Monday, December 28, 2009

God Rest ye, Merry Gentlemen. Actually, scrap the God bit.

My favourite illustration of secular, liberal, anything-you-want-is-valid Seattle has to be Christmas Eve 2004. Dave and I, along with friends, attended a fantastic nighttime carol service in the ecumenical cathedral up on Capitol Hill , where (carol lyrics aside) there was absolutely no mention of, you know, God. We had dinner first in one of our favourite places and then toddled up the hill for the singing.

At a minute to midnight, the choir struck up "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and those non-believers amongst the carolers filed out as the more-worshipful congregation filed in, everyone singing and wishing each other well. It was a brilliant phenomenon and one of those Only In America moments: celebrate Christmas in a cathedral without acknowledging the birth of Christ.

The carol service was full of ceremony and anticipation. There were no mutters of "damn tourist Christians" from the true-believers because they weren't there whilst we were belting out the carols; and then those of us who were primarily there for the singing were safely out of the way for the "proper" religious bits.

Spending this Christmas in Ireland, where you opt out of religion rather than opting in, it struck me again how cool that cathedral service had been. All the sense of community with nobody pretending.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Like drinking mojitos in Cuba, but more festive, and with way more swearing

One of the random benefits of all this accidental expat living is that, from time to time, you get to experience the kind of thing that seems like it must have been made up for tourists, except that no tourists are within a 15-mile radius. At a trade fair in Anchorage one February (ever want to see the ocean frozen over? Alaska in February's a decent bet for that), I became entranced by an old man in a coat made from a bear he'd shot and killed himself. The man wasn't that entrancing, nor is the fact that he'd shot the bear, per se. It was more that, you know, how often in your life are you ever going to meet a bear hunter, let alone one dressed for the sub-zero temperatures in a little number he'd skinned himself? I couldn't stop stroking it (the COAT, you filthy people), much to the appalled amusement of lovely Austin, my coworker and beloved pal.

Last Friday I had a similar experience. It didn't involve culturally-appropriate clothing - no cloaks of finest peat for the Irish - but it was one of those things that had extra significance for happening in Ireland. As I put it on Twitter, I discovered that the actual Irish national anthem is, in fact, this song:

I was in a cheesy club with some of my favourite people on this tiny island. It was the early hours and, as they say here in a gloriously euphemistic manner, there had been drink taken. In other words, the entire place was full of rat-arsed Irishfolk holding each other up as they brought the place down. Right towards the end of the night, on came the Pogues (not literally, though that would have been an even better story). Every. Single. Person. in the room suddenly pulled themselves together, stood upright as if at Mass, and burst into pitch-perfect, declamatory, Shane-McGowan-style-swaying song. It made me beam, and beam, and beam some more. OK, so most people know some part of this song, but to be in an entire room of locals all belting it out as though Christmas depended on it; that was something I had no idea would happen.

It gives me goosebumps and makes me giggle every time I think about it, and we've had the song on permanent repeat at home this week to make sure our resident Irish toddler is word-perfect before he's found out as an imposter.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas

A picture today. I popped out yesterday afternoon to the hairdresser, and when I walked home, dusk was settling in. I came through the gate to our driveway and saw Christmas waiting for me. Dave and the boys had put our tree up in the bay window. It wasn't decorated yet; they were waiting for me to return; but it was there, standing sentry, telling me "hurry, hurry" (I just mistyped that twice as "hurray, hurray", which is about right too).

As I drew closer, I could see Dave at the piano, playing Christmas carols. Jonah was standing next to him singing his little heart out - that's how I knew they were carols. Lucas was dancing in the middle of the room, spinning around. Every now and again he toppled over, giggling, then bounced back up. During one of these bounces he spotted me at the window and barged into the tree to get closer and wave. His little face lit up just like the tree would be a few minutes later and I could hear "Mama! Mama!" over the top of the carols and the caterwauling.

It was one of those moments of total happiness, and it felt utterly timeless, too. Families are the best.


Jonah topped off the full sentiment of the season by flinging the door open, assessing my coiffure, and saying "Mummy! I LOVE your Santa hair!". Ho bloody ho.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Far better than a kick in the two front teeth

I'm borrowing (huh! copying) this one from Emma at Belgian Waffling, who got it from Katyboo. Both their lists are glorious. I started to comment chez Emma and then figured I'd better just bring it over here and give the damn thing some space.

So here, in no particular order, is my fantasy Christmas list:

1. For someone to invent chocolate that works along the same lines as celery. No, not stringy and tasteless, that would be awful. What I'm after is chocolate that causes you to lose weight, in the way that celery does (allegedly) if you eat enough of it. I'm never, ever, going to try with celery but chocolate? I'd be right there.

2. A switch (probably just under my right ear) that would deactivate the "faff" mode in my brain. Sweet Jesus, I would be a millionaire, a Pullitzer-winning author and a prize athlete by June if that switch just existed. Thing is, it doesn't.

3. Perspective. I'd kill for the ability to stand back from my life and see that everything makes sense, even when it doesn't, rather than living with my nose pressed up to the glass the whole time.
There's a quote by Jose Ortega y Gasset which basically points out that looking into the distance and looking at what's in front of you are mutually exclusive, to which I say: bollocks. Surely Santa, if not Jim, can fix it for me?
This seems to be a perennial end-of-decade wish for me - even at 8, I was such a nerdy kid I probably wanted perspective. Really I think it's about being nosy and wanting to know how things turn out, as well as needing reassurance.

4. Bravery. Not the saving-babies-from-burning-buildings kind, but the common-or-garden, stop-being-careful-about-what-you-wish-for-and-go-out-and-there-and-do-it-dammit, kind. I'm so pathetically risk-averse that I can't even steal a teaspoon without replacing it with one from home (true story). There's an awful lot of room between "A teaspoon will land me in jail" and "I will rescue this child..." etc, and next year, I intend to inch my way along the gap. As long as we're not perched up in the air.

We'll see. Some of them, at least, I ought to be able to find. And they won't require wrapping, which is great because I bloody hate wrapping (it requires the same genes as baking; the patience and order genes, and I possess neither).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Friendships are way better than cookies. But cookies are pretty damn good.

I was reunited with a tin on Friday. Yeah, if I was organised I'd get off the sofa, take a picture of the tin, and show you, not tell you, but bollocks to that. It's a small, round tin with a Thomas Kincade picture on the front, and this is my seventh reunion with it. We're quite fond of each other by now, this tin and I.


This probably isn't a very cool thing to say, but I love tradition.

I'm not talking about church weddings or fish-on-Fridays here, although I've had some great times with both of those (you can tell I live in a Catholic country when the only outdated traditions that spring to mind are religious). It's the ritualised, people-centric part of traditions that do it for me. Meeting up with old college friends and falling straight back into rows about how to pronounce garlic bread (emphasis on the "garlic" or the "bread"? It's kept us bickering for nearly 20 years now). Gatherings of my extended family where the first question from the clan is always "crash the car on the way here, Sarah?" thanks to the time I arrived at a christening having wrapped the A3 round a telegraph pole at a glorious 1mph. You get the idea. Especially since living overseas for a chunk of time again, anything that pulls me towards the people I care about is worth having.


So, the tin. The tin is a gift from a dear, dear friend. Karen has done so many things that make me think "When I grow up, I want to be like her". She moved alone to Paris (from Arizona; not from, y'know, Fontainebleau or somewhere) in her late thirties because she'd always wanted to do it so thought she'd better get on with it. She published her first book last year. The first time I went to her home, she fed me with home-made madeleines, because she'd been reading Proust and felt inspired. Karen just lives her life properly somehow - and she's brilliant, brilliant company for someone scrappy like me.

