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Dinger vs. Buzzer

8 Sep

Last Saturday night I volunteered to go on-stage during an improv show.  It was only the second-ever improv show for me and I admit, I was only there because I was being nice to a dear friend who was visiting.  I don’t know what possessed me to volunteer.  I think I was worried that no one else would.  Anyway, I was there because the troupe included a high school buddy of my friend and yadda, yadda, there I was on-stage being interviewed. 

“Do you have any children?”  she politely started.  “Yes, I have two boys.  The oldest is living with me, the youngest is at UNC-W.”  “Oh,” she went on, “What does he do?” “He’s a barrista at a local coffee shop.”  “And what do you do?”  “I teach 8th grade.”  “Are you married?”  “Yes, my husband is currently living in London.” And so it went for a few more questions, when I it suddenly dawned on me. “Oh my god.  Are you going to act out my life?”  

It turns out that they were indeed going to attempt to recreate the mayhem that is my life, on stage as an improv act, but they wanted me to guide the acting.  They sat me at a small table with a bell and buzzer. I was instructed to ring the bell when they got it right, or hit the buzzer when they were off track.  DInging would cause them to continue in that direction even pouring it on a little more, and buzzing would cause them to correct the course.  

The act opened with a very sexy Latino man promenading across the stage.  My first thought was “Who is he supposed to be?”  Ha!  Me?  “Can I ding the choice of players?  If I do will look more like him?”  Then, he pretended to write on a chalkboard. Bzzz.  <course correction>  He opens a laptop.  Thank you, this is 2012.  Ding!  He addresses the class and I ding him into being nice and enjoying it. There were a few laughs.

The second act included two lanky guys pretending to make espresso and discussing “Hey dude,  what should we get Mom for her birthday.”  BUZZZZZZZZZZZ!  -as if my boys even realize I have a birthday.  <course correction> “Hey dude, I think we missed Mom’s birthday.” Ding! Ding!  The audience started to get into it.

The finale was a raucous depiction of my home life that included a woman pretending to be Steve on Skype while Mr. Handsome pretended to drink coffee.  I liked it!  Ding, ding, ding.  Then Steve and I were totally upstaged by the dogs humping each other with great gusto.  Ding! Ding! Ding!  That about summed it up.  I have to admit, laughing at the absurdity of it all made facing Monday much easier!

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Last Hoorah in England 2012

9 Jul
The Worcester Valley

Overlooking the English countryside on a summer day

Tomorrow is it. In 24 hours, I will be queueing up at Heathrow for my flight home. I have a one way ticket back to the heat and humidity of North Carolina, the mad pace of work, friends, family, children and business as usual. My Dodge caravan will replace my bicycle and my clothes will be dried with electricity allowing me to put ironing back where it belongs – out of my mind. Culture shock, here I come – again!

Of course, I have very mixed emotions about this decision to return to the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I have missed my people terribly, especially all those who could not visit. I have pined for my sons, worried over my mother, and ached over not seeing all those nieces and nephews who have been born and those who are growing up so fast. But most of all, I have been lost without my work.  Who knew how important it is to have a purpose and a meaning to your daily life?   I am an educator.  I belong in a school, and ultimately that is what is calling me home.  Whew, I feel like I am in confession!

What made the decision quite difficult is what I am leaving behind – besides Steve, duh! As predicted, I have made some wonderful and important local friends: upstairs neighbors, Delia and Luca; Steve’s cyber-buddy  incarnate, Jenny Edwards; the infamous Micca Paterson, introduced to me by Dani Black; and of course, the Infields, our Battersea neighbors and British counterparts who are luckily American-phyles.  Invaluable as my network the past six months, I am so grateful for the advice, travel tips, outings and times these dear people have shared with me. It is these connections that make living in a foreign country worthwhile in the end.

Home of the Mappa Mundi, Magna Carta, and a chained library

So, on my final weekend Catharine and Paul Infield arranged a tour of “our favourite (here’s to “u,” Paul) part of Britain and some places American tourist don’t often know to go.”  Who could say no to that? As always, we had a fantastic time with our dear friends.

