I Thought The Asian Woman Was A Nanny, But That’s Not The Problem

The uproar about stereotyping the Asian woman in the Kids Interrupt the News video reveals something troubling about our view of caring.

Professor Kelly’s wife removes the kids during a live TV interview. (Source: BBC/You Tube)

I admit it. I assumed the Asian woman removing the kids from the live BBC interview was the nanny.

Actually, the first time I saw the video that took the internet by storm over the weekend, I assumed she was the mother. I was laughing so hard, I didn’t notice she was Asian. It was only after I was given the context that Professor Robert Kelly was discussing the political crisis in South Korea on the news that evening, that I noticed the ethnicity of woman evacuating the kids from the home office.

When I clicked this link in the Guardian: BBC interview hijacked by children prompts social media debate, and was confronted with this subhead, “Widespread assumption that Asian woman in video that went viral was a nanny – not the mother – leads to accusations of racism”, I felt a little chastened. The woman is Professor Kelly’s wife Jung-a Kim.

It is always good to have ones biases and assumptions challenged, especially if you are a well-off white male who is seldom on the sharp end of negative stereotype. But, stereotyping is an inescapable part of the human condition. Our brains are hardwired to categorize things, and we make thousands of judgement calls based on these mental silos every day.

There are strong evolutionary forces at play here. If you see a slithery animal out of the corner of your eye, you are going to recoil. It’s an almost automatic response. Once you are in a safe zone, you can then assess if the snake has a rattle at the end of its tail or the right combination of red, black and yellow bands before deciding what to do next.

We do that with other people. Strangers, people not like us. Think of aliens, the ultimate outsiders; they are almost always portrayed as a threat. It is like we are almost hardwired to assume the worst. Which is useful, as long as you are aware that can lead to some undesirable outcomes. So, I am not going to beat myself up about putting this woman into a mental box. Hopefully, I will learn something about myself, and my experience of the world, by standing back and assessing the box I put her in.

But there is another problem here. This kerfuffle exposes a real problem with our attitude to caring?

As a stay-at-home Dad I have some experience of being at odds with the assumptions people make. Every time I meet a total stranger, inevitably they ask, “Where do you work?”

“Um, I don’t technically work in that sense.”

It is uncomfortable at times. Even though the material impact on my privileged white guy life is not great, I do struggle with being a carer. How do I define myself without a real job? Do I chat with the men or the moms at a cocktail party? There is not even a convenient word for what I do with my days. Microsoft Word just inserted a big red squiggly line under the word “carer”. Caregiver is more acceptable to the software. Its a British versus American English thing, but either way, the word doesn’t capture the distinction between a nanny and a stay-at-home parent, which is at issue here.

Why is that distinction even important? Whether a mother or a nanny, the woman in the scene is still looking after the kids. From my perspective the real problem is the assumption that calling someone a nanny is a bad thing. For this stereotype to be a negative, being a nanny has to be an undervalued. And if being a nanny is bad, what does that make the person who does the same thing as a nanny, but doesn’t get paid? Am I sucker or a dupe?

Familiarity has eroded gay stereotypes. (Source: Stanley Dai/UpSplash)

Imagine the person who collected the kids in the video was a middle-aged man. I suspect many people might have assumed that he was Professor Kelly’s gay partner. I would have thought that pretty cool. Others would have condemned him to a hellish afterlife.

Now, visualize this all-male scene occurring on TV in 1957. My grandfather would likely have thought the man was Professor Kelly’s cousin visiting from home. The idea that a gay man would live out of the closet was an anathema to people in his generation. Indeed, to even suggest he might have been gay, would have sullied the good professor’s reputation.

Stereotypes change as social attitudes change. The judgement’s we make about people we type as “gay” have changed rapidly in my lifetime. In many places gay is no longer a slur. As we get to know gay men, at work or play or as part of our families, we realize they are just like us. When that happens basis of the negative judgments about gay people is eroded.

Gays have an advantage in that respect. Now they are liberated from the closet they are everywhere. Asian women are not so ubiquitous. If people’s primary experience of Asian women is as home help on a TV sitcom or Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or something sexual, then we shouldn’t be surprised that stereotypes of the servile nanny or the driven mother exist. (Vera Chok delves into this topic.)

