Feb 19 2015

Getting Caught Up

I didn’t exactly push them out the door. At the moment they were leaving, I had pangs of regret that I wasn’t going with De-facto and the girls to France. Our country house holds for me the sense of being outside of the day-to-day, on retreat from my busy life. Things move slower there. Nature embraces us, distracting us from our mental to-do lists pointing us toward more physical roadactivity. We clear the yard of brush and fallen branches and leaves, tend the grapes, adjust the tiles on the roof, hack away at other renovation projects in progress. The dog goes in and out of the house as he pleases – Winston is at his happiest in the country – and we take him for long walks and runs, watching him sprint up and down the lane, halting to sniff about, then bolting away to explore the world without a leash attached to his collar. I love to cook in the new kitchen we installed there last year, and how we sit around the table talking to each other after dinner, without anyone running off to finish homework or be on a conference call with some client in a time zone 6-hours behind us in the thick of their workday. I love doing nothing when I’m there, which, when you think about it, is what a country house is for.

I was aching not to be joining them, despite the long drive, despite the cold house they’d encounter. But I was also looking at a long string of days to myself, alone at home, a luxury that I rarely experience. I get my solitude on long airplane rides and in somber hotel rooms when I travel for work, but I can think of only two or three other times in my life, since the girls were born, when I’ve had such a stretch of time to myself – six consecutive days – in my own home, left alone, without anyone else around to take care of.

I’d like to tell you that I shut the door behind them and crawled back to bed. Or that I sat at the piano for hours conquering the Mendelssohn piece I used to play flawlessly and now stumble through. Or that I immediately set about adding chapters to my manuscript. I’d like to tell you I read all week, went for aimless walks, binged-watched on Netflix. I considered using these days granted to me to do just that, to escape my routines and to rest, alone, quietly doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Or doing nothing. But that’s not what happened.

One of the reasons I gave to De-Facto for not joining them in the country is that I feel exhausted by care-taking: our children, our household, my clients, the dog, any outside projects. Some days – and I know I’m not the only mother who feels this way – it seems like all I do is take care of other people. I longed for five days just to care for myself.
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Taking care of myself, it turns out, was less about saying fuck you to the world and staying in bed with a Donna Tartt novel, and more about clearing the clutter that inhabits my life. Especially after the last grueling month, when De-facto was of town for two weeks and I was up to my ears in fairly demanding work and juggling the kids and finding myself scrambling to keep up. I had to keep my eye on the prize: do the most important things. That meant all the little tasks that weren’t urgent or (as) important were relegated to a different list. In principle, this is good time management, until all those minute, delayable tasks become urgent and important and merge together to become an albatross. It’s not just from the last month, this has been accumulating for a long time. And looking ahead to a trip I will make next week, an intense work schedule in March, and more travel in April it became very apparent to me. Taking care of myself meant getting these things out of the way or they’d hound me all spring and into the summer.

Maybe other people don’t mind the nagging list. They just ignore it or they don’t even see it. I inherited my mother’s productivity compulsion. It bothers me that I haven’t submitted medical insurance claims because the paperwork sits in a tray on my desk. It irks me that an iTunes upgrade wiped out my playlists but I haven’t had time to find them on my back-up disk or to rebuild them with fresh music. Try as I do to minimize paper filing, there are still papers that need to be kept, and put where I can find them. This pile is one that sneers at me from the mess on my desk which has reached a level of chaos now spreading to piles on the floor.

These nagging tasks aside, there are the bigger projects that suffered during the last month: professional assignments that are perfect examples of my extraordinary capacity to overestimate what I can do and underestimate how long it will take to do it; documentation and research and web-site maintenance; preparing for new initiatives that require new strategies and thinking.

So I split my time: half of it making progress on the big projects, and the rest tackling the nagging tasks. Those, somehow, were the most satisfying: changing the vacuum cleaner bag that was bursting at its seams; cleaning the dog poop off the bottom of one of Buddy-roo‘s shoes, which had been on our balcony for three weeks waiting for this attention; sewing a button on a sweater, one that fell off before Thanksgiving; running an anti-virus scan on my computer and upgrading to Yosemite; shoring up medical forms and tax receipts; taking the lone Christmas ornament that we found on the tree after packing away all the decorations and simply taking it upstairs to put it in the box in the closet! I reorganized my desk, washed the throw rugs from the just_tryin_to_livebathroom floors, washed and dried every piece of dirty clothing in the house, folded it and put it away, which required a little extra organization in the girls’ wardrobes. Things are coming together. I’m still not caught up, but I’m no longer drowning in random, rogue tasks.

What I needed was a vacation from my life, so I could get caught up with my life. Isn’t this ridiculous? That life is so fast and furious and filled with duties and obligations – let alone the things I want to do – that I find myself scurrying around trying to catch up? How did I get so caught up in getting caught up?

I’ll never be all caught up. I know this. There’s always something to be done, and new opportunities add new things to the list. But at least when my family returns home tomorrow, I’ll be more caught up than before, and more than ready to catch up with them.


Jan 27 2015

School Daze

I wrestle with the guilt. The shame that we have put our children in such a traditional school, one with the classrooms arranged in rows, facing forward, one in which they are expected to consume and memorize the expertise imparted by an authority in the front of the room, a school with teachers who never coordinate their lesson plans or homework assignments, instructing the students without (or with very little) cross-collaboration with the other teachers. A school which measures success on having the right answers rather than the right questions. A school which is old-fashioned.

I feel guilty, especially considering my profession – purveyor of creative thinking, problem solving and innovation – that I’ve settled for less than the kind of desks_rowseducation I know would be far more useful and inspiring for my children.

The French school is not a bad education. A good portion of the students at the lycée are from local Catalan families who’ve chosen it because of its fine reputation. It provides a rigorous education that prepares children well…for an earlier decade. It’s not – nor was the school they attended in Paris – the kind of school in which I would have expected to have enrolled my children. But we have not managed to find – have I looked hard enough? – a school that fulfills that progressive expectation. When we have found an institution that comes close, it is not close enough to our budget, or close enough to avoid an hour-long commute, each way, every day.

Homeschooling? I’m not that kind of mom. I need a break from them during the day and I need to throw myself into my work. Is that selfish? Or just honest?

“But they’ve lived in different cultures.” This is the protest I hear from my friends when I express out loud my disquiet. “And they already speak four languages.”

Yes, I know we’ve given them a wider horizon. I know they see the world differently living abroad and traveling the way we do. I know that learning languages is probably an advantage, it helps you understand not only the words, but the people and culture that speak with those words. This, I think, Google Translate will never achieve.

I watch them memorize facts and prepare for tests, not for life. They tick off boxes to get their homework assignments done rather than delving into projects and gobbling up the subject. Maybe that’s a tall order, that it wouldn’t feel like work, that they would relish school. Is it so far fetched? What if school was fun? What if they worked on projects in a way that explained the world to them, that taught them things they cared about? What if school seemed more relevant to their lives now? What if school engaged the students to be more creative, rather than killing their creativity?

~ ~ ~

Each September there’s a school meeting at which the teachers and administration are collected to address the assembled parents about the year ahead. I’m inevitably disappointed after this meeting, to the degree that I wonder why I even attend. I long for a visionary administrator – this is an oxymoron, I suppose, except I know it is possible – who will launch into an inspiring presentation about the education they hope to provide the educate_the_monkeystudents. I want teachers who will get up and talk about helping students learn to love to learn, to help them think and ask and be curious. Instead, meetings at the French school begin with, and rather abruptly, the rules and regulations. What time classes start. The signatures necessary for students to leave the campus. The punishment for being late. The punishment system in general. The rules about carrying backpacks and doing homework. I leave shaking my head: What am I doing, with my kids in this kind of school?

Just a few weeks ago the school sponsored a meeting for teachers and parents during which we were assigned 5-minute slots – yes, five minutes – back-to-back with each teacher. This is barely enough time to explain what’s happening, let alone to dialogue about any issues. The parents dash from classroom to classroom to keep on time, only to find themselves waiting in line because a teacher took too long with somebody else, looking bewildered and muttering to ourselves is this really the way to get meaningful parent-teacher interaction?

