Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

The Column Migrates

The trees outside the window are rustling in the wind and there’s a gray rain falling – but it’s only a brisk wind, only a light rain. How powerless it feels to sit here in London and think of friends and family trying to dig out from Sandy’s mess on the east coast. Ugh. 

There’s small news here regarding this space. I’m going to be blogging for the Huffington Post, which means  that many future columns intended for this spot will instead head straight over to that site, with a link to the column here.

Thanks for reading this. And now, onto my first HuffPo column: The Most Famous Breasts in Britain.

The top-selling newspaper in the United Kingdom – for the benefit of my friends in the US – is a daily tabloid called the Sun, whose areas of editorial expertise include football, punny headlines, sex scandals, celebrity gossip, an unforgiving stance on welfare cheats, and enormous breasts.

Read more…

On “The Newsroom”

A few months ago I saw the trailer for the new Aaron Sorkin series “The Newsroom” on one of the sites I frequent as a registered member of the effete liberal media. I watched Jeff Daniels rail against a fading America and I thought This is going to be such a great show! My journalist friends and I will love this! “The Newsroom” will be to us what Entourage is to assholes!

We set our TV record box to pick up the show as soon as it premiered on Sky Atlantic, a channel that cherry-picks the best of American cable television and, besides Nick Jr. and ESPN America, is the only thing we watch. (Don’t judge. Twenty-three hours a day, we shop at our neighborhood stores, chat up the locals and do our immigrant best to assimilate. When it’s time to watch television, we are like Americans who go abroad and let nothing but McDonald’s and imported bottled water pass their lips. Please don’t make me try to care about British television.)

We finally watched it this weekend. And it turns out that “The Newsroom” is not so good at all.

This isn’t a critique of how realistically the show captures life inside a media organization. It’s annoying when journalists complain about their fictional depictions. All professions are dramatized when they appear on television, but only journalists are in a position to subject the rest of the public to complaints about it. See the angry critical response to season 5 of “The Wire”: I believe I know how ‘corners’ work even though my hometown has a Pain Quotidien, and 84 percent of what I think I know about the American shipping industry comes from Frank Sobotka’s storyline, but those are not the type of pens newsrooms typically stock!! How did David Simon get this so wrong??

Besides, I’ve never worked in TV, so I don’t know how accurate the set is. Maybe in TV they really do the thing where people leap from their desk with a phone to their ear and shout across the room. Maybe when news breaks everyone in TV really does have a roommate who happened to have signed off on the relevant government contract or a sister who is sitting in a secret meeting with the top executives of the disgraced firm right now and whose first instinct is to quietly excuse herself to go leak some news.

My problem with “The Newsroom” is not the way it portrays journalists, but the way it portrays people – especially female people.

“The Newsroom” is full of gruff but honorable and able men who stay cool in crisis and dismiss the weak and stupid with puncturing words. It is also full of women whom the story insists are equally competent, but who flutter and collapse at a rate disproportionate to their male colleagues – and at a rate that undermines everything else I’m supposed to believe about their characters.

A key plot point in the second episode hinges on the premise that a female producer who spent three years setting up live satellite links in Peshawar and the hills of Afghanistan can’t understand the new office email program. I’m expected to believe that another young woman is a promising young professional, even as she’s shrieking at her boss for sleeping with her roommate in the middle of a staff meeting.

And I find it distastefully noticeable how many of the one-dimensional characters who appear as stand-ins for the foolish superficiality that Daniels’s character hates, the people at the receiving end of those preciously cutting lines that Sorkin does so well, are women.

I never saw “The West Wing” or “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” I am new to Aaron Sorkin’s work and this NPR-on-cocaine style of dialogue that no more resembles real human conversation than a Bond script does. I don’t like it as much as I thought I would. It seems an attempt to obscure – at least in this series – deficiencies in character that no amount of rapid-fire banter can compensate for.

It’s not that I don’t buy the contradictions between a character’s professional competence and personal chaos. All good fiction is a web of internal and external conflicts between characters. But it’s the effort to manage those competing selves that makes a character compelling, the ways in which that façade slips and cracks despite their best conscious effort that is interesting to watch. Don Draper’s personal world is infinitely more fucked up than any Newsroom character, but it’s his terror at having a truth discovered that makes his slick exterior compelling.

