Over and out

Spring Break evenings at the beach have been going something like this:

  1. Give one walkie-talkie to group of small children. Remember to keep the other.
  2. Negotiate order and precise length of turns with the walkie-talkie.
  3. Reassure children that they will know when it’s the next person’s turn because an adult will tell them.
  4. Reassure children that even though no adults will be physically present, someone will be able to tell them whose turn it is by walkie-talkie.
  5. Send children away to play while watching from balcony three floors up.

A typical exchange might be

Child: “Are you okay up there?”
Adult: “Yes, we’re okay. Are you okay down there?”
Child: “Yes, we’re okay. I’m coming up now.”
Adult: “That was quick. Are you done playing?”
Child: “No, I need to tell you something.”
Adult: “Um, you could tell me on the walkie-talkie.”
Child: Looks surprised. “Oh. Well, I want you to help me put the walkie-talkie on my belt.”
Adult: “Okay, but if we fasten it to your belt, how will you talk into it?”
Child: Moves hand between belt and mouth. Bends down experimentally towards midsection.“Oh yeah. Never mind.”
Adult: “It’s the next person’s turn now.”
Child: Yells next child’s name at full volume, while still depressing the talk button.
Adult: Waits for hearing to return.

Communication would definitely be easier if we gave them an iPhone each, but watching their confusion over old-school technology is way more entertaining. I’ll take a moment of smugness while I still can.

Posted in communication, kids | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A new space

As this website nears its tenth anniversary, I feel it’s time for a slight overhaul; something like a 10,000-mile service. Don’t worry, I’m not quite ready to trade her in yet. (Not being exactly the “careful lady owner”, I don’t think I’d get much in exchange anyway. Maybe like a free iPhone app. The kind with all the annoying adverts.)

A little trip down memory lane:

I set the website up in 2003 after Niall and I got married and the concept of Dr and Mrs Rock was born: i.e. we were both geoscientists and the “mccormack.com” domain name was already taken. We posted photos here for family and friends to see until everyone joined Facebook and this became redundant.

In 2009, I began to write stuff down. Calling it a blog is a bit like comparing my early experiments with CSS to actual “style”, but it was a turning point. By the end of 2010 I was getting the hang of the writing part, but it became obvious that I was now technically hampered by having turned into a raging code snob.

In 2011, I set up a whole new site using WordPress and proceeded to attempt to blog like a normal person. Which is to say, I updated religiously for two months, then took a year’s hiatus. My “but the dog ate my homework” excuse was a move across the Atlantic at two weeks’ notice.

Now we’ve been living in one place for over a year. The house is as finished as it’s going to get. (If you come round, please quietly ignore the non-functioning bathroom faucet and the holes in the dining room wall. They add character.) The children are settled in school and pre-school. (If you see them howling and clinging to me at drop-off, it’s not because they’re getting used to a new environment, it’s because they’re four and six and “it’s not fair”.)

I’m doing more writing and it’s time to follow my own advice, i.e. have a sensible website with a sensible name. My tentative plan is to use KirstyMcCormack.com to write about writing and keep DrAndMrsRock as a sort of messy garage apartment where I rant about my kids and leave coffee rings on the table. So if you want to hear about the WordPress workshop I’ll be teaching, wipe your feet and head over to the neat space. Otherwise, move the laundry pile to one side and make yourself comfortable here.

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Reading poetry. Poetry readings.

Last week I took part in this year’s Houston Poetry Festival. It was a lot of fun and got me thinking about what goes into a good poetry reading. Here’s my 2¢:

Preparation

As an Army brat, I heard a lot of acronyms growing up. My favourite was always the 7 P’s: Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. Probably because the swear word made me snigger, but still. Reading your work through before you stand up in front of an audience helps you figure out whether you need to print it out in a bigger font/order new reading glasses/schedule emergency cataract surgery. Harsh? Folks, it’s called a reading. If you can’t see what’s on the page, you may as well not bother.

