Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Glorious spring in London

We had a truly glorious weekend, greatly aided by the sun which shone pretty much all weekend, and the "springing forward" on Sunday night which means that our evenings are now lighter later, and hopefully winter has been banished til sometime after Halloween. I love having people over, but we don't do it as much as we ought to, really. One of the most wonderful things about guests is not just having the chance to catch up with them, but - at least in all the houses I've ever lived in - their arrival is always preceded by a frantic bout of cleaning, which means that when the guests have gone, the house is much cleaner than it was before the visit!
Saturday morning started early with cleaning, which carried on into the early afternoon.  It didn't feel so much as a "Spring Clean" as a "Clean that you didn't do in Autumn or Winter Either".  Blake helped tidy his room, which meant piling up all his toys into a very large and expansive pile against the wall.  I later had to spend about an hour sorting through the plastic sausages from the plastic tools from the plastic cars from the plastic little people and farm animals.  It felt like there was a lot of plastic!  We then went over to Zekiya's 4th birthday party at Clapham Common - a very well-organized event with some cool folks from a company called Playball who did all the work on keeping the kids entertained with all kinds of games.  It looked like tons of fun for the kids and Blake enjoyed himself, until we noticed that his ears seemed to have broken out in some red rashy spots, which I later concluded was a reaction to the sun.  Poor thing to have inherited my pasty white and sun allergic skin...!  Anyway, we kind of high-tailed it from the party worried somewhat that this might spread quickly to his entire body (fortunately it didn't), but by leaving early we also had a few minutes to pause before welcoming our guest for the night - the lovely Becks whom I hadn't seen for nearly two years!  Ugh, that is just too long not to see a beautiful friend who lives in the same country. 
While Becks got to work entertaining Blake and Noah with all her funny voices, Blake made us laugh by calling her "Beckiya", probably brought on having been at Zekiya's party earlier in the day.  It was pretty funny but Becks really liked it, in the same way I think that Mom loved being called "Kyla" by Noah.  If you had a nickname, what would you want it to be? 

Matt did the dinner duty, good man that he is, and we all hit the hay pretty early.  The next day there was some coloring, some time in the garden with the bubble machine, and some quiet moments where both boys had early naps (daylights savings time seemed to have really tinkered with their internal clocks).  We then went over to the Dulwich Woodhouse to meet up with the Morris-Priegos, and then finished off with a quick walk in Dulwich Wood.  We were sad Heids didn't get to join us but she was called off to pilot a spy plane - or something like that - so she was only with us in spirit. 
It was a really lovely lovely weekend, and Becks and Matt and I talked about the need to have these times in the diary to connect with old friends.  It definitely felt like chicken soup for the soul, and we ended up with a relatively clean house to boot.  Result! 
Fab March Weekend

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The sadness of when "Why?" doesn't have a good answer

(written a few weeks ago, only posted now...)
I read with such sadness yesterday about the bus crash in Switzerland that killed 28 people, 22 of them children around the age of 12.  Reports state that the schoolchildren were returning home from a ski trip, when the bus smashed into a wall at the end of an emergency access tunnel.  I can only imagine the horror of the situation, and the effects on the families, friends and communities of these people. 
One of the challenges of being a parent is trying to achieve that magic balance of support, love and protection, and recognizing that independence is an inevitable result of a child’s growing up.  How do we ensure that we don’t stifle a child’s quest to become responsible and self-sufficient as we aim to protect him from harm and the dangers of the world?  In the case of the bus crash, however, I can only imagine that those parents of the children who died will be asking not just “Why?”, but “Why my child?”.  By all accounts, the driver of the bus was well-rested and there were no other vehicles involved.  The fact that the group was returning from a week’s skiing holiday makes it all the more painful – for anyone who has had the thrill of being in the open air on a sunny slope, you’ll know there’s not much that is more life-affirming that the rush of cold air and exhilaration of a good run.  Even when you fall over, you’ll get back up and get better, and by the end of a week you’ll no doubt feel so much more confident than you were at the start of a trip.  The apr├Ęs-ski aspect is also fantastic…that feeling of relaxation after a day out in, recounting the tales of good runs or funny stories is a wonderful bonding experience. 
These children have been taken too early, there’s no  doubt, and I recalled various bus trips throughout my own school years – shorter ones to Asheville Zoo, or frequent trips around Catawba and its neighboring counties, to softball and basketball games and cross-country meets.  Longer trips to DisneyWorld and New York.  They were wonderful experiences, because they were not only fun but also indicated that you were “included”.  Not going seems like it would have been awful, when all my friends were.  But what if my parents had decided I shouldn’t go, that it wasn’t safe or that they didn’t trust the bus trip or the fact that they wouldn’t be there to chaperone?  Therein lies the dilemma about keeping your children safe and letting them go, and my heart just broke yesterday for any families of these children – and there probably were some – who might have debated whether they should allow their child to go on the trip.  What about parents where one supported it and one was more reluctant – what will the feeling be from the parent who didn’t think it was a good idea?   How deep will the guilt be for the parent who supported it? 

