Wednesday 28 October 2009

Halloween mania, US style

I knew that America was crazy about Halloween. I really did. I mean, I've seen the movies, read the children's stories, and know from my experience writing about marketing that it's a really, really major deal here (and that the mania is extending more and more to the UK each year.)

But I still didn't really get it. I didn't realise how Halloween dominates the whole of the autumn season, with the first pumpkins and decorations appearing in the shops in late August; how the whole town would be talking about costumes from at least mid-September; how everything everywhere would be pumpkin-themed, including a special Pumpkin Spice latte at Starbucks (which, I have to say, sounds foul).

I wouldn't have predicted that we would get letters from preschool asking for the boys to wear their costumes all day on a particular day and bring in treats for the whole class. They were also given a special box asking us to collect for a particular charity 'when you go trick or treating'. (not 'if'). The Doctor, who claims not to be a fan of Halloween, looked at me in horror. "We're not really going to go are we?" " I think we're going to have to," I replied......)

I didn't realise that here, Halloween decorations for the home go beyond the odd carved pumpkin in a window. There are houses in our town with huge, inflatable witches and ghosts in their front gardens; entire spooky graveyards planted in their lawns; life-size skeletons sitting on their front porches; not to mention armies of pumpkins stretching from their front doors to the street. (We have two small pumpkins - one painted a series of 'interesting' colours by Littleboy1 - and are definitely letting the side down). No doubt they'll be replaced by equally impressive Christmas displays after the 31st- or maybe people have Thanksgiving decorations (inflatable turkeys)?

Now don't get me wrong. I do think Halloween is fun. I'm not being a Halloween Scrooge or a Halloween denier. My mother threw my sister and I a fantastic Halloween party as a child and it was probably the best party we ever had. I love apple bobbing, jack o' lanterns and all that stuff. And some of the decorations really are pretty (although not the inflatable witch).

But it seems to me that Halloween here has become practically the biggest festival of the year. There was nothing like this big a fuss about the big American holidays - the Fourth of July, for example. People seem to get excited about it in a manner that would only apply to Christmas in the UK. (Example: I belong to an online 'Moms' group for the town, and I've seen emails from mothers worrying - really STRESSING - about not being able to get a particular costume for their kids. And one of our neighbours was worrying two weeks ago, during a rainstorm, that the weather might not clear up in time for Halloween... )

And I do wonder if the day itself might even be an anti-climax, after so much feverish excitement. You can't even get a pumpkin in the supermarket this week - it's almost like we've moved on before it's happened.

Still, I'm willing to get into the Halloween 'spirit' for the time being, mainly because I know the Littleboys will love it. Maybe we'll even persuade The Doctor to come trick or treating. And who knows, maybe back in Nappy Valley in three years' time we'll be assembling giant inflatable pumpkins on our porch.....

Monday 26 October 2009


Well, the fall foliage certainly was stunning, up in northwest Connecticut. Of course there are autumnal landscapes in the UK, but the colours are definitely deeper up here, with more dark, dark red maples, together with leaves of pumpkin orange and other bright yellows that catch the sunlight, or sometimes even look more gorgeous standing out in contrast to a grey misty morning.

On our short 'leaf-peeping' trip, we stayed in a classic small New England 'country inn' in the beautiful Litchfield Hills, which to most Americans probably seemed like a real slice of the 'olde world', but to us was reminiscent of various elderly relatives' houses in the English countryside, all rickety wooden furniture, faux peeling plaster and iron bedsteads. It did, however, serve delicious breakfasts, with home-baked muffins and breads, and our hosts were friendly and welcoming.

I don't know why, but I always forget how going on holiday with small children is never relaxing. Eating in restaurants with them every night was particularly challenging; in their usual manner, the Littleboys were quite well-behaved until their food was finished, whereupon they wreaked havoc and usually had to be removed from the crime scene. Even on the night when we ate in our hotel, and then daringly stuck them upstairs with a DVD while we finished our meal, they reappeared, having been found wandering the stairs by a fellow guest (the embarrassment...). We never managed to get them to sleep in the adjoining room till after 9pm; whereupon we were quite ready for bed ourselves.

