtown. B, of course, was all for it. (He loves effort and has no problem with taking on a day-trip that may be doomed to failure from the start.) But the gods were smiling upon us and on the whole, the outing was pretty disaster free.

We hadn’t been to the monuments for quite a long time, because they’re unaccountably far from the metro stations (in relative terms, when you’d like there to be a metro station every two blocks in every direction as in Manhattan, I mean). But we girded our loins and tried to stop the kids from climbing every tree they passed and got down to the Tidal Basin without too much ado.

Dash trying to climb a tree

Looking for a good tree.

All the trees here will burst into beautiful cherry blossoms in another two weeks or so, and then the place will be thronged with tourists and we will avoid it like the plague. With great beauty comes great numbers of people with oversized cameras, as the saying goes. But yesterday there were just a modest number of people, and me with my little point-and-shoot, and we posed on rocks. And trees. And monuments.

Maud and Mabel at the Tidal Basin

Jefferson Memorial in the background.

Around the basin a little way we came to the Martin Luther King monument, which was erected nearly three years ago and I had never actually seen. (We clearly need more visitors. I can’t believe it’s been that long.) It’s large, white, and impressive. I really liked the low curving marble wall leading up to it, riverlike. Mabel liked sliding down it, slidelike.

Mabel sitting on MLK's name carved in a wall

B started to tell them the history of civil rights in America starting with slavery. It went on for a while. Dash managed not to ask me if I’d been alive when there were slaves, so I’m giving him bonus child points for that.

Part of the MLK monument

Part of the MLK monument

We continued back across the road towards Lincoln, stopping for a break and a sandwich under a tree. There were plenty of people at Lincoln, and Mabel had stopped wanting to pose for me, but she did look as if she was listening while B read the Gettysburg Address out to them.

B, Dash and Mabel

Good audience

Then, looking for an elusive bathroom because Dash had suddenly come over all OCD and claimed he couldn’t eat his sandwich without washing his hands, we ended up walking all the way back up Constitution Avenue and going into the Natural History Museum, where he had his sandwich and an Incredibly Expensive Cupcake. (The Smithsonian museums are all free, which is wonderful; but they recoup their costs by charging the earth for the food, and I shouldn’t resent that but I do.)

On the way we found Einstein, who also gets a memorial. Obligatory physicist posing ensued.

Mabel climbing the statue of Einstein

A giant among scientists. Har har.

There were Irish flags along with the Stars and Stripes all along the street, for the weekend that’s in it, I suppose.

Irish and US flags

There’s also a red and white striped flag in the middle which is the DC flag, but you can barely see it here.

The whole area near the museums and the White House features curbside vans selling sweaters, hats, scarves, tourist kitch, hot dogs, and ice cream. The kids know that these vans have ice cream, and Mabel, pretty tired after all that walking, began a sustained campaign for an ice cream once we left Einstein behind. I refused, because Dash couldn’t have an ice cream till he’d eaten his sandwich, and he had to (apparently, not my rule, I’m not that hygienic) wash his hands first, and I am not such an idiot that I would buy an ice cream for just one child. Also, I hate those vans on principle because they cause my children to have tantrums, so I don’t want to buy anything from them. (There may be some circular logic at work here.)

A piggyback did wonders for her mood, and the tears stopped until we got into the museum, where the security guard not unreasonably told us that we’d have to leave Mabel’s stick outside. She had, of course found the Best Stick Ever along the way. There were wails and despair and scenes of torture as we wrenched the stick from her little hands and B went back outside to hide it. I’m sure the guard went home and regaled his family with tales of the fearsome stick he saved the museum from.

Mabel with her stick in front of the statue of Lincoln

The stick in question, which was much more interesting than Lincoln.

But we retrieved it safely on the way out, so all ended well. And so back to the Metro and home via some ethical burgers and frozen yogurt. All in all, the sort of Saturday that should qualify me to do nothing at all on Sunday.

Spidey Sense

Welcome to the September 2013 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Staying Safe
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared stories and tips about protecting our families. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

One day during the summer, I took the kids to a playground in a part of town I hadn’t been to before. The venue had been suggested for a meetup with some other friends, but it was clear before I left the house that nobody else was likely to make it. Never mind, I thought, we’ll check out somewhere new. It’ll be an adventure, I said.

