Thursday, 6 June 2019

Huffling Holiday in Tattershall Lakes, Lincolnshire

I survived a Tattershall Lakes holiday with a family of five Alternate title:  We went to Tattershall Lakes and all you got was this lousy blog post.

(This was not posted after the eggcitement of Easter, so I'm posting now.  Enjoy!)
A view from the Lucy tower at Lincoln Castle

Party of five

There are unique challenges to travelling with a family of five especially when one of them is Chris.

The world is not built for that fifth person.  Restaurants, hotel rooms with two double beds, rollercoasters... all of these easily hold a family of four or less.  But when you add one more person in, whether they be small, pale and ginger-haired, or tall and somewhat cranky, things just get harder and/or far more expensive.

Where to?

Over the 12-days-too-long Easter break, we took another caravan holiday, this time with Chris along.* 

We started with choosing the where. Lincoln had been highly recommended to us, and even though I was hoping for someplace warm, we were concerned enough with the fallout from April's Brexit deadline (kaff - at the time of booking - kaff) to decide that we should see some more of our host country.

So far, we've cut a very small slice out of England, from the Isle of Wight to Portsmouth to Oxford to Salisbury to Kent (camping!) and Dover (ferry to France). So going North was in the cards.  Of course, I want to go to York.  Haworth, moors, Secret Garden and Brontes: all of that must happen over the next two years. But, friends said that Lincoln was like York, but smaller, quieter and less expensive, and closer.  These were all good things.

The dream

I wanted a family-friendly place, ideally where kids could run free outside and I could sit with a cup of tea (and/or mug of morning wine), preferably with the dog. We found a few Airbnb caravan rentals in Lincolnshire, and from there, discovered the Tattershall Lakes Country Park, which is what British people call a family caravan resort.** We chose a large, dog-friendly caravan (sleeps eight!) in a resort that includes a pool, a splash park, kids' activities, entertainment, a pub/bar and short drives to historic castles and cathedrals, and a large green space, which the Brits call a wold for some reason.

Lincolnshire or bust

The drive there wasn't too bad.  It was quick-ish, about three hours including a stop for lunch.  The kids had snacks and books (and tablets), and I even got to catch up on some reading while Chris drove the long stretch going towards, simply, The North.

We got there, checked in (they had the package and keys ready for us, which surprised Chris to no end, oh he of little faith), and pulled up to our caravan. It was not in an ideal location for aesthetics or noise, as it was the first one back from the road (they were lined up in rows), but it was close to the pool, activities, and playgrounds, so that was fine.

The Eurocamp caravan we went to in October was cheap, reasonably nice for the kids, dog and I, and it was fine.  Just fine.  During the trip, I had twinges of "Chris would hate this" but I put those aside, because I was pretty sick, and he wasn't there anyway.

You know how you can think your house is neat and organized, but then you invite someone over and you suddenly see every room from their perspective and realize that you are living with so much clutter, and perhaps what you see as "great" or even "perfectly fine" looks, well, not as good?

The caravan was a good size, reasonably clean, and reasonably priced.  That is all.

A free air show!

We knew that RAF Coningsby was close by, and that we'd probably get to see some cool planes.  Well.  So. Many. Planes.  Taking off and landing right beside us, it seemed.  Some older ones (possibly spitfires?) and some fancy new ones (typhoons, Chris said).  They did loop de loops!  They did barrel rolls!  They did that thing where they zoom straight up then shoot straight down and pull out at the last second!  They did a lot of low-altitude flying.  It was amazing, and loud.

A two-seat Typhoon T3 in flight showing off its longer canopy.
A Typhoon at MUCH higher altitude.
Photo credit: SAC Cathy Sharples

To bed, perchance to sleep

At bedtime, we tucked the kids in, and went to sit down with a glass of wine.  It was starting to get really dark, and ... ROAR.  The sound of a plane doing low-altitude flying made it impossible to talk or hear anything.  ROAR again.  That was probably a barrel roll in the dark. (Do they do barrel rolls in the dark?)  Fis looked at me as if to say, well, you can imagine what he looked like.  I picked up my phone and quickly googled "do planes fly at night at Tattershall Lakes".


