Archive | Lifestyle

My New Year’s Resolution: Slow Living

Hello there. And Happy New Year!

It’s been a while since I forced myself to set some New Year’s Resolutions. The last time I did  it – at least publicly, on this blog – I not only listed the resolutions I’d set for myself that year, but offered some tips for keeping them. (And yes, I’m pleased to report that of the five that I put down that year, three of them  –  getting a job, eating less meat and seeing more of the U.K. outside London – have all been realised.) Still need to work on “being more romantic” and “easing up on my kids.” Sigh.

But I thought I’d do something different this year, which is to set a goal for myself that I hope others will also emulate: to begin to consciously practice slow living.

There’s an entire philosophy underpinning the slow living movement, which I’ve yet to immerse myself in. (For a great primer, check out Carl Honoré’s book and blog.) Here’s how he describes it:

It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace.It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.

I got wind of it through my husband, who happened upon this BBC Radio 4 special on slow living – featuring Carl himself – and recommended that I listen to it. (My husband and I have an ongoing I go too fast/you go too slow dynamic in our marriage, although in the last year and a half since we’ve both taken on new, incredibly busy jobs, I’d say that we both suffer from the “going too fast” dynamic.)

Revealingly, the first time I sat down to listen to the first segment of this programme, I found myself simultaneously paying bills, checking emails and shopping for post-Christmas bargains Online. In other words, although I recognised the value of forcing myself to listen to a programme about the virtues of slowing down, I couldn’t seem to find the time to slow down and actually listen to it. Exhibit A.

But then my husband suggested that we listen to it together, over coffee, one Sunday morning during the Christmas holidays. And so we did. And the more I listened to the three people featured in the BBC programme, all of whom desperately needed advice from Carl on how to slow down, the more I saw myself – or better put, versions of myself throughout the day: as wife, as mother, as worker – grafted onto their lives.

I won’t ruin the programme for you, which is well worth listening to. (Note: it’s on the BBC website for one more day, and the second part airs tomorrow.) But here are three actionable items I took away from it – the “learnings,” as we say at my office – which I hope to implement immediately:

1. Do something slow every day. It could be gardening. One guy on the programme takes up ironing. I myself made a banana bread today. It doesn’t really matter what you choose, as long as the activity allows you to perform a slow, repetitive motion that enables you to practice, physically, the art of slowing down.

2. Create larger spaces between activities. If you’re like me, you race around from activity to activity – especially those involving your kids – leaving yourself just enough time (if that) to make it to the next thing. You actually feel lucky if you manage to eek out an extra five minutes to run to the dry cleaner or return a library book. But one of the things Carl recommends is deliberately building more time in in between activities, to eliminate that feeling that you are always “just in time.” (Phew!)

3. Say no to one thing everyday. Of all the kernels of wisdom that I gleaned from this 30 minute segment on slow living, the one that must rung true for me was the piece of advice to “say no to one thing every day that you’d normally say yes to.” It could be coffee with a neighbour when you’re completely fried. It could be volunteering for that extra bake sale at the PTA. These days, for me, it’s usually something at work. Someone asks me to edit an article that isn’t technically part of my job. Someone asks me to go to a meeting that I don’t really need to attend. I’m given an impossible deadline but fail to ask for an extension. There’s something truly liberating in learning the word “No.” Try it sometime.

I don’t know about you, but all of this feels very right to me at this stage of my life, both personally and professionally. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What have you resolved to do differently in the new year?

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways Weddings Make You Feel Young

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve always loved weddings. When I was younger, I saw them as a giant, free party.

And I still do. But as I age – and move out of the wedding phase of life and into the era when everybody starts getting divorced – I don’t go to all that many weddings anymore.

So when I do – as I did some weeks back – they are a real source of rejuvenation for me personally.

There are the obvious reasons for this: true love, the pageantry, Pachelbel’s Canon etc.

But there are also other ways in which attending a wedding will give you an much needed energy boost. Here are five:

1. Dancing – I’ve loved the weddings I’ve gone to in a friend’s basement as much as the ones I’ve gone to that took over an entire hotel. At the end of the day, it’s all about the people. But I must say that if you haven’t gone out dancing in a while – (and let’s be honest, who does that after they hit 40?) – boy, is it fun to go to someone else’s dancing party. At the wedding I attended recently, there was a large age spread among the guests. So the DJ went out of his way to alternate a bunch of contemporary music – which brought out my teen-aged nieces and nephews – with some classic music that got the – ahem – older crowd out there.  I mean, seriously. Come On, Eileen followed by Twist and Shout? What’s not to love?

