Cleaning Up After Your Dog: Welcome To Adulthood

November 23, 2010

It would seem, on the face of it, to be another one of those cardinal sign posts of adulthood: cleaning up after your dog.

After all, it’s the very first thing we teach our kids when we give them a pet, isn’t it?

“Now, honey. If you want to have a pet, you need to learn to be responsible for it. You need to walk it. You need to feed it. You need to clean up after it.” Right?

So why is that basic lesson seemingly lost on so many adults?

Or maybe it’s just here in London where I live. As I ranted a few weeks back upon returning from the pristine, dog-poop free streets of Berlin, many Brits just don’t seem to get the whole dog mess thing.

A few statistics to back that claim up. According to Keep Britain Tidy, in 2008 the UK dog population was estimated to be 7.3 million, with dogs producing approximately 1,000 tonnes of excrement each day. In a recent survey of over 19,000 sites, dog fouling was present in over 8% of these sites. The highest level of dog fouling can be found in areas where people actually live.

It’s not because there aren’t plenty of signs around telling you to clean up after your dog. There’s even a 50 pound ($75) fine for not doing so, which can go as high as 1000 pounds ($1500) if you need to go to court.

But how do you enforce that penalty, short of cycling around Hampstead Heath and chastising random strangers when they let their dog crap all over the place? (Trust me: I’ve tried it. One lady responded “Oh, I didn’t see it.” Um….excuse me, lady, but isn’t that precisely *why* we take our dogs out in the first place?)

Please know that this is not an anti-pet rant on my part. (I’ve actually grown more fond of pets lately, at least cats, ever since that crazy lady up in Coventry casually tossed one in a bin.)

This just seems like a matter of civility and community…not to mention public health. (Read this charming little explanation of all the lovely diseases you can get from dog poop, even long after it has disintegrated.)

But unfortunately, it does rely on establishing a set of norms around this practice, and I’m just not sure how one goes about inculcating a culture of cleaning up dog mess.

In my old house, I lived in what’s known as a Mews, which is somewhat akin to a courtyard. Every day for a two month period, some person (not one of us) was apparently getting up really early in the morning, taking their dog for a walk, letting it poo right in front of our Mews and then leaving it there. The amazing thing about this little period in our lives was that the dog did his business in *the very same spot* – literally – every day. For two months. It was absolutely outrageous.

It really bothered all of the residents of the Mews and we talked about setting up a patrol to bust this person in the act, even if that required creating shifts to man the watch tower at all hours of the day. But we never got that far.

Because a 90-year old resident of our Mews – literally, someone’s Grandmother – took the law into her own hands. One night she got out some chalk and went and circled all of the poop left by said dog. And then, in huge capital letters, she wrote the following: “Shame on you! Naughty Dog! CCTV is watching you! We know where you live!”

And just like that, it stopped.

Granny’s tactics might seem a bit draconian to some, but I think she had it just right. And – tellingly – there’s actually a town in Buckinghamshire that’s using high-tech surveillance techniques along highly trafficked dog walking routes to film dog poop offenders in the act and then follow them home and bust them. (Interestingly, the person who developed this surveillance method previously used it on cheating spouses. Yikes!)

But I’ve got another idea. You know that whole Great Society thing that David Cameron and Co. are actively pushing as the signature initiative of their new administration? It’s all about volunteerism and civic virtue and getting citizens taking over some of the things that local government previously did for them.

To which I say, Hooray, Boys. And here’s your first charge: let’s develop a citizen’s brigade to go out and clean up our streets and free them of dog feces. It ain’t pretty, but somebody’s got to do it.

I know I’ll raise my hand.

*****

I was over on Politics Daily yesterday talking about the latest egregious human rights abuses in China. Have a look…

 

Image: no dog poop by monicamuller via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Visit Germany

November 3, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I spent last week in Berlin. And as I often do upon returning from a foreign country, I thought I’d devote today’s post to sharing some insights I had about my trip.

(Warning: these won’t be nearly as exotic as those I gleaned from Helsinki. Nor will they smack of the acute nostalgia I felt upon returning from Vienna.)

But they will, I hope, motivate you to go and visit Germany, and especially Berlin. Here are five reasons that it’s a worthwhile trip:

1. Germans grapple with their history. Berlin is a city where you literally can’t walk for five minutes without bumping into some reference – whether physical, historical or cultural – to World War II, the Holocaust or Adolph Hitler. They’re everywhere. They’re on the sidewalks. They’re in the museums. They’re in the book stores. It’s as if the country – and this city, in particular – is wearing a giant sign that reads: “We will not forget.” And while my six-year-old did confess at one point to being a bit “Hitler-ed out,” that’s a good thing, in my opinion. We can’t remember enough.