Yes, yes they do.  There was a very cranky TripAdvisor review to that effect, and the resort's response was that you can check the RAF schedule online, because it was public, etc.  So I did.  Hey, did you know that only four times a year, RAF Coningsby holds a week of night training, from one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise?  Imagine Fis' face now.

Lesson one:  air shows are fun during the day.

Here, we discover a very important distinction

The kids, somehow, slept pretty well despite the planes.  Unfortunately, however, our caravan next-door neighbours did not, and stayed up until 3 am, partying.

Lesson two:  There is a difference between British families who go to France to have a holiday in a caravan park and British families who stay in Britain in a trailer park.

The next morning, the kids got up at...I don't know, I stayed in bed...made themselves cereal, and took the dog for a walk around the trailer park. So, by the time I got up, they were happily seated in front of the TV, having discovered the magic of being unsupervised. Baby Daddy is not appropriate viewing for a 6 year old.  Also, it's now their favourite show.  Back to Chris' face.

Out and about in Tattershall and Coningsby

We took a short walk over to Tattershall Castle, no more than ten minutes away, and four of us enjoyed the walk.  Vaughn complained that it was "too far". Then, inside the huge, mind-blowing, somehow built-by-hand-800-years-ago, yet still-magnificent building, he decided that it was terrible because it was "dusty" and "probably dangerous". It is possible that he was not flung from the tower because he refused to get anywhere near the edge, because he also decreed the safety barriers "not safe enough."
Yet, backlit, they look angelic.

Afterwards, we walked for another 20 minutes into the town (because we missed turnoff into the grocery store) (and boy was he cranky), had sandwiches from a nice little bakery chain then swung by what the kids declare to be the Best Candy Store Ever and gave them Type III Diabetes.

Lesson three: You already knew this, but nothing can't be fixed with candy.

Lincoln Cathedral and Castle

Lincoln was a forty-minute drive away, so we bundled up Ziggy and went to this beautiful medieval city that has charm, character, steep hills and wonderful, reasonable, not-London prices for lunch at a lovely pub,  Ziggy came with us up Steep Hill, and the kids and Chris were interviewed on BBC about how steep they thought it was. They even made it onto the local evening news, which we caught later, back at the caravan.

Lesson four: Don't leave your trailer looking anything less than camera-ready.

You can see the camera crew at the top.  (Spoiler alert: Steep Hill is only the fourth steepest street in GB.)

The Cathedral and Castle were magnificent.  I can't even describe how spectacular and amazing some of these old buildings are.  The concept of someone having placed every stone, carved every figurine and gargoyle, all by hand hundreds of years ago... it just really puts everything into perspective, such as "I have no talent and have wasted my life".  Also, it bears questioning about the truth behind separation of church and state, as they are literally a three-minute walk apart.
A prisoner and the prison matron get ready for a hard Victorian day.

Anyhoo, the kids had a great time exploring both, but slightly preferred the castle, as there was an Alice in Wonderland-themed trail to follow which ended with chocolate. See lesson three.

The rest of the stay

The family resort was clean and full of families and their dogs.  They offer lots of activities for the kids, but unlike our Eurocamp experience (which had all activities included), there was an additional charge (between £8 and 12) for each, so we let the kids each choose only the one that they wanted most.  Vaughn chose laser tag, Ailsa chose the high ropes, and Tamsin chose zorbing, which we mistook for the water zorbing, so she sort of got two activities for the price of one.  We had to prebook, and they filled up quickly, but they were all happy with their choices.  They spent a lot of the rest of the time playing at two of the park playgrounds with other kids - just what I wanted.
And then she jumped for the trapeze.

The onsite restaurant and pub had London prices (not cool), but offered free entertainment for the kids and grownups alike every evening, from dance parties before dinner to on-stage game-show-type activities, to bingo.  We even saw a Little Mix tribute band (who have three new star-struck fans).

The pool was ok (not great, but ok), but required us to book a (free) time slot ahead of time, and the steam room and sauna were not as clean as they could be.  The brand new splash zone (also free, no booking was required) was absolutely incredible and beautiful and clean the first time -- the kids ran and screamed and splashed for well over an hour -- but there was something wrong with the temperature control when we went back another day, and they were cold and miserable for the fifteen minutes they could stand it.

So fun!  But so f-f-freezing!

