Apr 19 2014

Time and Time Again

They warned me. The ubiquitous voices of been-there-already parents, well-meaning strangers and card-carrying members of the cliché club. It all goes by so fast. They were referring to my children’s childhood, and how quickly it time_flieswould pass. When I was knee-deep in diapers and breast pumps, unable to find even a few minutes to brush my teeth, trying to coordinate conference calls with nap time, I’d just turn the other way and roll my eyes. Deep down I knew that someday I’d agree with them, but it didn’t make me any more receptive to their unsolicited commentary.

Now time screams by and each day the hands spin faster and faster around the clock. Those two tow-headed toddlers are long and lean. Short-pants is nearly as tall as I am. Buddy-roo is not far behind her in height. They can dress and feed themselves. They manage abstract concepts and demonstrate emotional intelligence. They are becoming interesting. Now that the extreme parenting required in those early days is – thankfully – behind me, I find myself observing my children with awe and amusement. I have to throw out an occasional bone: a reminder to set the table, help out with a complex homework question or to lob in some carefully-cloaked advice. I watch them knowing I will soon be irrelevant. They are sprinting toward a horizon that’s not mine to reach.

~ ~ ~

I don’t know why I thought that moving to a new city would give me more time. I imagined an uncluttered life, a tabula rasa, starting fresh without obligations that steal time. I must have been remembering my first year in Paris, when I’d go off on a Sunday morning and explore a different arrondissement block by block just for the sake of wandering, returning home as the sun set, nourished by the long quiet hours. I had only a few friends in the city, and fewer invitations to meet up with them. That was the mid-90s, and although I had an email address – a Compuserve number – the volume of messages in my inbox was a small fraction of what calls for a response today. The public internet existed, too, but it was nascent in its ability to eat up blocks of our time. That first year, though lonely, allowed me to stop and think about who and what I wanted to be and do. I foolishly incorporated that memory into my expectations of the move to Barcelona.

Laugh at me now. Living in a new place, everything takes longer. The errands that used to be on the way to somewhere aren’t quite as efficient. Getting around isn’t second nature. I’m operating in a different language. Spanish classes twice a week are helping with that, but these take up time, too. A move with kids adds another dimension of things to monitor and manage. I’m running faster than ever, once again on a hamster wheel but this time one of my own inadvertent design. The mantra that I hate to repeat comes too often to my lips: There’s never enough time.

~ ~ ~

Last week I spent time in Italy at the CREA conference, where I facilitated a workshop about time and creativity. It was a reprise of a 3-day workshop I’d done before, only this year, paradoxically, it was scheduled as a one-day program. The workshop wasn’t about time management, but rather an opportunity to reflect on the relationship with time and how we view it and use it. Not that I’m any kind of expert on this subject, but I took on the assignment because it’s one I need to explore over and over again. I wrote time_is_nowabout this before, when I chronicled the previous workshop, but it’s still true: we teach what we most need to learn.

Think of all the language around time: how we spend time, save time, waste time and kill time. We use time up, we take time out. Time is money, time waits for no thing and for no one. Time flies. We’re running out of time. We often talk about time in terms of Chronos, its passage in hours, days and years, counted and quantified. Contrast that with Kairos, the propitious moment of time, the opportune moment. This is the Carpe Diem approach, making the best of the now. These two notions of time dance together through our lives. While we can’t escape Chronos, we can be more deliberate about Kairos. All it takes, really, is paying attention to what’s happening right now. I had a lot of Kairos moments on the Camino, because I slowed down and paid attention. The only thing that stops me from doing that now is me. Sometimes I’m so busy keeping up, I forget to savor the little moments that, when pieced together later, are what add up to a lifetime of time well spent.

~ ~ ~

There are times when she is shy, painfully uncomfortable talking out loud in front of people. At the conference I invited Short-pants to attend a small group session with me, one where you reflect on the events of the day. She was eager to come and participate. When it was her turn to talk, though, she struggled to find the words, and even had a hard time looking up at the others in the small circle of chairs. I’m not troubled by this, she’s gregarious enough at home with family and in the company of close friends. It’s that I’m always surprised by her timing: it’s never quite logical, when she goes all shy, and when she steps up to take the stage.

On the last night of the CREA conference, a musical ensemble called Cluster performed an entertaining and interactive a cappella concert. After singing several songs and medleys, demonstrating their capacity for harmonizing and blending their voices to sound like musical instruments, they asked for three volunteers from the audience. Short-pants shot her hand up in the air, without even knowing what she was volunteering to do. Once on stage, she learned that she would conduct the singers, and that in her hands was the opportunity to go faster or slower, louder or softer. She was the youngest of the volunteer conductors, but probably the most deliberate, waving one hand to lead the singers through a version of The Beatles’ Let it Be with fierce concentration. she_conducts The audience applauded her wildly, for her courage more than her conducting prowess, and she won the opportunity to conduct a second time, as part of a competition, with the winner of another trio of volunteers. Once again she took the stage, this time the song was O Sole Mio, which she’d never heard before, but she managed to wave both arms this time and finish to more wild applause, enough to make her the victor once again. She stood tall and proud on the stage, beaming broadly, surveying the audience that had crowned her, taking in the moment fully.

From the moment she ran up to the stage until she came back to hug me when it was all over, time stopped. I didn’t think about what we’d been doing before, I didn’t wonder about what would happen after. I stood in the back of a big round room, my eyes riveted on her, my hands cupped over my mouth, feeling nervous and surprised and delighted all at once. She grabbed that moment for herself and in turn gave me one, too. That and a little elbow nudge in the side about our old friend time. It’s too easy to focus on how fast time goes by, watching your children grow up. Better just to pay attention, while it’s all happening, which is when they remind you how to seize the day.


Mar 31 2014

Who’ll Get the Dog Up?

The mornings have never been easy. When she was a little toddler, Buddy-roo always woke up way too early, crawling into our bed at a pre-dawn hour and rather than dozing back to sleep in my arms, like her sister, she’d kick and fuss until we got up and put her in the saucer in front of Baby Einstein. (This explains her affection for anything with a screen.) It’d buy us 45 extra minute of sleep, not an insignificant number in those early parental days with two young toddlers.

Now it’s nearly impossible to rouse her out of bed. The morning must be choreographed with a series of steps: an early whispered call, with gentle back-rub, repeated in-person visits to get her to rise out from under her alarm_clockscozy comforter. I’ve tried a range of approaches from cooing gently in her ear, using her stuffed animals and puppets to nudge her awake. I try not to holler up at her from downstairs – this is a last resort because though it eventually moves her from bed to the breakfast table, the cranky comportment she brings with her is the wrong way for all of us to start our day. I even tried playing her favorite band One Direction at full volume, a gesture which at 7:30 in the evening brings her bounding into the living room to dance before dinner. Though it got her out of bed at 7:30 in the morning, it wasn’t her best mood ever.

And she’s only ten. Given that the sleeping habits of teenagers are even more problematic, I am looking forward to several more years of nagging in the morning. Though Short-pants, months way from being 13, is much more self-sufficient in the morning, setting her own alarm, pushing herself out of bed and dressing efficiently. I often stumble out of our bedroom, yawning and tying the belt of my robe, to find her all dressed, sitting in the living room chair reading or knitting. On the weekends, she brings us coffee in bed. But offering this up to Buddy-roo an example is futile, the comparison will only be a dis-encouragement (her term, not mine) and cause her to bury her head under the pillow for ten more minutes.

~ ~ ~

She wants a dog. She’s been asking for one for years. In Paris, we had good reason to change the subject on this conversation; our top-floor apartment wasn’t really suited for a dog – at least not the kind of canine I would allow in our home. Plus it felt like taking care of two young girls was enough. I didn’t want another creature to feed and bathe and take out for walks, too.

Still she begged. Last year we offered it as a reward for getting good grades, figuring that given her temperament it was unlikely she could earn the reward, but if indeed it motivated her to perform then she’d truly deserve it. It’s not that I don’t want a dog. When I was little we had a loyal woodchuck hound, he was the best. I’m very fond of dogs as long as they’re bigger than cats. But pets are a mess and work, and didn’t I just mention that for me mothering two young girls was enough of that?

