Archive for April, 2013

Things that put the ‘great’ in Britain

Posted in Uncategorized on April 28, 2013 by deborah1960

I’ve been living in the UK for thirteen of the past fifteen years, and, due to circumstances beyond my control, I’ll be going back to the States this summer.  And while I’m happy to be going back to my family and friends in the US, I am also heartbroken to leave this wonderful country and the friends who have become a family to me.  As a farewell and thank you, my next few blogs will be on what makes Britain great.  I’m not talking about the obvious things—the NHS, the Olympics, the Queen, or even that way they have with putting on a show.  I’m talking about the small things that you realise are great only when you’re about to leave them.  They’re in no particular order, because they all mean something to me—I just wrote about  them as they occurred to me.  So here goes part one of my love letter to Great (really Great) Britain.

1. The proximity to animals

It’s pretty stereotypical to say that the Brits love their pets.  As Bill Bryson explained, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed after the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—and as an off-shoot.  I’d like to further point out the impact of ‘Royal’ as opposed to the distinctly non-imperial ‘National’: you don’t want the Queen pissed off at you for neglecting your budgie.  But the stereotype is essentially true:  animals are more highly integrated in day-to-day life here, and I think that’s a good thing.

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Cows: ubiquitous and yummy!

 Animals are everywhere!  I’m not just talking about cats and dogs (although they are abundant)—it’s a common sight to see cows hanging out, having a nosh in a field in the middle of a village.  I just saw three girls— graceful as centaurs—riding their horses down a busy street in my village; the cars slowed waaaaaay down and gently manoeuvred around them.  How often do you see that in Baltimore?  Chicken coops and beehives abound in towns and cities, while watching the lambs gambol is one of the keenest pleasures of my drive to work in the early spring.  (Actually, watching the lambs gambol is probably the only pleasure of my drive to work in the early spring.)

 Rubbing alongside animals so comfortably is definitely part of what makes Britain great.  First of all, animals break down barriers.  Strangers will come up to you to say ‘hi’ to your pooch, or they’ll strike up a conversation about your cat while waiting in the vet’s office.  As somebody, somewhere said, ‘dogs make us human.’  Also, such a profound familiarity with so many food sources has, I believe, resulted in some of the highest standards of animal welfare for beef, lamb, chicken, and pork.  As a result, despite mad cow disease scares in the past, I feel far more confident eating British meat than I do eating American meat—there are no antibiotics, steroids, or other yuckinesses to trouble my mind when indulging my carnivorous appetites (which is pretty much all the time).  Plus, the easy availability of free range meat gives my conscious a sop on the rare occasions when my inner Jiminy Cricket decides to pop up.  (‘How can you eat that wee baby lamb?  It’s so cute!’ ‘Shut up—he had a happy life.’) One of the top items on my ‘to do’ list when I move back is to find a consistent source for meat of the same quality (wish me luck).

 But even more delightful is how this love of animals engenders a gentle and infectious eccentricity.  Everyone knows (or is) a mad cat lady or a greyhound rescuer who adds new beasts to his or her various collections with the mad abandon of a miser let loose in a mint.  Nor is animal-mania confined to mammals:  the ‘Most Eccentric Animal Lovers’ award must go to the legions of bird watchers (‘twitchers’) who populate these shores.  The RSPB (you guessed it—the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has a network of reserves where you can sit down in hides in order to spy on our avian friends in a way rather reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.  (‘I say, dear, but didn’t we see that same Tufted Scrotum down in Norfolk?  I recognise the cheeky little devil by his missing toe!’)  And they are so nice!  Not only are they more than willing to tell you the precise name of the bird you happen to be watching, but they are incredibly generous with their monstrously outsized and enormously expensive optical equipment. I have seen so much beauty thanks to them.  In fact, I enjoy twitching the twitchers so much that I’ve become one myself:  my best Christmas present this year was a pair of excellent binoculars from my husband, which I’ve used on many rambles to stake out the birds and their watchers.   Happily, this new mania of mine is easily transferable to the States—but I never would have started if I hadn’t fallen in love with those mad hatters sitting next to me in the hide.

