Monday, September 28, 2009

Summer's last hurrah

Another great weekend at 'The Ranch'; Oli spent part of the time back in ye olde tin bath, as we attempted to cool down in temperatures in the nineties.  The summer's parting shot, before autumn takes over, perhaps? The soaring mercury made it hard to do anything with much enthusiasm, except have water fights with the hose.  We did venture out on Sunday to pick apples, which proved popular.  We were even given proper harvesting equipment.  Max was very good at sampling the crop: Honey Crisp and Molly's Delicious, the favourites.

Other than that, I read a copy of Lynn Truss', Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and vowed to re-edit this blog for punctuation.  I'm sure you are all going to pitch in and tell me how bad my grammar is.  I'll just say, at least I'm not dropping prepositions yet.  And on the matter of morphing into an American, I can tell you, Max is now officially calling tomatoes; 'tu-may-does'.  Three years of his parents' pronunciation is evidently not enough when it comes to 6 weeks back at preschool, with a 'tu-may-doe' plant bearing fruit in the playground.  Various visitors have told me that my sentences are going up in pitch as I near the full stop, turning them into question-sentences? So perhaps my Americanization is not far behind Max's.  I do romanticize Europe; and refer to the 'bathroom', and say 'gift' instead of 'present'.  And most telling of all, I do, sometimes, misinterpret Dom's sarcasm.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Christmas Morning

I remember it now, it's just as it was with Max; when he was somewhere between and a year and eighteen months. I wake to the sound of Oli's soft baby babbling.  It's 7am, if I'm lucky, but I got a full night's sleep so there's something building as I go to get the milk, a sort of excitement as I walk the corridors in the half light, and then, only when I'm armed with the bottle, I open the bedroom door, and there he is, the bundle I love, zipped into a sleep sack and trying to stand; and it feels like Christmas morning.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Plywood dreams

I need to frame a memory for you, a memory I have of a man called Pop.  When I was growing up, Pop lived across the road from us, in a cottage in the yard. The cottage was part of the farm we lived on (although it no longer functioned as such).  Pop was in his eighties, or at least very old, and he lived with Jean and Tom.  He wasn't our Pop, but he was presumably theirs, and it didn't cross my mind that we should call him anything else.  Jean helped clean our house, and Pop sometimes came over to join her for a mid-morning coffee and to eat drippings of lard on toast.  He always wore blue nylon overalls; the uniform of the nearby tannery where he'd worked in younger years.  The smell of the leather-curing chemicals lingered in the fabric.
Pop kept bantams and spent most of his time in a small shed which backed onto our chicken run.  He sometimes threw seeds and bread rusks to the birds over the stable door.  Inside his shed, the whitewashed dry stone walls were dark with dust and cobwebs. The sheets of corrugated plastic on the roof were covered in dirt and the place had the musty, fungal smell of droppings and feathers.  Jam jars of shrapnel, nails and netting staples were balanced on makeshift shelves.  Pops' bantams roosted above him on a support beam and the floor was wood chippings and sawdust.  It was not a place in which I ever lingered, but that gave it a curious appeal.
Pop's shed didn't beat my dad's for size or tool quantity.  In dad's shed the rafters were packed with coils of rope, rolls of chicken wire and folded fruit netting. Any size of hammer, spanner, chisel or screwdriver was available, snugly held between nails in the walls.  The work bench was as thick as a mattress and deeply etched with the scars of earnest sawing.  Dad's shed smelled of creosote and weed-killer and produced things on a grand scale like guttering systems, paint-stripped grandfather clocks and pheasant coups.  But Pop's shed produced toys; plywood creations for my brother and I.  Tool sheds were indeed wonderful.
Among Pop's toys for us there was a dolls house; two levels, four rooms. I loved it even though Barbie's legs stuck out of the window if she lay down in her bedroom.  He also made a fort for my brother.  I think Jos can still summon up the fury he felt when unjust parental arbitration meant that I was allowed fort-playing time - even though it was his.  The last creation was a stable that, having no interest in horses and being more familiar with cows, we turned into a bull pen.
With that shared, it might go some way in explaining why I decided, that in the absence of a San Franciscan Pop, it should fall to me to make my children a building out of plywood.  I've chosen a garage because cars have had an enduring presence in our house for a while now.  Here's what I should have known before I started:
A project like this should NOT be attempted without a tool shed.
We do not have a tool shed.
It really is cheaper and much, much quicker to buy a toy garage for your child.
If you produce a saw, a three year old will want to have a turn.
Working out the size of a drill bit in fractions of an inch is beyond my maths skills.
Max and Oli will have moved on to Star Wars before the project is actually finished.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Race

