Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Pleasure of Giving

Finding the perfect gift for your friends and family members who don’t really need anything makes us frantic, especially at Christmas. As the Big Day advances and we haven’t found the Perfect Gift, we are tempted by expensive and unnecessary junk which may end up being returned, recycled or even thrown out. We buy goofy gifts or something inappropriate. The shopping frenzy turns an otherwise spiritual season into a depressing one which leaves us with the sense that we’ve missed something.

This year, we made a conscious effort to spend less money, both on ourselves and our friends. Instead, we bought a few things for the house, some carefully chosen little gifts like books, calendars and toiletries. We cooked, enjoyed some mulled wine and the reruns on television. We even sent electronic Christmas cards.

We also gave donations to charitable organisations. Last Christmas, a couple of our friends started this by donating a goat to a family in Africa, a gift which would make a huge difference in the lives of those who received it. We were touched that they thought to do this in our names. This year, together, we donated emergency cooking utensils, blankets, mosquito nets and a desk, chair and stationary. It felt good that our abundance could help someone in need.

Think of the riches which we take for granted. How many changes of clothes do you have? Televisions? I-Pods? Computers? Telephones? Cameras? Cars? Foods? Medicines? Books? Cooking utensils? Do you take for granted your clean drinking water? An effective sewage system? Do we really need more STUFF?

The disasters which we have witnessed in the last year have made us all more aware of suffering around the world: the Boxing Day tsunami in South Asia, the earthquake in northwest India and Pakistan, the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast of the United States. Why not consider a gift which will help a child, a family or a community in the developing world?

It’s the kind of giving which snowballs. If you start it, your friends may pass it on and reciprocate, better than those annoying chain emails which you have to forward within a few minutes in order for your wish to be granted. Do something tangible and make someone else’s wish come true. You can give as little as £5 or as much as you can afford. There may be other sites for reputable charities. These are just a few. And you’ll be surprised at how satisfying it is. It doesn't have to be Christmas either.

The World Vision: (
Oxfam: (
Send a Cow: (
Present Aid: (

Sunday, October 30, 2005

One of Life’s Little Stresses

We’ve recently moved from an English village in the countryside to one of London’s outer boroughs. I have mixed feelings about it. On the plus side, our commute to work has gone from an hour and a half each way in heavy motorway traffic to seven minutes or ten if we have to wait at a traffic light. The house is bigger in every respect with higher ceilings, larger rooms and more light. The garden is low maintenance. There isn’t a hundred years worth of paint on the walls and woodwork. On the minus side, this is definitely city living with lots more traffic, and the pace has "ratched" up several notches. Moving to a new house with a partner, especially when you do it yourself, has to be one of the most stressful things which couples go through.

I thought I’d do a little research about stress. I was surprised to discover that moving wasn’t in the top ten. Several sites listed the top ten stress-causing events, but I found one where you can actually take a test to tally your current stress level. Which of these have you experienced in the past 12 months?

1. Death of a spouse (100)
2. Divorce (73)
3. Marital separation (65)
4. Jail term (63)
5. Death of close family member (63)
6. Personal injury or illness (53)
7. Marriage (50)
8. Losing ones job (47)
9. Marital reconciliation (45)
10. Retirement (45)
11. Change in family member's health 44
12. Pregnancy 40
13. Sex difficulties 39
14. Addition to family 39
15. Business readjustment 39
16. Change in financial status 38
17. Death of close friend 37
18. Change to a different line of work 36
19. Change in number of marital arguments 35
20. Mortgage or loan over $10,000 31
21. Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
22. Change in work responsibilities 29
23. Trouble with in-laws 29
24. Outstanding personal achievement 28
25. Spouse begins or stops work 26
26. Starting or finishing school 26
27. Change in living conditions 25
28. Revision of personal habits 24
29. Trouble with boss 23
30. Change in work hours, conditions 20
31. Change in residence 20
32. Change in schools 20
33. Change in recreational habits 19
34. Change in church activities 19
35. Change in social activities 18
36. Mortgage or loan under $10,000 17
37. Change in sleeping habits 16
38. Change in number of family gatherings 15
39. Change in eating habits 15
40. Vacation 13
41. Christmas season 12
42. Minor violations of the law 11

On a scale of 1 -100, change of residence only carried a stress level of 20. Another site listed buying and selling a house with a stress score of 60. Go to ( I’m assuming that the difference in stress is related to the buying and selling factor.