As they get older, the boys also resent being removed from their usual surroundings and routine; not having the right cereal for breakfast, a shower instead of a bath, no marble games. Littleboy 1 began asking on day 1 when we were going home again; his face shone with glee on the penultimate day when I told him we were going after breakfast the next morning. It's not that they didn't have a good time - they went to a safari park and petting zoo, walked in 'magic forests', crossed 'troll bridges', and even climbed a mini-mountain - but I guess they just couldn't see the point of being in a hotel that wasn't home. And although I enjoyed it, I'm not sure they really appreciated our excursion to L.L. Bean either - and neither did the staff there....

So in some ways, it feels good to be home again - and it also underscored that this really does feel like home now. Littleboy 1 in particular was delighted to be returning to Long Island after five whole days: and I notice that what he has been calling 'our new house' for the past five months has now become 'our new home'. And, crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge back to Long Island, the landscape seemed familiar and friendly.

We have all sorts of Halloween delights to look forward to this week. And, looking around the garden and the street today, I decided the fall colours here are pretty damn good as well.

Saturday 17 October 2009

It's a boy thing

When I was a little girl, my mother had a friend with two little boys about the same ages as me and my younger sister.

We would go round to their house to play. (They weren't called playdates then; a term I dislike, but am starting to adopt reluctantly as it's so much easier in America). These afternoons I always remember as rough, chaotic, and dominated by games involving war and fighting. There were toy trucks all over the place and plastic guns and swords. Nothing that I wanted to play with. There was always shouting and shoving and lots of running around. The brothers would fight, and beat each other up.

Growing up, we would hear more tales of these boys and their behaviour. One of them had dialled 999 and called the fire brigade. One of them had thrown a rock and broken a window in someone else's conservatory when they were house-hunting. My sister and I would listen in wide-eyed innocence at these tales (not that we weren't bad, far from it, but our naughtiness was on a much more subtle level). My mum would mutter that while she'd always wished for a boy herself, now she really felt for her poor friend, who was worn out by these two little devils.

And now? Ladies and gentlemen, I have started to realise that I am that mother. I am the one who mothers of girls stare at in sympathy and fascination. The one whose children have a volume switch permanently turned up to max, and are usually tearing around the room in over-excitement roaring like dinosaurs or brandishing toys as weapons.

And it is for that reason that I have come to the conclusion that I should only really pursue new 'playdate' friendships with fellow mothers of boys - and, preferably, boys the same age or older than mine, as the ones who have tiny little things don't realise yet what is in store. ("Just you wait," I thought recently when a Dad took it upon himself to admonish me because my boy was pushing in front of his on the slide - his 18month old looked like a bruiser-in-waiting).

When we have playdates with other little boys, it generally goes much better - the mothers are used to the aggression levels, decibels, throwing and general energy, and the boys usually have a good time playing with someone on their own wavelength. Somehow, they cancel each other out.

Of course, there are exceptions - I have several friends at home in the UK with girls, but they have generally known me for a while and my boys since they were babies, so more goodwill has built up over the years and I am not just perceived as 'that mother with the naughty boys'.
But in general, it's a bit like childbirth itself. It's not till you've experienced boys that you really know what they are like. And an invisible wall separates those who've been there from those who have not.....

*This post is sponsored by a playdate where, among other things, the boys: trod on a baby, constantly pretended to drill holes in the host Dad's head with a toy drill, which wore rather thin after a while, and chucked a basketball dangerously near to the brand-new looking widescreen TV....

Thursday 15 October 2009

TV Titbits Two; Flash Forward and Cougar Town

OK, so I haven't exactly fulfilled my mission of picking the best new US series on TV and reviewing them for future viewers in Britain.

I don't have a real excuse, other than that the Littleboys are still being bad about going to bed on time, so that there is often not time to watch much on TV. And I was going to review Flash Forward, and then I realised that in a rare moment of UK/US sychronisation, it's on Channel Five anyway. But, for the benefit of those not in the UK or US, can I just say that this one is a winner. A sort of mash-up of Lost, 24 and Heroes, it starts with the whole world blacking out for two minutes and having visions of their futures. Or, more specifically, of what they will be doing on a specific date in about six months' time.

It stars the rather gorgeous Joseph Fiennes (who I'm sure I once read an interview with saying he'd never sell out to Hollywood - times must be tough, Joe) and also Jack Davenport, Miles from This Life. (In fact one of the chief female characters is in a dilemma because she's married to Joseph, but in her vision of six months' time was having an affair with Jack. Hmmm - can't feel TOO sorry for her....)

