Little Green Men

Little Green Man

When I moved to DC, my daughter was two and a half. I only had the one child and was still busy not wanting her to get run over and therefore mid the laborious process of instilling road sense into a small fever-footed toddler.

Even if I had not still been attempting to be a good mother, as Europeans we all hear about US jay walking laws and I fully expected to be arrested at any point. I had been slapped by a bus driver for retrieving my change and discovered one needed to summons a member of staff to unlock the Johnson’s baby shampoo cabinet. I had seen a grown band boy scouts in their 60’s obediently waiting to cross a sleepy side road in Georgetown. As far as I was concerned anything could happen and probably would.

It was therefore, to my considerable embarrassment that I discovered that in the US the signal announcing that it is safe for a pedestrian to cross is not a little green man, but a little white man. I am in a city that is predominantly black. Am I really supposed to tell my daughter to wait for the ‘little white man’? I might be imagining it but I feel the eyes of African American bystanders boring into me. I try “wait for the little flashing man”. This sounds even worse. My uncle has long made me sensitive to the attire, or lack of it, of the personages who appear on traffic signs. The men in ‘Men at Work’ signs – if you check them closely – are actually naked, except for a pair of rubber boots.

Little White Man

Now that I have my third child, although the desire to stop him getting run over has dwindled, I occasionally find myself asking him to look for the little white man and I still find it uncomfortable. We wait for the Demonic Hand which burns an impression into one’s forehead to sizzle out and then the politically incorrect little flasher comes on and it’s safe to go. It is all very disturbing and far from the sense and order of the little red man and the little green man whose colour logic is reassuring similar to that of other road signals.

Now as it happens, my tenderness towards our green emblem of pedestrian safety is enmeshed with a strange incident that occurred to me in London in 1997. I was waiting for our little green man to light up so that I could cross the Embankment, a busy highway in the heart of London, when a real little green man popped up next to me. He was very small and clad from head to toe in green overalls with a green cap. He was also very congenial and hummed and rocked on his toes beside me. We stood waiting in this manner, side by side for his counterpart to appear. Then unexpectedly he leant close to me and in a hushed whisper said “The Grand National – put your money on Camelot Knight”. A happy lunatic I thought. At which point the green man on the far side of the intersection shone forth his blessing and I was free to go. “Watch for the little green man’ chimed my companion impishly, as I began to cross the intersection. When I got to the central reservation I looked back. My friend was not following me and had disappeared. I could not see him anywhere on an empty street lined with enormous office buildings. It was really peculiar.

Click for the 1997 Grand National

I picked up a paper, sure enough there was Camelot Knight without a chance in hell of winning and an odds of 100-1. I have often put money on the Grand National and even won but this seemed too far fetched. I turned out to be very wrong. Camelot Knight, who was completely irrelevant even up until the last fence suddenly swept ahead to come in third after Lord Gyllene and Sunny Bay. Had I placed a bet ‘either way’ I could have won quite nicely. Think of the fun of it, a fortune made from a tip given by a vanishing green man.

I tend to think he was my Leprechaun and that I missed his pot of gold thanks to a lack of faith which I will regret to my dying day. What he was doing in the financial district of London I cannot imagine, although pots of gold and financial centres do, now I think of it, tie in quite nicely. Given the years of monetary meddling and recent economic turmoil it is possible that there are teams of Leprechauns out there wreaking financial havoc. Who else would come up with the term ‘hedge fund’?

This could explain all the hijinks on Wall Street. After all, the US offers fertile terrain for migrant Leprechauns; in fact it is a positive Leprechaun hothouse. On St Patrick’s day they don’t just wear a shamrock, they dye the Hudson river green. It is not just the pubs that seethe with brilliant green garments that make your eyes water, but the streets. If you can’t handle that green you opt for ‘moss’. Your Best Jewish Friend is discovered buying soda bread and Trader Joe’s shelves are loaded with corned beef and bangers. You may not celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa but you celebrate St Paddy’s or you are out on your pointed ear.

Needless to say tales of Leprechauns abound. Even in our sleepy DC neighbourhood, strange footprints were found by the school trout tanks and the nursery school milk poured green to unsuspecting toddlers.

So given this verdant furore, this national outpouring of love for little green men, surely it makes sense… to paint the little white men… green?

Who better to enlist than a workforce of these small, green and presumably illegal aliens. They must be kicking their heals 364 days a year, why not provide them with some pots of paint and gainful employment?

Note, the rigorous use of a capital letter in referring to the ‘Little people’. This is a mark of deference. My paternal grandfather claimed to have been trapped in a field in Ireland all night after speaking disprespectfully of the ‘little people’. It was not until morning that he found the gate…

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Consequences of school fundraising – a fishy tale

Trout diems numbered

Update on our elementary school fundraiser, the Winter Social: I regret to report that not only have all the trout died in their new trout tank but that Ms Pickle who heads Community of Caring is having her job axed by 50%. No fish and limited pickle is the equivalent of a Dutch national disaster. The local sentiment at Westbrook Elementary has not been dissimilar.

The Elmo Boards (glorified digital white boards) which we proudly managed to raise funds for at our recent school auction – appear to have absorbed the school budget by requiring a dedicated technical guru.

The moral of the tale – school fundraising should be undertaken with caution, given elevated risk of destabilising fragile academic eco-systems. The Elmo Board has, like so many species introduced to redress an imbalance, killed off the original flora and fauna.