2. You see the East-West divide in a whole new light. Much like the Holocaust, the whole East-West divide in Berlin figures front and center in the city’s layout and architecture. It is, quite simply, impossible to miss. Because of a friend here in London who’s from East Berlin, I’d already begun to re-think the standard Western narrative about East Germany before I arrived. But what’s nice about actually going to Berlin is that you get to see both sides of that story, and not just the “Gee, isn’t a shame they lived under Communism for so long” thread. In this vein, particularly worthwhile – and especially for kids – is a visit to the DDR Museum (Museum of East Germany).

3. Germans clean up after their dogs. From the sublime to the ridiculous? Perhaps. But it bears mentioning, especially if you live in a country like I do (the U.K.) where dog poop is, quite simply, everywhere. In the four days before departing on our trip – and I’m not exaggerating here – everyone in our family – all four of us – stepped in dog poop. (To add insult to injury, I did so again this morning while taking my daughter to school). And we allegedly live in one of the “nice” parts of town. It’s actually unfathomable how little people attend to their dogs here. Whereas in Germany, this whole issue was blissfully absent. And yes, this is going to be my next rant against living in England – which I’m otherwise quite fond of – (right after I finish a tirade against the dearth of paper napkins.)

4. Germans follow the rules. I’ve never seen a country where people are so attuned to following rules. No one cuts in line. (Trust me, we tried.) If the carry-on luggage rules say that your bag can’t be larger than 30 x 20 x 15 cm, sorry, but your 32 x 21 x 18 wheelie bag just won’t cut it. The museum guards actually watch you when you walk too closely to the paintings or graze the wall with your backpack (rather than chatting or sleeping as they do in the States.) And even if it’s three a.m. and there’s no oncoming traffic, a German wouldn’t dream of crossing the street when the light wasn’t Green. Obviously, this attachment to rules can be irritating – if not dangerous – when taken to an extreme. (See point #1 on Nazis.) But as a parent of two quite headstrong kids, I can definitely see a rationale for summer camp in Germany.

5. Germany has delicious Turkish food. I’m not a huge fan of sausage. (As a friend of mine put it bluntly, there’s something profoundly unappetizing about chopping up a pig’s innards into little bits and refashioning it into a phallus.) So German food will never do it for me. But Germany has a large Turkish population. And, boy, did I have the most delicious kebab in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin.

*****
I’m over on http://www.PoliticsDaily.com today talking about a new study arguing that alcohol is the most dangerous drug in the U.K.

Image: Scoop The Poop by teaeff via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Lessons Of Adulthood: The Art Of Non-Conformity

November 1, 2010

Re-entry is always difficult.

This is true whether you’re going back to school after a long summer vacation, going through your mail when you’ve been gone for a while or – as in my own case this morning – sitting back down to work after taking a week off to travel with my family.

Imagine my delight, then, when I opened up the International Herald Tribune and happened upon this gem. It’s an article by Alice Rawsthorn, the New York Times‘ design columnist, in which she sings the praises of grinding and brewing your own espresso over and above resorting to the dreaded pod espresso machines of Nespresso et al. (The indisputable allure of George Clooney notwithstanding, natch.)

I loved this article for so many reasons. For starters – as erstwhile readers of this blog will know – our own hand-brewed espresso machine holds a hallowed place within our home. As I said to my husband – who taught me to know and love what it is to brew your own coffee – this was an article that was – quite literally – written for him.

Rawsthorn has many reasons for taking a principled stance against automated espresso machines. They’re boring. They’re ugly. They’re environmentally questionable. (Turns out it’s really hard to recycle all those tiny sealed containers.)

But the main reason she rails against them is that they suppress variety, experimentation and – yes – inconsistency. Part of the joy of grinding your own espresso, she argues, is precisely that you never quite manage to brew the same cup of coffee twice. And therein lies the fun – and true beauty – of doing it yourself. It’s the ultimate act of personalizing your consumption.

Which brings me back to my week away from this blog. We spent the week in Berlin, one of those über – (no pun intended) – European cities. While we were there, one of the many museums we visited was the Bauhaus Archive, a museum devoted to the Bauhaus school of design.

For those of you who missed that chapter in 20th century intellectual history (I did) – the Bauhaus movement was a school of modern art and architecture that sought to fuse the gap between art and industry by sublimating “art” in the romantic sense to the exigencies of 20th century technological progress. This school of thought was urban, minimalist, and sought, above all, to privilege functionality in design (so well captured in its motto, “Form follows function.”) In many ways, it was the aesthetic movement that paved the way for mass consumption.