Nobody’s even trying to hold their shit together in “The Newsroom.” They pivot between soaring monologues on high-minded issues and child-like simpering over their personal lives. That’s not how adults act. That’s how I thought adults acted when I was 13.

(Speaking of high-minded rants followed by navel-gazing: Maybe there wouldn’t be a need for shows lamenting the death of journalism if actual journalists – say, myself – wrote about stuff that mattered instead of complaining about TV shows. Just a thought.)

Other Covert Functions of the Female Body Identified by Todd Akin’s Medical Experts

Detachable cervix

Pancreas transforms into compact mirror

Plastic feet permanently molded into high heel shape

MHC molecules on cell surface bind to virus antigens and shut that whole thing down

Deep prefrontal cortex folds make math hard

Alveoli convert oxygen into maternal longing

Rape-repelling pheromones (deactivated when skin on upper thigh or arm exposed)

Radioactive nipples

Womb converts into soapbox

Monthly cycle sheds excess brain cells through the vagina

Extinguishing the Flame

Hello! This column returns, after a lengthy and unexplained absence occasioned only by vacation and laziness. We crossed the Atlantic, crossed the country and are now back home in London, a city transformed – at least temporarily.

London said goodbye this week to the Paralympic Games – an event that got way more play and publicity here than in the US, I gather – and to what has been an unbelievably festive and friendly five weeks in this city. We’ve discussed here before the exceptionally English response to the distressing prospect of hosting an Olympics. Then the Opening Ceremonies happened. I don’t know what the response to the ceremony was outside the UK, but the British loved it. They looked at the dancing peasants and the giant Voldemort and the tribute to socialized medicine and they said Yes. That is so us. And from then on everybody loved the Olympics and no one could remember ever having said anything different.  

The traffic that the moaners said would keep us trapped in our homes never materialized; it even stopped raining. Organizers fixed the glitches that made it so hard for UK residents to buy tickets, and people snapped up seats to every event that would have them. The week before the Opening Ceremony it wasn’t cool to talk about the Olympics; once they started, I hardly knew anyone who didn’t want to go.

We did not get tickets for any Olympic event, despite my strenuous and unsuccessful efforts to get my husband a seat for the men’s hammer final. (We did attend the Netherlands Olympic Committee’s official party, and that was so incredible I don’t have words to describe it beyond orange, tall, Heineken. All I can say is that a Dutch pop star flown in for the event sang a cover of the top summer single in Holland, and it is a rap about riding a bicycle, which is exactly what I would imagine the top single in Holland at any given time to be.) I could not believe what an incredibly hot ticket hammer throwing was until we watched the event on TV (televised Olympics in the UK: so much better!) and I understood that of the 80,000 people in the sold-out stadium that night, 12 of them were there for the hammers, and 79,988 of them for men’s 100 meter final happening across the track.

Instead we bought tickets to the second most-anticipated 100 meters of the Games, featuring Oscar Pistorius – aka the Blade Runner.

I love Oscar Pistorius. He is as fast as anyone with no legs has ever been, which is awesome. I was already psyched and then I read this New York Times profile that explains that Oscar Pistorius is both inspiring and also a little bit insane, and I love that. This is not the same thing as being a legitimate sports fan. I could not name any of his competitors or other events planned that night. I arrived at the Stadium Thursday night feeling like a tourist instead of a true believer.

From the dispassionate, completely objective perspective of a journalist, OMG YOU GUYS THE PARALYMPICS WAS AWESOME!!! The Olympic Stadium is beautiful. Anish Kapoor’s Orbit, the tower that in photos looks like a freak Erector Set accident gone awry, glows blood-red at night like a brilliant living thing. The event staff – all volunteers – were ridiculously nice.

A word about the red-and-purple uniformed army of volunteer “Games Makers” scattered across London for the last month: I do not know what kind of national talent search unearthed this many English people who are both helpful and without any apparent social phobias. They have been so nice, not just at the venues but all over the city. Olympic volunteers going to and from work have helped me carry the stroller up the stairs in the Tube, given directions, and chatted at bus stops. Red-and-purple-shirt people, thank you for your time, your effort and for making London a kinder and less awkward place this summer.