The first year we were in Seattle, Karen was telling me about a "holiday season" cookie exchange she'd been to - one of those "we should all do this all year round" American ideas which essentially ends in a shedload of cookies for all concerned. It sounded great, but I was entirely unlikely to manage one cookie, let alone a batch for sharing. Cooking, I'm sorted. Baking...yeah, not so much. It requires precision and patience, and typically I try to possess neither.

So Karen, expecting nothing (and receiving nothing too, it must be confessed), brought me round a tin of these incredible 1,000-calorie cookies for Christmas. It was our first Christmas in Seattle, and those cookies were a tiny sign that perhaps, just perhaps, we were starting to be rooted there. It was a new ritual, but one that involved little round biscuits and one of the most interesting people I knew. What's not to like?

Each year, usually about April when I remembered, I'd return the tin to Karen, and each year around Thanksgiving, sometimes more like Christmas, she'd re-gift it to me, full again of the same amazing cookies. It made us laugh, and it made me feel connected in a land where lots of the other rituals were still quite odd. And then we moved to Dublin, and I thought, oh, well, that was nice whilst it lasted. But no! We've been here for three Christmases now ) and the tin has found its way to us each year - sometimes hand-delivered, sometimes in the mail.

It makes me cry a bit now, that tin, when I see it, because it's a really tangible symbol of a friendship that's almost all virtual at the moment. I can think of Karen baking the cookies in her gorgeous house with the view of "our" lake, and I know the trip the cookies have taken. And each time I open the tin for a cookie, I think of Karen and grin. It's a great excuse for sampling often - this year, they didn't even make it home before I had to eat the first one.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

That extra weight really suits you*: the best backhanded compliments I've ever received

A good while ago now, Antonia put up a post about the nicest things anyone's ever said to her. Antonia comes across as the sort of person it'd be pretty easy to say cool things about, and the list was as you'd expect - articulate, and funny, and pretty moving in parts.

It got me thinking, as I suppose in part it was intended to, about the nicest things anyone's ever said to me. The more I thought, the fewer I could think of - the reverse of that "think of a carrot" thing. See, now whatever else you try to focus on, a carrot's floating there like an unasked-for mental episode of Bugs Bunny, isn't it?

What I did come up with made me giggle. Nothing as straightforward as praise. Mine are the nicest backhanded compliments anyone has ever paid me:

"You do the motorway driving, because you drive like you don't care"

In September of the year 2000, Alex and I went to Italy for a week. We've been friends literally since I was born, but we hadn't been away together for years, and this was a post-apocalyptic holiday for us both in different ways. My manifestation of the end of the world was best demonstrated by driving like a maniac on the roads, which in Italy largely went unnoticed. Which is why, when it came to driving, Alex very logically divided our duties. She took the cities.

"You've got the biggest knockers I know - help me out here, would you?"

Ol is part of my college gang and one of my closest friends - the type who's seen you at your very worst from every possible angle, and doesn't give a shit. There are a few people in my life for whom "boundary" is an utterly irrelevant word - we'll be honest about anything, any time, if the question is asked. Ol's one of them (no shit).
Back in 2001 we were both living in London and kicking around a lot together. I was in John Lewis one Saturday afternoon (I remember this because I hate shopping) when my phone rang. Ol, with a vital question, requiring knowledge he assumed I'd have. Apparently friendships can indeed be no holds barred - including asking for a quick 0898 impression in the middle of the cookware section. Nigella would have been proud.

"You? Seriously? I didn't know you went to Cambridge"

I last heard this one about a month ago, out for dinner with a group of friends I've known for a couple of years now. I'm always ridiculously pleased by it. Not that I have anything against my "Cambridge' tag. I made some everlasting friends there (yes, even the ones who phone with random questions in the middle of John Lewis) and got to read books for four years in one of the most beautiful settings you could ask for. For someone like me who aspired to live largely in dreamland, it was a great place, and my particular college wasn't too pretentious or full of those over-corrected public school types you'd see in their house scarves earnestly selling the Socialist Worker outside the arts block before jumping into Mummy's Merc to get to their "place" in the country for the weekend.

It's not like, these days, where I (one) studied exactly takes up much room in conversation either, let's face it. Still, I'm always pleased when people are surprised by this because I've always most felt I belong, as we are all sick of hearing about on this blog, is the forest. Oxbridge and the Forest of Dean aren't by any stretch mutually exclusive - look at Dennis Potter, for starters - but they aren't the most intuitive jump, either. And I'm prouder of my origins than any transitional seat of learning, so I'm glad that, essentially, that's what shows through first. Sure, if I need to, I can whip out the Ivy-league cred, but that's not what informs me for the most part.

*I've never heard this one personally, but it's still one of my all-time favourite "What now?"s.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Now I lay me down to - oh, bugger it. Time for the headlamp and something to read.

I'm a chronic insomniac. Not all the time; that would be exhausting (ha ha) but often enough. It's a consequence, as far as I can tell, of having one of those twitchy minds that doesn't ever properly switch off. There was an Observer article last year which pretty much summed up how it feels, although "lively minded" is probably a pretty generous way of phrasing it in my case.

Fortunately we're a house of book lovers, and when everything else has failed, and believe me, it fails -"good" insomniacs are able to override sleeping pills with their concern about not being able to sleep, which is just as fucked up as it sounds - I turn to my insomnia shelf. It's the first bit of any bedroom that gets assembled (because the absence of the insomnia shelf is in itself enough to drive me to a sleepless night, and yes, it's as pathetic as it sounds). The key to insomnia shelf books is to find things that are soothing in their familiarity but not gripping enough to keep me awake at night (oh, the joys). Often, for that reason, it's collections of essays and things with a finite end to them, or something with chapters which aren't so gripping as to make me lunge for the next one.

My three current favourite can't sleep-won't-sleep books:

Dan Savage's The Kid and The Commitment - but mostly The Kid. Dan Savage writes beautifully about adopting a kid with his boyfriend and, then, later, their debate over whether or not to get married (the kid was all against it). I bought The Kid when I was pregnant with Jonah and ridiculously insatiable about reading anything baby-related. I knew of Dan Savage - everyone in Seattle knows Dan Savage and, in fact, my lovely friend Kim once mistook him for a waiter at his own naked sushi party, so I was especially on the look out for him- but this book was still a revelation. It's soft and sweet, and irrevent and hilarious, and unbelievably moving.

Primary Colors
by Anonymous (well, not Anonymous any more, but he is still according to my book cover). I just love this book so much that it has big soothing ability. Henry, and Daisy, and especially Richard Jemmons, make me all giggle, and sit up a bit straighter because they're smarter than me and they're FICTIONAL, dammit! And I love the world that they live in, so that's comforting too. The first night I ever spent in my little flat in Kentish Town, my first ever own home, I watched the film of Primary Colors on my little portable, eating Chinese takeaway with a plastic fork because I had no idea where my cutlery was, and lying on the futon mattress that was my bed that night until I figured out how to assemble my bed. When the movie was over, I dug out the book from my pile of boxes and curled back up on the futon. That tiny little flat, piled high with random paraphenalia, felt like home right away.

Relatedly, The West Wing scripts - seasons 1 & 2. I took these on the plane with me when I moved to Seattle. Mum and Dad dropped me off at the airport with suitcases that weighed more than I did, and Dave was meeting me at the other end, so I just needed something to occupy me for 9 hours that wasn't going to let me get all sniffy about leaving everything behind, and would keep me excited about everything that lay ahead. Script books are perfect for calming down excited minds - you get all the action in your head because you read them in "real time" - and if having Aaron Sorkin's mind going on in your head isn't enough to exhaust you enough for sleeping, I don't know what is.