These results were posted on the New Hope website. If your score is 0-149, you have low susceptibility to stress-related illness. If it’s 150-299, there is medium susceptibility. If you score 300 and over, you have a high susceptibility to stress-related illness. Your likelihood of becoming ill depends on your stress coping skills.

The new house is great and we have hours more each day to enjoy as we please. Now we just have to sell the other home... Does having more leisure time cancel out some of the pressure? My stress score was 137 which puts me on the low end of the stress scale. What’s yours?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Fourth of July

Fourth of July... in Engand. The weather didn't cooperate. You'd think they didn't want us to celebrate. Gray skies kept it cool. Cool got cooler. Dark clouds rolled in. We had rain and hail. Then some sun and more rain. Brrrrr.... I never put away all of my winter clothes.

We improvised. Instead of the fake American hot dogs, we opted for English sausages - herbed and spicy, served with home- made potato salad. In spite of the rain, we barbequed. I managed to find some root beer, not usually available here.

Some institutions are worth hanging on to. We always do something for the Fourth of July. The other big day is Thanksgiving. Neither one is recognized here, so finding the foods that remind us of home becomes a big project. Turkey and the trimmings aren't so difficult to find as they eat the same or similar foods here at Christmas. The real challenge is making pumpkin pie. No tinned pumpkins, so you have to freeze fresh pumpkin around Halloween.

At our November wedding, we had a restaurant prepare a full Thanksgiving dinner for our guests, including pumpkin pie. Unfortunately, the chef decided to treat the pumpkin like apples, so we ended up with chunks of pumpkin! The seasoning was fine, but the texture was all wrong. Only the Americans among our guests knew the difference.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Music Zaps You Right Back to a Moment in Time

My former high school classmates are reconnecting, gearing up for our reunion next year. They've been rummaging in the attics to find pictures from grade school, junior high and high school. They've started a discussion group on Yahoo for the Class of '66. One former classmate, Mike, posts a blog each day, stirring up memories with photos, personal anecdotes and song lyrics from those days.

This week, he posted the lyrics to "I Get Around" by the Beach Boys, Well, Brian Wilson still gets around. Rick and I went to see him at the Royal Festival Hall at Southbank last summer. It was the Smile tour, an album he created many years ago, but didn't release. Here in London, he had all kinds of backup singers and musicians to make the original Beach Boys sound. You know how, when you hear a song, suddenly you're back at that moment in time? You can remember where you were, what you were doing, even what the weather was like. It's hardwired into your brain. The audience was filled with young and old fans who were on their feet rocking to the music, reliving the past. It was very moving.

Brian has survived a rough journey: physical and emotional abuse from his father, years of drug addiction, obesity, depression, attempted suicide, the deaths of his brothers (Denis and Carl), a stroke, the break up of his family as well as the band and legal battles with his cousin over the band. But he's still a genius. My husband, also a musician, said it was the equivalent of going to see Mozart perform in his day.

The former Beach Boy had to be helped on to the stage; shuffling, a bit unsteady on his feet. He wore the usual big Hawaiian print shirt. When he speaks, his words are slurred and he clearly struggles to get the words out. It must take a lot of courage for him to step onto the stage after all he's been through. He's not the man he was, but he's still composing beautiful music. Remember these?

Wouldn't It Be Nice
God Only Knows
I Get Around
Don't Worry Baby
In My Room
Good Vibrations
Sloop John B
Heroes and Villains
Surf City
Help Me Rhonda
Sail On Sailor
Fun, Fun, Fun
California Girls
Be My Baby
Little Deuce Coup
Surfin' Safari

If your memory doesn't stretch back that far, check out the iTunes music store. You just can't be in any kind of bad mood after listening to his music.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


It’s been a real year of flashbacks to the 1960’s. The “Class of ‘66” web site has stirred up a lot of memories (especially the music), and my 8th graders have been studying the Cold War. I’ve been the resident expert because my colleague, the history teacher, wasn’t alive at the time. Boy, does that make me feel old!

When I first came to England in the 1980’s we had a teacher in the high school whom I remember very well. She was a short, blonde dynamo with a New York/New Jersey accent. (Sorry, I can’t tell the difference.) Her subject was Spanish, but had a PhD in Russian and she worked part time for the BBC as a translator. She used to take small groups of high school students to Moscow on field trips. This was just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. She retired to become a consultant several years ago, but she comes back regularly to speak to our 8th graders about her personal experiences. I’ll call her Dr. J.

This past week, the students had just finished viewing Rocky IV as an example of propaganda. In case you’ve forgotten, it’s an hour and a half’s worth of pure pro-American entertainment, well worth looking at again from a fresh perspective. Some of it is obvious, but some of the images are more subtle - the colors the characters are wearing, the music, the symbolic collapse of the USSR when the Russian crowd begins to cheer Rocky.

