Valentine’s Day

My response to this week’s Daily Post Challenge: What’s Your Valentine’s Day?

Not being American I don’t want to dis the local customs – I’m reluctantly coming around to Halloween after all – but I’m afraid the holiday is more booby-trapped with relationship pit-falls than laced with love.

To be clear, it has nothing to do with having passed my 10 year anniversary  – a day for which there are plenty of cards for sale. In fact if there were more anniversary cards it might take the pressure off V-Day. “I’m so glad you didn’t tear up my number” or “Thank you for meeting my parents I can’t wait to meet yours,” would at least celebrate what you’ve already accomplished without risking it by pushing the envelope on what you hope might “evolve”.

No I love a bandwagon as much, if not more, than the next person. But long before I became one of Bridget Jones’ “Smug Marrieds”, Valentine’s Day seemed like a hastily contrived beta-holiday that someone should have focus tested before it launched. It’s fraught with awkwardness no matter where you are in your relationship.

Single? Do you accept a date or go out on an anti-valentine’s pride-night with your other single friends and end up shout-singing lychee martini infused karaoke to 40 sunken Korean barbecue tables-of-two? Much worse – if you’re newly attached what’s your gift:time ratio? If you think four months warrants a flower and a mixed tape and he’s thought out dinner beyond his part-time-job means, a gift and a moonlit walk around a glittering Sydney Harbour, one of you is in trouble.

But I’m passed all that and it’s all rosy in hindsight. Valentine’s Day could be a sweet reminder of how far we’ve come since then. It could be a bit of fun, sharing in the excitement of others. It really could! But there’s that email from school reminding us that this is even bigger for toddlers and primary schoolers and anyone who doesn’t help their kids make 20 of their nearest and dearest feel special is a party-pooper.

I am now trudging through frozen slush to Michael’s to stand in line for supplies.  Oh it’s for the kids, we say (which is why I’m coming around to Halloween, because it really is For The Kids!) But they’ll only be excited about the craft supplies and the prospect of more cupcakes at school. Ten minutes into it reality will hit even the most dedicated Handwriting Without Tears graduate.

“Dear [name], you are a great friend and I really like your [special talent]. I hope we can have a play date soon. Happy Valentine’s Day, Your friend [R or H’s name in curly colorful cursive]”

Will  become,

Dear [name], hppY valenties dAy. From [R or H].

Shortly after that H will ask me to print it all out on the computer so he can fill in the names and sign it. This year, we’re going up the class list in reverse alphabetical order, to make it fair.

So instead of smiling at burley blokes trying to maintain a swagger while carrying red roses and fluffy bears, my Valentine’s Eve will be spent forcing two house-bound children to get all their homework done quickly so they can stay at the table for even longer so they won’t look like the only ones with curmudgeonly parents.

It’s not the most romantic day on my calendar, but I’m so grateful to have others that are!


Spilled Rice

It was a snack-lunch on the move. A granola bar on the E Train from Grand Central to JFK. The kids were at school and prepped for a week without me – doing more than fine with the idea because having babysitters pick them up from school is kind of fancy, having a friend pick them up and take them to her place is fun and having Dad take the afternoon off to pick them up and hang out is just awesome.

I’ve cooked and frozen a few meals and done plenty of groceries for them but they’ll probably take the excuse to eat out and then tease me about what a treat my week away was.

By the time the train starts making local stops in Queens, the carriage is half empty – just a few people shrouded in lumpy puffer coats here and there. The girl next to me is reading but it’s on her iPhone so I can’t read over her shoulder.

A couple of women in the middle section chat intermittently, like friendly strangers passing the ride or reserved colleagues on their way home from work. Opposite me a very round boy drops off to sleep, his head lolling against the ad for Dr. Zizmore dermatologist and plastic surgery. A container in a bag on his lap falls to the floor and his grandmother, all angles and worn edges, snaps the bag from his hand and reprimands him in Spanish.

The girl next to me goes back to her e-book and the carriage, which now smells of a spilled Chipotle rice & beans, shudders towards Jamaica.

Suddenly the boy is standing in the middle section of the carriage, shouting and crying. His grandmother drops a napkin over the pile of rice at her feet and goes to the middle section nearer to him. He hurtles to the back doors and sobs and shouts again.  The train stops and my heart slows. He’s much too old for tantrums like this but too young to get off the train on his own. Grandmother goes to the other end and sits a distance from him but he stomps back back to stand by the door next to my seat. A tear trickles past the arm of his glasses, which he’s outgrown and now dig into his cheeks. He wheezes and pulls himself together with a faint groan. He’s too young for this.