When our Parisian neighbor Lucy acquired a Shih Tzu and offered Buddy-roo the responsibility of walking the dog after school, it took the pressure off of us. It also gave us a chance to see how long it would take Buddy-roo to get bored with the dog, as well as the job, which is useful information. It turns out she has a very special rapport with animals, and she and the dog Pierre became fast friends. There were a few afternoons where she needed to be reminded about her duties, but most of the time it was her pleasure to take care of him. Since we moved away she longs for him, anytime she sees a Shih Tzu in the street she calls out his name. She even remembered his birthday and called Lucy to leave a message for him.

In Barcelona our apartment is a bit more spacious and somehow more suited to owning a dog. We’re closer to nature, too, with a big park across the dog_mailstreet and a mountainside of terrain just a two-block walk up the hill from our door. There are plenty of places for a dog to do what a dog’s born to do: run and play. So De-facto and I are warming to the idea. A lot.

Except we’d already put the acquisition of a pet up as an incentive, and we’d realized, too late, it was probably counter productive. We try to praise the girls by complimenting the work they do to achieve their successes, not just the good outcome. The carrot-and-stick we’d offered Buddy-roo was based on being conscientious about her work, but it was also about getting a specific result. And even though she’d rallied and done the work, her grades didn’t cut it. We probably set the bar too high. Or else we’d achieved our inadvertent objective, which was to get out of getting her a dog.

But if we get one now, it’s like rewarding her even though she didn’t meet the goal. Is this a case of we made our bed, so now we lie in it? Do we have to stick to the original plan and keep pressing her to get better grades? Isn’t there some kind of work-around? The imperfections of our parenting are humbling.

Thus a new challenge has been issued: she has to continue to demonstrate her effort to be responsible for her own homework, not necessarily to place in the top of her class or ace her tests, but to be conscientious about her work between now and the end of the year, AND, she needs to show us that she can wake up consistently in the morning without our badgering her – because it will be her responsibility to walk the dog in the morning – then we could bring a dog into our family next year. Presented with this pathway to a pet, she began to dance around the room, as though a nearly dead hope had just been revived.

She asked me later, using her cute voice, “On a scale of 1 – 100, what are the chances that we will get a dog?”

I explained that if she kept up with her schoolwork – if there were no more oh-no-mama-there’s-this-thing-I-forgot-that’s-due-tomorrow panics, if she did her homework without making it a big mishigas and did her best to do well in school – and if she’d demonstrate that she could get out of bed in the morning without delay and drama, that chances were very good.

“How good?” she said.

“It’s all up to you,” I told her, “to make it a one-hundred percent.”

~ ~ ~empty_bed

The mornings are getting easier. You can tell she’s working hard to change her rising habits. This morning she had to get out of bed really early, in the dark, to get to school by 6:15 am to leave for a school trip. It helped that she’s excited about the trip, a weeklong adventure with her classmates that involves hiking and outdoor activities. It’s a French school tradition, the class verte, partly for the physical activities but also to help develop the children’s autonomy. It’s a week away from home without the parents to organize everything for them, kind of a primer for the independence they’ll be given next year in middle school. Buddy-roo bounced out of bed like a pro this morning, a sign that she can get up when she wants to. I think it’s a good chance there’s a dog in our future.


Mar 13 2014

Well Stocked

It’s been more than twenty years since I moved abroad, and yet there are still some American products so cherished that I import them each time I return from a trip to the states. You don’t realize how accustomed you become to certain products until, after trying the local version,bed_head_stack you start to get homesick for your favorite brands. People ask me what I miss about the states, and of course I reply first about the people I don’t get to see enough: my family, college friends, childhood buddies. But then I have to admit that I long for simple household items, like cotton swabs and dental floss. I’ve tried to buy those innocuous but useful items in my host countries, but nothing beats a Q-tip or a string of Glide floss. There’s a list of special American brands that I prefer, and so on each trip to the states I make a quick stop at the neighborhood CVS or Walgreens and pick up a stash of my favorite brands. Many friends who come to visit have played carrier pigeon to specifically named brands of maple syrup, peanut butter and a carefully described feminine products. Anyone flying east over the Atlantic, if they are willing, comes with some goodies to keep my inventory flush.

Since our move to Barcelona, I’ve been hit with a double-whammy. Now there’s a brand new list of French products I’ve come to rely on that either have inferior replacements in Spain or don’t exist at all here. I’ve spent the last few months hunting through different markets and pharmacies in my new neighborhood and further afield, hoping to find a comparable toothpaste or hair gel – don’t even get started with me about face creams – without satisfaction.

At first, it was just about stocking up. I’d come back from a quick 2-day trip to Paris with a fresh haircut and a suitcase topped off with the favorite soaps and spices. I liked having a stash of my favorite stuff under the sink, or in that top corner cupboard. I felt comforted by the presence of my familiar products. With each trip – I end up going to Paris almost monthly, just for a day or two – I’ll do a drive-by my old local supermarket and pharmacy, and even though I have three boxes of Marvis Italian toothpaste in the cupboard in Barcelona, I feel compelled to buy another. “Who knows when I’ll be back again?” I tell myself, even though I’ve already booked the plane ticket for next month. “I might as well get some more – just in case.”
marvis_in_multiple
With each trip, my inventory grows, which prompted me to initiate a conversation with De-facto about how one behaves in the context of scarcity and abundance, how I like to keep a healthy stash of my favorite supplies. Not that I’m wasteful, but that I like the abundance so I don’t have to skimp. I’m happy when there’s a reserve.

“That’s not about abundance,” he told me, “that’s about hoarding.”

If a stranger came to my home and looked in the cupboards under my kitchen and bathroom sinks, (s)he’d certainly sense the OCD quality of my acquisitions. You can tell immediately which products I covet because there are no less than four packages of each, and often more. And if I get down to just one on deck, I must admit, I get a bit nervous.

Is this how it starts, the wacky old lady bit? I remember, growing up, how there was an eccentric old man who lived in a big house and it was said he hoarded so many things you couldn’t even walk in the rooms. Most notable was his alleged possession of every issue of the New York Times since he started to read. I’m pretty sure this was an urban myth – or a rural myth, my hometown was pretty small – but the image of him stays with me, the way he shuffled down the street, newspaper in hand. Is this my future?

My mother had a little hoarder in her. She saved every issue of Good Housekeeping, from the time she started keeping house in the 1950s, labeled in cartons in the backroom, which at one point was impenetrable. She did a lot of just-in-case saving, but she lived in that big old house so why not? It’s certainly not the reason that prompted our move, but it’s been a fringe benefit: I cleared out a lot of clutter from our Paris apartment when almond_dish_soapI prepared it for our (heroic) renter. But of course if ask you him about this, he’ll laugh. There’s still a lot left, things I haven’t figured out how to part with.

But that’s the sentimental stuff. Now I have this new compulsion, like a mad squirrel stowing things away for the winter, to keep my cabinets filled with my favorite things from not only the states, but from France, too. Is this me holding on too firmly to the life I loved in Paris? Or just an obsession with good quality or familiar products not yet replaced in the new hometown?

I was in Paris last week, and I’m about to go to the states next week, so at the moment my tendency to hoard is at an all time high. But still, if you’re coming to visit us in Barcelona, from France or from America, do let me know how much room you have in your suitcase. I’ll give you a list of just what to bring.


Mar 4 2014

Into the Woods

Any lenses we were wearing – glasses or goggles – fogged up instantly when we trudged into the lodge. Wet, heavy snow dripped off our coats and hats. We’d been skiing nearly three hours and hadn’t intended to stop, except a small squall settled in over the mountain, its steady diagonal snowfall like needles against our faces. Hot chocolate was required, to warm our hands and take a break from being battered by the icy snow.

The lodge, a chalet-styled restaurant, was packed with diners at tables with plates of steaming food, croque-monsieurs and pomme-frites, thick pieces of red meat with creamy sauces. European skiers won’t miss their appointed meal times; a plus for flexible eaters like us who’d rather snack along the way and take advantage of the short lift lines that result while the rest of the mountain’s patrons are savoring their long lunches. Now we were in their midst, standing at the bar in the dark room, cradling our cups of hot chocolate, taking a restorative pause and hoping the snow would ease up.
girls_on_skis
It did. We gulped down our last sips of chocolate and clunked out of the lodge in awkward ski-booted steps to retrieve our skis and poles, laid against a wooden fence, and headed for the nearly empty lift-line.