Hmm. So, books that help me to sleep that have obviously also, now I think about it, helped me to calm down under all sorts of other circumstances. Memo to self: Calm Down Already (not a chance).

Monday, November 9, 2009

I haven't even been near a sodding lift for months and still just thinking about this gives me the heeby jeebies

I will do anything I can to avoid lifts, particularly those afterthought-type lifts you get in shops that are really about the showy staircases highlighting the storeys full of consumables you're supposed to be coveting.
Said lifts are invariably tucked away in the far reaches of the store, where not even the delivery boy thinks to go for a crafty fag. They're about the size of the inside of a postbox (and no, I will never voluntarily be trapped in a postbox either, but then, who would? Surely I'm not alone in this) and, my particular worst fear, they have those fucking doors that pause before opening.

You reach your chosen floor, the tinny upright coffin containing you clunks into place, and then the doors metaphorically wander off for a coffee and a gentle browse through the review section of the paper before strolling back in a while later, slinging their jacket on the back of a chair and thinking: "What was it I was going to do before? Oh yeah, open. That's it". By which point, I'm a gibbering wreck. I've calculated how many weeks my bottle of water will last me (and yes, I do keep one with me at all times just in case), rootled through my pockets for random pre-masticated cereal bars and other discarded kiddie foodstuffs that might help me for a day or two, obsessively checked my phone coverage (non-existent) and established that there's no way I could reach to climb out the roof of the lift, to say nothing of the fact that this would mean CERTAIN DEATH, Speed style.

I know why, at least, I'm such a pathetic specimen when it comes to confined spaces.
When I was about seven, and my kid sister about five, we were playing upstairs in our gran's house when we knocked over the wardrobe. God knows what we were doing in the wardrobe; I don't think Narnia was in our bloodstreams at that point. It must've just seemed like a good place to play.

With the wardrobe firmly front-forwards on the floor, there was no way out for us. We yelled and screamed and banged, but our family was used to us playing "actively" (read: like screeching banshees) so nobody paid any attention. Quite possibly they were all at the end of the garden hoeing beans or something (it was that kind of a garden); equally possibly, we were in there for five minutes rather than the several days it felt like.

It was an empty wardrobe, fortunately - well, full of my sister and I, but no clothes to suffocate us or anything grim like that. Maybe more sanguine kids would've found the whole thing quite interesting - in fact, I don't remember my sister being particularly concerned - but sanguine is a word I can spell far better than I can embody. I was freaked out by it then, and I'm freaked out by it now. Trapped, in the dark, with no way of getting out and no proof that anyone knows we were in trouble. Lovely.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why I'll always fall for the drummer in the band

Dave and I were watching {500} Days of Summer a couple of weeks ago. There's a scene where the cute geeky guy is taking the piss out of the Zooey Deschanel character for her love of Ringo Starr. It's something like this - I can't remember the exact quote but you get the gist:

Tom: But he's the drummer! Nobody falls for the drummer in the band.
Summer: Exactly. That's why I did.

Dave poked me, and I grinned back. It's always, always, been my point. Why would you go for the lead singer? Firstly, everyone's going to fall for the lead singer, and dude, unless you've got the brains of Mo Mowlem and the body of Britney, you're screwed. On a bad day I have the body of Mo Mowlem and the brains of Britney, so I'm doubly screwed. Secondly, what's interesting about the lead singer? He hasn't learned to do anything much; he just warbles a bit and looks tortured. As for the guitarists; they're just wannabee leads with too much of an acne (or attitude) problem.

Whereas the drummer: he has all sorts of mental hand-eye coordination shit going on; plus, he has to enhance a tune, but tunelessly (well, percussively). And most to the point: who the hell chooses to be a drummer? Back there behind the kit with their brushes and sticks and pedals, where nobody can see or hear you? Bound to be the most interesting people to be around.


Last Sunday, we were up at the coffee shop reading the paper in blissful silence (gotta love the neighbour-kid-swap thing) when I suddenly leapt out of the sofa squawking.

"The "guess where I am" quiz - it's the Forest" "

Dave looked at me with a gaze best described as benign bewilderment mixed with a healthy dose of "here we go again with the sodding Forest of Dean". So I tried to explain why I am so relentlessly in love with the place of my birth, that tiny, chippy, loyal place that was the perfect place to grow up tiny, chippy and loyal. Look, Dennis Potter explained it better than me (no shit) in that final interview he gave with Melvyn Bragg:

my Forest of Dean childhood, well ... it is a strange and beautiful place, with a people who were as warm as anywhere else, but they seemed warmer to me, and the accent is almost so strong, it's almost like a dialect.

In wittering on (at one point I said, to Dave, Dave who grew up in Oxford, for God's sake, "surely you see that, objectively, the Forest is the most beautiful place in the world?"),I realised that I have pick-the-drummer syndrome. The Forest of Dean is the ultimate hidden-behind-its-louder-mates, quirky, curious place. To stretch the metaphor tighter than a drumskin (sorry); from the outset it looks all dodgy haircuts and bits of wood, and sure, it is exactly that - but there's something incredibly compelling about just doing what the fuck you like but doing it with passion and vigour. Not all, but most of the people I know who are simultaneously the most driven and the most optimistic (sickening, right?) come from the same 10-mile patch of old oak and cedar. It can't just be the homemade scrumpy that brought this out.

Anyway, so that's that. I have pick-the-drummer syndrome for all sorts of aspects of my life. I think it's why I loved Seattle so much. If you're living in London and think of moving to the US, you pretty much think New York or possibly, possibly, San Francisco. Seattle isn't even the bass player in this particular band - most people, let's face it, think it's in Canada so it's not even in the same damn band.

It's why, when picking our kids' names, we deliberately printed off the Top 10 and automatically discarded them.

And it's certainly why I married a man who, when looking at a guidebook to Sicily, said, "Let's go west - the book says everyone goes to the east". Now all I need to do is find him a pair of drumsticks.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In which I realise I fell in with a good crowd far too early in life and entirely neglected to properly misspend my youth

So it's been nearly two months, and Electric Picnic is still buzzing round in my head and making me smile every time it pauses at the "thought" doorway. (Electric Picnic is kind of Burning Man in an Irish field, or, as the British political journalist Jon Snow put it, Glastonbury crossed with the Hay Literary Festival.)

I’d had really mixed feelings about going. I mean, I like music, but not necessarily enough to spend time in a field coated in mud listening to it, or sacrificing the opportunity for two nights’ decent, kid-free sleep. Yeah, yeah, I’m whining, it’s true. I just wondered whether this was one of those things, like reading The Catcher in the Rye or watching The Outsiders, that you have to do within a certain time frame or you’re screwed. And an unwanted by-product of an overactive imagination is the ability to run through pretty much every scenario in your (OK, my) mind and see exactly how bad things could become.

It's also because I'm terrible - terrible- at doing things outside of my comfort zone, and my comfort zone is pretty narrow. Give me a pen and paper, or better still, a good book, and I'm sorted. It's anti-social to a degree, but it's always worked for me. I couldn't exactly see how a music festival was going to be my idea of fun. But...part of the thing I'm working on for the next 18 months is to not feel so small and scared at things outside of my absolute preferred option. And I love Dave, and Dave loves music, and sometimes life really is that simple.

And I’m sure, if we'd picked a different event, my worst fears might have been just the starting point. But - and this is a HUGE but - this festival that seemed to have been put together by people listening to little voices in my head. I actually can’t think of a better way of spending two days. For starters, I got to hang out with Dave without (literally) knee-high mini-versions of him in tow asking for ice cream or sliding into the mud or beating the living shit out of each other (and knowing that they were having their own personal version of a festival with their grandparents meant no associated guilt, either).

