Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Find Another Calling Because This Was a Wrong Number

I've always hated the following saying: Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach.  It's an insult to teachers like me and so many others I've worked with through the years who put their heart and soul into the classroom.  As a public school teacher, we've always had our daughters attend public schools.  We've been fortunate to have had a great number of fabulous teachers in the past, but we've also had the occasional rotten apple since there must be at least a few in every bunch.  I can only assume these folks were the "somebodies" who had to graduate at the bottom of the class.

Mr. Nutso was really far out.  He was a devotee of science fiction, which is fine because I always enjoyed the Star Wars franchise.  I'll even admit to thinking William Shatner was a bit of a hottie in his form fitting red Star Trek shirt back in the day.  Mr. Nutso took it just a bit further, though, and told my daughter's class that he believed in aliens, as in had personal contact with them.  And he wasn't joking, he was serious.  I don't care if you believe in this wackadoo tale you've created, but you certainly don't need to be sharing it with middle schoolers.  It's already a tough crowd to motivate, tackling challenging literature while dealing with the undercurrents of all that budding teenage angst, and you throw out odd crap like this.  What the hell?  Maybe the aliens abducted you and stole your common sense as well as professional judgment.  I don't know if Mr. Nutso had mental issues, dementia, a history of chronic halluciogenic drug use or what, but it set the tone for the year and it was less than stellar.

Mrs. Prozac seemed so calm and even keeled at elementary school parent orientation.  Maybe she had just taken one of her "happy pills" because she wavered back and forth between that and catatonic all year.  I guess she thought if one is good then two must be even better.  And then she lost count at three so tossed back another one at lunchtime.  Kids cursed at each other and she just shook her head.  They slugged each other at recess and earned a good talking to.  They climbed the stalls in the girls bathroom like spider monkeys and got a warning.  They peed all over the floor, including the sink, in the boys bathroom and got a sad face for the day.  After Christmas, this teacher's meds seemed to quit working or her scrip ran out and she just gave up.  The little thugs in the class sensed victory and became even more obnoxious.  Poor Mrs. P needed some Cesar Milan pack training because she definitely wasn't the alpha anymore... more like the zeta.  I figured a big roll of duct tape and a charged taser would be required to get the little hooligans back in line.

Those were our public school horror stories.  Since arriving in the UK, we've had to deal with more than one private school twit of a teacher.  I just always assumed that if you or your company were shelling out the money for a private school education, then it should be a top notch one, right?  I always thought private school teachers would be the cream of the crop since you're paying handsomely for their expertise and commitment.  Nope.  Negatory.  Think again.  I would be wrong about that with a capital W.

Mr. Old School got tenure when he and Socrates were teachng together, back when the world was flat.  I think Mr. OS may have some dyslexic tendencies, confusing the numbers 15 and 25, because he seems to think high school sophomores are as capable and responsible as PhD candidates.  I'm all for challenging kids so they can rise to the occasion.  However, you have to give them the tools to be successful and that starts by using the textbook you assigned them, especially when you use some oddball mumbo jumbo problem solving they are unable to reference in the book.  At least show them a tradiational method once so they will be able to teach themselves at home in order to really "get it".  You're supposed to instruct by using a model, practice and assess approach.  Showing them a concept once and then moving on to something new with each class period is a waste of everyone's time since you're not reinforcing the scaffolding for new concepts.  And the ridiculously difficult tests that require you retest and STILL curve in order for at least half of the class to pass on the second try?  I have no idea what the hell that is all about, but obviously it's not an effective teaching strategy.  

I think you suck, a technical teaching term I like to throw out every once in a while since I do share the same profession as you, though thankfully not the same skill set.  It would be a step in the right direction if you could stay on task during class, refraining from rambling on about your glory days playing football (soccer) when you were at university back when they rode wooly mammoths to school.  Give the kids a study guide and some direction rather than this idiotic idea of tough love that's more my domain as a parent in regards to behavior rather than yours as a facilitator of classroom concepts to be mastered.  Now I'm paying your peer across the hall for some after school tutoring when you could be making that extra spending money if you weren't so inflexible and a total teaching dinosaur with your antiquated skills.

All I ask is that you do your job, whether it's the local taxes or corporate America that pays your salary.  Don't bring up your oddball ideas so that all the kids and parents think you're a total flake.  Be a leader in the classroom by establishing rules of conduct you are willing to enforce so the kids don't make you miserable all year, forcing the whole faculty to have you on suicide watch.  Teach the curriculum and get out of the classroom when you're obviously past your prime, just hanging on until your retirement kicks in at a higher rate.  Do it for the kids.  I hear they're hiring greeters at Wal-Mart.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

It's a Woman's Prerogative to Change Her Mind

Back when we arrived in England, the end of December about a week after the winter solstice, the days were incredibly short.  The sun would set a bit after 4 pm every day and I cursed the dark, longing for more daylight than the scant 8 hours we received.  Can I take it back now?  If I had a rooster, it would be crowing its head off well before 5 am every morning with the rising of the sun.  I would have then been forced to snap his crowing at the crack of dawn neck and cook him up with some dumplings at least a month ago.  Or maybe some King Ranch chicken because the family really loves that stuff.

Right now the official sunrise is at 4:52 am... and we won't even hit the longest day of the year until June 21.  Honestly, one morning I'm gonna just have a heart attack.  Make sure you put on my tombstome that I was killed by a combination of the damned sun and my lifelong fear of being late to anything.  I roll over, see the light coming through the blinds and freak out.  In my half awake state, I assume we all slept through the alarm and panic.  I immediately look over to see why my cheap digital alarm clock with the wonky battery backup didn't go off.  I'm blind as a cliche bat and no amount of squinting allows me to see the little glowing numbers until it's less than a foot from my face.  So I fumble around to find my glasses and take a gander at the clock to realize it's well before 5 in the morning.  The alarm is still set for 5:45 and just hasn't gone off yet.  Somebody needs to tell the birds chirping ever so joyfully and loudly in the surrounding trees to knock it off until a more decent hour.