2.  Rambling

 I despise running, but I can walk until the cows come home.  And thanks to the extensive network of public footpaths that criss-cross the country, I can do precisely that.  After all this time, I still can’t get over the fact that I can frolic across the land—public, private, and in between—without trespassing.  The cheerful green signposts guiding you along the public footpath are in sharp contrast to the ‘Trespassers will be eaten’ signs that you normally see in the States.  You can walk just about anywhere here if there is a designated public right of way.  Now, you might not think the opportunity to acquire blisters, aching calves, or torn ligaments to be such an unmitigated blessing, but it really is.  For one thing, the countryside in the UK is FUCKING GORGEOUS (see illustrations for proof).  And it’s there!  For free!

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See? Gorgeous, right?

But I also like how something as simple and democratic as the public right of way enhances life on so many levels.  If for no other reason, rambling is good for us because huffing and puffing up and down the hillsides makes us fitter.  But it goes deeper than that.  We need to see and feel the land from time to time, or else we’d go insane.  That’s why high rises don’t work—they cut us off from the things can give us firm foundations:  the land, nature, a sense of place.   But, for the cost of some sturdy boots, a picnic, and an OS map, anybody can go for a walk anywhere and experience the beauty of this amazing country. You can feel wild and free walking through the stark moors of the Dark Peak—and be fewer than ten miles from Sheffield.  And did I mention how wonderful those OS maps are?  They are amazingly detailed—with a map and a compass, you have no excuse for getting lost, even if you’re as spatially challenged as I am (yes, even general experts on everything have their kryptonite).  I never fail to experience an exhilarating sense of accomplishment whenever I manage to get from point A to point B, with only minor detours from the generally accepted route.  And don’t get me started on stiles!  They’re sheer genius!

Aesthetics, accomplishment, aerobics.  Why wouldn’t anyone love to ramble?

And this--isn't this fantastic?  And you can even walk over the bridge-it's got a public foot path on it!

And this–isn’t this fantastic? And you can even walk over the bridge-it’s got a public foot path on it!

 

3.  A comfortable relationship with bodily functions.

Now, this one might surprise you.  Yanks tend to think of the Brits as stuffy and reserved.  But actually, we are the uptight ones, and nothing makes this more obvious than the Brits’ refreshing lack of euphemism about what goes on in the toilet.  I still catch myself saying, ‘I have to go to the bathroom,’ and, man, do I ever feel asinine right after saying it.  As they never seem to tire of pointing out to me, the Brits know that there is no bath in there—but there is a toilet.  So that’s what they do:  they go to the toilet.  How honest.  Even their nickname for the toilet—the ‘loo’—somehow seems earthier than the ‘john’.  Maybe it’s because it rhymes with ‘poo’.

I’ll never forget hearing a news reporter talk about an official car ride she took with Cherie Blair.  They got caught up in the traffic for a few hours (it happens), and when they finally arrived at their destination, Cherie leapt from the car like a gazelle to get to the nearest toilet (not bathroom), because—wait for it—‘she was bursting for a wee.’  Now, we’ve all been there, and I suppose that on an intellectual level I realised that even the wife of a Prime Minister has a bladder of only limited capacity just like the rest of us.  But frankly, that was one of the most shocking things I had heard on the television.  And why?  Because at the time I would have no more expected to hear a news report about Laura Bush having to take a wicked piss than I would have expected to hear about my mother going out to meet the fleet, that’s why. It just isn’t the done thing.

But this reticence is just silliness.  Of course people wee and poo and all that jazz, so why pretend otherwise? It’s what makes us all human:  we’re born, we shit, we die.  The Brits know it, and as a result, the public amenities in Britain are far superior to any other country I’ve visited, including my own.  Every village has a public toilet, and they are (generally—no one’s perfect) clean, free, and stocked with toilet paper. They even have ‘Loo of the Year’ awards!  So do what the Brits do:  celebrate your excretions!  Go on, have a laugh.  Better yet, have a fart!

See? I wasn’t shitting you (yark, yark, yark).

So that’s it for now.  Next time:  churches, driving, and The Archers.

Expert parenting advice–for free!

Posted in Uncategorized on April 27, 2013 by deborah1960

As a mother, a teacher, and a general expert on everything, I have some pretty firm ideas about child rearing.  There are oodles of books, blogs, friends, mothers-in-law, even tigers it seems, positively filled to the brim, nay, overflowing, with advice on just about every aspect of human husbandry you can imagine.  It wouldn’t be so bad if the advice were at least consistent, but it’s subject to change without notice.  Feed him on a schedule.  Feed him when he wants.  Teach her sign language at six months.  Don’t interfere with the natural development of her cognitive abilities. The received wisdom in my time was to put babies to sleep on their tummy, so they wouldn’t aspirate their own puke.  Now it seems that I practically condemned my darlings to death, and only a miracle prevented the three of them from transforming a light nap to the big sleep.