2. Drinking – I don’t know about you, but ever since I turned 40 I can’t drink more than two beers without getting a hangover. But sometimes it really is fun to throw caution to the wind, stock up on your migraine medicine, and get out there and belly up to the bar. (Especially when you’re partying with 18 year-olds…) I hate to say it but it *will* make you feel young again. (Until the hangover kicks in, anyway…)

3. Socializing – Yes, as I age I’m all in favor of hanging out in smaller groups. But once in a while it’s exhilarating to enter a room with 100 people and…mingle. At the wedding I went to recently, I spoke with friends from high school, relatives ranging from 3 to 83, and complete strangers. My favorite guest was one of my nephew’s friends, a 20 year-old guy who kept repeating the phrase “I’m just here to have fun” and became the Zelig of the entire event, appearing in every photo and dancing to every tune. I dubbed him “random party guy” and kept circling back to check in on him throughout the weekend.

4. Travel – One of the nicest aspects of weddings is that they often take you to places you’d never go otherwise. And that gives you a chance to soak up a different atmosphere, whether it’s the Deep South or a remote beach or a foreign country. Over the years, I’ve been to weddings in Birmingham,Paris, Cape Cod and Daytona Beach. And part of the appeal of each one was the chance to soak up the local culture. The wedding I went to recently took place on a vineyard on the North Fork of Long Island. I didn’t even know they had vineyards on Long Island but it was absolutely beautiful. (And helped out with #2, natch…)

5. Cake – I will not pretend otherwise that my favorite dessert on earth is wedding cake. If at heart you have the dietary preferences of an 11 year-old boy, it gets no better than this.

 

Image: Wedding Cake by THEMACGIRL via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Signs You’re Not “Settled In”

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

One British phrase I hear a lot these days is “How are you settling in?”

I get it with respect to my recent move. I also get it with respect to my new job.

And my answer, I fear, is “Not very well.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love our new flat. And while the job has been super-busy, it’s also very interesting and I’m learning a lot and getting terrific experience as a manager.

But “settled in?” Not hardly.

There are lots of reasons for this, but I think the main one is that a lot of the basic things I rely upon to give my life some semblance of order have been absent over the past couple of months. Which has caused me, in turn, to reflect upon what it is- exactly – that furnishes us with a sense of control over our day-to-day existence.

So here’s my list of what throws me off-kilter when it goes missing. I’d love to hear yours:

1. You lose your phone. It’s hard to imagine that there was a time not so long ago when none of us had a cell phone. We do so much on our phones now – from texting to scanning the news to mapping journeys to updating our status on Facebook – that they really have become an all-purpose gadget in the digital age. But  I don’t think you quite realize the degree to which you are dependent on your cell phone until you lose it or it breaks down, as mine did last week. Boy, was that an eye opener. Not only did the temporary phone the store gave me lack about half of my contact list, it was also a very primitive model, so there was no internet access/no weather/no Twitter/no bells and whistles/nothing. If you want to feel disoriented in five seconds flat, try texting someone  on a phone you don’t know how to work. Your text will look like a ransom note and you will suddenly feel like you have lost complete control of your life.

2. Your house is in disarray. Thanks largely to my husband, our move to a new flat this time around was about as smooth as it’s ever been. But as anyone who’s moved house regularly knows, there’s moving in and there’s moving in. We’ve done about 80% of the work now – the furniture is where it’s meant to be and the dishes are on the right shelves. But behind every sofa still lurks a pile of unhung picture frames and if you open any random drawer you are likely to discover a surfeit of random medical supplies. After my last move, I wrote a post about living with mess and coming to “radically accept” that unfinished feeling. But boy it ain’t easy.