I'm kicking myself for not creating a podcast of Dom's swimming efforts over the past 5 months. It had all the potential for a great audio diary; the 6ft 4" non-swimmer challenging himself to race one of the most notorious stretches of open water, from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco shore.
Aside from the physical challenge of learning an effective freestyle, his initial concern was great white sharks. Those brutal killers come to the oceanic 'red triangle', which incorporates the northern California coast, because it's a breeding ground for so much marine life, perfect for hunting a vulnerable snack. Hungry sharks that have traveled miles for food, no thank you. Digging around on the internet Dom unearthed news that a great white was spotted in the bay three years ago. Three years? That's yesterday when it's murky below and you're dressed up in a wetsuit the colour of seal flesh. Admittedly it was about eight miles from the race waters but I think sharks can swim at about 25mph which means it could have been nibbling Dom's toes in less than twenty minutes.
Early August and during a day trip further up the coast, we found out the beach we were sitting on had been closed for six days after two shark sightings. Then, last month aggressive sea lions began attacking swimmers in Aquatic park, the open water practice area. That was quickly followed by a suicide victim being washed up there. A sombre sight; to see blankets thrown over the beached body, police cordons set up, ambulances by the shore.
I've forgotten to mention that this was actually a triathlon, after the 1.5 mile swim, Dom had 14 miles by bike and a 6 mile run. A month before the race Dom said he was worried. I nodded, perhaps my face contorted a bit, thinking how I'd feel ahead of a challenge like this.
'Worried I won't hit my fund-raising target' he went on. The fact that he'd already raised 17 thousand dollars for a UK children's charity seemed to have passed him by. The man wasn't thinking straight.
Less than three weeks til the race, the hottest day in San Francisco this year, and Dom throws in some last minute cycle training. In the upper eighties he biked over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausilito and back, then topped it off with a six mile run along the coast. I think it dawned on him then, that it wasn't all about the swimming.
What luck, then, that just days before the race an email came through saying that permits for the cycle ride had been revoked. It would now be a duathlon (although spell check tells me there is no such thing). Dom had mixed feelings about this, on one hand annoyed that he wouldn't be able to do the challenge he intended, on the other, after his hot lycra-clad biking efforts, undeniably a little relieved.
24 hours to race day and the sunshine turned to storm clouds. Claps of thunder shook the house in the night. At the pre-race registration, the other athletes appeared either very chiseled or had necks as wide as their shoulders. Back at home, the children and I made flags out of an old sheet and a bamboo with Dom's number drawn on in black felt tip.
Then, finally, race day; a grey morning lifted by porridge and ginger tea, a ferry to the start point and hands on hearts for the 'Star Spangled Banner'. A team of firefighters were swimming the race to honour a colleague who died attempting it last year. A fire boat had it's hoses going, the jets shooting out like huge water-tentacles. The spectators found their spot. Then the first of the swimmers started arriving at the beach. An hour in and Dom emerged from the water, a big grin. Total elation. Both the physical and mental battles won. No mistake, it was all about the swimming.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The fly-away kite

Here is our kite, back in October 2008. Exhibit A. Just in case you come across it...

because, yesterday it made a bid for freedom. The sun was shining, blue sky, high wispy cirrus above us and a strong wind in our faces. Not on the beach this time, but not far from it, there was a stretch of grass, then a gravel path, then some roped off scrub before the sand hit the sea. In my view a kite must have a tail and it's impossible not to smile, watching Max try to catch the ribbons as they curl and coil upwards chasing a pillow of inflated synthetic silk. You can see the excitement in Oli too, even though he's sedentary in the stroller. So while Max is doing his best to bring down the kite by yanking the tail, I am with Oli trying to get it to do tantalizing loops to keep everyone entertained. It is no easy feat when the kite only has one string and there's a gale keeping the grass horizontal. Then it happened. As always, far too quickly. A gust of wind and I dropped the reel, the one thing keeping this kite under any kind of control. As the spool started jumping across the grass I left Oli's side and began chasing it. I grabbed at it but the string was running out so fast it burnt my fingers. In my flip-flops I picked up speed, racing after the small coil of unraveling string. Max could sense the impending disaster.
'I want my kite back. Tell it to stop.' I could hear him yell, although his words were wobbling.
My plan was to jump on the string and save my hands. I closed in on it, but each time I stepped, my feet were inches from being effective. Ahead, I could see the roped-off scrub and felt convinced the string, the reel, something would get tangled in the fencing or the thicket beyond. But this kite could see Alcatraz, could see the sea, the city, it was so high now it could probably see the entire bay. It was stopping for no-one. When the spool bounced across the fence I realised I was running barefoot and and could hear a chorus of abandoned children in my wake. I turned to look at them; Oli in the distance, Max running after me, wet faced and red eyed. When I looked back to where the spool had been, it was no longer there and the kite was way above Alcatraz, an ever decreasing dark dot making a slow ascent into the blue. It was gone. I stopped, caught my breath and started walking back, retrieved my shoes and my wailing children. I wanted to reassure Max that it was fine, we'd get a new one. But it mattered to me too and I was just as annoyed. Annoyed that I'd dropped the spool in the first place, and that I hadn't caught up with it afterwards. Annoyed that sea birds might get caught in yard upon yard of nylon string, annoyed that I'd lost the kite, damn it. I said I was sorry, that it was my fault and that he was right to be sad, it was a shame. Oli was easier to console. His alarm was more likely to have been because be saw me sprinting away from him and could sense some of Max's despair. I foolishly suggested that Daddy, when swimming the Alcatraz challenge next weekend, might spot the kite and be able to retrieve it for us. As if a monumental fund-raising effort and an enormous physical challenge weren't enough...
This morning he wisely decided we should go straight out and buy a new one and return to the scene of the crime. Which we did. And this one has a much better handle.