As so often is the case, there is nothing so dangerous as good intentions.

As of now, Inkquillibrium will be the home of ‘Jottings’ as well as the regular ‘Scrolls’ you have found on this blog. The ‘Scrolls’ are taking 12 times as long to deliver as Alexander (3rd child), admittedly he was nearly born in a Trader Joes, but still.

I hope that the ‘Jottings’ will allow me to comment and entertain on the many every day events that consume our lives – without dispensing with nights of sleep (the other similarity between blogging and child-birth).





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What do the Wonderbra and the US Capitol have in common?

They are both just a little too pert.

After six years here, the fact that I had failed to be moved by the US Capitol, niggled at me.  My logic countered: “It stands there resplendent in white, the backdrop of innumerable news reels, draped in every classical detail you can imagine and is the seat of untold power” but instead of feeling its grandiosity, I failed to be swayed. The Pentagon swayed me. I nearly swerved off the road, transfixed, when I realized I was driving alongside its monstrous hulk and even more monstrously sized parking lots (car parks just is not a term that works in this case).

Section of the dome

Then during a recent tour of the Capitol  (the clockwork mouse was otherwise engaged setting up seating for the State of the Union address) I think I may have stumbled on the problem. It is the dome, that most contentious of architectural features. The Sienese and  Florentines are still at each other’s throats over their respective efforts. It is not that the dome is not what it pretends to be, that the fine marble exterior is actually just a multitude of sheets of metal – although that the seat of US government should be surmounted by a deception is interesting in itself – but that the dome is just a little too pert.

The associations of pert along with the suggestive form of a dome soon stirred up an old saying that the perfect breast should fit inside a champagne glass. I enjoyed mentioning this to my 18 yr old brother-in-law who attempted not to splutter into his beer/Gatorade. I was quick to reassure him that I meant the old fashioned champagne glass and not the flute – although I don’t think this was the cause of his confusion.


I now believe there is a similar unwritten rule for domes. A dome rather like a jelly/jello should typically give the impression of having eased itself into place, sinking into its moorings upon the edifice it crowns. The dome on the US capitol has made no such concession and is, instead, being tweaked heavenwards by the nipple with an image of George Washington mid-apotheosis, suspended somewhere beneath like Romulus or Remus.

St Peters

Jefferson at Monticello, in strict adherence to Palladio, allowed his dome to set every bit like a jelly/jello. In fact his dome appears to mimic the breast/champagne glass rule so closely that, for those who prefer breast to thigh, it might be said that he has gone a little too far in his seemliness. For breast lovers, the dome of St Peters would make for a more voluptuous encounter.

Interestingly there seems to be a chronological progression to bigger and bustier and St Paul’s, I am afraid to say, already smacks suspiciously of an implant but nothing goes as far as the US Capitol. For the modesty of the city, I am thankful that Madonna had yet to appear in one of her more racy armatures or Washington might be saddled with something even more distracting.

As a legal alien (resident or otherwise) and as one who wishes to stay that way – I realise I should hold my tongue on a subject of such national sensitivity. So it was a relief to discover that Charles Bulfinch, author of the very first dome in the US (Massachusetts Statehouse), also had an issue with the matter.

Original dome

Bulfinch was selected as the architect for the first Capitol dome; however his plans were altered by the Monroe administration which showed a marked preference for white meat in an edifice and demanded that the dome be pumped up. Bulfinch was dismayed to find he was supervising the ascent of an edifice with the proportions of a Perdue chicken* and later in life went on to chronicle the conflict that lead to the loftier-than-decent dome. Had he not himself ‘apotheosed’, he could now attest that even his bastardized dome was a model of decorum by comparison with the modern-day version.

The full Eva Herzigova effect was only achieved later when the Capitol, having doubled in length to accommodate the members of the new States, chose to commission a new dome that actually tripled in size. For a good forty years it stood bashfully aloft, bursting at the seams, until it was eventually agreed that the visual display was really too much. In 1904 the smothered portico heaved a sigh of relief as the entire East front of the Capitol was extended to accomodate its buxom counterpart.

Latrobe’s corncob capitals

However, building around a dome to accommodate its hovering mass, whilst constrained by the lines of the original building is always going to be tricky to pull off. Who to blame? The British are culpable for having burnt the early Capitol, then the French and the Germans all had a hand in the giant melting pot of politics and decisions.  Had it been left solely to the Americans, without the inspiration of Europe’s dusty domes they might have come up with something as fantastic as the columns of the very first Capitol building.  Now almost completely subsumed by all the later additions, these columns are topped by corncobs as opposed to the now vulgar and overworked Grecian acanthus leaf.  Nothing could be more self-assured, understated and original.


*Perdue is one of the US’s biggest ‘manufacturers’ of chickens. The company has succeeded in developing birds with such an oversized breast that they can only take a few paces before collapsing or breaking a leg. Now were they to have a metal armature things might be different, indeed it is possibly precisely the metal armature that allowed the Capitol dome to outsize its antecedents and not collapse in a flurry of feathers. See the documentary: Food Inc.

If you would like to comment, feel brave and click on the comment link below, rather than e-mailing modestly behind the scenes. Be overt, stand aloft.

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Excuse me, or not.