3. You’re off social media. Granted, this one isn’t going to be as unsettling for some as it is for others. But if you’re used to being Online several hours a day for several years, to wake up and suddenly find yourself “somewhere else” during the day – in the dreaded “real world” – is profoundly disconcerting. In my case, adjusting to less time in cyber-space has been compounded by a glitch in my Seesmic account, which – for the non-initiated out there – is a fabulous, free software program that enables you to manage things like Facebook and Twitter all in one place. I’m still on Twitter and Facebook, but – as with the lack of my mobile phone –  I feel decidedly handicapped by the transaction costs entailed in using less sophisticated technology to access them. Simply put, I just don’t have all of my usual tools at my disposal.

4. You interrupt your exercise schedule. This is really key. For many of us – even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as particularly sporty – having some sort of exercise routine is a key way that we instill a sense of order and purpose into our weeks. In my own case, I’ve been pretty good for the last several years about running three times a week and doing yoga or Pilates on a fourth day. But since I moved and changed jobs, that’s all gone out the window. I’m still keeping up the running (more or less), but Pilates has virtually disappeared. And I’m feeling the consequences, both physically and mentally. I can’t afford to let this happen. Nor can my back. So until I resume Pilates, I know I’m going to feel off my game.

5. You lack a routine. When I took my new job, I negotiated that I would be part-time for the first two months and full-time thereafter. This decision was largely dictated by my imminent move and also by the fact that we didn’t have any childcare in place at the time. And while this arrangement has helped me manage both of those things, it’s also meant that I haven’t had much of a routine yet at work; some days I’m there a full day, while others I’m there only four or five hours. Some people groove on the lack of routine, but not me. Having no two days alike just makes me feel out of sorts and I actually think I’ll relax more once I’m there full time.

 

How about you? What kinds of things make you feel like you haven’t “settled in”?

 

Image: Cell Phone by JonJon2Kate  via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

 

 

 

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Secrets To Dinner Parties

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Once, when I was just out of college and living with three friends in Washington, DC, I told one of my friend’s mothers that my roommates and I were going to throw a party.

“Oh?” she asked. “What will you serve?”

I paused, unsure how to answer.

“Um…beer?” I said, finally.

What a difference twenty five years makes.

While I still love beer, I do believe that one of the hallmarks of adulthood is leaving the phase where beer and (if you’re lucky) chips will do and stepping things up a notch to more grown-up fare.

Which isn’t to say it’s easy. Although I resolved earlier this year to have people over to our house more often (and made good on that promise), it’s taken me a while to figure out how to entertain without finding it stressful. Because even though I’m fairly far out there on the extrovert spectrum, it does make me anxious to have to organise a meal for anyone other than my family.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that things have gotten easier in that department. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Less is more. As with so many things in life, less proves to be more. Once upon a time – partly for efficiency reasons (“I’m cooking anyway“)  and partly because I’ve always subscribed to the “the more, the merrier” school of thought -I would routinely have dinner parties of eight or more. Among other things, it just seemed more sociable. These days, in contrast, six is my maximum. And increasingly, having just one couple over is becoming the norm in our household. Not only is it a lot less work, but when you keep a dinner party small, you can actually talk to your guests and…egads!…listen to what they have to say. Try it. It turns out that having fewer people over to dinner is actually more fun.

2. Clear the decks. For a long time, I thought that the reason I found entertaining stressful was because I hated to cook. Turns out, I don’t hate to cook. I even, on occasion, find it therapeutic. What I found stressful was not having enough counter space to prepare the dishes. So while I was getting ready for the dinner party, I’d constantly feel like the party itself was closing in on me. It helps to have a large kitchen if you want to feel less hemmed in. But let’s face it, I live in London so that’s not happening. But even if you don’t have a large kitchen, if you can somehow manage to clear the counters of clutter before you start cooking – so that your cookbook (see below) isn’t balanced precariously on top of your mixing bowl – you’ll find that the whole thing is much more enjoyable, if not artful!

3. Get a good cook book. I’ve always admired my friends who could just stare at a bunch of random ingredients and whip up something delicious. But that’s just not me. Nor will it ever be. I have learned, however, the value of a good cook book over time. Having a few recipes which you know are a. doable and b. tasty takes a ton of stress out of meal preparation. A few years back, a friend of mine gave me a cookbook called How To Cook For Food Allergies, because of my son’s multiple food allergies. I cracked this book open one day and realized that it was a gold mine – not so much for him (he really doesn’t care what he eats), but for me. It’s chock full of absolutely fantastic, healthy recipes and I’ve been using it as my staple ever since.