First stop, the Cotswalds.  The Costwalds are a region of rural England where the stone is a buttery color and so all the buildings look bathed in sunlight, even through the fine drizzle.  We stopped in a beautiful little village called Burford in Oxfordshire and nipped in and out of a couple of shops. Then it was off to Hereford.  The cathedral in Hereford houses the Mappa Mundi (a medieval depiction of the intersection of the physical and spiritual world), one of four original Magna Carta presented to King John in 1217, and the largest and one of the only chained libraries in England.  I couldn’t help but think of several friends who are media specialists – forget checking out books, they are all chained to the shelves. I adore this kind of museum at Hereford.  There are three things to see, each one magnificent and awesome, then there is a cafe right by the door where you can have a cup of tea and a slice of cake afterwards. Perfect!

In the late afternoon, we arrived at Catharine’s childhood home where we added her mother to our group. She is 84 years-old and just booked her winter holiday – a cruise down the coast of West Africa. (British folks of advanced age taking holiday – to get your head around it, I recommend this movie).

Catharine’s childhood home near Bromyard

Now with five people smushed into a VW Golf, we dashed along single lane roads, some unpaved, to our Bed and Breakfast.  We ditched our bags, jumped back in the car, and went to Ludlow Castle  for an outdoor performance of Much Ado About Nothing.  We arrived early along with most of the others, to enjoy a picnic along the castle wall before the start of the show.  A British picnic includes sandwiches, various bits of fruit and veg with dips, and of course, wine with real glasses.  As we enjoyed our nibbles, the rain commenced.  Let me just interject here, that when I read a forecast, I interpret a 50% chance of rain to mean that it is likely to rain at some point during the day and then stop.  In Britain, 50% denotes that it will rain half the day.  Most likely, at 15 to 30 minute intervals. The Brits are nonplussed by precipitation.  The rain begins to fall, they put up their hoods.  It falls heavier, faster or for more than five minutes, they put up their umbrellas (affectionately called brollies). So the play started in the open arena of the castle ruins with a slow drizzle falling, and the audience sat, closed their umbrellas (because blocking the view would be rude and unheard of) quietly watching as the cast got on with the performance.  After about 20 minutes, the water began streaming off hats and jackets and the ground turned to mud.  Rows and rows of people of all ages, sat patiently and enjoyed the performance as the rain continued to fall through the interval and pool in the chairs they had vacated to go buy beer, wine and hot chocolate.  After thirty more minutes, the dedicated fans returned to their seats, pulled out towels and napkins, dried the seats and settled in for the second half which promised to be chilly as the sun was now setting.  As the cast streamed back on stage tromping through the muddy middle aisle, I realized how absolutely delighted I was to be there.  I felt like a pig in the mud, maybe a reference too close to the truth, as I soaked up the Shakespeare in the drizzle against the backdrop of the castle.

Our day on Sunday was equally delightful. After chasing a hare around Catharine’s mother’s garden, we drove to Malvern to enjoy breath-taking views of the Worcester valley. Then, we visited a black and white pub called The Fleece in Evesham.  (Steve wants to write about the pub experience in his blog. Now that I am leaving, he will have his evenings to hopefully get back to some writing.  I know I have droned on long enough so I will leave the pub depiction to him).  In the afternoon, we skirted around the grounds of Blenheim Palace before driving back into London as if following the rainbow.  Yep, I almost burst into tears looking at a double rainbow which looked as if it ended at Clapham Common. I am definitely having a love affair with England so if I still seem far away after I wake up where the clouds are far behind me, please be patient.  I am truly torn between two countries.

Here are some other photos from the weekend showing the beauty of the English countryside in Summer.

Storming Provence

7 Jun

A couple of months ago, I went to Paris for the first time since 1989.  While I was there, I kept thinking about the fact that Paris was spared during the Blitzkrieg and is thus physically unmarred by battle scars.  I am no history buff, so mostly my imagination wandered in and out of bits of movies I had seen about the deals made to save Paris, the Resistance, the Germans, the ugliness of WWII. Somehow, I projected a sense of defeat onto Paris of today – as her looks fade, the ghosts of her occupation haunt.