I made the mistake of asking, gently, one of Buddy-roo‘s teachers if there was any way she might consider adding other forms of instruction to address different learning styles of her students. The handout she’d distributed for the myth of Isis and Osiris was rather dry, not to mention that it was unintelligible because it was a photocopy of a photocopy. When I was helping Buddy-roo study for the test, it was clear she didn’t understand the story, let alone why it matters. So I gave her an assignment: go to YouTube and find five videos about Isis and Osiris and watch them. Buddy-roo transformed after watching the videos, and she could retell the story and even draw some conclusions about why it was an important myth.

Ludique? Nous n’avons pas le temps!” She explained they didn’t have the time to be playful. Her excuse: there’s a big test three years from now. They have to prepare for it, seriously.

Seriously? We can’t make learning even a tiny bit fun, or at least interesting?For a test that’s years from now?

I knew better than to press further. It was already a risk to even suggest something like this. But I couldn’t help myself, I had to see how she’d respond. On the way home I worried if she might punish Buddy-roo because of her meddling mother. I should know better than to taunt a schoolmarm. Or should I know better than to put my kids into such an old-fashioned, rigid system?
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~ ~ ~

Last week I attended a TEDx conference here in Barcelona, one dedicated to the topic of education. A roster of fascinating speakers paraded on stage, each one with an uplifting story: a cross-disciplinary teaching team, project-based learning, an entrepreneurial education program, or a futuristic view of how to teach our children well, for the coming century, not the last. It was all terribly inspiring, and yet I finished the daylong conference feeling even more discouraged. The evidence is there that there are better ways to teach our children, using multi-disciplinary curriculum, team teaching and technology. I know it’s happening in forward thinking school systems, in other places in the world. But the inertia in the system we have chosen is bigger than us. Or I don’t have the stamina to take it on.

As parents, De-facto and I can shore things up around the edges. We invent games for doing homework, we use Post-it notes to help them think about what to cover in their school presentations, we try to help them cultivate their imagination at home, we drag them to creativity conferences and camps. But I know it’s not reinforced at school, at least not consistently. There are some bright spots: Short-pants does have an imaginative English teacher who uses inventive methods in her class, and both the girls rave about their maths teachers. And yes, they’re learning lots of languages. But are they learning what to do with those languages?

I know it’s not easy being a teacher. I don’t think I could do it, spending the entire day with large throngs of pre-adolescents. I know they’re underpaid, even at private and semi-private schools like the Lycée Francais. I know they’re saddled with huge classes, and unruly, overly-entitled students. I know the system they’re working in is focused on testing rather than understanding. But I wonder, do they feel guilty, too? These teachers must read what I’m reading, see what I seeing on-line about schools and the future – it has to be part of the zeitgeist of the world of education. Do they feel as powerless as I do?

I’m trying to do more for the girls. Teaching them to code, rejecting the archaic gender bias and reminding them they are good at math and science, encouraging their passions, nourishing their creativity. But then every morning I send them out the door to go to a school that I’m not convinced can give them the education to prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet, to enter a world that will be very different than the one I encountered after school, to solve possibly insurmountable problems that we’ve hoisted upon their generation. And what do I do? I wave goodbye and close the door, taking inhttp://www.danwalkerartworks.com/ the quiet that descends after their departure. I wrap my hands around a fresh cup of coffee, set my gaze toward my computer to plot my day, attacking my own list of things to do and learn, scrambling to keep up with my own life, let alone to envision what needs to be done for them to create theirs.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? Burrowed in to our day-to-day, it’s hard to lift our heads and look at the horizon and think strategically about our lives, our work, our kids and their schooling. Until I carve out the time for that, I’m left with the guilt. Until, I guess, it gets so bad that I do something, which might be simply to decide to stop feeling guilty. They are still bright eyed, curious, open-hearted girls, and they’ll do just fine. But I keep wondering, could we do better?

(Photo credit: “You are the Bows” is artwork by Dan Walker.)


Dec 28 2014

The Let Down

The days leading up to Christmas are filled with such eagerness. The hidden shopping bags, do-not-enter warnings and the sound of gifts being wrapped behind a closed door. The setting up and trimming of the tree, and the moment that the decorated packages are placed beneath it. The restraint that we’d promised ourselves obviously abandoned mid-December, boxes with ribbons and bows multiply in the ramp up to Christmas. Then there’s the relished ritual of making cut-out cookies and decorating them with frosting and colored sugar, complete with festive carols blaring in the background. Ella’s Swinging Christmas maybe not the most traditional collection Santa_glasses but I’ve made sure that years from now it’s the one my girls will remember. The case of champagne – or here in Barcelona, it’s a case of cava – is carried home and the a treasure of foie-gras and special cheeses fills the refrigerator. School finishes and the shortest days of the year keep us close and home. We light the menorah, too, to celebrate the ritual of my mother’s religion, not that she practiced it piously but because it acknowledges another holiday that overlaps and shares a spirit of family and gratitude. Candles flicker, lights blink on the tree, the quiet of Christmas eve settles in and the anticipation mounts.

We can’t escape the commercialization of Christmas. It’s impossible, living the world we live in, not to absorb the materialism that has overtaken this holiday. We do our best to minimize it without taking away the delight that comes from receiving a small pile of new items that help to refresh a wardrobe, restock a bedroom bookshelf or add energy to the toy box. I remember this delight: as a child studying the Sears & Roebuck Wishbook and dreaming about what might be mine if Santa answered my pleas. I’d flip through the catalog for hours, staring at those pages so long I knew them by heart. Even now, looking at an archive of old Wishbook pages from the ’60s and ’70s, I’m stunned at how many of them I recognize. I never got everything I asked for and I knew I wouldn’t, but my mother always managed to buy enough of the most coveted items so that those first moments of Christmas morning, coming downstairs to see what toys Santa had left – unwrapped for immediate pleasure – were exalting. All the waiting had been worth it.

Then the rest of my family would arise or arrive and once breakfast and its dishes were finished, we’d sit in the living room, going around one-by-one opening our gifts with oohs and aahs. A break halfway through for Bloody Marys and cheese and crackers, and the gift opening would resume. We’d stretch it out all day, to the delight of some and distraction of others, until, finally, the space beneath the tree was evacuated of its treasures, a few stray ribbons the only evidence of the abundance that once existed there.

After the last lovely box was unwrapped, the final thank yous circulated and someone was compelled to say, “Wasn’t that best Christmas ever?” We’d nod and sigh and begin the process of tidying up, collecting the scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon that hadn’t landed in the trash bag. There was the satisfaction ofSanta_figurines a stack of new possessions, but also a sadness: Christmas was, for all intents and purposes, over. Yes, the Christmas dinner was still ahead and more time together as a family. But the electricity-producing part was over. It was always a bit of a let down.

And you knew it shouldn’t be. You didn’t want it to be. But you couldn’t help it. Something hollow in your gut, no matter how your brain would explain to you that it had been a great day with beautiful gifts and favorite people around. There’d been such a build-up, and so much of it crafted by marketing masterminds. Even in those simpler Sears catalog days, it was a strong feeling. You just had to work through it. By the next morning things were fine. It had been a great Christmas, maybe the best one. But you had to move through the sad bit before you could calibrate back to normal.

I watch Buddy-roo wrestle with this. Despite all the gifts she received this year, many of them specific requests and a few things she’d admired in my presence and then forgotten about, adding to her delight as she unwrapped and re-discovered them, when we were done opening everything, she got all mopey.

“If only I’d gotten an iPad cover.”

I gave her the really? look, more of a scorn, and she ran upstairs in tears. I followed, because this is important. I wanted to acknowledge her feelings; they’re real. I also wanted to give her a reality check: you’re lucky to even have an iPad. Let alone all the new presents that just arrived. But I wanted to deliver both these messages in the right balance, because it’s complicated, even the mildest form of post-festum let down.