So, intrepid as ever, I’m wading into some pretty treacherous waters.  But, as my friends and fans know, I’m never one to flinch at an opportunity to hand out gratuitous advice. So here it is, my one and only rule for you, new parents (and, you know, it’s not too late for some of you not-so-new parents).

The sun does not shine out of your child’s ass.

This might seem blindingly obvious, but I’m positively gob-smacked by the number of otherwise well-adjusted adults who have allowed their infant to become a be-diapered household tyrant.  Yes, yes, yes—I know that they need attention, love, and all that other stuff.  That is NOT what I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is when the kid is allowed to call the shots.  When the kid is the one to set the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable behaviour, and not the adult.  One of my duties in my current job is to meet new pupils before they start Year 7 and lay down the law to them. I can always tell which ones will be trouble:  they’re the ones whose body language and verbal clues display contempt for their parents.  When I get to know them better, a clear pattern emerges: the kid decides when to do homework, what to eat, and in what way he will make his parents’ lives miserable on the weekend.  The parents have abdicated their role, and the child, naturally, has filled the vacuum.   I’ve talked to many of these parents, and another clear pattern has emerged:  they didn’t want to interfere with the child’s freedom by putting unnatural constraints that could inhibit the development of his obvious (if perplexingly latent) genius.  In sum, they thought the sun shone out of the kid’s ass.  This worldview has nothing to do with the parents’ class, status, or education.  And the ill effects of holding this opinion can begin at a disturbingly early age.  I know—I learned the hard way.

Child number one was a blissfully perfect baby until the age of six months.  That’s when Junior decided that he was a nocturnal animal after all, and that 2:00 AM was when we should all par-tay.  Like clockwork, he would wake, scream, get changed, nurse, cuddle, be put back to bed, wake, scream, nurse, cuddle, be put back to bed, wake, scream—well, you get the picture.  Now, we all know that I’m a highly intelligent person, but even I was taken in by this idiocy for four months.  The worst four months of my life, I might add (and I hope you’re reading this, Junior).

Dragging my sorry ass into the office was not a pleasant affair for anyone concerned.  Only the ingestion of several gallons of coffee made me anything approaching coherent.  As I was bemoaning my fate to my patient secretary, she visibly gulped before asking in a falsely nonchalant tone, ‘Did you ever think of letting him scream?’

I looked at her in amazement.  What, not cater to the little dictator?  What an extraordinary idea! What a revelation!

Not being totally heartless, I, of course, did the responsible thing and had the paediatrician check him over for any obvious physical defects that might result in insomnia (although, as I bitterly recounted to my lovely doctor, he didn’t seem to have any difficulty sleeping during the day).  And that night we implemented Operation Earplug.  Instead of pandering to him, we would go in every twenty minutes and say (in a loving way), ‘Yeah.  We’re here.  Now get your butt back to sleep.’  And then we left the room.  It took four nights—he roared for four

Sunshine.

hours one night, two the next, a half-hour the third, a nanosecond the fourth—but it worked.

A baby’s butt. See the difference?

In fact, now in his late twenties, he could probably still sleep through a nuclear detonation in the next building.

That experience was an epiphany.  The baby, young as he was, was still an intelligent human who had realised that there was a weakness, and exploited it.  Who wouldn’t?  Once the breach was fixed, he reverted to being the delightful baby he had once been.  We, his parents, now thoroughly refreshed, were able to engage with each other fully as adults, with the birth of child number two as a consequence.  But that’s another story.  The point is, we learned our lesson.  Parents need to be the adults and set the boundaries.

Because that’s what makes it possible for us to get along:  boundaries.  Without them, we learn to love only ourselves and ignore the rights and needs of others.  Always one to relish a paradox, I cannot help but point out that, without these boundaries—these limitations on our autonomy—we actually lose our autonomy.  And wouldn’t that just suck?  By setting up boundaries (not too many, only a few are really needed) and by sticking to them, you give your child the gift of freedom.

So, the next time you’re changing Tarquin’s or Sophie’s juicy diaper, take a good, long look at what’s going on down there.  Something is streaming out—but it ain’t sunshine, honey.

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