Mind the Gap



Do you speak English? I’m not referring to the English language in general but to the English spoken across the pond. Last weekend my husband and I had a delightful sojourn in England to celebrate a friend’s milestone birthday.

Before we had even de-boarded the plane, I started to hear British colloquialisms such as topping off  your drink and silencing your mobile. Upon landing in London, we got in a queue to exit customs and take the Tube into the city. There was no lift at Piccadilly Circus, so we had to haul our luggage up the stairs.

Traveling to a foreign country always involves adjusting to unfamiliar customs, language, and food. I remember wondering at the concept of breakfast in China, which for the Chinese consists of a watery rice porridge called congee. Even in Western countries, you have to expect that your concept of such basic foods as pizza will be challenged.

In England, one of the more dangerous adjustments involves the fact that drivers drive on the left side of the road. London streets try to avoid disaster by having the words “Look right” or “Look left” painted on the ground at crossings.

But language is one of the things that fascinates me most about visiting an English-speaking country with different expressions. Many of the words we use in America for common items are different in England – such as nappy instead of diaper or car park in lieu of parking lot. The English also use different expressions for the same idea. For example, the conductor on the train informed riders that the train would be calling at certain stops. I found this idiom rather charming, implying as it does a sort of personal invitation to travelers. I also loved our taxi driver’s assuring us we would  fill our boots at a local dining establishment. The visual that conjured up was amusing.

Between the British accents and some of the differences in the way the English refer to things, my husband and I would often need an individual to repeat him or herself. At those times, my husband liked to use the famous quip alternately attributed to George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde: “We are two countries separated by a common language.”

But while I certainly took to heart the pleasant female voice on the Tube urging us to “Mind the gap between the car and the platform,” I really don’t mind the gap between our two versions of the English language. After all, the Brits were using it first!



Billboards (Redux)



It’s that time of year again. After numerous summer road trips, I have collected a new batch of billboard sightings that made me laugh or shake my head.

A couple of billboards that I have seen quite frequently on trips to O’Hare Airport are a little on the suggestive side. One of them advertises “Local shingles looking to get nailed.” It’s an ad for a roofing company. The other one advertises auto insurance with the tagline, “Love at first quote” and features male and female legs sticking out of a partially open car trunk. Couldn’t they just have used the back seat?

Another amusing billboard urges us, “Just say no to crack in your basement.” (Permaseal)

And if you are currently looking for a new career path, I encourage you to consider this: “Looking for a new job? Gray hair management.” I’m sure not many people have the qualifications for such a demanding job.

I was also intrigued by a sign for Fergedaboutit Vineyard & Winery. I wondered: Do they offer you a bottle of wine you can’t refuse?

In the category of truth in advertising, I had to admire the one for local radio personalities Eric and Kathy in the Morning: “They’ll go anywhere for a topic (but mostly just Google)” Likewise, a strip joint called Club 39 assures potential customers that they have “All of the liquor – none of the clothes.”

But the billboard that has me really thinking this year? “I’m empty without you. Interstate.” Is it a reference to the billboard that needs a customer to adorn it with advertising? Or is it an existential musing on the part of the road itself, contemplating a lonely world of no cars or drivers? I’ll let you ponder that deep one as you enjoy the rest of your summer.

Netflix and Chill?



My husband wants me to do it with him every night, sometimes for two or three hours. Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy it every bit as much as he does. But I’m exhausted. And sometimes I just want to read my book. I’m referring, of course, to watching episodes of Homeland on Showtime Anytime.

The advent of the DVR; streaming services such as HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, and Netflix; and the plethora of high quality programming have created the ideal conditions (or perfect storm, depending on your outlook) for binge watching TV shows. So every time my husband and I finish an episode of the five-season series Homeland, we look into each other’s eyes and whisper, “One more episode?”

Binge watching is a completely different experience from watching regular television. In the old days, before the invention of the VCR, families would gather around their televisions in great anticipation for their favorite show, holiday special, or movie premiere. So watching, for instance, How the Grinch Stole Christmas was a once-a-year event. The Wonderful World of Disney would broadcast a movie each Sunday night, and no one could get tired of endless repetitions of Snow WhiteBambi, or Pinocchio. Even ordinary television series were must-see occasions, and people planned their evenings around such viewing.

With videotapes and their descendants, DVDs, as well as TiVo and eventually services such as Apple TV, a wealth of entertainment became instantly available. And it just keeps getting easier and easier to watch TV for hours in the comfort of one’s home. Remember going to Blockbuster Video to pick out a movie? Remember having to fast forward through the commercials?