I believe in an afterlife, and although I don't know what it will look like, and whether it will be just like this life or something completely different, it certainly reassures me when I consider tragic situations like the Swiss crash, and contemplating my own mortality.  I hope I don't find out these answers for many years to come, by the way!
Incidents like this, though, do make you ask that question: "Why do bad things happen to good people?"  Especially innocent ones.  I don't know the answer, but in one of my team meetings recently (the one where we did the Personal Passport exercise), one answer was proposed, which is: "It rains on the just and the unjust alike."  I get that, but it still seems horribly unfair. 
My prayers go out to all the families and communities of the victims of this bus crash.  I hope the sun is shining on the slopes where those children have gone on to. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sleep is so beautiful!

I recently did a team-building exercise called the "Personal Passport" - it's essentially a way for you to describe your values through telling your "story".  One of the questions was, "In my leisure time, I like to...".  Smart-aleck first answer that came to mind was, "What leisure time?", but I went ahead to answer it.  The number one answer I gave was "Writing my blog" (though the number of recent posts would not support that), and secondly, I wrote, "Napping". 
There is something so absolutely glorious in my mind about having a nap.  It's just such a way of saying to the world, "You're gonna have to wait while I catch up on my beauty sleep!"  And I sure as hell need a lot of that these days! 

I have, however, recently caught myself admiring my sleeping children and thought I'd share some of my favorite snaps of these idyllic scenes.  Of course, every moment I frittered away concentrating on these photos was a moment that I myself was not napping...!

B&W of photo reinforces calm mood (!)

Taken at the same time as the one of Matt and Noah in the was just a sleepy afternoon!

Mixed views of seeing this in the rearview mirror - on the one hand it's great they're asleep, but on the other, we were trying to get somewhere so their choice of naptime is probably not ideal!

Three sleeping bears

Happy Mothering Sunday

The UK celebrated Mothers' Day, or to use the technical term - "Mothering Sunday" - yesterday, and I was treated to a few extra hours of sleep.  Truly the best gift imaginable (good thing, as that was my only gift!).  Getting to sleep in, by the way, meant sleeping until 8:00am! 
The night before, Matt had, around 8:00pm, asked me if we had a tray.  We've been moving some infrequently-used items up to the loft in anticipation - within the next couple of months or so - of starting the renovation work to our kitchen and dining room.  I told him that I wasn't sure where it was, but in my mind, I thought, "Interesting...!"

The next morning, when I finally woke up fully and thought that it was probably time to start the day, I let my nose be my guide.  Did I smell any frying bacon, or bread toasting?  Did I hear the cacophonous whisking of eggs for an omelette?  No, but I'm pretty sure I heard the beginnings of World War 3 breaking out over who was going to get the Cars2 stickers to plaster all over inappropriate places in the living room...and I think, by the smell of it, Noah had already had his diaper changed once already in the room next to ours.  So, no, there was no breakfast in bed.  There was, shortly afterwards though, the appearance of my husband telling me that a virus had deleted all the documents on his user profile on the computer.  Great, that will put him in a fantastic mood for the day!  I went down and had some Cheerio's for breakfast.  We didn't have any bacon in the fridge and the box of eggs displayed a best-before date that was sometime last week.  We ended up having a nice lunch instead (I pretty much told him that he needed to make lunch as the boys and I headed off to church, so that there were no mixed messages!), and as a second-best gift to a lie-in, I got an afternoon nap while the boys slept/watched tv.

Anyway, back to what I'm calling the "tray tease": when he asked me about the tray, what normal, hard-working mother on the eve of the specific holiday designed to honor our kind, wouldn't think that that meant he was planning breakfast in bed?!  I am not precious, but it would have been nice, although as my friend Jenny sagely pointed out, "Who wants crumbs in the duvet?" 

