Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Art Of Positive Thinking

Captain Underpants, "Mum...I think it's going to rain..."

Me, "C'mon on now, Captain Underpants...let's think positive shall we?"

(Short pause)

Captain Underpants, "Okay mum.  I'm positive it's going to rain."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

NHS: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

This morning my sister and I should be waking up to this:

Instead we are still ensconced in North London.  Not fair.  But at least it's not rainy.  GOT to look for the glass half full, got to look for the glass half full...(said through fairly gritted teeth).

We were due to fly to Malta yesterday for a 4 day break.  Ex and AG are over to stay with the boys for 5 days and I had planned to gallivant off to the island where I was born and lived until I was 3 years old.  I don't have personal memories of living there, but watched so many cine films growing up and saw so many baby pics, that those 2D snapshots created perfect memories for me to adopt as my own.  For some reason I have never got around to revisiting before, although always planned to.  Now was perfect timing.  Or so I thought.

The universe thought otherwise.

Goddamn you universe and your wicked, wicked ways.

Last week the household shared a communal cold.  No big deal.  Happens all the time in a generous, sharing household such as ours.  None of us thought anything of it.  Maybe it did cross my mind that diving might not be an option if my sinuses continued to play up, but I dismissed that thought as too negative to even contemplate.  Of course I would be going diving.  Positive thinking Nicola! This cold is going to clear in no time.

On Thursday I noticed my eyesight was a little blurry, as though I was trying to peer through a permanent fog.  Odd and a little disconcerting.  Friday morning I was woken by the boys at 5.15am and it was as though my eyeballs had been doused in acid.  The pain made me want to physically scratch them both out with my fingernails.  I could barely make out my own hand in front of my face.  Needless to say, I panicked.  Just a little.

Thank God for my sister - Florence Nightingale reincarnated in a pair of Gap pajamas.  She called NHSDirect while I lay on my bed, crying in pain and fear.  She coraled the boys into clothes, called a cab and we hotfooted our way to the nearest A&E department at the Whittington Hospital.

Nicola's Public Health Service Advice #1: If you are ever in need of emergency medical assistance DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT bother with the A&E department at the Whittington Hospital.

For a start, the place was deserted except for a couple of security guards having a cup of tea in a side office and a homeless man curled up asleep/comatose on 3 chairs in one corner.  I was in full panic mode at this point.  The pain was excruciating and I was terrified I was losing my sight.  My sister was desperately trying to source some help, while I moaned and sobbed in a heap on a chair, but nobody appeared.  The boys were leaping around the waiting room as though it was their own personal race course/play centre, which didn't help to create the aura of calm, medical professional efficiency we were seeking.

We were there for nearly 30 minutes before a nurse deigned to turn up.  Thirty minutes of me carrying on like a woman semi-possessed and my sister banging on glass partitions and striding about corridors screetching "What is it going to take to get some bloody emergency help around here???  For God sake, my sister is in agony and needs someone to help her NOW!".

The nurse, when she arrived, was worse than useless.  Hardly spoke any English.  Led me, blindly, to a room down the corridor and then left me there, alone and unable to see a bloody thing, for another 15 minutes.  She returned with a saline drip to rinse out my eyes, which became a farcical exercise.  She disappeared again.  After another 10 minutes I stumbled down the corridor, practically on my hands and knees, to find my sister and the boys.  "Use the iPhone - let's find a specialist or something and get out of here.  Find someone that can actually help me."  I begged her.  Moorfields Eye Hospital.  Of course!  And they had an A&E department.  Perfect.  We told the nurse sitting at another reception desk around the corner that we were leaving to try to find specialist help and she barely registered our existence.  "Whatever", was her only response.  Her abundant care and concern was reflected by the casual and dismissive manner in which she turned the page of her Grazia magazine.

I was past the point of despair at this point and could scarcely believe that this had been our experience.  I was desperate to get some help, having never been in this much pain before and, in typical Nicola Drama Queen fashion, was truly terrified that my eyesight was going to be permanently damaged.  I stood on Archway Road with the sensation that my eyes were trying to burn their way out of my skull, while my sister tried to hail a cab to no avail.  We staggered to the Tube, while my sister did her best to both guide me and keep both boys under control.  At this point it is rush hour.  Hundreds of people jostle past us, although once on the train a very kind man leads me into his seat and I pull Captain Underpants onto my lap and bury my head into the back of his sweatshirt.  God knows what all the commuters thought of me, moaning and crying.  I must have looked quite deranged.  I didn't care.  I felt deranged.  I just wanted to get some help to make the pain go away and couldn't believe we were having to go to such lengths to get it.