Trader Joe’s Bag

I was in my beloved Trader Joe’s.

Trader Joe’s offers one of the happiest shopping experiences to be found in the USA. Music, such as Soul Kitchen offers a pleasing background vibe. A brass Captain’s bell is struck for customer service, there is a First Mate and the store is adorned in a Hawaiian garland theme. Amongst the shelves a peluche chimp, named Beth, hides for bored children to find and as part of its irreverant stance it sources food from all over the globe while cutting out the middle man. All this means you are not fleeced as you are at Whole Foods, known with bitter affection as Whole Pay Check/Cheque nor are you reminded that you are the smallest cog in the mechanics of consumerism as you are in Giant, where humans are being replaced by automated check-outs, that would, were they human, be fired for their inefficiency.

In Trader Joes, all the staff has a quirk of one type or another. They wear ridiculous hats, have giant tattoos of Bob Marley lavishly sprawled down both arms or they have pink hair and are vegetarian but don’t eat vegetables and are conversational on the subject. In our local Bethesda store, in addition to the above fanfare of characters there is a growing team of Senegalese who conduct a full-bodied dialogue in French above the customer’s heads as they pile your fare onto the wooden counters and then un-pile it into some of the chicest shopping bags to be found. There is no conveyer belt.

Sadly the karma of my latest trip was marred. My shopping trolley was happily stocked with a Tarte Alsace (I can testify that the Alsace has nothing as tempting to offer after a painful walking holiday eating dried fava beans from the fields in order to make it to the next abandoned, bombed-out village, presided over by an insane dog – what is it about French dogs?), a chunk of faintly whiffy Delice de Bourgogne, several Quattro Formaggi Pizzas (by Trader Giotto) and some marinated Mahi Mahi.

I was somewhere between the organic lettuce and retrieving a package of loo roll decorated with Victorian ladies showing their ankles to moustached gentlemen, when I was arrested by a grumpy man. “Did no one ever teach you to say Excuse me?” I was taken aback and offered a genuine apology. One of Trader Joe’s idiosyncrasies is that it is tight, or intimate, for a better word.  One is forever squeezing in between people to get to one’s attempted destination. I have been doing this for years in the usual British fashion which requires one to wince, make it evident that one is somehow squeezing one’s frame into pipe cleaner-like format and then offering a half smile of apology at the circumstances.

It now dawns on me that I have been offending people left right and centre –which pretty much covers the political spectrum. As I stood watching my purchases being piled and un-piled at the wooden counter I realised that I have never actually said “Excuse me.” I have generally observed that when people say “Excuse me” it is said with a righteousness and indignation that defies the supposed intention of the words. “Excuse me” typically means, “Get the hell out of my way”. It is rarely courteous or polite. In fact I think it is very hard to make it sound polite.

“Excuse me”, unless one conjures up the phantom of a preliminary “Would you?” falls into the imperative. It demands that the other person excuse one whether they like it or not. “Not only am I going to trample through your personal body space but I am going to demand that you acquiesce and approve.” If anything, it adds insult to injury.

So to my offended shopper I must say “No, my mother did not teach me to say “Excuse me”. I was raised with the sense that both “Pardon me” and “Excuse me” were pretty much not done, with the former being somewhere near the boiling point of vulgarity and the latter in the lower degrees of discourtesy. I was taught the appropriate way to go about all this was to stay mute or possibly to offer something along the lines of “I’m so sorry…” and tail off enigmatically into the pipe-cleaner impression. One was not to stipulate what one was sorry about – it was just a generally sorry ness about the state of things, one’s involvement in them and the forced involvement of the other party.

The suggestion being that there is no solution and that life is a mine-field to be trodden with caution. The problem is that whilst this form of self-effacement holds wide appeal to one’s fellow shoppers when beheld on the silver screen and abused by Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, it tends to get you weird looks in CVS.

As a legal alien, I’m in a fix. My voice cracks with embarrassment at the thought of saying ‘Excuse me” and I fear that if I start up the “sorry” rigmarole again I will find myself back at square one in the alien land where Johnson’s baby shampoo is kept under lock and key.

Perhaps the time has come for something out of the box. A Trader Ming-like oriental flourish, a full bodied bow that brushes the floor to sweep all indignation aside.

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Wire communication: “Winter Social Come and Gone – Stop”

This blob has been on sabbatical.

And so it is that Christmas and the New Year have come and gone and it is now all but February. The winter holidays hit the beginning of school like an ocean freighter that has forgotten to power down before nearing land. Few were ready for the rocky coastline of homework and pack lunches. The winter and spring breaks are simply ridiculously short, the summer one is immense and stretches like a desolate mirage across months of shimmering heat. President Obama, it is time to dispense with the Agrarian Calendar once and for all. I can testify that my children haven’t a clue about harvests and when presented with a single hour’s drive into the West Virginian countryside become wildly animated at having seen a cow – a blue cow – but give or take a little of imagination, it was rural and that thrilled enough.

Since we collided with regular life, the Republicans have taken control of the House and the Congressional Clockwork Mouse has sent forlorn images from the Capitol of his packing boxes moving on to a smaller office to make way for the new majority. Possibly most importantly, however, the Winter Social is now a thing of the past.