The route was straightforward and we were there in about fifteen minutes. There was plenty of space to park, a lovely new-looking pirate-ship shaped playground structure, clean bathrooms, and a river view. There were some other children at the playground and everyone had a good time for a while, until we got hungry.

We took our lunches over to the picnic tables. I noticed some people sitting at the tables were older men, smoking, not seeming to have anything to do with the children at the playground. Not to put too fine a point on it, they looked somewhat homeless. We sat at a further away table without making any avoidance too obvious – it was reasonable to want a clean table in the shade. My kids and I had a little discussion about smoking. Apparently they lead a sheltered existence, because they don’t see it very often so they always feel the need to comment, and then I have to agree that smoking is bad for you but that it’s often hard to stop once you’re in the habit, in case those people are listening and taking umbrage.

A group of summer-camp kids and their supervisors came along and started unpacking lunches at the tables beside us. This was obviously a perfectly safe area. But I was starting to feel a little uneasy, nevertheless.

A little further along the waterfront I could see another playground – one of those red and yellow plastic ones you can see for a long way. It looked cheerful and I suggested we check it out rather than going back to the pirate ship, since our friends were clearly not coming and the other children playing there seemed to have gone home. My son wanted to walk the fairly short distance, but I insisted on going back to get the car and driving down to the parking lot beside the other playground. I said it was because we had to put our lunch things back in the car anyway, but the truth, which I was still only half admitting to myself, was that I wanted to know I had a quick exit strategy, just in case the other playground turned out to be not so child-friendly.

I drove the scant quarter mile along the road, with the seven-year-old laying the blame for global warming squarely at my feet all the while. As we turned into the second parking lot, I took in a few details. The building beside the playground seemed to be derelict, but a young man was standing on the steps. Loitering, you might almost say. There was a truck with a worker loading or unloading something park-related and official around the side. As we approached the playground, I registered the following:

  1. The swings and slides were in some disrepair.
  2. There were no children to be seen.
  3. The only other cars in the parking lot were two parked beside each other with open doors and one person in each, conversing, or exchanging illegal substances for money, or something. 

Now, I’m not the most noticing of people, and I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but something about fact number three there just screamed “drug deal” to me. I swung all the way around the parking lot and smoothly back out again and announced that we were going home, actually. The four-year-old in the back (who had fed all her lunch to the geese) exploded with misery, and the seven-year-old wasn’t far behind. Being driven slowly past an enticing new playground and then whisked away was high on their list of atrocities, but I just didn’t feel comfortable and no amount of wailing was going to induce me to stay.

As we drove away and the indignant cries died down, as I – incidentally – missed the on-ramp I needed and started to get lost in an unfamiliar part of town that I was noticing looked more and more sketchy, I took the opportunity to explain to my kids the importance of listening to your Spidey Sense.

My invoking the webbed wonder made them stop and pay attention. Your Spidey Sense, I told them, lets you know when things aren’t right. Listen to it. If you feel uncomfortable in a place, or with a person, even if it’s a grown up who’s supposed to be in charge of you, that’s your Spidey Sense telling you to leave. Even if you can’t see anything wrong, if you know there’s no logical reason to feel that way, just go.

So I explained the things that had made me uncomfortable in that place – the possibly homeless men, the derelict building, the absence of other children at the unmaintained playground – and I told them that I felt it wasn’t a safe place for us to be, and that was why we’d left. (I didn’t mention the drug deal. It might have been a perfectly innocent job interview. Or something.) They listened, they took it in, and they stopped calling me the worst mother ever for leaving a set of swings unswung in.

Two children on a tyre swing at a playground
Not the playground in question

I haven’t read The Gift of Fear, but I know that listening to your Spidey Sense, or however the author may term it, is a vital message of the book. And, though I’ve been lucky enough never to have found myself in a situation I couldn’t get out of, the older I get, the more credit I give to my gut feelings. It’s never too early to teach your children to trust their instincts. It might just keep them safe.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be updated by afternoon September 10 with all the carnival links.)