Anyway, it's got it all - handsome hero, exciting premise, weird goings-on, philosophical debate (is what happens to us fated, random or of our own making, and does knowing the future make us make it happen?). I'm hooked.

What I can tell you - thanks to the New York Times -is that the series has been picked up by ABC for a full season, so it won't have to stop before we get to the date in question (which would have been a bit of a shame...).

The other series I was going to review was Cougar Town. This stars Courteney Cox as a fortysomething divorcee who starts shagging younger men. I thought it sounded like quite a laugh. And I've tried to like it, I really have. There have even been some funny lines in it. But, I'm sorry, Courteney Cox really annoys me in it. She's basically Monica from Friends on speed. I know it's supposed to be a comedy, but it's more like a cartoon - a kind of rollicking, thigh slapping cartoon about cartoon mums having affairs with young studs. Bring back The Graduate and Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson.

So I stopped watching Cougar Town. What else can I tell you? The new series of House is developing intriguingly, Mad Men series 3 is fabulous, Grey's Anatomy is dangerously close to jumping the shark (when they bring in a whole new lot of characters, you know things must be wobbly). I'm still vaguely pursuing the Julianna Margulies series, The Good Wife, and reserving my judgement. Other than that, I think the DVD section of the library might be doing quite well of me this winter....

Sunday 11 October 2009

Losing our marbles

Another weekend ritual has emerged. Every Sunday morning, The Doctor gets down on his hands and knees with a special handheld light, and examines the darkened spaces under the cupboards or radiator-covers, or the holes below the skirting boards. Then, as carefully as if he were performing a surgical procedure, he extracts them; marbles.

Littleboy 1 has long been obsessed by marbles, and now his brother is also starting to take a keen interest. We left an old-fashioned plastic Helter Skelter marble set behind in England (it was shared with his cousins) and promised him a new set when we reached America, partly as a way of easing the move for him. (Advisory warning: this strategy is not necessarily clever. From the moment we touched down at JFK, practically every hour he would be heard to ask: "Are we in America now? Can I have my marbles?")

Finally, in the depths of Virginia, we happened upon a magical little toyshop selling this. Quadrilla is, naturally, made in Germany and exhibits all the Vorsprung Der Technik you would expect of such a product. Not only do the marbles roll neatly and smoothly down curving wooden tracks, you can build all manner of intricate towers and structures.

The Littleboys are now experts in the field, far better at it than me. (I'm expecting great things of Littleboy 1 architecturally; he'd better become the next Richard Rodgers, and make pots of money to keep me in my old age). The Doctor is also madly in the love with the toy, and has secretly ordered an extension on Amazon as a present for when he returns from a conference in Europe next week. A present for the Littleboys, I mean. I think.

It's obviously a boy thing, because my father also spent many hours playing with the marbles during his visit with us the other week. The boys would start the day with a cry of "Where's Grandad? I want him to build a marble tower..." before Grandad was barely out of his bedroom and into the shower.

So it cannot be denied that the marbles have been a huge success. They keep the boys amused for hours, and have been deemed far more interesting, even, than Go, Diego, Go (and that's saying something in this house).

The only problem is that, particularly on the highly polished wooden floor of our living-room, they also have lives of their own. The Quadrilla set came with 50 marbles; so far we have permanently lost about 10. The others lurk quietly in the furthest corners of the house, somewhere in the dark patiently waiting to be found. We are forever diving onto our stomachs trying desperately to stop them rolling under something else, or being asked to extract them from some dusty far corner of under-the-sofa. In fact, the sound of rolling is enough to have me leaping up from whatever I'm doing screeching: "Oh God. Where's it going now....?"

And, about once a day, someone in the house is heard to cry: "Don't lose your marbles...!"

I'm beginning to understand the origins of that phrase.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Homework, with cultural adjustments

Two weeks into preschool, and Littleboy 1 is still keen on doing his homework. I can't complain. I, however, am struggling slightly.

One problem is his timing. He wants to do the homework either as soon as we walk in the door after school, or while I am trying to make his sandwiches for his lunchbox in the mornings. In other words, just at the point when there are a million and one other things to be done. Meanwhile, Littleboy 2 is understandably frustrated at all the attention his brother gets while doing it. So he sits with us at the dining room table and demands help with his drawings at the same time. Trying to explain to a four year old that he's supposed to colour the little 'a's red and the big 'A's yellow while simultaneously drawing a penguin for an insistent two year old is definitely a multi-tasking step too far for me.

