Life in London

Rinse + Repeat

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All the big grocery stores in Europe seem to have at least two sizes of coin operated trolleys. This is moderately convenient until you go to return your trolley and there isn’t any of your kind to attach to and release your coin.  It’s one of those “how much is a pound worth to you” questions on whether you persist to another trolley return location or abandon cart and coin.  

Yesterday I was standing at a row of grocery trolleys and noticed that someone had solved this dilemma. They had taken their wrong sized trolley, saddled it up perpendicular to the row of other sized trolleys, and stretched the chain just far enough to release their coin.  The chain of nesting carts was broken but this geometrically-gifted shopper found a way to leave with her pound. Wa-lah!

I know this isn’t as groundbreaking as something really useful like having your trolley do your shopping for you, but it was one of those things that stood out for it’s simple ingenuity.  In my six years of scrambling around for spare change because I’d like more than a hand basket to carry my groceries, I had never seen someone have their coin and tether their ill-fitting cart too.  It was only a passing thought but it landed:  “See! sometimes the solution is right there, you just have to pivot 180 degrees to see it.”

All Moms chose their furniture carefully.  When we moved to London I bought the dining room table of my dreams and the dining room chairs of my reality.  They have dark, durable, washable fabric seats.  It’s a draw on whether more spot cleaning would be required if my children or hamsters roamed freely.

After the grocery run, I was arranging cascading bowls of fruit on the dining room table hoping to have answered the after school snack question with a visual aid.  In that process, I caught sight of my durable fabric seats and decided the ice cream to put away could wait.  I mean how much ground in chocolate can one Mom survive?  As I started to wipe down the seats, watching them magically look like new again, another thought attempted landing: “Just like you.”  

Kind of vague, honestly, but this was a situation where the possibility of negative thinking was ripe and so why complain for lack of clarity. 

That thought was unspecific enough that I didn’t think much of it until later when I was washing up.  I noticed a new hand soap at the sink.  Now I don’t have a hand soap fairy but I do buy in bulk at TK Maxx and so it caught me off guard when I saw the label on the new soap: Rinse + Repeat.  Incoming: “Just like you … all things are made new …over and over again.”  

Take in that thought on its second try and add in the smell of coconut and jasmine and you have yourself a little buzz.

Yesterday was also my son’s 16th birthday.  That by itself is a special day but then I showed up for my spinning class and realized I’d blindly signed up for bike number 16.  In case you need more information to be moved by this coincidence, there are 53 bikes and I had never ridden bike number 16.   

Some might still say “yeah, so…” (some of those people live in my house!) but when you are about 30 minutes into your workout and the endorphins are going, and you think about the beautiful life that was birthed out of your body 16 years ago, and you feel that older but still able body crushing it on bike number 16, and in comes the thought: “your body is a temple” accompanied with not just a buzz but pure pleasure … well, you believe it. 

It wasn’t a newsworthy day.  No personal productivity records were set.  I didn’t make any money and spent very little of it.   I didn’t accidentally bump into Russell Brand in my neighbourhood and have that imaginary conversation I’ve been planning.  No, none of that.  But when I hit the pillow last night and felt that quiet peace that envelopes you in the dark, it was confirmation that it had been a very good day indeed.

We think we want what people flaunt - power, prosperity, fame - when really our deeper needs are much more understated and accessible:  knowing that an a-ha moment might be right around the corner, the chance to start again and experiencing the thrill of living in your own sanctuary.   

Parenting in the age of Parent Traps and Admission Scams

“We think your son could benefit from extra help outside of school,” his teacher announced during our first parent/teacher conference at an International School in Europe.  

Blindsided by the gravity of the concern but at the ready with notepads, the PE teacher continued: “His swimming is far below standard.”  “As in, he can’t pass the swimming test?”  we asked reliving all the times we’d left him in the deep end, assuming.  It’s not like we hadn’t invested in several summers of swim lessons. “Oh no, he can swim — but his technique, particularly his breaststroke, is very poor.  We recommend you get him involved in an outside swim club.”