4. Practice meals in advance. This ought to be a no-brainer, but I’ve been burnt before on many an occasion so I thought I’d share it with you. Unless you’re super-confident in the kitchen (and I think I can safely say that I’m not), you do not want your dinner party to be the first time that you try out a new dish. Rather, once you identify a meal that sounds promising, try it out on your family and/or spouse first and see how it fares. Sometimes things that sound great are real duds. Trust me.

5. Don’t make dessert. I love dessert. In fact, it’s my favorite part of the meal. But when you’re pressed, it’s hard to find time to prepare appetizers, entrées and desserts for 4-6 people. So even though I don’t mind baking, I usually buy my desserts in advance so that I don’t have that extra task hanging over me before a dinner party. Takes the pressure off.

 

How about you? What are your secrets for making entertaining less stressful and more fun?

 

Image: The Dinner Party by mapgirl271 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Upsides To Moving

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

So it looks like we’re moving again. Yes, I know that it’s only been two years. But our landlord passed away last year and her estate is now selling the entire building as a one- family home for a whopping sum of money that would make your head spin.

So we’re outta here…and soon.

I’ve mentioned before that for me, at least, moving is about as much fun as having someone stick a red poker in your eyeball. Or force you to slow dance to Wham!. In short: Pure hell.

One thing we’ve done right this time around is to begin the de-cluttering process early. For the last month or so, we have assiduously gone around the flat – room by room – and ruthlessly tackled every drawer, closet, box and bookshelf. Every weekend, I take our long out-of-use double bicycle stroller and make a pilgrimage, Fiddler On The Roof-style, to assorted homes, charities and libraries in the neighborhood to drop off a new of donations.

And just as the last time I did this, I discovered five ways to stay positive while you move, this time I’ve discovered an entirely new set of upsides to moving. Here they are:

1. You realize how little you need. Let’s face it. Most of us have way too much sh$%. So moving really is the perfect excuse to trim down to a lean, mean fighting weight. (I’ve been telling myself that my flat is now bulimic, purging at regular intervals. I know. It’s a terrible image. But so apt!) I’m quite keen on the whole tiny house movement, which argues that living small can be good both for our wallets and our carbon footprints. And since living large is not really an option for us here in London, we’ve embraced the idea of “small is beautiful” with open arms

2. You see how far you’ve come. Consistent with #1, one of the things you discover while de-cluttering are all the things you may have needed when you first moved somewhere, but no longer serve you anymore. In our case, as my husband was rifling through some box buried beneath the piano that I hadn’t even realized existed, he discovered an entire list of words that have a different meaning in British and American English. This was something he printed out nearly six years ago, just before our move to the U.K. I remember glancing at it at the time and thinking, “Really? They say diary to mean calendar and dummy for pacifier?” Now, I look at that list and note how many of the expressions are second nature, like saying that I am “called Delia” rather than “named Delia,” and that I’ll have you “round to ours,” rather than “I’ll have you over to our house.” And as I toss that sucker in the bin (whoops! there I go again!), I can feel a sense of satisfaction and pride.

3. You locate projects you really do want to tackle. But while one of the big joys of moving is learning that you don’t really need most of what you’ve stored away, occasionally you do come across something you really do value but had forgotten about entirely. In my case, that was books. While I’ve donated a ton of books to our local library during this move, I also found a few that I have always meant to read but never quite got around to, things like Alaa al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Dawn Powell At Her Best. Something to look forward to on the other end!

4. You get your children involved. In keeping with my ongoing resolution to do less for my kids, I have enlisted both of their services in this move. Whereas in past moves, I would surreptitiously creep into my daughter’s bedroom at night and, Grinch-like, and steal all of the toys that I didn’t think she needed anymore, this time I asked her to do it. And it worked so much better. She was surprisingly open to giving up things that she doesn’t use any longer and even took pleasure in rearranging her “desk” (top of bedside table where she keeps her most prized possessions.) She also spent an entire afternoon sorting our “crayon drawer” into pens, pencils, and markers and then putting them in tidy piles which then went into a box. (Clearly she doesn’t take after me. Ahem.) But I felt like the entire process was beneficial for both her and me.