The stadium was full. As many people came to see the Paralympians that night as came to see Usain Bolt defend his 100 title. It was an electric atmosphere. We saw the blind runner Mahmoud Khaldi’s exuberant victory lap after winning a gold for Tunisia in the 400 meters. We saw the final races of decorated blind runner Assia El Hannouni of France, who also won Most Enthusiastic On-Podium National Anthem Performance for her belting of “La Marseillaise.” Watching an athlete represent their country at the highest level of their sport is unbelievably exciting. I now almost understand Justin’s religious commitment to the World Cups of anything. Almost.

Even knowing this, even after seeing the unexpected fervor with which Britons eventually embraced the Games, I was unprepared for the energy of a full stadium screaming on a home team. Never have I heard the sound a stadium makes when united in support of a team; never have I felt that energy that seems to propel an athlete forward by the force of its will.

When Hannah Cockroft crushed her opponents in the wheelchair race for athletes with cerebral palsy, the crowd went crazy. When wheelchair racer David Weir won his third gold medal in the 800, they screamed like mad. And when a 19-year-old Jonnie Peacock soared down the straightaway and beat – yes – Oscar Pistorius, it was a sound like nothing I’d ever heard. I get why sports writing (this included) so often sounds clichéd and why it soars when a writer strikes the right note. It is a magical thing to experience.

There is a book my daughter likes called “Oscar’s Rotten Birthday.” Oscar the Grouch is mad because everyone on Sesame Street is planning him a birthday party and he hates birthdays. But then it turns out to be better than any birthday party he can imagine – mud cake, stinkweed flowers, broken toys for presents – and by the end the only thing Oscar has to be grouchy about is that it won’t be his birthday again for a year.

That’s kind of what happened to the English and the Olympics. They moaned and complained because it’s the only thing they know how to do when faced with something new – that, and retreat into awkwardness – and then it turned out to be more exciting and inspiring than they believed it could be. I love them for agreeing, as a nation, to let themselves enjoy it just this once, even if now – bless them – they are a little embarrassed about having gotten so carried away. I will not forget the London I saw this summer, even as the trash can lid slams back down.

 

“Well, that was fun,” the Evening Standard’s editorial pages said yesterday. “Now can we have our city back?” 

Coaster Day

A few weeks ago my friend had a birthday and decided to spend it riding roller coasters. She arranged a day outing to Thorpe Park, a Six Flags-style amusement park outside of London. I bought a ticket, made childcare arrangements, waited for the appointed day, got on the train to Thorpe Park, looked out the window and thought to myself Holy fuck, I do not want to do this.

I loved amusement parks as a child. Loved them. I planned my entire year around the annual appearance of a skeezy traveling carnival in our church parking lot and still remember how my friend and I wept after we waited an hour for the Zipper and were told we were too short. I once asked my cousin “Would you rather have a million dollars, or go to Disneyland?” He wearily pointed out that with a million dollars you could easily afford a Disneyland ticket, but I brushed him off because I did not really believe that mere money could purchase an experience as wonderful as Disneyland. I imagined an adulthood of endless weekend trips to carnivals, an annual Disneyland pass and unrestricted access to a Dionysian world of loops, corkscrews, death drops and funnel cakes.

What changed? Age, I guess – you start to notice the relentless materialism of the Disney machine and the film on the water in the flume rides and Jesus Christ, does that Monkey Cages operator only have one hand?? Maturity stole some of the joy, and the rest fell hostage to a case of motion sickness that started sometime in my twenties and has come to manage my traveling life with a roadie’s leering aggression. I stopped going on roller coasters, and as a result they stopped being fun and just got scary.

So I don’t know why I said yes to this little adventure. I don’t want to go on these roller coasters and I don’t want to be the wimp who stands to the side and I don’t want to be the person the coaster-cam captures mid-vomit, and there’s no way to avoid all three of these things. On the shuttle bus from Staines train station to the park, I twist around in my seat to talk to the person behind me, and when I turn back around a wave of nausea washes over me. We aren’t even in the parking lot yet. This is bad. This is so very, very bad.