We did not write anything down.  But had I, I would have passed this note to my husband: “She should see you swim.”

That same year our oldest son struggled through, working as hard as he possibly could, for his worst grade in high school.  In Art.   His project from that year hangs in our dining room now as a remembrance.  And near as we can tell, our youngest son, who was in Kindergarten, was doing everything but learning how to read.

Those memories came flooding back when I read an article a few weeks ago.  In the article “The parent trap: the greater a country’s income inequality, the likelier parents are to push their kids to work hard,” the authors make the case that parents in countries with the greatest income inequality (USA, China, Russia) stress hard work and achievement over other values (like independence and imagination) which has led to the rise of helicopter parenting and an arms race for a diminishing number of opportunities.   Almost prophetically, the US college admissions scandal broke soon after.

We certainly haven’t been immune to the tendency for overdrive in wanting our kids to succeed but we’ve also benefited from leaving the nest of Seattle.  Your parenting is bound to evolve when you are doing it across cultures and in different educational environments.  When you have been a witness to models where swimming proficiency is a core life skill, where the arts are as rigorous as any academic subject and where educators have a different approach to early literacy you start to understand that every culture has their own priorities. There isn’t one ladder that everyone is trying to climb.  There’s lots of ladders and paths, enough to make it difficult to chart your kid against the others. As my husband likes to say, “the bar isn’t set."   

We haven’t shied away from the message of hard work but we’ve seen how putting more value on independence has been a fly wheel for one of our kids to internalize hard work.   And we’re aware that if not for the opportunities to take risks outside of the world of sports which was our comfort zone, we might have inadvertently lidded one of our kid’s creativity.  Above all, we’ve noticed that the exposure to other models has abstracted our children from the cookie cutter machine of what makes a winner and allowed them to accelerate the process of getting to know themselves.   The child who was trying to teach himself Icelandic a few years ago has moved on to other pursuits but how fun that he gave it a go.

Even with all this “insight,” we still don’t always get it right as parents.

That awareness came into focus several weeks ago with our son who is in the final push of studying for the GCSE.  The GCSE is a set of exams taken in the UK at age 16 after 2 full years of  study and your results determine what school and what you can study for your last two years of high school.  He doesn’t have his sights on a top school but he has marks he needs to hit to get into the schools he wants. The exams are this May and in preparation he had said yes when I suggested he take an optional, highly regarded review course outside of school over Easter break. 

After signing him up, he happened to see the receipt for the class on the desk. He was furious that I hadn’t told him how much it would cost and I was surprised that he was furious. He refused to accept what he believed to be an unfair advantage by taking a course that only the privileged could afford to buy.  He was adamant that I get a refund and that he was fully capable of self study. 

I don’t think it’s wrong to give our kids what we can, but he made it clear that we were giving him the wrong thing.  We wanted to give him peace of mind, and maybe a few extra points on his exam, but in my blindness to help him I overlooked the cost to his sense of social justice. He wanted to do his small part to keep the playing field level or at least not “pile on” more advantage. I suspect there are a lot of young people who share both his cynicism and idealism for how the system should work.

As parents we can’t always tell in the moment when our kids are avoiding something they don’t want to do or when they are standing up for something they feel strongly about.  When we heard “I’ll do it myself!” when they were three years old, we thought it was cute and gave them healthy boundaries and soon they were dressing themselves. “I’ll do it myself!” at sixteen is a bigger conversation but the potential for upside is also bigger. We backed down and he in turn has doubled down on his own efforts.

Our kids need our support and guidance, but they also need us to trust their inner voice when they hear it.  That is certain to take them further than any marginal gain a highly regarded opportunity could ever do. 

Where do all the good ideas come from?