With its hyper-utilitarian streak, the Bauhaus movement sought to hide the messiness of artistic creation – its flourishes, its sentimentality, its “coffee grinds” if you will. And while that yielded some really cool buildings and furniture (click here for some iconic Bauhaus chairs), the overall feel was one of clear lines and uniformity of purpose, if not form. (Read Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House for a particularly trenchant treatise on this point.)

Which is a long way of saying that as with architecture, so too with espresso machines:  sometimes the beauty of adulthood lies in that which is unpredictable and highly personal.

Which is also why – as I stood there grinding my highly messy-yet-original espresso this morning – I decided that today’s re-entry wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Image: Bauhaus Dessau by Mark Wathieu via Flickr under a creative commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Signs You’d Make A Lousy Housewife

October 13, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I have tremendous respect for women (and men) who choose to work inside the home. And yet, when it comes to myself, I’m fairly certain that – even if I wanted to – I could never make it as a housewife. (Or house husband, as the case may be.)

If you’ve ever wondered whether you were meant to work primarily inside or outside the home, here are five indicators that should influence your decision:

1. You need help operating basic appliances. I’m not talking about fancy, fuzzy-logic rice cookers or super-deluxe espresso machines (replete with matching grinders). I’m talking boilers. All summer long, my husband and I noticed that the heat would come on at seemingly odd times. We tried tinkering with the thermostat in the hallway, but that had no effect. But then the heat would go off again and we’d forget all about it. The other day, while a service repair man was at my flat fixing our washer/dryer, I asked him if he could take a look at our boiler to figure out what the problem was. He opened the cabinet, looked at the boiler for about three seconds, and then turned to me and said…“Um…Miss? See this large red button here that says ‘On?”

2. You can’t even read the symbols, let alone the instructions. Forget instruction manuals. I think we all know that I’m lousy with those. I’m talking about the little symbols they devise for appliances so that even someone who can’t read (for example) can somehow manage to use the oven. Someone, that is, who isn’t me. I’ve lived in my house for nearly six months and – much like the heating problem, but even more frequently – I’d notice that whenever I put something in the oven, it tended to burn. Then, one evening when I was hosting a dinner party (and burning some lasagna), a friend of mine looked at the oven settings and noticed that the little squiggly lines that emanated off of one of the settings were also present on the setting I was using. “Um, no offense, but I think you’re grilling the lasagna” she said politely. (“Grill” being English for “broil.”) And when she showed me the little symbols, it all made perfect sense. Ah, so you mean you want to “bake” without the squiggly lines…got it.

3. You need to psych yourself up for ironing. Just before school started this autumn, I realized that my son needed his school uniform labelled. And because – between all the sports gear and the regular uniform – he’s got quite a lengthy list of school attire, this was going to take some time. Truth be told, all you need to do is set up the iron and apply the labels. (OK, you also need to iron each one like three times so it’s a bit more involved than that.) But that’s really it. And yet, I must confess that I find ironing completely oppressive. In order to execute this task, I literally had to play loud music, lay out all the clothes in assembly line fashion next to the ironing board and then talk to myself as I ironed each successive item to get me through the ordeal.

4. You can’t even count the rooms in a house. I’m not a terribly visual person (as I think the previous entry attests.) My husband – who is – can corroborate this.  I once famously scoped out an apartment for us in Boston and came home extolling the virtues of our new “three bedroom,” only to have him arrive a short while later and inquire as to where the third bedroom was located. The answer was…nowhere. It’s O.K. I have other talents.

5. You’re a hopeless cook. I recently asked my 9-year-old what he wanted for dinner. “How about some international cuisine?” he answered. “Um,you mean like Chef Boyardee?”

Image: 69/365 housewife with nothing to do by katie cowden via flickr under a Creative Commons license.


Tips For Adulthood: Five Signs You’re Working Too Hard

October 6, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Sometimes it’s the off-hand comment that really gets you thinking.

So there I was in the playground yesterday, about to pick my daughter up from school, when I started talking to a friend who was also waiting for her son. We were midway into a vague, “How’s it goin’?” sort of chat, when she suddenly commented, seemingly out of nowhere: “You seem so busy. Do you ever eat lunch?”

I laughed, reassuring her that I did, even while suppressing the memory of stuffing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth but two hours earlier as I galloped up a hill towards a bi-monthly appointment with my life coach (whom I see to help me…relax.)

