Thursday, 28 June 2012

A tribute to Nora Ephron

When I heard of the death of writer Nora Ephron at the age of 71 this week, I felt really quite sad. Perhaps partly because she died of the exact same disease my mother in law died of 12 years ago (acute myeloid leukaemia); perhaps because it seemed as if it had struck so suddenly (as I know this devastating disease can do). But mainly because I admired her work, and feel as if it's been a part of my life since my teenage years.

I first saw When Harry Met Sally at the cinema when it came out in the 80s, and it's still among my top five films. Whenever it's on TV (which is a fair amount) I'll watch it, and even though I've seen it at least 10 times, the dialogue still feels fresh and funny. It's still the ultimate romantic comedy, even though Billy Crystal isn't your typical leading man by any means and Meg Ryan, though pretty, has the most atrocious 80s hairstyles throughout. That's a testament to Ephron's writing, which is natural, entertaining and never patronising. It's so superior to any romantic comedy to come out of Hollywood in the last 10 years - those forgettable movies, starring Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson or suchlike, pale in comparison. My favourite scene isn't the orgasm scene though, notorious as it has become. I'd rather post something like this clip below, where Harry and Sally try out a first-generation karaoke machine.

While I wasn't quite so enamoured of her 90s comedies, such as You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, I also loved Heartburn, starring Meryl Streep, based on Ephron's book about her breakup with journalist Carl Bernstein. It led me to read the novel, which is searingly sharp, funny and sad at the same time, and I began to feel like I really knew this woman. She didn't mince words; she was honest about her life; in fact, a bit like a really great female blogger. No wonder she later got into blogging and even made a film about a blogger (the excellent Julie and Julia).

Two years ago I took my sister to see the off-Broadway production of Love, Loss and What I Wore, written by Ephron and her sister Delia. A series of monologues about women and their relationship with their wardrobe, it was fabulous and confirmed my heartfelt admiration of her writing, sense of humour and ability to encapsulate what it is to be female.

Reading her obituaries this week (and there are many; this was a woman revered by the New York intelligentsia in particular), I was struck by how she managed both to be a nice person with tons of loyal friends, about whom no-one had a bad word to say, and a feisty woman who succeeded in the a male-dominated worlds of first journalism and then film. She set the agenda for women in media; when she first worked at Newsweek, she had to take a job as a mailroom girl, because they didn't allow women to write for the magazine. Now, Newsweek has merged with Tina Brown's Daily Beast and Brown is editor-in-chief of both titles.

So, RIP, Nora. A great writer, and a great female role model.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Littleboy language

School came to an end last week - a rather sudden and abbreviated end, thanks to a freak two day heatwave, that meant they were sent home early on the penultimate day. (Only the final day, they attend only for an hour, then come home, due to some strange New York State rule that only serves to infuriate all working parents). For the last few days, the boys came home laden with all manner of artworks, notebooks and creations from throughout the school year. Pieces of pottery; a papier-mache elephant; lots of drawings of Angry Birds (the teacher must think I do nothing but let them play iPad games).

But most interesting of all to me were their daily composition journals. These were not only very revealing in terms of what they chose to write about (who knew that having hot dogs would be more memorable than whale watching?) but also showed just how much their writing, spelling and general ability to express themselves has improved over the year. Littleboy 1's writing in particular has become much neater, although much of his spelling still flummoxes me (and makes me laugh - 'Virginia' rendered as 'Bug-inya' was a particular favourite).

Littleboy 2's spelling is still very phonetic and often puzzling, not helped by the fact that sometimes letters are back to front. But, bizarrely, the boys seem to have an intuitive grasp of each other's spelling. Take Littleboy 2's picture/essay, above. Any idea? I could work out that it included the words 'brother' 'on' and 'the', but was otherwise none the wiser. As I was looking at the book with him, Littleboy 1 marched over and took a look. Bear in mind it had just come home from school, so he had never seen it before. He translated effortlessly: 'In Smugglers' Notch, I saw my brother on the chairlift'. (Once you've got that, the picture also makes sense. Smugglers' Notch is the ski resort we went to at Christmas).

Clearly they share a language I don't understand......

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Gallery: Family Reunion

Our family might seem as British as they come, but it is a little-known fact that my husband has American roots. His grandmother was from a Virginian family, but grew up in Japan and eventually married an Englishman. She, however, had many brothers and sisters who remained in Virginia and so he has a whole cohort of second and third cousins down there.

It also turns out that the Virginia family was related to James Madison, the fourth president of the USA. And this weekend, a group of Madison Family descendants got together at Madison's Virginia estate, Montpelier, for a reunion.

A few weeks ago we received an invitation via email, and decided to go. It's a long journey just for the weekend, but it sounded too fascinating to miss. Besides, the Doctor and I love Virginia. We first went there on holiday when we were still students, and met his family; we took the boys there when we first arrived in the States. His relatives mostly live in a relatively small area, between the college town of Charlottesville and the Blue Ridge Mountains; the scenery is stunning, and the welcome is always friendly.