And then, look! Here's the stuff going on in my head:

Sitting under a tree eating pie and chips, watching a rainbow fade over a manor house whilst listening to Zero 7*

Watching Dave dance and seeing that part of him which these days is buried under the day-to-day of kid-raising and career-having. Watching the man you married letting loose at one of the things he likes to do most is worth any amount of sleeping in a field in Ireland in September. Even if he did offload his bag to me for better dancing.

Dancing like loons to Just Jack at three in the afternoon, perfectly straight and gloriously happy, in the middle of a huge crowd. We’d wandered in to see him on the strength of one song, which can make me cry on a bad (good?) day, and came out beaming those beams that don’t switch off. I am always going to be in love with scruffy, unassuming blokes who can both rhyme and scan, so really it was a foregone conclusion. Makes me happy happy happy.

Watching a little boy, maybe 4 or 5 years old, playing tag in the trees dressed in combat trousers and fairy wings.

The waiter at the Burlesque Cafe, dressed for the occasion in fuschia lycra accessorised with a matching boa, who wandered up to us and asked, "Would you like to see some photos of Victorian porn?" Better still, he'd got Jon Snow, the political journalist mentioned above, to sign the copy. OK then.

Hanging out in the spoken word tent whilst Dave was off doing his dance thing somewhere and getting to hear top Northern Irish performance poets Scream Blue Murmur do a cover version of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" as sung by the Proclaimers. Entirely nutso and absolutely brilliant.

Soaking in a giant melamine tea cup/hot tub at 10pm on a Saturday night with random Irish "personalities" wandering past and men eating fire 7 feet away.

If I hadn't already resolved to be braver, I'd resolve to be braver. Totally, totally worth it.

*We’ve seen Zero 7 play now in Ireland, Seattle and London, at festivals, bigger gigs, and small venues, and much as we love them at home (hence our persistence), the official pronouncement is that they're still shit live. Sad but true.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I'm sure I stand still when I'm saying inappropriate things

Everyone needs a friend like Kim. My first real friend in Seattle, and still one of my truest friends even if we've lived in different cities for years now, I knew she was a keeper the day we went wedding dress shopping. I was a bit nervous; I've never really been much good at the uber-girly stuff and the idea of spending a whole day with a virtual stranger (we'd known each other about a month then, maybe) - a beautiful, blonde stranger at that- having to be polite about her bridal choices and pretending to care about her opinion of mine sounded both intimidating and exhausting.

But then Kim started talking to the Keepers of the Gowns, these insanely coiffeured shop-women with spray-on faces and expressions as fake as their tans. "We're looking for two entirely different dresses" she'd start. "I'm getting married on a beach in Mexico and Sarah is getting married in a castle in England, so she needs something that will coordinate with her husband's green tights - he'll be dressed as Robin Hood".

The first time she did it I opened my mouth to correct her (for all I know, maybe that's what she thought the Brits did at weddings - hats for the women, cross-dressing for the men) and caught just the tiniest fraction of a head-shake. The boutiquistas would stop, look, try to rally, stare at us both again, and then direct us hopelessly to the racks of bouffy meringues to search for ourselves. Victory to Kim.

After a while, this got predictable, so Kim upped the game a little. Entering a dressing area which felt more like backstage at the Milan shows (as if I'd know), we were bidden to remove all footwear. Kim didn't miss a beat. "Has that foot fungus cleared up yet, Sarah?" she asked in her most bell-like tones.

Kim was the first evidence that life in this new country was going to be OK - that we would be able to settle in and find our tribe, because our tribe did, after all exist. And in the end, it was more than OK, and lovely Kimberly is lovelier than ever.

Last week Kim sent me this quote, Jamie Oliver's description of his mother apparently, with a "remind you of anyone?" alongside it. It made me laugh out loud - and realise that it could be me, or it could be her, but it's probably both of us. And it made me happy:

"(...) hilarious. A hundred-miles-an-hour avalanche of energy. She’s superbright and fairly encyclopedic about stuff, but at the same time she’s a complete liability. She just worries and flusters and runs around the place, saying inappropriate things."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

So apparently life's all about childrens' books and the second world war, with a quick visit to the West Wing.

...and it's all because of a woman who writes about Vancouver the way I feel about Seattle. I've been reading Kate's blog for a while now, and her thoughts about her parcelled-up past life in Vancouver always make me nod and think "yeah, that's it".

Anyway, Kate's written a kids' book which has its own website, and she posted this meme which looked like fun and, in fact, is. It's resulted in a glorious night of red wine and YouTube rabbit holes of The Great Escape. Yeah, yeah, I know I have 3 versions of the damn film on the shelf next door, but why would I move from the muppet chair (our favourite chair of all time, made from, as our neighbour pal put it, several skinned muppets).

The meme was about books, and films, and booksandfilms, but as you'll see, for me it was mostly about the war and small children, with a dose of Clinton politics, oddly. Not nearly as miserable as it sounds, honest, and probably a fair representation of what you'd see if you split me open like an oak and counted the rings of interest.

(the bold bits are Kate's original questions, the other stuff, obviously enough, are my answers).

(and yeah, some of the numbers are missing; if an answer didn't spring to mind, I chose not to trust it. It's my version. Bugger off).

1) You are facing an epic journey. You may choose one companion, one tool and one vehicle from any book or film to accompany you. Or just one of the three. It's up to you. What do you choose? Josh from The West Wing, because he’s made history before and he’d be bloody good company.

2) You can escape to the insides of any book. Where do you go, and why?
I’m a chronic insomniac, so it’d be something from my “insomnia shelf” – books familiar enough to soothe me but engaging enough to make me forget whichever pointless woe is keeping me awake. Usually it’s Dan Savage’s The Kid: I read it whilst pregnant with Jonah and it takes me back to that time so quickly. Plus, he reminds me of Seattle and that always calms me down.

3) You can bring one literary character into your current life. Who do you choose, and why?
Mr. Tom from Michelle Magrorian’s classic Goodnight Mr Tom. I can remember the first time I read this book – it startled me beyond belief. Everyone needs a Mr Tom and he’s always reminded me of my “Uncle Bob”, my Dad’s best friend. Despite the fact that John Thaw portrayed him in the film, when I go back to the book, it’s Uncle Bob’s face I see. He died just at the beginning of my pregnancy with Jonah (hmm, unexpected theme here much?) and I’m always sorry that he didn’t know I was pregnant.

4) Primary Colors, by “Anonymous” (really, Joe Klein) is my go-to book. I could read that book fifty-seven times in a row without a break for food or a pee and not be remotely bored. In fact I’ve already done that but it wasn’t fifty-seven times. It was sixty-four.

5) Of all the literary or film characters that made an impression on you as a kid, who was the most enviable? I’m answering this one at a bit of a slant. More, the ones who’ve stuck with me and made me wish I could read them forever (or write like that): Probably Mr Tom (see above) – or the dad in Danny, Champion of the World.

6) Of all the literary or film characters that made an impression on you as a kid, who was the most frightening? I was (am) such a scaredy-cat I’m not sure I’d ever watch something that terrified me. The saddest thing I ever watched as a kid – and which I rewatch, and rewatch, and rewatch – is the forger, played by Donald Pleasance, in The Great Escape, during the moments he realizes he’s going blind and will neither be able to help others to escape nor escape himself (yes, yes, I KNOW he does, but that comes later). I can’t bear the fucking irony of the thing and it deadens my day every time – that and the scene where poor, poor Danny, the claustrophobic “Tunnel King”, loses the plot at the eleventh hour. Shit, that film just makes me weep.

