Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Month: July, 2012

Suffering Olympic Fever

I was on a bus in north London last summer when a lady got on, took the seat behind me and immediately began complaining to her seatmate about the driver of her last bus. Then they started complaining about our bus driver, then about the new bus routes, and then about traffic in general.

“And just wait ‘til the Olympics!” one woman said to her companion.

“The Olympics?!” the woman said, as shocked to hear the Olympics were happening as I was to learn that anyone didn’t know that. “In this country??”

I’ve thought about that woman every time I hear someone in London complain about the Olympics, which happens every time I hear someone in London talk about the Olympics. If you want to understand the mood in the city on the eve of the Games then read this report from last week’s New York Times. It perfectly captures the bah-humbug, bloody-hell, couldn’t-be-bothered attitude that marks the city’s response. Never mind the energetic pronouncements of its public officials, particularly the outspoken and ambitious Mayor Boris Johnson. The word on the street – and on the Tube platform, the bus, and anywhere else more than two Londoners have gathered and have already talked about the weather – is that hosting the Olympics here was a bloody stupid idea.

There’s the traffic. And the crowds. It’s expensive (£15 billion) and scary (the company tasked with providing security guards announced last week that – oops – there won’t be enough) and tickets are impossible to get. If Beijing’s goal in 2008 was to give the world a preview of the new Chinese century, London’s aim in 2012 is to grit its teeth and bear down until the whole thing ends. The Olympics are Thanksgiving, and the world is London’s in-laws.

This is a strange thing to see as an American. In the U.S., regardless of where the Games take place, the Olympics are a quadrennial explosion of nationalistic pride, unabashed boosterism and a flood of marketing tie-ins. All the ads are Olympic-themed. People suddenly care about swimming. Olympic fever in London is more like an actual fever, or at least a low-grade flu that everyone wishes would go away as soon as possible.

Tomorrow night, the Olympic torch is running past my house. They are closing off the street. There will be traffic. There will be crowds. I have heard all this in the last few days. But I also have a fond memory of getting up at 2 a.m. to watch the Olympic torch run through my hometown in 1996. There was no grousing, no whinging, just a bunch of people standing in the dark whooping wildly for a guy with a flaming stick. It’s called Olympic spirit, London. Stiff upper lip, now, and get on with it.


License to Ill: The Summer Weekend Road Trip

For each of the two summers we’ve lived in England, my husband and I have taken a weekend road trip to the countryside with our daughter. We do this because we sometimes forget ourselves and start to believe that we are normal people – civilians, if you will – and not parents.  We need this weekend road trip to remind us that this is not so.

Our daughter was five months old when we picked up the rental car last year to drive to a hotel in the Cotswolds. Those were not easy days. We had just moved for the second time in three months. We were still trying to pretend that the sour-musk smell in our new apartment would eventually go away. We were tired. This was our first official “vacation” with the baby. We still believed that stress was something we could pack up and get away from for the weekend, not something we now carried in our DNA and in a plastic Graco car seat.

The problems started at rental car pick-up. Our directions suggested that we drive through the center of London, on a Friday, at rush hour. This struck both of us as somehow the other’s fault. A travel tip: If a discussion about directions between two people in a relationship lasts for longer than 45 seconds, it is no longer about directions. It is about How you never listen, and Why you always do this, and How this is just like that time at Ikea. All the ads on Google Maps should be for marriage counselors. We got lost in London, and then we got lost in Oxfordshire, and then the baby screamed all night, and it took a full 24 hours before either of us uttered a civil word to each other. We returned home defeated, each of us quietly nursing the sinking feeling that we were never going to have a good time together again.

One year later, we were sat again in London traffic in another rental car heading for another weekend in the Oxfordshire countryside. Several significant changes have occurred in the intervening year. The baby is now a toddler who (usually) sleeps all night. We are no longer chronically exhausted and short-tempered. (We have also moved to a stench-free apartment.) We were spending the weekend with friends who don’t have kids, resulting in an advantageous 7:1 adult-to-child ratio. A friend was driving, a face- and marriage-saving arrangement for everyone.

