Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Have pumpkins, will travel

Halloween is historically not an English holiday. There is trick-or-treating to be found, but it is never a sure thing... hardly the slam dunk door-to-door sugarfest one finds in the States.

And so tonight, we faced the annual question: can a magical purple wizard...

....and a not-so-wicked witch

.... find the magic elixir* they seek in the high streets and back alleys of Hampstead?

Suffice to say 2007 was a success.


*high fructose corn syrup, of course...

Saturday, October 27, 2007


We are standing in a farmacia, relieved to have finally found one that is open during siesta hours. The pharmacist is squinting at the fine print on a container of children's fever reducer as Paul uses his Blackberry to try to convert Evan's weight from pounds to kilograms. "You'll need forty drops of this," the pharmacist says finally, handing me a bottle of red liquid. "Forty?" I repeat incredulously. "Yes," he replies, squinting at the package insert again a bit uncertainly. "Four zero." I shake my head. There is no way that I am giving my child 40 drops of a medication that has warning labels I cannot even read. "What are our other options," I ask. "Surely Spanish 3 year olds do not take 40 drops of this medication every time they get a fever." He shrugs, pulls out a box of adult pain relievers. "You could break one of these tablets in half and maybe grind it up..." Paul seems to think this is the better option. I watch him purchasing the box of medication, knowing that there is not a shot in hell that I'm giving my child any of this stuff without a more credible explanation of what the dosage should be. We will simply have to do a better job of rationing the few Children's Tylenol tablets I have left in my toiletries bag. I reach down to feel Evan's forehead for the millionth time and discover that he has fallen asleep in his stroller again while we were talking to the pharmacist. He feels warm, but not burning up -- maybe 101 or so? I look at Paul, shrug. "I guess we should let him sleep for now." Julia looks hopeful. "Does this mean we can go to the Picasso museum?" she asks. "Might as well," Paul replies. We spend the next hour or so exploring the museum with Julia while Evan dozes feverishly. As we emerge from the building, a postcard of Julia's favorite painting clutched in her hand, Evan wakes up. He is delighted to discover that he's just in time for ice cream. But halfway through his cone of chocolate gelato, he announces that he's done. I sigh as I look for a bin to throw away the remains of his snack. If the kid isn't finishing his ice cream, he's clearly pretty sick...

It was bound to happen eventually. In truth, the fact that we made it through a full year of dragging our young kids around Europe before anyone got ill on a trip was probably more fortunate and unlikely than we realized. Our luck ran out this week in Barcelona. Evan developed a fever on the flight over which plagued him the whole time we were there. With few other symptoms and a decent capacity to bounce back each time he got a dose of our hoarded Tylenol stash, it hardly seemed necessary to hightail it back to London immediately. But clearly we couldn't keep up a frantic sightseeing pace either. And so we persevered, trying to strike a balance between "once in a lifetime trip to a heady and intoxicating city" and "responsibility to our sick kid." An extra beer at a beach bar while Evan dozed and Julia played in the sand. A simple pasta dinner prepared in the hotel room as the tapas bars twinkled invitingly out of reach six stories below. La Sagrada Familia, but not Parc Guell. The Barri Gotic, but not Montjuic. I suppose that we make compromises every time we travel with children anyway; this trip, we just made more than usual.

Despite the fact that Evan insisted all week that his ears did not hurt at all, when we finally returned to London and headed straight for the doctor's office, his left eardrum literally burst right in front of her and his mysterious fever was suddenly explained. Now on antibiotics, he's cheerfully telling anyone who'll listen about his "great" trip to Barcelona and Julia is filling postcard after postcard with descriptions of all the fun things she saw and did on our trip. That we did not have all of the adventures I'd hoped for hardly seems to matter in hindsight -- the kids had fun, the pictures are decent and everyone's healthy in time to return to school tomorrow. As for all of the "must sees" on my Barcelona checklist that remain unseen? I guess they just mean that Barcelona will have to be a "twice in a lifetime" destination for us. I won't complain.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Second (or 102nd) guessing the school thing

"You may still have issues with the English educational system," a friend who knows me well remarked the other day as we watched our children chase each other around the playground, "but your children were made for it." I looked at my kids, at quiet Julia who thrives on structure and academic stimulation and at charming Evan whose innate politeness and desire to please have completely endeared him to his teachers here. "I know," I sighed.