I did get this nice photo of the day, which I love very much, despite Blake now being evidently unable to produce a genuine smile for a camera.  I do also love the man who helped me be a mother to these beautiful children, even if he's not very good at executing on breakfast in bed! Happy Mothers' Day to Bishy, Lykke, and all my UK mother friends.  Hope you had a great day and got all that you were hoping for.  Did you get breakfast in bed?  If so, don't tell me...!  :)

The end of my Grandparent Honeymoon!

It had started to feel - in a good way! - that Mom and Dad were going to stay in London forever...but early in the morning two Saturdays ago, they headed off to Gatwick to get their plane back to NC.  We have had an amazing seven weeks - filled with endless hours of their playing with and looking after the boys (doing crafts, playing board games, drawing, serving Cheerios and breakfast juice, reading, teaching photography, nursing colds, etc).   I have been totally spoiled - totally spoiled - because I was relinquished of my duties of the morning nursery drop-off's and evening pick-up's, and during the day Mom often managed to tidy the house and tackle several loads of laundry.  Half the time I felt guilty that it felt as if we had was an extremely good nanny who was receiving no compensation for her work, and the other half, well, I just enjoyed it and decided that when my time comes to do the same as a Granny, I hope I'm up for it!  Noah had started to occasionally call Mom "Mommy Karla" (although he pronounces "Karla" more like "Kyla"), which was cute but pulled at my heartstrings a bit!
Since they left, the two times that we've been to church, Noah has, upon entering the church said, "Kyla gone", or at least that's what I think he's saying (it may be "Kyla John" instead).  Mom enjoyed meeting lots of our congregation and then seeing people out and about in the community; it's true that while we are in a pretty big city, our local community can have the amazing ability to feel like a small town. 

And so, we look forward to seeing Granny and Grandpa again in June, but this time on the other side of the Atlantic when we head over for our trip to Clinton.  By then I bet Noah will have better command of his "r's" although I think Mom liked the nickname "Kyla"!

Blake's party write-up

It's taken me about a week to recover from the exhaustion of Blake's birthday, and now another week to finally getting around to hitting the Publish button on this post from about a week ago! (and well, add in another week for good measure...) Last Saturday we went to a little friend's 4-year-old party, and I sure was glad to be going simply as a guest, and not as the party planner.  

Blake's party was lots of fun - for him, at least, and the majority of the people under 4-feet who were in attendance.  I was a little more stressed out at whether there were enough activities to keep the kids occupied.  Actually, though, he and his little friends had a great time just running around and, well, if all else fails, potato chips and cake can usually please even the most difficult crowd.  I kind of forgot that they can actually create a lot of entertainment for themselves, even if it isn't directed in the form of "Simon Says" or "Musical Bumps", a game Blake had tried to explain to me the previous day when we were discussing entertainment.

I had the ultimate disappointment, however, when I discovered, as we were packing up all the things in the kitchen at the church hall - AFTER the party had ended - that I'd forgotten to unveil my secret party weapon: a bubble machine!  Even more annoying, I had gone to buy it after work on Friday, trekking into central London along with hordes of people who were headed out to bars and pubs to celebrate the end of the week.  There I was, sweaty, exhausted, and battling through the various layers of Hamley's toy store, specifically to acquire this item for the party - only then to forget to actually turn it on?!  Argh!  Anyway, a friend pointed out that it will be great in the garden when the weather turns warmer, so I guess it's true that in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't too big a deal. 

Here are some party pictures...Noah spit out a chocolate candy all over my shirt but fortunately I don't think it was too obvious.  And now, I can relax for a year or so - Noah's birthday is on Easter Monday so we'll do something small, and hopefully now that I have discovered the option of buying ready-colored icing, life could get a lot easier.
Blake's Birthday

Not tango'ing, but shuffling...

Two weeks ago, reliving adventures of times gone by when we travelled as a threesome, Mom, Dad and I headed off on the Eurostar to Paris.  We went to meet Sue and Ritchie, who were on a rescheduled trip from last year that they had to postpone due to Ritchie's back problems.  As it was, it was the perfect excursion for Mom and Dad and I to take, in order to have some time together.

The super efficient Eurostar was unexpectedly delayed, so we departed an hour later than anticipated, and then we got stuck somewhere outside Paris due to "congestion on the high-speed rail line".  Fortunately, we didn't have any pressing urgency to arrive on time, and as it was, we were actually given free tickets because of the 2-hour delay.  We met Sue and Ritchie at the hotel, and we then wandered out for a little walk before dinner.  I had never heard of the concept of "love locks", but a visit to the Pont des Arts footbridge showed what I thought was a really picturesque symbol of the binding nature of love (or at least, the capriciousness of young lovers!).  Apparently this concept started up in the early 2000s, and at some point all the locks were removed from the bridges of Paris where people had put them up.  The fad has now re-appeared, and I thought they were beautiful! 