So on Saturday morning, (after a manic drive that involved roaring through rural Virginia due to closed roads and traffic jams), we arrived at Montpelier just in time for the 'family photograph' on the steps of the grand Southern mansion. There were people there from far and wide; Virginia, further South, the Northeast and even New Orleans. Elderly ladies with charming Southern accents; kids running around. Apart from the relatives we'd met before, we didn't know any of them, yet it was strange to think that they were all somehow related to The Doctor and also to the Littleboys. There was also a distinct family resemblance between some of the men; one distant cousin came up to The Doctor and said she knew it must be him, because 'you look like everyone else'.

The weekend continued with lunch, tours of the house (which is now open to the public, and styled in the way Madison might have lived in it) and gardens, and a lecture on Madison by a man who had written a book on him (which I had to miss because there was no way the boys would sit through it); The Doctor went, and learned more about his illustrious ancestor, who was integral to the writing of the US Constitution. The evening consisted of cocktails on the lawn before a delicious Southern-style dinner (while the boys got babysitting, pizza and a movie - perfect). We spent the night with some of The Doctor's cousins, before returning to Montpelier the next day for a final lunch.

It was odd, but interesting, to be at a family reunion at which most people were strangers. The boys had a great time, but I don't think they quite understood why we were there (although I bought them a children's book about Madison from the gift store to try and put it in context). I wonder what Madison would have thought of all these people gathering at his home, nearly two centuries on?

This post is for The Gallery at Sticky Fingers; topic, family.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Manhattan madness.

I love living out on Long Island, but sometimes I wish that we made more of being close to Manhattan and went into the City more often. But over the past few days I've had a really good dose of New York moments, enough to keep me sated for weeks.

Saturday morning saw me leave home at 6am with a group of friends for a women only 10K race in Central Park. I enjoyed this more than I ever could have imagined. From the scrum of the start line, where 6,000 women waited to begin the race listening to someone sing The Star Spangled Banner; to the fabulousness of running round the entirety of the Park, cheered on by supporters with placards, as well as random dog-walkers; running past such New York landmarks as the Museum of Natural History and the Met; to the final stretch towards Tavern on the Green, where the race ended with bagels, Gatorade and ice lollies. It was truly inspiring, and the whole experience filled me with such extra energy that I managed to record my fastest average pace ever (although Paula Radcliffe need not worry for the moment).

Afterwards, seven sweaty women headed off for brunch at a nearby hotel (having changed into sundresses and squirted ourselves with lots of deodorant and mist spray in the loos); gorging on Eggs Benedict after an hour's run made it all doubly worthwhile.

Later that day (having finally showered at home) I was headed back into the City, this time with the Doctor and his brother and my sister-in-law. We were off to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center to watch the American Ballet Theater's production of Onegin. As we ascended the subway escalator straight into Lincoln Center it was like entering another world; one of culture, wealth and privilege in contrast to the grimy subterranean world of the subway. The Met building was gorgeously opulent - all red velvet carpets and people drinking champagne in glamorous gowns; in the interval you could stand on a balcony overlooking the Lincoln Center courtyard with its beautiful fountain, or, for the real ballet fanatics, buy used ballet shoes from the Met shop. (I wasn't tempted, but did treat myself to a glass of cava just to feel part of the whole scene). The ballet itself was excellent; I'm not an expert on ballet by any means but the set, costumes and dancing were all incredible and, thanks to watching Ralph Fiennes in the film version some years ago, I actually knew the story of Onegin, which helps.

As if this wasn't enough to feast on, I was back in the city last night for a work-related reception at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Here was a chance to view the great and good of the creative industry in their most glamorous finery, knocking back cocktails and appetisers in the amazing setting of MoMA's bright white atrium.

Ah well. Back to the world of piano practice and grocery shopping for the next few days. But meanwhile I'm plotting something for The Doctor's 40th which will involve Manhattan again - and this time just for the two of us. The last time we stayed in the City as a couple was in 1995 at the YMCA; we ate at a greasy diner off Times Square. Hopefully this time will be just slightly more glamorous.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Hurtling towards summer.

After Memorial Day, which signifies the official start of summer in the USA, the last few weeks of term seem to hurtle downhill towards the long summer break. When I read blogs by people in England, who are only just having half term now, it reminds me how the shape of the school year here is just so different.

 In the last few weeks of term come all manner of things that need to be attended by parents; Field Day (aka sports day), the school Art Show, summer parties, kindergarten ‘graduation’. Outside of school, there are dance recitals and music recitals (Americans love a good kiddie recital); having thought we'd done all ours in May, Littleboy 1 has now been asked to perform in another one, so it's back to the manic practising.

The teachers have given up on homework, even though we still have two weeks left of school; the kids come home reporting of having watched the High School Play performed in their auditorium all day, or having extra 'free choice'. Meanwhile, parents are busy buying teacher presents and making playdates with people they’ve meant to ask round all year but haven’t quite managed to.