For the most part, I've reconciled myself to the way my children are being educated here in London. It's still hard to set aside my long held belief that a foundation of free-form play, experimentation and creativity is far more important than early exposure to traditional academics, but I'm willing at this point to at least acknowledge that my way is not the only way that works. My children have truly never been happier, and anything that makes my children this excited and motivated and downright gleeful cannot be all bad. I've brought them to London and inserted them into this educational system, I remind myself frequently, and now it's important to support them here. The place where I draw the line -- the one exception which I cannot bring myself to enthusiastically endorse -- is Evan's obsessive quest for coloring perfection.

Evan is an excellent colorer-in. (Yes, I know this is not a real word. In Evan's world, it is, though, and this is his story.) He adores coloring sheets and can spend hours a day on them, and the end results are spectacularly well done, more so than anything Julia can produce, even. I must admit that I prefer his quirky happy face people and other original drawings to his painstakingly neat coloring sheets, but he is all about the latter and I am generally all about whatever makes my kids happy. If Evan wants to print Sesame Street and Little Einsteins coloring pages off the web and spend his afternoons happily creating perfect color-accurate replicas of his beloved characters, who am I to argue?

an Evan masterpiece, circa August, 2007

I know that Evan gets a lot of positive reinforcement at school for his careful coloring. In general, the art projects which Evan brings home from school are gorgeous and impressive, but they inevitably follow a strict, teacher-dictated structure. Evan's projects always look just like the teacher's model and he receives high praise for his artistic abilities, so he's clearly internalized the whole idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to "do" art. I'm thrilled that Evan gets so many opportunities to work with interesting art supplies at school and I'm happy that he's so proud of the projects he produces. But I'm less delighted with the uniformity of the children's work and I'm downright concerned about the effect this is all having on Evan in general. Because suddenly, my artistic little boy who loves coloring sheets is crumpling them up and bursting into hysterical tears if his marker strays even a millimeter outside the lines. All of the joy seems to have gone out of coloring for him in his quest for perfection and his rigid and unrealistic expectations of himself.

"Evan, what's wrong?" I asked yesterday as he burst into tears and pushed aside yet another coloring sheet. "I colored outside the lines," he wailed.

I studied the sheet. It looked pretty darn carefully drawn to me. "I don't even see it, Evan."

the source of all the hysteria

"There," he moaned, pointing at a nearly microscopic bit of red in a corner of Elmo's eyes. "It's ruined!" The tears began to flow even harder. "I need to print another one. I can do better."

"Evan, this looks fine to me," I soothed him. "You've clearly been doing very careful work and it shows. I can scarcely even see the red in Elmo's eye. But if you're really upset about it, why not make the eyes red, too?"

Evan looked at me scornfully. "Elmo's eyes are WHITE," he replied emphatically. "Usually they are," I agreed. "But why not make a creatively colored Elmo this time? Why don't we color a silly Elmo with crazy colors?" My only response was an angry head shake and some more tears.

"OK, coloring pages are clearly not working right now," I replied. "How about we get out some plain white paper and you can draw your own Elmo and color him in any way you want?" No response. "We could do something even more fun," I tried again. "How about a really messy, abstract art project instead of something representational?" Evan sniffed mightily. "No thanks," he replied. "I just want to be by myself for a while."

Are self-flagellating tantrums like this, which happen more frequently than I'd like to admit, entirely the fault of Evan's current educational situation? Certainly not. This quest for perfection and artistic drive is something that's innate in my child. Most of his classmates are gleefully scribbling across the coloring pages they find in the classroom despite the teachers' constant reminders to try to stay within the lines. This is my own kid's personal craziness. But I can't help but believe that there is something about the fact that they're even giving those reminders and something about those pretty art projects that need to be done the "right" way which feeds into Evan's perfectionist tendencies. At the very least, it's not helping.

In the reminders to "do your best" which Evan gets at school, Evan seems to hear "I can do better." And just as he beats himself up when he isn't proud of his work, so do I beat myself up when I watch him suffer this way. I'm trying to do my best for my children here, trying to trust in the educational system and to believe that I'm doing the right thing sending my kids to this school. But when my 3 1/2 year old is crying hysterically because he didn't color in the lines carefully enough? Surely I can do better for him.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

This English custom takes the cake

All of Julia's classmates have birthdays which fall between September and January, and as a result we are heavily into birthday party season around here these days. Julia came home from yet another party this afternoon with a butterfly painted on her face, sugar coursing through her veins and a goody bag which contained all of the usual suspects: a hair clip, some stickers, generic play dough, a hairbrush/mirror set and a smushed up slice of cake wrapped up in a napkin.