For those as interested in the Winter Social as in the Hoodie and Footie phenomenon, I can only say that it was a little bit of a disappointment. There were bowling shoes a plenty but the jugs of M&Ms, coconut or otherwise were missing from the collage of misery I portrayed. Some decent bottles of wine were smuggled in under the unsuspecting noses of the Bowling Alley staff, lights were dimmed and columns were wrapped in burlap, branches and fairly lights. An ipod somewhere blared out memorable songs from the 80s and 90s and so long as you avoided the deep fried mozzarella cheese sticks you were okay. I tried a second to verify that it was truly as disgusting as the first and that was my first – if relatively minor – mistake of the night.

The event succeeded in raising three times more than was budgeted and the committee, still cannot work out quite why. There was something up that night with the Trout Tanks. It transpires that people were more willing to donate money for chilled trout than for any other living being at the school. The Chinese Acrobats plummeted by comparison and Brazilian Mime failed to drum up the clamour of their gilled adversaries. On top of this, one mother was heard to audibly declare that she did not want a cent of her contribution ending up in that ‘Community of Caring Crap’.

One of the most memorable bids was made by to our local magician, world-wide conjuring expert and author on all things magical. With a starting bid of $340 for a series of 9 puddings/deserts to be delivered to his abode over a period of 9 months, he won. No rabbit out of a hat trick there. Then we had the ski chalet in Colorado which went for $1,500 and the on-the-edge-of-your seat, last minute bid for Botox. This item had been buzzed about by bidders like bees around a hive but most lacked the courage for final action. We all had lines of defense and self-mockery. My own angle was to have been that it was ‘a necessary part of my research into America”.  Then we had the feverish desire of more than a 3rd of the guests to take part in a Toga Party this May – which much to my delight will be hosted opposite us. I cannot wait to watch it unfold, unwrap and generally come undone in the early hours and have offered my husband and self as serving cupids to get a closer take. The Toga party was prominently advertised by DJ SandCrab and his wife, both draped in sheets with real ivy wreaths about their heads. This I thought rather chic, no plastic conundrum there.  Laurel is hard to find and ivy a perfectly acceptable alternative.

It was strangely not this pair who were hauled over by the police in the wee hours, nor was it a figure, who shall remain nameless, who swayed up to me with a half drunk bottle in each hand. It was not even the person who downed the posh tequila that had been used as a prop to advertise a backyard pub crawl. Nor the illicit member who actually quaffed the contents of the artisan beer basket that had already come under the hammer and was destined for better places.

It was muggins. Muggins who was myopically trying to find a way out of the naval base while conveying a dear neighbour, a figure of rectitude, and failed to see a darned STOP sign. Not a stop sign at an intersection where one might naturally ease to halt and check for the threat of oncoming traffic (even in the early hours of the morning on a completely deserted naval base) but a STOP sign that could only possibly serve some purpose during the day when it might allow construction vehicles to make their muddy way onto the thoroughfare of life.

The cops were onto me, blue and red flashing lights. Did I stop? Hell no. It did not occur to me that I had done anything wrong. I carried on conveying my passenger at a very sedate pace towards the guards at the exit. A light blared through my rear window and I wondered what sort of strange Naval emergency vehicle was tailing me. I was finally corralled to the curb and a megaphone ordered me to ‘puulll overrr”. I put my hands resolutely on the top of the wheel to show I was not trying to pull out a gun – it was like a movie. Had I seen the stop sign – I did not think so, I responded flimsily. I was given some minute instructions as to how to drive my car into an adjacent lot. I pulled up and attempted to get out of my car, our first initial encounter being over this seemed only respectful. “Stayy in yuur carrr” came the megaphone again. Shaken I clasped the wheel to demonstrate my innocence. I attempted to explain the circumstance of the evening and was told “Now you listen to me”. Eventually I was let off with a caution. My scrupulous companion concluded with a “Have a good evening officer”. He demanded to know what she had said. Too exhausted from our fundraising activities she had forgotten so I weakly relayed “She said ‘have a good evening’” His bristling frame relaxed an iota and issued even more minute directions as to how to fasten a safety belt, drive a car and exit a parking lot. I followed these to a tee, driving bravely but obediently into the security gate channel for oncoming traffic and had to be asked to reverse by two incredulous marines.

Stop SignSo what is it with DC and STOP signs? A British cop we know thinks it stems from a democratic desire to remind citizens that they are all equal.  My husband believes it results from the confluence of different cultures where no one mode of conduct is know to all, hence the requirement for a hard and fast rule every hundred yards. Probably getting a Frenchman called ‘the kid’ to design your city has not helped. The grid pattern is unyieldingly egalitarian. No one street grows organically to gain supremacy over its peer.

Maybe the rest of the US is similarly affected, but all I know is DC is riddled with them. Driving through DC is like dictating a telegram.

My first experience of this phenomenon was when a realtor took us on a tour of North West DC and pulled his gigantic pick-up to a perfect halt at each and every intersection. He also insisted on calling Maryland, not Mary Land but something more like Marilyn. It was unnerving. I have since come to think that this extraordinary phenomenon could only have been bred and allowed to flourish in a country where petrol costs almost nothing. I have speculated that oil lobbyists have petitioned for this as I can think of nothing more inefficient than coming to a complete halt at the end of each and every street.