The two women sitting in the middle exchange a “one-of-those-days” half-smile with the grandmother, but I don’t think this is one of them. Kids who have enough good days don’t react like this to bad ones.We’ve all been overtired and perhaps over-reacted to a mess. It happens and I won’t presume to know their story from one scene. But this scene jars. A boy who’s not coping,  a grandmother possibly overstretched but strict in all the wrong places and a family that can’t give or receive comfort when it’s needed. Would the boy receive a hug even if it was offered?

They get off – together, at least. I see her follow him up the stairs a few paces behind him and when the doors close the meaty food smell dissipates as the food congeals. At the next stop a girls in scrubs gets on and sits in their seat, her feet astide the meal that to her, has no story to tell. Three more stops to Jamaica, then on to Australia.

When I get back I’ll roll my eyes at the food that wasn’t eaten in my absence. I’ll let them tease me and ham up my redundancy. But I’ll cook something nice and let the smells seep through the house and some day something will remind them of those smells and our apartment and feeling good. And if they’re having a rough patch it’ll give them the resilience to ride it out.

My response to a January lunch time challenge from the Daily Post #dpchallenge

Happy New Year!

It’s September. Back-to-School last week was closely followed by a sudden cold snap this week. In the northern hemisphere, this is the real New Year.

That means the 3/4 of the year that I dedicate to my own pursuits began a week ago and already, the mental list I was making over the summer is fading.

The list went something like this:

Write daily, blog weekly. Run every second day. Stretch. Be more generous with my time. Correspond. Listen more and speak less. Stop thinking and start doing. Finish Things!

The problem, according to my friend the life-coach, was that my list wasn’t SMART (specific, measurable, action oriented, realistic and timely). My list sounded like a mantra for a mouse-wheel. My friend’s most recent newsletter, Summer with Einstein, hit the nail on the head.

Let’s not head into September like last September, or the one before. Take a cue from Einstein. After all, he was able to get a few things done.

It’s great advice. I’m working on a new list… Tonight. At 8pm. It will have numbers and dates on it. It will contain verbs. It won’t include the words “try” or “aim”. I’m not sure how I’ll check off “realistic”, so for now, it’ll be SMAT.


I miss running. Not training, or exercising. The running you do because you have some energy to burn and 40 minutes before you have to be anywhere.

I ran like that once this spring, just as Central Park’s blossoms peaked. It revived the buzz that brought me out to The Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir the first time I ran – here or anywhere. The buzz that set in motion a small addiction.

That first run was at the end of our first New York winter. I had that New Year’s feeling that brings with it the need to move. I ran faster than I could sustain for a full loop, as if shaking three months of red wine and apartment living from my legs and six months of first impressions through my system. My headphones crackled with the dry air but I left them on with Chris Martin wailing to St. Peter about ruling the world. A school group huffed past in the four-four time of long distance pacers as I ran under a half-pipe of cherry blossoms, which all but closed out over the fence.

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I rounded the eastern edge and stopped short. The sun had paused behind the chunky pre-wars on Central Park West. Squares of sunset appeared like dropped stitches through the silhouetted El Dorado. Its rosy light skidded across the reservoir, into the upper-storey windows of Fifth Avenue behind me. Then the sun shifted. Dusk settled and darned the El Dorado’s western facade. I moved on.

I could have cried. Maybe I did. Only for a second but there probably was one tear that fell warmer than the ones already tickled out by the snapping wind.

I had to come back. Another loop, a longer path, more hills. Running gave me time in the day that didn’t exist before. It gave me a different view of the city. A soundtrack. By the the Fall I had paces to set and finish lines to cross. I even had other exercises to do to help me run! It could have been a slippery slope towards the squads of watery-eyed fresh-air junkies huddled over post-run coffees at Joe.

But it wasn’t the running. When I went out again recently, this time in the thick of the season, I realized it was just New York’s goading promise: Stick around for one more twilight. One more spring, autumn, dawn or dusk – those firsts you come to rely on when you’re away.


Roller-dancers herald spring in Central Park

Central Park has been showing signs of spring for some time now. Bulbs have been pushing up through snow and then dry grass since early March, a few tree blossoms began tentatively budding last week and the lawns and playing fields were opened for the season over the weekend.

Whatever nature says, spring in the park isn’t official until the Central Park Dance Skaters Association roll up for its first dance of the season. On Saturday, around 40 skaters, 20 or so dancers, a dj and a crowd of toe-tapping spectators welcomed the season in true New York style. And now, spring has sprung!