We finally stagger into Moorfields Eye Hospital and our experience is instantly transformed into one of infinite medical care and efficiency.  I am seen within seconds of a walking through the door, even though the waiting room is full to the brim at 8am in the morning.  Anaesthetic eye drops are administered immediately.  The relief from the constant pain is indescribable.  I could snog the nurse in gratitude.  She is an angel.  Within another few minutes my eyes are assessed for potential chemical damage, which is negative.  I am assessed by three different nurses, who are calm and incredibly sympathetic, yet reassuring.  A very kind friend, with two boys of her own, offers to look after the boys (who, at this point, are leapfrogging the waiting room chairs then running sprint relays up and down the hospital hallway, blatantly disobeying repeated orders from my sister to behave in anything resembling a calm and orderly manner).  They depart and I wait to see the consultant, still half convinced that my eyesight (or lack of it) is damaged beyond repair.

It's not.  It's all going to be fine.  I had a severe viral infection which spread from my sinuses to my eyes. I have various lotions, potions and eyedrops to lubricate my eyes for the next 4-8 weeks, which is how long it is going to take the infection to heal.  48 hours later and my eyes feel relatively fine.  Certainly fine enough to be sitting on a sun lounger or mooching around historic relics on a Meditarranean get-away.  *sigh*   The timing of my most recent of medical escapades was poor, to say the least.

But not as poor as my experience at the Whittington Hospital.  Which pains me a little, because I have always been a great defender of the NHS.

When I lived in Birmingham for 6 months, in 2006, I received excellent care from my local doctors surgery.  It was beyond anything that I had experienced in Chicago, from the time and attention I was given to the knowledge and care I benefited from.  In addition, Captain Underpants has a mild blood clotting condition called Von Willebrand Type 1.  This was diagnosed in Chicago, however the specialist in Birmingham was the first to insist that the whole family was tested and Captain Underpants was added to a national database, to ensure his medical condition is on the record in the whole of the UK.  Yet again, the level of care and efficiency was impressive and beyond that which we received in the US.

When I returned to the UK in December I registered with the local practice and passed on the medical notes concerning my Melanoma diagnosis and treatment.  I was referred to  a specialist dermatalogist at the Whittington Hospital and an appointment was set up within 2 weeks.  The consultant I saw was amazing.  My case was going to be referred to two other consultants in the hospital, including an oncologist, and I would be seen and assessed every 3 months for a minimum of two years to ensure I remained cancer free.  Yet again, this surpassed the medical care and treatment that I had paid through the nose for in Chicago.  When the consultant was closely scanning my body for other suspicious mutant beauty spots, she discovered a lump in my groin, which I was pretty certain had been there for a year or so and, as it was painless, I had thought nothing of it.  I was referred for an ultrasound scan.

I went for the scan within a matter of weeks and yet again, was impressed with the diligence and expertise of the radiologist I encountered.  He performed a multitude of scans, then took the time to talk me through his findings, reassuring me that he found nothing out of the ordinary.

Overall my experience has been that the level of care available in this country is definitely on a par - if not exceeding - that which I enjoyed in the US.  Even given the dismissive - verging on negligent - nature of medical assistance I received at the Whittington's A&E department, I remain a huge fan of the NHS.

Although the gaps in the system are a little more apparent through my rose tinted spectacles (...the contact lenses are unfortunately out of commission for at least the next 2-4 weeks).

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Better Quality of Life? Not Necessarily...

One of the things most British people assume is that you can enjoy a much higher standard of living in the US.

Most Americans also typically take this for granted.  I have had total strangers in Chicago guilelessly tell me, "Wow, from England?  I bet you are really enjoying a much better life over here, aren't you?"  One person even had the gall to ask, "Tell me, did you have showers where you came from?"  (I kid you not, I was actually asked that on one occasion - the person in question then went on to tell me they had a friend in England who only bathed once a week, so they assumed this applied to everyone due to the water shortages in the UK.  Far be it from me to tell this person that they obviously had very dubious, pikey friends and were slightly misinformed about a) the British water reserves and b) the hygiene equipment/habits of the entire nation.)

I am not about to launch into a USA bashing tirade here, but I have to tell you that, in my experience, a lot of this superior standard of living nonsense is just that.  It is pure myth and conjecture.  I think it is compounded by the fact that many Americans are far more patriotic than we are and are led to believe that things are, in general, bigger and better in the US than anywhere else in the world - and many Brits love any excuse to diss their own country and believe the grass to be greener in other countries, but particularly America.