7) Every time I read _________________, I see something in it that I haven’t seen before. I’m only just through the first reading, but I believe my answer here will always, and forever, be David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The fucking thing is a genius of a book.

10) After all these years, the first section of The Collector, by John Fowles still manages to give me the queebs when I think about it in retrospect. SO not the book to read on a Greek beach, folks (I’m telling you this so you never make the same mistake I did) .

11) After all these years, the scene in Flambards (KM Peyton) where Christina and Will get together still manages to give me a thrill.

12) If I could corner the poet Roger McGough here’s what I’d say to them one minute or less about his book (anthology), Poetry Please: Thank you for making poetry for me as a kid, for bringing me into colour and rhyme when I was perfectly ready to think I needed stories to be only prose. Even if it did result in a fuckload of bad verse from me for a while. That's my fault though, not yours.

13) The coolest non-fiction book I’ve ever read is How We Lived Then, by Norman Longmate, as raved about in my previous post. Every time I flip through it, it makes me want to – well, it makes me want to do everything, really. Live during the Second World War. Write like that. Live my life in the book without coming out for air.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Oh, screw it. These are a few of my favourite things

I had a lovely long post planned for today about my anti-gloom plan, Project 40, but then I decided to sulk instead and now it's too late for such a post, to say nothing of me feeling way too stroppy to want to write it. Which is ludicrous since nobody reads this anyway, so clearly I'm just being pointless.

Anyway, amid my myriad faults, the one that drives me the maddest (as opposed to the one/s that drive my nearest & dearest the maddest) is my unquenchable fucking optimism. Occasionally, just occasionally, it would be nice to wallow. But no, every time there is a problem I have to find a bright side. My legs just got stuck in a manhole? Excellent! Now nobody will know how short I really am/my arms will become really strong and sinewy in compensation/I'll meet loads of really interesting people whilst I'm stuck here.

That kind of thing. See? Really sodding annoying.

So, this post is brought to you by Insufferable Pollyanna, who would like to be having a thoroughly entrenched sulk about bugger all right now, but is instead compelled to think about the nice things that have happened over the last couple of days:

(a) Fish and chips by the water's edge last night, with glorious Dave, for date night. A clear October evening, sitting on some random statue (see, the Irish. Statues bloody everywhere) overlooking Dalkey Island, which reputedly has its own King despite being the size of a cow pat. We could hear howling from the island, so presumably the King is dead (Long Live the King!), devoured by wolves, OR practising some howling of his own.

(b) Jonah telling me yesterday, "Look, Mummy! This is how we play Batman in the garden at school" then sticking his coat hood over his head and whizzing around, arms outstretched. How fab is it, exactly, that the very things you (well, I) remember from childhood come back through playground muscle memory? Of course, Jonah is convinced he and his pals invented this, so we are both delighted, albeit for slightly conflicting reasons.

(c) The arrival in the post today of How We Lived Then, one of those books that changed the way I thought about things when I was 14 and has stuck with me ever since. Some people had Star Wars or Duran Duran; I had a brick-sized explanation of the home front in the UK during the second world war. It was as exciting to see the book today as it was when I first found it on the top left-hand bookstack of our local library 20-odd years ago.

And on that note, I'm off to read about turnips for pineapples and pubs in Anderson shelters.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Not so much a chip off the old block as a leaf off the slightly-knackered-but-still-giggling tree

It's hardly a secret, my love for trees. My love for wood. My love for forests. Ah, bugger it - my love for anything to do with those dank, rustly walkways through curvy avenues and secret hidey-holes. I mean, what's not to love?

I know as parents we're supposed to be looking after the big things pertaining to our kids. And sure, we make sure they're fed, and shod, and shooed to bed at a reasonable time (as much for our sakes as for theirs). This year, though, I'm getting to teach them one of my favourite little things, too. They're both properly vertical and belting around this year (last autumn, Lucas was still at the crawl-and-shuffle stage, which whilst cute maybe, isn't all that useful for walking in the woods).

So, any chance we get, the boys and I are seeking out huge piles of fallen leaves and kicking them around with gusto, glee, and grim determination. After a foray into a pavement's worth of fallen lovelies, it occurred to me that Dublin road sweepers were probably cursing us for destroying an afternoon's work with a leaf blower in 3 minutes, so we've taken to the hills.

Killiney Hill, to be precise, where the woods ease out onto cliffs and a view of the sea, and there are sticks to throw for passing dogs, and hot chocolate to be had in the little stone folly next to the statue of Dedalus (never underestimate the predilection of the Irish to throw in a cultural reference - or bronze statue - when you're least expecting it. Last year, the Irish ferries posters were quoting Beckett and Wilde. The comparative concept of Brittany Ferries using, say, Roger McGough and Shakespeare was glorious but totally unrealistic).

It's one of those things they never tell you in What to Expect and those other tomes, but my god, leaf-kicking is WAY better when you're doing it with your wee ones.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The three best bits of advice about relocating anyone ever gave me

  • Accept every invitation for the first six months; you never know where it might lead.

  • You’ll always miss every place you’ve enjoyed living; that doesn't mean the move isn't the right thing to do.

  • You’ll never recreate the other places you’ve lived; everywhere will have some things that are better and some that are worse.

Each of these came from a friend who'd been there, done that, and in each case, these particular pals are people I'd put right up there on my "friends to save from a burning building" list (OK, so I'd save all my friends from a burning building if I could, otherwise why be friends with them? but you know what I mean).

Collectively, the advice has served me pretty well over 5 different countries and fuck knows how many new homes.

I'd probably customise the top one now the kids are involved and accepting-every-invitation is sometimes not logistically not possible. When we moved to Dublin, my new motto was:

"you don't meet people stuck indoors".

So even though the rain threatened to create an extension of the Irish Sea right there under the wheels of the buggy, and even though I was crippled by homesickness and brand-new nostalgia for a life we'd left behind (to say nothing of heavily pregnant and intrinsically inclined to melodrama), Jonah and I went out every single day, smiled when we could, and eventually, it felt like we lived here. That's the condensed version, but you get my point.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

And round and round and round it goes, although I'm not sure that's quite what he meant by "revolution"

I was in town for a meeting a couple of weeks ago and nipped into a coffee shop loo on my way back to the car. The bathroom was downstairs and vaguely scuzzy without being unclean.

Something about the lock on the door – one of those puny bolts that never quite seems screwed in properly – combined with its generalized seediness jolted forwards a muscle memory of the loos in the Elliott Bay Book Company, where I spent a lot of time (the bookshop, not the loos).

Their graffiti, and there was much of it, was often somewhat self-consciously literary. Ah, bollocks to it. It was pretty much always straightforwardly pretentious. To add to the tone of one-upmanship (because obviously that's what you're aiming for in a toilet), there was also a fair amount of cross-referencing and call-and-response going on within the graffitti myself.

And yeah, I may mock, but I *loved* reading the graffitti there (takes one straightforwardly pretentious nerd to know one, right?). One of my favourites there, years ago now, had started off innocuously - and somewhat pointelessly- enough, with the famous Gil Scott Heron song/poem:

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”.
Underneath it, someone had scrawled,

"...but you can watch it on YouTube"

And in a nice flourish of irony, the poem itself is now on YouTube.

Monday, August 24, 2009

It's either Dorothy Wordsworth or Elastigirl

I've never really been any good at that girly-girl stuff - not least because I can't imagine life without pockets. Where would you put all the usual nonsense that needs touting around?

Add two little boys into the equation and pockets are promoted from useful to necessary. They're repositories for way more than my needs - let's face it, I've never actually claimed to need a stone, a dollop of pre-masticated toast or a really long, really green bogey (especially one that didn't originate from my nose).