We’d rotated in shifts all day, skiing as a family of four, and then De-facto would ski off to explore more demanding terrain, later returning to the two gentler hills that satisfied the girls. Then we’d ski a couple of runs together, all of us, before I’d get my turn to ski off and take a few longer, more challenging runs alone. It’s fun to ski with the girls and watch them get more confident. But how I love to ski alone, at my own pace, to stop when I want – or not stop at all – revived by a few precious, private moments at the top of the mountain. I was a ski-bum for a year in my early thirties, and all the freedom associated with that period of my life comes rushing back to me in an instant, just by sitting alone on the chairlift.

While I was off on my own, De-facto tried to inspire the girls to veer off the main piste into the woods, following tracks carved out by other adventurous skiers. The narrow trails snaked on and off the main slope, quick little jaunts in and out of the forest. For heartier adventurers, you could go deeper and find steeper tracks, one of them even over a bridge with a small jump. But if you stayed at the edge, close to the slope, it was a gentler risk, exhilarating enough for Buddy-roo, who daringly followed her father into the trees and out again.

Short-pants, though older, wasn’t quite as daring. It doesn’t help that her just-about-adolescent body is gangly and spindly. But she’s always had a different kind of physical coordination, and because of this tends to avoid sports in general. Just getting her out on skis is a bit of a trial. The night before we left, she cried because we were forcing her to go skiing. After three runs the first morning, she’d forgotten the burden we’d pressed upon her to enjoy this form of winter athletics, surrendering to its pleasure. But despite De-facto’s enthusiastic encouragement, she refused to follow them into the woods, preferring to do her standard snowplow snake back and forth across the main slope.

Our four-hour passes would expire soon – we’d gone for the shorter lift-pass thinking that the kids wouldn’t want to ski longer. In the end it was De-facto and I who were aching and exhausted and ready to call it a day. I’d skied fairly hard on my last solo turn, so I nodded at him to go off and take a last run on his own. I’d do one more with the girls and ski them over to the rental shop to return the skis and meet him there.

Except Buddy-roo wanted to follow her father into the forest again, so it was agreed she’d wait for Short-pants and me at the bottom by the lift so we could make our final ride up the mountain before our passes ran out. ski_pisteThen we’d take our last run of the day, down a different slope that would take us to the rental shop. The phrase, last run of the day, always sounds ominous to me. As a young child, my sister broke her leg on the last run of the day, so I’m always cautious about making this declaration, afraid to jinx one of us to such a casted fate.

Short-pants and I started out side by side, but I soon pulled ahead, making slow, wide arcs in the fresh snow. Halfway down, I stopped to wait for her. I scanned the hill for her distinctive helmet-worn-over-the-ski-hat (her choice to wear it that way), but she was nowhere to be found. I craned my neck in every direction, on the verge of worrying, until I saw her purple coat and her lopsided helmet…in the woods.

She was just above me, so I took a dozen giant side-steps back up the mountain to get closer to her. She was stopped in her tracks, considering how to navigate forward. From where I stood, it looked like she had a choice to veer out of the woods fairly easily and ski to me, or she could continue on the trail into the woods, though then the route out would be steeper.

“Look at you, in the woods!” I shouted. I wanted to encourage her for taking the risk, though I wished she’d have done it with her father so he could coach her through it. “Hey, why don’t you take the next path out. We’ve got to get down and meet your sister.”

Either she ignored my advice or she was unable to turn her skis in the heavy snow. Although she wasn’t going fast, she was going deeper into the woods and the further she went, the ridge between her and the main slope grew steeper, as did all the little exit paths. When she realized this, she froze.

I checked my watch. Buddy-roo was no doubt waiting for us by the lift, wondering where we were. I knew our lift passes would run out soon, too, which wasn’t the end of the world except then we’d have to ski a good distance cross-country style – never fun with the girls – before walking up a steep hill to get to the rental shop.

“Come on out!” I yelled, cheerfully. “You can do it.”

She inched forward until she came to the next set of tracks leading out of the woods. When she tried to turn, her skis got caught in the heavy snow and trees_on_canvasshe fell over, landing with her skis above her. I watched her struggle to lift them; they were buried under the snow. I called to her, coaxing her to move her body above the skis so she could lift them and position herself to stand up. She couldn’t move. She didn’t have the strength.

I snapped out of my bindings and walked up into the woods to where Short-pants was laying in the snow. I couldn’t get her untangled, so I snapped her out too and we walked out of the woods, carrying her skis, back down to the slope. But now the bottoms of her ski boots were caked with packed snow, and we were still on too much of an incline to balance on one foot and scrape it off. Getting back into her skis was turning out to be a chore.

It was starting to snow again, hard. I took out my phone – De-facto and I had been texting each other to choreograph our meet-ups all day – and called him to tell him to go back to the lift and get Buddy-roo, who by now was either angry with us or terrified that we’d forgotten her. It was a stroke of luck to reach him, he’s not an always-answer-the-cell-phone kind of guy.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Short-pants kept repeating. She could sense my exasperation, without me saying a thing. She was on the verge of tears and the whole ordeal had exhausted her. I kept assuring her it was all okay, but my voice was tired, making my words hard to believe. We walked up to a more level part of the slope, where she could find her balance and we could fuss more easily with her skis and boots. Just as I managed to scrape the snow off her boots and clamp her back into her bindings, De-facto and Buddy-roo called to us from the chairlift passing overhead. Short-pants waved back as I put my skis on and shuffled up right beside her.

“My little wood nymph,” I said, planting my poles in the snow so I could let go of them and put my arms around her. “You ready to ski down?” She cracked a reluctant smile, chuckling at her new nickname.

We took off down the mountain, both of us skiing directly to the front of the lengthening lift line. I begged the pardon of a family about to enter the two_pairs_of_skiselectronic gate, explaining that our passes were about to expire and we needed to get up one more time in order to ski down to the other side of the mountain. The turnstile blinked green, letting us through. We inched forward as the chair came around behind us, scooping us up as we thumped back into it, with relief.

Swinging in the air, meters above where she’d been stuck in the snow, I asked her why she chose that moment to go into the woods, instead of going in with her father.

“I guess I just wanted to go on my own,” she said. “You know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”


Feb 9 2014

When She Wants

I waited for her just inside the courtyard gate, watching the other kids find their parents or nannies, one by one. Buddy-roo walked out of the school dragging her feet, her heavy backpack a huge weight over her shoulders to blue_kidmatch her heavy heart. She’s a fine actress: not that she covers up her feelings but rather she can dramatize them to the fullest when it serves her purpose.

I offered an upbeat greeting, a big smile and how was your morning? in an attempt not to succumb to the gloom I knew she wanted me to see. As soon as we left the school courtyard and made it around the corner, she burst into tears.

“Today was the worstest day of my life!” She recounted, between sobs, how she’d been punished for something she didn’t know was wrong: playing games on the tablet in the media center (aka the library) when she was supposed to be using it to read a book. And that last week she had forgotten (neglected) to write down two important assignments in her agenda – two poems she had to memorize, one in French and one in Catalan – both she’d have to recite the next day. This is her biggest challenge at school, either she doesn’t pay attention when the assignments are given, or she doesn’t remember to write them down, or she doesn’t remember to do them. (Or all of the above.)

“I’ve really been trying hard to keep up with my homework but now I’ve ruined it all” she said, “and now I’m going to look stupid in front of everyone.”

She clamped her arms around me and buried her head in my coat.

“I didn’t want to move here,” she said, “Our life was just fine in Paris. The school there understood how I like to be taught. I never got yelled at. I’ve been yelled at four times already this year. And I never had so many things to memorize at once.”