Now I know I lived in an American city, rather than a suburb, which can be more expensive overall.  My rent, for example, to live in a 3 bedroom apartment in a nice part of Chicago is the same as the rent that I pay to live in a 3 bedroom house in a salubrious part of North London.  However, my utility bills in Chicago were far higher.  I typically paid $300 per month for gas and electricity (which is equivalent to £200 in the UK, roughly).  This would be higher if it was an extremely cold winter (it costs a bomb to keep a house warm when external temperatures are constantly below freezing for months at a time) and/or a very hot summer, when air conditioning was essential.  It wasn't unusual in harsh winters to receive at least one monthly gas bill that was as high as $400 or more.  And this was for an apartment.  Having this information to hand was a foolproof way to shut my dad up every time he whinged about his heating bill (which even for a 5 bed detached house in the UK was a fraction of the cost).  My combined utility bill in the UK is approximately £100 per month, which I know isn't cheap but still, for me it represents a significant saving.

My mobile phone costs were typically $150 a month, which was partially due to a small proportion of texts and calls going to and from the UK.  However in comparison I have been able to get a plan in the UK which gives me 3,000 minutes of talk time specifically to/from the US for an additional fee of £10 a month, with unlimited texts.  As a result my mobile bill is less than half that I paid in the States, with far more International communication.

I also paid a huge premium for my cable TV, mainly because I became addicted to the quality programmes being shown on HBO and SHOwtime in particular, who aired Nurse Jackie, The Big C, Entourage, Episodes, The Wire, Weeds and United States of Tara to name but a few.  I have no need to pay this premium in the UK because all of the aforementioned shows are aired on non-subscription channels and therefore don't cost me a penny (apart from the licence fee of course - but again, peanuts compared to what I was paying - my cable TV and broadband bill would average out at $175 a month, here I pay £50 a month which is equivalent to $80).

When my ex and I separated and I started to research life as a divorced single mum in the States, I was horrified to learn how my finances were going to be penalised if I stayed in Chicago.

Ex and I mediated a fair maintenance/child support sum.  If I had stayed living in Chicago I would have been expected to pay taxes on that income.  My ex, however, would have received a tax exemption.  This would have increased his net income and decreased mine, by approximately 20%.  In the UK, however, the maintenance I receive is completely tax free.  Not only that but I also receive Child Benefit (although who knows for how much longer) plus Child Tax Credit from the government.  So the UK is not taking any of my income away in taxes...but instead giving me more money for free.  Bizarre.

In addition, both myself and the boys also qualify for NHS medical and dental treatment in the UK.  This is HUGE.  In Chicago, once divorced I would have had to pay medical insurance for my own coverage, which would have cost hundreds of dollars a month.  This would not have entitled me to free medical care, however.  I would still have had to pay between $20-$60 each time I visited a doctor (known as a co-pay) and then a percentage of the total medical bill itself.  To give you an example, when I was diagnosed with melanoma I was still officially married and was therefore still eligible to use my husband's insurance.  The total cost of my treatment over 6 months was $10,000 - and I was responsible for paying 10% of that cost, $1,000.  In addition I also paid an additional $200 in co-pays each time I attended a consultative/surgery appointment.  I really struggled to pay that $1,200 and am just relieved that I didn't need further treatment, which would have pushed my costs even higher.  In the UK my follow up costs and any subsequent treatments will not incur any expenses, apart from bus fare, for which I am incredibly grateful.

There are so many more examples.  Having a baby in America, for example, is another very expensive exercise.  I don't know how most people afford to do it.  A 'normal' pregnancy and birth typically costs $4,000 in ob/gyn fees, of which you are liable to pay at least 10%.   I wasn't fortunate to have normal pregnancies or births and our medical costs were a lot, lot higher.  Thankfully our medical insurance capped our out-of-pocket payments to $2,500 per family member a year.  Which is just as well, because in the space of 12 months Captain Underpants and I wracked up a total of nearly $300,000 in medical costs.  Paying the $5,000 that year was challenging.  Paying $30,000 would have been catastrophic.  As you can imagine, as well as stressing over the pregnancy and then our newborn baby's health, it was hard not to stress over all the bills we were incurring.  Costs that simply would not have been demanded of us if we had been living in the UK.