I have this app on my phone called Blinkist.  It’s one I actually pay for.  It’s an app where someone reads a non-fiction book and then puts together a 15 minute summary of its key insights that you can either read or listen to.  These modern day cliff notes are available on books covering psychology, personal growth, management and leadership, biography, science, history, and many more categories.  The summaries are long enough to make you feel like you get the gist of the book but short enough to embarrass yourself at a dinner party should you claim to have read it. 

At this point, I have way more advice on better living than I have time to put into practice.  And, a few - bless the effort - books that feel repetitive even in brief summary.  It’s led me to buy a handful of the books in full and it’s been a way better use of my time now that I took the FB app off my phone.

People have been dishing out good advice with an aim to improve individual lives and public life, for thousands of years.  As CS Lewis remarked, “There’s no shortage of good ideas.”   But I was realizing recently that my early Christian life (where CS Lewis featured heavily) taught me that Jesus’ advice was all I needed. Full stop.  I was taught to be suspicious of influences - moral guidance in particular - that didn’t originate from the church.  My interpretation was that I was supposed to put my fingers in my ears and say “la, la, la.”

I carried around that suspicion — with a sense of danger for rock musicians, yogis, and democrats.  Ironically, Purple Rain was my first R rated movie and I did marry a democrat at 21 years old.  Yoga remains a stretch.  My first job out of college - a litigation consultant for Arthur Andersen - forced me to confront other people whose advice might be questionable: lawyers and people who worked on Sundays.  

Over time, my misgivings mellowed. And morphed. My fingers came out of my ears but mostly to politely listen, still cautious.  If Jesus didn’t say it or say something similar, it still wasn’t worth much thoughtful consideration.  I continued to seek the buzz words I’d been trained to hear as they related to peace, joy, love, forgiveness, purpose, wisdom, etc.  It was like signing up for Spotify but only listening to three playlists.  For a middle aged white woman, that’s an intolerable amount of Ed Sheeran.

In this last decade, however, I’ve become fascinated in what other people - different than me - have to say. It’s maybe why I love my Blinkist app. I have this hunch that Jesus has actually pushed me in that direction.

On reflection, Jesus wasn’t pounding his chest claiming to be the best moral teacher, dishing out helpful advice.  Instead, he talked about a new kingdom where all things are made new.  His challenge was much bigger.  He said Follow Me.  You would “stay and listen” to a great speaker but his invitation was “come and see.”  As in, let’s go on an adventure.  And adventures always involve food and music and big ideas and leaving buildings.

And when I focused on following Jesus - not just reciting his words - I started to notice all these other tracks and new artists.  Which makes sense because if he is truly God and the embodiment of love and goodness - the church walls and even the scriptures (which incidentally I read now with more enthusiasm than ever) have no power to contain him.  So today when I read a full book or a packaged up summary of one, or listen to a podcast, or enjoy a great meal, or experience creation, or have a conversation  — I listen more closely as I expect that Jesus will be collaborating with truth wherever it is found.  

Thanks for listening.



Guest Post by Lawton Ballbach

Today’s post is from a guest blogger, my 12 year old son Lawton Ballbach. This weekend Lawton started writing a story for fun. He’s only written the first chapter so far, but I’m hooked! I love that he set the story in Mauritania and Morocco (and apparently Cornwall will be a third location in later chapters.) Happy reading!

Chavis Abara

Chapter 1

The day moved on slowly and so did Chavis.  The humid air attacked his lungs, making him wheeze out short subtle breaths.  His grubby pack jabbed into his weak shoulders.  Again Chavis’s mind drifted into the clouds.  It has been four years now, but Chavis was still not over it.  The flashbacks were harsh, they struck him like lightning.  Then there was her.  A tear rolled down Chavis’s face.  He soon pulled himself back together, he had to stay strong.  