“Sounds like you had a rough day,” I said, already dreading the afternoon. It was Wednesday, the day of the week she gets out of school early, so she had enough time to catch up on her homework, but I knew she’d want and need my help and I had other things I’d hoped to accomplish. Plus I’d purchased tickets for the two of us to attend the Custo show as part of Barcelona’s fashion week. She was thrilled when I surprised her with the tickets, it would be a mother-daughter outing and a special treat for her because she loves all things fashion. But if she didn’t finish the assignment, I couldn’t really justify the night out, on a school night no less. I had to be parental (I hate that).

Since Buddy-roo gets out of school just before lunch on Wednesdays, we’ve made it a ritual to stop at a favorite neighborhood cafè known for its frankfurters. This is also the moment each week that I allow her a Coca-cola. It’s always a prized moment for her: lunch alone with her mom, a hot-dog and a coke. I reminded her that this was ahead, on our way home, yellow_red_barstoolshoping it would buoy her spirits. It did help to abate her tears, and a slight spring returned to her step as we walked toward the café.

“You know,” I said, once she was halfway through her hot-dog, “you’ll need to memorize both those poems before we go to the fashion show tonight.” I braced myself for her push-back: the usual resistance accompanied by complaints about having homework and being hounded to do it.

“I know,” she said.

What? No barrage of excuses or reasons not to? Could it be that she’s starting to accept responsibility for her work? Is little Buddy-roo growing up?

Later at home I let her lollygag for fifteen minutes before pressing her to start. I know sometimes I need to fuss a bit before I plunge in to my work; a few minutes of clicking on Facebook links and reading favorite blogs stirs my brain until I am warmed up. I gave her the 5-minutes-til homework warning, anticipating again her resistance but instead she walked into my office carrying her backpack, setting it down without any exaggerated sighs or even a hint of whining and retrieved from it the books she needed. We made a list of what she had to complete by six o’clock, the time we needed to walk out the door to arrive at the event on time.

“I’m really looking forward to the fashion show tonight,” I told her, “so I hope you can finish everything so we can still go.” I saw this as a gentle threat and hoped it would make clear the ultimatum, using a more positive tactic to avoid negative finger pointing, but still drawing the line.

She did a few short written assignments first, easy tasks but this permitted her to check some things off the list quickly. She attacked her work with an unusual efficiency. I’ve seen her spend an hour on a grammar exercise with only five phrases to fix, but now she was humming right along. When she started in on her poetry, I stared at my own to-do list, wondering how I would concentrate on it with her sitting on the floor behind me, reading her lines out loud. But she was taking such initiative that I didn’t want to spoil her momentum. What I wanted to write could wait until tomorrow. Instead, I’d clean out some of the emails in my inbox, something that didn’t require full concentration. pink_elephant

If you’ve ever listened to a 10-year old memorize a poem, you know it’s a humbling moment for any of us with even the mildest aphasia. My steel-trap memory disintegrated during the production of my children’s placentas, and has never been fully recuperated. Hard facts I could once recall rapid-fire often sputter out or elude me all together. My reliance on Google search to look up things I already know is maddening. The other day I was telling De-facto about feminists I admired, and I could not for the life of me summon the name of the author of The Feminine Mystique. Only an iPhone search delivered Betty Friedan. Of course, I knew that. At a certain age, I suppose, there is a widening difference between knowing and remembering.

She started with the French poem, reading two lines out loud twice. Then she put the paper down and recited them. Two more lines, twice, and then the next. Within 20 minutes she could recite the whole poem by heart, without looking. The Catalan poem posed more of problem; she didn’t really understand what it meant, so she was mostly memorizing sounds. But her accent was impeccable, or it least it sounded sharp and confident to me. She learned the second poem almost as quickly. It wasn’t flawless, she had to peek once in a while, or ask for a one-word prompt to remember the line that followed. More important than reciting the poems perfectly – both were still a little bit bumpy – was the way she’d attacked them: vigorously and without getting distracted. It’s rare that she works so diligently. She must have really wanted to go to that fashion show.

We had quasi-VIP passes. We met my Spanish teacher – this excursion was part of a culture and language program – in front of the Mercat del Born, an old covered market that, during a renovation had revealed a tract of Roman ruins. Construction was halted and the the building was turned into an archeological museum and library. This was the location of Barcelona’s fashion week events, with a catwalk that wrapped around the dugout of ruins. We first went for some tapas at a nearby café, to go over some Spanish vocabulary pertaining to the world of la moda, fashion. When we returned, we were skirted to the front of the long line snaking outside the market, and ushered to our seats, a few rows back from the catwalk. Buddy-roo delighted at the flashing lights and the pulsing music, the models sashaying by, sporting next year’s collection. And Custo happens to be a catwalk_girlsfavorite brand of mine, even before I moved to Spain. There was a Custo store on our street in Paris; its merchandise fit well my bohemian chic taste in clothing and occupied a large part of my closet until that store closed a few years ago. Fashion savvy Buddy-roo assessed each model as she strutted by, rating each outfit by its originality and style, and of course, whether or not she’d wear it. At the end of the show, when all the models paraded by, followed by the designer himself, she turned to me with the look of supreme satisfaction.

After, the fashionista crowd gathered in a tent outside the venue. I wouldn’t have minded to stay and quench my thirst, but the next day was a school day so Buddy-roo and I made our way through the throngs of well dressed people out to the street to find our taxi home. We flagged one down and slid into its back seat together. Buddy-roo threw her arms around me and gave me a fierce hug.

“This was the bestest night of my life. I’ll never forget it!”

My father used to offer me a particular piece of unsolicited advice: how I should tone down the highs and bring up the lows, just to try to take life a bit more evenly. I never appreciated his suggestion. I liked the thrill of elation too much and was prepared to pay for it with the pendulum swing of emotions. Of course now I can understand his advice, guiding Buddy-roo through the worst day and the best night of her life, but I know better than to offer it to her.

“It was a great night, wasn’t it?” I said. “Thanks for learning your poems so we could go out.”

Right then and there, in the back of the taxi whizzing through the Barcelona streets, she recited both poems for me, flawlessly. She truly has a brilliant memory, when she wants.


Jan 20 2014

How Fitting

The saleswoman directed us to the fitting room, a long row of closets where we could undress and try on our selections. Short-pants and I had toured the lingerie department thoroughly, in search of new bras. We used to find them easily in the girl’s section, the starter bras for budding young women. I’d noticed the week before that those easy-to-buy standards were not only a bit ragged, they were too tight. It was time to buy her a real bra.

I’d wager that most women remember the acquisition of their first bra, and not always happily. It’s a question – and I’ve asked different circles of girlfriends over the years – that’s always met with groans. How could such a simple step into womanhood have so many unpleasant stories? My experience is a classic example: My mother, noting that my nipples were popping through my favorite striped turtleneck sweater, drove me to McCurdy’s department store. It was “out of town,” meaning it was a 30-minute drive (that was a good distance in those days) so you didn’t go there for every-day things. It was a special trip. This was where we went to do Christmas shopping, or to buy back-to-school clothes. I remember coming home after those late August shopping trips and laying all the new outfits on my bed and feeling the discordant mix of excitement about going back to school along with a deep sadness about the waning of summer and its late sunsets long after dinner, stretching the hours of play to the maximum.

In the same shopping plaza as McCurdy’s, there was a lingerie store called The Ethel Abraham Shop. It was classy place. My underwear worldview, in house_of_underwearthose days, was fairly polarized. You bought underwear at a department store like McCurdy’s, or by mail-order from Frederick’s of Hollywood, which was reserved for people kinkier than my mother or her circle of friends. Lingerie was an evocative word. It spoke of the unspoken: sex. Or so I thought, until Ethel’s little boutique became part of my awareness. Its balance of quality silk and satin with just a very tiny hint of sensuality (at least what ended up in our home) opened my mind to the possibility that you could wear silky underthings without being one of the models in the Playboy magazines I’d found stacked in the bottom drawer of an old junky cupboard in the backroom of our house.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s turquoise Chevy Impala, I pictured us going to Ethel Abraham’s, imagining what it would be like to walk out of the store with one of her distinctive boxes. They were usually plain on the outside, but when opened a bright flowering print exploded from the interior of the box. A metaphor, I suppose, for the lingerie she sold: something beautiful but kept inside, hidden beneath a simple, unremarkable exterior. My father used to go to Ethel’s on the day before Christmas and pick up gifts for the women in his life: my mother, his sister and his mother. The shop carried a lovely array of nightgowns and robes, silky and lacy and soft to the touch. One year he gave my mother an elegant pink quilted robe that came in a long flat brown box. When she opened the lid, her face conveyed her delight. The robe was folded in the bottom of the box and I couldn’t see it until she held it up for us, but I knew right away it was from The Ethel Abraham Shop because of the flower print on the inside of the lid.