Just like in the movie, Dr. J. was watched by KGB. She knew they had a file on her. When she took students to Moscow, three of them had followed her around for several days. On her last day, she went to a street vendor and bought an ice cream, along with one for each of her three “guardians”. She went up to them and thanked them for their company and for taking such good care of her during her visit to Moscow (in fluent Russian).

Dr. J. also gave us some food for thought on the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was the one incident when the Cold War nearly erupted into a hot one. It was October of our sophomore year, 1962. She told us that Kruschev sent the missiles to Cuba without consulting Castro. This was in retaliation to the US having missiles in Turkey. The public agreement was that the USSR eventually agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba if the US promised not to attack Cuba. We learned from Dr. J. that, in a private agreement, the US had agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey.

At the height of the Cold War, there was great fear of an atomic attack. We practiced hiding under our desks or going out into the hallways and crouching against the walls with arms covering our heads. Not that this would have done any good, but we were seen to be doing something. Remember when everyone was talking about building air raid shelters under their homes?

We may not think of it as so, but the Vietnam and Korean Wars were a continuation of the Cold War. The US was attempting to “contain” the spread of Communism. China had fallen, then North Korea and, finally, Vietnam. (This was a war in which 80% of the people of Vietnam wanted a Communist government rather than the non-communist dictator whom the US supported. No wonder we were confused about why we were fighting there. For them, Communism meant an end to poverty and oppression. To the US, Communism was an un-democtatic disease to be contained at any cost.)

Dr. J. told us that when Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, he brought in a new policy called “glasnost” which means “openness”. The real test of this was the Chernobyl accident which took place in 1986. When the nuclear reactor blew, he had a choice, denial or exposure. The silence lasted for 48 hours. He chose to let the world know. This triggered the gradual dissolution of the USSR which culminated in early 1990’s. The Cold War was over.

We grew up under the cloud of Nuclear War and MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Our classmates and friends may have fought and survived or died in Vietnam or Korea. Those who came back from Vietnam were irrevocably changed. These songs are only two of many which came to represent the turmoil of those times.

For What It's Worth
Stephen Stills, 1966

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, now, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Kenny Rogers

You’ve painted up your lips
And rolled and curled your tinted hair
Ruby are you contemplating
Going out somewhere
The shadow on the wall
Tells me the sun is going down
Oh Ruby
Don’t take your love to town

It wasn’t me
That started that old crazy Asian war
But I was proud to go
And do my patriotic chore
And yes, it’s true that
I’m not the man I used to be
Oh, Ruby I still need some company

Its hard to love a man
Whose legs are bent and paralysed
And the wants and the needs of a woman your age
Ruby I realize,
But it won’t be long I’ve heard them say until I not around
Oh Ruby
Don’t take your love to town

She’s leaving now cause
I just heard the slamming of the door
The way I know I’ve heard it
Some 100 times before
And if I could move I’d get my gun
And put her in the ground
Oh Ruby
Don’t take your love to town

Oh Ruby for god’s sake turn around

An English Village

Godstone Green
Originally uploaded by HocusOpusUK.
I had to get out for a walk today. Too many days shut up inside school, inside the house or in the a car. The sky was overcast, but there was a breeze and the temperature hovered around 70 degrees (21 Celsius). It was Sunday afternoon and even the roar of traffic from the M-25 had diminished.

I had Rick’s iPod Shuffle since my mini had a dead battery. Down the street, turn right through a neighborhood of manicured lawns, then left again onto one of the many footpaths which form a network across England. There is public access to land here, even private land, so long as you follow the signs. Groups called Ramblers meet up to hike the countryside, usually ending up at a pub for refreshments.

Our village is the home of a natural wildlife sanctuary. There’s a huge pond, surrounded by fields and bordered by paths. I followed one of them up the wooded hill to the Godstone church and then back down the other side of the pond, ending in the centre of the village near the green.

They were playing cricket today. Yes, cricket. The teams wore whites and small groups sat around the edges of the green on benches, watching the game. I have never figured out the game. It can go on for days and the scores reach the hundreds. It’s not just a sport, but a way of life, part of the British Empire. I even found a news story on the internet about tsunami survivors playing cricket in the Nicobar Islands.