Suddenly a voice echoed into Chavis’s ear.  He spun around rapidly and there in front of his was Kwame.  “Qu’est ce que tu veux?” Chavis’s voice was hoarse and croaky.  “Comment osez-vous partir.”  Kwame’s face burned with rage.  Kwame was a very vile man.  His grim teeth sprouted out of his mouth like mouldy plants.  His colourless eyes drooped downwards and his ruffled hair crawled with insects and maggots.  Kwame gripped Chavis’s limp arm tightly.  Chavis considered running but he knew better than to disobey Kwame.  So Chavis reluctantly followed.  He knew he didn’t have much left, so all he could so now was think, think until a glorious idea sprang into his mind.

It was a warm day in Rabat.  The blazing sun glistened onto the ‘Voyager,’ bobbing calmly against the Moroccan waves.  However, the inside of the Voyager was a very different story.  Jelani felt like he had millions of butterflies fluttering in his stomach.  Bryson Kenning had always make him very nervous, but never like this.

For a man in his early fifties, Kenning was very strong and very ruthless.   All of Kenning’s guards, including Jelani were standing in a perfectly straight line.  Each of them had AK-47s slung over their shoulders.  Thud!  Thud! Kenning had arrived.  His thunderous footsteps echoed throughout the Voyager.  Yelling, then a gunshot.  Jelani felt the pang vibrate through his quivering body.  Finally, Kenning entered, his eyes were gleaming with hunger and violence.  

“I presume you have what I have been asking for,” barked Kenning.  “Well, you see I …” Jelani stammered.  “Well you know what I do to people who don’t give me what I want” rasped Kenning.  And before Jelani knew it Kenning was aiming his gun straight at Jelani’s forehead.  “I know someone who can sort you out,”  sniggered Kenning.  Then everything went black.

Amazon Wonder Women

A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch with a group of Amazon women. We are not large women. We are five women who do battle with Alexa and prime membership in multiple countries - and pretty much everything else - so our husbands can do their jobs with Amazon here in London.

While none of us knew each other in Seattle, the Seattle spider web of connections is strong and we had all been daisy chained over email and social media by various mutual friends. Three of the women are new to London this fall (the “Amazon Freshmen”), I am in my second year and Megan is in her third year AND third house in London … the original Wonder Woman wielding her way through the logistics of a providing a soft landing for her family in a foreign country.

Collectively our group is responsible for more than a dozen children. However, for the most part, none of us has met each other’s children. The reason is mostly practical. We live in five different neighbourhoods and have kids at four different schools but we talk a lot about parenting over our monthly lunches. I could tell you an Awesome Mom story about each one of them. Now that we’ve added monthly cocktails to our calendars, we’ve started to touch on Awesome Wife stories too.

We have kids roughly the same age although with my 21 year old outlier, I’ve been in the teen trenches a little longer. You’d think then I would have a few “teen parenting wins” to offer when the question came up at lunch but … no. I needed a think about.

Teen parenting wins are not as easy as sending in a mouthful of broccoli to a toddler pretending it’s an airplane. Although it makes me wonder if this tip from podcaster and writer Hillary Frank, “to wipe an ornery kid’s nose, put a sock on your hand and pretend it’s a puppet trying to give her kisses,” might have application in getting my pre-teen to remember to apply deodorant. “Ewww… even this puppet smells you….”

Anyway. I decided the best answer to the question might come from going directly to my teen source. So I casually asked my 15 year old a few days later: “So hey, I was just wondering … ummm….like….what are the things that Dad and I do well in parenting you as a teenager?” Then he did that thing where he vanished from the room. An in-the-flesh ghosting.

So not casual, Kate. I was resigned to coming up with an answer on my own when a solid ten minutes later we crossed paths again in another room. With a half smile and a full look in my eyes he said: “You let me follow my passions and you don’t let me quit.”

Ahh. Yes! I thought maybe that was a win too but it’s not always easy seeing it from the trenches. And this was a trench we’d only been out of for a short time. I wanted to ask a follow up question but I held back and let the win stand on it’s own.