Punctuality

Work out how long it takes to read each of your pieces; add in a bit for your introduction, your between-poem anecdotes, your foreign-language translations, your accompanying interpretive dance and incense waving, whatever’s applicable. Read the guidelines and trim accordingly. If you’re allotted five minutes, don’t arrive with a stack of twenty epic poems and a rambling reminiscence about eating cabbage soup with Uncle Jakub at age twelve. You’ll just come across as an egocentric limelight hog. If you’re really that good, people will show up to your next reading, buy your books, invite you to their dinner parties. Then you can snub them and be an even bigger egocentric limelight hog.

Performance

Here’s where I go back and contradict everything I just said.

  1. It’s called a reading, but the truth is if I wanted to watch someone stick their nose against the page and mumble, I’d give the book to my six-year-old. The poets I enjoy most are engaged with their audience, make eye contact, show emotion. They know their material, they don’t just read it. Some have even been known to wave their arms, do impersonations or break into song. Although if you find yourself contemplating finger puppets, you’ve probably gone too far.
  2. I’m not going to give any special dispensation on timing, but I do think that the introduction to a poem can add a lot to a reading. An outline of why/where/how a poem was written can change the experience of hearing it – and make the audience feel they’re getting something they wouldn’t get by just picking up your book and reading it themselves.

Poor Poet

You thought it was all about you. The hours of introspection, pouring your tortured soul onto paper with no anticipation of financial reward (if you thought you’d get rich by writing poetry, we’re way beyond finger-puppet territory. The only advice I can give is to be wary of nice Nigerian men wanting to give you lots of money).

Now you’ve been published, you’ll finally get the recognition you deserve. The audience should think itself lucky to bask in your glorious presence. You can read. In a sing-song voice. A few words. At a time. Running stanzas together. Or with dramatic mid-line.

Pauses.

No? Well, you can. And when everyone avoids you at the end-of-show book signing, you can look at it as fuel for the angst fire in which new poetry is forged.

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Lost Owner, Looking For Dog

Well, I don’t know if it was the British accent or the bad hair, but apparently something marked me out this morning as a person in need of a dog.

I was chatting (about nothing remotely related to pets) to a lady I’ve met only once before, when she offered to lend me her dog. So that’s good, I guess? I must look trustworthy, like the sort of person you meet in the street and think, yes, she could totally take care of my beloved pet. She doesn’t look the type to harness a dog to a skateboard and get it to pull her along. Ahem.

Or maybe she thought a sensible tweed skirt covered in labrador hair would be the ideal ensemble to match my crazy coiffure and English enunciation. Could be worse. At least no-one’s marked me down as the eccentric cat lady. Yet.

Posted in ex-pat life, pets | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

I pronounce you…

I’m seriously thinking about hiring a dialect coach. It’s really the last option. You see, I’ve lived in Houston for five years now and I pretty much consider myself a local. I can drive while applying make-up, drink sweet iced tea, turn my air-conditioning down to 68°. Okay, I don’t do any of those. But I could. You know, if I wanted to.

I’ve identified and taken steps to remedy the things that mark one out as being fresh off the boat. Having bad teeth. Wearing socks with sandals. Not tipping. Using phrases like "bother, I forgot my brolly", "I need to nip to the loo" and "he’s just gone out for a fag". I’ve even had some success at containing my smirk reflex when I overhear someone talk about fanny packs, or men wearing pants and suspenders. (Yeah, still funny.)

Yet, now and again, someone will hear my accent and take it upon themselves to try and help out the poor foreign lady. This morning I met a woman who kindly offered to give me recommendations to anything in the city I might need. "Like a hairdresser," she said, with a pointed look. Way to make me feel welcome in your country. I was ON MY WAY TO THE GYM.