The thing is, I know where she gets this from. Because I had it when I was her age, and I still feel it now. Some years more than others. For different reasons. It’s the adrenalin drop after all the build-up. Even though you got truly terrific presents, it’s the not getting that one thing you kept answering with every time someone asked, what do you want for Christmas? It’s how we keep saying it’s not about the gifts, but then if that’s the truth, why is there so much hype about them? Mostly, though, it’s feeling a bit disoriented in the aftermath of all the activity and anticipation, lost and alone even though you’re with the people you love most and who love you most.

My father used to tease us, when an important event approached, like a birthday or a much-anticipated holiday, by telling us he’d heard on the radio that it’d been cancelled. winston_as_santa This is a family joke I’ve perpetuated, and Short-pants and Buddy-roo laugh and roll their eyes whenever we say it. So I don’t know if they’d believe me if I suggested that next year we cancel Christmas. I’m serious. What if we took away the merchandise and commercial part of it, that makes it so much work, and creates such expectations and disappointments, and just did something simple together? It’s not a new idea. Lots of families choose to travel rather than plunge into the trim-the-tree-open-presents-at-home routine. We’ve done it before. We spent Christmas away, in Cambodia and in Mozambique. Both times with warning that there’d be fewer presents because the trip was the gift we were giving ourselves. Yet as Christmas day approached, because the kids were young, because we’re victims of the media, we’d cave in and start shopping. Granted, the booty was contained, but it was still booty.

This seems so appealing right now. But chances are in eleven months time with the Christmas season in full stride, I’ll be sliding right into my role as executive producer of Christmas: shopping, baking, planning menus, coordinating our Christmas Eve open house. I’ll buy the extra paper so that when De-facto sticks his head in my office and says, “do you have any wrapping stuff?” I can answer affirmatively. I’ll watch the girls get excited and help them select gifts for each other and for their father. Christmas is, most of all, magic for the kids, and it’s still magic for us, watching the kids. I’d wager that the let down, if we didn’t do anything, would be more than the little let down that follows Christmas now. As long as we have kids, I think it’s a guaranteed tradition.


Nov 23 2014

The Anniversary

Because De-facto and I have never tied the knot, officially, we’re always at a loss about celebrating an anniversary. We met at a week-long creativity workshop – the one person we knew in common there was his mother – that for many years started on the third Sunday in June and ran through the following Friday. Both De-facto and I had come in the day before, and it was on that Saturday night, the eve of the conference, when he first saw me dancing at the pub and I first saw him walking behind me on the breezeway, his grin all innocent and mischievous at once. We turned toward each other and stayed that way, chatting on the campus lawn and late into the night in a dormitory stairwell. We spent a good part of that week together, and on the night after the conference ended, we even went out to dinner at a nearbycouple_hugging restaurant. I suppose you could call that our first date. We could google the calendar for June of 1996 and figure out the exact dates: that Saturday before CPSI or the Friday on the other end. But we could also identify the date, two days after the workshop, when I flew to Boston to see him instead of flying home to Paris, or the date he flew to visit me in France, two months later.

If we were mawkish we might celebrate all those firsts, and even the firsts I haven’t mentioned here. But we don’t. We end up giving each other a subtle head nod every June. It’s approximate: it might be on the third weekend of the month, or thereabouts, one of us will remember and send a card or leave a Post-it on the bathroom mirror to remind the other that it was X years ago this whole party started.

Part of me misses having a distinct anniversary to celebrate – an etched-in-stone beginning of our committed relationship that merits romantic notes, flowers and gifts, dinners out. A pair of friends just celebrated a silver anniversary, and we know other couples creeping toward such a milestone celebration. We’re still taking it one year at a time.

There is a date, though, a day on the calendar that we rarely forget. I remember it mostly as the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Sometimes I also take a deep breath on November 21st, the date of that Sunday ten (really, already?) years ago, in 2004. It’s a day I celebrate now because we survived it, all of us.

Standing at the kitchen island of my girlfriend’s New York apartment, each phone call delivering news that was harder to hear than the last. Short-pants had passed out. Our nanny had called the ambulance. The EMT guessed it was something neurological. Our neighbors who’d crossed the street to help started using words like convulsion and coma. The party that had prompted us to leave the kids in Paris to come to New York, just for the weekend to celebrate his mother’s 75th birthday, now soured by the news that her granddaughter had been rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, a surgery that took place while we hurriedly packed our bags and sped to the airport to catch a flight home to Paris. Just before boarding, we got a phone heart_in_hospitalcall from the surgeon. Short-pants had made it through the operation but it was a long night ahead. Come straight to the hospital after you land, he said.

We did. When they let us in to see her she was a narrow bump in a big bed, with tubes and wires attached and a gauze skull cap. The next days a blur of doctors and nurses and beeping machines and hours spent at her bedside in the ICU. The cancer they’d feared in our first meeting turned out to be a brain abscess – not nearly as ferocious a predator but perhaps more mysterious. Six weeks in the ICU and countless tests, scans and procedures until finally a second brain surgery was necessary to remove it. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s passed, our days split between being at her side in the hospital and being at home with Buddy-roo, who was too young to have any clue of how important she was in this whole ordeal, standing with her sweet little arms up in the air every time we returned from a grueling day at the ICU, wiped out and beaten down. Her smile and kicky-legs a constant reminder to keep hoping, keep loving, keep trying to keep it together. She needed us too.

Just after New Years, Short-pants was sent home, the cause of her mystery illness never determined but the ugly thing removed from her head and a plan for rehabilitation underway. The next weeks, months and year presented their own challenges, but she survived. Her mental capacity intact, she learned to walk again, to master motor skills she’d lost, to be a healthy little girl. She survived, and then some.

Ten years cascade by and the mother-in-love just celebrated another milestone birthday. Short-pants does all the things a 13-year old adolescent is supposed to do. Her sister adores and resents her, they’re just like normal siblings. Thanksgiving approaches and conjures up the memory of those cool fall-turning-winter nights when I’d walk home from the metro after a daylong vigil at the hospital, desperate for some news to turn things around, each day disappointed until the very end, when by some miracle, her miracle, she recovered. And little by little – it took time – we all recovered from it, from the shock, the strain, the exhaustion of the whole ordeal.
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It left its mark on all of us. Short-pants with her tiara-like scar across the top of her head, Buddy-roo who doesn’t always understand why her sister is different, even though what makes her different is something you can’t explain to the kids in the schoolyard who can’t comprehend the kind of wisdom that accompanies the experience of being resuscitated in an emergency room. De-facto and I, acutely aware of how precious life can be, still awed by the simultaneous fragility and absolute resilience of a 3-year old child who reminded us to live and love while we can.

The drama of those days is long behind us. There are no more follow-up appointments, no need for another MRI, no more fears that it will grow back. There is nothing that will inhibit Short-pants from leading a full, healthy and active life. What remains is the memory of how brave she was, how stoic and poised she remained over such an arduous hospital stay. What remains is the gratitude we felt, to our unwavering family and friends who supported us during those painful days. What remains is a day on a calendar page and the recollection of a brutal Sunday afternoon I would never want to repeat. It’s a story with a happy ending we get to witness every day: our healthy, hopeful Short-pants growing into a remarkable young woman. And still, every year – except for the one year I forgot – on this late November Sunday, we mark an awkward anniversary. Maybe not your typical anniversary, the most poignant one we’ve got.