At night we have a different issue with the youngest daughter since the sun doesn't officially set until 9:04 pm.  She's conditioned to go to bed when it's dark outside and I'm just as bad about using it as a benchmark for her bedtime.  Every night I'm startled to realize that it's after 9:00 and she's still monkeying around in her room.  It's a good thing school ends in a few weeks because she's probably not getting as much sleep as she needs.  

All of the bedrooms in our house have darkening shades under the fabric window coverings or thick wood blinds to keep the sun at bay, which seemed a bit creepy to me at first.  In the dark months of winter you're trying to let in every ounce of sunlight that deigns to shine during daytime hours.  Did the homeowners have an aversion to UVA or UVB rays?  Were they members of some secretive vampire cult?  Now it all makes sense.  They were just trying to get a decent night's sleep during the warmer half of the year.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Because I'm Worth It

Getting old is a pain in the butt.  I know, I know, I'm living and learning, experiencing life's lessons, getting all wise and mature, blah-blah-blah.  I don't mind that part of the aging process.  What I do mind is the cat whisker white hair that's sprouting all over my head, making me look at least 10-15 years older.  I don't need any help looking older than my chronological age, thank you very much, because the sun worshipping I did in my youth has caught up with me.  In the words of southern sage Truvy, Dolly Parton's character in Steel Magnolias, "Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it is marchin' across your face."  In my case, it's all the way down to my silvery white roots.

It's just not fair.  Men get a little white at the temples or sprinkled in amongst the color and it's considered distinguished.  Women start getting gray or white and folks wonder why she isn't taking care of that.  Doesn't the old girl know she needs to schedule an appointment at the salon or swing by to pick up a box of L'Oreal or Clairol?  

When the whities first made an appearance in my mid 20s, I would just pluck them out.  At this point I would be practically bald if I had continued to remove the offending white hairs.  The game plan I adopted in my 30s was to have my hair "frosted".  I'm sure there is a more modern term for this process since it's the word my mother used back in the 70s when she was doing it to her hair.  It just sounds so retro and something you would reference under Betty Crocker rather than Vidal Sassoon.  This process is still quite antiquated, pulling little bits of hair through a cap since I was sporting a really short 'do at the time.  Sitting in the chair, I always looked like some sort of freaky science project or nouveau art installation wearing that cap with bleach smeared across it.  Lightening bits of hair all over my head allowed for the whites to blend, so folks had to wonder... does she or doesn't she?

When I hit 40 and decided I had best let my hair grow a bit before I got too close to the big 5-0, it became time to switch tactics.  I decided to permanently dye the white hair something similar to my natural hair color.  I know some professionals suggest women should go several shades lighter as they get older, but that would mean my hair would be the same color as all the brown spots dotting my skin.  In a few more years I'll be able to play connect the liver spots across my entire body, so dyeing my hair the same color would probably just enhance them.  Since bathing daily in a vat of retinol and skin bleach isn't an option, right?  

So now I'm at the mercy of the local Aveda salon in order to maintain my ruse.  Every 6-7 weeks I have to trot down and get my new white growth dyed a dark brown to match the rest of my head.  I'm dreading my 12:30 appointment today because I hate all that scrubbing and reclining into the bowl.  You would think some stylist could invent a rinse bowl that you can lean forward to use for those of us with neck disc issues.  Heaven help me - another sign that I'm headed towards some unknown expiration date.

Now you see the gnarly white hairs...

... and now you don't!

I *heart* hair dye!  Oh the things we will endure to avoid that "rode hard and put up wet" look.  Dolly Parton's character Truvy also said there is no such thing as natural beauty, so I'll undoubtedly have to continue to pay some haircare professional in order to appear somewhat presentable in polite company.  Having someone follow me around with soft lighting that flatters isn't an option I can afford.  I guess I should just be grateful my little lady moustache hasn't gone white yet.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Fox Whisperer

I'm really dating myself when I start reminiscing about Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom animal show.  Marlon Perkins was the white-haired host and he was assisted by a much younger Jim Fowler.  Marlon was a distinguished looking gentleman that was always riding well above the fray in the helicopter or jeep.  It was his sidekick Jim that got bit, scratched and downright filthy wrestling around with the animals inevitably caught in nets.  Hmmm...I don't recall why they always seemed to be trapping animals with the nets.  I do remember that I always felt a bit sorry for Jim, having to do all the dirty work.

Back in the days when we had three choices on the television - ABC, NBC or CBS - when we bundled foil on the ends of the TV's rabbit ears to improve reception, it was a treat to watch Wild Kingdom, a break from my father's usual programs like Star Trek, Gunsmoke and Columbo.  Wild Kingdom would travel to places like Africa, sneaking in a geography lesson along with the animal information.  I believe these guys blazed the trail for future animal show folks like Steve Irwin, minus all the crikeys, mates, and "she's a beauty" when referring to some agitated snake, lizard or croc preparing to chomp on him.

I'm feeling a kinship with Marlon lately thanks to my backyard foxes, observing their behavior and trying to improve their lot in life.  With the sun not setting these days until almost 9:00 pm, we're seeing a lot more of them.  Most evenings we see two of them, though occasionally there are three.  I've noticed that the larger fox is obviously the alpha.  I've upped my investment in England's local wildlife and now put out two tins of dog food every evening for the foxes I've come to think of as mine.  

I was putting out their food before the sun set, but the shiny tins were attracting some local ravens.  Who knew these birds so thoroughly enjoyed bits of snouts, tails and entrails from sheep or cattle?  It was amazing to me that they could gobble, or rather peck up the entire serving in about five minutes.  Now it has become my habit to wait until the foxes slink up to the back patio in search of their daily meal before I put it out for them.  

The foxes are quite interesting to watch.  They typically enter the yard from the back or side and have their nose to the ground.  They make a thorough sweep around the yard and then head for the back patio.  The older and larger of the foxes that appears to be the alpha will go right up to one of the two dog food tins, get a good grip of it in its mouth and carry it straight away to the back of the garden where it's quickly consumed.  It's pretty brave and will sit down to wait at the back of the garden until I produce the food they've come to expect.