But everyone has a parent. Being brought up is universal human experience. The idea of not being loved or cared for as a child is horrible. So why is it that we still fall into the trap of assuming that calling someone a nanny is bad? Why is it easier to tell a stranger I am a blogger, rather than describe myself as a stay-at-home parent?

Could it be we don’t value caring enough?

I Tried to Hate Disney World, But I Liked It


“Spring Break in Orlando.”

There is a statement that elicits either eye rolls or inner-child giddiness from parents.

I’m in the former camp, and remain mildly bemused when I encounter a peer who professes excitement at the prospect of a week in the theme park capital of the world.

To my mind anything that claims to be the Happiest Place on Earth must, by definition of trying too hard, be miserable. I’m deeply suspicious of corporate bull and few places take commercial evangelism to the level of a Disney theme park. Even the addition of Darth Vader to the stable of characters can’t strike a blow against Disney’s collective celebration of the Light side.

When my wife suggested we go to Florida I sucked it up. Actually, I sucked it down; the taste of bile that reached into the back of my throat.

Logically it was the right thing to do. Disney is a rite of passage for a child. My kids are too young to appreciate a Spring Break mountain biking in Moab, and they will probably never be into prolonging winter by snowshoeing between the Appalachian Mountain Club huts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

So, yes I would go to Florida, that great flat featureless landscape, beset by fickle spring weather and overflowing with families in matching shirts. Still, I had my limits:

When my wife sent me a link from her XX in Tech group suggesting ways to maximize your theme park experience it fell firmly in the void between acquiescence and enthusiasm.

It withered in my inbox and she never bought it up again. We defaulted to our accustomed roles: I cheap out and procrastinate until she spends money to make the experience more rewarding. Besides with her interest in applied technology tackling the Disney Fast Pass system was a natural fit.

My wife and our friend worked the Disney app to such great advantage we managed to knock off the Magic Kingdom in a day. My advice to you would be to read the FAQ. This saved us a few hours of queued aggravation and we spent the extra day visiting Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The rides were a little more adventurous and the Indiana Jones and car stunt shows were great.

On our third day it was Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Universal’s Express Pass was a steeper price than we wanted to pay, but not having it definitely reduced the enjoyment.

TigerAfter Orlando we visited St. Petersburg Beach and on our last day in the Tampa area we went to Busch Gardens. Of all the theme parks that was the one I enjoyed the most. The rides were better suited to older kids and the integration with the zoo worked… mostly. One felt for the gazelles, who had a Cheetah Hunt rollercoaster screaming above their enclosure, but like humans living next to a railway they seemed habituated to noise. The glass viewing-box in the middle of the tiger enclosure was really cool.

As for the thousand pound gorilla in the Theme Park world; while the magic bands and Fast Pass are great innovations, overall I felt parts of Disney World needed an update. Maintaining It’s a Small World in its original form is fine, it has a nostalgic value, but Space Mountain was completely underwhelming. Surely they have the technology to make it feel like the rider is being hurtled through space? In the world of vibrant Hubble telescope imagery scattering a few weak light bulbs in the walls doesn’t pass for a stellar experience anymore.

I advertised my status as one who prefers the road less travelled to those journeying this most beaten of paths by wearing my Bandit Snow White holding an Apple logo t-shirt. The meaning of image is rather ambiguous, although it is safe to say it was not a licensed product. Whenever, I wear it I usually get compliments from strangers. But not here in the most crowded place on earth. No one said a thing. They were too busy asking the organized people where they got their customized Disney Family Adventure 2016 t-shirts printed.

It was enough to confirm the suspicion that Disney was not really my cup of tea.

But once I was spinning in a giant teacup, my daughter squealing in delight beside me, I have to admit, it I rather liked it.


I Wish my Son had Gone to the Funeral

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
My father lies in state in his living room.

I went to the funeral of a man I’ve never met. He was the grandfather of one of my six grader’s best friends.

I wish I had taken my son. But being a stay-at-home dad I was the last know about the funeral and I didn’t really get organized in time. Far from getting my son out of school and appropriately dressed for an 11am service, I barely managed it myself.

After I hopped out of the shower at 10:45am I discovered that my one suit should have been dropped at the dry-cleaners after its most recent venture – some months ago. I ended up in khaki pants and a navy jacket. Hardly mournful attire, especially as I had also forgotten a tie and neglected to shave.