I’ll tell you the details of that story another time. For now, be reminded that we as Moms of Teens continue to do great things even if they are harder to name … and sharing our stories helps to keep all our lamps burning. Thank you Megan Ainsworth MarineAnn Kerby SharmaCynthia Johnson, and Kim Stone for “adding to my cart” during this season of our shared London adventure. Xo

l'œuf, Le Bab and other delights

The first time he said it I thought it was a passing comment, the sort of thing young boys sometimes say to satisfy a mother’s never ending need to be appreciated.  The second time he said it, I paused to register the genuineness of the idea until Mother Practicality piped up to gently enumerate all the reasons it wasn’t possible.

At twelve, a child knows all our Mother voices, and can discern the ones that are weighted down with an overprotectiveness of the downside. And so before I could finish, he interrupted:

“But Mom, wouldn’t it be fun to open a restaurant together?  You’d be the chef and I’d be the one who talks to the customers.  And did you hear me?  It’s only a brunch place.  Maybe even a food stall.  So we don’t have to work nights.”

If “a great leader has a presence that make other people bigger” and “if we have the possibility to always be growing” then his question was my cue to act like a Great Mom by allowing the idea to percolate.  He wasn’t asking me to make a cash investment on the spot, he was simply asking me to dream a dream with him.  Not just any dream but a dream where Mom has a starring role!

“Yes, it would be fun!” I answered with feeling.  “Good,” he said with possibility, “because I already know what my signature dish is going to be.”  

Over Christmas break my partner worked on his signature dish: toasted sourdough toast with eggs fried to your liking in a cast iron skillet, grilled pancetta (or halloumi cheese) infused with fennel seeds, topped with smashed avocado and arugula.  He made some variation of it most mornings for his brothers, enough days in a row to experience the fatigue of satisfying hungry customers every 24 hours, some with very precise ideas of over easy, medium, and hard.

No doubt inspired by his signature dish and our visit to France, my partner ruminated that the name of our restaurant should be: l'œuf.  A nod to both the French word for egg and his first initial.  And from a design aesthetic, the name should be all lower case and the “oe” mashed together as it is in French.

After New Years, we had a fun lunch at a restaurant back in London called Le Bab.  (The “Le” bit being a total coincidence.) Le Bab is a modern twist on the kebab - I imagine what happened to the humble hamburger years ago — and the food is delicious.  Better yet was the long conversation we had with one of the charming owners, made possible because we were their last lunch table of the day.  The owner treated us to a free sample of their signature dish which we failed to order (the Paneer Kebab with beetroot chutney, crispy onion, picked celery and curry mayo - amazebabs!) and many stories of the restaurant’s beginnings and ongoing expansion.  He’s dreaming about starting one in Los Angeles … though it’s a long shot …

Recognising a kindred spirt, Lawton shared his plans for l'œuf.  With flourish.  His animated description, along with his seriously battered and beet-rooted up napkin, were maybe not evidence of a fully baked business plan but they certainly communicated a passion for food.  As a practical, though woken up, Mother would hope, the owner - without any dumbing down for him being pint sized - offered some advice and wished him luck. 

Post Le Bab, Lawton got working on fresh juice menu ideas.  It’s likely that plans may stall now that we are back to school, but I will continue doing my part to develop dishes that one day might be worthy of l'œuf. 

Some days are over easy, others are medium and some are hard but isn’t batting around a dream — with someone you love — a sure recipe for delight.

All In

“All In” may have long ago crossed over from a general expression to an overused one but it’s the only way I can explain this spreadsheet.

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This is my 15 year old’s spreadsheet. It is NOT for anything to do with school. It has to do with football. It’s a 4 page spreadsheet with all the teams in the top 4 English football leagues (with annotations to the left of teams promoted and relegated) and games he has attended in the 2017/2018 season in green and games he has attended in the 2018/2019 season in blue with tick marks for teams he has seen home or away.

The boy does not have other tracking spreadsheets related to schoolwork. I know this because I not so subtly asked.

