Sunday, 15 October 2017

"I'm Glad I'm Not Black." - Parenting Race Issues when White and Ineffectual

Yesterday, my six year old daughter started talking to me about Rosa Parks. I'm not sure if this was something that had come up at school or if she had been reading the picture book we have about Rosa Parks, but she embarked on this conversation about how unfair it was to black people to be treated like that and how she would be like Rosa Parks and not give up her seat. And I went along with it, making agreeing noises and throwing in comments about being aware of injustices and standing up for those who need help... all very standard and a little trite.

And then my daughter said: "I'm glad I'm not black."

Obviously, in the context, I get what she meant. But it was such an awful thing to hear on so many levels, that I had no suitable reaction. It's a depressing acknowledgment that her life is easier because she's not black. It's horrible because it completely negates everything worth celebrating about black heritage and culture. And it's uncomfortable, embarrassing, because that's the kind of thing we're not supposed to say out loud. It's the kind of thing we're not supposed to feel.

As always when the children go off my parenting script, I rambled helplessly for a few minutes trying to tag off the key politically correct points. I talked about white privilege and how it was good to recognise that we had advantages because we're white but that doesn't make it bad to be black. I talked in very vague terms about how black people have a lot to be proud of, but of course I couldn't give any examples because I am a well-intentioned but ultimately insular white person who doesn't think well on her feet.

I remember what I talked about, but—crucially—I dont remember what I said, and I'm not convinced that my daughter understood any of it. I need to prepare, find a time to bring this topic up again and talk through it a bit with both children. In the meantime, it's another reminder of just how ineffectual we actually are when it comes to supporting equal rights.

PS In another fantastically uncomfortable parenting moment, my daughter started reading this blog over my shoulder as I typed, so we got to revisit this topic sooner than I expected. For the record, she's OK with me publishing the blog. I'm still not sure she understands what I mean about white privilege, but I'm a little happier about how I said it this time.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Irresponsible Adulting - A Palos Verdes Hike

As the kids get older, they're doing more things without us. Breaking the ties that bind and all that. On the flipside, this means we do more things without them. This is something I have to remind myself of: to do things without the children—to do things because I want to.

This was the motivation behind an impulse trip to Los Angeles this week. It was a chance to get together with a few online friends, which didn't really justify spending so many frequent flyer miles and hours of travelling for a day and a half. I've never even liked LA that much. But we've had a few trips this year that didn't pan out for one reason or another, so I wasn't passing up this opportunity. I was just going to have to find things I did like about LA.

I've always been a beach-lover, and the Pacific Coast is far more reminiscent of the British one than Virginia's shores. (Much of my growing up was done in Cornwall with its miles of clifftop paths.) Walking is my favourite form of tourism and exercise, but my less enthusiastic children usually limit me to three or four miles. Freed from any sort of consideration for others, I planned an itinerary based around the coast. For Thursday morning, I wanted to explore a bit of the Palos Verdes peninsula: stony beaches and sandy cliffs.

My vague plan was to get to the shipwreck, the SS Dominator, but as I was going at high tide, I knew I might not be able to reach it. I also knew that I didn't have suitable shoes—the internet was recommending sturdy hiking boots with ankle support, while I was packing sandals and thin-soled Vibrams. The shoes ended up being the problem rather than the tide. My pace was so slow that I didn't get anywhere near the shipwreck before I ran out of time. While I had planned a roughly seven mile round trip, I probably only covered about three miles after all.

Mildly Unsuitable Footwear
It was still worth it.

I started at Roessler Point with a detour: following the canyon trail down to pretty Malaga Cove where I watched paddle boarders gathering to make the most of a calm day.

Malaga Canyon
Paddleboarders from Malaga Cove
Malaga Creek reaches the beach
Then I headed back to the road, following it south and west and up as the cliffs rose higher.

At Flat Rock Point, there was an easy, gradual path down to the beach on the map. There was also an unmarked trail that appeared to lead straight down the point to the rocks themselves. Somebody had secured a rope at the top to assist travelers—I wasn't sure if I should find that reassuring or alarming. However, this looked far more fun than the well-traveled path, so down I went.