Then there's the cultural issue. As a Brit parent, it's sometimes a little hard to work out what's going on in the homework book. It doesn't help that Littleboy 1 is remarkably uncommunicative about what's happened that day at school. (Example: for the past two days, he has barked like a dog whenever asked a direct question about school, with a look of wide-eyed innocence.)

This week he had been asked to 'draw a picture of 'Christopher Columbus and his three ships'. I presume they must have been discussing this at school, in relation to Columbus Day next week (another one of the frequent 'public' holidays here that are followed by the schools, yet not by The Doctor's work, leaving me with another whole day to find entertaining things to do. Grr.).

Littleboy 1 asked me, not unreasonably, to help him draw this picture. Now, never having been educated in American history I have very little knowledge of Christopher Columbus other than a vague memory that he sailed from Genoa. I don't think I even knew he had three ships.

"What does Christopher Columbus look like, then?' I ask Littleboy 1.
He considers, head cocked. "Fat," he finally decides. "With a big hat."
We proceeded by drawing a stick figure with a very large belly, as I wondered if he really had been shown a picture like that at school, or whether we were insulting America's revered founder by portraying him as obese...

Another piece of homework asked him to name 'three things you should do if your clothes catch on fire' and then 'draw a picture'. Now, as Littleboy 1 had come home wearing a paper fireman's hat, I thought it reasonable to assume that they had been learning about this at nursery. But when I asked him, he looked completely blank.

I racked my brains - three things? Jumping into a bathful of water? Dialling 911? Praying your clothes aren't cheap flammable ones from Primark?

I ask The Doctor when he gets home - surely he, a trained medic, would know.

He doesn't. So, we Google it.

It came up immediately, on websites everywhere- 'Stop, Drop and Roll'. Stop running, because the air will fan the flames. Drop to the floor, so the fire doesn't burn your face. And roll to put the flames out.

Now, neither of us have ever heard of this mantra (although it seems like an eminently sensible thing to learn). But clearly this must be something that all Americans are brought up with, a bit like the Green Cross Code. History has not yet related whether Littleboy 1 had in fact been taught this at school, (when asked, not a spark of recognition crossed his face) or whether we as the parents were just Supposed to Know.

It's hard, being a stranger in a strange land....

Sunday 4 October 2009

Poison ivy

Well, it had to happen sooner or later I suppose; Littleboy 1 has had a nasty brush with poison ivy.

One morning, we noticed that one side of his face had come up in a red, blistery rash with telltale scratches along it. One of his fingers was also badly affected, and there was a scratch on one leg - but then new blisters started popping up everywhere. Eventually he was dragged to the paediatrician (as that's what you do here - there are GPs, but they won't see kids), and prescribed oral steriods to dampen down the immune response. This felt quite draconian, but the paediatrician says we need to get on top of it, as it's a bad reaction. Meanwhile he's been incredibly brave, and in spite of the rash has behaved as his usual irrepressible self, bouncing around and playing with his beloved grandfather, who has been staying with us.

One of the most annoying things about poison ivy, which I hadn't known, is that the reaction is not instant, like good old British stinging nettles. It takes a few days to develop, so you don't automatically know which plant did the deed.

This is deeply frustrating. Ever since we've been here, I've been aware that there might be poison ivy around. But I've never been entirely sure about the plant. Obviously, I've looked at pictures on the internet, and know that it has three leaves, but there is an awful lot of ivy around here, and many similar-looking plants. Even local people haven't been entirely sure when asked to point it out. I've since found whole websites where people have posted photos of their backyards asking "is this it?"

So, I still don't know where exactly the culprit was (although I have my suspicions). But in a way it's amazing that it hasn't happened before, as Littleboy 1 is always throwing himself in bushes and undergrowth, both deliberately and accidentally. I suppose I'd grown cavalier about it - he never seemed to hurt himself, and so I didn't want playing in bushes to become yet another thing I have to constantly scold him about.

Now it's a different story. "Don't touch that plant," I nagged him as we walked in woods at the weekend. "Don't touch anything with leaves," I shouted as both boys shot off down some winding path. "In fact, don't touch ANYTHING green."

Ah, the joys of nature....