The other fox is younger and smaller.  I'm guessing it might be the grown offspring of the larger fox.  When the younger fox gets too close to the older fox while it's eating, the older fox will bare its teeth and make a sort of hissing, growling sound.  The younger fox will cower and roll over on its back in submission.  At first I was a bit miffed that only the larger fox seemed to be getting all the food, but lately the younger fox has been making preemptive forays through the backyard, well in advance of sunset, to see if the dog food has been left out for them yet.  They've got us all trained to take notice, so I'll rush out to leave them their daily offering as soon as at least one of them puts in an appearance.

Since I started feeding the foxes about 2 months ago, they've really filled out and look healthy.  I'm sure the winters are hard on them and I can't help but feel guilty that they are being pushed out of their natural habitat by folks like me who want to reside in leafy suburbia.  I just need to make sure the foxes don't get so fat that they have a difficult time crossing local roads with a big dog food belly weighing them down.  That would kinda defeat my purpose if they got flattened by a car.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Bird of a Different Sort, Though Equally Annoying

Silly me, I always thought white trash rednecks and road rage were more of an American phenomenon.  It seems they have jumped the pond and landed here in Britain, though maybe it has always been present in what I naively presumed to be a country filled with genteel people who know their social graces.  I think it's the accent that has fooled me all these years.

On Thursday, I was in charge of getting Annie and a couple of her dance classmates to practice since we carpool.  The classes meet at a local village hall, on an out-of-the-way street past the outskirts of town.  The street is filled with mostly middle class housing in addition to the village hall, though there is a pub that always seems to be doing a booming business right across from the hall that serves as a studio for the dance classes.  Cars park along the street, which makes it necessary to pull over or wait your turn in order to pass through the narrowed one lane passage when faced with oncoming traffic. 

The parking area for the village hall will hold about six cars and it's necessary to swing out, even in a smaller car, to squeeze through the entrance which has a wall on either side.  Executing a proper swing isn't always possible since cars tend to line one side of the road, spilling over onto the pavement.  I never attempt to navigate the parking lot when I'm driving the SUV since it's just an invitation to lose a side mirror.  I typically drive my SUV instead of the husband's little silver bullet because we need the seating space for everyone.  I've gotten into the habit of just pulling over to let the girls out in front of the village hall, using a side street further down the road to turn around and head back home.

As usual, I pulled over to let the girls hop out and realized there was a small white car right behind me.  Because the street had the usual cars lining it, I proceeded to the little deserted side road that is my usual turn around spot.  I always use this side road because I have never seen another vehicle on it.

So I'm sitting there in the wrong lane facing nonexistent oncoming traffic on the deserted road (which I pulled into on purpose to get out of the other car's way), waiting to back up and turn around.  I then proceed to wave the little white car around me.  I didn't have her lane blocked and was smiling and gesturing at her with the old universal sweeping forward motion.  The English are famous for this and I have learned to do the same whilst out driving.  People flash their lights or wave you on with their hand, allowing you to turn right in front of them when there is a queue, politely waving you into a lane of traffic or letting you across the road at a zebra pedestrian crossing.  Back in Texas it's not uncommon to see people brandishing weapons when they get angry on the roads, tailgating so that others can't get into a lane of traffic and doing a lot of rude gesturing accompanied by profanity if they feel they've been somehow slighted.  It just seems so quintessentially British, the reserved yet polite and proper air that appears to have been born and bred in them, which spills over into their behavior when behind the wheel.  

Obviously the old broad in the little white car didn't subscribe to this school of thought.  The phrase raised in a barn seemed to be the order of the day.  She sat there as if she had no idea what I was doing.  I smiled and continued to wave her on down the road, thinking she was unable to see me trying to guide her round my car.  I have no idea why this seemed to piss her off, but it did.  She floored her little white car and zipped around the rear of my vehicle, almost clipping my back left fender even though she had plenty of room.  She then slowed down to a crawl, hoisting her right hand in the air out the window to give me the bird.  And she proudly held it up nice and high for me to see until she was well down the road.  

Since she was driving so slowly, I couldn't help but notice a few things about our first interaction with the redneck white trash element here in England.  Her car was small and white, though certainly edging towards dingy cream to almost grey because it probably hadn't been washed since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.  The old gal had stringy, unwashed hair with dark roots at least 3 inches long ending in a bad brassy red dye job.  She was wearing a tank top and her mottled, batwing arms were just a flapping in the breeze as she glared and gave me the finger while her car crept past.  I couldn't help but notice that she was missing more than a few teeth in her head.  What surprised me is that she didn't have a couple of rude and tacky tattoos visible.  My guess is that they would have been misspelled.  Maybe Fack You or Bad Mather Focker.

I guess I wouldn't have been bothered by this little display of rude and uncalled for behavior so much, even though my youngest was in the car with me to witness humanity at its finest, if I had felt that I deserved it.  We've all done stupid things behind the wheel, being a poor judge of speed or timing and thus earning a honk from an irritated driver.  All I did was get out of the way to allow her to continue on down the road and I earned the bird for my efforts.  Old rude and crude needs to pepper her car with some sort of warning and I think bumper stickers would be apropos.  I kinda like "Don't Annoy the Crazy Person", "My Other Car is a Broomstick" or "You Can't Fix Stupid".

Monday, May 16, 2011

Averting My Eyes Before The Corneas Get Burned

I don't consider myself a prude - much.  I've given birth and heaven knows that results in the loss of all modesty and dignity.  They could have paraded folks from the express checkout lane at Wal-Mart through the room while my feet were in the stirrups pushing and I wouldn't have cared one whit.  I've had to deal with kids who were oozing various bodily fluids out of every orifice and was completely unfazed.  However, I never fail to feel a tad uncomfortable in the ladies changing room at my gym.