There was also no such thing as a free weekly mother and baby clinic and in my area all the mother/infant activities were very expensive.  Baby massage / Gymboree / sing and sign / baby swim typically cost between $18-$25 per session.  It just wasn't affordable to participate and I ended up spending far too much time at home, alone with my baby, feeling absolutely miserable.  It was winter in Chicago - going for a walk with the buggy wasn't really an option.  I struggled to meet other new mums and became very isolated.  Friends back in the UK were enjoying social events with their newborns for a lot, lot less.  I was envious of how easy it seemed in comparison.

Once the boys were older it was depressing to realise that there were no subsidies for nursery care.  Both boys went to a Montessori nursery 3 days a week, while I was working, which cost $1,600 a month (aka pretty much my net income).  Once school started there was the obligatory extra-curricular activities and then summer camp to factor in.  I did keep the boys out of summer camp one year.  This turned out to be a Bad Decision, because I hadn't accounted for the fact that every single one of their friends were attending camp, so in effect they had no-one to play with.  Except me.  Joy.  I saved myself approximately $800 a week that summer in camp fees (the summer holiday was 9 weeks long)...but would rather go into serious debt than repeat that exercise a second time.

I could go on and on with other examples relating to my particular circumstances of life in the US vs. the UK.  And these are the financial examples only.  Factor in personal examples - being able to access your family and friend support network for example - and the standard of living argument, for me, starts to flounder even more.

That's not to say that living in America doesn't have its plus points and advantages.  It does.  I am very grateful that I had the experience of living there and wouldn't change that for anything.  But if we are comparing apples to apples, and you are asking me my opinion based solely on my experience, then it's not necessarily a superior quality of life after all.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Petit Menagerie

The boys are a chip off the old block where animals are concerned.  If they had their way we would live in a slightly smaller version of Whipsnade Zoo.

Johnny Drama is particularly intent on having a pet(s) that he can call his own.

So last week, in an act of apparent desperation when his pleas were falling on deaf ears, he adopted a dragon fly.

A dead dragon fly.

Which he has called Colin.

Colin 'lives' in a Tupperware container next to JD's bed.  Colin is a huge fan of the bedtime story (apparently).  In my view, Colin is the only fan of the bedtime story, given that he is the only participant not interrupting every 2 seconds.

However.  Colin is lonely.

He desperately needs a companion.  A friend that he can play (dead?) with.  More specifically he needs to be best friends with a bee.

A dead bee of course.

Which will be called Phillip.

The bee must have died of natural causes (unlike Colin, who I think was inadvertently stepped on - but please don't say anything in JD's presence, because talk of his murder will not be tolerated in this house without the accompaniment of loud wailing and the beating of chests).

Luckily for us I think we have a bee hive in the depths of the run down shed in the garden.  Why they have decided to set up home in the only garden without a single petal/flower/plant is a little bewildering.

Obviously not the smartest of bees.

Here's hoping one of them commits hari kari on the patio someday soon.

Purely for Colin's sake, obviously.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sometimes I Can't See the Woods for the Trees

I feel as if I have reached a pinnacle in this single parenting experience where it surely can't get any harder than this.  Please dear Universe, don't prove me wrong.  It's just too hard.  Please don't make it any harder.  It's tough enough to get through some of the days as it is.

Yesterday was one of those days.  I would prefer not to have a repetition of one of those days for a while.  A day where I just felt so tired, so drained, so lonely, so lacking in optimism and hope and gratitude that the thought of enduring another day like it just couldn't be borne.

Single parenting is a tough road to take.  I had no real idea until I ventured down it.  It is not a path I would ever recommend unless in the most extreme of circumstances.  I am not a village.  I am doing most of this alone and I am finding it really bloody hard.  And I look at my performance with the boys (or the sheer lack of it at times) and I feel as if I am doing them the greatest injustice.  They deserve so much better.  They deserve the mum that I am in my head - the mum that I fully intend to be when I am not with them, but which doesn't bear much relation to the mum that I actually am in their presence.

I don't want to be a single parent any more.  I really don't.  I am done.  I want this job to be shared....but more than that, I want to share this job with someone.  I want another adult in this family to love, to balance the equilibrium a little.  Not to share the workload with, but purely to share the experience with.  Oh My God, the potential luxury of having someone to hold and be held.  Someone to care for and to be cared for in return.  This most simplest and human of situations now seems like a panacea to me.  I can't imagine my current state of being, this terminal loneliness, is ever going to change.  Is it possible that I am going to be single-handedly raising these children, forever?