We wait in line at the entrance turnstiles with cautious-looking parents, amped-up kids and a group of drunk girls in slutty superhero costumes. A member of our party gets held up while security searches his enormous backpack. I’m hoping that maybe he has drugs in there and we’re all going to get thrown out but he doesn’t, and we’re set free in a popcorn-scented hellscape. I see the roller coasters looming over the park, and it’s fair to say that I don’t want to go on a single one of them. They are huge and roaring and scary and make me feel like one of those kids in the Jurassic Park Jeep. I don’t need this.

It’s decided that we should start our day with something called the Vortex, a giant ring of seats that rises into the air and then swooshes around like a club being swung by an invisible giant. A glance at the kid behind the controls confirms that it’s actually controlled by a 16-year-old tweaker, and that’s not any less upsetting.

We take our seats and pull down the heavy harnesses that fit a lot more snugly than they did when I was twelve. I know that these are safety inspected and that nothing can actually hurt me; I know that this ride lasts for barely 90 seconds. Still, I am tingling with fear. I look over at the birthday girl, who is clapping with excitement and so plainly happy to be spending this day with friends. Do I need people like this in my life? Aren’t we supposed to giving up on new experiences and settling into our ruts? I don’t want to be strapped into this death trap. I don’t want thrills. I want my rut.

The machine grinds into gear and the ride begins, swaying at first, then swooping across the metal platform, then swinging up into weightlessness before plunging back down. It’s terrifying, but deliciously so. I see this feeling of gleeful abandon on my daughter’s face every day when I push her on the swings, but I can’t recall the last time I felt it myself. When the ride resettles itself onto the platform, I am laughing. And not sick.

After that, Thorpe Park is fine. It’s even fun. I don’t throw up once. I learn a lot. Skeeball horseracing requires utter concentration. The English call cotton candy “candy floss.” They also serve fried cod as a refreshment to people who are about to ride the corkscrew, and it’s decisions like that that ensure the Empire will never rise again. And while at first it’s so much worse to look, after a while it’s so much better if you do.

Remembrances of Buttocks Past: Watching Magic Mike

There are two doors at the top of the cinema stairs. One goes to the theater showing “Magic Mike,” and the other goes to a sensitive film fresh off the festival circuit. I don’t have tickets for that movie.

“This the way to ‘Magic Mike’?” I ask a woman walking up the stairs with a glass of wine in each hand (because how, why, would you see “Magic Mike” in a movie theater that doesn’t allow alcohol?) She says, “Uhh, yeah,” all furtive and uncomfortable, like I just reached over the back of the seat at an adult theater and offered to shake her hand. We’re living in a post-shame age, lady. People read Fifty Shades of Grey on the subway. You’re at the stripper movie. Own it.

There are a lot of reasons I’m at “Magic Mike” but there’s no point in naming any of them, lest it sound like the beefcake-movie-ticket-holding lady doth protest too much. I can take the high road and say it’s for work, but – really? All the journalists in Homs right now just couldn’t snag the “Magic Mike” beat? Let’s not overthink this. It’s Saturday night, I have a box of stale popcorn and a large glass of Chardonnay, and I’m seated in a very energetic theater of women and exactly two men who appear to have been conscripted as dates.

“I don’t even want to think about the things I’d have to do to my boyfriend to get him to come see this with me,” my friend whispers, which is ironic, because in about 50 minutes Channing Tatum is going to tell his love interest that she doesn’t want to know what he has to do for a $20 bill.

“Magic Mike” is about a 30-year-old part-time Tampa roofer who does not look like anyone who has ever fixed your roof. By night, he leads a muscled all-male revue that grinds and thrusts before a shrieking crowd of female revelers. Every stripper has an “act,” a dance constructed around the somewhat flimsy premise that he is a fireman who needs to take his clothes off, or a policeman who needs to take his clothes off, or variations of that theme. Women like a story. I once went with friends to a strip club aimed at gay men, and those dancers dispensed with such character studies entirely. All the acts followed a single narrative, that narrative being that everyone in the room would like to see some penis as soon as humanly possible.