As well, for a very dog-friendly place, there was nowhere to exercise Ziggy off-lead, which wasn't great and left him a bit anxious.  A fenced-in area for the dogs to play would certainly be an asset to the park.

Overall, it was clean and well worth what we paid, which was £382 for five days, but maybe not, when we added in the extra costs for activities or the exorbitant prices for food and drink.

Lesson five: you get what you pay for.

The long road home

Holidays are always a great idea until the last day, when you have to come home and everyone's upset about it. We managed to pack up fairly quickly (the booking agent said to "do nothing -- just lock the door and walk away", but we did the dishes and swept anyway) and took a detour to an exotic animal sanctuary and another nice pub on the way home.

Goats totally account as exotic when you're talking ill-advised housepets.

Would we go back?  Probably not (I think we've now "done" Lincoln), but I don't regret going.

Would I recommend it to other families?  Yes. It's a very reasonable price, and if have your expectations managed (it is a caravan park) and you are ready to pay for the extras, there is so much to do. But check the night flying schedule ahead of time.

* to be filed under "It sounded like a good idea at the time". Like all travels with Fis.
** I call it a trailer park.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

The Cranky Book Reviewer read Calypso by David Sedaris

(She’s cranky because she’ll never write anything as good)

Sometimes, good books just upset me.

I love David Sedaris. 

I love his stories about his family, his lifetime of strange jobs, projects, travel and art, all told in his distinctive self-deprecating tone. So when a writer friend recently recommended his newest book, Calypso, as one of his best, I was ready to love it, too.

Laughing at a funeral

My friend Mike committed suicide in his late twenties. At the time, I hadn't seen or heard from him in about ten years. The strongest (and best?) memories I have of him are few: in high school, he used a ridiculously expensive shampoo to make his hair feel soft. Once, he was in a terrible car accident, and a few of us visited him in the hospital, where he waxed poetic about how wonderful Demerol was, but later, yelled at us because "nobody came to visit him". And then there was the time he shot me in the eye with a BB gun.

We weren't close, to say the least, and lost touch after high school. But, I went to his funeral.  It was sad and solemn, and he was buried as a soldier. It was the first time that I'd understood what funerals were really about: connecting with old friends over memories of the deceased and laughing about what a jerk he could be. I probably would never have seen any of them again if Mike hadn’t shot himself. 

In Calypso, David Sedaris gets that mixture right: sad, tragic and poignant, while observing the absurdity around him, making motifs of death — aging,  illness, addiction, suicide — funny between the tears. He combines these themes in a way that feels sacrilegious and blasphemous and wrong, but natural and real, and a celebration of the life that was or is being lost. Just like laughing at a funeral.

Ugliness and Beauty and Truth

My first exposure to Sedaris' work was When We Are Engulfed in Flames. As my introduction to his style of essays, it was a shocking start, a study in the twisted and macabre that was somehow beautiful and hilarious. I was an instant fan. I still regret lending it to a coworker, who never gave it back.

I don't lend my Sedarises out anymore 

I now own most of his collections: Me Talk Pretty One Day, Barrel Fever, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Some are better (funnier) than others, but all are  incredibly good. The stories themselves are fantastic: they're guilty peeks into a painful upbringing, awkward relationships, and not being really happy with who you are and what you have done, and what you will, no doubt, continue to do, in such a very, very human way. But it's the way he tells them that shows his skill as a storyteller: his tone, his timing, his twists and throwbacks to something mentioned in another part of the essay... each essay is a carefully-planned marvel.

Over the course of his writing career, his growth as an author has been astounding, inspirational. His early work was strong (and I highly recommend it as well), but each collection is more well-crafted than the last.

It gives me hope. Although I dislike (strongly) his forays into fiction (or obvious fiction, that is -- he has admitted to exaggerating for the sake of a good story), Calypso is full of only anecdotes, many continued from or referring to those in past collections ... and it was perfect.  

In this group of essays, against a backdrop of his own mortality and that of his mother, father and sisters, he exposes the strength of family and familiarity, of how people we love (and love itself) evolves over time. People are funny, absurd, weird, waspish and cutting, horrible and kind. They're real, and he captures that beautifully on every page, weaving seemingly unrelated episodes together.

Um, isn't this called the Cranky Book Reviewer...?