The changing room contains a wet room with curtained showers that is off to the side and I never frequent it since I use the cardio equipment instead of the pools.  I stick to the area with lockers running down 3 sides, a wall of counters with mirrors and blow dryers provided, as well as lots of wide wooden benches in the middle.  My routine is to check in at the front desk, then proceed up the stairs to the changing room so I can stow my purse and jacket.  

I've noticed that the large locker area has a dressing room in each corner with a door that locks.  What I've also noticed is that it's typically the younger set who uses them.  When I say younger, I mean anyone born before JFK became president.  It always seems to be the older generation that is letting it all hang out as they get dressed right there at the bench area.  Come to think of it, I believe I'm referring to the bra burning or bra-less generation so it kinda makes sense.  And when I say hang out, I really mean hang down to your waist.  It's such a shock to walk around the corner into the changing room, look up and see a pair of saggy boobs just a swayin' in the breeze.  Puritan that I am, I quickly shift my gaze to the floor.  Typically the bold lady with the bare bosoms will be in her undies, the full brief sort commonly called granny panties, and have a towel wrapped around her head.  And about half the time, she'll be chatting with somebody without making any effort to corral the wayward pair.  It's such a contradiction, the bottom half thoroughly covered while the top half doesn't get a second thought.  I figure I should just be glad that the older gals aren't wearing the thongs so popular on the younger set.  

I probably see at least two sets of boobs a week, which is two too many.  Heaven help me now that we're headed for summer because I'm afraid two sets will be multiplied soon with the onset of more swimming.  So yeah, I'm from the Bible belt and am not ashamed of my WASP heritage.  Prithee gentle ladies using the changing room, Goodwife Carrie Louise humbly requests that you refrain from exposing your chest area and henceforth keep it covered since this song has started running through my head.  "Do your boobs hang low, do they wobble to and fro..."  It's just a matter of time before I get the giggles and hum along.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

We don't swim in your toilet, so don't poop in our pool!

After a long break from the gym, I got back into my workout routine this week.  The ELC is a nice facility, with all of the usual amenities, including two pools.  The smaller one has a floor that can move up and down at the touch of a button.  

I got to see the moving floor in action one Saturday afternoon when Callie and a friend of hers were swimming in the larger pool.  The ground level seating area for the natatorium sits right next to the smaller pool, so I was hanging out there reading a book while Cal and her buddy entertained themselves for a while.  

All of a sudden, this older guy wearing an ELC shirt blows a whistle and tells everyone in the smaller pool that they need to get out now because it has been contaminated.  Everyone gets out of the pool and he throws a switch so that this alarm starts beeping and the floor of the pool starts inching its way towards the surface.  I'm sure everyone has heard of pools like this before and I found the following pic that resembles the set-up at ELC.  The school our girls attend actually has its own frou-frou pool with the fancy moving floor in the sports center.  You can see that the floor of the pool in the foreground has been raised.

Can you see the vents running along the right side of the pool?  I think it's cool that the rest of the pool water is sitting underneath this.  Now back to my little tale. The ELC guy gets the floor all the way to the surface so that there's less than a half-inch of water across the top.  He dons some plastic shoe covers and walks out to the middle of what was the center of the bottom of the pool to deal with the contamination... a big piece of poop!  Lots of parents with little ones still in diapers or pull-ups use this pool, the obvious source of the offending turd.  He removed it with a plastic baggie just like the folks you see walking dogs who have to clean up after them.  Then he sprayed it with some sort of disinfectant and went at it with a scrub brush.  Next he sprinkled it with something and wiped all this up with a big wad of paper towel. After this was accomplished, he lowered the floor and folks were swimming once again after about 25-30 minutes.  

Of course, this reminded me of the scene in "Caddyshack" where the kid tosses a Babyruth candy bar into the pool.  The swimmers see it and think it's "doodie" while the theme from "Jaws" is playing.  The pool is drained of water so it can be scrubbed, sterilized and disinfected.  Bill Murray's character is a disturbed Vietnam vet who spends his time as maintenance man trying to eradicate the golf course of Gophercong.  In the pool scene, he's all tricked out in a white hazmat suit with chemical mask, working on cleaning up the pool when he finds the offending "doodie".  Check it out by clicking on the link I included right below this - so funny!  

Caddyshack Pool Scene

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Tour de Slow Pokes

On our spring break trip to Holland, we saw everybody and their dog riding bikes. Bitten by the biking bug, we ordered Cal a bike as soon as we returned from our spring break travels.  We had shipped over 3 bikes from Texas, so she was the only one without some wheels of her own.

Isn't it snazzy, with the silver seat?  Right now it's residing in the hallway area between the kitchen and office/laundry since it doesn't have a kickstand.  It seems to me that for £150 that little bit of essential metal would be included.  For those of you out there still converting the pounds to dollars, like me, this bike cost us $244.  For that kind of money, it seems like Lance Armstrong should come to the house and give us some pointers, right?  I've never been into the whole biking scene, so I'm sure this is just a drop in the bucket for a quality bike to those who are devotees of the sport.  We just wanted something for a 10-year-old to ride around the neighborhood.  

I know some people hate Wal-Mart, but I really wish we had that as an option for this bike purchase.  It took a week for the bike to arrive at our house in a box, as in requiring some assembly.  The one that cost us $244.  At Wal-Mart you pick out a good looking bike and get it fully assembled for around $100.  Don't I wish.  The husband, who had been in Texas for 8 days, arrived home to unpack and then put the bike together because he had promised Cal it would be ready to ride when she got home from school that afternoon.  Doesn't that sound fun, after a 9 hour flight?  Let the wrestling and cursing begin!

Most men don't read the directions, but my husband is pretty good about using them.  However, these were so poorly written that they weren't really helpful, so he was winging it and I was his trusty helper.  Since this bike didn't come with a kickstand, I got to stand there and hold it for him.  The back tire was in place but the front tire had to be attached.  And the handlebar.  Plus the front brakes.  Did I mention the seat and pedals loose in the box, too? 

