Free Pimms and iPod Chairs: Why I Really Joined the PTA

April 30, 2009

Last Wednesday I found myself in an upscale, Italian furniture store called Natuzzi (pronounced, in case you’re wondering, Nah-TOOT-see). I’m not exactly the home furnishings type (though I did notice the leather chair where you can plug in your iPod and listen to it in surround sound and made a mental note to never, ever bring my husband here).

I was there because the store had generously sponsored the annual quiz night at my kids’ school and, in exchange, I was arranging for an event to be held at the store next Autumn.

I do this sort of thing quite a lot, actually. In between blog posts and article pitches and agent queries and whatever else I’m up to as a writer, I’m also frequently dashing off emails to the local bakery to see if they’ll donate a cake or nipping into the local off-license (liquor store) to see if they’ll slide us some free Pimms for our upcoming Summer fair. (Never tried Pimms? Get thee to an English pub tout de suite!)

People get involved in the PTA for a lot of different reasons. It’s a great way to make friends, to improve the resources at your kid’s school and to feel on top of what’s going on at the school.

All true.

But while I’m active in the PTA for all of those reasons, the main reason I do it is because it uses a different part of my brain.

As a writer, most of my day is spent (a) alone (b) typing and (c) in my pajamas. So when I go to a meeting or organize a project or cajole someone into donating money to the school, it’s a way to use my now dormant (but bursting at the seams) administrative gene, the one I left on the side of the road the day I left an office job (along with Karaoke night and bagel Fridays). Sigh.

Marci Alboher has a great book called One Person, Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success in which she describes the advent of what she calls “slash careers” – e.g., police officer/personal trainer or violin maker/psychologist.

The thrust of the book – which I’ll talk about some other time – is that slash careers enable people with multiple interests to realize all of their professional dreams. But having a slash career (yes, parenting counts as a slash!) is also a way to utilize different parts of your brain.

For me, then, doing the PTA is about taking my Admin side out of the garage every so often, dusting it off, and going for a whirl – though I’m sure there are many parents at the school who’d love it if I just gave that part of my personality a rest!

And, hey, whenever I get a bit too overzealous in my PTA duties, my friends offer me some Pimms and all is right with the world…


The website Babble offers an arch, funny take on parenting. Read here for a tale of one woman’s reluctance to embrace the PTA, only to discover that she found it quite gratifying.

Image: Pimms No. 1 by Naughty Architect via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Changing Religion: Bagel Brunch, Anyone?

April 28, 2009

I was struck by a new poll suggesting that half of all Americans change religion during adulthood.

Apparently, the American Catholic Church has suffered the greatest loss, and is having an increasingly hard time recruiting new members (this was of particular interest to me because I was raised Catholic).

My husband is Jewish. So we’ve given the whole issue of (my) conversion some thought over the years, ever since we took an “I’m Jewish, You’re Not” class at a university Hillel. I’ve long been drawn to Judaism (my father always said that I’d “make a good Jew,” by which he meant that I was studious and hard-working – you’d have to have known him to understand that this was his way of giving a compliment).

All of which is to say that I am very much – potentially, at least – within the demographic represented in this study.

But my husband and I remain deeply ambivalent about the whole religion thing. Before moving to London, we dutifully attended the “welcome bagel brunch” at the local synagogue in our Chicago suburb every year, never quite managing to join.

On the “con” side, neither of us is terribly religious (other than the odd genuflecting here and there on my part). And when you’re Jewish, you’ve also got to “pay to play” (as we used to say about Illinois politics). Which means that even with the Goyim discount we’d get at the local synagogue in London because I’m not Jewish, it would still cost about 500 pounds to join (approximately $750). If you come from the pass-the-basket tradition in which I grew up, you’ll balk before shelling out that kind of money unless you’re truly ready to commit.

On the “pro” side, however, we both feel that religion can be a positive form of identity for children. My husband grew up in the American South and attended a Christian high school, and so being Jewish is still a huge part of who he is. (There’s arguably no better way to solidify a minority cultural identity than to have your high school football coach gather the team around when you need to leave practice early to, quote, “send you off to Jew school,” unquote.)

And then I read this persuasive essay in Slate by Mark Oppenheimer about why going to services with his daughter has been such a meaningful experience. His basic point is that kids love rituals, religious services are a great way to spend quality time with your kids and they also allow him to continue to learn about his religion through his daughter. The essay is about Judaism, but the arguments apply more generally.

I’m not sure this article will motivate me to pony up the 500 quid I’d need to join the synagogue here, but it did get me thinking. Maybe I’ll just take a peek at the synagogue’s website and see if there’s a bagel brunch coming up anytime soon…

How about you? Have you changed religion as an adult? What was it like?


Further to last week’s post about cycling, I was delighted to discover that the first chapter of Smart Bike has started in the United States.