If I could change my accent, I could be all, "Y’all, that Prince Harry done disgraced his country" to avoid awkward conversations, then, "Oh gosh, I’m terribly sorry, Officer. Can I make you a cup of tea?" if the occasion called for it. Not that it would. Law-abiding local, here, yessiree.

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Gym etiquette

At the gym today someone came in and chose – out of an empty row of a dozen or more identical machines – to work out on the bouncy up-and-down elliptical thing right next to mine. I was a bit perturbed. Shouldn’t there be some kind of urinal etiquette in play here?

Not that I was actually urinating, of course. (I say ‘of course’, but if you’ve ever given birth you’ll know just how many Kegel exercises are required before one can bounce up and down in public with impunity). Nor was I, to shake the last stubborn drops from the urinal metaphor, exposing myself. I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear I had enough layers of spandex on to keep everything important covered up.

What I mean is, as in a men’s bathroom, surely there’s some unwritten rule about occupying the spot directly next to one that’s already taken, unless you have absolutely no choice? It’s just a personal space thing, like seats on the Underground. Which I suppose I could have used as my analogy earlier; but then I would have missed the chance to mentally assault you with images of public urination and spandex-wrapped jigging up and down. Ah, sorry. Did I do it again? My bad.

So, back to the gym. And me, doing my very British best to ignore the woman sweating and breathing heavily less than arm’s length away in a mostly-empty room. Perhaps next time I should be a bit more sociable; make eye contact, strike up conversation. Offer her a sip from my water bottle, maybe? Yes, I should think that would resolve the situation one way or another.

Posted in ex-pat life, fitness | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Americanized

I think I’m becoming Americanized. (See, I even spelt it with a zee?)

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone and bought me a gun. I haven’t switched to iced tea instead of PG Tips (a much more horrifying scenario). I haven’t even started saying tomAYto instead of tomAHto. What I did was complain about someone swearing in front of my kids.

I’ll explain. There’s a different attitude to cursing here in Texas. It’s just not done as much. In the British Isles, we like to casually drop swear-words for emphasis into otherwise normal sentences. It’s not unusual to hear absolutely foul language in the middle of the supermarket or walking down the high street. Over breakfast in a family-run café in Ireland I once overheard a conversation between two older gentlemen in which the only word I could make out through their thick Kildare accents was the f-bomb. I swear. It’s the fucking truth.

Anyway, no-one bats an eyelid. So today, when the guy fixing my mosquito system told me something I was disputing with him was "bullshit", I surprised myself by being actually quite shocked. Maybe it was his tone of voice (confrontational) and the fact that my kids, age four and six, were standing right there, but it suddenly seemed very inappropriate.

I actually phoned the company – who, I should point out, have been otherwise great – and asked them never to send that workman to my house again. They agreed immediately and apologised. And now I’m wondering what I’ve turned into, because, hello? I thought I was British. We’ll put up with all kinds of bullshit, but what we don’t do is bloody well complain.

Cup of tea, anyone?

Posted in ex-pat life, kids, swearing | 13 Comments

Tea and repression

Today, Éila invited a friend from school to play. Aw, sweet. Except, she invited herself and her schoolfriend into someone else’s house. Awkward.

I ended up chatting with my good friend in her kitchen while her daughter, my daughter and my daughter’s new schoolfriend played upstairs, watched over by the schoolfriend’s mom (who we’d never met before). We tried to persuade her downstairs to join us. We tried to start up a conversation with her. She remained monosyllabic, unsociable, and there.

Rather than stay for a cup of tea as I usually would, I left after ten minutes, dragging Éila, sobbing and complaining, with me. The schoolfriend’s mom took the hint and left too.

I was responsible for inviting a strange woman into someone else’s house and I could only have felt more uncomfortable if I’d been direct and told the woman her child wasn’t welcome to come and play. Curse you, British upbringing.