  • Stranger Danger — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama shares her approach to the topic of “strangers” and why she prefers to avoid that word, instead opting to help her 4-year-old understand what sorts of contact with adults is appropriate and whom to seek help from should she ever need it.
  • We are the FDA — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger makes the case that when it comes to food and drugs, parents are necessarily both their kids’ best proponent of healthy eating and defense against unsafe products.
  • You Can’t Baby Proof Mother Nature — Nicole Lauren at Mama Mermaid shares how she tackles the challenges of safety when teaching her toddler about the outdoors.
  • Bike Safety With Kids — Christy at Eco Journey In the Burbs shares her tips for safe cycling with children in a guest post at Natural Parents Network.
  • Watersustainablemum explains how she has used her love of canoeing to enable her children to be confident around water
  • Safety without baby proofing — Hannabert at Hannahandhorn talks about teaching safety rather than babyproofing.
  • Coming of Age: The Safety Net of Secure AttatchmentGentle Mama Moon reflects on her own experiences of entering young adulthood and in particular the risks that many young women/girls take as turbulent hormones coincide with insecurities and for some, loneliness — a deep longing for connection.
  • Mistakes You Might Be Makings With Car Seats — Car seats are complex, and Brittany at The Pistachio Project shares ways we might be using them improperly.
  • Could your child strangle on your window blinds? — One U.S. child a month strangles to death on a window blind cord — and it’s not always the obvious cords that are the danger. Lauren at Hobo Mama sends a strong message to get rid of corded blinds, and take steps to keep your children safe.
  • Tips to Help Parents Quit Smoking (and Stay Quit) — Creating a safe, smoke-free home not only gives children a healthier childhood, it also helps them make healthier choices later in life, too. Dionna at Code Name: Mama (an ex-smoker herself) offers tips to parents struggling to quit smoking, and she’ll be happy to be a source of support for anyone who needs it.
  • Gradually Expanding Range — Becca at The Earthling’s Handbook explains how she is increasing the area in which her child can walk alone, a little bit at a time.
  • Safety Sense and Self Confidence — Do you hover? Are you overprotective? Erica at ChildOrganics discusses trusting your child’s safety sense and how this helps your child develop self-confidence.
  • Staying Safe With Food Allergies and Intolerances — Kellie at Our Mindful Life is sharing how she taught her son about staying safe when it came to his food allergies.
  • Don’t Touch That Baby!Crunchy Con Mom offers her 3 best tips for preventing unwanted touching of your baby.
  • Playground Wrangling: Handling Two Toddlers Heading in Opposite Directions — Megan at the Boho Mama shares her experience with keeping two busy toddlers safe on the playground (AKA, the Zone of Death) while also keeping her sanity.
  • Letting Go of “No” and Taking Chances — Mommy at Playing for Peace tries to accept the bumps, bruises and tears that come from letting her active and curious one-year-old explore the world and take chances.
  • Preventing Choking in Babies and Toddlers with Older Siblings — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now gives tips on preventing choking in babies and toddlers along with Montessori-inspired tips for preventing choking in babies and toddlers who have older siblings working with small objects.
  • Keeping Our Children Safe: A Community and National Priority — September has many days and weeks dedicated to issues of safety; however, none stir the emotions as does Patriot Day which honors those slain the terrorist attacks. Along with honoring the victims, safety officals want parents to be ready in the event of another disaster whether caused by terrorists or nature. Here are their top tips from Mary at Mary-andering Creatively.
  • A Complete Family: Merging Pets and Offspring — Ana at Panda & Ananaso shares the ground rules that she laid out for herself, her big brown dog, and later her baby to ensure a happy, safe, and complete family.
  • Be Brave — Shannon at Pineapples & Artichokes talks about helping her kids learn to be brave so that they can stay safe, even when she’s not around.
  • Catchy PhrasingMomma Jorje just shares one quick tip for helping kids learn about safety. She assures there are examples provided.
  • Know Your Kid — Alisha at Cinnamon&Sassfras refutes the idea that children are unpredictable.
  • Surprising car seat myths — Choosing a car seat is a big, important decision with lots of variables. But there are some ways to simplify it and make sure you have made the safest choice for your family. Megan at Mama Seeds shares how, plus some surprising myths that changed her approach to car seats completely!
  • I Never Tell My Kids To Be Careful — Kim is Raising Babes, Naturally, by staying present and avoiding the phrase “be careful!”