5. You let go of one thing you hate. Every house or apartment has one thing you hate about it. It might be the broken gate leading out to the garden. Or the poor reception you get on your cell phone in the living room. Or a faucet that is forever leaky. We actually like our current flat just fine. But it is located at the top of a small hill that is about five minutes away from cafes and shops. And every day when I come home on the school run, I find that just as I begin that small ascent up to our street, I’m ready to stop. In other words, we live about five minutes further than I’d like to, ideally. That’s not something to give a house up over. But given that I’m leaving anyway, I’ve decided to zero in on it as a motivator.

What about you? What upsides do you find in moving?

Image: Charlotte Moving Company Moving Simplified – Sofa Moving via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Visit Argentina

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Well, I’m back from Argentina – the land that brought you Eva Peron,  the Tango, Gauchos and so much more. But before bombarding you with some of my choicer tales, both personal and political, from the journey, I thought I’d do more of a travel post to convince you why it might be worth your while to plan a trip there in the future, if you haven’t already been.

Because it’s truly a spectacular country and on this visit – unlike my previous trips there – I was actually able to get out of the capital city and see more of the countryside.

To wit, here are five reasons to visit Argentina:

1. The food. When I say “the food,” I really should calibrate this by saying “the meat.” It’s no secret that Argentine’s consume an inordinate amount of meat. (They have the highest per capital consumption of beef in the world.) It’s not at all unusual for them to have beef for lunch and dinner – sometimes even for breakfast too, for good measure! – and they have no concerns that this is at all unhealthy. So it was with some trepidation that I warned my husband – who fancies himself a Pollo-Vegetarian – that we would be consuming a lot of meat on our holiday and that there would be nowhere to hide. (Except pasta; because of their strong Italian heritage, Argentines also eat a lot of pasta.) But lo and behold! He loved it! Once our hosts started cranking up the asado (barbeque), he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Lamb, pig, cow – you name it. They really know how to prepare it in the most succulent ways imaginable. (Shame that my daughter announced mid-way through the first week that she was a vegetarian. I told her that little experiment in identity-formation would have to wait until January 1st.)

2. Tango. I’m sorry. I know that it may sound cheesy to some, but you simply cannot leave Argentina without seeing a Tango. You don’t need to go to one of the over-priced dinner-theatre “shows” in central Buenos Aires to do this. We saw our first Tango on a square in the middle of the Capital’s artsy San Telmo neighborhood one afternoon, and the second one performed by my friend’s 78-year-old parents in in her living room on Christmas Eve. There is something utterly captivating about the intricacy of the footwork, the dramatic flourish of the music and the smoldering, sexy undercurrent of the dance itself. Have a look.

3. Glaciers. After a week in Buenos Aires, we headed South to Patagonia. (While you’re there, get a hold of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Great travel partner.) I’ll be honest. I’d never given much thought to Patagonia before, beyond the odd nod to those super-cosy, colorful fleeces we all don. But Patagonia is also home to the most amazing Glacier National Park. I’d seen glaciers years ago in the United States and Canada, and I thought they were pretty cool. But those paled by comparison. The glaciers in Patagonia were unbelievable – each one had its own shape and character – personality almost- and extended on for miles. If you were lucky, you could witness a small piece crumble, break off and fall into the water – adding to the pool, which was truly spectacular.

4. Penguins. Even further South lies Tierra del Fuego, the self-described “end of the world.” We took a boat from the city of Ushuaia to check out some penguin colonies, along a route once traveled by Charles Darwin himself. (Thank goodness all that seventh grade social studies finally came in handy!) Particularly cool – if you ever make it this far South – is the Museo Akatushun on the Estancia Harberton, a working museum/laboratory on one of the little islands along the Beagle Channel where they dissect and display marine wildlife from the region. Check out the bone house – an olfactory wonder!

5. Psychoanalysis. I read somewhere not so long ago that Argentina has more psychologists per capita than any other country in the world. So when my good friend there suggested that I take my eleven year-old to see an analyst to deal with his asthma, I had to smile. My own view is that my kid probably needs a new inhaler rather than a shrink, but I love the fact that people there are so open to and open about therapy. God knows they could they use some of that up here in the U.K.

 

Image: Glacier Upsala by Médéric via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Signs You’re A Grown Up

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

An old friend phoned me from the States a few weeks back. We got to chatting about our lives: work and families and kids and all the stuff you catch up on when you only talk to someone every six months or so.