Forty years later, cleaning out my mother’s backroom, I found that box, or one just like it. My mother recycled boxes for years – she piled them on a table next to the cupboard with the hidden Playboys – and you could find any size you wanted for any occasion. This was especially handy for gift-wrapping at Christmas. The box from Ethel’s was used and re-used and re-used again, saved because of its beauty or perhaps because of its nostalgia. I had a hard time throwing it away and even included it in the shipment of things I sent to France. It was only there, out of the context of my family home and its thick web of childhood memories that I could see it for what it was: a dilapidated, overused 40-year old cardboard box. Even the pattern on the interior had faded. I finally put it in the recycling bin and watched the garbage truck pick it up and haul it away, but not without a deep sigh.

My mother parked the car in front of the entrance to McCurdy’s. I was mildly disappointed, and yet at the age of eleven or twelve or whatever, I was old enough to reason that I wouldn’t be fitted for my first bra at Ethel’s. I was excited enough about the acquisition I was about to make to erase any disappointment. I was also a bit nervous. Like any adolescent girl, I was self-conscious about my body. I knew I’d have to strip and let my mother examine me. I was embarrassed just thinking of it.
leopard
It played out pretty much like my worst nightmare: the racks of the bra department were thick with cupped, hanging devices that looked like a jungle to navigate. The saleswoman was right out of central casting: pointy-heeled shoes with skin-tight pants in a leopard print (when leopard was out of fashion), a thin sweater over her thick middle and cat-eye glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. When she asked if she could help us it was more of a screech than a request. Her voice was incapable of any volume but public broadcast.

My mother answered, matching her volume. “Yes, we’re here to buy a bra for my daughter. It’s her first one.”

Every other shopper in the department turned to look at me, the newbie. I suppressed the instinct to turn and run out of the store – I really wanted a bra, all my friends were wearing one – and just dropped my head, cringing inside, praying that being “out of town” meant none of the people who could overhear this conversation might actually know me.

The saleswoman ran her eyes up and down my chest and torso, then reached out and put her hands on my shoulders, pushing them back and thrusting my very small breasts toward her.

“Stand up tall, sweety, let me have a look at you.”

A half-dozen white “trainer” bras were placed on the glass counter for my mother to inspect, which she did by holding them up so that everyone in the store could inspect them, too. When I could escape to the dressing room, I pulled the curtain closed, fussing with it to keep it fully shut in order to achieve the privacy I felt I deserved. My striped turtleneck came off and on the chair and before I had a chance to clasp one of the bras around my body, my mother had thrown the curtain open.

“Let me see, honey.”

She was helping me to adjust the straps when the bobcat-dressed lady barged in and asked for viewing rights. She pushed her way in, taking over for my mother, instructing me to bend over into the bra, and fill the cups – not that I had much to fill them – before standing upright. Her cold hands poked and prodded to make sure it fit correctly, adjusting the shoulder straps and then snapping the strap in the back – ouch! – to see how tight it was.

I was sure everyone in the lingerie department could not only see into my dressing room, but could hear my mother and this tacky woman discussing how to fit a bra to my barely-existent breasts. They kept handing me different models, and ripping the curtain open before I’d hooked them on. I felt like a mannequin being dressed and undressed in the window. I was cold, cranky and tortured. I just wanted to get a bra and get out of there.

Later, in the parking lot, a bag of new bras in my hand, I eyed the sign for The Ethel Abraham Shop. When I had real breasts, I told myself, I’d go there. It had to be more civilized.

~ ~ ~

While perusing the racks for the right style of bra for someone Short-pants’ age, I came upon several models that appealed to me as well. The straps on my best black bra were on the verge of disintegrating, I needed a new one to wear under my favorite black sleeveless sweater. So as we speak_the_truthwere bra hunting for her, I collected some for myself. We entered the dressing room – at the Corte Ingles, a much upscaled version of McCurdy’s – with our hands full. The saleswoman didn’t stay around to assist us, a slight disappointment as I’ve outgrown the need for privacy while bra shopping and it’s actually nice to have someone at your beck and call to fetch better sizes and make suggestions based on a full knowledge of the inventory. There were intercom phones in the dressing rooms, in case we needed to call for a size change, but our hands were full with multiple sizes of the same models.

“Do you mind if we use the same dressing room so I can help you?” I asked.

Short-pants wasn’t at all reluctant, she seemed delighted to be sharing the experience with me. We both stripped to the waist and took turns trying on what we’d brought in. I showed her how to bend over and fit herself into the bra, just as I’d been taught, but with a deliberately gentler explanation. She seemed genuinely eager to learn the nuances of putting on a bra. We hooked and unhooked each other, admiring the fabrics and the patterns – teenager’s bras are far more interesting today than in my day – laughing at the ones that were too tight, too big or just too quirky. We stood side-by-side under the fluorescent lighting, staring at each other in the mirror, mother by daughter, in different phases of our lives, but still two women standing together in their bras. Freeze this frame in your memory, I told myself. She won’t want to do this with you forever.

In the end, none of the bras I’d tried on fit. But Short-pants selected two pretty white ones and a deep burgundy satin number, something a little bit soft and ever-so-slightly sensual.

“The thing about nice lingerie,” I told her, while standing in line to pay, “is you wear it for yourself. It’s a gesture of self-respect, having something pretty on, but just for your eyes only.” I didn’t mention that sometimes I keep De-facto in mind when I select my bra and panties for the day. She’ll figure that out on her own.

“Like the purple one?” she asked.

I nodded. “Wear that one on the days when you feel a little down. It’ll give you something to smile about, every time you remember how you’re wearing something beautiful underneath, something just for you.”

~ ~ ~

I learned about the pleasure of lingerie when I moved to France. It’s said that French women spend 20% of their income on their undergarments. It’s certainly a habit I picked up while living there. But recently, in New York on a very quick transit stopover, I spent a Sunday afternoon with two college friends and the subject of lingerie came up. After a long lunch, including a bottle of wine, we walked back out on to the street debating what to do. pink_negligeTwenty years ago this same trio would have gone to a movie or hit a favorite jewelry shop. Last Sunday we went to Sugar Cookies, an exclusive lingerie shop. It was about to close, but stayed open for the three of us. We opened the curtain between the side-by-side fitting rooms and tried on nearly every bra in the store. I wished Short-pants could have been there to see us, each with dozens of silk and lace contraptions going on and coming off, modeling for each other, frank feedback flying back and forth, giggling, oohing and aahhing, viewing ourselves in the beautifully made undergarments. Unlike my experience at Corte Ingles, where nothing came close to fitting me, nearly everything I tried on seemed to work. An hour later, I laid a pile of lacy things on the counter. The saleswoman rang them up and wrapped them, and my friends and I walked out of the door swinging our bags, exhilarated by the items that only we – or perhaps a special somebody – would get to see.

I’ve overcome any collateral damage from my early bra-buying trauma, though it’s never been a task I’ve relished. At least that awkward first occasion produced the awareness to construct a different experience for my daughters. It occurred to me, giggling with my girlfriends in the dressing room, and reflecting on my shopping trip with Short-pants, too, that trying on bras can actually be something fun to do. How fitting to discover this hidden pleasure, just in time to pass it along.