I shuffled into a pew at the back of the church reassuring myself that given my tangential relationship with the family showing up was more important than dressing the part.

Two of the man’s daughters gave a lovely eulogy. It brought a tear to my eye. I sometimes wonder if my emotional life is like a church building; ornate on the outside, but a cavernous void within. To cry at a complete stranger’s funeral was reassuring to me.

Who knows why I was crying. Grief is a mysterious thing. I remember hardly crying at my own father’s funeral, but weeping uncontrollably at the next funeral I attended. When you are close to the dead person it is necessary to keep a lid on things just to get through it.

I wish my son had been there to see me cry and to witness the grief of his friend and his friend’s cousins. It would have been awkward for him, but that is the point. Death is part of life and I don’t believe in sheltering kids from it. It is not the sort of topic one brings up in the playground, but my sense is many parents wouldn’t see this as a missed opportunity.

My son would have squirmed in the pew, but at least he would have come away some idea what happens when someone dies; that pain is part of the experience of life. Maybe he could have only managed the faintest of nods to his friend outside the church but he would have shared that experience and offered some comfort.

I was three when my mother’s father died. All I remember of him was he loved to bounce me on his knee and sing the Grand Old Duke of York. I do recall being left at a friend’s house while the rest of the family went out of town for his funeral.

My mother says I have never forgiven her for that. When my grandmother died five years later she made sure I was rushed to the funeral home to see her body before the doors closed at 5pm.

People get squeamish about bodies, especially about letting kids see them. But bodies are important to the process of grief. A body makes a death real.

Sunset over Mount Hooker
The Haast River; my brother’s last resting place. © Cabin boy chronicles

When I was 15, I watched my brother drown in a wild river in New Zealand. They never recovered his body. In a way I was lucky that I witnessed his final descent into the torrent. I knew he was gone.

The rescuers told me to tell my family that there might be hope. There was none. All I gave my sister-in-law was something false to cling too. Later that night when I called my parents with the news I told my father straight up, “Sean is dead.”

His cry still echoes in my memory. When my mother picked up the phone he’d dropped, I was a little less direct. My father came to terms with the loss much quicker than she did. I think my honesty helped him.

Grief is an unavoidable. You can’t bury it, hide from it or out run it, so you might as well be open to it and let it take you where you need to go. While it is a very personal experience I feel on a cultural level we encourage people to shy away from looking death in the face.

William Worden speaks of four tasks one must accomplish for “the process of mourning to be completed” and “equilibrium to be reestablished”. Accepting the reality and significance of the loss is the most immediate task.

That is why seeing a body is important. When my father-in-law passed away we took our toddlers to see his body. I remember they had a lot of questions and it soon dawned on me that the concept of an after life was very convenient when discussing death with children.

My father-in-law suffered Parkinson’s disease, but in death all the tension had drained out of his face. He looked at peace. Seeing him with the disease banished from his body was powerful reminder of the man. That man may have been lost for several years before he died but the extent to which we grieved his actual loss took me by surprise.

I had expected a disease like that causes one to go through a certain pre-grieving. For so long there had been a sense that his passing would be a blessing or a relief. While that was true, it did nothing to lessen the impact.

My own father died three months before our wedding. He was 70. During his illness he lamented that he probably had a few more good years left in him, but he recognized he had full life, the loss of a grown son excepted.

My late brother’s wife is Samoan. She brought a wonderful Polynesian approach to death to our family. My father’s body lay in state in his own living room in the days before his funeral. In keeping with their tradition my sister-in-law and other members of the Samoan branch of the family slept with his body to keep him company.

That was a bit much for some of us with British and Irish heritage but plenty of people went into the room to have a final chat with dad in his open casket. By the time it was closed it was overflowing with tributes people had sent him away with; his stethoscope, the newspaper, tennis balls, his favorite candy, bottles of wine and photos.

My children never knew my father. His coffin contained a story of his life; his interests, passions, losses and loves. I wish I had a complete list of the items that ended up in there. It would give them a window into his life, a more child-friendly picture than any eulogy could hope to paint.

The Unfinished Business of Caring


My friend Anne-Marie Slaughter just published a book called Unfinished Business. It is her road map to completing the revolution that started out as the women’s movement. But to characterize it as a book about feminism would be too narrow.