Nov 19 2014

In Transit

The plane taxied down the runway toward the terminal and came to a stop, waiting for the jetway to connect. Eager passengers leaned forward, hands on the seatbelt clasps, poised to jump up from their seats the moment the familiar bell signaled their freedom, only to be left standing in awkward hunched-over poses, unable to advance for the crowd of standing people in the aisle. Sometimes I find myself amongst the hurry-up-to-wait crowd, moving too early from my seat out of restlessness or boredom more than anything else, not because I’m in such a rush to deplane.
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I like to smile in airports, just to put myself in deliberate contrast to the crowds of confused and distracted faces. If you walk around an airport smiling, people wonder what you’re up to. I like to be mindful in an airport, walking at a strong pace but fully aware of each gate and kiosk I pass. Most people don’t like airports, possibly they’re uncomfortable about flying or eager to get where they’re going or else tired of traveling and all they can think about is getting home. I don’t mind airports. I like the buzz of people about to go somewhere, the motion and movement, the collective anticipation of travel, all in one place. There are exceptions, obviously: on difficult travel days with weather or mechanical delays, or long trips with missed connections, then I would not praise an airport so highly. But on most days, most trips, it’s a place I like to be. It means I’m going on a trip, something that suits me fine.

I also like airport bars. Despite their overpriced cocktails and the lingering scent of over-fried food, I like what happens when you push your roll-away up beside the stool and settle in. It’s more festive and friendly than the rows of attached metal chairs in bleak arm-to-arm formations in the waiting area of the gates. You’ve got your TV screens flashing behind the bar and some music playing. The bartenders and waiters have a special camaraderie, bonded together in response, I suppose, to such a transient and temporary clientele. The snippets of their banter heartwarming, their jokes and shared stories well known to each other amidst a sea of unknown, ephemeral stories belonging to strangers on their way to somewhere else.

The smart phone is the worst thing to happen to the airport bar. Back when I first started traveling for business, in the days when we dressed up to travel, the corner seat at an airport bar afforded you interesting people watching and convivial conversation with strangers. True, the occasional bore could chat your ear off with observations and opinions gleaned from his banal life, but more often a friendly moment passed the time quickly, or occasionally even a poignant exchange could leave you thinking deeply and with gratitude about something important in your life. Now most people just nuzzle into their handheld screens, chatting with the rest of the world while ignoring the perfectly nice human being standing just beside them.
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It’s true I might take my phone out and give it a look, but if there’s someone nearby, I’ll set it down.

Last week I had two hours to kill in the Phoenix airport, en route to Mexico where I stole a few days with the Fiesta Nazi at her winter home. The mid-week airfare to fly to a job in Texas went from astronomical to reasonable if I stayed over a Saturday night. And Mexico is close to Texas, right? My job behind me and the prospect of three days with a good gal-pal gave me a particularly wide airport smile as I marched to the corner stool at a bar that happened to be adjacent to my gate, right away joking with the bartender who called me sweetie and darlin’ in the first twenty seconds of taking my order.

“Don’t mind me,” she said in response to my teasing. “I’m a bar whore, I say that to all the customers.” Quickly I learned this was true, as we all got the sweetheart treatment when she set the little napkin down in front of us. But I liked her candor about it.

A white-mustached man with a proper cowboy hat took a nearby stool, eyeing my Bloody Mary and pointing to it while he ordered one, too. His phone rang and he plunged into a conversation with what sounded like his wife. The call was interrupted by someone else, and then someone else, and when he finally set the phone down he told the bartender, and me, about his son’s truck accident. Nobody had been hurt, fortunately. The son, miles away from home, as was this man, was trying to sort out the details. It wasn’t that he was talking so loudly, it was the proximity of our seating at the bar. I tried not to mind his business, but eventually I couldn’t help but look in his direction.

He had tears in his eyes. Not the sobbing out of control kind, not even sad tears – there was no grief in them – but tears of concern and tears of helplessness to do anything to console or assist his son, so far away.

He apologized for talking too loudly. I assured him that he had not disturbed me.

“Your tears are beautiful,” I told him. He cocked his head sideways at first, but then, nodded in agreement.
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“It wadn’t even his fault. Now he’s scared he’ll lose his job. It’s his first job.”

I didn’t say anything, not at first. Sometimes silence is what gives people permission to say the thing they really mean to say.

“I love my son and I hate not being able to help him.”

I waited a beat, thinking about Short-pants and Buddy-roo and how it’ll be when they grow up. How it is already. “Seems like no matter how old they get, we’re always worrying about them.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” he said, raising his glass to mine.

We kept talking, both of us leaving our phones dark on the bar, and even a few others nearby chimed in with stories about their kids, teenagers or adults, still invoking parental concern. Caring about your children, even if they’re fully grown, even if they drive you mad, is a universal theme.

My flight was called to board, and I wished the man well, and his son, too. I paid my sweetheart bartender, leaving her a big tip for all her exaggerated terms of endearment – I guess that works! – and pulled my bag behind me toward the gate. This time I smiled not because it’s the deliberate thing I do, but because of how that man loved his son so much, and how much I love my girls.


Nov 6 2014

The Good Life

I cleared out the fridge, making swift decisions about what to pack in the cooler, what to discard because it wouldn’t travel and wouldn’t last until our return. I’d packed three small suitcases the night before – we keep a set of clothes at the country house so we don’t need to take much – and created the shopping bag stuffed with things to take with us: the rug that doesn’t quite work in our living room, an old lamp, and some worn clothes being retired to the country house wardrobes. I thought I’d gotten a head start, but as usual, I found myself scrambling at the end, rushing around pulling things together when we wanted to have left Barcelona an hour before.

De-facto commanded Short-pants to help him carry the bags down to the rental car, while Buddy-roo occupied the dog, who was suddenly very winston_in_carnervous, seeing all the activity. Did he know what was going on? Did he see all the bags and think we were leaving him? Did he sense our mild stress, always present at the moment of departure? What do dogs think? Now that we have one, I wonder about this.

A final sweep of the house to make sure the lights were off and the windows locked, and we all piled in the car – the dog, too – and headed north to France. Winston stepped around and on top of the girls in the back seat, unsure of whether to burrow himself between the two of them or take advantage of the view out the window. A few barks to express his excitement, or consternation – what was he thinking? – before he settled in as the car sped along, leaving the light city traffic for the open highway.

We’ve passed the 3-week trial period designated by the animal rescue center, so there’s no turning back. There have been moments when I wanted to march Winston up the hill to those dog pens and hand him over. The initial chewing incident was an anomaly and he hasn’t ruined any of our clothes or furniture, but his digestive tract has been in adjustment mode. Probably we changed his food too drastically or else just from the change in general, so he left us some presents in the mornings that weren’t particularly pleasant to discover, or to clean up. At least the mess was on the floor, and not on a rug or on the furniture. I’d like to think he did this in desperation, not as a mean-spirited gesture. I used to have a cat that deliberately avoided her litter-box when she was mad at me for traveling. She did her business by the door instead, and it wasn’t fun to come home to.

~ ~ ~

Winston is folding into our family. He’s not nervous anymore. His barking has diminished. He heels more often, though not reliably. He’s a good dog, even if he is a bit cheeky, sneaking in the kitchen though it’s forbidden, nosing into the bathroom if someone leaves the door open. You know, doing doggie things.
winston_on_the_road
In the country he was liberated. As far as possible from the caged life at the rescue center, he was completely free. He could come and go from the house as he pleased, without a leash, to explore the woods and fields around our property. There were new smells to sniff at, green ones, strong and natural. There was tall grass to run in and dirt tracks to run along. We were cautious at first, wondering if he’d run away or get hit by a car. But he strayed only far enough to explore, and managed to avoid the occasional traffic that passes on our road. The best part, though, was taking him out for a run.

Winston would trot beside me, his ears flopping wildly until he stopped to sniff in a ditch or a fencepost. He’d root around and eventually lift his leg to leave a calling card before looking up to see I was ahead of him. He’d sprint to catch up and pass me, running ahead with glee until some other scent would capture his attention and he’d fall to the side of the road to investigate, relieve himself once more before sprinting up to catch me again. Biking with Winston was even better: he’d hit full throttle to overtake us on our bicycles, his nose jutting forward, all four legs stretched in a fully extended stride. After a week I noticed three things: Winston didn’t smell like a city dog anymore. Winston got stronger and more muscled. Winston seemed really, truly, happy.