He’s seen 22 teams play in 8 different stadiums. He checks games he wants to see with our shared family Google calendar and then buys all his tickets online in advance (for usually a student discounted price of £2), adding them to the calendar. He then finds his way there and back on public transportation. Sometimes he goes with a friend or his brother but a lot of time he goes on his own. It’s one of his London hobbies. He has 4 more stadiums to hit in the London area.

When our friend Nate Frank was recently in town, he appreciated the spreadsheet at first glance. (It took a lot of patient explaining for me to simply understand the names of the 4 divisions.) Nate told Colin he had to read Nick Hornby’s memoir “Fever Pitch” about the author’s similar childhood obsession with football. We bought the book the next day. One however can’t be fully committed to every aspect of an obsession -- so his energy reserve after game attendance is moderate enthusiasm for finishing the book before the end of the 2018/19 season.

Recently Colin showed us his growing collection of game tickets and programs. Noticing that one of the programs was a little roughed up, Brettasked: “What happened here?”

Colin: “Oh yeah. That one accidentally fell in the urinal. But don’t worry. I washed it off in the sink with some soap and then dried it in the hand dryer.”

ALL IN. ALL BOY.

Tell Me More

Tomorrow the kids go back to school. I knew we were coming to the end of our summer parental energy when we twisted our 11 year old’s arm into watching the new Amazon series “Jack Ryan” for Monday night family movie night.  He said: “It’s going to be scary.”  We said: “Nah, it’s sweet-faced John Krasinski from The Office!”  Spoiler alert and alert to any other veteran parents thinking of bypassing their kid’s internal violence-o-meter:  a weapon gets extracted from a cadaver in Episode 1.   Ewwwwww.

I had to take him to bed and promise to stay with him until he feel asleep.  My presence in the dark was enough for him to fell safe and rewind the gore of what he witnessed on screen.  As we hugged, he nuzzled into me and said: “Mom, don’t you love it when you close your eyes and you see all those red and blue lights?”  When I told him I only saw black/darkness when I closed my eyes he was genuinely perplexed: “Really?  You don’t see all those coloured lights?!  Wow.  I thought everyone did.”  I asked him about the purple lights and then to tell me more but soon he was fast asleep.  

On the eve of Back to School, like all parents I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help my kids have a great year.   Asking them regularly: “Tell Me More” is one thing I keep coming back to.  Kids are still in the process of making up their minds about what is possible and what is not and discovering - sometimes gently and sometimes not — that not everyone experiences all the same things.  “Tell Me More” gives them space to keep exploring at a time when they are perfectly wired for it.

The next morning my same son said he had a bad dream.  When I asked him to “Tell Me More”, he said I had signed him up for swim team and told all the instructors he was an excellent swimmer.   (This premise was not an initial cause for reflection as every member of my family is an unskilled swimmer who would lose to a camel in the water.) Anyway, because of what I said, the teachers kept moving him up into the more advanced groups and into deeper water.  No one cared that he didn’t really know how to swim.  (Oh. Scanning now for terrestrial applications…)  When it came time for the first meet, not only was he last but he couldn’t finish the race.  He was humiliated.  I, he said, was surprised and disappointed. (Ouch.)

I’m glad he told me.  It’s another thing I and all us parents can do for our kids to help them have a great year: be realistic with our expectations.   “Tell Me More” might actually be a great tool for recalibrating what those expectations might be.

Tomorrow I am expecting my boys to set the alarm, put on a clean school uniform that fits, and pose for a photo.  I know it’s not realistic for me to hope that the youngest will make his own lunch because I missed the window on that lesson — but I am expecting to be surprised by them in new ways this school year. 

Women Running the World and A £30 Find

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I may have never won the lottery but I have found £20-£40 lying on the ground four different times since moving to London.  You’d think money was falling out of the sky.  One of the times was on the street, two of the times was on the Tube, and the last time, this past Friday, was on a dirt path in Hampstead Heath.

I found the £30 in Hampstead Heath while on a run with my running group.  Unable to find it’s rightful owner in the Heath (people are so honest!), I planned to give the money to someone I saw on the street or bring it to church.  But … then a better, more spontaneous, idea surfaced on the way home.