So yeah, it took a while and there was the obligatory muttering, swearing and visions of putting it out at the curb for the garbage collectors while we concocted a lie for the kid that it was defective and we hadn't kept the receipt.  But we persevered and got it done.  I was gonna give it a test run in the driveway to make sure the gears changed correctly and brakes worked, but the big guy gave it a go.  I walked back into the house and missed the little show, when the seat gave way and the back tire pulled his shorts down.  

Check out my ride.  Pretty spiffy, huh?  It belonged to my mother-in-law (Hi, Rose!), but she gladly donated it to us.  I like the big ol' seat for my big ol' butt.  Yesterday after supper Cal wanted to go for a ride, so we pedaled around our neighborhood for about 30 minutes.  I had cooked breakfast for supper - sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs and pancakes.  It was tasty, but quite the heavy meal and we were F-U-L-L.  So we took off, staying on the left side of the road to go with the flow of traffic here in England.  The neighborhood is very leafy and it was a pleasant ride, with the temp in the 60s around 7:15 when we left the house.  Right now the sun isn't setting until almost 8:45, so the days are already getting long.  

Everything was fine until we got near the end of our ride and started down a road that allowed us to coast, which is great but you know that you're gonna have to pedal yourself back up afterwards.  With a belly full of heavy breakfast foods you're trying to work off.  Then there's the issue of my seat being a bit low for me and I felt like a bear on a tricycle performing with the circus, my knees up around my ears in danger of hitting the handlebars.  

We both got off our bikes and walked them up the steepest part of the hill, then Cal hopped on and since I couldn't just let her ride off by herself, I ended up "pumping" myself back up to the top of the hill with all that food bouncing around in my stomach.  Good times.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Tuesday in May

There isn't much shaking here at Casa Fraser this week, other than the ants that are still appearing in droves.  I'll save my little ant rant for a bit later in the post.  

Yesterday I trotted Callie's homemade orange cupcakes to the school for her book project presentation.  Every month she has to read a different genre and then respond to literature in some way.  To translate that from teacher speak to layman's terms, she has to do a book project every month.  

Here in the land of checklists instead of grades - I know, so very kindergarten of them - I don't sweat it so much.  Next year she'll get back to numeric grades like she had in 2nd-4th in Texas.  And it wouldn't matter too much if they were giving out grades because the school doesn't have an online grade system in place so that I can monitor her progress.  

This was one huge advantage that our great Texas PUBLIC school district had over the international/American PRIVATE school here in England.  It's so much easier to be a hovering helicopter parent in the states, going online at will - every day, if you please - to see if the latest spelling test or science worksheet had been recorded, and what effect it had on the cumulative average.  I didn't fully appreciate the unlimited access until I had NO access.  But again, that checklist makes it hard to get up in arms with the kid or teacher if Cal isn't pulling all A's.  So yeah, I sit back and give minimal support to see what Cal can really do and let her make mistakes and learn from them with the knowledge that it's better this happen now rather than in middle school where it's more painful.  There is another child in our family that was probably given too much assistance and guidance when she was younger and it was much harder to wean her off this as she got older, though we did accomplish it.

Speaking of kids... It cracks me up how the girls have such a symbiotic relationship.  Woo-hoo, look at me remembering a 25 cent word to use today, which is just crazy because the older I get, the more my brain refuses to call up vocabulary.  I seem to get that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon more often these days, where I can't retrieve something from memory.  My solution is to doggedly run through the alphabet in my head until I recall it.  The other day, I saw an actress on TV I recognized and it took me almost an hour to come up with her name.  Mind you, it's not as if I had this info to share with anyone.  I just hate being frustrated by this and refused to give up until it finally popped into my head.  By the way, it was Gillian Anderson who played Scully on the X-Files.  Remember that TV show - a bit weird at times but I always liked it, for some odd reason.  

Now that I've rattled about all sorts of things totally unrelated to the kid symbiosis...  Annie loves to have her picture taken and Callie loves to be the photographer.  However, they have recently figured out how to set the timer... like a couple of monkeys.  So one day after school last week they killed about 30 min out in the backyard trying to get a shot of them doing an in-air belly bump.  

Success!  Aren't they just silly little goobers?  The oldest one recently turned 16, but she happily goofs off with the 10-year-old.  When they were younger, I worried that the almost six year age difference would mean that they wouldn't enjoy each other.  I kinda figured that the older one would get into the usual teen diversions, maybe even a boyfriend, and never enjoy hanging out with the little one.  I'm glad to see this hasn't been the case, though they are pretty good at aggravating each other when the mood suits.  Look how green the garden (aka US backyard) is, and we haven't even had much rain lately.

I attribute this lack of rain as the cause for ants that have come marching through one of the many crevices in my 1930s character home.  They've set up shop in the flooring between the ground and first floors (aka US 1st and 2nd).  Thanks to my handy can of Raid! I've been able to stop them from getting into the shower and hallway that share a mutual wall upstairs, directly above the flooring where they've created base camp.  However, that has forced them all down so that they're escaping through one of the recessed lights that sits above my dining table between the kitchen and family room.  At first it was a trickle, not too bad though it seemed like a lot since so many of them had wings.  Imagine the fire ants in Texas flying - the makings for a good horror movie.  

Anyway, yesterday morning I'd had it up to here (I'm holding my hand about a foot above my head), so I decided to go all crazy Texan on the ants.  I tore off a piece of cling wrap and taped it to the ceiling so that it covered the recessed light where the ants were now coming out in a steady stream.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  I had already spent several days vacuuming every imaginable surface downstairs for hours... 'nuff said.  By the end of the day, I had added a lot more tape so that none of the little suckers were gonna wiggle out of my homemade trap.  

Like all good ideas that include no forethought, done on the spur of the moment without any consideration as to the eventual consequences or effects, you can see the little ant farm I've created.  Last night there were maybe 100ish ants up there.  Overnight they decided it was time to vacate the premises and now look what I've created.  Luckily, the bug guy that came out Friday afternoon showed up at my door unannounced about an hour ago and was appalled at the number of ants in my little homemade trap.  I was initially thinking he might be horrified at what I had done, but he immediately got on the phone to the estate agent so the next step could be taken, which involves removing some cap stone off the corner of the garage, which is how they're getting into the house, so they can bring out the serious chemicals and, hopefully, rid us of ants for good.