The main downside to the trip was the weather - it was cold and wet the next day as we stood in line to visit the Musee d'Orsay.  I'd been there a few times but always find it hard to believe how much wonderful work is there....all that amazing Impressionism on the top floor, one famous painting after another and another.  I love the buildng itself, a converted railway station offering spectacular views toward Montmartre and Sacre Coeur...gazing out across Paris, I find myself wanting to be a glamorous French woman with a pretty silk scarf, thin legs, and a perfect French accent.  Poor Mom and Dad had been cut down by the "lurgy anglais" - this horrible cough and cold that had cycled through our family for what felt like the entirety of their visit.  I had been ill a few weeks before with it, and all I wanted to do at the time was sleep - I had to applaud Mom and Dad who carried on (almost used "powered on" but there wasn't much power to Dad's pace as we made our way back to the hotel from the museum) despite feeling really rotten.

I made a quick stop at La Duree for some macaroons, and then we headed off back to the Gare du Nord for the 1743 train.  It was on time, fortunately, and when we got home everyone was up waiting for us.  Although it was a short trip, it was a good one, and it was nice to make memories with Mom and Dad and the Watsons.
Paris March 2012

The first ice creams of the season

If there's one thing I'm a sucker for, it's ice cream in the park.  Amidst some pretty cool temperatures - but with the sun shining - we celebrated the first ice cream of the season in Crystal Palace Park when we were there a few weekends ago as an extended family.  The only thing that was questionable was whether it was really ice cream - it was that soft serve kind that is sold out of a van, and that they advise that pregnant women don't eat...kind of makes you go, "Hmmm...".Anyway, we all had something and snapped a picture for the family photo album.

Feb 26, Crystal Palace Park

A few weeks later, the boys had their second taste when we were down in Belair Park.  Blake's ears are fine-tuned to the chimes of the ice cream van and it's very difficult to dissuade him from the idea that we should go pay our custom to the arriving singing vehicle.  Like the whipped frozen non-dairy treat, I'm a "soft" touch when it comes to the boys and their treats.

Tucking in

Getting messy

I think this was Blake "copying" Noah...sigh.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Still better than going at Christmas...

On Wednesday (two Wednesdays ago, by the time I actually post this), the boys and Mom and Dad and I headed off on an adventure, to the magical - and surreal - world of Harrod's.  My friend Jenny had recommended this to me as a great way to spend a weekday with the kids, because the toy store at Harrod's is pretty amazing and allows the kids to play with a lot of the toys.  Crucially, Jenny had set a rule that said from the beginning they weren't buying anything, and she said it was fairly easy to leave the toy area without too much drama.  After that, they visited the Pet Kingdom which is essentially an actual pet shop for people who might wander in and decide to drop £4200 for a British bull terrier.  The Pet Kingdom also has treats for animals that look more appetizing than just about anything I've ever baked before...totally another world!

Dad had said he wanted to go to Harrod's, so this was our "field trip" for Wednesday.  It was pretty incredible, in terms of what they had.  Noah became obsessed with this cute little mechanical puppy (and is subsequently getting one for his birthday, yikes), and Blake ran around and around admiring all that there was on offer - literally they probably have some version of every toy imaginable.  We left it probably a bit too long, and all of a sudden, meltdowns were upon us - Noah thrashing around on the floor screaming about something, and Blake in tears because he wanted his "5th-year-old birthday present".   We did see the Pet Kingdom but then sought refuge in the rather insanely-priced Tree House Family Cafe (I'll give you a hint: a latte was £4.50...I had a juice and thought of the ham sandwiches that I had stored in my backpack, while the boys feasted on a cheeseburger and a fish sandwich that cost more than my weekly lunch allowance!).  Mom, always looking on the bright side - and also in "tourist mode" - chalked the bill up to being "part of the experience"!  It was funny...we were remarking how good the baked beans were, before coming to the conclusion that, no, they probably weren't just heated up out of a tin!

This puppy and Noah became instant best friends...

 Eat every last bit...