Jan 5 2014

The Adaptation

The nose of the plane dips under the cloud cover as the pilot makes an announcement, first in Spanish and then in French, alerting us that we are preparing to land at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. I watch the patchwork of fields growing larger beneath us, buildings and roads coming into focus as the plane descends. In the airport, the familiar chimes of Air France alert passengers to upcoming flights. I breeze by the luggage carousels, confidently pulling my rollaway behind me. I know my way through this airport by heart. Earlier this morning I got turned around in the Barcelona airport, a beautiful, modern and efficient hub still foreign to me; I walked in a circle twice before finding the hallway to my gate. At CDG I easily found the escalator to the RER train and made my way into Paris, nearly sleepwalking, as though it’s a commute I make every day.
eiffel_tower_rosey
It’s become a commute I make every month. Since we have moved to Barcelona last September, I have returned to Paris four times. Each time with an explicit reason, or at least a good enough excuse: a meeting with a potential client, a check-up with a doctor or a dentist appointment. I manage to plan enough in advance to get reasonably priced tickets, or to include the leg in a trip elsewhere at negligible cost to the client. Each time in Paris I attend to essential personal errands, see a friend or two and, most important, I get to walk down my street and around the corner toward my favorite local café where I am always welcomed with gusto. If the corner stool is empty I can happily sit there for hours and chat with the barmen and nod at all the regulars who come and go. This, for me, is a perfect moment. Some people get their bliss from meditation or from the endorphins of exercise. It happens to me when that corner stool is mine and from it I can watch the world go by.

~ ~ ~

When the girls were babies we enrolled them in the halte garderie, a state-subsidized nursery service that takes care of babies as young as 6 months. We waited until the girls were a year old, but took advantage of this quality, cost effective care option for several afternoons each week. It meant we could put the kids in the company of other children, and with native French speaking caretakers. It also allowed us to begin to understand the system of childcare and schooling in France.

Some mothers are sad about putting their children in someone else’s care. I couldn’t wait to drop them off and have a few hours to myself. Since it wasn’t an all-day-every-day routine, I wasn’t afraid of “missing” any stage in their development. For me it was a chance to take a shower and brush my teeth in peace, or grab a few hours in my studio to scratch out a few pages of my manuscript. We weren’t eligible for the crèche, which is reserved for parents with full-time jobs. The halte garderie and its twice or thrice weekly schedule was all we could get, but we took it.
colored_handprints
You had to tow the line there: parking a certain way in the room designated for strollers, donning the obligatory shoe covers before entering the playroom – too often I found them still over my shoes out on the street on my way back home – keeping to the correct time for dropping your child off and retrieving them at the end of your morning or afternoon session, tolerating the snooty director who’s name I always managed to mispronounce. And then there’s the system of adaptation – how you got your kids started at the garderie, which is meticulously regimented.

The initial visits lasted only an hour, and a parent is required to stay the entire time and sit and play with her child. This way the little being gets accustomed to the new environment and new playmates with a familiar and comforting parent close by. After two visits, you bring your child and stay with them for 15 minutes – and then you leave, but only for 30 minutes or an hour, so the child is there without a parent for only a short time. Each successive visit the parent’s disappearance is extended, until after about two or three weeks it becomes just a matter of dropping off and picking up four hours later. It makes perfect sense to ease the children into their day care situation and though it doesn’t eliminate drama – both Short-pants and Buddy-roo cried for 20 minutes after we left the first few times – it probably minimizes the pain and anyway it just seems kinder and gentler.

I used to love the pick-up at the end of the day – not that I was always ready to shift back into mothering gear, I could always have used a few more hours – but because I could peek in the window and watch the kids playing and being their own little selves without interacting with me. I’d stand there for 10 minutes observing them bob around with the other bobble-headed toddlers. And then, of course, once I walked in and they’d look up and see that the parent who’d just arrived was there to fetch them, this exclamation of glee always so affirming. Parenting is a shit-load of work but those wildly enthusiastic greetings are part of the payoff.

~ ~ ~

Remarkably, Short-pants seems to have adapted the quickest to Barcelona. In Paris, her classmates indulged her quirky, introverted habits, but she was often the target of some teasing by older kids in the courtyard. I worried about how she would fare in the new school. We talked about what behaviors might have caused the kids to pick on her, and how with this move she had a chance to deliberately re-think them.

“Mama, I understand the consequences,” she said, “but I like walking around the courtyard talking to myself.”

I couldn’t really argue with that, so I didn’t. But she must have internalized a little bit of our conversation because I think she’s not doing the things (as much) that attracted the teasing and in fact has made a real effort to extend herself and make new friends. She’s even part of a small “gang” of girls, much different than her social life in Paris. She’s plunged into the new languages and excelled at school; this semester she landed her best report card ever, with felicitations. (In a French school system, that’s really good.)
walkin_in_the_woods
De-facto, too, has taken an immediate shine to our Barcelona life. The location suits him. Unlike in Paris, where we were in thick of things urban, our new home is in a quieter part of the city, and just 100 yards from nature. Nearly every day, he hops on his mountain bike and peddles up the steep hill to the Carretera des Aigües, a winding dirt trail where you can walk, run and bike with a full view of the entire city and the Mediterranean sea beyond it.

Then there’s Buddy-roo, for whom the jury is still out. Because she’s usually brimming with energy and life, it’s easy to forget that she’s actually a bit shy when she first encounters new people and things. I wouldn’t classify her as miserable; she has made a few good friends and she’s thrilled about the bunk beds in her room in our new home. But Buddy-roo’s the one who misses Paris the most, her friends there, her last year’s teacher – even though she wouldn’t be her teacher this year – our neighbor’s dog and her rock band.

“Nobody asked me if I wanted to move to Barcelona,” she says, in those moments when she’s feeling particularly low. We actually did ask her, and she was very enthusiastic. I reminded her of this, but it didn’t seem to help her mood much. Now I just shrug and draw her close for a hug. No use trying to talk someone out of their feelings.

~ ~ ~

My monthly visits to Paris are sort of a reverse adaptation. It would have seemed brutal to be cut off from my Parisian life completely, to have packed up all of our things and cleared out, closing the door abruptly on that long and lovely chapter. The fact that I can stick my toe back in the Seine every once in a while, see friends, speak French, eat a real croissant, stock up on my favorite French products, take care of my hair, and sit at my favorite bar in the whole damn world makes it easier for me to adjust to my new life somewhere else. I don’t really miss Paris, because I get to go back regularly. I probably should take Buddy-roo with me on one of these visits, to ease her transition, too.
sagrada_in_tiles
Eventually, if Barcelona is a place we decide to stay, I’ll be compelled to find local doctors and a dentist and an aesthetician. Surely there are capable practitioners there. One day I may have to ween myself from the artist who cuts my hair every trip to Paris. That will be harder; he’s given me a distinctive look and I trust him like no other hairdresser I’ve known. Replacing my favorite bar is probably the tallest order, and may never happen. But there are still plenty of fine watering holes around Barcelona and maybe someday one of them will even feel like “mine.”

For now, I like straddling the two cities, exploring the new options and opportunities that Barcelona offers me while staying connected to the rituals of my Paris. Keeping the thread to my old home is comforting, and makes for a nearly painless transition. I know on some level I won’t have fully embraced our life in Barcelona until I let go. But for now, I guess, I’m still in the middle of my adaptation.


Dec 22 2013

Not that (Christmas) Mom

It must be disappointing for my daughters, how I am not particularly adept at motherly school functions. I’m not the one who volunteers to organize the parties and send emails around about baking goodies. I’m not the cheerful enthusiastic I’ll-make-costumes mom. I love those moms, headless_with_palmI’m so glad they are exist at our school. But I’m not one of them.

Call me the do-we-have-to? mom or the oh-not-again mom. Each time I get a notice about a school event or activity that requires parental assistance, I groan. It’s not that I’m not delighted by the extra-curricular school events that break up their mundane scholastic routine. I want those things to happen, and in technicolor. I just don’t want to have to do them.

I don’t think I’m alone on this. I think many of us pitch in because we know we’re supposed to. It’s not that we want to be doing it, rather that we want to see it being done. But it’s taboo to say so out loud.

I could blame it on the new school. Just as the girls have had to forge new friendships here, I, too, need to put in the effort to make friends with the other mothers. This is happening to some degree: a bit of small talk waiting at the school pick-up, the exchange that happens when dropping a kid off for a play date or to work on a school project, the friendly women I’ve met at monthly coffees. But all these relationships are nascent, and still awkward. I miss what had become effortless in Paris where the school activities didn’t feel like a burden and there was always the invitation to go for a beer afterward, to catch up with pals while doing our parental duty.