After the 8 mile Heath Route, I peeled off from the group and detoured to see my hairdresser Jonathan who had just cut my hair earlier that week.  I wanted to schedule a follow up appointment for what we coarse, thick-hair people know as “more texturing.”  Nothing like a sweaty run to make my big hair case.  Sweet Jonathan offered to solve my problem on the spot. 

As I was sitting in his chair for the five-minute fix, it dawned on me that it had been his chair where I first heard about the running group.  Almost exactly a year ago.  A woman named Stephanie was in his chair before me and she had been chatting enthusiastically about her great running group.  Desperate for friends in a new city, I asked Stephanie for the details.  She immediately followed up to connect me to Women Running the World (or WRW for short.) A weekly email was soon in my inbox with detailed running routes that look like this. 

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This is the 9 mile route we did from St John's Wood to Canary Wharf (!) last Monday.  Not a run I would have done on my own.  :)

Now I’ve been part of a few other running groups in the past but none quite like WRW.  First, there are close to 150 women in WRW which means no one is left stranded if you accidentally forgot to set your alarm.  The run will go on without you but you will have no less than two dozen WhatsApp messages letting you know how great the run was and how much you were missed.

The size of the group is in part because all abilities are welcome including and especially encouraging women who have never run before.  The group runs from September through June and women are welcomed to join any time of the year which is why I was able to turn up in February and be immediately embraced.  

The large group is broken up into pace groups who run 3x/week where we stagger start times for the sake of London pedestrians and a true beginner group who run the alternating 2x/week.   I’m part of the “Naughty-Nines” pace group which is as entertaining as our name suggests. Regardless of pace, we all have our eye on a shared goal (a destination 1/2 marathon set for the spring) and love for the post-run coffee.  115 women are traveling to Utrecht, The Netherlands in about 6 weeks for this year's spring race. 

The genius of WRW is that the group always meets in the same spot (the Barclays Bank in St Johns Wood) at the same time (8:15am.)   The vast public transportation system in London means that we can always start at the same place and Tube or bus home.  I have seen so much of this city by running destination routes with WRW.  Route maps are consistently emailed the week prior but the only thing you really need to know is to show up at 8:15.   There are at least two leaders for each pace group who know the routes and emergency loo spots which means your job is to simply run and not get run over. 

One of the Friday Hampstead Heath routes was also my very first run with WRW last February. An endorphin hit plus a payoff view like this is enough to make anyone want to run.  

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That memory in Jonathan’s chair made me smile back at my red, sweaty face in the mirror.  I did win a different kind of lottery that day.  In a city of 8 million people, given where I live and where my children go to school, I may not have found WRW otherwise.  It was through Jonathan’s unknowing connection that prepared the way for me to meet a group of ladies who have become treasured friends.  So on this day at least the £30 from the sky was left in Jonathan's tip jar as a way of closing the loop to pay it forward.    

The Joy of After School Activities, minus the Carpool

This week I was reminded by Facebook of this post I wrote one year ago.  It was about my dread of having my then 13 year old son travel to and from basketball practice on his own after school through a tough part of London.  A year later, he is still making that commute to his basketball family, now three times a week plus weekends.  Those three days a week father and son share a 12 hour workday, occasionally finding each other on the last leg of their journey home.  Independence intertwined with care and common sense (and a little extra cash for food) is like a plow that loosens fear and allows our children to grow. 

While grateful for his blooming independence, I’m also thankful that my 11 year old still needs an after school escort.  He has regular after school activities twice a week where my services are required.

It used to be that after school activities were a series of curb side pickups and drop offs in a car you always apologised for given that it doubled as a dressing room and mini-mart.  In London however, after school activities without a car means multiple backpacks and never leaving home without an Oyster card and umbrella.  You  have to learn to do “more” in public restrooms and if trainers were forgotten, then loafers it will be.   On the plus side, crumbs are no longer your concern.

