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Public Address - Busytown (Home)

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Bottoms up | Oct 30, 2003 13:30

You know you're back in New York when you hop into that yellow taxi. It's not just the yellow taxi itself, or the taciturn Russian cabbie with a fetish for the blues played at ear-splitting volume, but the sign right in front of your nose that reads "Complaints: 212-NYC-TAXI". Not Comments or Compliments, but Complaints. And not a tentative, exploratory "Complaints?" either, just a flat old Complaints. You got 'em, here's where to put 'em.

Hey, not that we had anything to complain about. We were more than grateful to be home at all, after having sat on the runway for half an hour at LAX waiting for clearance to leave. Everything was futzed up because of the wildfires -- the actual control tower is in San Bernardino, where the fires were at their worst, and everyone had been evacuated. Scary stuff.

Then at the New York end we'd had to circle out to sea and come back in under the clouds and fog. I had to switch off the helpful little map on the TV screen in front, since as far as I could tell we were heading out into the Bermuda Triangle and losing altitude. I've never been so relieved to feel tarmac under the wheels since the time when, approaching the airport in Wellington, the passenger behind me started saying the rosary. Out loud.

So it was a looong flight, but miraculously Busytot held it together. Sticking a toddler into an aeroplane is like deploying a cross between the Star Trek transporter and the machine in that movie The Fly: you're never sure if you'll get a gentle emissary of love and peace from another planet or some horrific Babyzilla hybrid creature that somewhat resembles your own child but has tentacles and mandibles, screeches like a banshee, and eats hapless humans from the head down.

We must have won the toss. He was an angel the entire way, and as we all bundled off the plane at JFK more than one fellow traveler made as if to kiss our feet. We'd have kissed them too if we could reach.

Ah, but plunging back into winter - gloomy days, early evenings - is a shock to the system, although I love the way the gingko leaves make a glowing carpet on the street and the odd shaft of sunlight makes everyone look handsome in a romantic, European movie sort of way. Then there's the ritual of digging out last year's winter clothes and seeing if they'll fit. That goes for both my still mammarily enhanced figure and Busytot's steadily lengthening midriff. Alas, his favourite fire engine shirt exposes an unseasonal strip of pot-bellied toddler tummy, a good look perhaps if you're in a boy band but not so practical with temperatures plummeting.

Good excuse to go shopping for tops though, in this case in the discount stores up on 125th St. For the young master, I like to shop in the girls' section where the clothes are allowed to be colours other than khaki, grey and navy (and you can easily chop off the icky labels that say things like Baby Gurlz and Style Dollz). Mission accomplished (tops in fluffy purple, butter yellow, Armani black, to go with his rainbow coloured birthday cardie), and the junior model asleep in his stroller, I zipped back downstairs to check out the ladieswear -- with a quick detour first to reconnoitre the lingerie department.

This particular shop has Swedish origins and is a new arrival here, a bright spot on the otherwise dismal horizon of clothes-shopping in the US. I don't know what it is about shopping here. American clothes, on the whole, are kind of ghastly; you really have to look hard to find something interesting. I remember the sartorial nausea I felt on first visiting the Gap when I arrived (good grief) nearly eight years ago: everything was in deeply Maoist shades of white, black, navy, and khaki, and made of crisp cotton in uniformly depressing designs. I've taken to stocking up on visits back to NZ, where thanks to the exchange rate, my op-shop budget goes a little further and I can buy things that lift the soul to look at.

(Speaking of which: hooray for the girls at Minx, who ferried me over a beautiful pair of shoes in exactly the right size. I'd scoped their delicious range out while at home, but somehow managed to buy the right shoe in the wrong size one day before heading back. Cushla put that right, and now I want a pair in every colour!).

Anyway, there I was in the lingerie department of this particular emporium, fingering the goods, as it were. Lots of saucy boy-cut knickers in various shades and fabrics, reasonably priced, very tempting. Next to me, a couple dallied over frilly diamante-studded thongs in a range of colours ("Babydoll, you know I'm just gonna tear 'em offa you," noted the boyfriend, helpfully), and one aisle over, two women flicked through the racks of undies with the bored efficiency of teenagers in a CD shop. Said one to the other, "You know, sometimes people wear 'em and then bring 'em back, cos if you've got the receipt they have to give you a refund." "Ewwwww," said the friend, "that cannot be true!"

Back-up came from an unlikely quarter: two shop assistants busily picking up dropped bras and re-hanging them. "Mmm-hmmm," said one. "And some people try them on and then don't buy them. I was you ladies, I'd wash those before you wear them." More choruses of "ewwwww," but that wasn't the end of it. The other shop assistant, aware that she had the undivided attention of everyone in earshot, launched into a dramatic description of something that had allegedly happened in another branch.