But even though I may have relished the social aspect, I’ve always felt inadequate at these school functions. I’m the mom who hasn’t managed to buy the right school supplies or who doesn’t have the time to go across town to get that one book that’s on-order so my kid has to look on with another student and work from photocopies. I’m the mom that misses the parent meetings because I’m out of town on a trip or I have a conference call or because I didn’t see the note in my daughter’s cahier de correspondence. I’m the mom who doesn’t come to the Christmas choral concert because I didn’t understand that parents were invited, the mom who doesn’t quite understand the system, and manages to figure it out just a bit too late.

It’s always comes down to this: living up to the elusive perfect mom. I can picture her. When I was in my twenties imagining myself as a mother I looked just like her. Cheerful at breakfast in a business suit, shooing my heirs out the door to school and going to work, leaning in all day but simultaneously plugged in to the little lives of my children, scrutinizing their school, up-to-speed on all the goings on in their extracurricular lives. I turned out, instead, to be a lot sloppier. I’m much better at leaning back. And while I’m there, I tell myself I really should do more. I could do better.

~ ~ ~xmas_snowglobes

You know what kind of mom I am? The I-hate-Christmas mom. Every year I proclaim, to myself, and here on this blog, how I dislike what Christmas has become. I’m disturbed by the commercialization of the holiday. Each year it starts earlier and there are more useless things to buy not because they are special or thoughtful but because there is a marketing engine prodding us to buy more. Store shelves are stocked with unnecessary decorations and novelty gifts that have little to do with the spirit of giving and even less to do with the birth of Jesus. Except crèches are a big deal here in Catalunya, but then, of course, there are hundreds of different figurines to buy – some of them in scatalogical poses – to add to your standard manger scene.

I know we aren’t forced to buy any of this merchandise, but I hate that it’s ubiquitous. I hate that it feeds an insatiable desire in Buddy-roo, who is overwhelmed by all the gadgets on the shelves, screaming at her to want them.

Maybe I don’t hate Christmas. I do love the Christmas that we create in our family. I’m just repulsed by much of the Christmas that goes on outside our door. We try our best to keep the holiday grounded, the promises embedded in our responses to the girls’ wish-lists are carefully crafted to create reasonable expectations of the loot that Santa might bring. Though now that they know who Santa really is, they don’t buy the “Santa can only carry so much on his sleigh” argument. I keep pointing toward the family traditions. We unwrap the ornaments from their wrinkled tissue paper – the same paper that my mother wrapped them in for decades – and tell the story of that angel, or that red ball with my name on it, or the ugly silver lantern-shaped ornament that always hung on the tree, albeit in the back. We have our open-one-gift-the-night-before tradition and our Bloody Marys on Christmas morning, our one-at-a-time gift opening marathon that lasts all day, and sometimes even for days as we like to take a break to stop and relish the first presents we’ve opened. There are traditions from De-facto’s family and from mine, forged into the rituals of our nuclear family, and this is what I hope my children will remember years from now. Not that they did or didn’t get the Barbie house with its own elevator (they didn’t) but that we laughed and did Christmasy things together, whether that was making cut-out cookies at home, or going someplace exotic to treat ourselves to a family Christmas adventure we could share together.

Despite my self-proclaimed deficiencies as a mother in matters of school activities, I will take credit for my resilience carrying on a certain ritual: the baking and decorating of the Christmas cut-outs. Each year as I cream the butter and sugar that cutout_cookieswill make the dough, I nod upwards at my mother who would no doubt be pleased, if not entirely surprised, at my adherence to both the tradition and her recipe. It’s a demanding process: the rolling out the dough to the right thickness and maximizing the cut-outs from each batch – using her original cookie cutters – and baking them just enough, pulling them out of the oven before they brown. Then there’s the icing, though mine is made with butter instead of Crisco – what was in that anyway? – as her carefully typed recipe card called for, and the preparation of the sugar for decorating. Two drops of food coloring in petri dishes of granular sugar, ready to be spooned on to the freshly frosted cookies. When I was little there was a definite rule to how these cooked were sugared. Angels were blue and yellow, Christmas trees were green, stars were yellow. Santas were sprinkled with red sugar and the bells were done up in blue. I suggest this guideline to the girls but never enforce it. They have too much fun designing their own color combinations. And in the end, they all taste the same.

~ ~ ~

It doesn’t rain much in Barcelona but unfortunately it was raining last week on the day of the school’s Marché de Noel, which is a shame because the palm-treed courtyard is expansive and would have been a lovely venue for this Christmas market. But due to the rain, everything was scrunched together under a smaller covered area. I could feel the dread rising as I walked to the school, the rain dripping down off my umbrella. I gripped tight the Tupperware of cut-out cookies I’d brought to be sold at Buddy-roo’s class table. I wanted to be going anywhere but to this event where there’d be a hundred wild kids running around, amped up on sugary Christmas snacks, and table after table of items made by students that I’d be compelled to buy to support their effort but would end up cluttering my home and breaking any vows I’d made about buying unnecessary items just for the sake of Christmas. I disliked this activity at the other school, where I knew everyone and had my posse of moms to hang with. Going now as the new mom who hasn’t yet been integrated only made me feel more isolated.

I’m always a little lonely at Christmas. Even though it’s a time when world quiets down for the day and we cocoon as a cozy family. Even though I’m with the people I love most in the world, I always feel a little disconnected. Maybe it’s the pressure to have a lovely Christmas, when the truth is it’s a lot of work. Maybe it’s walking in and out of store after store looking forSanta_Buddha something meaningful to give to people who already have everything they need, and feeling fatigued and uninspired, just ticking off the boxes. Maybe it’s that song, the one I heard too often the Christmas my father died that takes me back to that sad, disappointing holiday. Maybe it’s every Christmas that passes without my mother’s newsy year-end letter – the one I used to roll my eyes at but now I’d give anything to read it – or my grandmother’s homemade rhubarb pie. The holidays are supposed to be happy, even if they’re not.

But you can’t wallow in Christmas sorrow with kids around; their expectation for joy is a big, fat, red wake-up call. So I snap out of it and dance around the Christmas tree, break out the paper and start wrapping, and roll out another batch of cookies. Or I just grab Buddy-roo’s hand and march into that schoolyard Christmas market, head high, whistling a familiar carol, and watch her marvel at the lights, the music and the shiny offerings laid out at the gift stalls, eyes bright and wide, taking in what is, for her, all that she loves about Christmas.


Dec 15 2013

Absolute Power

I pulled the basket of silverware out of the dishwasher and set it on the counter for Buddy-roo. It’s one of her assigned chores to empty it and put the silverware away in its drawer. A few of the forks had been placed with their tongs downward in the container. I took one out to inspect it and, as suspected, it was caked with food from the previous night’s dinner.

“The silverware should be put in the dishwasher with the handles down and the silver part facing up.” I announced this to the entire family with the exasperated authority that only a mother possesses. “Otherwise it doesn’t get properly washed.”
shes_got_the_power
“Your mother has just issued an edict,” said De-facto.

Short-pants had been studying French history, something to do with Louis XIV’s decision to revoke the Edict of Nantes. De-facto was reading from her notebook, quizzing her for an upcoming test.

“That means she has absolute power,” said Short-pants.

“Does she?”

The girls nodded in unison. This led to a discussion about the governance of our household. Was it really a matriarchal monarchy? Was I a cruel despot or a benevolent ruler? Should I be ousted? Would such a revolution result in anarchy?

“Actually,” said Short-pants, “it’s more of an oligarchy.” She’d plucked that word off a list for her upcoming spelling bee. We’d looked it up the day before. “Both of you get to tell us what to do.”

“That’s right,” said De-facto, “but your mother makes the rules. Like the Edict of Silver High.”

~ ~ ~

Last week I got to spend five days in Paris, without man or kids in tow. I had many errands on my list, including a routine medical check-up that I opted to have conducted in French rather than Spanish. I made visits to the beauty nurse and my coiffeur, met up with friends, even went to a party and danced until 3 am. I had a brunch date with no reason to rush home afterward, permitting me to stroll around the neighborhood window shopping, doing a bit of nothing. I stayed in my studio and enjoyed hours of solitude. I cleaned up after no-one but myself. It was reminiscent of my early days in Paris, clown_carrotbefore there was a family wanting and needing my attention.