It seems my redneck ant trap, now ant farm, has done its trick and we're getting assistance with the latest round of pests to breach the house.  I just wish I'd had a big old roll of duct tape to add that bit of Texas redneck flair to the whole thing.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Geographically Challenged

Some people aren't coordinated.  Others are poor spellers.  We have been blessed with a child that has one helluva time recognizing and remembering where places are on the planet.  

We thought this would improve when she took a geography class her freshman year.  However, a young coach taught it...  That coupled with a desire to socialize rather than really apply herself to the class content resulted in her not making any real gains with her geography skills.  She always pulled an A in the class, which can probably be attributed to her turning in work on time and having a positive attitude, which obviously can't be underestimated.  If they started giving out good grades for being a snappy dresser, having a flawlessy made-up face and spending at least an hour on your hair every morning before school, then my oldest daughter would be headed for an ivy league university.  

Based on past experiences, it has become a running joke that the oldest child will make all sorts of geography faux pas.  She's famous for mispronouncing place names, ethnicities, nationalities and languages.  Right after we moved to England, she was talking about a Norwegian girl she had met and asked, "That means she's from Norwegia, right?"  About six weeks ago, one of the younger daughter's friends was spending the night and we were gathered in the kitchen while I was cooking.  We were talking about going to Amsterdam for spring break and the 15-year-old asked me where it was.  The youngest daughter's little 4th grade buddy chimed in to tell her it was in The Netherlands before I had the opportunity to answer.

I wish I had thought to write down all of the geography funnies this child has made over the years.  We've gotten some good laughs out of her questions and blunders, which she always takes in her stride.  She doesn't mind when we chuckle and then correct her.  She realizes she has other subjects or interests where she excels, and isn't bothered by this area of core knowledge that continues to elude her.  Honestly, she's a bright girl that has always made really good grades, so it's not that she doesn't have the IQ to master this information.  I don't know why she's so stymied by geography, but it's a fact.  I wanted to record this latest gaffe before I forget it.

Yesterday when the girls got home from school, I was showing the high schooler her options for October travel week at the new school they'll attend beginning in August.  She can go with her peers to Poland, France or Germany on history tours.  Those sound great to me, but I thought she would get a lot out of the Romania service project - working with orphans.  Acceptance to the service project requires that she write an essay, so I was showing her the requirements for this as well as her options in the other three countries.  As she started to look over the information, my cell phone had an incoming message from her current school.  I opened it up and was skimming the content, murmuring about them giving us a heads-up that the health teacher would be discussing sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia in class next week.  

The oldest daughter heard me and asked, "What?"  I then said chlamydia again since it was the last word I had muttered, and I meant to follow up with an explanation about what I had just read. However, before I could get that far, the geographical genius asked me, "Where's that?"  It was SO very tempting to tell her it was just to the north of Gonorrhea and Syphilis.

Friday, May 6, 2011

It's a bird, it's a plane... it's an ant!

Just when you think it's safe, that you can breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the late spring weather, you get hit with yet another pest.  Our little fly in the ointment for the month of May has just put in its appearance.

A couple days ago, Callie and I noticed maybe 5-6 ants scurrying along the wall in the master bathroom to the shower.  We haven't had much rain lately, so I figured they were out looking for something to drink.  I purchased a can of ant spray at the store and killed them.  Unfortunately, that didn't take care of the problem.  We saw some more that evening in the same spot, plus we found a few in the bottom of the shower.  Once again, I hit them with the spray and washed them down the drain.  

This morning Callie was in the master bath borrowing my hairbrush and decided to check the shower for any further ants.  She opened up the glass door, sucked in a big breath and announced, "Oh my gosh, mom, hurry up and come see what's in the shower."  With the luck we've had - ladybugs, birds, foxes and now ants - I was a bit apprehensive.  And rightly so... there were no less than 50ish ants in the shower and most of them had WINGS!  

The world-wide web is terribly handy, but will also give you nightmares.  You know how it goes, you're not feeling well and type your symptoms into Google, which then pulls up a diagnosis like the plague or leprosy.  See the handy little diagram I found when I searched "ants with wings"?  I don't know which one I prefer - the ants or termites.  For the sake of the homeowners, I hope it's the former because if it's the latter then they're in for it.  Hmmm, we're living here so that means they have to foot the bill while we have to live through the process.  Do you think that means we'll get a break on our rent this month?

But wait, it gets better.  All week I thought Annie and Callie had been eating a snack at the big table, the one that sits directly beneath the master bath in the area on the first floor between the kitchen and family room.  This morning I discovered a bunch, as in maybe a hundred dead AWW (ants, or possibly termites, with wings) behind the master bedroom door where it leans against the hall wall.  The light bulb in my head finally flipped on and I zipped downstairs for a closer look at the dining table.  Sure enough, there is a recessed light right above the spot where I thought I was seeing snack crumbs.  It turns out that the crumbs are actually bits of the plasterboard around the light... or their hatched out empty egg casing thingies.  ICK!  And there were AWW crawling around the light fixture.  EWWWW!  

So yeah, the lettings manager for our house received an email from me this morning asking that she ring up the pest service yet again - the third go 'round - so they can come out and take a look at the situation.  I need some sort of pesticides that cause mutant babies because the ants have gotta go. 

Right now I'm envisioning the whole house draped in one of those tents they use for serious fumigation.  Our neighbor back in Texas, the one that lived in the restored original farmhouse on our street, had to have this done several times over the course of the four years we were there to keep her house clear of termites.  I hope the little suckers haven't eaten away at all the subflooring so that we're just a couple showers away from falling through to the area below.  Just the thought of that seriously BUGS me!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Obviously Our Invitation Got Lost in the Mail

After two separate spring break trips, we were tired.  The laundry room was filled with dirty clothes and we hadn't completely finished unpacking yet.  However, that didn't stop us from rolling out early on Friday, April 29, so we could hightail it into London to partake of the festivities surrounding the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.  Since they had to cap their guests at 1900 and we were a bit farther down the list, we decided to brave the streets with the other 600,000 folks turned loose in London for the big celebration.