On the way home, I passed through the heart of the village. It has nearly all of the necessary amenities. There are three pubs, a posh restaurant/hotel, a pharmacy, a newsagent/post office, a local grocery shop, a petrol station, a car garage (for repairs, car sales and MOT), a cafe, an antique shop, a ladies’ dress shop, a haberdashery, a Mormon bookshop (!), a village church, a town hall and a building supplies store. We have to go to the next town to find a bakery, a butcher, or a green grocer (fruit and veg store). Down the road in two directions, there are garden centres. Not bad for a population of 2,700!

We’ll miss the serenity of village life when we move. Unfortunately, our commute to work is nearly fifty miles each way. That’s far too much time wasted when we could be enjoying time at home.

From the Other Side

One of the interesting aspects of being a teacher is that I am constantly surrounded by incidents that trigger memories. I look around our middle school and see kids sitting and talking with their friends in the locker bays before homeroom, forcing each other to climb over their legs and bags to get to the lockers. I see them getting off the busses in the morning, doing (or copying) homework at the last minute in the cafeteria, hanging out together at recess, gossiping about who likes whom and, occasionally talking about their teachers. I see pairs, joined together by the earphones of a single iPod sharing music. The insides of their lockers are covered with photos of celebrities whom they lust after - Johnny Dep, Pamela Anderson, Orlando Bloom, Ronaldo, J-Lo and numerous pop stars whom I couldn’t begin to know, including bands from all over the world.

The odd thing is that suddenly, I am aware of seeing them through the eyes of all our teachers. Did we really think that all of those adults didn’t notice our conversations? That they were deaf and blind, merely patrolling the halls to make sure we went to class on time? That they didn’t become functioning until they stepped into class to impart the wisdom of their chosen subject? That they didn’t notice us dancing too close or flooded in tears after the dances in the cafeteria? We couldn’t have known the hours that were spent in faculty meetings, discussing their concerns about our social, emotional, and academic well-being.

The high school yearbooks have arrived. (We actually produce separate yearbooks for the high, middle and lower schools.) My husband, who teaches in the high school, brought his home. It’s interesting to see how much the traditional books have changed since we were in school. There are pages and pages of colored pictures, lots of candid shots, kids posing and making faces at the camera. And the seniors have much more space.

Each senior has a half-page spread, including a posed picture, but the students aren’t dressed as formally as we were. Sometimes they’re in a tee shirt, a football jersey, a sweatshirt and/or jeans. They could choose from a traditional head-and-shoulders pose, standing with arms crossed, or standing with thumbs hooked on jeans pockets. Remember our dress code?

Their page also includes a baby picture and a half page of comments from the student. They write about their friends in school, their families, memories of specific events (very dangerous). Sometimes they have included a poem, a dedication, and specific reminders to friends.

The best pages are called “Senior Stats”. Here they got to freely express themselves for one last time. A series of comments were posted next to each photo of a senior. The mug shot could be whatever they wanted, sometimes a too-close shot, distorting the image. Sometimes a silly face, or an extreme pose with sunglasses or a hat. Or just the eye, cheek and hairline, very arty. Each senior was asked to respond to the following categories:

N Name (Could be a nickname or wannabe, how you see yourself.)
D Dream
R Reality
N Nightmare
BQ Best Quote
BKS Best Kept Secret
PIC Partner(s) in Crime
UF Usually found...
MLT Most likely to...
LLT Least likely to...

Now’s your chance. Cast your mind back. Leave your now old self behind. What would you have written?

My yearbook disappeared long ago in one of my many moves; I never even missed it. Now, I wish I could browse those dream-like black and white pages and stir up the buried past. I hope a few of my classmates will bring theirs along to the 40th reunion.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

On Your Marks, Ladies and Gentlemen...

“No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections.” Winston Churchill

We’ve just had a lightning election here in the UK. Parliament was dissolved on April 11th and the campaigning lasted for less than four weeks. Elections were held on Thursday, May 5th. It’s one of the things I like about a Parliamentary Democracy.

Labour won. That means Tony Blair continues as Prime Minister. However, the people elected a Labour government. That means that if he gets into trouble, he will be pressured to step down and the party will choose a new leader, most likely Gordon Brown. The party would remain in power. The party, as much as the man, was elected.

Already feuding has broken out over leadership and the cabinet reshuffle. Today's Observer (traditionally a pro-Labor newspaper) displayed an apt political cartoon. In the centre stands Tony Blair with a bloody nose and bloodstains streaming down the front of his shirt. He says, "In this historic third term, we must respond to the message the electorate has sent us...." To his right, we see a monstrous, shaggy, dark figure labeled "Iraq" with a claw-like hand resting on Tony's shoulder. Another speech bubble points off-screen, presumably to the voice of the electorate. It reads, "Hand over to Gordon and get lost!"