While I was basking in my imaginary exile, I could easily envision what was happening at home with De-facto at the helm. No doubt the laundry was piling up, beds were left unmade, bikes and scooters were parked in the living room, leftovers shoved in the fridge in the pot they were cooked in with a plastic bag barely covering them. Ours is a whole different household when it’s under his patriarchal rule.

I don’t mean to assert that all fathers – or all men, for that matter – are slobs. My brother keeps his desk organized at right angles and grabs the towels for the wash before you’ve even had a chance to finish drying off. Our tenant in Paris takes good care of our apartment; he keeps it clean and in good order. But the stereotype of the messy man has evolved from some nugget of truth and De-facto could be the poster boy. My girls happen take after their father, with haphazard filing systems and dirty clothes stuffed under their beds.

I can’t complain (too much) about what happens when I’m away from home. I don’t take it for granted that I get to go away for several days at a time, that De-facto can easily function as a single parent, self-sufficiently cooking for himself and the girls, managing school runs and acting as the overlord of the homework brigade. I have friends who prepare meals and store them in the freezer, planning ahead so the family will have something to eat each day during their absence. Other friends give me the snake eye if I moan even a bit about what happens when I’m gone; they have little or no chance to escape from their kids and husbands. I get to go away on my own a lot, lingering somewhere after a job, escaping every July to the fiesta or just going off for a fun weekend alone in Paris, something they remind me is not standard practice for every couple.

~ ~ ~

They made an effort to pull the place together before my return. Carpets were straightened, dishes moved from the sink to the dishwasher. A laundry had even been endeavored, the clean clothes were draped, somewhat awkwardly, over the drying rack. Coats that were surely left on chairs all week were hung in 3_on_a_bikethe closet, shoes stashed on the shoe-rack at the last moment. Bikes had been stowed in their designated compartments. I’d been gone long enough so that the feeling of missing my family would have overpowered any discomfort at the condition of the apartment. The reunion was so joyful that they got cocky and started to boast about the carefree life under the patriarchy.

“Was it anarchy here, then?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” said Short-pants.

“No,” said Buddy-roo, grinning, “It was manarchy.”


Nov 24 2013

The Plastic Question

The girls seem to have forgiven me for breaking the news about Santa Claus, but this means that their Christmas wish lists are now addressed specifically to me. At least the dialogue has changed. I always felt uneasy perpetuating the you’d better be good because Santa’s elves are watching myth. Our discourse now is a more rational one about how many toys you really need and the santa_on_a_springdifference between having things and doing things. Last year we took a trip over the holidays, so the gift booty was limited to just a few items before we left and one or two things to open on Christmas day. De-facto and I kept repeating how the biggest present was the adventure we were having together. Short-pants bought into this idea completely. Buddy-roo was happy to have the trip, but felt her Christmas had been a little thin.

It started, this season, with Short-pants’ initiative to create her Christmas list, delivered to me with a disclaimer that it was a long list so I’d have choices; she didn’t expect to get everything she’d asked for. She’d written down about a dozen specific book titles, plus a Spanish dictionary and an herb book (?). Short-pants is always the easiest to shop for; a few balls of yarn and a book and she’s delighted. But that’s her chemistry. She slept on a mattress on the floor, and kept her underwear and socks in shoe boxes for the first two months we lived here. When I finally got her a bed and a dresser she threw her arms around me in appreciation. About the bookshelves I bought for her, she said, “Mama, that was more than I ever imagined to have in my room.”

Once Buddy-roo saw her older sister’s note on my desk, she needed to write one, too. The objects of desire on her Christmas wish list are considerably different: a Barbie dream house (with an elevator), the Playmobile castle (at 197 euros: ouch!), an iPod Touch, an iPad Mini, and a dog. For her birthday, just last month, we gave her a the simplest iPod, the iPod Shuffle, pre-loaded with songs I knew she’d like (Best Song Ever) or that I thought she should like (Bohemian Rhapsody). My strategy is to inch her into the technological gadgets, stretching our budget, and her attention span, as long as possible. Last year for her birthday she begged for a manual typewriter, which was no simple task to procure. The reason she still uses it as that she doesn’t have so many other toys to distract her. But despite her love for this new little iPod – it’s great to see and hear her with her earbuds on, rocking out with herself – she always asks for more, bigger and better. It’s in her nature. She always wants what she doesn’t have.

We’ve tried using her hunger for things as an incentive for doing her school work, but it always backfires. The reward we promise isn’t based on grades or scores, it’s about being responsible about her homework, bringing home the right bright_ideabooks, getting started on her own each night without whining or dilly-dallying. She starts out all excited, inspired that simply by being conscientious she might get that dollhouse, or that gadget, or a dog. Three days later, fatigued by the effort, she gives in to her lazy impulses and proclaims that she’ll never get what she wants because the work is too hard and it’s not fair and we’re the cruelest parents in the world.

Which was fine with me in the past because I didn’t really want to give her any more gadgets or any more toys with little plastic pieces, and our apartment was too small for a dog. But now I actually would like to have a dog and here in Barcelona we live close to the mountain, which means a great, open, outdoor place where a doggie could run and frolic and do what dogs are supposed to do. But we can’t reward her current school behavior so at the moment we are pet-less.

~ ~ ~

Two new friends from Buddy-roo’s class have invited her to work with them on an exposé for extra-credit. The subject they’ve chosen to explore: the large toxic plastic island forming and floating in the Pacific ocean. Her research involved collecting images for their poster board – leave it to Buddy-roo to volunteer to do the easiest part – so I set her up at my computer and she clicked on Google images to search for pictures of the floating plastic. What she found was disturbing: a mass of plastic containers, bottles and bags, partly deteriorated by the salt and sun but never fully degradable, pressed together in the middle of nowhere by ocean currents, forming a continent of debris that is killing the wildlife around it and bleeding toxic chemicals into the sea water and into the fish that are eaten by the fish we eat.

We scrolled through the images, selecting the ones she wanted to print and show to her schoolmates. She was disgusted by the volume of plastic garbage that has accumulated. She kept scanning through the images, horrified by the photographs of animals choked by or wrapped in pieces of plastic. It was the turtle whose shell was malformed – it looked as though it had a Barbie doll waist because it had grown within the ring of a plastic six-pack carrier – that made her cry.
Nat_Geo_ocean_predator
“Those poor animals,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks, “how can we let that happen?”

I didn’t have an answer.

It must have stayed with her all night, those images, that question. The next day, on the way to school, she brought it up.

“How come they keep making all that plastic? It’s killing the animals. Why don’t they just stop?”

“It’s all about money,” I told her.

It made me think of The Graduate, when Benjamin, who has no idea what to do with his future, is cornered by one of his parents’ friends offering unsolicited advice: “One word. Plastics.

“Money?” she said.

“I bet you the men who run those big plastic factories were outraged about the pollution on the planet when they were ten years old, just like you are. But then they grew up and got jobs and got married and had families they had to support. Little by little they forgot what they knew when they were ten, and they started taking jobs and making decisions based on how much money they could make, because they wanted buy their kids what they needed: food and clothes and toys…like big, expensive dollhouses, made out of plastic.”

We walked along quietly. I could tell she was thinking about it, weighing her anger at the mounds of plastic in the ocean and what it was doing to our environment with her ardent desire for that overpriced plastic dollhouse.

“If you buy me that that castle, or that dollhouse,” she said, “I’ll play with it for years, and I promise to recycle it.”

We’d arrived at the gate of the school courtyard. She reached up and kissed me before running in to find her friends. I watched her as she joined their circle, opening her school bag to show them the images we’d printed, field_of_princessestelling her friends, I gathered, about the research she’d done. You could see the anger and sadness on her face. She was animated, outraged. But is she outraged enough to stop asking for plastic toys?

Are any of us outraged enough to stop using plastic? Even if we are, can we slow or stop its production? Could we function in this plastic-wrapped society without ever touching plastic? The throw-away economy promised us convenience and delivered. But what do we do, now, with the environmental mess it’s created? That’s another question I can’t answer.