Slaughter has reframed the gender debate and focused on caring and competition as the two drives that make us human. Caring manifests itself in the domestic sphere, while competition dominates in the workplace.

The concept of caring encompasses more people.
Slaughter made a name for herself with a 2012 article in The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All“. Due to a coincidence in publication it was widely regarded as a response to Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In.

In Unfinished Business she recognizes that the work-life balance debate is limited to women of means, and doesn’t capture the experience of a solo-mother living paycheck to paycheck and having to choose between going to work and staying at home with a sick child.

And coupling caring with women, however numerically persuasive, fails to capture the experience of men like me, while also creating a barrier that stops other men joining the cause.

Her argument is that we need to address the imbalance between the caring and competition, by placing more value on the latter. As a carer I am well aware that we collectively relegate it. It is a huge hurdle both at both the individual and societal level.

When I typed the word carer in this previous sentence, my word processing program inserted a jagged red line beneath it. The software prefers the term caregiver. Carer is the Queen’s English. Caregiver is American, but if caring is only something that can be given it will always remain undervalued.

I am guilty of undervaluing caring. It is almost a chronic condition.

Last month spent five days in Rocky Mountain National Park. My goal was to climb a Fourteener, which is what Coloradans call peaks over 14,000 feet which I described in a separate post “Men, Mountains and Middle Age“.

Throughout the trip I had a lingering sense that I was not worthy of this little vacation.


I know plenty of working dads who go away on boys’ weekends. They don’t feel badly about it. My wife makes time to be away with her friends. The biggest dilemma that presents the girls is finding a half marathon in a city with decent après-race shopping.

The Fourteener was my New Year’s Resolution in 2012. It’s been rolling over ever since. A continuing resolution like they have in Congress when they can’t get their act together.

Admittedly it is an inconvenient resolution. You just can rock up from sea level on Friday night, climb to 14,000 feet on Saturday and be home for Sunday dinner. I tried that in Hawaii a year ago, taking a day out of a family beach vacation to hike up 13,700 foot Mauna Kea. It almost killed me. This time I took a week so I could acclimatize.

That only added to the sense of guilt. This was a particularly self-indulgent scheme.

Indeed if a friend, a stay-at-home mother, had not decided to celebrate her 40th birthday in Las Vegas, making Denver a convenient stop on the way home, I probably still wouldn’t have climbed my mountain.

The logistics were not easy, but my wife has long been supportive of the idea, so the only thing stopping me doing it sooner was me:


Did being a man make taking this time off particularly challenging for me? Earlier this year a friend sent me this article about men and their “Conspicuous Work” habits “Why Men (at Least Pretend to) Work Longer Hours“.

A Dutch study found men are happiest when they think they are working longer hours than their male peers. We are more concerned with the appearance of working hard than our actual income or productivity.

We compete with each other to be seen to be working the hardest. I have taken myself out of what Annie-Marie Slaughter calls the competitive realm of the workplace, but have I lost that natural urge to compete? Of course, not. Maybe it manifest itself in the temptation to deny myself time off.

Was I climbing into more that rarified air in Colorado? Did I create a double whammy; a subconscious devaluation of my role as a carer was exaggerated by my male propensity to compare my labor with others? Not only was I not working, I was not working very hard at not working.

Anne-Marie Slaughter outlines some societal changes that would elevate caring. Along with legislative remedies and changes in the workplace the caring mindset needs to change.

I am a carer, but individual work I need to do improve my attitude to caring represents quite a mountain to climb.

Death to the Birthday Party Goodie Bag

A collection of goodie bag detritus fished out of the corners of my house.
A collection of goodie bag detritus fished out of the corners of my house.

Last weekend I ran an experiment on 16 boys.

My middle-schooler had his birthday party and I did not provide goodie bags. I wanted to see if his friends would even notice.

It is hard to conceive what an eleven year old boy would want in a goodie bag.

Surely they are over cheap pencils with chronically fragile leads?

Super-hero erasers that would more accurately be called ‘smudgers’ must have lost all utility by now?

Now, they have adult teeth I’m loathed to load them up with candy. It’s hard to get them to clean their teeth. They’ll build a virtual toothbrush on Minecraft, but actually using a real one; that’s a tough ask.