In this Parliamentary Democracy, they don’t have to call an election for five years. They can do so if they wish to. In fact, if after four years or so, if they think they are in a good position to win again, they can call another election. By the same token, if the government loses a vote of confidence at any time, they HAVE to call an election. Much simpler than trying to impeach a president.

The downside is that the party in power has a majority. They can get through the legislation they want without much check. Britain traditionally has a two-party political system. In the past few years, people have increasingly become disillusioned with Labour or the Conservatives. Many have turned to the Liberal Democrats. This has led to scare-mongering at election time. Both leading parties threatened that by voting for Liberal Democrats, voters might allow the other party to get in through “the back door”.

Voter turnout was poor and many expressed disgust at the negative campaigning. Michael Howard, the Conservative candidate lost a lot of support because of this. Of course those who remember him as the architect of Maggie Thatcher's Poll Tax might cite other reasons. In any case, he will step down as leader of the Conservative party.

There are some minor political parties. The SDLP (The Social Democratic and Labour Party), the UKIP (The UK Independence Party), the SNP (The Scottish Nationalist Party), the Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales), the BNP (British National Party), as well as others, including special interest parties and extreme groups.

Labour has a majority at the moment, but not a great one. They hold 353 seats. The Conservatives have 196, the Liberal Democrats, 60, and others, 12. Blair’s government lost 161 seats in this election, a clear indication that people are not happy. The main issues have been the war in Iraq, the National Health System, and immigration. The government is also trying to push through legislation regarding ID cards. It won’t be so easy now. MP’s don’t always vote along party lines.

At least, we won’t be subjected to a year or more of campaigning and news manipulation as seen in the last US elections. We have a lame duck Prime Minister whose job it is now to keep his party in power. He may have already lost his chance to find a place in history.

“Politics is almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.” Winston Churchill

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

How do you operate?

These days, the schools go out of their way to raise kids’ awareness of how they learn, but back in the Dark Ages, when I was in school, no one even knew about learning styles. Some of us were good students and some weren’t. The assumption was that if you applied yourself, you’d succeed. Kids who didn’t do well were lazy or handicapped in some way.

Recently, I was prompted by some discussions at school to investigate my own learning style. Anthony Gregorc, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut, has conducted research into the functions of the left and right brain hemispheres. He concluded that people have different ways of perceiving and ordering information. We either perceive things in methods that are concrete-oriented (from our physical senses) or abstract-oriented (from logical, deductive reasoning). Ordering is how we make sense out of what we perceive. Ordering can either be sequential or random. He established four groups of thinking styles: Concrete Sequential, Concrete Random, Abstract Random and Abstract Sequential.

After some consideration, I determined that I was Concrete Random. But how does it help me to know? I’m in my mid 50’s now. The Age of Wisdom. Maybe, maybe not. However, it’s a time of life to reflect on the roads I’ve taken and to try to make sense of how and why I‘ve arrived at this place in my life. Why I’m very successful at some things and why I fail miserably at others. Very self-indulgent. Interesting only to me.

I know that I hate reading directions, that I’d rather look at a diagram or, better yet, look at the pieces of the furniture I’ve just bought from Ikea and figure out myself how to put it together. I find solutions to problems through some kind of leap and I don’t always know how I got there. That very ability to leap makes it difficult for me to write the story from A to B when I’m already at B. The in-between bit is boring, done, history. Now I know why I operate this way.

I had an interesting experience with a colleague this week. She was going to a meeting off campus and didn’t know how to get there by car. I offered to draw a map. She said it wouldn’t help; she needed verbal directions, preferably oral. So, I drew the map for myself. Then we went into her office and I talked her through the image I’d drawn. She listened and typed out a series of directions which made sense to her. It worked for both of us. We team teach very effectively because our styles complement each other.

Curious about your own learning style? Never mind when you left school. It still applies. Your learning style may determine how you work with others, how you overcome obstacles, and where your difficulties lie. Here are some web addresses you might investigate:

Friday, March 25, 2005

Concrete vs. Abstract

I've been stripping wallpaper this morning. Great, ugly strips of grey, red, and white herringbone paper. I couldn't stand it any more. The previous owners of our hundred-year-old terraced cottage had thought it suitable for a young boy's room. Since I've commandeered the room for my office, it has been driving me nuts. Once you start something like this, it's like picking at a broken nail. Until the job's done, you have to keep fiddling with it. I managed to get the walls down to plaster. I can live with it until the weekend's passed before I move on to the next stage.