But it gets better. As we talked some more about my work schedule, my double-school-run-afternoons and my husband’s recent business travel, she asked – in all seriousness – “Do you ever watch TV?”

She meant it in the nicest way, of course. She’s a really nice person. But, still, it cut me like a knife.

I mean: Do I ever watch TV? Am I so busy that the image I now project is that of a pop-culture-bereft, ready-meal-popping freak show who zips around North London on her collapsible bicycle desperately trying to keep up with her life? (Don’t answer that question. And by the way, does falling asleep to the Director’s Cut of Pride and Prejudice count as “watching TV”?)

So I gave it some thought. And I realized that I have been working too hard lately and trying to do too much. And I really need to relax. Here are five other tell-tale signs that you need to take a break:

1. Strangers tell you that you look rushed. It’s one thing when a friend tells you that you seem over-worked. But when even a stranger expresses concern that you’re too busy, it’s really time to take note. I was in the pharmacy the other day – where, because of the multitude of medical problems afflicting my family – the pharmacists are basically my extended family. Again, seemingly out of nowhere, the owner of the shop stepped forward and observed: “You always seem to be in a rush.” (“Why do you say that?” I wanted to reply. “Because I just knocked 42 of your contact lens solutions on the floor when I whooshed in here to grab my prescription while – literally – jogging?”) Once again, she meant it in the nicest way. This lady brings the descriptor “kindly” to a whole new level. And that made her remark all the more telling.

2. Muscle pain migrates to new corners of your body. Remember my piriformis syndrome? Thought I had that licked, didn’t you? Nope. It’s back. Only it has inexplicably migrated to the left side of my body. As soon as the pain started about six weeks ago, I recognized the symptoms instantly. And for a while, I ignored it. (Even though you should never ignore pain. You heard it here first.) But you know it’s time to cut back on what you’re doing when your body is basically screaming: “Hey! Pay Attention to Me!”

3. You feel relieved when you *have* to read your favorite magazine. I love The New Yorker. But despite my Sabbath Saturday resolve to devote more time to reading this magazine, I’ve fallen off the wagon. There are three – quite possibly, four – issues sitting in my magazine rack as we speak. One day last week, I found myself waiting for one of my kids for an hour with nothing to do but read my New Yorker. And I felt…relieved. As in: “Thank goodness this hour presented itself miraculously in my life!” Not as in: “Gee, I love the New Yorker and I think I’ll spend an hour reading it this afternoon because I want to.” What’s wrong with this picture?

4. You mistake tragedy for comedy. I love Indie films. The bleaker, the better. So when I recommended Winter’s Bone to some friends recently, I was puzzled when one of them, while passing me on the school run, shouted out: “Hey, thanks for the movie recommendation. We had a lovely evening. But it was a bit…grim, no?” To which I responded: “Grim? Really? I found it kind of uplifting.” When I recounted this exchange to my husband later that evening, he looked at me as if I were smoking crack. Like me, he also loved the movie. But “uplifting”? To paraphrase his reaction, when you mix poverty, drugs, murder and rural American sub-cultures, that’s not generally characterized as “uplifting.” Just sayin’.

5. You read Nora Ephron. I like my books much like I prefer my movies: heavy and (often) dark. (For me, the Dragon Tattoo series constitutes “light.”) So when my book club chose Nora Ephron’s Heartburn as its selection this month, I was initially disappointed. Not my cuppa, as they say. Boy, was I wrong. It’s not a great novel by any stretch. In fact, it’s not so much a novel as an extended rant by Ephron against her ex-husband for cheating on her when she was seven months pregnant. (And who can blame her?) But, man is Ephron funny. She has a terrific voice. And sometimes, we all just need to laugh.

Fortunately, I will have a chance to take a break later this month when I travel with my family – and my mother – to Berlin, one of those European cities I’ve always wanted to visit. Let’s just hope that whole terrorist threat thing has lifted by then. Speaking of grim…

*****

I was very grateful for this shout-out on the New York Times Freakonomics blog for my recent piece on health care reform in the U.K.

Image: Eat On The Run by Brave Heart via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Things Worth Doing In London (Part 2)

September 29, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Last week, I brought you my very own “bucket list” of five “on the radar” things you really ought to do in London.

As promised, this week I’m following that up with a list of five “under the radar” things you ought to do in London, but probably don’t know about:

1. Open House London – This has to be one of the all-time coolest things I’ve ever done in any city. Once a year in September, Open City – a non-profit, architecture education organization – identifies buildings in London of architectural interest and opens their doors to the public. Through Open House London, we’ve toured super-modern private flats, normally-closed-to-the-public government buildings, turn-of-the-century guild halls and environmentally-friendly houses. And all of it for free. This is something our family looks forward to every year when autumn rolls around. If you live here, or happen to be visiting in mid-September, don’t miss it!