Muggins has to admit to having shot several STOP signs with steady deliberation, once with a member of the Winter Social committee, much to her amazement. We were in one of those recent suburbs where modern homes have plummeted to the ground like cardboard boxes along a ribbon of asphalt, a bleak expanse where no shrub has had the chance to shade the embarrassment of uninterrupted grass attempting to mask the newness of it all. I could see for yards and yards, there was nothing – why on earth would one stop? It did not occur to me that it was even expected of me.

In DC the most prevalent breed of STOP sign is the four way STOP sign, calling for all traffic at a cross road to come to a complete standstill.  Almost invariably everyone has a stop sign, unless… it is one of the exceptions. In these cases you are in for a nasty surprise. You may have come obediently to a halt and be about to rev up your engine, in the expectation that the other car is your democratic equal and holds the same level of obedience, when it blasts past you narrowly missing your whiskers. In order to preserve your whiskers, bumpers, life and sanity what one is actually called upon to do is to perform a strange neck craning activity. This involves scanning the perpendicular street for the tell-tale grey octagonal form of the back of a STOP sign and only then can one proceed with confidence.

Occasionally the STOP signs have a little post script underneath with the words “All Way”. For a long time I thought this was a personal exhortation for those with a deviant foreign mind to stop entirely but now I understand it is designed to inform you that everyone is required to stop. As these post scripts are used scantily and at the whim of the street maintenance man, to rely on them would be insane. As a result the only safe way of proceeding is to stop, perform the peculiar neck craning activity and only advance if all seems safe.

Whilst the egalitarian theory and confluence of cultures hypothesis have their merit, I tend to hold fast to the petroleum argument along with the fact that road markings (Westmoreland circle is a case in point) and signals are just a nightmare together with the US electricity grid which hangs perilously amongst the trees. For example, why is a stop light/traffic light actually on the far side of the intersection? It is telling you to stop before you even get there. It is engendering Stop-Neurosis. More worryingly though, I fear that the STOP sign has become so morphed into the US consciousness that it has spun its way into every aspect of our lives.

Mothers tell their children not to toboggan onto a snow covered road – not because there is any likelihood of traffic thundering through but just because… well because, heck who knows?  Just stop.

The Representatives and Senators we have voted in are hardly getting stuck into all their promises before they stop again to get re-elected and no one bats an eyelid. Well actually someone does. The clockwork mouse has also had his fill of watching things stop and start on the Hill.

The Health Care Bill, that eventually navigated its way through an entire neighbourhood of neurotic STOP signs to emerge an emaciated shadow of its former self, is now in the dock and has been stopped.

Stopping things, it seems, has become each and every man’s prerogative, no matter how illogical, pointless or even costly.

It is high time to start the revolt, to run through stop signs and chant incantations at traffic lights and make them turn green.

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Response to Anna Quindlen – Family Snapshots

My Family Snapshot

A while ago a friend sent me an article by the renowned American journalist, Anna Quindlen. It was a retrospective on motherhood by one who has survived its most arduous years. She acknowledges the ‘unreliable haze of the past’, the futility of parenting books and comes up with a several anecdotes about her worst parenting moments.

For someone still steeped in a parental brine of snotty noses, endless sibling rivalry and sticky surfaces this all seemed to be going in the right direction. Like a mariner scenting salt in the wind I inhaled deeply as she described her fully grown brood that miraculously go to the loo by themselves, zip up their jackets and move plate to mouth with relative accuracy.

Then the article takes a turn in the wrong direction for one still covered in residual slime. A soft focus lens zooms in on her three children (6,4,1) sitting together on a quilt in the dappled shade of a summer’s afternoon. It is not expressed, but one somehow imagines them all to be fully dressed and with clean hair, the sort of children that welcome being attacked with a shower hose and Johnson’s baby shampoo. One can only imagine the effort it took to get them all on the quilt at the same time and looking at the camera but none-the-less, blinded by the unreliable haze of the past she appends the reminder that we should be cherishing these years, days and living in the moment more.

Now on the day I was sent this (the Sunday after Bloody Mary Sunday) I went on to live through Alexander shouting at the congregation to sit down during the Gospel. This was done in his gruffest voice, usually reserved for reminding people that he pees like a man and from the prominent vantage point of the church gallery. I then moved on to ignoring my outspoken son and Eleanor struggling for possession of a magnifying glass on the floor of the Sackler Museum so that I could converse with two live Zoroastrian (two out the 150,000) professors. We discussed the theory that the Three Kings had been Zoroastrians and admired the amazing detail of the Persian miniatures for a short minute. These are the sort of moments that can be lived and savoured. Seconds after the embarrassing silencing of the congregation it was clear that this was going to become a funny anecdote worth the upward stares. A brief inspection of my boot and I am vertical again amongst the pews. The struggle over the magnifying glass is not ideal but then again it is not that dissimilar to the frenzied battle scenes hanging above, or so I tell myself.

Dear Anna, I feel that I reaped as much as I could from these ambiguous moments and faired quite well but then I pushed my luck by trying to have lunch in the Native American Museum’s canteen (it is meant to have the best food on the National Mall) alone with three children. If you can imagine a cubist painting of refracted chaos in which you can dimly discern the following elements: 5yr old with tray in packed canteen, cranberry juice spill, $98, discovery of Velcro behind all cushions, second cranberry juice spill, gastronomic rejection of suspected spiciness, apple juice spill, urgent request for bathroom, mammoth search for hidden bathroom (it becomes clear that they are not a prominent feature of Native American history) whilst carrying small ticking bladder, water bottle spill on anything that is not yet cranberry-pink or too spicy and final round-up trip to loo with ulterior motive of investigating hand dryers for a second time –  you will have a fairly good impression. It was utter and meaningless hell. A couple next to us, with half a child between them, watched the entire proceedings with unabashed obsessiveness, we were the most interesting performance they had seen in ages. A woman came up to tell me she remembered being just like me. To my embarrassment I was incapable of facial or verbal expression.