As she told it, a woman came up to the checkout, whipped out her receipt, said "I bought these here but they don't fit right," and proceeded to step out of her thong undies and slap them on the counter. "Ain't nothing my friend could do but give her a refund and hang 'em back up on the rack" said the assistant with a cheerful shudder. Oddly, her listeners melted away and the lingerie department was suddenly quite empty. Perhaps I've been here too long: all I could think was blimey, I hope this happened in summer -- she'd have been in for a hellishly nasty draft up her wotsit on the way home, especially if the wind happened to be blowing off the chilly Hudson River...


Meanwhile, a spot of interesting reading for the maternal demographic: Lisa Belkin's oddly Stepfordian article in the New York Times magazine (registration required) on women who've "opted out" of top jobs to raise children, and an impressively quick smackdown by Joan Walsh in Salon (click through the necessary advertisement), followed by a bunch of stroppy letters from readers.

I was as flummoxed as the letter-writers were by the article's failure to interview a single solitary dad who had opted to stay home, let alone those invisible men who were cranking away fulltime in order that the women in the article could tend their hearths. Nor, as far as I could tell, did Belkin speak to any single parents, nor any parents who didn't happen to be white, even within her self-defined circle of "successful" folk. Nor even a single gay couple who'd made similarly complementary choices, unfettered by (but not unsusceptible to the effects of) traditional gender roles. Belkin writes good stuff, but this was a bit of a once-over-lightly. With any luck though, it will open up a new line of conversation, rather than confirm all the stereotypes about the relationship between mothering and work.

While I'm on the topic, Hilton Als' remarkably unquestioning profile of the amazing Toni Morrison in last week's New Yorker (not, alas, available online) details her evolution from single mum of toddlers to Nobel laureate without answering the question that instantly sprang to my mind: what did she do for child-care when she landed that crucial editing job at Random House? Inquiring minds want to know...not to be nosy, but just because it's part of the big picture.

And speaking of child-care, check out this alarming new report on just how much TV or video the average US tot watches. From the article: "The median time [per day] they spend watching some form of media or another on the screen is slightly more than two hours." So that means someone out there is watching more than two hours a day on behalf of our luddite household. Scary! Dodgy! Even if we're talking about "educational" videos like the creepily successful series Baby Einstein, that's a heck of a long time to sit on your bottom and zone out to purely visual stimulation. By the way, isn't it just the teensiest bit fishy that the original baby Einstein managed just fine without watching Baby Einstein?

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Welcome to the Hotel California | Oct 26, 2003 06:52

This week I found myself in a lovely place. Such a lovely place. The physics gravy train was making a whistle stop in Santa Barbara, so Busytot and I hitched a ride on the caboose. Woo woo! It being birthday week and all, and with autumn already well settled in back East, a furtive week of extra summer was too alluring to pass up. We dug out the T-shirts and sandals and hopped on a plane to Arnie-land.

What a curious place - talk about through the looking-glass. I've been through Los Angeles several times en route to New Zealand, but never further afield on this coast. As we exited the forcefield of greater LA and hit the coast road, the glittering Pacific to our left, the hills to the right, all I could think was: it's so empty. And oddly, so Australian: scrubby foliage, dry hills, and a palette of eucalyptus colours, blue-grey, khaki, olive, dust.

Santa Barbara is indisputably a lovely place. Steep hills behind a vast beach with sand like brown sugar: imagine the Rimutakas with Mission Bay at their feet, and a climate like the far north in February. No wonder everyone wants to live here: it's spectacular. But it took exactly a day to detect the darker sides of paradise. There was the first evening, when we ventured down to the beach (Goleta Beach, west of the town) and discovered a couple of bulldozers busily bulldozing the sand that was being pumped noisily up onto the beach from a barge just offshore. Shock horror! The beach isn't real! Then we had to find a supermarket that wasn't being picketed - grocery workers all over California are out on strike this week, over a proposed new employment contract that would diminish their health insurance and make it easier to hire cheap labour.

In a town where one-bedroom apartments can cost a thousand dollars a month, and tiny two bedroom cottages sell for well over half a million (my Mission Bay analogy was more apt than I realized), you have to support the workers who are clinging to what minimal benefits they currently have. When Busytot and I ventured out to a playground the next morning in search of kids to play with and grown-ups to talk to, we found ourselves hanging out with some accidental casualties of the crappy economy: a young mother and daughter who are currently living in a homeless shelter, while she tries to gather enough money to catch the bus back to where her mother and her younger child live.

They introduced us to two nice fellows, one young, one in his fifties, who are living in the park while looking for work (in this climate, you can live in the park year round). The young guy had just found a job at the local hospital, and his relief was palpable. It would be patronizing to deploy terms like "good honest people" but that's what they were: good honest people with rotten luck, and in the case of the child, dreadfully rotten teeth. Which is exactly why supermarket checkers, for example, need decent health insurance. I slipped some dosh into her stroller and honked extra hard at the picketers all week.