It was all about the flow…



And the fashion. A sight for sore eyes after being shrouded in grey puffer coats for five months.

It was about limbering up and getting back into the swing of things.

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“It’s always been about having fun,” club president Rob Nichols said, as he stopped by to check that everyone was.


He was keeping a hawk’s eye on the dj, the hula-hoopers just outside the barricade who come to share the music and work on their own routines. He was ensuring that spectators didn’t walk through and break anyone’s stride and that the one-person parade he dubs “Chiquita Banana” didn’t get in the skaters’ way.


According to Rob, going with the flow takes some scheduling. Skaters have been dancing in the park long before this group formalized. They became an association and fought hard to keep their spot in the park when they got swept up in Bloomberg’s licensing frenzy of the late 1990s. They won, and the CPDSA now holds three permits for every meet: A monthly Special Events Permit, which comes with the ubiquitous metal barricades and gives the skaters their stage – just south-west of the Bethesda Fountain, off the 72nd Street transverse. A weekly, $50 Amplified Sound Permit, which allows for djs like Saturday’s DJ-e, who didn’t miss a beat. And a TUI, a Temporary Use Permit that allows the group to fundraise for the former two.

DJ-e with "staff" Rob Nichols keeping an eye on things

DJ-e with “staff” Rob Nichols keeping an eye on things

Rob had it all in hand. The dancers, skaters, onlookers perched on the rocks above the pop-up rink and the hula-hoopers… all had a ball.

Music flow: Joan Warburton showed onlookers how to keep hoop maneuvers in time with the music.

Music flow: Joan Warburton showed onlookers how to keep hoop maneuvers in time with the music.

Whether you dance, roll, dress up or just need something to put a spring in your step, stop by for a dose of amplified sound and color. Dances are held every Saturday and Sunday and public holiday Monday over summer. 2:45 to 6:45.



Confetti time

Whether it’s shredded evidence or a wish for the new year, confetti now comes loaded with expectations.

out with the old…

For New Yorkers with excess baggage to shed before leaping into the New Year, there’s nothing like a good public shredding, or even better, a sledge-hammer, to clear the air. Yes, a quiet moment to mentally let go of what ever ills are holding you back would do the trick. Or a few deep breaths and a long hard look at yourself in the mirror. But where’s that broadway moment, that catharsis we’ve come to expect?

In Manhattan, that painful break-up, the shameful court battle and that embarrassing ‘reply-all’ email, are all best purged as part of a public celebration with hundreds of strangers (who can’t take sides).

Divorce papers, a paid off student loan, medical records and Hurricane Sandy insurance correspondence all turned to ticker-tape after being zipped through the shredder on December 28th, during The Times Square Alliance’s annual Good Riddance Day. With a rubber sledge hammer and an industrial sized dumpster also at your disposal, no embarrassment or irritation was too large. If you could carry it, you could dump it.

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My plan was to go down to watch people shed the detritus of 2012 and then go into the Times Square Visitors Center’s Wishing Wall, to see what they were looking forward to for 2013. Unfortunately, with temperatures inching down to zero and two children in tow I couldn’t wait around in the plaza for the hour before the shredding. My wad of unconfessed receipts, plus those I’d ‘fessed up to but rounded down, would remain on my conscience for another year. Paltry baggage, I know, but shredders look fun.

In with the new….

We did however get to the Wishing Wall, a permanent pin-board that collects wishes from January 1st to December 31st every year. Wishes are collected every few days throughout the  year and added to the confetti to be released over Times Square when the ball drops.

(From NBC's Photoblog) NYE host Allison Hagendorf conducts the confetti air-worthiness-test, from a Times Square office window on Saturday.

Air Worthiness Test: NYE host Allison Hagendorf released confetti from a Times Square office window yesterday. (photo from NBC’s Photoblog)

Whether all those of hopes and dreams are destined to soar for hours or be spiked on a stiletto, they’re another great testament to the city’s unique offer of anonymity through public exposure. No one knows who you are but potentially thousands know that you’re luckless in love, for example.

There were the confident wishers, those who went for specifics….

“To become a successful host/ actress with lots of money”

“To get into Princeton”

Then there were the truly hopefuls: Keep it general and it’s bound to work out in some form …

“To go on a date.”

“I hope I’ll smoke less and do more work.”

For the most part, the confetti categorized itself neatly into those three universal aspirations: health, wealth and finding love.


Wherever you are on Monday night, I wish you all of the above. If you happen to be in Times Square before the street sweepers early on Tuesday morning, and if your name is JB, look down. Someone with hasty handwriting wants you to marry them in 2013!