I returned home to ponder the sanctity of the moment. When are we not being made to feel guilty about not living in the present enough? All this harping on about seizing it and about Carps and Diems has given the moment a disproportionate status and endowed it with a hallowedness that is a bit suspect. It is just a bit too sentimental and Dead Poet’s Society. I contend that not all moments are born equal. There are moments to be seized and others that should be let loose.

Anna’s article is in part a note-to-self brought on by an attack of soft-round-the-edges reminiscence, which we will doubtless all fall prey to. However, for those still in the thick of it, to be told that we should be savouring the present is not really news. In fact I fear it is not helpful and worse still it might backfire. What mother does not see the slumbering heads of her children and berate herself nightly for a failure to do so? I can only compare it to those who aim to encourage by telling one how much worse off someone else has it. If I am feeling lousy, the last thing I want to know is that I should buck up and feel sorry for someone else. It delivers all the comfort of a good kick in the shin.

Dear Anna, I realise that you were trying to do us a good turn with this gentle cautionary tale but the scent on the wind of a self-zipping jacket is more likely to provide us with the perspective and solace to be better parents. It will breathe life into our tired limbs and give us the hope and strength to grasp the moment and anything else that is tumbling down about our ears.

It is, therefore, in an attempt to undo any parental self-castigation amongst those still lumbering through it, or those now clouded in the mists of reminiscence, that I “append” my own family snapshot taken several hours after I had read the article: ‘Our lunch tray’.

Should I ever become a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, I will post this photograph as a reminder that whilst there are moments worth savouring on life’s path, there must necessarily be others, on the far side of the spectrum, that one is not required to digest. To this I will attach a picture of my grown and gleaming, self-cleaning offspring.

Seizing the moment sounds attractive and deep but it should not be romanticised. Some moments are meaningless and should be left free-range and allowed to slip on by.

And now, I am off to buy a quilt.

Link to article by Anna Quindlen

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Flash Mob takes on Food Court

Someone forwarded me this video recently. I am generally hesitant about diving into forwarded messages or videos, my feeling being that for something to be worth forwarding it needs to be really good and I am a little skeptical. Then my thinking goes, what if it really is very good – should I not then wait for a moment when not besieged by marauding infants? At this point I am so confused I decide I’d better check the next boring email in my inbox and fight off some of life’s admin. So it is fortunate that I clicked on this because I thought it great.

I watched the events unfold and enjoyed the clip for having managed to enshrine the sheer depths of mundanity of a food court.

Then my eye caught the first of a string of comments beneath it and I was truly flummoxed. This is apparently not what the vast majority of viewers saw at all. There were people professing to be atheists and urging others not to think too much about who wrote the music or why. There were happy Christians responding with God’s blessings and so it went on. As I settle down to write this post a week or so later the debate has become a raging slinging match between the bible belt and religion bashers. Wideawake73 is particularly aggressive and has found his happy counter part in migeuldELLO who dons a halo.

How can it so have misfired? The events in the movie clip belong to the Flashmob phenomenon, where people congregate suddenly and without warning in a public place and perform an unusual act before dispersing. It is generally not politically or otherwise motivated but more for the enjoyment of being a part of a giant human pop-up book and poking fun at one’s surroundings.

The first instance of it was in 2003 when 100 people congregated on a NY department store and surrounded an expensive rug. They had been briefed to tell store staff that they were part of a commune and were looking for a love rug but all purchasing decisions had to be taken jointly.

Now in this case if anyone is to be offended I would say it is the Food Court and Malls in Ontario and everywhere. What could be more incongruous than an Alleluia Chorus in the midst of a food court limply decorated with red ribbons and swimming in polystyrene plates and tired hunched bodies?

I can also attest to the fact that a choir of that caliber is not made up of religious proselytizers. Religious proselytizers would sing something completely different, intelligible to anyone of the age of thee and in all likelihood rather ugly. Such a choir is made up of people who can sing and love to sing as others love to paint. The vast majority of them spend their time during a service thumbing away on their Blackberries or leafing through Home Décor magazines waiting for the next chance to make a beautiful noise.

To find this offensive is tantamount to being offended when somebody sends you a greetings card with a cherub on it.

Talking of cherubs I will be sending out Christmas cards with cherubs and even angels. They are MET angels, in other words classy angels but rest assured I have no intention of converting anyone. I am sending them because, like the music of Handel, they are beautiful whereas the angelic qualities of my children are often harder to determine.

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What happens when Capitalism comes full circle?

What happens when Capitalism comes full circle? As far as I can work out you end up in Rockville in an eerily Communist landscape.

Rockville, for the uninitiated, is a massive six lane highway, or it might even be eight but for reasons of self-preservation, my memory fails me. It features in an undercover conversation in the movie Syriana but apart from that and its six lane highway it is going nowhere.