But I've been feeling vicariously cool these last few days, and it's thanks to Jonah and my pockets. Jonah, you see, is in his superhero phase.
I'm assuming it's a phase, anyway. It popped up out of nowhere, much like a superhero, and will doubtless vanish with a huge KAPOW!! when its work here is done, earthling.

Anyway, superheroes have capes, and therefore so does Jonah. It's a bit of a hassle, though, it turns out, to have to carry a damn cape everywhere - but fortunately, this superhero has a mother. And not just that, but a mother with pockets, for easy cape-stashing.

This sounds like the punchline to an extremely old joke, but keeping a cape in my pocket makes me giggle (and yes, I'm sure everyone's very pleased to see me). It also makes me wonder about all these orphaned superheroes and how the hell they managed their capes - is that what the sidekicks were really for, do you reckon?

It also, even though the subject matter is entirely different, keeps reminding me of the poem by Lynn Peters, Why Dorothy Wordsworth Is Not As Famous As Her Brother.

The first verse:

" I wandered lonely as a...
They're in the top drawer, William,
Under your socks--
I wandered lonely as a --
No not that drawer, the top one.
I wandered lonely by myself --
Well wear the ones you can find,
No, don't get overwrought my dear,
I'm coming."

is just like living with little boys. Bet Dorothy Wordsworth would've had way more fun if William had entrusted her with his superhero's cape instead of his quill and parchment.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Does quite a bit more than it says on the tin

Autumn's always been my favourite season even though, as I just remarked to a friend, in Ireland it's the difference between rain-with-boots-and-socks and rain-with-sandals. This year, autumn's giving me extra cause for "oh thank GOD"ness because it means the end of a very particular type of Infinite Summer.

Since June 21st, Dave and I have been reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (cult status in the US; "who???" status over here) alongside an online reading group. This isn't the post where I talk about the content of the book, not least because of the thousand (s?) of people reading it, I am (al)most certainly nowhere near the most coherent 10% in terms of discussing meta-anything, and it strikes me that to properly discuss Infinite Jest you'd need to meta yourself onto a whole new planet, Janet.

But reading the same book all summer is a bit like running laps. After a while, the muscles start to pump round by themselves and you get some time to ponder the activity within the wider context of your life.

An aside (me? never....): For me, the stated reason for running is to get some damn exercise already and offset the nightly helping of small-boy-supper I manage to consume in the name of "checking it's OK for them". But the side-effects, which are to an extent unintentional but are in fact equally huge benefits, include stuff like: I get 30 minutes, three times a week, to let my brain spin off on its own wee axis and see what's brewing in there (today's special: mixed metaphors, apparently). I convert my usual nervy energy into something a bit more useful, a bit like cow pats for fuel. Because we live on the edge of some gorgeous views, I get my nature fix without needing to make it a thing of its own - which is, after all, how I most like nature to be.

ANYway. Enough of a tangent, much? Here are the things that, in 780+ pages of reading, I'm realising I'm enjoying almost as much as the actual book itself, which, let's face it, has been bloody hard work at times.

Let's start with the two in the paragraph above, shall we?

1) I sometimes think I live my entire life as a tangent, and this book is so full of them it makes me feel like the die-straightest arrow ever to set point in a quiver. I've never minded the distractible-ness of myself, or my inability to function in a straight line; but it's still always nice to have company. Even though, of course, the book is fictional and the author had a plan, or at least found a way to make it make enough sense to keep going. Hmm. Let's hope I have one of those too.

2) I've never meant to do this, but I sometimes surprise people by not living up to their first impressions. So from time to time someone will announce that they'd thought I was going to be really quiet and shy (because I'm small and unprepossessing, I suppose). Or - given my background in literature & now publishing - that I will have wildly erudite reading habits, when it turns out that reading foreign literature to degree level left me with some pretty open-jawed gaps in the English canon. All of which to say that I don't read "hard stuff" as much as I could or should. I haven't commuted on public transport for 6+ years, so there's been no tube-reading; and by the time the kids are zonked, it's the least I can do to pick up anything, let alone a work of genius.
But being committed to reading IJ, if only in my head, actually*, means that I'm treating it almost like homework and achieving my allotted page count regardless of how much it makes my head spin to read such dense thinking at the end of the day or in 2-minute bursts, which is barely time enough for the average DFW sentence. And reading "real" books, after 4 years of pregnancy/tiny kids, is adding unfuring one more petal within my budding sense (sorry) of regaining parts of myself now the kids are old enough to be themselves.

The other, unexpected but really cool, thing, that I'm enjoying from this whole experience is reading the book alongside Dave. It's one thing to recommend a book to one's husband/wife/whatever and insist they love it, then have lengthy "wasn't that ace?" discussions thereafter. It's quite another, really, to take on the same heinously long-winded book-at-bedtime, simultaneously. It's a bit like co-parenting but with four-paragraph-long descriptions of bodily fluids in the place of real ones.

Anyway, 200 pages to go and if I'm going to finish the damn thing by deadline like the nerd I still am, I'd better sod off and read it rather than faff around here pontificating about it.

* (I'm still a bit nervous of being kicked out of online forums for laughing inappropriately or telling a long and involved story at the wrong moment - moi? Surely not)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not such a glorious twelfth

I wrote most of this last year, but today would be an old friend's birthday, and it seems time to post it:

On Thursday, a group of my old friends will be meeting a few miles from where I grew up, in my (and their) beloved Forest of Dean. There will be pints, and stories, and more pints, and more stories. There will probably be laughs, and there will almost certainly be tears. Because before the pints, there will be a funeral. A funeral for our friend Tim, who, two days after his thirty-ninth birthday, set fire to his car with himself in it.

We’d been in touch recently, when Tim sent a change-of-address email. Although it was a good 5 years since we'd last met up, it was brilliant to hear from Tim, the way it often can be with people you've just run out of space to keep in your lives without meaning to lose touch. So when his birthday came around, I rattled off the “happy birthday” email with the standard blasé “thirty-nine forever” gag. Four days later, the phone call came. Nobody could really believe it.

I’ve been struggling for weeks now about whether or not to fly over for the funeral. In the end, the noes are winning, largely because of the English reserve thing. It seems entirely over the top to be swooping in from overseas when, in practice, I haven’t – shit, hadn’t – seen Tim in the last, what, six years? And so although it'll be in my mind all day, it seems better to stay put.

This group of friends has remained essentially bonded for 30 years that I’ve been witness to and several more before. And they were a huge, huge part of my formative years.

This is the struggle in terms of whether or not to attend the funeral. I may not have seen Tim – seen any of them – very much recently, but they meant the world to me at a time when my world was just starting to expand. I learned liking for liking's sake, and I learned fun, and I learned not to take myself so fucking seriously. Clearly that’s not a message that sank in very deeply, but hey.

Because of the less-intense-contact more recently, all my memories of Tim are from about 20 years ago. Just out of his teens, dancing to the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry”: head down, arms at his side, all the rhythm coming from shoulders. If I ever hear the song on the radio, I dance like Tim – can’t help it. Tim Watson, with the fabulous, freakish memory for trivia.

Tim, who stepped off the cliff the day we went home-made abseiling, only to find the brake wasn’t on the rope. A roar went up from those of us lying flat on our fronts on the surrounding cliffs, a plea to the “anchor guy” at the bottom: “BRAKE!!!!!!” And Neil, steady as ever, leaned into the ropes or did whatever the hell it was he needed to do, and Tim’s speedy descent came to an abrupt halt.

Tim, coming up with the rest of the gang to visit me in Cambridge, penniless, but with a wealth of one-liners that conned us into buying him the pints all the same.