The first time that a piece of birthday cake made its way home to us in a goody bag this way, I was genuinely puzzled. Had the party gotten out of hand? Had the planned itinerary of birthday activities and games been too ambitious? Perhaps there was so much leftover cake that they were trying to get rid of it in any way that they could? Clearly, something must have gone wrong if the cake had not been consumed during the party as it should have been. "That poor party host," I thought, as I looked for an opportune moment to unobtrusively toss the unappetizing mess of smeared icing and crumbly cake into the bin.

Now that I am a veteran of the English birthday party circuit, I know better. I understand now that cake is rarely served at birthday parties here. I know that after the birthday child blows out the candles to much fanfare, the beautiful confection that no doubt cost a fortune will be sliced up and parceled out into unappetizing napkin-wrapped take home parcels.

What I don't understand... is why.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Going postal

I had a dream the other night that I arrived home after a long journey. "Home" could mean any number of locations for me right now, I suppose, caught as I am between permanent addresses at the moment. My subconscious apparently decided to circumvent all of that confusion by taking me back to my childhood home, a house I've neither seen nor entered in over a dozen years now. I pulled the car into the driveway, went to the mailbox to retrieve the mail, and then entered the house, where I spread all of the mail out on the wall unit in the living room and proceeded to sort through it. That was it, the whole dream, and yet I woke from it deeply content and immensely satisfied.

I suppose that dream analysts could find significance in nearly every detail of that dream, from my subconscious choice of homes to the orderly way I sorted the envelopes and the happiness I found in examining all of that communication from the outside world. But in truth, I think I was just expressing my inner frustration over the postal strike that's been going on here in the UK for the past week.

I am currently waiting for no less than 6 packages, among them "Grammy original" hand knit sweaters for my children, the perfect pair of replacement black boots (gleefully sourced on Ebay-US after I walked right through the sole of my first pair), Halloween costumes for both kids (thank you, Ebay-UK), those fabulous Gap elastic waist jeans in a size 4T (hand-me-downs which probably cost more to mail than they would have to purchase, but I can't find them here, dammit) and a mystery package from a friend who recently left London to move back to Texas. I can't remember when I last had such a bounty of riches winging its way to my doorstep. Alas, I still don't have any such riches winging their way to my doorstep. Instead, they are all languishing in some warehouse somewhere while the postal workers of this country battle it out for better pay and working conditions. I am all for better pay and working conditions for postal workers, of course. I'm just equally in favor of receiving my mail.

Would this happen in the States? I somehow doubt it -- and not just because I've begun to romanticize the American way of life a bit. It's just that people in the US would freak out if they didn't get any mail for a week and the dispute would be settled quickly before angry mobs stormed their local post offices in search of their Pottery Barn catalogs. Not in the UK, though. Here, people shrug and soldier on. Stiff upper lip, you know. And I'm trying to have one, truly I am. But clearly I'm still a soft American at heart. Because with each day that passes with nary a piece of junk mail to grace my dusty mail slot? Well, it's hard not to let that lip quiver a bit.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Lost and found

I cried when Julia's first tooth came in. She was 5 months old and I wasn't expecting to see pearly whites in her mouth so soon. But one day, her gummy grin revealed a flash of white and as I rubbed it gently in disbelief, she gleefully nibbled on my finger. From then on, Julia would never look the same, I knew; one by one, her teeth were going to continue to push up and alter the entire shape and appearance of her face. And so I cried for what was lost: for the baby Julia who was suddenly gone, evolving right in front of my eyes into a child with a toothy grin. I just wasn't quite ready to let that baby stage go.

Silly and sentimental, those tears were. Postpartum hormones and the raw emotion of new parenthood, dripping foolishly from my eyes like sap from a tree. I just don't cry like that these days. My kids still amaze and delight me, of course, but not with the same overwhelming intensity as in the early days of their lives. They fill me with plenty of emotion -- frustration and pride and contentment and bewilderment, all in equal parts -- but none of it is as raw as that which I felt in their first few months, and I can't recall the last time either of them actually moved me to tears. My hormones and my footing as a parent are both far too stable for that now. I've got things under control.

So why, then, as that stretch of gum I'd not seen for nearly 5 1/2 years suddenly re-emerged yesterday, did I immediately burst into tears?

Lost: A small piece of white bone, so tiny that it's hard to believe it once dominated her whole mouth. A little blood (hers) and a few tears (mine). The face of early childhood.

Found: The next stage. A changed mouth which will soon change again (not to mention a new need to keep change on hand). And just a bit of raw emotion which I hadn't quite expected. I guess I'm still not quite ready to let my baby go.