It would be hard to give it a location. It is not a place. It sprawls along one of the key arteries out of DC, some 6 or 7 miles north of the border.  It is lined with strip malls which are no where near as interesting as they sound to the foreign ear. Tanning salons tumble alongside pawn shops touting engagement rings for those who are still experiencing the rosier side of life. Squished against them are discount mattress stores and discount almost anything. The sprawl is like a game of Tetris gone horribly wrong, a short circuit, an apocalyptic shambles generously framed by acres of parking lots.

Since I arrived I have variously called it Rotville, or Grotville but I have been gentler on it since an impressive Irish woman in her senior years reprimanded me. She had known Rockville as it once was; a small town with Victorian wooden homes and the site of poor Scott Fitz-Gerald’s remains. The churchyard in which he is buried now looks out onto this mess, just feet from the roaring traffic. I have long vowed go and break open a bottle of champagne upon his tomb although I would probably have to keep the bottle in a brown paper bag which would make the gesture rather less splendid.

It took me several years to understand that this was where stuff was bought and when I finally ventured north I was struck by how close it all seemed to a Communist urban landscape.  The buildings are purpose built and in the cheapest possible way with absolutely no interest in exciting pleasure, visual or otherwise. Cheap cubic structures whose only function is to provide shelter for the goods and transactions they house. The choice of products is limited and generally of bad quality. The formula is only palatable and therefore accepted because the items are cheap.

Strangely, despite the fact that I live in what is probably the most consumerist country in the world, my desire to consume had declined since I moved here. It is in not simply that it is hard to find something truly tempting but the process is so pleasure less. Even in the ostensibly ‘stylish malls’ one is oppressed by the cogs of the great retail machine. The conveyer belt no longer ends in the factory but only when the shopper hops off it at check out.

When I was down on the Mall at the Rally to Restore Reason, I saw a placard saying “Separation of Corporate and State”. Whilst obvious, it was my favourite in an edgy sort of way.  Along with healthcare reform, the other major thing that baffles me about the US is the voracious axe grinding against the power of government (which, as with most governments, seems fairly disorganized and at best a waste of money) versus a strange popular apathy when it comes to the much more sinister power of the corporations. There is the sense that because the corporations are crowned with the insignia of ‘free enterprise’ it must be okay. That it will all work out for the good in the end.

Looking at Rockville I am fairly sure it cannot. If, as the placard intimates, the corporations run the State then is this not just another form of totalitarianism? With the sedative of cheap prices and the phony selections which equate to as little as salted peanut butter, salted chunky peanut butter, salted un-chunky peanut butter and lastly just peanut butter, we are all being conned. There is in fact very little choice and what we choose will fall apart, as did my reindeer, and be impossible to repair.

I was in Rockville for the purpose of acquiring a new reindeer for my golden pumpkin. This recycling business is actually getting less green and more costly by the minute. To minimize my global footprint I decided to also return some zebra print ballet shoes to Target that were so painful as to be unbearable. They were cheap at $9.99 and I had succumbed to the mantra of cheap although they were not what I was really looking for. My success in the yard décor department was not much greater. A vulgar reindeer looked down at me, its feet trussed with wire to cheap red shelves. Below it a very, very vulgar penguin looked up at me beadily from within its blue and green striped scarf. At home a quick Google reveals that the more delicate breed of reindeer has gone east and is materialising across the English countryside in an outbreak of House Bling.  With even our reindeer moving on, the outlook looks increasingly bleak for Rockville.

Fortunately, for the success of my trip, I was able to move on to the Eastern European shop named “European Delight”. The staff is very Eastern European having suffered under Communism and is not really delightful at all but they did give Alexander a chocolate Easter rabbit which, though un-seasonal, showed a degree of initiative and ambiguous charm. I bought some Russian salmon roe in a tin (the best is presented worst) and some smoked sea bass and turbot which are both delicious. Next door is an Iranian shop with unbearably delicious baklava, fresh pistachios, miniature tender eggplant and oranges piled high with their leaves.

The polar extremes of my Rockville experience remind me of the British artist Michael Landy who, when not shredding his entire life’s possessions in the window of a major department store, did beautifully detailed and vastly enlarged etchings of the weeds growing amongst the paving stones of London.

These little shops that sell the more delicate things in life and where errands can be enjoyed rather than traversed in remote control, are like weeds forcing their way through to the light in this terrible game of Tetras.

It is weird and somehow bitterly ironic that the edible delights and quixotic courtesy should be offered by shops born out of oppressed regimes.

Will they too come full circle and end up like much of the murk in Rockville selling Goldfish (a form of kid cracker – it comes: multigrain, coloured, low sodium and original) rather than smoked fish or will the existing murk do another half circle and in several decades be handing out un-seasonal bunnies to toddlers on a passing whim?

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Recycling Gilt

Recycling Gilt

Recycling does not have to be for aficionados of tofu burgers or the goat’s-hair-sock-in sandal-brigade. I call for glamorous recycling with a Midas touch.

After some horrific sisterly squalls in which it transpired Puffy had found a dose of suppositories and was attempting to self administer – if at an incorrect angle – we regained domestic composure.

Effecting family bliss, we went outside to spray fir cones to affix to our Bethesda Chevy Chase High School Boating Club wreath. Alexander got gold fingers and everyone was delighted at this near re-enactment of James Bond.