At the same time we’re getting ready for camp, with orientations to attend, online conversations about nametape labels, trips to buy insulated lunchboxes and the like. This year, the Littleboys start camp the Monday after finishing school on the Friday. (The Doctor says this reminds him of a Peanuts strip where they run out of school yelling ‘school’s out!” only for Lucy to say “Oh, there’s the bus for camp!”). 

While it’s a bit of a shame they don’t get a break, I don’t feel too sorry for the boys. Having looked around their camp the other day, I decided I would be quite happy to spend my summer swimming twice a day, riding ponies and doing obstacle courses in the woods. Instead of which, I’ll be continuing with work until August, when I hope to take a well-earned break (aka looking after the boys and being splashed by manic children at the town pool every day). These long American summers may not be designed for parents, but they're heaven for kids.

Monday, 4 June 2012

A changing skyline.

On a trip to Manhattan this weekend, we made a quick detour on our way to Battery Park, where we were meeting my brother in law and family who have been staying. We walked down past the World Trade Center site and looked at the new One World Trade Center tower which has suddenly (it seems) sprung up and is now swiftly coming to dominate the lower Manhattan skyline. (You can see it on the left of the photo above, taken later that day from the Staten Island Ferry).

Although we didn't have time to go in to the September 11th Memorial Plaza on this occasion, we stood far below the new tower and gazed up. It seemed hard to believe, on a quiet summer afternoon, that just over ten years ago this was a place that exploded into horror; that people all around these streets would have been running, escaping as the towers collapsed.

I had been wondering how to explain why we were there to the boys. I've heard people around here say that they haven't taken their kids to Ground Zero and don't know how to tell them about it - but in my experience of these things, children can take often information like this in their stride. In the end I decided just to tell them straight what happened; I said some bad people flew planes into the previous buildings deliberately, and they fell down, and now they were building a new one. As I predicted, while they obviously found it confusing news, they didn't seem too upset or traumatised - I expect that, to them, it sounded a bit like a storyline out of Spider Man or Batman.  (But they knew it was  a sombre subject. Later, I heard Littleboy 1 talking to one of his cousins very solemnly about the 'twin brothers', as he called the twin towers. He'd obviously taken it all in).

I told the boys that they might hear people at school mention "9/11", and if they did, then this was what they were referring to - but the boys said they hadn't ever heard of it. In truth, nearly everyone we know here was affected by it. Many of our local friends lived in the city at the time, or worked downtown near the World Trade Center. But it was so traumatic an event that it is barely mentioned by New Yorkers. And when it is, most people just shudder and quickly change the subject. It's not one of those 'where were you when JFK was shot/Diana died' conversations. It's too close to home.

Nevertheless, the fact that a new tower is now rising from the ashes of Ground Zero shows that New York is moving on. The terrible events of September 11,2001 will clearly not be forgotten in our lifetime. But this city is resilient, and pretty soon the new skyline may become as iconic as the old one.

Friday, 1 June 2012

'Mummy bloggers' do have a voice. #Syria

When I started this blog back in 2008, I had no idea I was becoming a 'Mummy Blogger'. I had read a couple of things about blogging, and decided to start a humorous journal about the area in which i was living (London's 'Nappy Valley'). Little did I know that there was a small (at that time) and relatively select group of women all blogging about parenthood, raising families and just generally the state of womanhood at a certain age. After discovering a few of them, linking to their blogs and getting some hilarious comments on mine in return, I happily fell into their ranks.

Since then, the UK parent blogging scene has exploded. There are literally thousands of blogs; there's an annual conference (BritMums, to which I have never actually made it, being marooned in the US); there are forums, awards, events and an entire flotilla of PRs dedicated to targeting us. There has been some negative publicity too, about bored stay-at-home housewives with nothing better to do, bloggers stealing jobs from 'proper' paid journalists (of which I am one, and I don't agree with this at all); mummies wasting time on the internet while their kids are parked in front of the TV (as opposed to Dads surfing the net for hours at work while their wife looks after the kids).

But I believe 'Mummy Blogging' is an important movement. It has given a voice to thousands of intelligent women with opinions - not just about child-rearing, but about the world, about the role of women, about life in general - that ought to be heard. And never is that more important than when there's a global issue that needs to be shouted about. I'm talking about Syria.

Today, the Mummy blogging community is coming together to make a stand about the horrors that are taking place in Syria - the massacres, particularly of children, that the world is standing by and hearing about without (so far) intervention.

From a US perspective, I've been reading about the situation, and about why Obama has hesitated, in the New York Times today. The article makes many interesting points, including that the Syrian army is a much more daunting force than, say, Libya, being strong militarily and helped by the Russians. But it also argues that this could be Obama's Bosnia; that there is a point at which, despite any misgivings about intervention, the powerful countries of the world cannot stand by. And I agree. Have we learned nothing from the past? Do we really want another Bosnia, another Rwanda, which we'll be looking back on in 10 years, aghast that we did nothing to step in earlier?

If you feel like this too, then go and read this post and this post and this post. And spread the word. And re-tweet. Because we female bloggers are a powerful voice in social media. And we've seen over the past year what social media can do in times of political strife. This time, we're not prepared to stand and watch.