Image: Sesame Bagel by Roboppy via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Wine Tasting: It’s Not Just for Trader Giotto Anymore

April 27, 2009

My husband and I went to a wine tasting the other night.

As someone more at home with a bottle of beer, I always feel terribly grown up when I go to a wine tasting (which, by the way, I do quite rarely, despite having gone to one in Helsinki last week).

This time, we were invited by someone I barely knew, so I really feared the worst. In fact, we almost didn’t go at all.

Part of our reluctance stemmed from what happened the last time we went to a wine tasting with people we didn’t know. It was about eight years ago, right after we’d moved into a new neighborhood. I’d joined a local women’s group, thinking it would be a fast way to make friends. And so, when I saw that someone in the group was hosting a wine tasting, I thought:  Why not? My husband likes wine and maybe we’ll meet some like-minded souls.

Huge mistake.

If you’ve never been to a wine-tasting, it works like this: You’re given a bunch of different wines to sample “blind,”  and then, at some point in the evening, the names/origins/grapes etc are revealed. There may even be a contest.

But at this particular gathering eight years ago, it didn’t work that way. Instead, just as it seemed like the “moment of truth” had arrived, the hostess – now thoroughly sloshed herself – stood up and announced that we’d all be playing a little game called “Guess the Price.” She then began brandishing the different bottles of wine and instructed people to shout out their guesses as to how LITTLE the wine had cost (e.g., $9.99, $7.99, four bucks from Trader Giotto’s, etc.).

Yes, it was that bad. My husband and I locked eyes and fled the scene, scarred for life by our near-brush with suburban sophistication. (For the record: I have no issue with cheap wine and purchase it all the time. It’s just not something one usually associates with a wine tasting…)

But another reason we almost took a pass this weekend was that we didn’t know anyone else who was going, and so we thought:  Why bother?

As you get older, there’s a tendency to hunker down and say, hey, we’ve got enough friends as it is…we know our “type”…why take a chance on someone new? Let’s just go see a movie and call it a night.

But I feel like it’s important, every once in awhile, just to give it a go and try something new. Because there are always new and interesting people to meet out there. Plus, it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and do something – like wine tasting – that you’ve sworn off (even if for good reason!)

And guess what? We had a great time. It was a beautiful flat, there was plenty of interesting conversation and they served great wine. Plus, this handsome Italian guy named Marco was pouring all evening. What’s not to like?


A new website on AOL called Politics Daily launched today. Looks like a great line up of writers!

Image: Wine Glasses by Slack12 via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Middle Marriage: What’s Your Ziplock Conflict?

April 24, 2009

“I wish someone would write a novel about middle marriage,” a friend of mine bemoaned recently.

I knew what she meant: a novel that would address that particular stage of life when you’ve been married for a while and the kids are  no longer babies and maybe you’ve had a career change or a move or two, etc.

And so when I read this article in the New York Times Modern Love column a few weeks back, I thought: Eureka! I’ve found it! Not a novel, but an essay that speaks perfectly to this phase of married life.

If you haven’t already read the article, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to say that it’s about a couple that’s been married for quite some time and then, one day – in an airport security line – the wife totally loses it over (ostensibly) a ziplock bag.

I think we all have our version of the “ziplock bag” conflict with our significant others. As my cousin (who first sent me this piece) put it: “The writer is describing a basic and (Western) universal marriage reaction.”

In my own case, while not exactly ziplock material, all of my fights with my husband boil down to some version of: I go too fast, he goes too slow. Everything. From how we load dishes into the dishwasher…to the various career choices we’ve made…to the very act of walking down the street. We probably have 742 versions of this conflict, but they all reduce to this.

And that’s why I loved this essay. Because it acknowledges what most people aren’t willing to say about “middle marriage”:  how very hard it is to stay committed to the same person over the long haul (which is probably why half of all marriages end in divorce, at least in America). It’s really hard work.

And even when you do stay married, the recidivism rate is still high (as the author, Jane Hamilton, puts it so nicely). By which she means that even when you’re aware of the inappropriate reactions you have to the things in your spouse/partner/whatever which drive you nuts (pickle picker, anyone?), you invariably fall back into those inappropriate reactions before too long.

Which is why – like Jane Hamilton – one of the things that keeps my own marriage going is a sense of humor.

In our case, when things get rough (and when I decide not to throw something against a wall or curse very loudly), we play a version of  “Anything else?”

We learned about this game from some friends of ours who did a pre-Cana course with the Catholic Church before getting married. The priest sat them down and had them both list all the things that drove them crazy about each other. After hearing each item, the other partner was only allowed to respond: “Is there anything else?” The idea was to teach them how to both express – and tolerate – each other’s foibles.

Sometimes, when my husband and I start bickering, one of us will look at the other person and ask: “Is there anything else?”