I went through the motions yesterday, took the boys out, coordinated meeting up with other parents so the boys could run off some steam with friends, made cheery conversation.

I felt numb, as if I was dying inside.

I couldn't muster up a single molecule of joy as I watched my beautiful children gambol about, shrieking and laughing and karate chopping each other.

I was hollow.  Empty.  Devoid of any form of emotion except for the never-ending longing to cry and to never stop.

I got through the day, put the boys to bed early, then read them an extra long story as a penance for being on the outside looking in all day.  They deserve better.  They deserve so much better.  And so, for the love of God, do I.

I watched Long Lost Family, a weekly excuse to shed the tears I am harbouring inside and, instead of feeling better, lighter, feel even more depleted.  How is this possible?  When you are running on empty - how is it possible to be even more empty?  I berated myself internally for feeling this way.  I have so much to be incredibly, ecstatically grateful for!  I am such a lucky, lucky woman!  Jesus Christ, to be this miserable when I have so much love in my life - when I have the privilege of raising these wonderful children in relative luxury, compared to many parts of the world, is so incredibly self-centred and indulgent and, quite frankly, disgusting.  My feelings of self pity and loneliness disgust me.  Which obviously cheers me up no bloody end.

I go to bed early and stand stroking the boys gently on their backs as they sleep, huge sobs wracking my body.  My eyes smart with the saltiness of my tears.  I feel too exhausted to sleep, the thought of having to face another day fills me with a sense of foreboding. I can't do this for another second, another minute, another hour, another day.

I wake this morning and the cloud has lifted.  I hear the boys chatting to each other downstairs, being kind to one another, playing well together and I smile.  I feel rested.  I feel capable.  It will all be okay.  This too will pass.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lost in Transition

Now this is more like it.  Grey skies.  Nondescript weather.  For a good few weeks there I thought I had moved home to the wrong country.  Most disconcerting.  Roll on June and the rain, that's what I say.  You can't beat the first month of summer being completely rained out, can you...?  After all, I have just purchased some new patio furniture, so the change in the weather couldn't be more perfectly orchestrated.

For the most part I am loving being back in the UK and have transitioned easily, even after 10 years of absence.  I chose to move to an area that is relatively new to me - I have never lived in North London before but I fancied a fresh start and, truth be told, I do love the challenge of starting over where everything is new and just waiting to be discovered.  I have one dear friend in the neighborhood and my sister is still staying in the spare bedroom (God bless her, she is being a total lifeline even though her prediction of us living together - which she predicted here - is accurate in every way).

I am more than a little infatuated with the area.  Seeing London again and its surrounding area, with fresh eyes, sometimes stuns me to tears.  The greenery is so vivid.  Nearly every building seems to be imbued with heritage and ancestry.  There is an energy and verve about it - like a vital organ - which invigorates me.  And the hills!  Oh, don't get me started on the hills!  I have spent 10 years in reconfigured prairie land without a natural hill within hundreds of miles.  The fact that I can now walk down my local high street and peer down avenues of Edwardian houses, which overlook the whole of London, takes my breath away.  I am constantly stopping the boys in their tracks and forcing them to 'enjoy the view' and simply soak up the natural beauty of our surroundings.  I know, I know.  I'm on the outskirts of London and I am raving about the beauty of the landscape.  Obviously, the sun over the past few weeks has gone to my head a little.

Other things I am loving about being back in the UK?  Aside from the pretty money?  I am still a little obsessed with Sainsbury's, Tesco's and the M&S food hall.  I can get lost, browsing the aisles for hours.  Every single time, without fail, I am suckered into the 2for1 special offers or 3 for £10 and buy enough food to feed half the street.  Oh, the damage I could do if I owned an American sized fridge...best not to think about it.

I have been freaked surprised at how genuinely friendly people are and the overall informality and pleasantness of customer service.  We hardly have the reputation of being leaders in this arena...however, given my comparative experience, I would beg to differ.  I have had quite the chin wag with representatives from Thames Water, British Gas, Virgin Media and even the local Council Tax people, to name but a few.  And don't even get me started on the cashiers in my local Post Office.  Never once did I feel they were talking from a well-worn script. In fact, everyone has bent over backwards to be helpful, understanding and personable.  I think this does reflect the fact that the Brits, in general, do love a good chat and for the most part are down to earth (verging on fucking hysterical, but again, this is just my humble opinion).

