Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I came home from a book club meeting last night to find Paul smugly awaiting my return and knew instantly how he'd spent his evening. Sure enough, he waited only a few moments before ever-so-casually mentioning that he'd fixed the Mousetrap game.

I crouched on the floor to admire his handiwork and gave the ball a tentative flush. The first trap, one which had completely baffled me, worked perfectly. Impressed as I was, I also couldn't help grimacing a bit to see Paul so easily master that which had left me so stumped. But then I flushed again and watched with equal parts of my earlier frustration and a new sort of satisfaction as the second trap failed. By the time the third trap (the one I had managed to figure out earlier in the day) flopped, I had a little bit of a smile on my face. And then (then!) I discovered that one of those marbles which I'd predicted would be missing by nightfall was indeed gone. "Where's the third ball?" I asked as my smile spread to a mile-wide grin.

I left Paul on his hands and knees muttering as he searched for the ball and I headed off to bed. I felt much, much better.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Building a better mousetrap

Julia has raced home from school, anxious to attack the pile of gifts which she received at her birthday party yesterday. The party timing was unfortunate; by the time the gifts were all opened and recorded onto the thank you note list, it was really too late in the evening to do much playing. It now appears, however, that anticipation may just have made the spoils all the sweeter. Julia has apparently spent the better part of the school day discussing her haul with friends and deciding which of her gifts she will play with first, and she is tearing plastic off of shrink wrapped boxes before I've even removed my coat.

First up is a board game which made Paul groan when he saw it come out of the wrapping paper last night. "I had that one when I was a kid," he had told Julia. "It's a pain to set up." I guess it's just as well she's selecting it now, as we have the whole afternoon ahead of us to figure out the set up. I've spent countless hours punching out cardboard squares and affixing decorative stickers and inserting Tab A into slot B in my career as a mother. I'm sure that I'm up for the challenge of a new board game.

Twenty minutes later, I've lost all of my bravado and am swearing softly under my breath as I survey the oddly shaped plastic pieces spread all around me. The incredibly detailed direction booklet, which I originally thought would be my salvation here, is mocking me. Nothing fits as it suggests. There are tiny rubber bands and weird cardboard cutouts to contend with. Completing Step 4 should feel like a small victory, but the knowledge that I have another dozen or so steps to go somewhat dulls any satisfaction I might otherwise have felt. The picture on the box isn't helping at all. The directions aren't much better. I am trying to resist the urge to simply duck tape the whole thing together haphazardly. My children, meanwhile, are ooing and aahing as they watch my progress over my shoulder. They are so excited to play this game. I'm doing this for them, of course. And it is for them, I tell myself, that I am swatting their hands away and screaming at them every time they so much as reach out to touch my handiwork. "Don't touch! Don't play with that!" I snap again and again. So far, this is really fun.

They wander off to check out a few gifts which require a bit less assembly, but my mission continues. I am not going to let this game defeat me. I am an educated, intelligent, capable woman. Surely, I can put together a board game. "I can do this," I mutter repeatedly as I doggedly work my way through the directions. And, it turns out, I can. I really can assemble a board game. I am gleeful in my victory until I notice that it has taken me just under an hour and a half.

The children return to see what I've accomplished and are delighted to see the game set up. I still have a page and a half worth of directions to read before I'll be able to teach them how to play the game but first, my new bible informs me, we should check to make sure all of the traps work correctly. The children drop three small marbles (sure to be gone by nightfall) into the plastic toilet to start the game. This in itself is worthy of hysterical giggles, of course. I'm so glad that I've taken the time to put this game together. Ceremoniously, they flush. Only one of the three traps I've built so laboriously appear to work correctly. "If a trap doesn't work," the directions advise me in the kind of large red lettering which leads me to believe that I may not be the first person to encounter this kind of difficulty, "see the relevant section and check all parts are assembled to the board correctly." I sigh and flip back a few pages.

The children start touching things again. Every single time they lay a finger on anything, it falls apart. As I resolve a problem on one part of the board, they create 4 or 5 others. I'm no longer even quite certain what needs to be fixed. If they can do this much damage just admiring the board, what's going to happen when there are dice and game pieces and the joy of victory and the agony of defeat to contend with? I can't think about that now, though, not if I'm going to get this thing done. I shoo the kids away again, begging them to just keep their hands away from the board for a little while longer. "I'm almost there," I promise. "Pretty soon, we can all play." I try not to notice the look that passes between Julia and Evan. I have a sneaking suspicion that they may not have all that much confidence in my abilities here. "It's OK," I assure them. "This is going to be a great game."