I grew up with a dog. He was part of our family before I was even born. Bum – yes, that was his name – was a mutt, a variation of golden retriever mixed with who-knows-what. My father called him a woodchuck hound, because he liked to hunt them down and return home triumphantly with the small dead animal clutched in his jaw. Owning a dog when you live in the country is relatively fuss-free. We never had to put Bum on a leash, take him for a walk or carry plastic bags to pick up after him. Bum_at_lakeHe’d scratch at the door to go out, and then again to come back in. (In a renovation years after the dog had died, my father refused to replace the doors because Bum’s nail marks were, as he put it, part of this history of the house.) Dogs belong in the country, I’ve always thought, not cooped up in a city apartment. And yet now we have a dog, and we live in an apartment. I suppose it’s better for him than being cooped up in a cage at the pound, or with a family that can no longer care for him, but this week reminded me why I haven’t owned a dog my entire adult life, up until now. A dog’s life is so much better in the country.

If fact, I think Winston found his footing within our family because we took him to the country. We gave him freedom, with a measure of safety, and he started to trust us. Maybe it would have happened anyway, over time, but being in that environment accelerated the bonding process. He’s really part of the family now. He seems to like us. And he’s absolutely nuzzled his way into our hearts.

~ ~ ~

The closing up of the country house is a series of rituals. I clean out the fridge, stow all the counter-top appliances and utensils behind closed cupboards, put away the good pillows and bed linens, and sweep and vacuum to put the place in some semblance of clean, knowing that dust and cobwebs will begin to accumulate the moment we leave. De-facto locks all the exterior doors and drains the toilets and the water heater, shuts off the water. Last one out flips the electricity switch before securing the door. The house always looks sad, standing dark and lonely as we drive away.

This time, our departure reminded me of a moment on last summer’s trip when we visited my hometown. It was a quick stop, just one overnight, enough time to see a few friends, visit my parents’ gravesite and drive up the hill to see the house that was my childhood home. We sold it three years ago, but the new owners have already put it back on the market. Too much work and expense to keep it up, that’s the rumor. Now it stands empty, void of furniture and family. The row of short bushes around the front porch, kept in check by the gardener my mother employed and befriended, sprawl uneven and overgrown, the shrubs beside the back stairs are fast becoming a overgrowth_by_stairswild thicket, the peony bushes in the side yard flattened by the weight of the dead blooms that hadn’t been pruned. It broke my heart to see my old house like this, cold on the inside, untended on the outside.

Across the street, another lonely house. Once the home of a family with five boys – my first childhood playmates – now not even a carpet remains inside. I’d heard these neighbors were planning to move but I hadn’t prepared myself to see their house emptied of all its belongings. We stood on the cement porch, pressing our faces up to the windows, cupping our hands around our eyes to see into the rooms I hadn’t thought about in years. A living room once filled with books and a framed print of the mysterious (to me) Peaceable Kingdom, a kitchen that always smelled of fresh baked brownies – we used to pull out the pots and pans from the corner cupboard and turn the lazy-susan inside it into an amusement park ride – the playroom where I spent many afternoons until my mother called from across the road to come home for dinner.

Two old houses, longtime friends like the families that lived within them, now stand across from each other, hollowed out. There is no life inside them, only memories, and only a handful of us who remember. As we drove away, tears were unavoidable. Tears for the people who are gone. Tears for those empty houses that for so many years knew warmth and laughter and the vibration of the good life within them. Now their windows are blank, like wide eyes staring across the street at each other in disbelief.

There were once doggies living in those old country houses. I remember Windy, a feisty black and white Boston Terrier skittering around on the neighbor’s cement porch. And our Bum, who occasionally crossed the road to sniff at Windy before running off to the apple orchard to hunt down an errant woodchuck. Those dogs had it all, living free and unfettered in big rambling houses with loving families and fresh country air. That’s the good life, for a dog. Winston got his taste of it, but now he’s back to being a city dog again, lying on his blanket on the couch until one of us picks up his leash to take him for walk or, if he’s lucky, a run up to the carretera on the mountain behind us. I bet he misses the good life of the country. I know I do. It’s a good life for humans, too.


Oct 13 2014

More Than We Can Chew

They all headed out and left me to the quiet apartment, on a mission that might take several hours. This gift of time to myself, on a weekend morning is something to cherish. Not that I need to make such a distinction between weekday and weekend, except the buzz – outside in the world and inside on-line – has a different meter on a Saturday or Sunday than during the week. I closed the door behind them, wishing them well, and then, time_on_my_armthe choice: do I go to the computer and write (or fuss about on-line)? Do I climb back into bed with a good book? Do I attend to one of those projects not important enough to displace work during the week, but too hard to complete with my family underfoot?

I’m one of those people who likes to make things neat before I sit down to work. Not 90-degree order, but a modest tidiness in my immediate environment. Open drawers and cupboards annoy me. I don’t like to leave dirty dishes in the sink. I am capable of walking by the couch without adjusting the throw pillows, but if they’re askew, why not fix them? I like a bit of order before I create. Today I knew it was essential to do a bit of household organizing, picking up around the apartment. When De-facto and the girls returned, they wouldn’t be alone.

I did a sweep of the apartment. Shoes left in the hall were tucked away on shelves and in closets. School bags and leather purses perched on benches, tables and desks. Any stray little plastic toys, Pet Shop creatures or Fisher Price people – yes, they still occasionally play with these – were stowed out of sight. Once I thought I’d made a thorough survey of the apartment, I sat down to use the rest of the time for more creative pursuits. But I was ready. Or as ready as possible.

I heard the family out in the street. Buddy-roo has a distinctively sharp and opinionated voice, and with my balcony doors open – Indian Summer luxury in Barcelona – I could hear her loud and clear. They’d gone out without keys, requiring use of the interphone. The sound of the buzzer instantly followed by the fervent barking of a dog. And so it begins.

~ ~ ~

The day before, we’d hiked up to the dog pound at the base of Tibidabo mountain on the outskirts of the city. De-facto and Buddy-roo had been up there several times during the last month, meeting the animals and talking with the volunteers and even helping to walk some of the dogs to get a feelchoose me for their temperament. After each visit they’d return with tales of barking hounds and puppy-dog eyes. Buddy-roo was remarkably patient about the process, seeming not to mind that after each trip they came home empty handed. Maybe it was too hard for her to choose from among all the dogs vying to be selected by her.

Because it was her choice. She’s the one who’s been yapping at us for years about getting a dog, and she succeeded at the get-a-dog-challenge, so we knew sometime around her birthday (coming up in two weeks) we’d be adding a pet to our family. A large portion of the responsibility of caring for this dog will fall on her, but it still has to be a team effort. Given how much of the day she’s at school, that means De-facto and I will need to do some dog walking. Will I regret this? The parental leash around our necks has eased considerably in the last year: the girls can get to and from school on their own, they’re okay to be home alone for a few hours, we can go out to dinner without having to bring in a babysitter. Life was just getting easier, and here we go complicating it with the addition of a family pet. It’s a lot of work and we lead busy lives. Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

The fact that I was accompanying them to the pound meant that a decision was imminent. A few of the dogs Buddy-roo had her eye on had already been adopted by other families. Or else they had even the tiniest bit of Rottweiler in them, requiring extra paperwork and registration with the city hall, a step of administration we hoped to avoid. We strolled along the long row of cages, cueing a chorus of barking and bickering with every set of dogs we passed, peering in each cage with the hope of discovering the one who’d be our dog. We narrowed it down to the three favorites who were summoneddoggies_waiting for us and put on leashes. We’d get to walk them, with a trained volunteer, all at once. As we passed the main office, the vet came out and explained we were welcome to walk the three dogs, but two of them were already reserved. It was by that process of elimination that Buddy-roo made her choice. The mid-sized rusty-colored mostly cocker spaniel was ours, if we wanted him. We could reserve him and take 48-hours to decide for sure.