It has taken me a little while to adjust to the fashion sense.  I had always been a bit of (okay, a lot of) a snob about the superiority of British fashion while in America.  And then I arrived home to find everyone is dressed so incredibly casually - skinny jeans, canvas converse all star trainers for heaven's sake, army green parka jackets.  Where is the glamour people?  The effortless flair for accessorising that I have been spouting on about for years while over the pond?  I feel out of place in this excessively urban clothing landscape.  I'm not quite scruffy enough to be cool.  I am, despite not even owning a twin set, feeling distinctly middle aged.  I would usually feel quite gleeful about any excuse to buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes...but been there, done that where the grunge look is concerned.  Never thought I would say this Chicago...but really, you are quite a natty dressed little town in comparison so please forgive my aspersions to the contrary over the past few years.  I am beginning to think they may have been a tad misguided.

The one thing that has taken me back about being back in this country, I have to be honest, is the whinging.  If there is a situation to view through a glass half empty, most Brits seem quite happy to do so.  I have been astounded at the extent of cynicism and derision with which most people seem to view this country, the government, our monarchy, the economy, the NHS, education...you can name it and you can bet your bottom dollar pound that it can and will be vilified.

Now, I have nothing against a good debate and I love the fact that this country demonstrates an interest in International affairs, as well as being up to speed on the state of our own nation.  But the incessant complaining about anything and everything is not what I would call constructive behaviour.  I have been shocked at how, even the sunniest of people with the most positive of natural outlooks, likes nothing better than a good bitch at the state of the UK today.  It riles me a little, but more than anything it makes me sad.  If only more people could spend time living in another country, because it might increase their appreciation level of life in Britain.  Is it perfect?  Not at all. But, compared to many countries, in my experience, it looks after its citizens really well.

Still.  It doesn't stop most people having a sense of humour.  I love the comedic asides that I witness on a daily basis, the willingness to take the piss at the drop of a hat.  The inability to take anything too seriously or earnestly for long.  Love it, love it, love it.  I haven't seen one instance of sincerity on steroids since arriving home and, personally, that is just how I like it.

Other quick observations...I have missed standing out from the crowd.  There are many Brits who go to live in America and very quickly tire of the constant compliments on their verbal diction.  I was not one of them.  Right to the bitter end I loved the fact that, pretty much everywhere I went, strangers would comment on my lovely accent and a conversation would ensue.  Without any effort whatsoever on my part, people would automatically attribute yours truly with an incredibly intelligent and educated personality.  It was great.  I have never understood other people in my position who have tired of this superficial adoration.  Really, what's not to love?

Meanwhile I open my gob to talk here and nobody gives a monkeys.  I sound just like everyone else and the shock of this sudden anonanimity was quite depressing.

Here's another thing - in Chicago my name also stood out from the crowd.  Most people had simply never heard it before.  Isn't that strange?  Who would have thought the name Nicola would be so unusual, anywhere in the world?  It was always commented upon.  It was a fantastic means of making yet another positive and memorable impression, which is totally lost on the gits people in the UK of course.

Mind you, my name would be complimented mere seconds before it was ritually butchered.  Apparently the name Nicola is in the Advanced Pronunciation Category for many of the people I met.  I would frequently have to dig my nails into my own palms when being called "Ni-Coal-EEERRRR".  Making an effort to correct people..."no, no, no - it's Nicola, as in rhymes with Ricola" was typically a fruitless exercise.

So it is quite nice to be back in the land where 'everyone knows your name'.  Now all I have to do, to satisfy my own inner celebrity, is find another means to be noticed (as the accent/name combo have  gone by the wayside).  Jeez, does this mean I may have to develop an actual talent?  Looks like I am going to have to get used to a life of relative invisibility I guess...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Did I Mention He is Obsessed with His Genitals?

I couldn't resist posting this....I drafted it some time ago and it is purely going on record to contribute to the material I am going to use to embarrass Johnny Drama with his girlfriend(s) in future years...

It's nearing bedtime and tonight there is more than the usual pandemonium, due to the fact that the boys are on a promise to watch Total Wipeout if they get showered and into their pajamas before the show starts at 6pm.

I am darting around upstairs, supposedly assisting the boys but actually distracted by case packing.

Johnny Drama stands in the middle of his bedroom, naked but for a pair of socks.  His penis, as usual, is safely enclosed in his left hand.  He glances over to the wall, then without hesitation strides over and pushes his penis against the radiator.