They smile unconvincingly at me and then Julia turns to her brother. "Come on Evan, she says. "Let's go play The Magic Tooth Fairy Game." Evan crows with delight and they race off to find the box. Minutes later, I hear the happy laughter of my children as they enjoy a board game together. I sigh and push away the still-incomplete Mousetrap board. My legs are so cramped that I can barely get to my feet. I may not be able to put together a board game, I tell myself with a wry smile, but I can see the future. And it is because of my amazing fortunetelling abilities that I know with absolute certainty that this game is going to get lost in our move back to the U.S.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Deja vu

Several people have commented to me in the past week or two that my blog entires have been overwhelmingly focused on our return to the States lately. They're right, of course, but the irony in this is that the US is not at all where my mind has been of late.

We have always said that we were going to be in London for two years. Paul signed a two year contract and we set up our lives here based on the assumption that this was a temporary 24 month endeavor. We have made it a point to travel as if we are on a timeline, to maintain ties in the US in anticipation of our return there. But we've never known 100% for certain that Paul's company would respect our wishes to return to the US after the completion of his contract. There was always the chance that we would be asked to stay longer, always the chance that we would be faced either with an offer we could not refuse or simply the reality that there was no job waiting for Paul in New York any more.

And so even as I've talked about and planned for and expected a move back to the US this summer, I've also found myself quietly looking at local real estate and job opportunities for me and school situations for my kids here, just in case. Quite honestly, it didn't sound like such a bad possibility when examined in isolation. Every time I would see or talk to American friends and family I would dismiss it, of course; faced with the reality of the people I love, it was hard to contemplate being away from them for a minute longer than I already have been. But here, immersed fully in our London life? Well, I'd be lying if I said the prospect didn't hold a certain appeal.

Yesterday, Paul finally had a conversation with his boss about the coming year. There was an offer to keep him here, as anticipated, but it was one he could easily and fully refuse. It appears that his department is fully on board with his return to New York and he now has a verbal commitment from his boss that he will be transfered back sometime in the next 6-8 months. And so, while the details and the timing and the nitty gritty of it all will still need to be hammered out in the coming months, I can now say with far more certainty than I've ever felt before that our time overseas will be coming to an end this summer and we will be moving home. (You can breathe now, Mom.)

I should be elated. I'm going back to a life that is comfortable, a world that I can negotiate my way through instinctively and a community that I adore. And yet, now that I know that for sure that we won't be staying in London beyond this summer, I'm a bit surprised to discover just how sad this makes me. "Did you really think there was that strong a possibility we would stay?" Paul asked me last night as we talked about all of this. I didn't. Not really. But as long as the possibility was there, however remote, I could close my eyes to the realities of leaving England behind.

I love it here. I love the people we've met and the friends that we've made -- all four of us. I love the fact that I walk nearly everywhere and that I can easily find my way nearly anywhere else using public transportation. I love having Europe on my doorstep and a school calendar which provides ample opportunity to take advantage of its proximity. I love the board that I serve on and the groups that I belong to and the strong, diverse group of women I've met through my involvement with them. I love the fact that my children are so happy, and so clearly established in a school which is 100% appropriate for their interests, abilities and personalities. I love the fact that I have half a dozen wonderful places to purchase groceries within walking distance and the fact that I know automatically which place will have the best stock to meet my needs on any given day. I love one-floor living and the silly little Ikea-flat which has come to feel like such a comfortable home. I love that my phone rings with fabulous opportunities and offers all the time now -- a girls' weekend in Europe, a Bunko group, a business opportunity, coffee after school drop off, a movie on a Saturday night. I love hosting the American friends and family who come to visit us here and showing them the city we've come to call our own. I love the English sense of humor and outlook on life. Most of all, I love the person who I've become here, the one who conquered this city and made a life for myself and my family here.

We came to London 16 months ago for a two year gig, nervous and sad to be leaving behind the people we love, yet incredibly excited about the adventure ahead of us. We thought that we knew what we were getting ourselves into, but in truth, we had no idea. We simply had no idea how much we would grow to love it here. I'm glad we're going back to the US, truly I am. But the way I've felt about America these past 16 months, the yearning for familiar people and places and a life that I know and understand? I realize now that I'm going to feel the same way about England once we're gone. This time, we're not embarking on an adventure and nothing is temporary. We're making a permanent move to a place that's very different than that which we currently call home. And as exciting as that sounds in theory, I suspect that when push comes to shove, I'm going to be every bit as nervous and sad about this move as I was about our last one.