The focus of the discussion around the dinner table that night: what would we name our new dog? It didn’t surprise me that De-facto was suggesting the same names he floated back when we choosing names for our children. It’s a good thing we ended up with two daughters because we could never agree on even one boy’s name. He wanted Linus, a name I like well enough but it would have been butchered in France. I’d counter with a clever but ridiculous name, Buster. We’d volley back and forth with our favorite names, always ending at an impasse. But now, both Linus and Buster were in the running again, though both seemed more workable as canine options. Jordi, the ubiquitous Catalan name, also made the short list, as did Winston, a name the girls know of because of a song by a band called Bound Stems that gets a lot of play on our long car trips. Nothing was decided, except to wait and see how it felt when we had him on our own leash – then we’d know the right name.

~ ~ ~

The dog charged into the apartment, putting his nose to the floor and and sniffing along the baseboards to every corner and cranny, his long toenails percussive on our wooden floor.

“They said he’ll want to smell everything, at first, to get oriented,” said Buddy-roo, giggling as the dog darted wildly around the apartment. “Good boy, Winston!”

She had, apparently, decided on his name.

I knew he’d want to sniff around and scope out the territory. That’s why I’d straightened things up earlier, so he could do his scent-tour without the distraction of any stray items to chew on. The dog is 3-years old, which means we shouldn’t have a lot of puppy issues, but I also know that dogs like to chew things, usually the precious things you don’t want them to chew. And that when you take on a rescued dog, you don’t always know what you’re getting, in terms of training or behavior. I eyed the two fauteuils thatcuddling_winston had been my mother’s and my grandmother’s before her, and wondered what was to become of them with our new resident. Plus Winston was stinky, after living in a cage with three other dogs. We let him do his sniff around, and then we put him in the bathtub so we could stand to smell him.

After his bath, he was still a bit frantic, understandably. A new home, new smells, new people, a tub of hot water and soap – it’s a lot of novelty to take in after a month in a cage. Winston’s nose kept pulling him around the apartment, he had to check out every room, again. Despite my preparations, I hadn’t noticed a small pair of panties that had slipped under the bed, far enough to be out of my view, but just in the line of sight of a medium-sized, curious dog. And not just any pair of panties, a delicate pair with lace and ribbons and elegant stitching, the kind that costs no small amount of cash.

“Winston!” Buddy-roo let out a peel of laughter when she saw him trotting around with a strip of orange silk ribbon hanging out of his mouth. How fitting that the first chewing casualty from our new dog would be my favorite pair of underwear.

“Winston!” De-facto scolded, as we huddled around the dog. His teeth were clamped together, there was no pulling those panties out. He wouldn’t open his mouth, and I watched his drool drip from the dainty little bow held tight between his gums. We tried a number of strategies to get him to open his jaw, to no avail. We certainly didn’t want to reward him for this behavior, but it seemed the only way to get him to open his mouth was to offer him some food. The vet had given us a few doggie treats for the way home. Buddy-roo held one up, in front of the dog, and the moment he opened his mouth De-facto grabbed his jaw open and pulled out the panties, without getting bitten himself, and more remarkably, without tearing the lace or silk. No surprise that De-facto is expert at getting his hands on my panties.

~ ~ ~

The dog has been in our home for a week now, and I can report that he is, in the broad sense, a good and easy dog. He’s affectionate (and especially good at receiving affection). He’s calm, most of the time. We still have to manage his excitement around comings and goings, but we’ve made some progress since his arrival. He does have a fierce bark, but at least he only barks on two occasions: when it’s time to go out for a walk, or when the buzzer or the doorbell rings. We have some training to do on this front, but I have to say I appreciate his instinct.

Despite the underwear incident, it turns out he’s not much of a chewer. Our shoes remain untouched wherever we take them off. De-facto and the girls are always leaving their clothes on the floor, but Winston seems uninterested in chewing on them. He pays no attention to the family heirloom armchairs, and doesn’t jump on the table to try for our food. His thing is paper. So we’ve had to monitor the bathroom bins and toilet paper rolls, or else we find a trail of used cotton rounds and paper squares throughout the house. We are in the process of teaching him to stay out of the bathrooms and the kitchen, and to walk with us rather than to pull us along like a sled-dog. On that front, we probably need as much training as he does. So once we get our Internet connected – we are still waiting for the technician, who’s bound to cause some barking – we’ll be watching a full compliment of the Dog Whisperer videos, I’m sure.
winston_in_my_office
Okay, there’s been an occasional fracas: De-facto got bit by Winston and another dog when their sniffing turned to growling and then to fighting. We’re all getting used to each other and ritualizing our routines. Overall, Winston’s assimilation into the family has been relatively easy. He’s happy to walk up the mountain with us or go for a run, but equally content to laze around on the couch while the girls toil at their homework and we slog away at our computers. I hope he’s happy here. I hope he grows to feel like part of our family. He’s growing on me, a little more each day. As I write this, Winston is curled up beside my desk, taking an afternoon nap. I can see some rapid eye movement behind his eyelids, and his legs kick occasionally in his sleep. Maybe it’s a doggie-dream of running wild in a field, heading towards a bottomless bowl of kibbles, unencumbered by the leash and our commands to heel or sit at the crosswalk. Or maybe he’s kicking his way towards through a sea of soft, silk lingerie, sniffing around for the perfect pair of fancy lace panties, without anybody there to chew him out for it.


Sep 30 2014

Why Live Here

When it rains in Barcelona, it rains decisively. The morning might start out sunny, but by midday the dark clouds have slipped over the crest of the mountain, wrapping their gray billowy arms around the church perched at Tibadabo and crawling down toward the sea, dropping their contents with deliberate force. The rain might start out as a prolonged sprinkle, dotting your shoulders as you wait for the bus – and you hope it’ll hold off until you make itgray_and_sun home – but when the sky opens up, the rain teems down. Rain pounds the balconies and pelts against the big glass windows in our living room. Rain falls strong and fierce. The sky pours its soul out on the city, filling the streets with angry, wet weather.

The next day, usually, the sky is clear and sunny. Rain rarely lasts for consecutive days, like in my beloved Paris where the cloudy ceiling lingers for weeks at a time, dampening your mood and your shoes with its prolonged presence. Barcelona’s rain comes down hard and then it stops and there’s sun. That’s a good reason to live here.

~ ~ ~

The Internet-connecting technician designated to come flip a switch somewhere in our building – and that’s all he has to do since I’ve already hooked up the router to the phone and to our computer and our little home network is four-bars strong but for the fact the bars connect to nothing – was supposed to come two weeks ago. There were subsequent promises from our new provider, about an arrival between 8 am and 2 pm on one day, or 4 pm and 8 pm another, jailing us in our home for fear of missing the arrival of this man with a tool belt and a magic stroke that will connect us miraculously to the rest of the world. Each appointment has evaporated into a non-event. When I called to inquire why nobody arrived, the customer service agents seemed as confused as we were.

This weekend I went back to the store, a brave endeavor given the Saturday morning press in such a place. I lined up with the regular working chaps who can’t, like me, peek in on a less crowded Tuesday morning to buy a phone or organize their Internet. After waiting for the couple ahead of me to decide which plan to take, and to painstakingly select their new phones, it was my turn. After recounting the debacle of our hook-up, I learned the real reason for our delay: there is a problem in our sector, all the installations in our neighborhood are delayed. I was shown a long list of other new clients, wireless neighbors of mine, waiting for service to commence. yellow_circuit_boxes Apparently all the competitive service providers are still obliged to rely on Telefonica, Spain’s old state phone company, for this last technical step in the installation. And apparently, our wait for hook-up has been extended until October 20th. That would be four weeks away. Nearly two months from the start date of our contract.

For De-facto, when it rains it pours. Not only was he trapped in the house for nearly two full days last week, waiting for the mystery technicians who never showed – we’re guessing they were never going to come, it was just a ruse to get us off the phone – but his computer conked out on him, too. First the flashing screen and the hard drive grinding to a quiet, definitive halt. It’s under Applecare so will be repaired, but it’ll take two weeks – forcing him to use one of the two old machines we have on hand. Both of these computers worked dutifully for many years, but as it happens with old Macs, the rainbow colored wheel-of-doom starts to spin, programs take forever to open and web-pages load at snail speed.