After a week, most of the culture shock has subsided. I stopped distrusting the spookily perfect weather and got used to romping in the hotel pool with the increasingly aquatic Busytot (I keep expecting to find a blowhole somewhere under his mop of blond hair). He learned some good new words: palm tree, hummingbird, jacuzzi, bougainvillea, jasmine. We explored the local attractions, starting with the zoo, where much to a certain two year old's delight the elephants had been temporarily replaced by diggers and bulldozers (only the best zoos have construction equipment in captivity, don't you know).

We also checked out the Old Mission, which is a very haphazardly curated place for all its historical importance. Out front are the remains of a laundry where, we are told, the local Chumash took to washing linen for the early fathers. Very kind of them. A wall panel inside the Mission offers a potted history of the place that ends with this ominous non sequitur: "Secularization of the Mission took place in 1834. The remaining Chumash have been integrated into the American way of life."

Then Busytot and I managed to get ourselves kicked out of the Art Gallery downtown, because he was appreciating the art slightly too vocally. He can't help it if one particularly well-formed statue reminded him of his father. I tended to agree, especially since the handsome marble man in question had a small plump marble boy on his lap. How can you shush a child for enthusing "Datsa Daddy and me!"? Visiting galleries with kids can be a dicey proposition, but in this case it was just that Busytot knows what he likes and isn't afraid to say so. He also admired a voluptuous nude, but wondered aloud where her baby was -- it was true, she did have the exhausted, depleted look of one who had just survived a marathon nursing session.

One afternoon we drove inland. We passed through Buelltown -- "Home of Split Pea Soup" in case you were wondering -- and past fields of pumpkins, a corn maze, alpacas, and Ostrich Land (where a sign advertised Big Eggs). We zipped through Solvang - an ersatz Danish town complete with windmills and a replica of the Little Mermaid, it reminded me of similarly "authentic" towns in Japan - and ended up in Los Olivos, a tiny dusty little frontier place turned spa retreat, full of art galleries, and with a stretch limo parked outside the one fancy restaurant. It was very Central Otago: say, Naseby in ten years.

Meanwhile, the conference chugged along. The university (UCSB) is literally on the beach, and all week long, the physicists talked physics with the sound of the ocean in their ears and the smell of the sea in their nostrils. (Physicists are famous for their otherworldly powers of concentration). At lunchtime, the hardier specimens would head out for a swim, ducking across the bike path that winds around the periphery of campus. You have to watch out for the many undergrads weaving along on their bikes one-handed, a surfboard under their other arm. In fact, all over campus, everyone was on wheels of one sort or another: blades, boards, bikes, shoes with wheels on. Seems that at UCSB, not skateboarding is a crime. The multitude of wheelchair ramps suddenly appeared in a completely different light.

Speaking of which, among the physicists was Stephen Hawking (it was that kind of physics), and I spent about five shameless seconds wondering if I could snap a picture of Busytot with the legendary cosmologist in the background. But he was eating dinner, and Busytot was fizzing and popping and generally spinning out on account of having missed his nap, so it wouldn't have been kind to either of them.

Actually, napping was a hit-or-miss proposition this week, as was bedtime. Accustomed to sleeping within the confines of his cot, the little lad was not impressed by either the small rickety crib or the rollaway "big boy bed" the motel supplied, so by default he slept in the kingsize bed. Every evening, he would settle down, close his eyes, and then commence rolling around like a bowling ball in an attempt to find a corner. He covered every inch of the bed, and occasionally slid down onto the floor and wiggled his way around the room. Poor thing; he was like a fish liberated from a fishbowl and spooked by the absence of walls.

Even if none of us slept very well, we got to mellow out in the sun while Busytot worked out his wiggles on one of the best playgrounds I've ever seen. In Alameda Park, in downtown Santa Barbara on the corner of Solas and Micheltorena streets, in the shade of a massive Moreton Bay fig tree, is a huge castle-like adventure playground called Kids' World. It was designed by legendary playground architect Bob Leathers, an Ithaca-based chap who must have one of the happiest jobs in the world. He comes to town, consults with the kids to see what they want, explains the building constraints so they can rule various thrilling features in and out (five different slides, certainly; treehouse, very possible; working submarine, slightly tricky), and then comes up with a collaborative plan that the community builds with donated material and labour. The result, in this case, is very very cool indeed, and we spent many hours discovering every little corner.

And today - as I type in fact - Busytot is exactly two years old. A little party awaits him after we return to New York tomorrow, but for today we will celebrate by hopping in the car and heading back to LA, where his daddy has found a cheapish hotel with the best feature of all: a pool that will permit one last use of the magical froggy water-wings before we head east to winterland and turn the clocks back for the season.

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