Here we go again.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Recently overheard Evan expressions which would no doubt get him beat up on any New Jersey playground

"I'm having a lovely time."
"Oh, dear."
"I'm a bit worried."
"Can I have a go?"
"I need a proper coat today."
"Certainly not."
"I'm rather tired."
"I say, old chap." (Admittedly, the Backyardigans were the source of this particular gem. But with the British accent? Oh. God.)
"That is not acceptable."
"Oh, dearie me."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Rule of Gum

Dear Julia,

I don't remember how old you were when it all began. You were old enough to ask questions, but not old enough to challenge the answers too much. I was still idealistic about things like monitoring your sugar intake but no longer so besotted by the mere fact of your existence on this Earth that I felt the need to give in to each and every one of your requests. I guess you must have been somewhere around 2, give or take a few months.

The exchange was like millions of other exchanges that parents and their children have on any given day; you asked for something, I told you no, you asked when you could have it and I picked a completely random answer out of thin air. I couldn't even envision ever reaching the date I selected, which was probably what made it such an appealing choice at the time. But there it was, set in stone the moment the words were out of my mouth. You could have gum when you were 6.

I would have just as soon forgotten this conversation long ago, but that was impossible with you there to remind me of it so frequently over the years. Over time, the Rule of Gum began to feel not only arbitrary, but entirely ridiculous to me. You were enjoying any number of sugary treats far more damaging than a silly stick of gum. You were going off on sleepovers and other "big kid" adventures, but still barred from trying out one of the basic pleasures of childhood. Eventually, you were even beginning to lose baby teeth that had never even known the pleasure of chomping down on a big chewy square of Bubble Yum or a hard, gaily colored gumball. Why on Earth were we sticking to this silly, random rule? I would surely have rescinded the policy long ago were it not for one thing: your devotion to it.

For four years (give or take), you have waited with astounding patience to chew gum at the age of 6. You have not questioned the rule even as you've seen others around you abide by a different set of rules, politely refusing any gum offered to you by an adult or even a peer. It hasn't seemed to bother you one bit that other children have been jawing away at the stuff for years; if anything, I've always sensed in you a bit of disdain that they didn't follow the same -- clearly right because it's ours -- Rule of Gum that we do. You've read books about gum chewers and imagined up your own terrific tales involving the stuff. You've drawn pictures of gum and admired it endlessly in shop windows and candy displays. You've come up with fantastic, elaborate plans to keep your Halloween intake of gum fresh until the moment you would be eligible to enjoy it. But you have never once tried to sneak a piece, never once attempted to negotiate, change or even question the rule.

This is you on the cusp of 6, Julia. You believe steadfastly in rules and you follow them to the letter. You are far less influenced by what others think and say than what you know in your heart to be right and true. You read with avid curiosity about that which you have not yet experienced yourself. You are imaginative and creative and can spin whole worlds out of things you know nothing about. You are able to look longingly into the future, dreaming of what will someday be. But you live in the present and you wait your turn and you trust completely that you'll be rewarded for this in the end.

This morning, I woke you up by handing you the biggest, gooiest, sugariest square of gum that I could find in all of London. You didn't even look surprised. You just thanked me, popped it into your mouth and chewed carefully for a bit. And then you broke into a huge grin. I can't say for sure whether you were smiling because you liked the gum or because you were finally 6.

It takes most people the better part of a lifetime to learn that good things come to those who wait (hell, I'm still trying to learn this). But somehow, you knew it from the get go. I have no doubt at all that you have just the right mixture of patience and dogged determination necessary to get whatever it is you want out of life. May all of the things that you have to wait for along the way be as sweet as a piece of chewing gum when finally they are yours.

Happy birthday, my 6 year old gum chewing daughter. I love you with all my heart. Now go brush your teeth. (I may have woken you up with a piece of bubble gum, but I'm still your mother.)