What could possibly go wrong?
Fortunately, the rope was secure, and the ground was mostly so. The trail itself stayed intact, but it was covered with loose sand and gravel, so with every step, I slid several inches. I should probably have changed from sandals to Vibrams before heading down it, but even with my grossly unsuitable footwear, I was able to get down with little difficulty. Still, I resolved to be a bit more responsible when choosing my path back up. Famous last words.

The tide was too high to get to the rocks the point was named after (I don't know if it's even possible at low tide), so I changed from grossly to mildly unsuitable footwear and set out along the beach only to find myself stranded at a little headland. As calm as the sea was, I didn't feel comfortable wading across slippery and shifting rocks to get around it, so it seemed my choices were to wait for the tide to recede or to go back the way I came.

No way out.
Too impatient for either, I studied the headland and decided I could probably climb it. It was maybe fifteen or twenty feet high, and the rocks were dry, 'grippy' and steep rather than vertical (or over-hanging). Plus, if something went terribly wrong, there was a guy at the top who would presumably contact the emergency services on my behalf.

The only thing to go wrong was a scraped leg, but there were a few points where I was reminded that I don't actually have the confidence for free-climbing and a few more where I was grateful that I do have small feet. I was also grateful to the guy at the top for passing no comment on this crazy woman who was scaling cliffs rather than coming down the nice, easy trail he had used.

Looking back the way I came.
At least I was able to follow the easy trail down to the beach on the other side of the headland and continue my trek.

I quickly realised that I did not have the pace to meet my goals. The stones would shift beneath my weight, so I was meandering lightly rather than striding with confidence (shoutout to the hardcore Californian who went blasting past me in flip-flops), and I had to watch my feet constantly. Periodically, I would remind myself to stop and actually look around at what I had come to see.

Nevertheless for two hours, I had the sound of surf in my ears, a stunning view whenever I wanted to look, and while I might not have found a shipwreck, there are always discoveries to be made along a beach.

Not sure what this started out as, but the ocean does wonderful abstract art.

Rock Graffiti
Thanks to whomever built this bench; it was a welcome rest stop.
Somewhere ahead, I knew there was a cliff path that ran down a drainpipe, and I had hoped to at least make it that far, but as it drew late in the morning, I consulted Google maps and found a closer route back to the cliff to finish out my hike. I felt grateful to modern technology until I started up this alternative trail and realised that Google has a very generous definition of 'footpath'.
Foot-path, all-fours-path... Eh. Close enough.
More loose sand and gravel, more searching for handholds... this was a harder trail than the one at Flat Rock Point, and now I had no rope to help me. I made it up, but I would not recommend this as a trail to go down. I'm also sure no Everest climber was more relieved to reach the summit than I. (OK. I'm not at all sure of that. But I had very strong feelings for that stretch of scrubby but level ground at the top.)

I was at the side of Nowhere Road by this point, but modern technology really did come through. All hail online taxi services! In ten minutes, I had a ride back down to sea level and onward to my hotel.

I've waited in worse places for a cab.
The way it turned out, it was just as well I had done it alone: I didn't have to worry about my slow pace holding anybody up, I'm sure any travelling companion would have thwarted my first attempt to leave the trail, and were the kids with me, I wouldn't have risked those climbs. Yet for all I'm an introvert who likes her solitude, I'm not really a solo adventurer. I missed having somebody to share the experience with. (This is probably why I'm committing it to blog.) 

I won't pass up a similar opportunity, even if I do have to fly solo, but the next few adventures will be with the family. I just need to remember to—every now and then—push for what I want over what they want.

Monday, 17 July 2017

How My Family Bonded over Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I usually reserve my posts for the socially approved stuff we do, because The Internet Judges, and I have to make sure Our Family Is Better Than Yours, or else why do I even have a blog?

However, the truth is that we are a nerd family. We parents grew up playing videogames and getting very into those videogames. So the Internet-reading mother side of me gets very anxious about screentime, while the geek side of me is all: "Omigosh, did you see the trailer for the new Zelda game?"

No, really. Did you?

Breath of the Wild came out to great reviews and great word of social media, so after a couple of months, we took the plunge and bought a Nintendo Switch so we could play it. (And the internet-parenting-one-upmanship side of me feels compelled to assure you all that this is the first games console we have bought in years.)