Oh, right.  So while I found this book perfect, the cranky part of me has something to say, too.  

First, unless you've read a great deal of Sedaris' other work, I'm pretty sure you'll be missing a lot of context, like the Ship Shape backstory, or his strained and dysfunctional relationship with his father and sister. Because I've read so much of him, I can't tell how much this will alter or lessen the impact of the stories for Sedaris virgins, but for me, it was like finally hearing the next chapter of a story I already knew.  

Call me maybe

Secondly, he's on the short list of Authors I'd Like to Meet. Always haunted by Gustave Flaubert  ("We must not touch our idols; the gilt sticks to our fingers"), I have never gone to any book-signing or author meet-up, but I would take that chance with David Sedaris.

We have so much in common: he's had a lifelong struggle with learning languages! He had a speech impediment as a child! He lives in England! We should be friends! However, I feel preemptively sad and rejected; he would despise me and find me uninteresting. My childhood was too normal, my struggles too middle-class, and I’m not mean or artsy enough to hang out with him. It's my own fault, but I don't have to feel good about it.   

Dammit, Kate

Finally, I was cranky -- no, devastated -- when I finished the book, because, well, I finished it. Like all wonderful, perfect, absorbing books, it had to come to an end. Rationally, I knew that, but I wasn’t ready for it to be over. I even sent a scathing text to the friend who had recommended it in the first place. I should have paced myself, read one essay a night and chewed over them the next day before rereading them again. Instead, I read it for an hour at a time for four days. I was foolish, and now it's over, and again, I have no-one to blame but myself.

I'm impatient now, and demand that he publish another collection, right now. But I know that this will take some time, and in the meantime, I'll reread his other collections again and pick up the threads of the stories he has woven. I'll wonder again how on earth he managed to turn such normal/weird/sad/funny events into such beauty, and fear that I'll never be able to even come close.

And that makes me really cranky.

Get your own copy!  But don't lend it to Mary.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

I am the 1.8%

Dammit Karen: I am the 1.8% (a short essay) (ba-dum)
Vlad Tchompalov 

I’m small.



I’m ridiculously short, for a non-little person — which I really hope isn’t offensive, because I don’t mean it that way.

I’m not one of those people that started out tall (or even average) and just stopped growing, so everyone else caught up and passed me. No, I was always small. The smallest in the class, the front of every line and dead-centre in every class photo.

I used to joke that I was too busy as a kid doing other things, playing outside, climbing trees; I didn’t put the focus on growing that I probably should have.

Of the x number of women I’ve ever seen in real life, I have noticed being taller than exactly four.
My parents are normal-sized. My sister is tall; she’s 5'7", somehow, and it’s just not fair that I only made it to 4'10". I often forget that I’m small, or how small I really am, till I catch sight of my reflection in a window, beside anyone — anyone — else. I’m the person that makes other short people feel good about themselves. I’m the one they pat on the head.

My kids are average-sized as well — I have no idea how. My husband is just above average at about 6 feet tall (with hair spiked), and somehow, the combination of us created two 50th-percentile kids and one 75th-percentile, all of whom are well on their way to be taller than me by the time they turn 11.

What is "average", anyway?

I don’t know if non-parents even care about percentiles. I learned about them at the doctor’s office with my newborn. For me, it was a source of reassurance of normalcy, that I was feeding these tiny little beings enough and that they were, in fact, ok. What I learned was that everything can be quantified. All those BMI charts. Head girth. A baby at every step of its development.  

I used to joke that it wasn’t fair that I had 50th-percentile babies with 75th-percentile heads, because, if anything, I was a 5th-percentile person.

But there is something to be said for actually looking things up and finding out the truth. And that something, increasingly for me, is “don’t do it.”

I am in the 1.8th percentile for Canadian adult females.

I’m the person that makes other short people feel good about themselves. I’m the one they pat on the head.

This is something that I really was happier not knowing. It sounds ludicrous, and just can’t be right. If it were really true, it means that, if I’d met 100 women in my lifetime, then I would have been taller than one or two of them.