The personal hygiene penny has yet to drop so a jar smelly-shoe powder or a stick of deodorant would probably elicit blank looks from the guests and a resigned ‘Dad you are so embarrassing’ glare from my son.

The whole concept of birthday party favors is wrong.

I accept that a personalized momento of a once in the lifetime celebration is appropriate. We gave out woven flax-leaf bags at our wedding containing a selection of items that had meaning to us.

The only thing a party-supply store goodie bag tells you about the giver is his or her favorite superhero or princess. A fact that was probably apparent as soon as you opened the invitation.

A birthday party is a celebration of one person’s special day. Can’t we leave it at that? Let’s teach our kids it is not all about them. You give your friend a gift because it is their day, not so you can get a little bag of unhealthy food or dysfunctional knick-knacks in return.

I don’t recall getting party favors when I was a kid. That was in the distant age when you didn’t get a trophy for showing up at soccer or a bunch of flowers for making up the chorus numbers in the school recital.

People of my generation are constantly complaining about Millennials. They are over-entitled and impatient. They have unrealistic expectations for career advancement. They are not prepared to do the hard yards.

They are the first generation of kids who grew up expecting a gift when they went to a birthday party.

As it happened none of the boys appeared bereft when their hour of paintball was up and they left empty handed. I was sweating it a little bit, but once they discovered the left-over pizza my anxiety disappeared, or rather it was refocused on recall of the Heimlich maneuver.

Using the advent of middle school as excuse to bury the goodie bag is just a sign of my own inability to take a stand earlier in life.

I’ve been itching to write this column since my boy was in preschool. We had the farcical situation where the class would celebrate a birthday and the parents would leave a gift bag in every child’s cubby. So even those kids who had not been to the actual out-of-school party would get a rewarded. They got a gift when they had not even given one!

I drafted a letter to the pre-school administration requesting this daft practice be stopped, but I never sent it.

I mounted a more subtle protest. I sent mandarin oranges as my contribution to the Valentine’s Day collection. I started lacing my own children’s goodie bags with a deeply subversive item designed to question the status quo. An item to challenge kids and parents alike. I found something that wouldn’t end up in some fish-killing oceanic plastic heap after the kids inevitably lost interest in it.

Long before Wall Street was occupied, I occupied my goodie bags with the most wholesome, anti-commercial gift I could think of.

I filled them with apples!

Organic apples.

It sure felt good. Many parents thought it was great idea, but it didn’t catch on. I get it. As a parent you have to pick your battles. It’s taken me ten years too fully join this one. As my wife pointed out birthday parties are stressful for most little kids. They don’t need their parents too make them stick out from the crowd any more than having to blow out four candles does.

It is easier just to go with the flow, to let Party Incorporated lead the goodie bag trend. To let the little children suffer a yo-yo which doesn’t retract.

Or maybe we can collectively make a change.


Men, Mountains and Middle Age

Morning light on Longs Peak
Morning light on Longs Peak.

I’ve been thinking about a chance happening this week; I was in Colorado to climb Longs Peak, one of its more famous 14,000-foot summits, while an old workmate from Los Angeles was in the Sierra Nevada trying to ascend 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48.

We are both men in our mid-forties and I joked on Facebook that we were “trying to prove that we still have it”.

I’m still trying to figure out what the “it” that I was referring to is. But it was not just lazy throw-away line. Well, it might have been as far as my friend is concerned but he is stuck on a mountain in California with limited reception so I can’t ask him.

One hesitates you use the term midlife crisis. A crisis is when you do something really reckless like buy a Ferrari or run off with a younger colleague. Suddenly deciding you are going to drop tens of thousands of dollars paying someone to guide you up Mt. Everest might count, but not these peaks. They represent more of a midlife measure. An accounting of what you are still capable of.

According to this account in the Havard Business Review a midlife malaise affects people of all classes and cultures. Psychological well-being takes a U-shaped trajectory through-out life. We are happiest when we are young and very old, but have a notable dip in life satisfaction in our forties and fifties. This can manifest itself in different ways.

So, it is possible my ex-workmate and I were responding to a similar impulse despite our many differences. I am an introverted stay-at-home dad. He is gregarious and unmarried; From my settled perspective he seems like a playboy without a trust fund. Maybe, I am reading too much into that time he summed up his weekend by claiming that “50 was his new 40” when it came to women?