In the past, and still today in many cases, viewers would have to “tune in next week” for the next installment of their favorite TV show. The anticipation was part of the fun. Now we have entire seasons of a television series popping up at once on Netflix, and we tend to go through the episodes like a box of popcorn at the movie theater. Call me old-fashioned, but this style of TV-watching eliminates some of the magic.

Still, it’s hard to stop progress, and I must admit that it can be fun to gorge myself on a particularly good television series. At the same time, with so much good TV to watch, who has time to Netflix and chill?


A Pox on All You Starbucks



Recently, Starbucks cafes had the nerve to release a plain red cup as their sorry excuse for a holiday design. Christians were justifiably outraged that the design lacked snowmen, Santas, reindeer, or any other traditional Christian symbology to mark the Christmas season. Today, I want to stand in solidarity with Christians who rightly assume Starbucks “hates Jesus.” But I would like to take the anti-Starbucks rhetoric even further to encompass all the real and theoretical belief systems that could be offended by the atheistic Seattle-based coffee chain.

In solidarity with my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, I take umbrage at the fact that Starbucks serves food items containing ham and bacon, forcing them to endure the delectable yet non-kosher aromas of cooked pork assaulting them when they visit a Starbucks.

And did you know that some Starbucks now serve beer and wine? What’s a self-respecting Baptist, Mormon, or Muslim to do with that affront?

In fact, the whole idea of Starbucks should be anathema due to its shameless promotion of caffeine intake, thereby offending Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists alike!

Furthermore, the chain was named after a character in the novel Moby Dick, a classic that, as an English major, I should have read but didn’t. Must I revisit my own shortcomings every time I see those block white letters on their green signs?

I say it’s time to rise up in solidarity against Starbucks and its shameless refusal to cater to our every need and insecurity. So this holiday season, no matter what your religious persuasion or personal ideology, I urge you to forgo your peppermint mochas and teach Starbucks a lesson.

That’s a surefire way to keep Christ in Christmas, dontcha think?

Advice for the Soccer Mom (or Dad)



It’s that time of year. The days get shorter, the nights get cooler, and the weekends find parents loading up the minivan and chauffeuring their progeny to fields far and near. It’s youth soccer season. For years my family has participated in this rite of fall, as children of all ages in neon-colored soccer uniforms swarm the local parks. I’d like to share the wisdom I have gained over these twenty plus years with a little advice for soccer moms and dads.

First of all, stock up on soccer socks and shin guards. One pair never seems to be enough, as they are never in the right place on Saturday morning when you are searching frantically for them without even the benefit of your first cup of coffee. Along those lines, start eyeballing the foot sizes of your friends’ and neighbors’ children to see if you can snag any hand-me-down soccer cleats. Those things get expensive.

Second, hit Sam’s Club or Costco for large cartons of various junky snacks, which you will be required to provide after one or more of junior’s games. Never mind the fact that they had breakfast right before the game and they only played for 45 minutes, barely breaking a sweat. Good snacks and juice boxes are a non-negotiable requirement of soccer.

Third, invest in serious sun, rain, and cold gear for the hours you will spend on the sidelines watching your kids play. No matter how beautiful the previous week’s weather was, invariably on the weekends it will turn hot and muggy or freezing cold with pelting rain. I recently saw a folding camp chair that had a plastic bubble surrounding it. That’s about what you need to protect yourself.

Once at the game, swallow that Valium so that you can tolerate the crazed yelling and sideline coaching of other parents. (Never mind the fact that none of them ever played the sport in their lives.) You would think these pint-sized dynamos were in line for a four-year college scholarship the way parents carry on. Even someone near and dear to me (who shall remain nameless) has been kicked off soccer fields for unsportsmanlike behavior.

After the game, do nothing before you get that uniform and those socks into the presoak cycle of your washing machine. Institute a rule that soccer cleats are not allowed to touch the floors in your house. That’s what the garage is for. Get a cheap knife to scrape the mud and grass off of them.

Above all, remember that youth soccer is intended for exercise, fresh air, and FUN. Sit back and enjoy, whether your child is the next Cristiano Ronaldo or just a gangly kid having a good time with friends.

Why Back to School Sucks



I finally booted my final child out the door for her first day of school. For a change, I had her completely prepared the night before right down to the shoes she was going to wear. Yet it wasn’t until I got up on that first day that I realized why I hate back to school time.