2. Christmas Pantomimes – Here’s another seasonal treat, albeit for Christmastime. One of the signature cultural events that accompanies Christmas in London (sort of akin to ice skating at Rockefeller Center in New York City) is the Christmas Pantomime. A “panto” is a musical-comedy theatrical production based on a traditional story or fairy tale that typically includes song, dance, slapstick, cross-dressing and – most important of all – audience participation. They’re often quite bawdy, though usually aimed at a family audience. My favorite venue in London is the Hackney Empire. Brill! (As we say over here.)

3. Brick Lane – While London is justifiably renowned for its rich royal palaces and history, it’s also important to take in contemporary London. My recommendation on this score is to go over to Brick Lane in East London on a Sunday afternoon. A walk up and down this bustling street market will tell a story of London’s recent immigration history, with the bagel shops of yore sitting cheek by jowl with today’s Bengali curry shops. Afterwards, take a tour of the neighborhood with one of the seasoned guides from London Walks and learn more about its rich history, which dates from Jack the Ripper.

4. The Geffrye Museum – As long as you’re over in East London anyway, be sure to pop into the Geffrye Museum, a museum of – yes- living rooms through the ages. If you’re into social history, you’ll love this place, as it enables you to trace middle class life in England from 1600 to the present. Each room is – literally – a recreation of the average living room in any given period. Splendid fun for the whole family.

5. Sir John Soane’s Museum – I’m not even sure that I really know who Sir John Soane is, other than that he was an architect who lived and worked in London back in the 18th and 19th centuries. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this guy assembled the neatest (and most varied) collection of art, sculpture and personal effects and they now constitute a small museum in his home right in the heart of London. It takes less than an hour to tour, but you’ll see things ranging from a Roman sarcophagus to a model of the Bank of England (and back again…) Once again, the kids will love it.

*****

I’m over on http://www.PoliticsDaily.com today talking about health care reform in the U.K.

Image: Brick Lane by roboppy via flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Drinking Fountains Making A Comeback

September 27, 2010

Still or Sparkling?

Apparently, that’s not just a question for restaurants anymore.

Last week  – and proving, once again, that it really *is* the coolest city on earth – Paris unveiled a water fountain in one of its parks that serves – wait for it – sparkling water.

The move was motivated by a desire to make Paris greener. The average person in France drank 28 gallons of still or sparkling water last year, making this country the eighth biggest consumer of bottled water in the world, according to figures from the Earth Policy Institute. That’s a whole lot of plastic waste (262,000 tons to be precise.)

Apparently, the French are perfectly happy to drink tap water. But the major stumbling block is that they prefer it with bubbles. So – following on a successful experiment in Italy – the Paris authorities decided to meet the consumer where he or she lives…and added some carbonation. (Before you go dismissing those frivolous Parisians, allow me to confess that I can relate.)

The fizzy French fountains (sorry, it had to be said) build on a revival of water fountains around the globe. Here in London where I live, Mayor Boris Johnson commissioned a special advisor two years ago to look into where public drinking fountains might go in the city and how much they would cost. About a year ago, a fancy public drinking fountain was unveiled in Hyde Park, the first public drinking fountain in this city in 30 years. Shortly thereafter, more fountains were installed at heavily trafficked rail and bus stations.

And it’s not only in Europe where drinking fountains are witnessing a renaissance. In California, a new law requiring schools in California to have free drinking water available in cafeterias is awaiting the signature of Governor Schwarzenegger. (It’s hard to believe that this has to be legally mandated, but there you have it.)

It’s funny, but until I read about the fizzy fountain in Paris I hadn’t stopped to realize what an endangered species the public water fountain had become. Back when I was a kid, they were quite literally everywhere. But somewhere along the way, we began to identify shared drinking fountains as a public health concern, even though there’s no evidence for this (and some evidence that more bacteria live within bottled water.)

Now they’re coming back. A combination of recession-induced economics coupled with the growth in awareness about the environment has revived the idea that public drinking fountains might be a good thing.

I wonder what else we’ll see come crawling out of our collective unconscious in the category of formerly-bad-but-now-we-realize-not-so-much. My money’s on Crisco.

Anybody?

*****

I was over on Politics Daily yesterday talking about the demise of press freedom in Mexico as a result of the drug wars.

Image: Drinking Fountain Moon by Kevin H. via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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