And then, at one point in the conversation, we started talking about how – despite being in our mid-40s – we still don’t feel entirely settled. We both still have a sense that adulthood – whatever that is – is waiting right around the corner…along with a fully mapped out career, an entirely stable sense of self (and some good, sturdy walking shoes tossed in for good measure.)

“I mean look at my sofas,” she said at one point. “I still use tapestries to cover the stains on my sofas.”

I knew exactly what she meant. Lately, whenever I go in to tidy up the living room, I find myself using a throw someone gave us as a wedding present 13 years ago to cover up the rips in the upholstery on our own (hand-me-down) sofa.

And I think to myself: when am I going to buy some grown-up furniture? You know, the kind you can properly entertain with?

Probably round about the time that I start taking vitamins daily and reading the Wall Street Journal for stock tips.

To wit, five signs you’re a grown up:

1. You no longer hang tapestries on your sofa. Or hang tapestries period. Definitely a hold-over from graduate student days.

2. You serve something other than beer at dinner parties. Speaking of graduate school, another friend of mine asked us over to her house for drinks recently. “Sorry,” she apologized. “We’ve never really figured out how to entertain properly. It’ll just be beer and crisps (potato chips) I’m afraid.” Hey, I love beer as much as the next gal. But I knew just what she meant. I, too, have never quite mastered the art of the dinner party/cocktail party: what to serve/where to seat people/how to link the courses together. Some people make it look so easy…and fun. Whereas I find myself ducking for cover under the (delicious) lasagna from a local deli and still manage to get stressed out.

3. You commit to a forever house. This is a biggie. And one that’s been on my mind quite a bit lately as my husband and I try to decide whether to carry on renting or suck it up and buy a place. As I wrote in an earlier post on this topic, there’s something quite daunting about the prospect of home ownership, at least for me. And not just in the financial sense. But in the psychological sense of actually committing yourself to living in one place…for a long time…without one foot out the door. The beauty of renting is that you know that if you changed your mind tomorrow, you could always leave. And I find that possibility of movement deeply reassuring (if not entirely mature).

4. You respond when someone calls you “Mom.” One friend confided to me that even after her son was two years old, she still found herself looking around in befuddlement whenever he addressed her as “Mom.” (Who me? What’s a Mom? Is there a qualified adult in this house?) Once again, I think we’ve all been there, at least those of us who are parents. Even as your kids get older, you sometimes look at yourself and think: “How can I possibly be called upon to give advice in this situation?” “What on earth do I know?” “Why don’t you ask a grown up…whoops, I mean…”

5. You don’t send naked pictures of yourself over the Internet. At least if you’re a politician. Just sayin’…

 

Image: my old loveseat by joshleejosh via Flickr on a Creative Commons license

Cleaning Up After Your Dog: Welcome To Adulthood

It would seem, on the face of it, to be another one of those cardinal sign posts of adulthood: cleaning up after your dog.

After all, it’s the very first thing we teach our kids when we give them a pet, isn’t it?

“Now, honey. If you want to have a pet, you need to learn to be responsible for it. You need to walk it. You need to feed it. You need to clean up after it.” Right?

So why is that basic lesson seemingly lost on so many adults?

Or maybe it’s just here in London where I live. As I ranted a few weeks back upon returning from the pristine, dog-poop free streets of Berlin, many Brits just don’t seem to get the whole dog mess thing.

A few statistics to back that claim up. According to Keep Britain Tidy, in 2008 the UK dog population was estimated to be 7.3 million, with dogs producing approximately 1,000 tonnes of excrement each day. In a recent survey of over 19,000 sites, dog fouling was present in over 8% of these sites. The highest level of dog fouling can be found in areas where people actually live.

It’s not because there aren’t plenty of signs around telling you to clean up after your dog. There’s even a 50 pound ($75) fine for not doing so, which can go as high as 1000 pounds ($1500) if you need to go to court.

But how do you enforce that penalty, short of cycling around Hampstead Heath and chastising random strangers when they let their dog crap all over the place? (Trust me: I’ve tried it. One lady responded “Oh, I didn’t see it.” Um….excuse me, lady, but isn’t that precisely *why* we take our dogs out in the first place?)