Few folks enjoy crowds, but since the husband really loathes them, it was inevitable that he opt out, so we made it a ladies only trip.  We caught the 9:17 southwest commuter train out of Walton-on-Thames and changed trains at Clapham Junction (which just sounds like some sort of sexually transmitted disease, right?) so we could roll into Victoria station by 10:00.

We met up with a friend and her husband who had another couple in tow, so we began walking towards Buckingham Palace and the mall.  Along the way, we stumbled across The Goring (see the purple banner) where Kate Middleton and her family spent the night before the wedding.  The police had the street blocked since cars would be picking them up to get them to Westminster Abbey. In addition, there was white tenting set up over the entrance so that Kate's dress could be kept secret until she alighted from the car at the Abbey before walking down the aisle.

After stopping for a couple shots, we walked a bit further and found a spot to wait along the route the wedding party would travel on their way to Westminster.  We were able to get a front row spot, which in this case meant right up against the metal barrier they had set up along the roadway.  You can see ones just like it across the street from us.

The folks pedaling by on bikes with the usual traffic were hilarious.  The crowd would cheer for them and it rippled down the street.  They all seemed to think it their duty to smile and give their best royal wave as they zipped by on two wheels.  One guy took it a step further by holding out his cell phone with one hand while waving to us with the other and recording it all the while.  We also saw several of the typical black London taxis drive by with decoration for this momentous occasion.

In the first picture, you can see the children - little bridesmaids and pages - being chauffeured to the service.  They were so cute, with their little faces practically pressed to the glass, smiling and waving at all of their newfound adoring fans lining the road.  I hope they're old enough to remember their participation in this bit of royal history.  I've made the second picture larger than usual so hopefully you can see where Kate is sitting.  I was hoping for a fabulous shot because I had an unobstructed view of the car passing in front of us.  However, there was a very short and persistent Spanish-speaking woman that had wedged through and sandwiched me between her body and the very unforgiving barricade as she attempted to get her own picture of Kate.  It's stuff like this that really gets my goat.  We stood there in that very spot for about 40 minutes, a fabulous spot to get the perfect picture as the car with Kate slowly drove past.  Then this woman appears at the last minute and feels no qualms about squeezing the breath out of me in her bid to get a picture, too, and thus making it all but impossible to get my own decent shot.  At least Annie and particularly Lynn got a better picture since they weren't getting jostled and squished.  If you look closely, you can just make out the top of Kate's head over the top of the chauffeur's hat and see her white veil just to the right of the driver.

Once Kate's car cleared this area and the crowd began to disperse, we split with Lynn and friends to head out towards Buckingham Palace.  What we had no way of knowing at this point was the roads leading up to the palace from the side and rear were closed and properly barricaded.  Therefore, we more or less ended up walking in a circle and not making any progress.  

Here we are with the crowds along the side of the palace - so close yet so far away with all those barricades in our way.  However, we did have a bit of luck at this point because it's down this side of the palace where you'll find the royal mews and we were fortunate enough to see all of the following as they paraded past us on their way to the Abbey for the ride back at the conclusion of the service.  

It was a beautiful sight, everything all polished and shiny for their time in the spotlight as the world watched.  My favorite carriage is the handsome one in the 4th picture because a crown sits atop it - what a great detail!

We knew to expect tremendous crowds, but the youngest daughter still found it daunting and a bit scary.  Folks were jockeying for position or to get on down the sidewalk for a better spot, so it was shoulder to shoulder virtually everywhere.  A time or two I had to stop dead in my tracks to keep us from being mowed down from the people behind us.  There was an especially annoying group of people from some country where they don't teach manners because Cal got hemmed in and squeaked in protest.  It was at this point that I turned to the bald-headed rude dog with limited English skills and told him to back off and not run over my child.  I added my best teacher evil eye to the command, whereupon he shrugged like the middle schoolers I once taught and just kept going.  Obviously he thought manners and mature, adult appropriate behavior weren't the order of the day and I decided to just let it go since I didn't want to join the handful of folks who would be arrested for their unruly conduct.

See what I mean - it was crowded as all get out and since St. James Park was closed because it was full to the brim by this time, we had no place left to go except home.  

See how close we were, alongside the Palace?  Granted, the second shot I zoomed in to get the monument in front of the Palace, but the first shot is actual distance from that corner where the barricade stopped our progress towards the front of the palace.  After spending about 30 min trying to skirt around the barricades and get closer, we ended up on this side street where I had good views of the backs of heads.  We did get to see the coaches bringing all of the VIP wedding guests back to this side entry of the Palace for the reception Queen Elizabeth hosted right after the ceremony.  Unfortunately, we weren't close enough to have a good laugh at some of the more outrageous hats and fascinators worn by the guests.  Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, we're talking about you.  Maybe the queen will pay for the two of them to get a stylist so they won't embarrass themselves so publicly at the next official royal function.

And now the sad part of our story.  You know those barricades that kept us from scooching around to the front of the palace into that horseshoe they had kept blocked off up to this point?  The ones we stood behind for at least an hour, having to breathe in second hand smoke and miscellaneous body odor while daughter Callie joined in the chorus of the kids around us wanting to go?  I did the old countdown for about 30 minutes and people were starting to work their way back out, away from the barricades, which seemed the sane thing to do since we had stood there cooling our heels for such a long time with no indication of when or if we might be allowed to move forward.  So, of course, about 15 minutes after we left everyone in the area where we were standing were allowed into that prime spot in front of the palace, in front of the folks who had camped out the night before so they could have a front row seat for the highly anticipated balcony kiss.  If we had held out for just a bit more, we would have been in a prime spot to witness not one but two kisses right there in front of our faces.  Auuuughhhh!