And to go along with the memories my mind streams a photo, taken in 1989 at a friend’s 18th birthday party, when we were all invincible .Tim channeling James Dean: on a step, cigarette drooping from mouth. Leather jacket, long dark hair…and a pair of sneakers on his knees for reasons that escape us. Who knew it would become a way to remember him, 20 years later?

Happy 40th, Tim Watson. Wish you were here for it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Must have been the way I was queuing patiently on my own that gave it away

Even before we left for the US and what has turned into 6+ years of living overseas, I'd never considered myself particularly English. Maybe it's because I'm not; with Welsh roots from Mum and English ones from Dad, but growing up in a place that (proudly) considers itself neither one nor the other, at most I'm British.

Let me clarify; obviously, for census purposes and all that good stuff, I'm British. But I've never really been into wandering around Benidorm with knotted hanky demanding 10 pints of lager and a full English. Nor am I a Sebastian Flyte type, much as I wished I could be during my pretentious phase in my early twenties (and I mean my really pretentious phase, not the half-arsed version I drag out sometimes these days).

And yeah, obviously what's wrong with those comparisons is, as much as anything else, that I'm not male, I suppose - but the only female examples of insta-Brit I could think of were the Queen (for Christ's sake) and, I dunno, the Jade Goody, and they're even less edifying.

When we were in France in June, we spent a morning in a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. We weren't in the overrun-by-the-English part of the country and had, in fact, seen no other foreigners all week - probably as much accident as design, but still.

We were walking back to the car after a great lunch of galettes and idle chat whilst the kids raced around the walled garden knocking each other over. On our way back, I paused to wait for Dave and Jonah, and crossed paths with two blokes, each with a pushchair and a small child waiting for their wives and slightly bigger children. Just like me, really. I smiled in acknowledgement of our mutual circumstances and the guy closer to me nodded and said, by way of greeting, "hiya".

After several years now in varying English-speaking countries, getting used to the vagaries of the English language as spoken by people who also claim it as their mother tongue, "hiya" jumped out at me as quintessentially English. It's halfway colloquial, it pretty much sets the parameters of a demographic, and it wouldn't be used by a non-British person, let alone a non-English speaker. So the assumption had been that I, too, was British.

Which is true, of course. But what interests me (since clearly life is all about me) is that, without speaking (and "revealing" my accent), wearing no clothes purchased in Britain, and in a country that isn't Britain, I'm still somehow identifiably English. I'm sure there's a blindingly obvious reason for this, and it's not like I think I've somehow become American or Irish (or, indeed, German or Austrian, if we want to take all my non-British homes into account). In a way, I find it pretty comforting. A true case of "you can take the girl out of the country...".

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to eat my Findus crispy pancakes in front of Fawlty Towers repeats....

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Seeing the forest for the Lars Von Triers

We left the kids with our neighbour-friends on Sunday morning and escaped for a glorious hour or so of reading the paper. It's a strange sensation, getting through the whole review section without small noses poking over the top of it and demanding “More!” (Lucas, and it doesn’t really matter what the “more” is – he’s always demanding more of something) or to asking to trace over the letters (Jonah. We always give him the sports section since it’s the least-read bit for us, so Jonah’s going to grow up with a vast array of vocabulary gleaned from the sports pages. Dead useful, I’m sure).

Anyway, the review section contained was an article on Lars Von Trier’s latest film, Antichrist. There's been lots of discussion as to whether the violence in the film is was integral to the art or just entirely gratuitous and a shock-factor=column-inches gambit (and let's face it; if it's the latter, it's definitely paid off).
I haven’t seen the film yet, and whilst I'm not necessarily leaping to grab my coat and go and watch female genitial mutilation, it certainly sounds intriguing enough as a whole to get me to the coat rack. But amidst the description of extreme grief, depression, and their violent manifestations, there was one detail that did startle me off the page and question whether I'd be able to sit through the film. I say this entirely tongue in cheek, and mostly because I am an oversentimental lunatic when it comes to matter of woodlands.

The review explained that we glean from an address on an envelope near the beginning of the film that it’s set somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. It went on to mention as a tangent that the film was actually shot on location in Germany, in Nordrhein-Westfalen.

I looked up from the paper, eyes wide.

“We can’t go and see it after all”

“Why’s that?”

“The trees are all wrong! It will ruin the movie”.

Setting something amongst the wrong trees? Just not possible. I know the trees of the Pacific Northwest – not as well as I know my home forest, obviously, but for four glorious years, these cedars and pines were my home trees. They were just like the US itself when we first got there – massive and unknowable and way wilder than anything we’d experienced to date. Look:

These trees, they helped me in so many ways when everything in my life was unknown. This might sound nuts to anyone who grew up in a city, but being back within easy access of the total randomness of nature that a forest provides (because really, beyond the years-ago first planting, these things are doing whatever the hell they like and creating their own mini worlds) was like coming home. And home matters to me, as we've established by now, a hell of a lot.

Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary in this post, I’m not stupid, just ridiculously sentimental. I know that films are shot on location – there’s just a part of me that wishes that, just this once, those trees could be my trees. It seems a bit like getting a Christmas card from your parents and the enclosed photo being of two other random, similarly-aged people. The thought is nice but the implementation? Just weird. Although one of the best Christmas cards we ever received was from friends who did exactly that...but that's a different story, for a different day.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Three conversations that prove you should never, ever hire us as trend spotters

1. early 1995, me to an old friend:

There's this new American comedy show about these twenty-somethings and they're all friends. You should look out for it - I dunno if it's going to catch on but it's good for the time being.

2. Thursday, May 3rd, 2007, Dave to me in an email:

....he says property in Dublin is very expensive and he thinks there might be a bubble.

(so that'd be before house prices started screaming downhill, then)

3. mid-2007, Dave and I in conversation:

this Twitter thing is so NOT mainstream. You just think that because we live in a tech bubble

(again with the bubbles! Who did we think we were, Michael Jackson?)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The punch line that reads like a punch line to a whole different story

When we were in France last month, we made a visit to the local farmers' market. Rather than a quaint, outdoors version of Waitrose for the Guardian-reading liberals to saunter through in their MBTs hunting for their organic, hand-rolled muesli, this was a proper market for farmers. From the kids' point of view, this was bliss. In the place of Fair Trade t-shirts with ironic slogans and "arty" photos of the view down the road, there were animals, noise, and chaos.

Everything needed to be admired. Chickens piled cereal-box high in their tiny crates, in as many varieties as a Kelloggs multipack. Tiny, weeny, terrified-looking chicks.

"Pretty bunnies" as Jonah called them; lank, sweaty, cloud-eyed lapins plumped up for the pot but, juiciness aside, looking like they'd come straight from auditions for the evil rabbits in Watership Down. Jonah stopped to stroke them all, the toothless farmer opening the cage for him with a crooked grin. Somehow the French term, "caresse", seemed deeply inappropriate for these field-pests destined for the cleaver, but a market is a market and a rabbit, it seemed, is a rabbit, when you're three years old.

We moved on. We sampled goats cheeses. Lucas, versed neither in French nor much English, let's face it, signalled his preferences by spitting out his un-favoured flavours into the face of the cheese-maker. Apparently "pah pah pah" is Toddler for "what are you trying to *do*; poison me??" .

Finally, we came to the salami stall. This was a holiday, after all, and the urge to live mostly on pork products, chocolate, and wine was not to be ignored.

Jonah decidee he'll help me to select, so we moved down the stall with the salami maker, me translating, because obviously a degree in French equipped me for salami identification (yeah, yeah, I see that gag. And that one).