Anything to avoid writing. Ironing, washing dishes, cleaning the bathroom. What is it about concrete tasks that makes it easier to complete them? Once I've started, I've got to keep going. Oh, I can take a break, but since the job is visibly not finished, I feel compelled to return to it until it is.

I have scores of stories, novels which I've started. Good ideas, too. Why can't I just get on with it and work on just one? I'm a bit like the dog with a bone in his mouth, looking at his reflection in the river. The one that's out of reach looks more appealing and I drop the bone...

I'll try gnawing a bit today...

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

February Break

Church Farm House
Originally uploaded by HocusOpusUK.

February break. My colleagues have raced off to foreign parts for the week - Eastern Europe, Italy, North Africa, Sweden, and the 'States. We've elected to stay in the UK, sleep and eat when we want and plan our days one day at a time.

I don't usually find it very relaxing to travel. If you're visiting friends, you have to keep to their hours. You worry about being in the way. Both guest and host participate in a complicated dance, negotiating how each minute of the day is to be played. If you're staying in hotels, you feel pressed to get the most out of your trip by visiting every museum, cathedral, souvenir shop, and historic building in the area. You eat strange things and overindulge at the table and the bar. That's not my idea of a relaxing holiday.

I have a friend in the 'States, a former high school classmate, who has a yacht which he sails from California to Mexico. That's the perfect way to go - take your home with you!

I DO enjoy the adventure of visiting new places, but I know in advance that it will not be relaxing. You have to gear up for it and the purpose of the trip is entirely different. (This from someone who took a Greyhound from El Paso to Mexico City and spent six weeks of Peace Corps training in Afghanistan.) I think Easter might be a better time to set out on a mini-adventure. Spring will have truly arrived and the light will be different.

After months of short grey days and long dark nights, of going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark, February break is for recharging the batteries. Tomorrow, we head off on a three-hour drive to visit friends who run a Bed and Breakfast in Norfolk, East Anglia. It's not like being a guest; it's like going to Grandmother's house.

I'm not sure that they would appreciate the analogy, but it reflects the welcome we receive when visiting them. Their 16th century thatched farmhouse is decorated with warm colours, plump, comfortable furnishings, Persian rugs, and dozens of ticking clocks which chime at different times. In the huge, farmhouse kitchen, they create multi-course gourmet meals. The days are filled with quiet times for reading, easy conversation, walking the dog in the woods and occasional excursions into the local market town. In the evenings, we linger over a late supper, good wine and good company with the fireplace crackling in the background.

This is rural England. The nights are pitch black. There are no streetlights, so if you're visiting the neighbours, you need to carry a torch (flashlight). Unlike where we live in Surrey, there is no light pollution from nearby towns. On a clear night, you can see the whole dome of stars. During the summer, the garden can be enjoyed until at least ten o'clock without lanterns or candles. The restful sound of water from the two fountains trickles over the stones. There is traffic, but nothing like the constant roar of the M25 which we hear day and night from our house.

Lots of schoolwork to do before we go back on Monday, but I'm looking forward to this mini rural retreat. Our friends have just returned from a six-week trip around the world - Dubai, Thailand, New Zealand, Easter Island, Ecuador, The Galapagos, and Florida. We'll enjoy hearing about it and be grateful that they, not we, made the journey. Thankfully, they don't think of us as guests; we're family and it'll be good to be home.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Twelfth Night

“Twelfth Night”. The name conjures up Shakespeare’s comedic love story of twins, cross-dressing and mistaken identities or the traditional Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Maybe “conjures” is the appropriate word here, for Twelfth Night is when the traditional Wassailing ceremony is performed. According to the pre-Gregorian calendar, this took place on the 17th of January. It has strong links with Britain’s pagan past.

For some, it’s just an excuse to drink strong cider, but for others it’s an opportunity to welcome the near end of year through time-honoured ritual. Traditionally, this ceremony takes place in an apple orchard, the apple representing fertility, spring, new beginnings, etc. Today, Wassailing is still practised in parts of the West Country - Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, and Wiltshire.

I was privileged to attend a Wassailing ceremony last year around this time while visiting a friend who has retired to Wells, a cathedral town near Bath, Bristol and Glastonbury. The middle-class suburban home of our hosts was filled with the smells of good food and hot, spiced cider. Arriving guests were offered a choice of drinks and we chatted with interesting folks from all over the UK. Some had downsized or retired and moved to the West Country from larger cities. Some were professionals who still commuted to Bath or Bristol. Others worked from home or locally as artists, computer programmers, teachers, chefs, etc.