A statement that inadvertently captures a truth. Our generation is getting older later in life. It’s hard to feel old when you have kids in elementary school. I notice I am getting older. I’ve started having to move the screen in and out to focus on the words in front of me, but I’m not panicking about it.

When I turned forty-five I calculated that I’d probably already lived half my life, but that realization didn’t shake my equilibrium. I was just as much of glass-half-empty guy as I’ve always been.

Perhaps I haven’t entered my midlife nadir yet? I wonder if my current occupation will make it worse. I tell myself that traditional conceptions of masculinity are out dated and that I am near the leading edge of some great and necessary social change. That works intellectually. At a deeper emotional level those old macho stereotypes can still work me over.

I posted a photo of one of acclimatization hikes on Facebook. Someone commented that I should “Get a Job”. Because he was English, I could brush it off with a timely sports-related retort. But it did bring up some self-doubt, even though I suspect he was motivated by envy, rather than the imposition of traditional ideals.

The journey up Longs Peak is a substantial endeavor; 15-miles round trip from the trail head with a 4,800 foot up and down on the way. Furthermore the last mile and a half from the Keyhole is off trail and there are a few spots where you wouldn’t want to slip. In good conditions it requires a head for heights and some scrambling, otherwise proper mountaineering skill is required.

The Keyhole, where the scrambling begins.
The Keyhole, where the scrambling begins.

Before I left I doubted I could still do it. The alternative to a 10-15 hour day was to camp at the Boulderfield, 6 miles up the trail and 12,760 feet above the sea. I brought my tent, although it was not clear that hauling camping equipment that far up the mountain would make the trip any easier. As it happened a stormy forecast the day before my summit push ruled out a two-day expedition.

I used to hike for a living. When I wasn’t getting paid to do it, I did it for pleasure. Then I moved to places where the hiking lacked the aesthetic appeal I’d grown addicted to and I did less of it. This was no random addition to my bucket-list, which only added an element of pressure.

I was definitely a middle-aged man out to prove he could do “it”. I imagine this was like a marathon. I got pre-race jitters. At the last minute I rented an ice axe and crampons because word around town was the conditions on near the summit were “technical”. I was worried about having to use them. I’ve done it before, but I am not an expert. Hell, I was worried I might not make it to the point where I would have to use them. Was I fit enough? Was I acclimatized to the altitude?

Then I started my climb on the internet, which is never a good idea if you are in a compromised frame of mind. This meticulous climber died, and these guys, by their own all-capped admission, got lucky (This is not a good route description. Several names and elevations are wrong. I used 14ers.com)

I went to bed at 8:06 pm and probably got less than 2 hours sleep. I was trying not to look at the clock, which didn’t stop the possibilities stampeding through my head.

The mountain would still be there if I didn’t make it. Don’t get summit fever. The top is only halfway. Bailing out 300 feet from the summit was a great and noble story. At one point I planned the video farewell I was going to record for my wife and kids in the hope my phone would survive a 1000-foot fall better than my body. That brought me to tears, although it was hard to find the right balance between the sentimental and frivolous.

It would be quite an interesting thought experiment if you weren’t also counting the minutes your weren’t asleep. I know I got some sleep because when the alarm went off at 2am I felt like absolute crap.

As it happens the conditions were ideal. I made good time, fatigue didn’t cloud my judgment, the ice axe or crampons were not required and got back to the car just as the forecast afternoon rain began to fall. Afterwards, I treated myself to a massage, which I’ll regard as a sign of maturity rather than an admission of my eroding capacity.

I felt good. I didn’t turn back the years as much as they haven’t caught up with me.

The next day on the rental car shuttle bus at Denver airport I almost offered my seat to a man standing in the aisle. I didn’t, which was just as well as on closer inspection I realized I had more grey hair than he did!

So, yes, right now, I can say, “I’ve still got it”. Until the next fourteener comes along.

The Author on the summit. © vjcphoto.com
The Author on the summit. © vjcphoto.com

Finding Liberté on Vacation in France

Can you still call it a diving board?
Can you still call it a diving board?

My children spent the first four weeks of summer at camp. The facility had a pool with a couple of one-meter diving springboards.

They should have had great fun, instead they were cast into a particularly American sort of purgatory. The rules said you were not allowed to dive off the diving board into 12-foot deep pool.