Prior to this, we had played Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword with the children, which had a game feature where you could teleport back to the home village at any time, giving the kids a safe area to play around in while their Dad fought his way through the main quest. Both children had got into the story as they watched Dad play the game, and they really enjoyed taking their own turns, even if they didn't do much more than mess around, maybe do a few side quests. All four of us went into Breath of the Wild as firm Zelda fans.

First off, Breath of the Wild is fantastic, whether as a stand alone story, as the latest installment of the Zelda franchise or as a gaming experience. It has a very open game mechanic / storyline, so while you begin the game with amnesia and are effectively guided through the first section by way of introduction, after that you are unleashed on a beautifully rendered fantasy world with only suggestions of where to go—and even if you follow these, you're soon left with a scavenger hunt of tasks that you may accomplish in any order.

Without restricting your exploration, the game still manages to unfold a compelling storyline, as you discover the events of your past in random order. Most of this revolves around the tragic figure of Princess Zelda, who becomes the best-developed character of the game despite being trapped in the castle for the entirety of it.

Secondly, this may be the best family game we've ever played. Dad was the only one of us with the nerve to take on the various monsters, but gradually we all started taking our turns to explore. As in Skyward Sword, you can teleport to somewhere safe at any time—but in Breath of the Wild there are multiple safe zones and these all have their own sidequests where you interact with the residents of Hyrule and discover their stories: some silly, some tragic.

It was thanks to the kids that we discovered what happens when you attack a Cucco three times. (Try it for yourself, then imagine that repeating for ten minutes straight and you'll understand how I suddenly became a lot stricter about limiting screentime.) The kids also proved to be astonishingly good at identifying the assorted flora, fauna and weapons in the game. "That's a Hearty Bass, Mummy! You can tell because it's blue."

My six year old daughter was a little young to fully engage with the game in the way we did. She generally wanted to spend her turn changing the appearance of the hero and/or his horse, but she also took care of the homeowner sidequest more or less by herself. My eight-year-old son was much more invested with the main quest and was full of suggestions for where to go and what to do next—he was also by far the most observant of us at spotting treasure chests. For both kids, the favourite character in the game was Hestu, and they can now perform his dance on command.

Beyond monster battles, a lot of the game advancement—particularly when it comes to making yourself stronger—is based on puzzles which we all worked together to solve. I loved the story of Breath of the Wild, and exploring different areas of the map was insanely addictive, but my favourite moments of playing the game were the whole family trying to figure out the various shrines. One person makes a suggestion, somebody else makes a connection, and suddenly the apparently impossible has an obvious solution. High fives all round.

There are few things that all four of us genuinely enjoy as a family. Getting to geek out together was very much a treat, and something that will give us in-joke fodder for months to come.

Anyway, while we still haven't finished exploring Hyrule (and will likely never finish finding those bloody koroks), we did complete the game this weekend. For the foreseeable future, I will try and assuage my Net-Mum-Guilt by going full "Fresh Air and Exercise!", but the actual, Who-I-Am-Mum side of me is really pretty damn satisfied with how we've spent the past couple of months.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

When Men Get Creepy, A.K.A. Why the Hell Do I Need to Explain This?

One of the new habits I've developed now the kids are older is taking the time to go for a solitary walk on the beach. We live two and a half blocks from the sea, and it's three miles from my door to the end of the beach, so it's a good way to get some exercise, fresh air and generally chill out. I don't do it every day, but I try and do it whenever the weather's good.

Of course, this is the first time in at least seven years that I've regularly gone out walking without children or my husband, and so I have rediscovered the fascinating culture of catcalling. I thought I'd aged out of this phenomenon, but I had underestimated the area in which we live. Ocean View is... special. It's usually not on the beach that I get the attention--there people are exercising themselves and their dogs, or they're fishing. However, walking along the road as a woman alone is a totally different experience.

Is there some level on which I'm flattered by the attention? I don't know. Maybe? I mean, I'm in my late thirties... sexual prime, right? I genuinely don't mind if a guy tells me that I look beautiful, but a lot of guys don't express it as a compliment; they want to show their interest. That might sound harmless, but it gets creepy really fast.