A while later, everyone gathered in the front yard where a tree had been decorated with apples and a “robin”. Our host and hostess appeared dressed as the Wassail King and Queen in masks and a robes. The tree was hung with a piece of bread and cider was poured on the roots as a kind of offering. We recited poetry asking for a good harvest in the coming year. Bad spirits were chased away by firing cap guns into the branches, and by whirling noisemakers and blowing horns. The Wassail bowl, traditionally made of wood and filled with spiced cider was passed around the circle of friends. Finally, the bundle of ash faggots was lit. The embers would be used to light the fire in the coming year. Afterwards, everyone moved indoors to eat. drink, talk and listen to music.

I was struck by a number of things. One, that we were made to feel welcome without prejudice. My friend, another transplanted American, has been accepted into the community through friends in the area. As her friend, I was welcomed, too. I think that I was most surprised at how publicly people practice old rituals.

Britain is officially an Anglican country, but religious tolerance is far more prevalent here than in the US. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Wicca, and Druidry are recognised and openly practised along side the various Judaeo-Christian beliefs. Each year at the summer solstice, Stonehenge, which is normally closed off by ropes, is opened to pagans who celebrate the longest day of the year.

Those who live in the country seem much more connected to the cycles of nature and the abundance of earth. In fact, they seem more connected to each other as well. The Wassailing festival is a lovely way to mark the natural cycles of our calendar, celebrating with friends. Much better than tearing off the pieces of paper labelled January, February, March, etc.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Modern Addictions

Our skybox died on Thursday. It had been sick for some time, but it finally bit the dust after a lengthy, but irregular illness of screeching and frozen pixels. I’m not a slave to it, but there are some programs which would be unavailable through the terrestrial channels. (There are only five in the UK.) The repairman arrived at ten AM Sunday morning.

I have a few shows which I tape regularly and watch at my convenience, fast forwarding through the ads. The new season of our pics has just started - 24, Nip Tuck, CSI (all three), Cold Case, and some new American series about medical emergencies, very much like CSI. The characters are well-developed and unpredictable, the plots varied and interesting.

Could I live without the TV? Yes, definitely. But I do need to know what’s going on in the world. BBC Radio Four is fantastic. I’ve listened to books which I would never have read. They interview authors, produce radio plays, comedy shows, in-depth, serious news programs. They discuss WORLD news, not just what’s going on within the UK or the US. And they present different perspectives, a refreshing idea.

I talked with my sister today. She has no TV reception where she lives in rural Pennsylvania. There’s no antenna, so she relies on videos, DVDs and the internet for entertainment and contact with the outside world. She has my old Apple iBook, the blue clam-shaped one. Now she’s hooked on the internet. Just like the rest of us.

TV, I could live without. Radio, I wouldn’t want to. But without the internet, I would be lost. We’ve been discussing going to Norfolk, Spain or France for a week this summer to rent a cottage for a week or more. The dilemma is that we’d most likely have no internet access. Intellectually, I know it’s ridiculous to allow that to be a factor, but it is. We haven’t reached the stage where we log on to the internet through our cell phones. Is that what the future holds?

Looks like we’ll be doing day trips around Surrey and Kent instead of jetting off to Europe. Meanwhile, 24’s about to start. Time to log off....

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Separated by a Common Language

When I meet people here for the first time, they usually ask if I'm on holiday. My response is that I've lived here for about twenty years. The next predictable comment is something about how I haven't lost my American accent. I think I lost the Upstate New York nasal twang before I even left the 'States. Teaching English as a second language made me extremely conscious of my grammar, how fast I spoke and my regional accent. I spoke more clearly, slowed down, carefully chose or paraphrased and made an effort to speak through my mouth, not my nose. I was already ready for change.

If you want to fit into a culture, you consciously or unconsciously mimic the natives. (Guess I was successful when I lived in Germany; people used to stop and ask me for directions all the time!) Over the years, I've become bi-dialectal. That is, I understand both American and British. Unfortunately, many of our ex-pats have so little contact with real British people that they never learn the subtle differences. As someone said, we are divided by a common language.