"Blue cheese salami?"

"Yuck" said my resident gourmand, and I was inclined to agree - sounds a bit like an entire meal in one truncheon-sized piece of meet.

"Cepes salami? it's a kind of mushroom"

"We don't eat mushrooms, Mummy" Well, fair do's. One of us doesn't, it's true, and apparently that was enough.

There is a jolt, a stutter in our proceedings.

"Encore une fois?" I asked the stall owner. Bollocks - I'd heard right the first time. Reluctantly, I told Jonah the name of the next salami. As I'd feared, his eyes lit up.

"That one!"

"No, really - let's hear what the next one is"

"No, Mummy, I want that one"

I tried again, just in case Jonah changed his mind. Yeah, right.

"Which one, poppet?"

"That one, Mummy. I want donkey salami"

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Stealth evil, or proof, yet again, that this child is ours

We’ve been gradually weaning Lucas off his beloved dodie, in the hopes that this will eventually lead to currently-unfeasible hours of blissful unconsciousness rather than endless holy-crap-it's-WHAT- o'clock? summonses to help the small child find the smaller soother in the dark hours.
Simultaneously, although presumably not related (the sodding soother isn't THAT big), he's been upping the talking, or the attempts at talking, which go something like this:

Scene: the park, Sunday afternoon. Jonah and Lucas have wrestled the family ice cream cones from us gullible parents, are sitting on the grass with vanilla drool cascading down their t-shirts. Lucas finishes his ice cream.

L: hands upturned to show emptiness, eyebrows raised, signifying astonishment at this unforeseen development: All gone!

Lucas turns to his brother, notices Jonah has been unable to match L’s consumption speed, still has some ice cream left.

points frantically at Jonah:
More! More! MORE!!

J ignores him

enlisting parental help, pointing frantically: More! MORE!!

S: explain to Jonah what you’re asking for, poppet – that might help.

L earnestly, to Jonah; pointing at Jonah’s ice cream: yumyumMORE! Babba MORE!

You get the picture. It’s quick and dirty, but his needs, they are met.

Jonah, threats to ice cream ownership notwithstanding, is delighted by this new walky-talky version of the brother who, for most of his first year, was just an irritation crawling in between him fun. Consequently, he spends much of his time teaching Lucas new words, which veer in typical 3-year-old style from the scatological “say poo, Lucas’ to the surreal “say sandwich filling, Lucas”.
Last week Jonah hit upon a new game.
“Say dodie, Lucas” he commanded.

Lucas beamed, knowing the word well.

“Doodoo” he complied.

“Doodoo” he added thoughtfully.

“Doodoo?” – enquiringly, looking around himself.

“Doodoo?Doodoo!Doodoo!! DOODOO!’ he yelled, realizing one was not forthcoming and in desperate need of a dodie now that the sacred object had been mentioned.

Cue toddler in tears and much wailing and beating of tiny fists on the floor. Jonah, by this point in the proceedings, was howling with laughter. And we, secretly proud of the streak of mischief it takes to come up with this, are definitely not winning any parenting awards by letting it continue. Ah well – isn’t this what siblings are for?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Comment se dire: What the f***? en francais?

We were in France last week and oh, the crazy French, ze mek mee laff.

My two favourite hunnh? moments:

  • A pharmacy window display with, as its centerpiece, a bride’s head in a bowl. It was surrounded by tanning products, so I can only assume that she was decapitated for not appearing at the altar the requisite shade of Tango orange. Either that or, this being France, she had committed the fatal flaw of fake beautifying (rather than effortless elegance) and the John the Baptist-esque scene was intended as a dire warning to the remaining residents of the town (and to passing nosy tourists).

  • A box of mouse poison. I suppose, in English, we call this rat poison rather than mouse poison (why? Do we not kill dinky little mice, or does “rat poison” just sound more substantial somehow, in the same way that a rat is undeniably more of a rodent than the mere mouse?).

Anyway, for the joy of this anecdote to work, you also need to know that the French word for mouse is “souris”.

The name of the poison? “Souricide”. Brilliant. The packaging featured a picture of a mouse in its death throes just in case we were in any doubt.

And then a hunnh moment we delivered in reverse on the way back to Dooobleen:

  • A hipster on the plane home engaged in conversation with Lucas (20 months) as we disembarked. I’d seen said hipster in front of us in the queue for the plane. He stood out by dint of travelling alone, notably without the array of small wailing children clinging to all other passengers. He’d been carrying just a small bag, which he checked, and an indeterminate bundle in a black bin bag, which I’d naturally assumed was some kind of bomb.
Lucas was admiring the Quiksilver logo on hipster’s t-shirt (ie, poking at it and burbling) so hipster explained to him that it was a surfing brand and “I’ve got a wetsuit in this bag, actually”. Ah, so not a bomb then – god, my powers of deduction are brilliant.

said I, speaking for Lucas who was clearly not going to have the vocabulary for this particular exchange,
“Lucas has a wetsuit too”

Hipster looked at Lucas with sceptism, then back at me.

“Not a real one though, right?”

“Well, it’s pretty real. It’s a Billabong suit, and it has instructions for how to wash it post-surf”

Hipster surveyed Lucas again, this time with a renewed respect. His brain, you could almost see it hurting from the attempts at processing. I understood. It was a hipster version of Bridie the Baptist.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

My own personal pathetic fallacy (better than my own personal Jesus, although less tuneful)

For most of my twenties, I lived in London. I lived pretty much everywhere in London – in eight years I moved eight times – so I got to know it, if not all over, then pretty well. London is busy (genius award coming up, Sarah) and chaotic (genius award confirmed), and I was busy and chaotic, and it suited me perfectly. Life is so fluid in your twenties (at least, my life was so fluid in my twenties) and London was the perfect place for that. It was grimy and noisy and constantly shape-shifting and, yep, so was I for the most part.

By the end of my twenties, though, I was getting a bit sick of the constant motion of the big city. I’d slowed down and my not-so-hidden inner country girl was getting more of a chance to speak. And in came Seattle. OK, OK, so it wasn’t exactly that straightforward, but my point is that just when I was craving nature, along came nature. Big nature. Scarily easy access to far more wild animals than I’d ever like to encounter (cougars in the hills above the city; bears in the university district, for God’s sake). Seattle is, was, forevermore shalt be, a fab place to spend a decent chunk of my thirties. There was cocktail-drinking, sure, but there was also a LOT of the outdoors. Friday night drinking sessions were replaced by Friday nights sailing on Puget Sound, watching the sunset across the Olympics whilst knocking back the odd gin or tonic with some of our favourite Americans.

Anyway, my point. I spent this afternoon in our garden, here by the sea a few miles outside Dublin.
And I am small, and due to a great need for everyone to like me, mostly friendly. So, following the city, my life has moved from random underground bars; it’s moved from the mountains and the lakes. It's moved, quite literally, to our backyard.

The wee ones and I were joined by our regular Tuesday pals – five “ladies”, as Jonah calls us, and eleven under-sixes. The trees were full of blossom, and full of foam rockets being shot into the branches, and not so full of small boys falling off said branches trying to retrieve the rockets. Toddlers were tackling the too-big swing set. Everyone was belting around; there were fights over the pull-along Dalmatian; tears were shed. It was great.

These days a lot of time is spent like yesterday. Hanging out with my pals (and the little boys’ pals) in someone’s garden, or hanging out in our garden. Sure, it’s great from time to time to visit an old life, but right now, this is the right life. And yeah, I know it isn’t as hugely-coincidental as I’ve just made it sound, and I know, too, that people have all these sorts of lives in all these sorts of places. But bugger it. I just liked the pathetic fallacy of it, that's all.