Jun 29 2015

The Triangle

The little red dot on my telephone indicated a message was waiting. I’d put my phone on silence during a meeting, and the breaks were so busy that I didn’t even check. I rarely get calls, so sometimes I forget to monitor the phone. If you ever leave me a message, don’t count on me getting it right away. Email is a much swifter way to reach me.

I dialed in to the voicemail and there was Buddy-roo‘s signature greeting, “Mama?” with an upward inflection at the end, as though, despite the recorded message, she was still holding out hope I’d answer. The message that followed was in a tone that conveyed anger not panic, which relieved me. The call I dread getting when I’m far away is from a fearful child. Anger I can handle, it’s a more assertive emotion, easier to manage from a distance. But if they call me all wound up and afraid, I’m gutted.
etc_etc
What followed was a litany of irate complaints. She’d been at the end-of-year party at school, always an event filled with too much excitement and too much sugar, and she and her two girlfriends had gotten in a big row. Buddy-roo had stayed overnight with one of the friends the previous night, and my guess is the other friend felt left out. The mother of the other (allegedly excluded) friend got involved, blasting the girls for being rude. Buddy-roo was indignant, protesting that they hadn’t been rude, they’d tried to include her and she’d shunned their approaches. The mother’s reprimand was apparently caustic enough to elicit the father of the other accused girl to intervene, rebuking the outspoken mother for jumping to conclusions and for scolding them with such severity. Personally, I was very glad to be out of town.

It could be that Buddy-roo and her friend were inadvertently (or even deliberately) rude to the third girl. I’d hope otherwise, but I know Buddy-roo has it in her to take the low road – she does occasionally with her sister – and I also know that she sees the world from her own vantage point (don’t we all?) which is sometimes rather distorted. But since I wasn’t there, and I was in another time zone and frankly in another frame of mind, I opted not to call back, at least not right away. In the absence of my feedback, Buddy-roo would have to sort this out on her own. It’d be interesting to see where she ended up.

As for the parents involved, they are both only acquaintances. I could venture a guess that the angry mother, who tends to be protective of her daughter, stepped over the line and the retaliating father, who in my brief experience is relatively good natured, was probably sorry to get drawn in, but something must have rattled him. These guesses of mine about shout_outas far as I want to go. I’d prefer to keep this argument in the domain of our children.

The next day Buddy-roo phoned again, this time while I was on a break. I contemplated letting her call go to the voicemail. I do want to encourage her independence, but I also want to be available to her when she needs guidance. I steeled myself and answered the call. I got an earful: one of the girls (the one whose mother was worried they’d excluded her) was now telling Buddy-roo they could only be friends if she refused to be friends with the other girl. Buddy-roo didn’t want to take sides, but if she had to choose she didn’t know what to do. Just a reminder about how awful teenage (and pre-teen) girls can be. Especially in groups of three.

Actually, I participate in a few trios of girlfriends. Two dear college pals who live in New York get on very well without me, but seem to embrace me fully when we’re all together. My fiesta circle has several trios within it, depending on who attends each year, and it seems to work without incident. I’ve tried to hold up these examples to Buddy-roo, whenever a conflict with her friends comes up. But I must acknowledge her not-yet-fully developed brain has a hard time talking in these terms. It’s still somebody else’s fault.

“Whatever you do, be kind,” I told her. “You don’t want to be one of the mean girls.”

I’m not sure that helped. But it was the only advice I could think of. And about as much as I wanted to meddle, until further notice.

When I returned home on the weekend, I asked Buddy-roo how things had turned out. In the end, the three girls had made up, though probably a fragile reconciliation. One of them left early for the summer, and with only two days of school left, Buddy-roo and the other friend had time to heal. Tomorrow is the last day of school and two months will pass. If I recall how things go at that age, come September they’ll greet each other with open arms, as if nothing had ever happened. Or they’ll end up in entirely different don't_be_meancircles as the classes get shifted around, and the crisis of this fight will fade into a vague memory.

But I wonder, and I watch, carefully, as Buddy-roo (and her sister) launch into what I recall was the most challenging time of my life when it came to making and keeping friends. How to help them avoid getting bullied without being the meddling parent who makes things worse? And, how to make sure they aren’t the ones perpetrating the bullying, deliberately or by default when they watch passively from the side? These years are a treacherous minefield among even the best of friends, especially when it comes to threesomes.