This morning, I left the house at what I thought was an innocuous time of 9:10am. When I reach the main road, I walk along it, watching for a break in the traffic so I can cross. On the far side of the road, a white pickup truck goes past with the driver blatantly staring out of his window at me. That's creepy. Annoying rather than concerning, but already creepy.

Ahead of me, the truck reaches the intersection and does a U-turn, stopping just inside the turn off--i.e. it's now on my side of the road and I'll have to go around the vehicle when I reach the intersection. Still creepy; now unsettling.

Thankfully, I had my break in the traffic and as the driver finishes his U-turn, I am already crossing the road. My route to the beach will take me down the other side of the intersection, directly opposite from where he is now waiting. This is a quiet dead-end road with no traffic, and I consider staying on the main road where there are plenty of people (witnesses) around. However, it's also a short road (this is the half-block), he can't curb-crawl me once I'm on the steps that lead over the dunes, and there will also be people on the beach itself.

Besides, he wouldn't be so blatant as to cross the intersection a second time to keep following me... right?

As I make the turn, a car honks. Might not have been the truck, but there aren't any other stationary drivers around. Halfway down the road, I hear a vehicle behind me. I do not turn around at this point, mostly because I fear that if I make eye contact, my innate Britishness will take over and I will feel compelled to have an unwanted conversation. But it's entirely possible that it's some other vehicle with a large engine that happens to turn into the road for the first time in my personal experience and come all the way down to the dead end.

I don't turn around, but I watch the steps over the dunes, reassuring myself that I will reach them in time. (I have a moment of genuine panic when I think they have been blocked off, but it's just a trick of the light.) The sound of the engine is far too close behind me, but what I'm really listening for is the engine being switched off and the sound of somebody getting out. Thankfully, that doesn't happen. I reach the steps, walk up them and away.

I didn't look around until I was on the beach. By this point, I fully expected him to follow me on foot, but apparently he'd reached his limit. I was still concerned that he might hang around waiting to see if I would come back. Usually, I leave my sandals on the beach side of the steps, and put them back on when I return. This time, I carried them with me and, although I doubted he'd wait the hour that it usually takes my walk, I took a different route off the beach.

Statistically speaking, I assume this guy was a particularly brazen opportunist who was hoping to get my number or maybe some fully consensual truck sex. But I don't know that he wasn't planning on hauling me into his truck and making me his personal sex slave in a basement somewhere. Call it Schrödinger's Rapist... and forgive me if I'm not going to hang around to open the box.

And that's the difference between being paid a compliment and being freaked the F out. That guy probably shrugged this morning off as a swing and a miss. Personally, I wanted to go for a relaxing walk without having to improvise escape plans as I went. Too much to ask?

Monday, 17 April 2017

Building our own Obstacle Courses

In Virginia, spring is the best season to be outdoors... not too hot, not too cold, and no mosquitoes. We spend most of the year guiltily cultivating a habit of hiding indoors, and when spring break rolls around, I make grand resolutions of spending more time outside.

Because we live in a flood zone, we've never invested heavily in outdoor play structures. We have a tree on which we've hung a swing and a hammock chair, but it's tough to hold the kids' interest, and if they do go out and play, they're more likely to go into the street than the garden. We live on a dead end, so the street's safe enough, but my British sensibilities are perturbed by the notion.

Inspired by a recent birthday party my son attended, I decided that the theme of this spring break would be obstacle courses in the garden. So it was that our first excursion of spring break was to Home Depot. We purchased three 8ft long 2x4's and six 8x8 concrete blocks, and came out with change from $20.

Once we got home, we built a balance beam:

It would never pass any health and safety requirements: the blocks were not stable on our tufty grass, so the whole thing wobbled and we had a couple of occasions where the wood slid off while the kids were walking on it—though at less than two feet up, this was more exciting than dangerous.

My priority was that the children could move all the materials themselves. It would be very simple to create different configurations, we just had to use a little imagination... and any other supplies we could rustle up. (Like a search for free logs on Craigslist. Or the wooden pallet which a neighbour serendipitously put out by the side of the road.)

Here's how the rest of the week went:

The beanbag/cushion stuffed hammock swing was really too light to be more than a mild inconvenience. However, if you replace the beanbag with a child, you have a wrecking ball with some punch and a fun game for the whole family!