"OUCH!" he shouts and immediately springs back.  "Hot!  Hot-Hot-Hot!"  He plonks his luscious bottom onto the carpet and stretches and waves his penis around, I am assuming to cool it a little.  I continue to hang back in the doorway long enough to hear him say, under his breath,

"Ooh - that's the first time I have burnt my penis."  There is a note of incredulity and awe in his voice.

He looks over his shoulder at the radiator.

"Hmm - I bet that feels better with a sock."  He wiggles over and places his socked foot gently onto the ribbed heater.

"Aaah.  Much better.  Next time, I just need a sock."

Problem solved.  

"MUM!  Mummy!  I've got an ouchee.  Can I have an ice pack?  I have REALLY burnt my penis here..."

Of all the injuries I had anticipated as a mother, I have to say that this has never been one of them.  And no...of course I didn't kiss it better.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The End of An Era

Isn't it funny how you can re-read posts from your own life and yet not identify with them at all?  I think that's how I feel about the last two posts certainly.  Can that possibly have been me?  Did I really feel that angry?

Life has moved on.  And about bloody time.

The past three months have been eventful.  The half term visit seems like a life time ago.  I like to think that I carried myself with my usual dignity...whilst inside I was simply seething at rage over the matching Mr and Mrs luggage that was parked unceremoniously in my kitchen.  Funny how it's the silliest things, the most banal evidence of his relationship with another woman, that hits me the hardest.

But here's the thing that really annoyed me the most...AG arrived in my house, after an 8 hour transatlantic flight, at 8am in the morning and looked...as fresh as a daisy.  Her make up was perfect, her skin flawless, her teeth shiny.  How did she do that?  Is that purely an advantage of youth, which I never fully appreciated at the time?  Not fair.  I had merely to step out of bed and walk 15 steps down the stairs to the kitchen and I looked more exhausted than she did.

The boys scampered around AG, holding her hand and dragging her to each room of the house.  I smiled wanly through gritted teeth and tried to avoid an inane conversation with Ex as we waited at the foot of the stairs.  I finally managed to drag my own suitcase out of the house and decamp to my friend's, before swanning off to Stockholm to visit a friend for a few days.  The change of scenery did me the world of good - it started to dawn on me that I need to seize these opportunities to grab life by the scruff of the neck and do my own thing, so I can stop being so fixated on the comparative lives of others.

Once home again I impulsively joined a gym, signed up for 3 months of eHarmony, started Ceroc dancing lessons twice a week, satisfied my inner Torvil and Dean by learning to ice skate, joined a local Rock Choir and also began to officially volunteer at the boys school two days a week.  I also coordinated daily play dates for the boys and harangued mums that I particularly liked the look of to meet me for a coffee, so I could force my friendship upon them.

It was all a bit mad.  It was all a bit much.  After a couple of months the Rock Choir fell by the wayside and, as the weather has been so glorious, so has the ice skating.  But it succeeded in kick starting my life again, with an optimism and energy that I haven't felt for a long time.  I no longer felt in limbo - simply waiting to be in a position so my life could start again.  This was it.  I was galvanised into action and it felt fantastic.

At Easter I agreed to take the boys to Chicago, to visit their dad for a couple of weeks so that he could spend more time with them.  I was dreading the trip.  I had no compulsion whatsoever to revisit Chicago and return to the city where my life had taken such unexpected twists and turns.  I coordinated a hectic social calendar, arranging to see my friends as a distraction from being in the one place on earth that I really did not want to be.

Yet in the end, it was a much needed trip that laid many ghosts to rest.

I woke up the first few days, staying at my friend's beautiful loft apartment, gazing out at the sun coming up over the concrete jungle that is Chicago in the Spring, and my heart reflexively palpitated to a point where I felt constantly nauseous.  It was as though I had never left.  I felt a sense of panic that I hadn't felt for a long time in London.  I spoke to the boys daily and their tales were of people that I didn't even know - some of them AG's family - and I felt berefit that my children have a life that doesn't involve me at all.  It's an unnatural feeling.  I felt simply lost without them and my whole body ached to be around them again.  The fact that they were gaily going about their lives and I wasn't a part of it whatsoever, felt like a physical wound.

I felt more than a little bit lost and confused by the feelings of familiarity with my surroundings - I just wanted to pick holes in the city that had been my home for half my adult life, to re-convince myself I had done the right thing in moving away.