Shuttling a child to and from activities without the convenience of a car has indeed been more inconvenient, but if truth be told, I’ve found a lot of pluses that extend well beyond crumb avoidance.  After a year, we have found a rhythm to these two days that has made them more joy than chore.   

First, the snack upgrade.  With 20 minutes to kill after school before the boys need to ferry off in different directions, the three of us meet up for a quick snack somewhere near Oxford Circus.  The food options are endless with places like Joe & The Juice, Kaffeine, and Gitane (Persian food and today’s stop.)  Gone are the days of groaning about a granola bar and apple slices,  Also gone are £s.   

Second, undivided attention.  When it matters most.  You often get the unedited version of the day’s events right after school ends, before it’s either forgotten or buried.  I’ve found that I’m a much better listener in those precious 20 minutes when I’m not responsible for making the avocado toast or focusing on road and traffic conditions.  The bizarrely spotty mobile phone coverage near the kids school has also been a boost to attention.

Third, touch.  An 11 year old may be outgrowing hugs and kisses but nothing gets them to nuzzle into you like a crowded Tube or bus after a long day.  On one of the days Lawton and I head west on the Bakerloo line from frenetic Oxford Circus to Maida Vale.  We typically start our journey standing face to face until the train empties at Paddington Station when he then takes his position either on my lap or with his head on my shoulder.  When there are no watchful eyes of friends or siblings around or room to escape to, Mom is your home base.  Even in public.

His head finds a similar resting position on the other day of the week when we take a crowded bus 17 stops heading east to Islington. Together we people watch as almost the entire bus ridership turns over as the neighbourhoods change.  The transit part may be less about conversation but the physical hip to hip connection has a way of quietly restoring energy for both parent and child.  It’s something that doesn’t happen with a front seat/back seat seating arrangement. 

Fourth, alignment.  Not having a car in a big city naturally forces you to be more selective.  And when a little more skin in the game is required, it becomes clearer to both you and your child on what activities they really want to invest in. That clarity of choice helps you muscle through on days when one of you isn't feeling it or you aren’t up for all the humanity. And since my 11 year old isn't likely to become a top college basketball player or rising thespian, it is a relief to take the proverbial pedal off the gas - even when you didn’t really know you were speeding.  

Fifth, park time.  On both days I can either take the bus to meet the boys near school which takes 15-20 minutes or I can walk through Regent's Park which takes 30 minutes.  Nine out of ten times I walk.  I'm not even competing with anyone for steps.  I walk because green space has a way of elevating your mood even in the rain.  Somehow even though that time is in service of my children, the distinction between giving and receiving blurs when I'm under a canopy of trees rather than behind the wheel of a car.   

Sixth, bonus me time.  On the day I drop Lawton off in Maida Vale for basketball, the lack of good transit options going west to east without heading back into Central London means that my best options for getting home are either Ubering or walking.  Nine out of ten times I choose to bundle up for the walk and listen to a podcast.  The walk, much of it dark at this time of year, takes me 50 minutes but it’s through beautiful residential neighbourhoods where the quiet leafy streets shush the noise of the bustling city.  And because Brett tubes from work to pick up Lawton after practice and they Uber home for their own one on one time, I magically have an hour and a half in a quiet kitchen to make dinner.  

Seventh, eating out.  Sometimes it's simply not practical to get home after an activity drop off.  Instead it's more practical to spend the 90 minutes in a cozy neighborhood pub reading.  On the second night our regular schedule involves me doing that at a place in Islington called The Albion where there is always a seat near the roaring fire.   After pick up, we then meet up with Brett and Colin somewhere new for a late dinner.  Beyond the Kindle time during what is usually cooking time, there is something pretty cool about coming from different parts of the city and seeing your rosy cheeked 14 year old holding the table for your 8:15 dinner reservation. 

After school activities can be slog but there are some small rewards that open up when you ditch the car and grab an umbrella.