The pumpkin was staring at us. Even the squirrels seem to have taken a dislike to the taste of it after only one very meager morsel. You cannot have a Christmas wreath and a Halloween pumpkin but what about a metallic gold pumpkin? I tell you Cinderella could do no better, nor could her fairy godmother. It is resplendent.

We pulled out the nodding reindeer to give our gilt pumpkin some back up. Four years ago I dared myself to buy this creature from Home Depot and have gone from embarrassment to unmitigated affection. I have told my husband that when we move back to Europe we will need to take my little friend with us and make it work on the European power grid, whatever the cost. We will be the talk of the town. I could import its friend and relations and revolutionize gardens throughout the continent.

And so it was, with great sadness, that I realized the deer has lost its power for thought. The head, nose and even ears are devoid of active fairy lights and the nodding will be invisible to anyone who is not involved in an amorous embrace with the creature. I felt like giving it such an embrace, as a final tribute.

 But at least the gilt lingers.

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Armed to the hilt and fully covered

Hoodie Footie Nightmare

When moving to another country there is much that is unfamiliar and so navigating each day simply requires additional energy. After some time the perennial suspicion of being taken for a ride or short changed gently starts to subside. Realistically, nothing changes in one’s environment but none-the-less things begin to appear brighter and breezier. The nickels are of course larger than the dimes and worth less and the price of a bag of cotton balls will increase because tax will be added by a very rude lady. You will not be allowed to leave a shop with a bottle of wine in your hand, not because you are pregnant but because it is illegal to show your proclivities in public. The Weather Channel is not to be taken any more seriously than Bugs Bunny and so we are not running out of salt, or going to be rescuing kittens clinging to branches above torrential floods any time soon.

That said, when I recall my first weeks in DC, they are still shrouded in that twilight zone of initial contact with the extraneous and unknown. First there was the DC bus driver who struck out at me when I tried to retrieve the change which had rattled into the little tray in front of me. The next memory that remains darkly engraved was my first visit to a CVS. This is a shop that defies description. It is a shop that sells prescription drugs and cigarettes, dietary aids and giant tubs of ice cream, extension cables and nail art, greeting cards and pots into which your offspring can pee after a party so you can verify what they imbibed, snorted or otherwise experienced. All I was trying to do was to buy a bottle of Johnson’s baby shampoo but it was held in a locked glass cabinet in one of the aisles. I had to ask a member of staff help me and stayed resolutely mute throughout the retrieval of the key and the unlocking, for fear of something even weirder happening.

After nearly six years CVS is still bloody weird, it has now lost all its staff which only makes things worse but at least the baby shampoo is accessible to all at our local branch.

In fact most things have become familiar but now and again something fresh still comes along to make one wonder in disbelief as it did this morning.

I was attempting to fight myself into the traffic on Massachusetts Avenue when a sponsorship ad came on the radio (NPR) for Pajama Gram. It proved distracting enough that I missed the one slot in the traffic and the cars behind me began to reverse back up Jamestown Rd, intent on finding some other imbecile to make them late for work. The ad was for hoodies and footies, not just for your children but for the entire family this holiday season. What this amounts to is PJs that will make you look like an elf and an ungainly one at that.

I first spotted these creatures hanging up in Target – forlorn, bodiless entities rather like Peter Pan’s lost shadow. They are, what I can only describe as, ‘baby grows’ but these are for giant babies. I found it disconcerting. What 16 year old male would be seen dead in such apparel and would they don it willingly or under duress?

A quick scour of the Pajama Gram website and, whatever the urge, the company clearly has the market covered. Not only can you coordinate your entire family in hoodies/footies.. but you can get matching apparel for your dog. Well versed in the big holiday retail business – the site offers a ‘Family Pajama Planner’. Identify how many grown fully- blooded males, buxom females, teenage girls, boys, toddlers, infants and dogs you have and wham bam – credit card and you are away for a super snuggly and horrifically unattractive holiday season. For the more sensuously minded seductress $99.99 gets you the Sexy and Sweet Midnight Fantasy (a faux black satin baby doll chemise and culottes + a pink velvet footie/hoodie).

Sexy & Sweet Midnight Fantasy

Ever since my first sighting I am occasionally struck with the memory of their existence and find myself scanning the neatly groomed houses on our street wondering behind which facades these garments are being gloriously made flesh. Quite honestly I find it freaky. I have also occasionally found myself wondering curiously in which homes guns linger under the bed but of the two I think the hoodies and footies are definitely the more disturbing element. The combination of these, plus guns, does not even bear thinking of. Surely not? But with names like Midnight Fantasy together with the frightening events surrounding our Ohio hostess’ assistant – well maybe.

Despite what the Tea Partyists would have people believe about us liberal Socialist Euros, I have no great aversion to guns. My grandfather had a locked metal cabinet with several guns and another friend kept a gun by the loo window so the family could multitask and take pot shots at rabbits. I even went stalking in Scotland and had to disguise myself in a bog for several hours with only a squished banana for warmth. But I can seriously say that I have never seen anyone, older than three, wearing a baby grow – unless they were featuring in an embarrassing Cosmopolitan article about city gents going back to “Nanny” for kicks.

I am afraid when it comes to hoodie/footies, this goes just one veloured foot too far for liberal sensitivites.

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