Visiting tourists and unassimilated ex-pats stand out for many reasons, but in particular due to their lack of familiarity with British English. Busses are the ones used for local journeys only, including the double-deckers. Coaches are for long journeys. They’re usually bigger and have a toilet on board. That’s another difference. Americans seem somehow embarrassed to use the word toilet, the proper term for its use. Instead, we resort to euphemisms such as bathroom or rest room. (WC (water closet) is rarely used here any more.) If you go into a department store and ask for pants, you will be directed to the underwear department. Trousers are a kind of dress slacks worn by men. The British go on holiday, not vacation. At fast-food restaurants, you might order a side of chips, not fries. Crisps are thin, crispy fried potatoes in a bag which come in all kinds of flavours, including bacon, Worcester sauce, curry, cheese and onion, or beef. If you are travelling around greater London, you might take the underground or the tube. A subway is a tunnel for pedestrians to use instead of waiting for a light to change to cross the road. Calling someone implies shouting. Here, you say, "I’ll ring you tomorrow.” A substitute teacher is called a supply teacher. Q-tips are ear buds. To get your car inspected, you have to pass an MOT. You write with a Biro instead of a ball-point pen. A multilane, divided highway is known as the motorway, not a thruway. All numbered motorways have an M in front of the name: the M40, the M25, etc. Lesser roads are known as A-roads or B-roads. The word cottage implies something out of “Hansel and Gretel” to an American, but a cottage in the UK could be anything from a four-room terraced house (attached to the neighbouring building) to a four-bedroom country home. British homes may have a front garden and/or a back garden, not a yard. The sidewalk is referred to as the pavement. The black material in the road is called tarmac. I could go on and on...

Part of the delight of living here is that every day brings surprises. The language is USED so differently. It's like a razor-sharp sword. British humour can be very crude (Remember Benny Hill, Monty Python, Mr. Bean?) or incredibly intelligent and witty (I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Not the 9 O'Clock News). Travelling around the country you can hear many regional accents and differences among social classes (unfortunately, still very evident). I am amazed by the practice of “Question Time” in Parliament where the Prime Minister has to respond to challenges each week from the opposition. They have to address each other as “The Honourable Gentleman”, but they hurl insults and cheer and boo across the house. At least there is healthy, open protesting by political opponents.

Perhaps it was the Liverpudlian accents of the Beatles whom I adored throughout my youth or my maternal grandmother’s Americanised Sheffield (South Yorkshire) accent, but I immediately felt at home when I first came to this country. No wonder it’s my adopted home. Change is good.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Celebrating Diversity

I teach in an international school in the London area. We have about forty nationalities among our students and faculty. The language of instruction is English, but we bring a broad range of perspectives and experiences to the work that we do here. The halls and cafeteria ring with the sounds of Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Danish, Chinese, Portuguese, Thai, Urdu, American, Canadian, British and many other languages.

In a previous unit in history class, the 8th graders had looked at factors which contribute to the identity of an individual or a country. They began to appreciate that they have been shaped by the customs, historical events, geography, economy, religions, language, traditions, foods, arts and goals of their countries.

In the last week they have begun a unit on Latin America with Mexico as a case study. This time, the uniting theme is diversity. The students decided that diversity means "difference". Instead of looking at all of Latin America as a single stereotype, they're looking for differences - in geographical features, resources, opportunities, histories, cultures, governments, economies, etc. Learning about Latin America is really a secondary goal.

It is this diversity which divides us as individuals and nations. But learning to accept, even celebrate these differences could go a long way towards solving our international problems. Unless we are able to accept that someone can be different from us, we will remain isolated by suspicion, judgement, misunderstanding and fear.

Students were asked to discuss what differences are easy to accept and which ones are not. Who cares if someone likes fish and another prefers chicken? Does it matter if one student likes hip-hop and another heavy metal? No, those differences were easy to ignore, but they acknowledged that it was more difficult to accept prosperity if you were poor, more difficult to accept another religion, and more difficult to accept clothing and behaviors which jarr against one's own culture.

We asked them to identify ways we currently honor our diversity - on a small scale - within our school. We host international foods day where everyone dresses in national costumes, mothers provide traditional foods and music from around the world plays in the background. It's a wonderful day where our differences take on real faces and we learn to appreciate, if not like, our differences. We acknowledge festivals and important holidays within our community. Some of our students fast for Ramadan. Classes came to a halt as we watched a procession of Scandinavian students singing songs and wearing white robes and a crown of candles for the Lucia festival.

There is a feeling of acceptance here, personal experience with real people from other cultures that drives away the judgement. When asked to identify how we can celebrate our diversity, they suggested visiting other countries and educational exchanges, passing laws to outlaw discrimination because of culture, encouraging education about other cultures. (Most Americans don't even own a passport. My students were stunned!)

These are our future leaders. It seems that our present ones could learn a lot from them.