I’m pretty bad at estimating how many I’ve seen and/or met…definitely more than 400 or 500 women in my life, and probably many more…thousands, perhaps, even if I limit it to Canadian cities. But, of the x number of women I’ve ever seen in real life, I have noticed being taller than exactly four. One was Kathleen Jinkerson, whom I saw across a gym floor, then skipped over, ascertained that she was indeed 4'9", patted her on the head, apologized, and skipped away. Another was a girl on a rival cheerleading team. And the other two were little people.

Canadian stats show that although we are getting taller as a “people” (as a country of immigrants, I’m not quite sure how to define ourselves as a demographic, unless they also measured niceness), we’re not getting taller as fast as many other countries in the world. Peaked too soon, as they say, which again, I did not.

Despite this national slowdown, until it actually reverses, I expect that I'll still have a hard time finding clothes that fit. For a short time in my twenties, Le Chateau (which at that time was my go-to store for club wear) came out with a Junior line, and it was as if the whole world was finally at my feet. Sparkly, low-rise jeans that I don’t have to hem? Tummy tops with sleeves that fit me? Sign me up! When I (only recently) emptied my closet of my clubbing clothes, I knew that I was making some slutty tween somewhere very happy.

By the time I get to the shoe store, the only pair of size 5’s (size 2.5 in the UK) has already been bought (probably by Kathleen Jinkerson). I used to go in with a specific style in mind, “a black, strappy shoe with a 3-inch heel” or “a cross-trainer that is good for agility work, preferably in teal”. I have downgraded my expectations to: “anything — anything — in a size 5.” Yes, I could buy children’s shoes, but they’re not made with the same quality of materials and wear out faster, AND they don’t make strappy sandals with 3-inch heels for kids.

In short

My friend Dave used to hide my shoes inside of his, at every house party. Every single time. An ex-boyfriend used to sit down beside me, then pick me up and move me closer to him. People still sometimes make short jokes, then apologize profusely. Some of them ask me if I’m sensitive about my height (or lack thereof — hey-o!). Let me be clear: there is no short joke out there that I have not heard, and I challenge anyone to come up with something original.

If I was still sensitive about my height after 40 years, then … well, I don’t know what I’d do.

I still often think that it’s not fair (especially when reaching for things in high cupboards or shopping for jeans) but then I think, without being teeny, I wouldn’t have been the top of the pyramid in university. I wouldn’t have been as good at hide-and-seek, or as strong (biomechanically efficient, yo!) in the weight room. I probably wouldn’t have worked so hard (some say over-compensated) to be as strong, or as fast, or as powerful, or to focus so much on good posture to look tall(er).

After being short for my whole life, I honestly don’t mind being little, being patted on the head and giving those less-confident short people someone to feel better than.

It’s the least I can do, after the way I treated Kathleen Jinkerson.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

An Ode to My Mother (um...sorry, Mom)

Here's the thing with my mother.

Dammit Karen: A Mother's Day Ode to My Mother My mother has always been there, a stay-at-home mom, making our clothes, volunteering at the school library, coming along on Brownies camping trips.  It wasn't weird, because it was the 70s and early 80s, but it was still a lot more than my friends' moms did...not in a good way or a bad way, but she was always there.

But she's not affectionate, one of those warm-and-fuzzy moms.

Capable? Yes. Competent? Yes. Can make amazing Halloween costumes for six grandchildren? Paint? Knit? Cook a killer Thanksgiving feast? Garden? Landscape? Design and sew my wedding dress? Crochet? Papier-mache giant masks? Whittle hundreds of Santas? You bet - all that and more.

Obviously, she must have liked us to do so much for us, but hugs?  No.

Watching her with my kids now, she's far cuddlier with them than she ever was with me, and it's wonderful to see, but it's odd, too; we just weren't a huggy family. People that know me well are always surprised by that, because I'm an overemotional wreck warm and weepy, and I squeeze, maul and manhandle my kids every chance I get.

Unless they have lice. Or smell bad, or are sticky, or I'm wearing nice clothes* or something white.**

And recently, thinking about my own children, who, frankly, are lousy, smelly and sticky quite a bit of the time, it occurred to me: maybe my mom really liked us, but just thought we were disgusting.

This is better, psychologically, I suppose. But is it? I don't know whether the problem was that she thought we were disgusting, or that we actually were disgusting. Both are problematic, and will (probably) lead to (more) therapy, so maybe I don't want to know.