Dad was not quite a teen-ager when D-Day happened.  He was a history buff and so his affection for France, I believe in part, came from his indelible memories of triumphant American and Allied forces. His early impressions were shaped by listening to broadcasts on the radio, and it was these memories of WWII and the pressing urgency of the Korean War that sent him to join up as soon as he legally able.  His deep sense of patriotism and his commitment to never let a tyrant dictator rule his country or any other, fueled his passion to serve.  After 23 years in the Navy he retired and enjoyed a second career, still in government service. This second career afforded him the opportunity to travel for pleasure.  So in the spring of 1989, he  and my mother (along with my youngest brother who was 16 and my oldest sister who was 33) flew to Paris and boarded a train south.  I met them at the station in Montpellier where Steve and I were spending a year abroad. Mom and half their luggage rode with me in my Renault 4. Dad rented a Citroen sedan and followed me back to Domain de Lussac, an 18th century chateau on the outskirts of Montpellier in Languedoc Roussilon, just adjacent to Provence in Southern France. We had rented the one bedroom apartment in the North Tower.

So when I recently was able to return to Montpellier for the first time since I left 23 years ago, I was flooded with memories of my family’s visit, and especially Dad.  My favorite is of the afternoon we heard some kids playing in the courtyard inside this gate.  The kids had a bat and were arranging themselves in a game of cricket, I think.  I was busy preparing dinner for six and not paying much attention.  The next thing I knew, Dad was in the courtyard using hand gestures and broken French and English to organize the kids in a game of baseball.  I looked out just in time to see him get a hit and run the bases.  We hung out the window and cheered loudly.

On our recent trip, we nearly replicated my family’s tour  from 1989. We explored central Montpellier: La Place de la Comedie, Le Perou, a cafe or two.  We walked around with baguettes under our arms, and ate olives at every chance.  We toured the region: St. Gilheim le Desert, and Pont Diablo.  We did not make it to Avignon, and Nimes; nor did we attempt to drive to Spain.  Yes, on one of the days my dad was in Montpellier, he talked me into riding with him to Spain.  He said he wanted to drive really fast.  Who can say no to that?  We got on the tollway early, and I learned Dad was not kidding.  In no time, we were going 110 mph.  At first I was terrified, then I remember feeling really Zen about it.  How poetically tragic it would be to die on a highway in a foreign country while my own father was driving.  I leaned back into the seat and thought how lucky I would be to die so happy.

And that is exactly how I felt during this trip. I could not stop smiling, just like my dad smiled while he was there. Being in Southern France brings me a kind of inexplicable happiness and peaceful feeling.  I love the abundance of sun, the bounty of fresh food, the natural beauty everywhere, the slow pace.  And I love that the place holds such happy memories of my dad.  I am one of the truly lucky ones to have these memories of my dad happily vacationing in France, and not dying there as part of an invasion. For that, I am thankful.

It’s the people not the things…

31 Jan

This is my husband, Steve, standing in front of the Tower Bridge in East London . . .

Living in London is amazing.   Having moved from a small rural town in North Carolina, I have to admit that city life is all I had hoped and not much of what I had feared.  The restaurants, museums, monuments, ethnic markets, public transport and all the all other accoutrements of modern urban planning, design, and development layers over centuries of rich history are amazing.  In addition, I feel safe and relatively healthier and happier than spending hours every day in my car trying to get work or wherever I needed to go – leaving a huge fossil footprint and traveling the same roads, over and over again.  But there is a down-side.

I came here to accompany him: the guy in the picture.  I love him and after all things considered, living apart was not really worth the toll, especially on him.  Plus, an opportunity to live in this amazing city with all its history and art and architecture, not to mention proximity to other amazing places, just could not be passed up.  But I came without a plan, without a mission and without an anchor except him.  Weeks into it, I have not made much progress with finding a “raison d’etre.”  Everyone keeps telling me I will.  I am keeping an open-mind.

A close friend recently sent me a note and asked if there was anything from home I missed that she could send in a care package. Such a sweet offer, but the answer is simple: I miss my friends and family terribly.  I don’t really miss any of the stuff or even the places of home.  It’s the people not the things, I miss.  What fun is all this if I can’t share it?  Being the super-extravert I am, I find little joy in doing things alone.  I thought Facebook would be a great venue to quip back and forth with people about the experience, but its not really turning out that way.  A picture does not allow for that moment of pushing your elbow into someone’s ribs and saying “Did you see that?”  Many of things I want to share — like the way people dress (women who wear leggings, boots, coats and not much more, men who have obviously attended scarf-tying school, and these beautiful children all dressed up in school uniforms riding scooters everywhere) well, it would be strange and inappropriate to be snapping pictures of them.

The guys who hang out on the Common and drink beer all day did ask me to take their picture.  These two posed and even invited me to join them.  I am not at that point, yet — though they do seem to be having a lot of fun.