But I couldn't ignore how fantastic it was to see my friends.  These women who have meant the world to me over the past 2 years. The trip highlighted how much I missed them and how big the hole is in my life without them in it on a regular basis.  Women friends do that to you, don't they?  Family is critical, but friends?  They're the best.

On the last day of the trip two very unexpected things happened.  First, I got officially divorced.  Ex and I had been wrangling over one aspect of the agreement, which finally got resolved when I was in Chicago.  So on my final day in town I turned up at court with my lawyer, and Ex turned up with his, to get the divorce done and dusted by the judge.  I didn't want to go.  I can't tell you how much I really didn't want to go.  Feelings of panic re-emerged and the thought of having to face up to the reality of the divorce - with Ex by my side - made my skin feel as though it was on the verge of breaking out in pustulous hives.

Ultimately, like many things that I have dreaded and don't feel capable of facing head on, I was so grateful that we faced that rite of passage together.  That we both acknowledged the end of an era as a couple - almost our one last show of solidarity.  It was emotional.  It was poignant.  It was therapeutic.  It was closure.  After 2 hours of waiting in a court room, making small talk and both slightly on edge, we finally stood before the judge, with our lawyers between us, and listened as the end of our marriage was read aloud in legalese.  It felt quite momentous.  It felt tremendously sad.  It was incredibly official.

With my own blurry, tear filled vision, I watched Ex's eyes also well up with tears.  We looked at each other with sympathy and understanding.  And ultimately, although our lawyers tried to usher us out of the room separately, we drew together and walked out of the courtroom with our arms around each other, as we have comforted each other over the years, many times before.  Outside the courtroom Ex held me tight and refused to let go.  I could tell he was quietly crying.  I was quietly crying.  It was a mutual acknowledgement of our combined disappointment that the marriage, which we had set out on so optimistically over 12 years ago, had come to an end.

But not a bitter end actually, inspite of the past few months of angst and envy that I have felt.  Not a bitter end at all.

In fact I felt almost an instant release - a sense of calm and closure, mixed with pure exhaustion and an element of elation that I wouldn't have to wake up to stressful messages from my lawyer anytime soon.  A weight had been miraculously lifted.  The monkey on my back had ceased trying to strangle me with it's strange, strong feet-like hands.  I felt free.  I felt relieved.  I felt proud that, for the most part, I have conducted myself like the person I would most like to be, rather than following my primal instincts of destruction, retaliation and revenge.

And then I went out to get shit-faced.

Well, you know me - forever the dignified, sophisticated woman of the world.

Actually, the last thing that I felt like doing was going out that night.  My bags were packed and I had nothing to wear.  After such an unexpectedly eventful day, all I wanted to do was sleep.  But it was my last night in town and my amazing friends from Book Club were going out, so it seemed a little churlish not to join them.

Fast forward a couple of hours and we are bar hopping.  I am struggling to keep up with the alcohol consumption - my third drink is making my head spin and my stomach lurch.  This could get ugly...I think to myself, as I set my drink down.  The last thing I need is a hangover for the flight home with the boys and the subsequent jet lag we are going to be subjected to.

My friends are in fine form - raucous and slightly outrageous.  I feel so sad to be leaving.  I miss these opportunities to let my hair down - Chicago is such an easy town to socialise in (although on reflection I had been bored to tears by the bar scene in the 6 months previous).  My attention is focused on my girlfriends and our ongoing banter.  We are joking about some of the young men around us, as some of my friends are getting hit on.  There's no point in me engaging in flirtation at this point, so I watch my friends and soak up the energy around me.

As I am reviewing the people filling up this trendy bar on a Wednesday night, I spot a man across the room. Well, in all fairness, it's hard not to spot him.  He has to be at least 6ft5" tall, so is easily head and shoulders above everyone else there.  I nudge the friend next to me.  "Now THAT is the sort of man I totally like," I tell her, before we seamlessly return to our conversation.  It's getting late.  I feel drunk and tired and want to leave.  I am persuaded to stay for another half an hour at least, but know I will reap the consequences of this the next day.  Ugh.   The flight home.  I can't stand the thought of it.

Just as I am about to make my apologies and leave I get jostled from behind and turn to find the attractive tall man behind me.  We talk and he is funny and smart and, in a heartbeat, I am seriously regretting the fact that I am leaving the next day.  I instantly feel drawn to this stranger and completely at ease.  I haven't felt this for a very long time.  My whole body surges with energy and suddenly I don't want to go home at all.

Great timing Universe.  What on earth's the point of that, then?

Oh God, being smitten with an American....my friends are going to KILL me.