Anyway, Happy Mother's Day, Mom! You are an overachiever, and have left me with giant shoes (figuratively - she's a size 7) to fill. Also, I hope you don't find me as gross as you did in my formative years.

*very rare
**like a dog who speaks German: even rarer

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

I Shave My Dog in Public

Dammit Karen: I Shave My Dog in Public

Welcome to the Awkward Confessional

Ziggy’s face mirrors the shock and horror of the passerby

That's it, really.  I shave my dog in public. 

The cost of dog grooming here is ridiculous. It was $60 for my local PetSmart to do it in Canada, even though Ziggy is small, about 10 lbs of scruff and teeth. When we moved to London, the neighbourhood groomer said he could do it for £60, which is currently $105.60 in Canadian dollars. Go ahead, ask me how often I have paid even $60 for a haircut for myself. Go on, ask.

I decided that it would be more practical (and more fun!) to order some pet clippers on Amazon. So, I spent the £15.99, my shiny new toy arrived, and financially, even if I only used it once (which, in retrospect, I should have), I’d still be ahead.

I started in the bathtub. As one does. We live in a flat that doesn’t have a balcony or any green space, so I figured that the bathtub would be the easiest place to contain the dog and the hair. I laid down a towel, filled up a little jar with treats, grabbed the dog, and hopped in.

It was no fun for anyone. 

Trimming the smooth fur of his back was pretty easy, as long as I held a treat for him to nibble. As soon as the treat was gone, however, so was any pretense of cooperation. My gel nails were, well, eaten, and by the time most of him was trimmed down, he was snarly and so was I. His (apparently sensitive) undercarriage was still all tangly and matted, and was the main reason he needed a trim, but what can you do? 

I had to vacuum the entire room, twice, and myself, twice, then give the bathtub a good scrub. I took the towel and bathmat out in front of the building to shake them of loose furbits, then vacuum myself again. 

As soon as I opened the bathroom door, Ziggy dashed out and refused to come near me for the rest of the day. Me, his feeder, walker, trainer and playmate. His mommy

He looked very handsome, however, even though he was still wearing bushy little trousers.

My own “bushy little trousers”, post-debacle.

 But, that’s been the routine. Every two months or so, I set aside two hours to sit in the bathtub with my dog, the clippers and an increasingly bad attitude on both of our parts. 

A better way

But then! One day, crossing Regent’s Park, genius struck. It would make far more sense to do this weird and terrible thing to him outside, where I wouldn’t have to sit in a bathtub with a dog (because it’s weird), or vacuum afterwards! It would be quick and easy, and I could even have a picnic afterwards. Yes. This was a great idea, and not weird at all

Let us now talk about the difference between illegal and indecent. Lots of things are illegal in London’s public parks. Others are just wrong. I like to think that shaving my dog is the latter, because although it does not say anywhere that “shaving pets in the Royal Parks” is against the rules, I really feel that it should be, and is only not listed because nobody’s thought to put it in there yet, or perhaps haven’t seen Ziggy and I in one of our haircut death matches.

Let me defend myself a bit here: I don’t shave him down to the skin. That would be terrible. He is absolutely adorable with his fuzzy little eyebrows and moustaches, but his first haircut (at the groomer) revealed a closely-shaven abomination with bulgy eyes and a prominent underbite. No, Ziggy needs moderation.


I aim to shave the entire dog down to 3mm. All of him. So, aside from the oddness of seeing a grown woman wrestle a tiny dog with a pair of clippers (and scissors for cleanup!) on a manicured lawn surrounded by flowerbeds and pathways while children and the elderly run about, there is also the impropriety of which areas of said dog she is trimming. I mean, no wonder he’s so upset about it. If someone dragged me out to Regent’s Park and held me down while they shaved my nethers, I’d try to bite them, too.

So, um, that’s it. There’s no moral, no higher purpose to this story. I shave my dog in a public park.

Thank you.

Note: even Google didn’t know what to do with my “shaving your dog in public” query. There is nothing out there for people like me — so you know it’s weird.

Karen (Power) Hough is a writer, editor and blogger with an Honours BSc. in Human Kinetics. She currently lives in London with her husband, three energetic kids and a codependent dog. She is just fine, thank you very much.

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