So much of my day really is a “you had to be there” kind of thing.  Facebook especially can’t convey the absurdity and hilarity of the moment when I realize someone is speaking English but I can’t understand a word of it.  I guess I am too old and self-conscious to just burst out laughing alone. So, I am saving it all up, hoping lots of you get your passports and make a plan.  I am right here waiting to share it all.

Christmas Eve in London

25 Dec

We dashed across Trafalgar Square at 5:40 on Christmas Eve and found the line heading into St. Martin in the Fields wrapped around the corner. Cheerful ladies waited at the door handing out 16 page programs with all the hymns, readings and poems printed out. They had printed exactly 870 programs, the maximum number allowed inside the church by the fire marshall. We were close to the last ones admitted and almost had to split into pairs to find a seat before another couple vacated an aisle bench that held all four of us. We sat down and immediately were startled that the bench might give way before we realized it was permanently leaning forward from years of wear. We had to plant our feet squarely on the floor in front of us to keep from slipping out.

The church was filled to capacity. The balcony surrounding the perimeter was teeming. The service was not scheduled to start until 6:30, but at 6, a woman I could not see began to address the crowd. In a thick British accent she said, “Well, the service is not scheduled to begin until 6:30, but since you all have come so early, and there so very many of you here who seem to want to stay, we thought we would conduct a rehearsal. And since this is a carol service, we will see if you are good singers. Those of you who are not will be asked to leave and we will bring in the others who are waiting outside to see if they can sing better.” The crowd erupted into laughter. Ah, Christmas cheer. She wasn’t kidding, though. She turned the service over to the choir director who had us practice “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.” He abruptly stopped us halfway into the first verse and threatened to have us removed if we did not pipe up and really sing. He then led us through several verses of other carols, intermittently praising and scolding us into better singing.

The service did finally start at 6:30 and became a bit more serious, though there were moments of humor. We prayed for the members of the church who were ill and for Queen Elizabeth and all of Europe for teetering on the brink of financial disaster. I wondered if any church services at home were praying for our leaders, who I hear treated themselves to a vacation instead completing the work at hand.

The sermon was about giving gifts and getting it right when it comes to giving from the heart. It struck me because Christmas shopping this year flummoxed me. I usually take great joy and care in searching out and finding just the right thing for people I love. This year, each time I tried, my head would spin and I would literally have to leave the store and go cry in my car. I was overwhelmed with the thought of missing my family, missing my friends, missing my life as I know it and knew that any gift exchange would simply amplify these feelings. I bumbled through my good-byes in the days just before Christmas and got lost in a fog of jet lag after I arrived.

When I finally awoke on Christmas Eve, I was in St. Martin in the Fields surrounded by 866 strangers, my husband and sons, all singing Christmas carols. The choir was indescribably beautiful as their voices rose and fell in the beautiful vaulted and domed ceilings around the church.

My favorite new carol is called “Little Donkey.” It is a hymn of encouragement for the donkey who carried Mary to the stable. I had never heard of it before, but listening to my 18 year-old son belt it out on Christmas Eve in London is sure to become a lasting favorite Christmas memory for me.

Little Donkey, little donkey on the dusty road.
Got to keep on plodding onwards with your precious load.
Been a long time, little donkey through the winter’s night
Don’t give up now, little donkey, Bethlehem’s in sight.

The Oldest

28 Nov

Curly Top MohawkI am getting ready to part with the first computer I ever bought for myself. It is an iMac desktop with a built in camera – the first of its kind. Readying for our parting includes a nostalgic review of files on the hard drive. I have a folder dedicated to letters I wrote to my oldest son about his lack of attention to his grades, his chores, and other people’s feelings. As I review them, I am transported back to the agonizing days of his teen-aged years.

He was moody and hard-headed and funny as hell. While he was never in real trouble, he pushed us to the limits of our parenting skills. I often say that first kid is like the first pancake, you should just toss it out and bank on the second one being better. When he was a baby, my husband and I took a job as “professional parents” at a group home for emotionally disturbed adolescent boys, so our bar was pretty low in retrospect. Don’t burn down anything, steal anything, shoot anyone, and it will probably be okay. When Aaron was in 11th grade, he was really struggling with some anxiety issues and he had locked himself into an identity as a proud under-achiever. The problem was he wanted to go to college, and he knew all those applications would include transcript requests. He buried all his worries way down into his lower lumbar region resulting in wrenching lower back pain. During a bad episode I finally took him to the ER at Duke. After the CT scan, we were asked to sit down in the consulting room – never a good sign.  Turns out, not only did he not have a kidney stone, he did not have a kidney.  Yep, my perfect baby, who according to an ultrasound at 32 weeks gestation had all his vital organs, had manage to lose it by the age of 17.  It was baffling, and unimportant according to the doctors.  Ten percent of the population has only one and most never know.