Rubber bracelets and yarn handcuffed the children to one end of the rope. They had to make their way to the free end.

The see saws were my favourite.

Figuring out the route through a concrete block maze with just two portable 'bridges'.

Throughout the week, this experiment was a success. While the kids didn't always play on the day's obstacle beyond the first run, they stayed outside. The novelty of each day's extra feature, plus the gradual accumulation of accessories throughout the week seemed to be enough to spark their imaginations. They've also been using the swing and the basketball hoop more than they have in month.

For my kids at least, the balance beam was the biggest thrill. "Don't touch the grass, it's lava!" "Poisonous, spiky lava!" (Truly, the most deadly kind.) Their legs are covered in scratches and bruises, which they don't remember getting, and that's my favourite testament to the project's success.

What they haven't tried yet is to build their own courses. They find the rough concrete blocks painful to carry and have been satisfied with my daily constructions. But I'm done making those. The next step is to wait and see if they will still be excited to play outside, and if they are... what will they build for themselves? (And do I get a turn?)

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Picture Books are Awesome

I've just started getting my eight year old to read aloud to me in the evening to practice his speech. Every night we pick a different picture book, because they're short and lively. When he reads it, he has to make sure to "say all his sounds"... and to make it entertaining.

I had forgotten how much fun some of these books are to read out loud. Tonight's was The Pigeon Wants a Puppy by Mo Willems, where the pictures and text are so good at demonstrating emotion... after my son had finished his dramatic enactment, his six year old sister (still a new reader) wanted a turn. Then he re-did it so he could improve on his first go-round so of course she wanted an encore too. For the final curtain call, they insisted I read it with all the gestures they had come up with in their performances.

While I know the kids still revisit the picture book shelf, particularly my daughter who is fervently practising her reading at every opportunity, it had been a long time since I had picked anything up from it, and it must be close to a year since I read one. Tonight reinforced my decision to keep that shelf, no matter how old the kids get, and that's the recommendation I'd pass on to every other parent. There are so many picture books that are very cleverly written with a view towards reading aloud. Once upon a time, we got a huge kick out of reading them to the kids. Reading them to each other looks like it will be even more fun.

Some suggestions:

The Pigeon series by Mo Willem.
The Book with no Pictures by BJ Novak
We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss (this is a great two-person read)
Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson
Penguin Problems by Jory John and Lane Smith

Saturday, 21 January 2017

My Women's March

We had planned to go to Washington D.C. today. Not originally for political reasons... my husband had to go for work reasons, and we figured it was easy enough for us all to go. Once I realised our visit would coincide with the Women's March on Washington, I planned to join it, assuming it stayed peaceful enough to do with the kids.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of parents are not proof against a stomach bug going through the school. Instead, today, we are sitting around in quarantine, unable even to join our local Women's March.

So this is my virtual one. My little statement about what the Women's March meant to me: a chance to show women and anybody else who might feel marginalised, oppressed or intimidated by current politics that we still have our voices, we still have people who will listen.

Today, the President of the United States is somebody accused of being a sex offender (Wikipedia link) and a paedophile (Snopes link). These accusations are unlikely to ever be proven one way or the other, but the brutal truth is that they are entirely plausible based on the words from Trump's own mouth. (Telegraph link, New Yorker link, google it...) Yet this man can be elected to the office of a World Leader.

That's a discouraging message for all victims of sexual harassment debating whether or not to report it. It's a discouraging message for all women who want to be valued for their skills rather than their looks. It's a discouraging message for all women who want to look beautiful for beauty's sake and not for the approval of others. I hope the hundreds of thousands of people Marching around the world have countered that message with their own one of encouragement.

As far as I am concerned, President Trump's words and behaviour do not represent the country of which my children are citizens. He is not a role model for my son. And he sure as hell isn't allowed anywhere near my daughter.

I will close with a Women's March of a different kind, one more suited to our quarantined, housebound protest: a Women's March of Books (for children). Three of our favourites, all of which give a better message of strength, respect and equality than the political rhetoric from the past year.

Barnes & Noble links:
All the World
Star Wars graphic novel