You see, in the course of writing this, I’ve realised that the point is not; "wow, how weird was that other mom?", but rather, "why should I expect everyone else to know the unwritten rules of British social interaction?" The problem is that Brits are unlikely to tell you if you break a rule, they’ll just be extraordinarily polite. But then the rules dictate that we’re always extraordinarily polite. You might figure it out eventually… depending on how much tea you can stomach.

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Different country, same admin.

So, around four months ago, I was complaining on here about how life was getting in the way of doing any writing. Our Oxfordshire house purchase was dragging on and I’d been chasing around trying to organise stuff while keeping the kids entertained. We finally got a mortgage approved, school places confirmed, quotes from moving companies, and a phone call from the solicitor to tell us the sellers were ready to exchange contracts. Hurrah! I thought. Then Niall buggered everything up by getting us moved to Houston.

It took a week for his new job to be approved and the move officially confirmed, and two weeks after that we got on a plane.

People’s reactions were generally one of the following:

1. "You’re moving overseas. Won’t your family miss you dreadfully?"

As a serial ex-pat, I get asked this a lot and it’s a tough one to reply to. Option one:

  • "Well, yes, I suppose they will. I’d thought about my husband’s career and the opportunity for my kids to experience another culture, but I’d never stopped to consider whether anyone would miss us. Because I’m totally selfish and uncaring."

Option two:

  • "No, I go out of my way to be horrible to my relatives whenever I see them, so I doubt they’ll miss us at all."

(You’d have to ask my family which of the above is closer to the truth. But don’t be surprised if you get nothing but an insulted silence either way.)

2. "An international move? In two weeks? Are you mad/joking/superwoman?"

To which I reply:

  • "Wibble./Ha ha!/No, not the Kryptonite!"

I’m not going to lie; it wasn’t entirely stress-free.

Still, here I am in Houston. Waiting for the paperwork to go through for our house purchase and blogging about how real life has been getting in the way of my writing. Jet lag gives way to déjà vu.

Posted in ex-pat life | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Blow it all on handbags

Since coming back from Bantry, I’ve struggled to finish anything. Life has been one giant ball of loose ends: a big snarly mess like the tangle I periodically find at the bottom of the kids’ dressing-up box. A frustrating, time-sucking knot that unravels with much breaking of fingernails and cursing and leaves me vowing never again to buy anything with string or velcro fastenings.

"What’s wrong with your new dressing-up clothes? Princesses wear smocks all the time, I promise. What do you mean it doesn’t look like a fireman’s uniform? It’s a medieval fireman, okay? Just put the robe on and hold the bucket."

On Friday I spent forty-five minutes in the bank answering questions before they would let me transfer some money for a deposit on the house we’re trying to buy. Hello, Mr Halifax? It’s my damn cash. Last time I checked it was no business of yours if I wanted to blow it all on handbags or spend it joining a cult; what’s with the inquisition?

Oh, it’s about the security, you say? Let’s hope border control doesn’t start using the bank as their model.

"I’m sorry, Mrs McCormack, your passport isn’t good enough on its own any longer. In order to let you out of the country, I’ll need you to name three things you’ve eaten for breakfast in the last week, and tell me what colour underwear you had on yesterday."

There were several protracted pauses during my Halifax grilling while the bank teller disappeared into a back room to "check with his supervisor". I suspect they were just giggling and wondering how far they could push it before I would start looking for the hidden camera, but I took advantage of the free time to work on a poem.

So I stood in the middle of the bank counting syllables on my fingers and mouthing rhyming words to myself. If you’ve ever tried to think while two small children are demanding your attention, you’ll understand that every uninterrupted moment needs to be seized. And you’ll also understand that taking two small children out in public has far greater potential for embarrassment than talking to yourself in a bank. Especially a bank where all the waiting customers have already heard a list of your direct debits and tax rebates.

In any case, I finished the poem. I went home, typed it up, and gave it to Éila’s teachers as a leaving present. Friday was the last day of school. For the next six weeks I’ll have two small children to take with me everywhere. I hope the bank doesn’t need to call me back in for more questions.

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