Thursday, 24 February 2011

Winter recess. Not exactly a vacation for me...

The Littleboys are on Winter Recess this week. (They don't call it half term here. Actually they don't talk about terms at all, it's 'semester' - I keep getting strange looks from people when I refer to 'next term' or 'end of term'. )

It's also known as Presidents' Week - Monday was a public holiday, Presidents' Day, celebrating the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Littleboy 1 made a puppet at school that had Lincoln's face on one side and Washington's on the other (with cotton wool balls to make Washington's white wig hair). I thought it was great. The boys were delighted with it and played games with it all the way to swimming lessons last week in the car....

Anyway, Winter Recess poses a problem for me at the moment, as I am, for the first time since the boys were born, working every day. When they are school, from 9 until 3, I can usually fit all my work into those hours (luckily I can work from home). But this week, I had to find some kind of childcare/entertainment for them for at least some of the day, as the job is only for three months and I can't really take a week off.

Luckily, America is full of 'vacation camps' and workshops specfically for this purpose, and I managed to find a reasonably priced indoor 'sports camp' where the boys play soccer, basketball and baseball all morning. The only problem is, it's only from 9.30 till 12, so time is of the essence when dropping and collecting them (and the afternoons are another story altogether).

Every other working mummy in town, as well as an army of SAHMs, must have also discovered this camp, because the arrival and departure for this place is a complete nightmare. Unusually for here, there are only about 10 parking spaces outside, and of course everybody drives huge tanks of cars. Everyone drives, and promptly double parks, blocking others in. You can tell who the working (or just very busy) Mums are, desperate to get away early in the morning, and infuriated if they are not able to because a mammoth SUV is in their way. Meanwhile other mums want to hang around, chatting, oblivious to the fact that their car is blocking someone else. It's total mayhem. My strategy is to drop them off very early and pick them up very late - but as the week goes on, others seem to be cottoning on to this cunning ploy...

Anyway, the combination of work, household and the boys has really been pretty challenging for me this week. I am exhausted and also I am starting to wonder; how on earth do working parents cope with half term in the UK (and indeed school holidays)? Do you always have to take holiday? Are there 'vacation camps' or the equivalent? I am hoping to work at least part-time when we return to England, but am beginning to wonder now if it will just be impossible.....Thoughts, please!

Monday, 21 February 2011

Littleboys & The City

When we first moved to New York, trips to Manhattan were anything but easy with the boys. On our first visit to Central Park, we managed to lose Littleboy 1 for a very frightening 10 minutes in one of its vast playgrounds; then there was that time, described here, where I was so distracted by the boys I thought mistakenly I'd left my purse in a taxi, causing The Doctor to make a mad dash down Fifth Avenue in 90 degree heat. Visits to museums were fraught; at four and two and half, the Littleboys tended to run around frantically touching things they weren't supposed to touch. (A visit to the Metropolitan with my Dad, I seem to recall, consisted mainly of chasing them.)

Although it's an easy train journey from here, by the time you factor in taking two tired boys there and back, 40 minutes each way, and with the two of them usually behaving appallingly on the train itself, the whole day becomes very stressful. On our first visits we were also encumbered by a pushchair, making the subway nightmarish; it was no better in taxis, where the boys tended to crawl around the back seat, delighted by the lack of carseats. Since then, although we've made the odd foray to places like the Statue of Liberty or the Brooklyn Bridge, trips into central Manhattan with both Littleboys have been fairly few and far between.

So yesterday, I am happy to report, was a bit of a milestone. We got up early, got to the Museum of Natural History as it opened, and spent a (mostly) trouble-free couple of hours looking around. Now four and almost six, the boys are fascinated by dinosaurs, partly thanks to Dino Dan, a fab Canadian TV show that has really stoked their interest, and impressed me by identifying not just your basic dinos, such as T-Rex, but stuff like Euoplocephalus which certainly would have had me stumped. Littleboy 2, following his starring role as a walrus in a play about polar animals, was also very pleased with the Hall of Ocean Life, although he did complain that there were no Orca whales. Shocking.

We only had one strop (in the cafe, where a cup of water instead of a $4 apple juice caused a minor meltdown on Littleboy 2's behalf) and saw everything we wanted to see before going off for a slap-up brunch with a friend on the Upper West Side. Even here, the boys behaved well (thanks, partly, to us letting them play Angry Birds on the iPad) while we knocked back Mimosas and over-the-top egg dishes.

The afternoon turned, somewhat accidentally, into a long ramble through Central Park. We had thought we would go there briefly and find a playground; but the park is so much bigger than you expect, and we kept finding new little pockets, such as the Belvedere Castle (view from which is pictured above), which just had to be explored. We didn't find the big playground we remembered (the scene of Littleboy 1's disappearance) but we found a smaller one with a great curving slide built into the rock, down which small children were luge-ing on their coats.