De-facto doesn’t get on well with electronics to begin with. I’m the one who hooks things up and regularly goes through his laptop arranging bookmarks and filing systems and urging him to upgrade and back-up. He takes pride in being a luddite, and gave up his decade-old Ericsson regular feature phone only because it ceased to function. Part of our new Internet package includes a smart phone for him – at least that’s working – so he shouldn’t be adrift, except, well, he hasn’t quite mastered his new Android phone. This would explain the cursing and occasional pounding of the desk radiating from the office next to mine.

~ ~ ~

Soon we’ll all have telephones. Short-pants already does. When she started walking to school on her own two years ago, it seemed the right thing to do. I was afraid she’d fall into the head-down-at-her-phone crowd, but she hasn’t caught the texting bug. Occasionally I’ll get a flurry of “I love you more” texts from her, but her correspondence with friends is very limited, I think she doesn’t even know their phone numbers. I almost never see her at_the_phonewith her phone out. The phone is her tool, not the other way around.

I, too, will have a new phone. It’s on order, and when it comes in – next week I’m told – the not-so-smart phone I’ve been using for the last year will be handed down to Buddy-roo. She’s champing at the bit, eager to have what her sister has, ready to stay in closer touch with her friends. It’ll help her coordinate the after-school meet-up-to-walk-home rendezvous with her sister, and we’ll be able to reach both of them with important messages. They can’t use the phones in school, but surely she’ll be flipping them open as soon as they walk out of the gate.

If our new Internet hook-up ever becomes a reality, then our home be humming at full connectivity. At present you can only get a signal in one corner of the apartment, fortunately that’s where De-facto and I have our offices. The girls bedrooms have been wi-fi free zones, which meant they had to be under our noses when they went on line. That’s about to change (one hopes). Computers and telephones and iPads will connect in every room on both floors of our apartment, which will make our work much easier, but probably not without an impact on our family life. At dinner last night we talked about drawing up a contract covering use of electronic devices, modeled after this one (an excellent example of parenting) that made the rounds two years ago. We started a list of all the things that might be included in our agreement: no electronic devices at the table during meal times, no texting while walking, no screen time until homework is done, surfing and viewing on age-appropriate sites.

The latter is a tricky one. It’s easy to suggest that they avoid content with a lot of violence; I’ve seen Buddy-roo click away from something because she knew it would be disturbing. But how to get them to avoid the sexy stuff? The minute you mention not to look at it, they’ll want to. I have a friend who catches her daughter watching porn on the iPad, and forbidding it doesn’t seem to help. I gave it my best shot anyway, in a command I meant to be clear but it was probably a meandering way of saying “don’t watch people having sex.” Apparently De-facto, Short-pants and I were all facing Buddy-roo during this part of the conversation.

“Why’s everyone looking at me?” she said.

~ ~ ~

This morning, rain, again. A steady percussion on the little balcony outside my office. De-facto fidgets in the next room, restless in his (truly) wire-less condition. In better weather, he’d hop on his bike and troll up the mountain, or go for a run. If I had my druthers, I’d prop my pillows against the headboard and climb under the covers with the laptop and work from bed. It’s that kind of day.

Alas, there is no wifi in the bedroom, and anyway, I have a conference call on Skype which requires a stronger, more reliable connection than the one we borrow from our neighbors. I have no choice but to trek out in the sloppy weather to a umbrella_dayshared office where I’ll have desk space, creative camaraderie and resilient wifi. But on a wet day like today it’d be my preference to stay home and dry.

On the way there, I’ll go by the phone store to buy some more credit for my temporary phone. I’ll nudge them again about the technician and our Internet hook-up, just to give me the satisfaction of at least trying to do something to move things along. It’s unlikely to help, we’ll probably have to slog along with our make-shift connection for a few more weeks. But at least tomorrow the rain will stop, and the sun will shine. I keep reminding myself, that’s why I live here.


Sep 21 2014

Not Quite at Home

I took some ribbing from De-facto about my trip to Paris. I’d tried to tie it in to some business travel coming up next week – often if connecting flights are required, I’ll arrange for a change in Paris and take an extra night to run into town, check in with friends, get the mail at our old apartment and attend to my hair – but next week flying via Paris made no sense in terms of timing or cost. It’d been two months since a haircut. My hair has its own personality and works at several lengths as it grows, until it gets too long and heavy and sloppy-headed. I combed the travel sites for a reasonable fare, and just when I was about to give up and go to a local salon, I got an email from a discount airline offering 35-euro flights. I found one that would whisk me into Paris one morning and return me, well-coiffed, to Barcelona the next.

Walking through the Orly airport I felt buoyant. The spring in my step, the kind you get when you are someplace you’re glad to be. The sounds of the airport, the look and language of the people, it was all comfortably familiar. paris_rooftopsEven when my French bank card was rejected at the train ticket machine, I didn’t panic. I went to the window and tried it again with a human helper. The card was damaged, he said, probably the chip. I had enough cash to get a ticket into the city and enough time before my appointment to stop at my bank branch and order a replacement card and withdraw some money the old fashioned way, from a teller.

This transaction was effortless. I know how to navigate in French without thinking too hard. I know what metro stop to take to get where I want to go without studying the map, or the app. I can count on my bank to be open during what I consider normal business hours. How many times in Spain, have I tried to attend to errands only to be confronted with a dark office, a locked door or a closed gate because its during the hours of the afternoon siesta? What a relief that I could simply solve this surprise problem with a quick detour to my bank and I could make myself understood instantly. France actually seemed easy.

Can you believe that? Navigating the hidden code of its bureaucracy, enrolling the girls in school and at the conservatory, sorting out cartes de sejour and the tax foncier – not that many years ago I labored to figure out the complexities of the French system. Compared to Spain, France is efficient. Things get put off and re-directed, but there’s not as much mañana. Maybe it’s just more familiar after nearly two decades there. Surely if I remain in Spain, or Catalonia – my Spanish friends remind me that Barcelona isn’t really Spain – this comfort will develop. Funny how it takes not quite feeling at home in a country to realize that I felt quite at home in a country and didn’t realize how much I felt at home in.

~ ~ ~

Our cross-country trek put me in the United States for the longest stretch of consecutive days since I moved abroad. We spanned the nation, taking in its west coast cool, mid-western earnestness and east coast hustle. I understood every word of every conversation I had with every store clerk, waitress or stranger in the street. I spoke English non-stop, except for the odd French or Spanish exchange with Short-pants, who has a knack for languages and enjoys exercising her linguistic muscle.

Yet despite the ease of communication, I didn’t really feel at home. So many things about my own country feel foreign to me. I moved away from the United States 22 years ago, just as Bill Clinton took office for his first term. It was a different America that I left. Pre-9/11, you only waved the flag on the 4th of July. The middle class wasn’t an endangered species. People didn’t white_black_Obama_flagneed to debate Genesis vs. Darwin, one was a belief, the other, a fact. Religion meant helping your community rather than damning another. Elected representatives compromised to forge solutions instead of waging a war against the opposing party no matter what its objective. I’m not saying the United States was perfect in the ‘80s. Women and minorities have a much better place in American society now than they did then (there’s still a lot of room for improvement) and I’m proud that we elected a black president for two terms. But it’s a very different country than the one I left, and it doesn’t always feel familiar to me.

By the time we crossed the border to Canada and made our way to the airport, I couldn’t wait to get back to Spain. It did feel good to turn the key in the door of our Barcelona apartment. My first walk around the neighborhood, to my local haunts, gave me a feeling of returning to something home-like. I even have a Spanish ID number now, which means I am able to obtain our very own ADSL internet connection, something we survived a year without, thanks to generous neighbors who shared their network with us. (Not even a pre-pay option exists for internet in Spain.) I ordered our Internet service twenty days ago and though the router arrived via post, we are still waiting for the technician to come and to flip some switch to make it operable.