You could jump, but only forwards and only if you didn’t try anything daring like bouncing up and down on the springboard before you propelled yourself through the air.

The rules were strictly enforced by a set of whistle-happy teenage lifeguards. The teens were empowered by a Pool Manager; the only thing keeping this guy upright was he appeared to have a chip on both shoulders.

I assumed the zealous regard for my children’s safety was cover to avoid a hefty insurance payout in the unlikely event of an accident, but it was actually dictated by a local county ordinance. How un-American, to have government usurp the power of the market to regulate the joy out of life.

After four weeks of camp we landed in Lake Annecy in the foothills of the French Alps. The locals directed us to a public beach and there it was; manna from heaven for my closeted kids, a diving platform rising out of the water to the grand height of five meters (15 feet).

It didn’t take long for them to strip off the psychological bubble wrap and start clambering up the stairs ready to try their luck on the three-meter platform.

There was one lifeguard, sunning himself on shore and doing his best to remind the tourists that the English had stolen the word nonchalant from the French. The diving platform was a free for all. I found standing five meters up snuffed out any sense of daring, but there were plenty of locals executing flips into the water below. Most of them seemed unable to rotate in multiples of 180 degrees, which made for some painful looking entries.

Given the French are not renowned for orderly queuing, one might have thought someone with a whistle and a red swimsuit might have been in order at the top of the platform, just to make sure all was clear before the next person slapped into the water.

But no, it was left entirely up to this group of humans to self-generate enough order to prevent a horrible accident. They managed to do so. My kids had a ball. My wife even took the plunge from on high, as part of her never-ending quest to demonstrate to her sons that they should not fall for the sort of woman who shies away from adventure.

Lake Annecy is one of the hidden gems of France. Lying in the first ranges of the Alps less than an hour south of Geneva, it is off the most heavily-beaten tourist path, but is frequented by enough English holidaymakers to make it accessible to those travellers who’ve long forgotten their high-school French.

It is paradise for those with a sense of adventure. For a mountain lake it is surprisingly warm. My children spent hours in the water. They chose water-skiing over sailing and when their fingers were like prunes we had a choice of hundreds of terrestrial activities.

The kids pumped for the ropes course. There was a sign indicating the minimum height required to do the course. My daughter barely qualified but none of the staff checked. Either they had a really good eye for millimeters or it was the roughest of guides.

The next day we went tandem paragliding; you clip yourself to a Frenchman with a parachute attached to his back, run down a steep mountain-top slope until the chute catches the wind and suddenly lifts you up into the air. The ride was surprisingly smooth. We were aloft for fifteen minutes before we landed in a field far below our takeoff spot. The kids wanted to do it again.

We did a via ferrata, which is a series of permanent cables and rungs that enable amateurs to ascend cliffs that would otherwise only be accessible to advanced rock climbers.

The public diving tower, via ferrata and paragliding at Lake Annecy, France
The public diving tower, via ferrata and paragliding at Lake Annecy, France

All this with minimal safety briefings and I never had to sign a waiver.

The French have struck a different balance between the individual and society. If you get injured in France the state will restore you to health (supplementary health insurance exists but the costs are firmly regulated). In America you need your own medical insurance. Insurance companies need to cover costs which brings litigation into play. Litigation exists in France, but the legal system doesn’t use juries, which reduces the chances of a big payout. So business operators and their insurers are not faced with the need to cover that risk or avoid it by not doing anything risky in the first place.

Adventure businesses like the via ferrata are popping up all over Europe. The two we did in France were not legacies of some long-ago conflict, but purpose built for tourism. There are via ferrata in America. You can go paragliding, or canyoning here, but compared to France your options are far fewer and generally more expensive.

The American exception is the big business of skiing. Most skiing states have laws aimed at protecting resorts from liability. Which is ironic as the risk involved in paragliding or doing a via ferrata is centered on a catastrophic equipment failure. That is much less than the risk posed by hundreds of Bode Miller wannabes.

Back home I showed a few people the video of my daughter sprinting off the mountainside and paragliding into the abyss with Lake Annecy far below.

Some were in awe that it was even possible for an adult to do that, let alone a six-year-old. Others gave me a suspicious look as if they were making a mental note to never allow their child to go to my house on a play date. One person made an uneasy joke about child protection services.

Are we becoming too cautious?