Please know that this is not an anti-pet rant on my part. (I’ve actually grown more fond of pets lately, at least cats, ever since that crazy lady up in Coventry casually tossed one in a bin.)

This just seems like a matter of civility and community…not to mention public health. (Read this charming little explanation of all the lovely diseases you can get from dog poop, even long after it has disintegrated.)

But unfortunately, it does rely on establishing a set of norms around this practice, and I’m just not sure how one goes about inculcating a culture of cleaning up dog mess.

In my old house, I lived in what’s known as a Mews, which is somewhat akin to a courtyard. Every day for a two month period, some person (not one of us) was apparently getting up really early in the morning, taking their dog for a walk, letting it poo right in front of our Mews and then leaving it there. The amazing thing about this little period in our lives was that the dog did his business in *the very same spot* – literally – every day. For two months. It was absolutely outrageous.

It really bothered all of the residents of the Mews and we talked about setting up a patrol to bust this person in the act, even if that required creating shifts to man the watch tower at all hours of the day. But we never got that far.

Because a 90-year old resident of our Mews – literally, someone’s Grandmother – took the law into her own hands. One night she got out some chalk and went and circled all of the poop left by said dog. And then, in huge capital letters, she wrote the following: “Shame on you! Naughty Dog! CCTV is watching you! We know where you live!”

And just like that, it stopped.

Granny’s tactics might seem a bit draconian to some, but I think she had it just right. And – tellingly – there’s actually a town in Buckinghamshire that’s using high-tech surveillance techniques along highly trafficked dog walking routes to film dog poop offenders in the act and then follow them home and bust them. (Interestingly, the person who developed this surveillance method previously used it on cheating spouses. Yikes!)

But I’ve got another idea. You know that whole Great Society thing that David Cameron and Co. are actively pushing as the signature initiative of their new administration? It’s all about volunteerism and civic virtue and getting citizens taking over some of the things that local government previously did for them.

To which I say, Hooray, Boys. And here’s your first charge: let’s develop a citizen’s brigade to go out and clean up our streets and free them of dog feces. It ain’t pretty, but somebody’s got to do it.

I know I’ll raise my hand.

*****

I was over on Politics Daily yesterday talking about the latest egregious human rights abuses in China. Have a look…

 

Image: no dog poop by monicamuller via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Visit Germany

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I spent last week in Berlin. And as I often do upon returning from a foreign country, I thought I’d devote today’s post to sharing some insights I had about my trip.

(Warning: these won’t be nearly as exotic as those I gleaned from Helsinki. Nor will they smack of the acute nostalgia I felt upon returning from Vienna.)

But they will, I hope, motivate you to go and visit Germany, and especially Berlin. Here are five reasons that it’s a worthwhile trip:

1. Germans grapple with their history. Berlin is a city where you literally can’t walk for five minutes without bumping into some reference – whether physical, historical or cultural – to World War II, the Holocaust or Adolph Hitler. They’re everywhere. They’re on the sidewalks. They’re in the museums. They’re in the book stores. It’s as if the country – and this city, in particular – is wearing a giant sign that reads: “We will not forget.” And while my six-year-old did confess at one point to being a bit “Hitler-ed out,” that’s a good thing, in my opinion. We can’t remember enough.

4. You see the East-West divide in a whole new light. Much like the Holocaust, the whole East-West divide in Berlin figures front and center in the city’s layout and architecture. It is, quite simply, impossible to miss. Because of a friend here in London who’s from East Berlin, I’d already begun to re-think the standard Western narrative about East Germany before I arrived. But what’s nice about actually going to Berlin is that you get to see both sides of that story, and not just the “Gee, isn’t a shame they lived under Communism for so long” thread. In this vein, particularly worthwhile – and especially for kids – is a visit to the DDR Museum (Museum of East Germany).

3. Germans clean up after their dogs. From the sublime to the ridiculous? Perhaps. But it bears mentioning, especially if you live in a country like I do (the U.K.) where dog poop is, quite simply, everywhere. In the four days before departing on our trip – and I’m not exaggerating here – everyone in our family – all four of us – stepped in dog poop. (To add insult to injury, I did so again this morning while taking my daughter to school). And we allegedly live in one of the “nice” parts of town. It’s actually unfathomable how little people attend to their dogs here. Whereas in Germany, this whole issue was blissfully absent. And yes, this is going to be my next rant against living in England – which I’m otherwise quite fond of – (right after I finish a tirade against the dearth of paper napkins.)