Admittedly, there were some things to do which were a good distraction...
So for anyone with kids who can handle the word, "No," and provided you're aware that the Tree House Cafe might serve as the closest thing to a Sanity Oasis - but at a pretty penny - then I'd highly recommend a trip to Harrod's toy department and Pet Kingdom.  For all others, your kids' own toy chests and a trip to the park might just do...!

Happy birthday (some belated!)

Blake's birthday is always memorable and special because he shares it with Anna - so happy birthday, Anna - we hope you had a great day!

On Saturday evening after Blake's party, I managed to get myself into town to celebrate belatedly with Sajni.  Her friend had organized a night out at a bar called Aqua, and although it was chilly (ok, freezing!) out, we headed to the terrace, which offered some pretty cool views over Regent Street and London.  I have given up alcohol for Lent, a decision which I thought was going to be easy, but turned out to be a bit harder as the first week went on and every day I'd come after work thinking that a nice glass of wine would be nice!  Anyway, last Saturday that meant I was just enjoying a cranberry juice and the views before heading home and collapsing.  So, happy birthday - belatedly - Sajni!

And the youngest member of Team Cook, Ben, turned one last week - hard to believe when a baby you feel like just arrived celebrates 365 - or in his case, 366 - days old!

Spring cleaning! (of the hairline)

Earlier in the year, I posted about Matt giving Noah his first haircut, but today we decided to take him for something a bit more professional in order to try to tidy up his stray comb-overs and Tintin-like locks.  The haircutter of choice - at least for the kids - in our local area is Changes salon on the Rosendale Parade, so we headed there for a haircutting experience which lasted about 5 minutes, such little material was there to work with!  The girl said she actually couldn't believe it was Noah's first haircut because of how still he sat in the seat, but I promised her it was (and not just because the first haircut there is free!).  He was really so quiet and I think just trying to take it all in. 

Afterwards though, Noah was full of energy, probably due in part to the KitKat that each of the boys got in the shop. 
Not sure if his hair is going to be his best asset...!  

Having a KitKat sword fight on the walk home...

Blake had been for a haircut on Wednesday, and always seems sooo much older when his hair is shorter.  He is such a grown-up handsome boy now (definitely grown-up, hopefully you'll allow me handsome)...feels slightly shocking to look at his baby pictures - or even his pictures as a 2-year-old - and try to remember what he was like!

Book reviews: Last Man in Tower and The Weekend

I've gone back to trying to actually read on the train ride into work, as opposed to scrolling through my emails on my Blackberry or staring into space.  This is, provided I can get a seat, which seems to have been the case recently.

I just finished a wonderful book, Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga.  I had read and enjoyed The White Tiger, and Last Man in Tower was really a beautiful book.  It is the story of a residential tower block run in the form of cooperative housing society, in modern Mumbai.  We get to know some of the main characters who represent a range of ages and with different histories, but essentially sharing an aspirationally middle-class existence.  When a building developer comes in with an offer to buy the tower block - so that he can tear it down and build a magnificent new residential complex - the harmony of the normal life the residents experienced is broken.  The builder is offering a huge amount of money for these people's apartments, but one man - a retired teacher known as "Masterji" - doesn't want to sell.  And because it's a co-op and every tenant needs to be in agreement to sell, therein lies the drama.  The story that unfolds is so touching, pulling on the themes of the importance of memories, the corrupting force of greed, what it means to be part of a community, and how difficult it can be to stick to one's morals in the face of a larger tide of a different collective sentiment.  I was gripped til the very last page by the way the author brought these characters to life against the backdrop of a city I've never been to, but feel I understand through a story like this.  Last Man in Tower is a great book and I hope you'll get a chance to read it.

I actually said to myself after finishing it that I was feeling on a really lucky run of reading good things - books I've really enjoyed - recently.  Well, that turned out to jinx my streak, for the next book I read was absolutely awful!  I had high hopes for The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader.  I don't recall much of The Reader, apart from remembering it as being good and of its being made into a movie.  The Weekend, in my opinion, did nothing in the way of getting the reader to care about any of the characters, not least of which the main character, a man recently released from prison after 24 years following his participation in terrorist activities.  His sister organizes a weekend away for all these old friends of his, but it all just seemed so random and boring that I felt nothing but wishing that it would just end, so I could move on to something more interesting.  When I finally got to the last page, I felt sorry for the author that he'd written something that could in no way compare to his other hit, but some of the Amazon reviews of it are favorable, so maybe it was just me.  The weekend that's arranged in the book feels odd, and that's what I thought overall of the novel.  I'd give it a miss...