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Reading between the lines

Dear Director of the American Preschool Which Julia and Evan Used to Attend,

Enclosed, please find Evan's registration form for the 2008-2009 academic year. Oh please, oh please, oh please find a spot for him. Per our email exchange, I'm fully cognizant that spots are going to be very tight on the pre-K classes next year and I recognize that it will likely be impossible to get our first choice of classes if we even get a place at all. 45 pre-K children, 46 pre-K children... what's the difference, really? I promise to keep him home when the school accreditation team arrives to count heads if that's what it takes. However, I'm hopeful that something will open up somewhere and that Evan will be able to re-join a familiar and comfortable school environment to help ease his transition back to the States. Evan, Shmevan. Like he even remembers? It's me who desperately needs to re-join a community where I feel comfortable and at home when we return to the US. Please don't make me start over again!!!

I appreciate all of your advice about other local preschool programs and will certainly investigate other options if it becomes clear after the registration lottery that there really won't be a place for Evan in your school. Ugh. I so don't want to go through this hell again. How many times am I going to have to scramble to find school places for my children before they even reach formal schooling age? But the prospect of sending Evan elsewhere makes me so sad that for now, I think I'm just going to wait and keep my fingers crossed that this won't be necessary. Do you see me sticking my fingers in my ears and my head in the sand here? La, la, la... I don't hear you...

I look forward to receiving an update from you and hope that the news will be good! If not, maybe we'll just stay here in London where we know we're wanted. Evan actually has a school place in London (but no pressure or anything)... In the meantime, many thanks for all of your help and support. Would now be an inopportune time to mention all of the help and support that I've offered you over the years?

Fondly (and prepared to grovel if that's what it takes to get you to feel the same way),

Friday, January 04, 2008

Where the heart is

"Oh, by the way, I put you down as my emergency contact on next year's preschool forms since you'll be back by the time the school year starts. It felt really good."

If ever I wondered where I belong these days, these two sentences casually thrown out in the middle of a mindless phone conversation about nothing in particular answered my unspoken question. I've found countless amazing things here in London, many of which I didn't even know I wanted or needed before I arrived. But the feeling of being wanted and needed myself? That's what I call home.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Season's greetings

It is January 2 and by all rights I probably should have removed all evidence of the holidays by now. But I just can't bring myself to take down the dozens of cards that adorn my dining room wall. My excuse is that international mail is iffy and with the cards still arriving at a rate 2 or 3 a day, the ones still some to come deserve some display time, too. It's a flimsy excuse, though, and I know it. I'm simply not ready to let go just yet. I pause to gaze at the wall dozens of times each day, and I've noticed that my children and Paul do the same. We are all drawn to the smiling faces, the preprinted messages of holiday cheer and scrawled handwritten notes that hang there. Each one brings us such obvious pleasure that I am seriously beginning to consider leaving them up all year. Hell, it's not as if we have anything else to hang on that wall.

We all have our favorite cards, some which are treasured because of the people they feature, others which captivate purely on the merit of the gap toothed grins they display (there are a lot of missing teeth among the 6 year old set on our wall this year). There are some pictures of children I've never met before, born in our absence, and countless others of kids who would probably not even remember me at this point. A few have puzzled Julia and Evan ("who's THIS?"), but most are easily recognizable to me; everyone's grown over the past year just as my own children have, but the faces are familiar nonetheless. I note the changes as I study these photos, but appreciate most the things which remain the same. This one still won't smile for photos. That one still has that distinctive grin. I know that crumpled nose, that gorgeous mane of hair, that impish expression. If I still know these things, surely I will still know these children when we get back to the States, right? A handful of faces have changed so much that I scarcely recognize them, and it is these that I return to the most frequently. I gaze at their frozen images as if I can somehow get back all of the milestones I've I've missed while we've been away. Perhaps if I can burn their matured faces into my memory, they too will seem familiar to me when we return.

I've always enjoyed the annual sending and receiving of holiday cards, but here in London, our display of cards means more to me than ever. The grinning faces of our American friends and family are comfortingly familiar; the "we miss you" messages both heartwarming and meaningful in this, our second year away. The sprinkling of cards from friends here in London are new this year, a symbol of the real and lasting friendships we've finally begun to develop on this side of the pond. Those will be the ones that arrive bearing airmail stamps at this time next year, I can't help but think a bit sadly as I admire them. This is an odd time in our lives; we are between and betwixt and there are times when it feels like we don't belong anywhere at all any more. But from both sides of the Atlantic, here are the smiling faces of people who consider us a part of their communities. I doubt any of them realized just how much comfort and reassurance they were sending when they slid their pre-printed photo cards into an envelope for us and checked our name off their lists. But I am incredibly grateful for it all the same.