To which, invariably, the answer is something along the lines of:  “Well, since you asked, actually there is…”

It’s a great ice breaker. Try it sometime.

Oh. I forgot to ask: Is there anything else?


One of my favorite tongue-in-cheek blogs is Stuff White People Like. Laugh-out-loud funny and so on point.

Image: Garlicky Dill Pickles by Kern.Justin via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Piriformis Syndrome: A (real) Pain in The Ass

April 23, 2009

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back, one of the things that happens as you grow older is that you find yourself learning about parts of your body you never knew you had.

In my case, I have an ache in my piriformis muscle which is, quite literally, a pain in the ass. Turns out, I suffer from something called piriformis syndrome, which is – let’s face it – a bit less dramatic than Stockholm Syndrome, but sounds momentous nonetheless. While they can’t be sure, the doctors here think it came about because I run a fair bit.

For the most part – and per my mother’s example – I manage this pain through assorted stretches and the like.

But once in awhile, it really gets  the best of me. Like yesterday. Despite taking round-the-clock ibuprofen coupled with a stronger (prescription) anti-inflammatory, I had this piercing, stabbing pain that started below my sacrum and extended all the way down my right leg to my ankle. (As a new found expert on Piriformis Syndrome, allow me to explain that the piriformis muscle is sometimes wrapped around the sciatic nerve, such that when the muscle becomes inflamed, it literally squeezes the nerve, with ripple effects all the way down one’s leg…ah, the joys of WebMD!)

I’ve been here before. Last fall, I did several rounds of physical therapy to cure this problem. I had this really hot “physio” massaging my bum twice a week for two months which, in another day/time/galaxy, might have been considered sexy.

In the event, it was just really painful.

When things get really bad, I start popping pills. Last summer when “the syndrome” first presented itself, I spent a week in bed taking muscle relaxants while watching the Olympics. It was my very worst nightmare of the 50s housewife come true:  prescription pain killers coupled with daytime TV. The doctors were reluctant to give me the meds because, apparently, people get easily hooked (and having now popped a few myself, I can readily see why…).

But it’s not just this muscle that tells me I’m aging. It’s the “Sensodyne” tooth paste I recently bought at the pharmacy. And the osteopath I needed to see last year for the persistent pain in my shoulder.

The bottom line: We’re getting old, folks. Or at least I am.

I think about the only positive thing to come out of this whole experience is that, having never been a sporty sorta gal before, I now have a bona fide sports injury. My father would be so proud.

Great article in The New York Times recently about the effects of friendship on health.

Image: Pillz by Rbatina via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips for Adulthood: Five Things You Never Knew about Finland

April 22, 2009

Every Wednesday I offer Tips for Adulthood.

This week’s list was inspired by my recent trip to Finland. One thing that happens as you grow older is that you often get stuck in boring cocktail parties where it’s up to you to come up with interesting topics for conversation. So the next time you’re at a loss for what to say to that incredibly dull person seated next to you at the dinner table, here are a few things to pull out of the hat. Since most people know very little about Finland, you’re bound to impress:

1. Finland only became independent in 1917. This floored me. Sure, there’s been a Finnish people around since the Stone Age. But for much of the past 800 years, Finland was under the control of Sweden and Russia. So it’s only been a modern nation state for less than 100 years. Not bad for the inventor of Nokia, eh?

2. Finland is mostly forest and lakes. Something like 76% of Finland is composed of forests and there are over 187,000 lakes. When you fly into the country you see this immediately, but, again, I had no idea.

3. The Finnish National Epic is the Kalevala. Yes, that very same one that has inspired countless hotel rooms. But that’s not all. Turns out that when Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, the well of Nordic myths soon ran dry. So he turned to the Kalevala for ideas. Try that one out on your Tolkien fanatic friends.

4. Reindeer is surprisingly OK. Try some. It’s the Other Red Meat. Finnish porridge, on the other hand, can be an acquired taste. It’s made of barley, not oats, which is a real head fake. But, then again, we all know that hunger makes good sauce.

5. The Finnish language is very similar to Estonian. Before I traveled to Helsinki, I knew that Finnish was a very rare language, baring little similarity to anything other than Hungarian. I was proud to know even that little factoid. But it turns out, Finnish is actually even closer to Estonian. Trust me. I sat through a five hour wine tasting with a lady from Estonia (another Fun Finn Fact: Finns like to drink). If you’re really well behaved, next week I’ll give you five obscure facts about Estonia…


In honor of Earth Day, I thought I’d link to this very funny post about Starbucks on

I was delighted to have Monday’s Realdelia post referenced on the Alpha Mummy Blog. If you live in the U.K. and are a current/former/or wanna be working mother, this is the blog for you.

Image: Finland Saariselkä by youngrobv via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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