Christmas shopping, unplugged

For expats, or maybe for all parents, or maybe just mothers, the lead up to the Holidays in New York can be an overwhelming list of events and errands.  There are two weeks of holiday parties at school, all involving contributions of time, shopping or baking. Or all three. Then there’s shopping. I don’t remember ever spending so much anxious energy on shopping before, but year by year, Christmas became a process of research, hunting and gathering.

Gifts are scattered in stores from SoHo to the Upper East Side, and unless you plan on giving everyone you know a $90 graphic-T from SoHo boutiques, or batik & bric-a-brac  from Lower East Side vintage stores, browsing for just the right thing to jump out at you  takes some fancy footwork.


The week before Christmas during our first year in the city, I went on a home-sickness fueled search for mince-pies. I dragged two preschoolers from the Upper West Side to West Village’s Tea and Sympathy, a British store on Greenwich Ave. Greeted by a blast of wind-driven sleet at the 14th Street subway exit, I pulled them down the wrong Avenue, across a block and then the wind pushed us back up the correct one, to arrive at the tiny store and stand in a crowd of steaming parkas waiting for their fix from home. We were weather-beaten and wet. But we had our mince pies.

Before I learned the full extent of online shopping here, I zig-zagged frantically – several trips over two or three days – between Fairway, Wholefoods and a few of the specialty grocers like Zabars and Citerella. I dangled gingerbread men and candy canes in front of the children so they’d keep walking and at each shop I bought just a little more than I could realistically carry home.

I hung onto to DIY gift shopping for another year. While most expats refined their new-found efficiency by saving their wish-lists for Black Friday and Cyber Monday – the two major shopping days that launch the post-Thanksgiving sales, to start their holiday shopping,  I did it myself.

And missed the post. December 10 is the last day of guaranteed delivery for regular mail parcel post to Australia.

Into the vortex - in line at USPS

Into the vortex – in line at USPS

Last year we finally embraced online shopping for gifts. All department stores and toy shops run online stores, as do most clothing chains, some boutiques and all the major museum stores. Amazon Prime offers free, two to three day delivery on almost anything sold almost everywhere else.

After spending a holiday season as a sherpa, managing logistics from my couch was a substantial promotion. I practiced all year and I was ready for this Christmas days before December 10. For the first time in four years, I was on top of it!

Yet, I felt like I was doing more work. I work on-screen. I organize the children’s school and social schedules via email. I increasingly read on line. I even conduct most of my own social life and half my marriage via email. Things were getting done but they weren’t as much fun.

I missed browsing. I missed wasting money on those gifts for which I’d fail to find suitable recipients, which I bought because: “I might not be back this way”. I love walking through the alleys of the pop-up Christmas tree stalls, overhearing French-Canadian accents patiently explaining to New Yorkers the exponential dollar-per-foot formula of Fraser, Douglas and Balsam Firs.

Christmas Tree Alley

Christmas Tree Alley

“… The Frasers will last longer. The Douglas will “drop their needles, but stink up good – great smell those Douglas”.

Just as Christmas threatened to become a giant to-do-list, I spotted a backdated NY Times Modern Love column. One throw-away line from Teresa Link’s essay said it all. On the list of domestic duties that swallowed her up…

“There was … the calendar of holidays we had to celebrate in ways that drained all pleasure.”

That sealed it. On Monday morning I walked 20 blocks down to the Urban Space-run Holiday Market in my neighbourhood, the Columbus Circle Holiday Market. Its 100 pop-up stores include great accessory designers, great food and a very laid back vibe if you’re there early. Also more hat/ glove/ scarf vendors than seems economically viable.


From there I took the subway down to 42nd Street and wandered through the more touristy Bryant Park Holiday Market, set around The Pond. I elbowed my way over four avenues to take an overcrowded 6 train back up the east side to the Metropolitan Museum of Art store.


Walking back to the Upper West Side across Central Park, I had a great gift idea. I’d have to head back to Columbus Circle for it. Another day. It was late, I was tired, over-caffeinated and foot-sore The day’s errands could have been done in a morning on-line and left time for Christmas cards, which will now become new year cards. But I had jostled my way around Manhattan and back into ‘The Holidays”.

Cole Haan’s advertisement in the train, for all its smugness, had a point …

“You didn’t move to New York to stay home.”


Well, up to a point. Now that all the pre-season rushing around is over, it’s up to us to celebrate it – gratefully, quietly, pleasurably – at home!