Before we left the house I fed, bathed and dressed Lily in her pajamas, a superstitious ritual meant to ensure that she would sleep as soon as I put her down in the rear-facing car seat she is rapidly outgrowing. Of course she could not sleep in the car. Cars are a huge treat for her, and she was just so busy. She needed to watch the traffic, then play with her rabbit, then say “All done!” and attempt to unbuckle her car seat, then shout angrily when she had to go back in the car seat, then eat a breadstick, then play with the car seat sunshade, then sing “Wind the Bobbin Up” several times in a row. This was before we’d left greater London. London’s ring roads and motorways are all designed for use by no more than four cars at any given time. Friday evening traffic on a summer weekend – even a summer of endless rain, like this one – is slow. It started to rain. Things got slower. By 8 p.m., the hour we thought we’d arrive at the house, we’d barely left the city limits.

Lily stayed awake the whole time, mostly chatty, sometimes fussy, but without any signs of the meltdown that traveling parents dread. By 10 p.m. we were less than 20 miles away from the house. She was eating a tortilla chip. A piece got stuck in her throat. She coughed. She coughed again. Then she threw up, everywhere.

There was no stopping it once it started. She threw up four times in a row, an automatic assault of meals, drinks and snacks dating back hours. I managed to undo her straps and get her upright so she wouldn’t choke, then sat quietly acting as a human shield between a jet stream of sick and the rental car deposit.

We pulled off the highway and into a grassy lane leading onto some farmland. Justin and I stripped off her dirty jammies and cleaned her and the car as best we could with a half-pack of baby wipes. The driver bolted from the car and stood a few paces facing the fields, quietly gulping in fresh air and frantically tapping something on his iPhone. Probably scheduling a vasectomy or ordering a lifetime supply of condoms. Occasionally we’d look up and say “Sorry,” and he’d say “That’s okay!” in a too-high, too-fast voice that clearly said I will remember this horror until the day I die. Justin was disgusted. I think moms have a different relationship to their child’s excretions. Like yes, in a perfect world there would be economic equality and less carbon in the atmosphere and no regurgitated yogurt in my hair. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Cleaning barf off a Ford Mondeo really hammers that point home.

We rode the rest of the way in silence, in a reeking car, pulling into the house two and a half hours later than we intended and with another hour of scrubbing, bathing, airing and showering to come. But here is the difference. Last year, we spent the whole weekend waiting to feel like we used to feel on vacations before the baby came around, and then sniping at each other to cover up how disappointed we were that things were no longer the same. This year, we finished cleaning up the mess and went on to enjoy ourselves. We’ve wised up. We no longer expect to get away from it all. It’s good enough just to wrap up the life we have – mess and all – and take it on the road.

And Now for Something Completely Different

It took me all of a month to fail to meet my weekly column goal. Because this space is modeled after a newspaper column, we are going to excuse my absence with a simple tagline: Corinne Purtill is on special projects this week.

This works out well for you readers anyway, because I am filling this space instead with this most excellent 2010 Mike Sager column. I have trouble mustering sympathy for the whole six weeks of gloomy weather San Diegans must endure (you poor things! Shall I fly out from London to refill your wine glass and slap you upside the head?) but completely understand the sense of doom a gray sky brings. Maybe you can too. Enjoy.

May Gray. June Doom?

by Mike Sager

I’m hearing things.

Disturbing things.

No, not voices in my head.

(Does this look to you like an episode of Intervention?)

I’m talking about emails. People from here and there.

“The volume on life is turned way down,” writes one correspondent. “Everything sounds totally muffled. It’s as if I don’t feel too much of anything.”

“I am well in the sense that I am not directly ill, but I could certainly be better,” says another.

Writes a third: “I have reached a point of certain and definable stagnation in my life.”

Can you feel it, too?

Read more…

One Small Step: When Shopping Goes Wrong

Two things happened last month: my daughter officially learned to walk, and she outgrew her shoes. As an interim measure I Velcroed to her feet a pair of rubber-soled slippers that slapped awkwardly against the pavement and tripped her when she walked. The falls left her bruised. And angry. New shoes had to be procured.

“Ohhh,” said the saleswoman at the shop in our village when I pointed to the children’s shoes. I tend to hear this a lot from English people in business situations. It’s an apologetic sound, like they’re sympathizing with some sad piece of news, and it usually precedes the announcement that whatever service or transaction I expected to take place is definitely not going to happen.

“Our foot measure’s broken,” she said.

I asked when the measure would be operating again.

“That’s the thing,” she said, again with the apologetic sigh. “The owners aren’t sure if they still want to do children’s shoes here. So they don’t want to get a new measure until then. Until they decide.”