I have been back to the store twice to inquire. During the most recent trip I figured I’d stop and make a deposit on the way, but at 4:00 pm the bank was still closed for its lunchtime siesta. You can’t imagine how many times I turn up at the tailor, the eyeglass shop, the you-name-it store, thinking it’s way past lunch, they have to be open by now, only to find out that they don’t open again until 5:00. Granted they stay open until 8:30 or 9:00 pm. But by then I’m already having cocktails, not running errands. Clearly I’m not yet accustomed to the Spanish clock. I’m still not quite at home here.

If you ask the girls where home is, you’ll get different answers. For Buddy-roo, Paris is her true home and awaits our return. Short-pants loves living in Barcelona, and optimistically remarks that France and the United States feel like home, too. I’ve written before about feeling in between two cultures. you_are_here Now it seems I’m dancing among three cultures at once, carrying an American passport, a French Carte de Resident or a Spanish Permiso de Residencia, appreciating each one but never quite feeling at home in any of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the laid-back attitude in Barcelona, especially during a long, late lunch or heading to the beach to go Stand-up Paddleboarding. But if you are trying to get something done, well, just expect a few hiccups. On Friday I was promised the Internet technician would come between 8 am and 2 pm, but he never showed up. When I phoned the service provider to ask about it, there was no record of my appointment, and no way to tell me when I might be given another. So this posting comes to you courtesy of our neighbor’s connection. Maybe in this modern world, home is where the wifi is. Once I get it, I’ll let you know.


Sep 7 2014

Up in the Morning

It starts to happen, as our children get older, that the cherished memories we have of their childhood lose their clarity, and the boundary between sun_shineswhat we remember and what really happened begins to bend and blur. I want to tell you that when Short-pants was a baby, not quite a toddler, we’d hear first stirrings as she’d stretch and come to life slowly in her crib, taking in the new day. Then we’d hear her little voice call out enthusiastic, “Up in the morning!”

I’m not sure if that’s exactly true. It might have started that early, but maybe not until later. I do know that when she could finally escape on her own, over the railing of her crib, she’d toddle into our room and crawl up into our bed to make this morning declaration. She would pronounce each word with delight, as though lyrics of a song, all this while wearing a supremely self-satisfied smile.

A dozen years later, it’s still the first thing she says to us when we bump into each other in the kitchen, or if she slips in to our room while we’re still in bed: “Up in the morning!”

Getting the girls up in the morning and ready for school has long been my task. This involves assuring their state of dress and putting breakfast in their bellies, commanding the final assembly of book-bags the brushing of teeth until De-facto, a few minutes prior to the must-be-out-the-door moment, lifts himself from bed, throws on whatever clothes might be handy and walks them to school. Occasionally I’d be the one to escort them, but most days this has been our routine, in Paris as well as in Barcelona.

When Short-pants entered collège (middle school) two years ago and started walking to school on her own, she developed, instantly, an admirable sense of self-responsibility. She sets her own alarm, dresses and prepares her backpack, eats whatever you put in front of her or makes breakfast for herself, monitors the time closely and steps out the door in plenty of time to make it to school without having to rush. She likes the morning walk, and though accepting of our company on days we join her, has admitted to us that she prefers to walk to school alone.

So far this year, though, she’s been accompanied by her sister, who’s just started at collège. Buddy-roo is a professional sleeper and not such a happy-in-the-morning person. She is rallying, though, as part of the get-a-dog campaign. A campaign she’s won, by the way, as last spring not only did she demonstrate the capacity to wake herself earlier and more self-sufficiently, no_walking_with_parentsshe also achieved fine grades at school. Grades were not the objective; being conscientious about about her work was the goal. But by doing that she surprised us all – and mostly herself – with a recommendation from her teacher. (The dog, incidentally, an impending acquisition. Watch this space.) Part of the rite of passage to this higher class level involves making the trek to school without a parent, whether by walking or public transport. Since the girls start school at the same time now, they walk together.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on the night before the first day of school, we sat around the table after dinner, a family meeting to review the girls’ household chores. Since we’d been gone most of the summer, everyone was a little out of practice. I wanted to give the girls an opportunity to switch up their tasks and also to add new and different ones; as they get older and taller, there’s more they can do to help around the house. They are good natured, mostly, about the jobs we ask them to take on. Except one: Despite years of making it a required activity, I still can’t get them to replace an empty toilet paper roll or move the finished cardboard tube in to the trash, let alone to the recycling bin. Not sure why these tasks are so challenging to accomplish, but the three people with whom I live with seem unable to complete either of them. Though everyone has pledged, once again, to do their best.

For some reason, my annual clock rotates on a scholastic calendar, and I always think of this time of year as a time to change habits or get started on new projects. Or return to old projects, which is an objective of mine this year. I have a languishing manuscript. It needs a bit of re-work and a few chapters to end it. I’ve been working on it for a decade, and its time to finish and publish.

One way of changing a habit is asking for help from the people around you; this insight came to me during a session at Mindcamp, which resulted in the idea of setting aside just an hour a day to work on my manuscript. But not just any hour. The first hour of the day, before my fresh-from-the-dream-state imagination is spoiled by reading the news or email or by all the don’t-forget-your-maths-book kind of conversations that are part of shooing children out the door to school. It’s not the first time I’ve thought of this, but I’m just not enough of a morning person to get up before the girls, and askeven when I manage to rise before them, as soon as they’re up, they’re in my hair.

I decided to ask my family for help. After all, when they ask for something, I’m happy to do what I can to support them. Wouldn’t they show me the same courtesy? De-facto made what I perceived to be a slightly patronizing remark and Short-pants corrected my grammar, so I had to pound the table a moment to make them understand that this was actually something about which I was feeling very tender and even slightly vulnerable. A moment of discomfort around the table was followed by a how-might-we discussion about the people setting their own alarms and getting their own breakfasts. Everyone agreed we could try.

“Think of it as an experiment,” I said, “to help me get back in the habit of working on my book. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Up in the morning,” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

It is a mild surprise that they’ve adapted quickly to the new morning plan. Not that it’s been flawless: they forget and walk into my office to ask for something and I have to remind them that this is the kind of thing they have to ask me about the night before, so I can focus on writing in the morning. I get a knowing-nod and tip-toes out of the room.

Whether Short-pants and Buddy-roo leave for school together or separately, they leave early. At eight o’clock, or shortly after, I hear the door slam and their steps in the stairwell. By the time they’re out the door, I’m typing at full-speed. I don’t know if what I’m typing is any good, but I’m typing, and that’s as good a start as any. By the time I move on to the other tasks on my to-do list, professional and personal, I’ve logged at least an hour on my pet project, and that feels huge.

De-facto and I have gained hours that we didn’t have before, hours once taken up with walking Buddy-roo to school or picking her up at the end of the day and bringing her back home. Plus her day is longer than it was in the primary school. Add to that my extra writing time in the morning, and this year could be a whole new world for me. More time, the thing I’m always lacking.

Only a few days in to our new reality, I was at my desk, partly working and partly wondering if it wasn’t time for the girls to get home. De-facto walked behind me, through my office to the little balcony that looks out on the street. I kept waiting for him to pass back through my office, but he didn’t return. I stuck my head out the door to find him leaning against the rail, looking down the street.
balcony_watch
“Waiting for the girls?” I said.

“I miss them,” he said.

I thought about how I’d hardly seen them in the morning and how they’d been gone all day. I wasn’t just missing them, I was aching for them. Maybe just because we’ve been so together all summer, it’s just an adjustment that takes getting used to. I wondered if this up-in-the-morning-writing-routine was going to work. I’m happy to have the creative space, but there’s definitely a price to pay.

“Me, too,” I said. “It’s a long day.”

De-facto wrapped his arm around me and we stood on the balcony together, our eyes fixed on the street below, waiting for their two heads to come into view so we could wave frantically and welcome them home.