We learn early in the film that Magic Mike’s talents are not limited to the stage. His real passion, he explains to a young woman who has just woken up nude in his apartment, is making furniture out of crap that has washed ashore on the beach. The camera lingers on a photo album of his creations, and it is not spoiling much to say that this is not a movie about a talented furniture maker reduced to stripping to make ends meet. Mike takes a protégé under his wing, one 19-year-old Adam, and the rest of the film plays Adam’s burgeoning infatuation with the glamorous world of male stripping against Mike’s increasing disillusionment. Matthew McConaughey is their dirty, half-crazed, bare-chested, bongo-drum-playing employer. It is possible that Matthew McConaughey’s entire career up to this point has been a drawn-out teaser campaign for this role. He is kind of a genius in it, and if it transpires next year that somebody like Ben Kingsley loses an Oscar to Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike, I will not contest that decision.

All of these plot points are really just filler between scenes of be-G-stringed men writhing against some very willing audience volunteers, and here is where “Magic Mike” performs a public service. Strip clubs are not for everyone. If you have never been before, you will know within minutes of the “It’s Raining Men” routine if this kind of thing’s your scene. I only wish that kind of informed consent had been available to me.

A few years ago I visited a Las Vegas strip club in the company of a bachelorette party. I had never seen a show aimed at women – my only previous experience was with the gay boys, and that was very much an observer mission – so I don’t know what I was expecting. Something saucy, but ultimately PG-13, like the male answer to Gypsy Rose Lee. I guess I also thought we were traveling back in time.

This is not what happens. The Marine uniform or cowboy vest or whatever comes off, of course, and that’s nice, but there is a whole interactive element that can be really challenging for someone whose personal boundaries preclude publicly dry-humping a stranger in a sailor’s cap. There’s a lot of dancer-patron touching. And grinding. And fake-sex having. It’s the type of stuff that would maybe make an unprepared prude like me disappear to the bar when an emcee starts asking if anyone needs a spanking.

Fortunately for the dancers, uptight killjoys were in the minority that night. The other patrons expressed their appreciation loudly, proudly and with dollar bills between their breasts. While I was shrinking behind my drink,  other members of our party pooled their money and – surprise! – bought me a lap dance. Suddenly there was before me a gentleman in an electric blue thong, curly hair greased into a ponytail, and the determined, half-crazed smile of a Disneyland parade dancer.

I remember it in the way you remember something to tell the police about later. There was jiggling, and shimmying, and buttocks so uncomfortably close to my face. Someone grabbed my hand and placed it on his butt cheek, where the stubble of a not-so-recent ass shave sprouted through a slick layer of oil and sweat. I felt marginally less alarmed than if a stranger on the subway had leapt from his seat and treated me to the same performance.

I recognize that there are people who don’t feel this way, and who embrace the strip club experience in the playful sense that Matthew McConaughey’s ass-less pants suggest it was meant to be taken. I don’t remember the denomination of the bill I gingerly tucked into his waist strap, but I can’t imagine it was as robust a tip as he might have received from a more enthusiastic lady. And that’s just not fair to a clearly hard-working freelance professional.

“Magic Mike” accurately portrays the onstage world of male stripping. The offstage one? That I can’t say. Perhaps the most fantastical element of this film – and this is a bit of a spoiler – is how remarkably well everything works out for everyone. The novice who screws up a drug deal gets mercifully bailed out, the skeezy club owner gets his promotion, even the golden boy bows out before the herpes or male-pattern baldness hits to make his ugly furniture. Maybe the world of male stripping really is just a rocking good time with no greater downsides than the pain of a good back wax. But I don’t know. From my single interaction with a member of the profession, I felt – as much as you can feel from a single touch of a sweaty, stubbly ass cheek – that perhaps not all of his choices in life had worked as well as he’d hoped. But what do I know? For his sake, I hope that “Magic Mike” is an accurate portrayal of life behind the tear-away pants, and that it helps its viewers self-identify who might enjoy a night of pecs and padded jock straps, and who should stay home and stop ruining it for everyone else.

It’s already helping. The next day I spoke to my mother, a nice Catholic lady who doesn’t watch “How I Met Your Mother” because Doogie Howser’s jokes are too racy. She had also gone to see it. She has never been to a strip club. She was appalled.

“That was not dancing,” she said in a voice full of shock and awe. “That was not dancing.”

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?

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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.”