  1. Two words: school lunches. Packing a lunch for my two kids every morning is something I dread. What can I pack my son that will stay decent in a brown paper bag? There is little variety to his daily fare, and that makes me feel bad. My daughter, on the other hand, doesn’t see why a packed lunch can’t be a hot one. She has a nice thermal lunch bag, so I can stock it with a cold pack and various fancy cut-up fruits or a thermos filled with soup or mac and cheese. The scramble to feed the kids both breakfast and lunch sets me in a whirlwind first thing in the morning.
  2. Back to school traffic. Suddenly my quiet suburban streets are full of moving targets like a re-enactment of the movie Death Race 2000. It’s a mixture of terror that I am going to hit a pedestrian/bicyclist/giant SUV and annoyance that all these people are clogging the very same roads I need to use to get my kid to school.
  3. The nightmare of the school drop off scene. If you want to see people at their worst, have them jockey for a spot to deposit little Johnny or Janey safely at school and then take off like bats out of hell for the office. It’s an infuriating experience that makes me long to rack up points in that Death Race 2000 game. (Look it up.)
  4. Homework. Instead of being the benevolent dictator of summer, I am now forced to rule with an iron rod, overseeing the completion of school assignments. This can and does include the angst of coming up with an essay topic, my shame in not being able to help with math, and the stress of late night printer malfunctions as my little procrastinators attempt to get tomorrow’s assignment ready. And if I have to sign one more document lying that I’ve read and discussed the rules of Mr. X’s class with my kid, I’m going to scream. I already went to school. I shouldn’t have any homework.
  5. Supplies. No matter how many notebooks, pens, and pencils I buy, there is always something else one of my kids needs for school tomorrow. I find myself dejectedly wandering the aisles of our local Target, searching through the picked over back to school merchandise. Here’s a hint for purveyors of school supplies. If you run out of the same materials every year during the back to school scramble, next year order extra!
  6. The quiet. Yeah, one would think this would be a welcome treat after a summer of kids hogging the TV and needing snacks 24/7. But I kind of miss those unstructured, anything goes kinds of summer days. Now I am forced to get things done. No more Gilmore Girls marathons for me.

In a few weeks, I will have gotten into a rhythm with school days.  The back to school flurry of papers to sign and open houses to attend will subside. I will resume a more ordered existence and potentially get a lot done. My kids will be learning and growing up, as they are supposed to do. I will be used to my quiet existence, at least until Christmas break, when they descend on me and undo it all.

The 1960s House



Events around my house this week have inspired an idea for a new reality show: The 1960s House.

First our air conditioning compressor went kaput. Life in our hermetically sealed environment was disturbed. We had to (gasp) open the windows and use electric fans in the bedrooms to sleep at night. Luckily the summer weather was mild because as it was, my kids sweated as if they had worked on a chain gang all day.

Then the unthinkable happened. Our power was shut off for an entire day. Having no a/c and now no TV were bad enough. But no WiFi? We walked around like zombies with no purpose and no live humans to eat. I even spied my son on the couch dejectedly reading a paperback book!

This gave me the idea for the show. You may remember a short-lived reality show called The 1900 House. In it a family attempts to live as if it were the turn of the century, a time of butter churning and driving a horse and buggy. The show was not a huge hit, maybe because harking all the way back to 1900 was too far.

Enter The 1960s House. I’m picturing a contest format in which participants are forced to complete such challenges as looking up a phone number in a phone book, dialing it on a rotary phone, and then having a private conversation in the family kitchen, where the phone is bolted to the wall with a skimpy cord and there’s nowhere to hide.

Then contestants could take turns in the “change the channel” relay, where they would be timed getting off the couch to switch the TV to one of the other two networks. They would then have to endure the grueling “watching the commercials” test, as well as attempt to make popcorn on the stove by shaking a pan full of kernels and oil over the heating element.

Of course, this segment would have to be preceded by a vocabulary lesson in which participants learned that pause means “temporarily stop what one is doing,” play means “go outside and swing on the swing set,” and fast forward refers to NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (or, as we knew him back in the old days, Lew Alcindor).

We could add quaint historical elements to the environment, such as the milkman delivering glass bottles of the creamy stuff to the door and the Good Humor man driving his truck through the neighborhood without anyone worrying that he was a creepy pedophile.

There could also be moments of high drama on The 1960s House. For instance, the adults would lose all contact with the kids for hours when they rode their bikes downtown or to the park without cell phones. In the house, the phone could ring, and no one would know who was on the other end.

Yes, I can imagine many interesting experiences for the members of The 1960s House: the percolator brewing the coffee, a solitaire game with real cards, a stack of 45s and a record player. In fact, it might be a good show for my family to watch – that is, if the power ever goes back on.