It was almost 6.30pm when we walked back up to our front door. The boys were filthy; thanks to the muddy park and the grimy floor of Penn Station, where they had insisted on playing as we waited for the train. They were tired, of course - but they were still walking - in fact, no-one was carried the whole day - and any whining had been kept to a minimum during the return journey.
What's more, after a hot bath and hairwash, they appeared to be raring to go again - while we were ready to collapse, exhausted, into bed.

So; with just an extra 18 months on our side, the combination of Littleboys and the City turns out to be a successful one after all. And with (probably) half our time here already elapsed, I'm going to have to make sure we make the most of it.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Valentine's Day; the screenplay

3.30pm. NVG, opening the boys' enormous plastic bags full of Valentines gifts from school today.

Let's have a look at this.....whoah, don't just dump it all on the table, let's get it out carefully.

And this is from.....Tara? Lara? Oh, OK. Wow. Lovely. Homebaked cookies in a little bag all tied up with pink ribbons. Lara's mother obviously cares a great deal about Valentine's Day. (Mutters) Alternatively, she has FAR too much time on her hands......

And this is from Kate. Well, I'm glad to see they bought the same cheap crappy cards with a Dumdum lollipop as us!

Ah, that's interesting. Boy with very rich, influential parents....the tiniest, most rubbish looking cards in the bag. Glad I'm not the worst cheapskate in town.!

Blimey, this mother's printed out a special card with her child's face on it......

More pencils. Oh joy. Put them in the pencil box. And hologram, you can't eat them. A little heart shaped notebook. That's quite cute, but don't start ripping pages out now......

And this one's made home made cards for every single child in the class. That IS actually quite impressive. I quite approve of that...although it must have been SO much work.

Oh, you want to take the candy off the cards? OK. Don't eat it all at once. That's right. Yes, I agree the cards are quite boring. But you might want to actually see who the candy is from. Let's put it in the bin later..


The Doctor (coming home from work and seeing pink mess of candy and cards spread out on the table): Uuughh. What is all this appalling stuff? And why are the boys running around like sugared-up maniacs?

NVG (proffering bin): I told you so.

Valentine's Day. What happened to the romance?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Race to Nowhere - a thought-provoking film

The other night I pitched up at the local high school (along with, it seemed, every other parent in town - the enormous parking lot was rammed) for a screening of a film I'd read about in the New York Times.

Race to Nowhere was made by a California mother, Vicki Abeles, after she became concerned about the stress that her children were under in school. It deals with the pressures of homework, of over-scheduling children, of the desperate attempts to get into 'good' colleges - especially for children who are considered high achievers.

In the film, there are (real life) children who stay up till 2am to finish their homework; who stop eating, sleeping, who take Adderall, a drug prescribed for ADD, to stay awake; who admit readily to cheating in tests; who have nervous breakdowns and drop out of school. (One comment that really struck a chord was that we are raising a generation prepared to do anything, and to cut any corners, to get a high-paying job -and look at the bankers. We are paying the price.)

While there were probably always examples of teenagers who became over-stressed by school (I remember one or two at my school) it seems the problem is becoming more widespread, as American colleges, largely funded by donors, try to attract the best pupils and get the best results. This in turn leads schools to set ludicrous amounts of homework in an attempt to get their pupils into colleges....and parents to put pressure on their kids, not just to be academic, but to be sporty, arty, do community service, and - well, basically, there aren't enough hours in the day.

Race to Nowhere is an unusual film in that it has not been screened widely on general release, but instead has been taken up by parent groups and shown at schools across the USA. At our local school, it was followed by a Q&A session - and it seemed that it had really struck a chord with many parents.

My children are too young to be experiencing this yet, but it won't be long, and I'm sure that many of the same problems exist in the UK; particularly in competitive private schools. (The coalition's decision to raise tuition fees, can only, I am sure, only add to the pressure, as Universities, deprived of government funding, will compete more ruthlessly for the best students).

It raises all sorts of questions, not least - is academic success really the key to our kids' happiness? As the film points out, only about the top 5% of students are really academically brilliant - why put pressure on everyone else to try and be so? We might dream about our kids going to Harvard, or Yale or Oxford or Cambridge - but what about well-adjusted kids who will only ever get Bs and Cs? Or indeed, one who decides college is not for them and goes on to a vocational training course?

Personally, what I want is for my children to be happy, and to end up in a job that they enjoy. But will I find myself sucked into this hyper-competitive culture as they get older? Will my kids half-kill themselves with homework just so they can get a job in an investment bank and work long hours for big-buck bonuses? Or will they sink under the pressure of it all and drop out.....
This film made depressing viewing in some ways, but I hope it succeeds in its mission to make parents, schools and colleges sit up and take stock of what we are doing to our children. And I hope UK parents have a chance to see it at some point, too.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

I've joined the tea party......

It's an emotive subject, tea. Iota and Michelloui, at their respective blogs, have been discussing the English custom of immediately offering your guest a hot drink - something that just doesn't happen in America, where the electric kettle is almost unheard of. Go and read their wonderfully insightful posts here and here first (and the many fascinating comments). And then the lovely Michelloui asked if I would like to join in. Well, let's just say being invited to this particular tea party is definitely preferable to the Sarah Palin kind....