4. Germans follow the rules. I’ve never seen a country where people are so attuned to following rules. No one cuts in line. (Trust me, we tried.) If the carry-on luggage rules say that your bag can’t be larger than 30 x 20 x 15 cm, sorry, but your 32 x 21 x 18 wheelie bag just won’t cut it. The museum guards actually watch you when you walk too closely to the paintings or graze the wall with your backpack (rather than chatting or sleeping as they do in the States.) And even if it’s three a.m. and there’s no oncoming traffic, a German wouldn’t dream of crossing the street when the light wasn’t Green. Obviously, this attachment to rules can be irritating – if not dangerous – when taken to an extreme. (See point #1 on Nazis.) But as a parent of two quite headstrong kids, I can definitely see a rationale for summer camp in Germany.

5. Germany has delicious Turkish food. I’m not a huge fan of sausage. (As a friend of mine put it bluntly, there’s something profoundly unappetizing about chopping up a pig’s innards into little bits and refashioning it into a phallus.) So German food will never do it for me. But Germany has a large Turkish population. And, boy, did I have the most delicious kebab in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin.

*****
I’m over on www.PoliticsDaily.com today talking about a new study arguing that alcohol is the most dangerous drug in the U.K.

Image: Scoop The Poop by teaeff via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Lessons Of Adulthood: The Art Of Non-Conformity

Re-entry is always difficult.

This is true whether you’re going back to school after a long summer vacation, going through your mail when you’ve been gone for a while or – as in my own case this morning – sitting back down to work after taking a week off to travel with my family.

Imagine my delight, then, when I opened up the International Herald Tribune and happened upon this gem. It’s an article by Alice Rawsthorn, the New York Times‘ design columnist, in which she sings the praises of grinding and brewing your own espresso over and above resorting to the dreaded pod espresso machines of Nespresso et al. (The indisputable allure of George Clooney notwithstanding, natch.)

I loved this article for so many reasons. For starters – as erstwhile readers of this blog will know – our own hand-brewed espresso machine holds a hallowed place within our home. As I said to my husband – who taught me to know and love what it is to brew your own coffee – this was an article that was – quite literally – written for him.

Rawsthorn has many reasons for taking a principled stance against automated espresso machines. They’re boring. They’re ugly. They’re environmentally questionable. (Turns out it’s really hard to recycle all those tiny sealed containers.)

But the main reason she rails against them is that they suppress variety, experimentation and – yes – inconsistency. Part of the joy of grinding your own espresso, she argues, is precisely that you never quite manage to brew the same cup of coffee twice. And therein lies the fun – and true beauty – of doing it yourself. It’s the ultimate act of personalizing your consumption.

Which brings me back to my week away from this blog. We spent the week in Berlin, one of those über – (no pun intended) – European cities. While we were there, one of the many museums we visited was the Bauhaus Archive, a museum devoted to the Bauhaus school of design.

For those of you who missed that chapter in 20th century intellectual history (I did) – the Bauhaus movement was a school of modern art and architecture that sought to fuse the gap between art and industry by sublimating “art” in the romantic sense to the exigencies of 20th century technological progress. This school of thought was urban, minimalist, and sought, above all, to privilege functionality in design (so well captured in its motto, “Form follows function.”) In many ways, it was the aesthetic movement that paved the way for mass consumption.

With its hyper-utilitarian streak, the Bauhaus movement sought to hide the messiness of artistic creation – its flourishes, its sentimentality, its “coffee grinds” if you will. And while that yielded some really cool buildings and furniture (click here for some iconic Bauhaus chairs), the overall feel was one of clear lines and uniformity of purpose, if not form. (Read Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House for a particularly trenchant treatise on this point.)

Which is a long way of saying that as with architecture, so too with espresso machines:  sometimes the beauty of adulthood lies in that which is unpredictable and highly personal.

Which is also why – as I stood there grinding my highly messy-yet-original espresso this morning – I decided that today’s re-entry wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Image: Bauhaus Dessau by Mark Wathieu via Flickr under a creative commons license.

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