Last Christmas, we  were visiting with relatives and recounting the head-spinning tale.  “So what happened to his kidney?” my sister-in-law exclaimed. Just when my husband was ready to deliver his punchline (he had cooked up several funny explanations about how Aaron had left it in his locker, his book bag or it was with his socks which had all become singles after being pairs), Aaron walked by.  In complete deadpan, Aaron says, “My parents sold it on the internet.”   I knew then he would be just fine.

Staying warm and other metaphors

16 Nov

KM- “Did you get a package from me?”  Me- “No, was I supposed to get a package?” KM – “I felt bad that you have been cold so I ordered you an electric blanket – it should have been there by now.”

A down comforter, a space heater, a fluffy white blanket, a coat, ski gloves and nearly an electric blanket…the list of things my dear friends have bestowed on me in the past seven weeks is long.

This is odd because I am not a cold-natured person.  My husband used to refer to me as “the furnace” because of my tendency to radiate.  I used to relish the feel of cold tile on my feet in the mornings as I padded bare-footed into the bathroom.  I loved the chill of crispy cold sheets and have been known to flip my pillow over just to feel the cool side of an untouched pillow case. Cold is not usually what I am – in any sense of the word -at least not until recently.

In early October when I became the tenant of my dear friend in her 100 (+) year-old house in Hillsborough, North Carolina, I expected my first night to be sleepless.  I thought I would struggle because I had said good-bye to my darling for what was an unknown length of time – at that point it was looking like three months; but in reality, I tossed and turned all night because I was freezing.  No husband, record low temperatures, and a drafty old house added up to no sleep for me.  The next day, I told a friend I had been chilly and she loaned me a giant fluffy blanket to put on my bed.  That made things better mostly  because I realized that I am not really on my own even though I am.  On night two my new landlady/old friend came home and I mentioned it to her.  We both laughed when she realized that the heat in the house had actually been off.  She felt terrible and gave me free reign over the thermostat.  With that, I was ready to snooze the night away. Fluffy white blanket weighing me down, thermostat adjusted,  so imagine my surprise when night two found me freezing again.  Extra blankets, adjusted thermostat, still cold…what the?

At this point my husband had been gone a full two days.  He had flown away to live in London and I stayed behind having decided to enjoy a period of simplicity. Well, the real reason I stayed was because I was too nervous to leave.  We have one son who is a brand-new freshman in college and the other who moved into his first house with roommates, bills, and pets to deal with.  It seemed like a good idea to stay on the continent at least until the dust settled.  And alas, my life did get pretty simple.  I went from 2500 square feet to 125; from a family of four to just me; from well over $200 a week in groceries to next to nothing; from five loads of laundry every weekend, to one point five.  My new place is simple.  It has a computer at a small desk, a bookcase, the remnants of our liquor cabinet (providing a definite college dorm-feel) and my bed.   My bed is cozy if small, a little twin flocked with a girly quilt and extra pillows. By all accounts, my life is so much simpler and I am enjoying it.   It’s just that I am cold – unimaginably and inexplicably cold.

Obviously, I keep talking about it and my friends keep trying to fix it.  During a visit with another friend, she also commented on the temperature of my room and the next day, she delivered a space heater.  My friend/landlady saw it, felt terrible, and dragged a down blanket into the room dropping it on my bed.  Okay already, no more excuses to be cold!  I have all the accoutrements to stay warm and obviously a cadre of excellent friends looking out for me.

The truth is sleeping alone night after night is lonely and cold.  It makes my heart ache for the countless military spouses who sleep alone for months on end, knowing their other half is doing the same far away.  I fear this is not the kind of cold that can be solved with blankets and a space heater, though I deeply appreciate the gestures and kindness of my friends.  I’m cold on the inside, homesick for a home that existed between four people who are no longer calling the same place home.  I loved raising my kids and do not wish to do it over, but right now in this moment in time, I am unsure about what to do next as a wife and a mother and it just feels like winter.