On the walk back to Victoria to catch the commuter train back home, we passed by the House of Fraser department store.  It's not high end like Nordstrom's in the states, but I would compare it to Dillard's.  In the window they had this huge Union Jack framing a card with well wishes to the prince and his future princess, so we stopped for one final picture.  It has both girls, the date, what was happening and our last name.  If I come down with the old-timers disease as I age, then I'll have this extra bit of information to jog my lapsed memory.

The girls and I took some wonderful pics, created fabulous memories together about this little bit of British history and will be able to tell the next generation about how we were there.  If this is any indication as to what we can expect at the Olympics next summer, I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bath, AKA spring break week two

We arrived home from Holland on Friday, washed clothes, repacked our bags and took off for our second spring break trip a couple days later.  I successfully drove us to Bath without jumping any curbs, driving in the wrong direction down a one-way street or putting the husband/kids out along the side of the road for crimes like not checking the tom-tom route before we left the house and misdemeanors along the lines of wanting to stop at every service area for another Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut or Starbucks frappuccino.  

I'm definitely not someone who enjoys a leisurely vacation, or at least not the getting there part of the trip.  I like to board a flight at the crack of dawn or drive 12 hours with just a single pit stop.  My husband and girls know better than to guzzle down a whole soda or bottle of water on a road trip.  Once we reach our destination, THEN the vacation will officially begin.  

Skipping hotels and going the flat rental route, I found a great 3/2 townhouse that was built in the 1700s.  I love how they built everything vertically back then.  The ground floor contained a single car garage and kitchen.  The first floor (what we call second floor in the US) had a living area and bedroom with ensuite bath.  The top floor above that contained two further bedrooms and a family bath.  Living in this home would get you lots of good exercise.  Speaking of exercise, we walked across this picturesque bridge, the Pulteney Bridge, every day on our way into Bath.

Our townhouse was located right off Pulteney Street, a major thoroughfare that leads straight into the city of Bath.  The picture above was taken from a boat on the Avon River, not THE Avon associated with Will Shakespeare.  On our lazy tour down the river, we learned that there are many rivers named Avon in England and that the word Avon actually means river.  That seems a bit like naming a street street, but who am I to question the little quirks of the English language.  

This second picture was taken looking in the opposite direction that we traveled on the boat, away from the bridge.  You can just see the seagulls hanging out on the lip of the spillway, getting a drink of fresh water.  The river floated along at a gentle pace, but our boat's tour guide let us know that in the winter the level of the river typically rises anywhere from 4-8 feet.  That certainly reminds me of some flooding we've seen in the Texas Hill Country, with the waters of Cibolo Creek flooding roadways.

The picture above is the abbey at Bath.  It's a beautiful old sanctuary that, like so many other places in England, has been built upon an even older original structure.  If you look carefully on both of the towers rising on either side of the main door, you can just make out little ladders carved into the stonework.  Angels are seen ascending the ladder to heaven.  I can only assume that the ones descending the ladder are not headed to paradise.  Maybe the stonemason who created this part of the exterior ornamentation is telling us to choose wisely in this life so we'll reap our rewards in the next.

Adjacent to the abbey you will find the Roman Baths.  It's amazing to me that we were walking all over something that was established in 43 AD, in the years following the crucifixion of Jesus.  The Romans discovered these thermal springs and built extensive baths on this site.  In one area you can see bubbles making their way to the surface and steam rising off the warm waters.  Annie put her hand in the green waters you see above, told us it was indeed warm and then promptly asked for an antibacterial wipe.

Many of the original structures the Romans built have been excavated and you can see how they would have been used in ancient times.  In the first picture, you can see the original bricks the Romans used to frame the spot where the spring's flow is channeled into the baths.  It has a reddish-orange coating from the iron found in the water that has been diverted over that same spot for almost 2000 years.  In the second picture, you can see how the Romans provided underfloor heating to the various bathing chambers.  The little mounds - stacks of tiles - provide a honeycomb for the stones that would have been placed atop it.  Steam or smoke would have woven beneath this subfloor heating system called hypocaust.  Youngest daughter Callie has been studying the ancient Celts and Romans in 4th grade, so she told us all about it.  In the cold and damp climate that is an English winter, this is how the Romans kept their homes warm.

We decided to take a Mad Max afternoon tour on our last day in Bath.  It came highly recommended in the Rick Steves guidebook for England.  After a scenic drive through the twisty, winding hills in this part of England that made me feel a bit woozy and half carsick, our first stop was Lacock Village.  This charming settlement of several streets dates back to the 13th century and has remained largely untouched over the centuries.  The structures consist of limewashed, half-timbered and stone houses, with the last one built in the 1800s.  During the Middle Ages, Lacock became a prosperous and thriving town through its wool industry.  Nowadays it's a sleepy little tourist village that has served as a set for many period films, as well as the Harry Potter series (third picture above).  You won't find a Starbucks here and wouldn't want to, because it would certainly spoil its quaint historic appeal to the herds of visitors like us that roam its streets every year.

The second stop on our afternoon tour was at Stonehenge.  It sits at the top of a hill on the Salisbury Plain and it was VERY windy up there.  A couple roads converge at this point and just driving by in your auto would provide an excellent view of the stones.  They're taller than you think, though it is all roped off and you can't get right up next to them.  I was amused at the sheep grazing to the outside of the roped off walkway we used to circle the stones.  We all know that the stones have something to do with the calendar, particularly the solstice.  It's still a mystery as to who built Stonehenge and how they got some of the stones to this location from over 100 miles away.  This seems like child's play compared to the pyramids in Egypt, but is still a stunning sight to behold.  I shivered as the audio guide mentioned the slaughter stone, which sounds like something I wouldn't particularly have wanted to witness or take part in several thousand years ago.  

We had a very relaxing trip to Bath and enjoyed seeing some new sights in England.  However, we made sure to return on Thursday, April 28, so we wouldn't miss the hoopla surrounding Will and Kate's nuptials.  My next blog post will be about our adventures in London the day of the royal wedding.