Surely you remember the little rounded ruler you placed your heels against as a child. The technology hasn’t changed. It’s not a complicated apparatus with delicate internal mechanics that you have to send to a technician in Switzerland for servicing. It’s a glorified ruler. An unglorified ruler, even, could serve the same purpose in a pinch. I just looked it up. You can buy a children’s foot measure for $9.95. You can also download a foot-shaped chart for free and then use it to help people buy shoes, at your shoe store. Even if you plan to discontinue your children’s line, selling shoes seems like an awfully handy way to get rid of your remaining stock. But I’m just an American drunk on capitalism. Don’t let me tell you what to do with your business.

We walked down the street to the boutique children’s shoe store.  Its shelves are sparsely appointed with butter-soft leather booties in the vaguely orthopedic style of comfortable European footwear. Discreetly-placed placards with phrases like “crafted” and “handmade” give the impression that every shoe was lovingly assembled by an Italian eunuch from the finest organic fairy skin available in the EU. The saleswoman brought us a small bootie of sky-blue leather that fit nicely on her foot. Then I asked the price.

“It’s £57,” she said.

Fifty-seven pounds, at the current exchange rate, is $89.49. You can buy round-trip airplane flights for less than that. I’m not spending £57 on shoes she will wear for a maximum of three months. I’m not spending £57 on shoes for a person who chews her toes.

“Thank you,” I said. “Do you sell Clarks?” (Clarks are the Gap of children’s footwear: dependable, unimaginative, ubiquitous.)

To say that she was rude doesn’t do her justice. She morphed into a parody character from a B-movie, a snide English snootypants dripping pretension and disdain.

“Ha. Ha ha ha ha,” she said. She really did laugh in that deliberately haughty false chuckle that people only use in movies when they’re telling Julia Roberts she can’t shop at their store. “We don’t sell Clarks. Our shoes are handmade. They are genuine leather. If you are looking for Clarks . . . well, it’s just simply not something we do. We offer a completely different level of shoe.”

You do no such thing, I should have said. You sell walking shoes to people who can’t really walk. You run a doll-shoe racket targeting bourgeois parents with class anxiety. You sell shoes for people who still crap their pants. But I didn’t. I said thank you and left, and I regret it.

The thing is, I had already been to the Clarks store in the next neighborhood over that morning. We walked in, I set my daughter down, and she ran straight out the door and into the street. I chased her down, scooped her up and carried her, kicking and flailing, back into the store. That is when she slapped me across the face.

You feel a lot of things when you are slapped in public by a person wearing a diaper. The first is sadness, because – for reasons that in that moment are totally unclear – you deeply love this person, and no matter what you may know about their rational capabilities it still breaks your heart a little to be struck by someone you love.

The second is rage.

It’s hard to hold a grudge against your assailant, who has already forgotten that her hand ran into your face and is nuzzled against your chest sniffling over the injustice of being denied the fun of running into the street to hug a big red bus. But there’s so much else to be angry about: the embarrassing stares of the strangers who watched you get schooled by a baby; how laughably weak your “No hitting!” admonition sounds; the reminder that you are no longer capable of performing the simplest tasks; the outraged voice in your head that thunders “Who raised this monster??” and then meekly remembers: you did.

(And after all, that the only pair of shoes in stock in her size were fluorescent pink with LED lights in the heels. She doesn’t need to dress like Roller Girl Barbie yet.)

As a new parent and an expatriate, I often feel at the mercy of forces I don’t understand. There are so many little misunderstandings, confusions, well-laid plans that don’t go as I expect. I never know if I’m doing something wrong, or if this is in fact the right way, and the right way just happens to be hideously awkward. We left the boutique and went to the park, where she tripped and lay howling on her back. I scooped her up and we boarded a bus to central London.

We went to John Lewis, the sturdy, sedate dowager of Oxford Street that offers working foot measures, a broad range of reasonably priced children’s shoes and, according to the logo on their shopping bags, an appointment to Her Majesty the Queen as Suppliers of Household and Fancy Goods. We bought a pair of tiny white shoes that look like miniature versions of those worn by Florida retirees. She tottered proudly around the children’s department without falling once. We accomplished the thing we set out to do that morning. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal then you probably don’t have kids.

Only one thing would have made the day better. I wish we had returned to the children’s boutique with its obnoxious saleswoman. I would have liked to pull open the glass door with its gently tinkling bell and usher the kid in, with her new shoes, newfound independence, and accompanying desire to use her new powers to destroy everything in sight.

“Big mistake,” I would say to the saleswoman as I quietly pulled shut the door. “Huge.”