You see, even if our American friends have got over the fact that we like to offer them hot drinks, and begin to reciprocate, there is still a long way to go to understanding the British cult of tea. In an American household, you may be offered a herbal tea, or green tea - they will not, understandably, have plain black tea (although brands like PG Tips and Twinings are readily available here). You might be offered honey to sweeten it - or even milk, but that's probably because they know you are British, and let's face it, who wants to drink green tea with milk?

But, American friends, what you really need to understand is that our choice of tea - and the way we drink it- is riddled with centuries-old prejudices revolving around the dreaded British disease of class.

Here I must disclose that I grew up drinking Twinings Earl Grey tea. It was the brand my mother always bought; I didn't realise until much later that this was considered frightfully middle class, and by that time I was addicted. (When we arrived in the US, I brought three foodstuffs in my suitcase; Marmite, Weetabix and Twinings Earl Grey).

Given a choice, I will always go for Earl Grey (although never, ever 'Lady Grey', in my view a completely pointless, inferior made-up version). However, I am quite happy to drink less poncey teas - for example, Tetley or PG Tips. Note for Americans: this kind of tea, particularly if it is made very strong and comes with a good helping of sugar, is often known as builders' tea. (In the UK, builders drink tea. If you have builders in your home, you offer them tea and biscuits. And if you don't, they will probably ask for them). So, in some British households, you might be offered a choice of 'Earl Grey, or builders' tea' - others just assume you want one or the other.

As a child I remember reading Enid Blyton and there being discussions, among characters deemed to be 'snobbish', about 'China' vs 'Indian' tea. 'China' tea was thought to be more proper. But these distinctions seem to have fallen by the wayside, and it's all about brands now. Twinings is firmly middle class; PG Tips comes with a good dose of British humour (remember the ads with chimps?); Tetley is Yorkshire and no-nonsense. (Interestingly, in an effort to seem less snooty, Twinings launched a new tea a few years ago called Everyday Tea. They still got Stephen Fry to star in the ads, though.)

The order in which we add the milk is also ridden with class assumptions. I was always told it was more polite to make the tea first and then add the milk, although some people believe the opposite. My mother definitely thought it was the height of bad manners to put the milk and teabag in first, then add the hot water.

Then, of course, do you serve it in a proper teacup, with a saucer, or in a mug? This is definitely a generational thing. My grandparents would never have served tea in mugs. If we were having a posh tea party, with cake, my mother would have definitely have got the cups and saucers out, but if it was just us, we had mugs. Now, we drink out of mugs all the time. I do actually possess a set of Wedgewood cups and saucers - a wedding present- but they are rarely used. (But, Americans, rest assured that if you go and 'take tea' at the Ritz or Claridges, you will get nothing but the very best bone china. )

And then there's the question of teabags. Again, these used to be rather sneered upon by tea snobs - you made your loose leaf tea in a pot and then strained it. But, while you'd still get it at Claridges, I can't believe there are many families who would bother to make loose leaf tea now.

I do wonder what will happen in the next generation. I can't remember an age when I didn't drink tea, but you don't see children drinking it these days. My own boys refuse to try it. I suppose it's probably thought bad to give kids any kind of caffeine at all now, although I can't believe there's anything wrong with a weak cup of tea. So, will Britain lose its tea-drinking tradition? Will children move straight from apple juice to smoothies and then on to Starbucks? And with it, will all this knowledge, ceremony and tradition just disappear? I'd hate to think so.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Ice, ice baby

OK; I take it all back. I thought the snow was bad. But that was before I knew about the ice.

We had an ice storm yesterday (part of the huge, mega-snowstorm that seems to be covering the entire US east of the Rockies). Blithely unaware of the risks of ice, I ran outside yesterday in a bit of a hurry to pick up Littleboy 2 from preschool - only to find my car windscreen sheathed in about an inch of pure ice. There was no way the wipers would work, and we were out of de-icer; so, after managing to hack away about a four inch square, I had one of the scariest drives of my life with virtually no visibility until finally it started to melt.

This morning we awoke to another of those 5.30am phone calls - saying school was delayed by two hours. I looked out of the window and couldn't see any new snow- but, later, in the cold light of day, the ice was revealed. Our whole drive was a skating rink. Ice-melting salt appeared to be useless, so The Doctor went outside to hack away at it with a metal shovel until, finally, he was able to get the car down the drive in order to go to work. It made shovelling snow look like child's play. I now understand why Sharon Stone had an ice-pick in Basic Instinct. And as for that Sigourney Weaver film the Ice Storm? I can see how the weather might actually drive you to attend a key party.....

We now have the most gigantic icicles dangling from our roof (see above), so nobody, on pain of death, is allowed to stand anywhere near the house when outside.

Come back, snow, all is forgiven. Although I'm sure you will be back. I just don't believe that Groundhog when he said spring would be early this year.....