May 28 2015

Rockin’ Together

I used to pay attention to new artists and new music. In a previous life I went to a lot of clubs and concerts, and learned about bands before they were big names. My college roommate – we both started out working in rock’n’roll radio – is still friends with musicians that most people onlyrecord_labels dream of meeting. I met my fair share of rockers, too, knowing I was one of a hundred hands they shook that night, but it was still a thrill for me to have even a quick conversation with someone I’d previously admired on the liner notes of a record album or CD case. (I’ve just dated myself here.)

When the kids came along it wasn’t that I succumbed to Baby Einstein soundtracks (okay, I did a little) but we all know what happens. Time gets sucked away from you with a young swaddled creature in your presence. Less time to nose around your hobbies and follow your personal interests when you’re changing diapers and pureeing sweet potatoes. Less interest in venturing out to a club to hear live music when you know you’ll be up at 6:00 in the morning feeding cheerios to a toddler. And then, it happens: you get out of practice, and you start just listening to the same old bands and artists you always listened to. Your music library gets stale.

I’m not totally stuck in the music of my past. De-facto’s sister occasionally prepares playlists with new(er) artists and sends them to us for Christmas or birthdays. Or when I visiting my old roommate it’s easy to find an unreleased single of a new band, or a pre-release of a favorite artist in her CD player. Another college friend is a curator of new music, and I visit his website, Fingertips, when I have time. When I have time being the operative phrase. Still, my music playlists are seriously outdated.

And then the inevitable happens: I discover a new band, a band that I really like, because of my daughter. My youngest daughter.

Buddy-roo would spend her entire afternoon on YouTube watching music videos if there weren’t a bit of homework discipline employed in this household. When she wants to actually buy a song, she has to get my permission (and my iTunes code) because we share a music library on all our devices. That way I get to listen to (and monitor) what she’s listening to. As you’d expect, she’s into One Direction, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, and I cheerfully encourage her to enjoy that music with her earbuds on, or in the tube_headedprivacy of her own room. But not all of the artists she wants to listen to make me cringe. For instance the hit single, Cool Kids, by a band called Echosmith. Very catchy. It inspired me to download the whole album.

A friend of mine runs a company called Bandsintown, a nifty app that scans your music library and pings you when the musicians you like are playing at a venue in your city. A few weeks ago, it pinged me with news that Echosmith was coming to Barcelona. Buddy-roo saw the notification, and begged me to buy tickets.

I had to think back, what and when was the first rock concert I attended? I was 17 when I went to see Jethro Tull. In a big arena. Buddy-roo is 11. The venue was a medium-sized club – just right for seeing up-and-coming bands. But would they even let her in?

It is a miracle that we survived before the Internet. Some quick clicking informed me that underage kids could attend the concert, if accompanied by a parent. The ticket price was palatable, the club close enough to walk to from our apartment. The show was even on a Friday night. No school to contend with the next day. So why not?

Buddy-roo watched me book the tickets and danced around the apartment in ecstasy for ten consecutive minutes after the transaction was completed. Hard to say what was better, her anticipation running up to the event, or actually watching her experience the show, last Friday, when we turned up in time to have a Fanta (okay I had a beer) at the bar before the band started.

When the band came on stage, the crowd raised their smartphones, forming a complex constellation of glowing mini-screens in place of the swarm of bic lighters we used to hold up in the air. Buddy-roo jumped up and down, cupping her hands over her face, reminiscent of images of young girls screeching at an early Beatle’s concert. Not that it was Buddy-roo’s first time in a rock club. One of her extra-curricular activities, when we lived in Paris, was a rock band school, and she performed with her band at the year-end concert. She’s seen live music before, part of the entertainment at the creativity conferences we drag her to. But this was the first time she got see one of her favorite bands, the real deal, live in concert.
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Short-pants stayed home. Not that she doesn’t love music – she’s a huge Neil Diamond fan, thanks to De-facto‘s influence (that didn’t come from me) – but she’s not much for crowds and loud music. She saw it as an opportunity for a quiet night to herself, and no doubt spent the bulk of the night reading, and playing word and math games on her iPad. De-facto came along with us to the concert, too, and sat on a banquette in the back of the club, watching Buddy-roo and I dance together closer to the stage. Not that he didn’t like the music. He did. And he was happy to discover this little club so close to home. But I think he wanted to give us a chance to share the music, mother and daughter. I don’t know how long she’ll be keen to go a concert with her mother, so I’ll rock it with her as long as I can.


May 10 2015

An Extra Day

I picked her up at her friend’s house – as usual she resisted the departure – and we walked toward the metro to make our way home, Buddy-roo swinging her bag of tiny plastic Pet-shop animals, describing the trades she’d made and the status of her expanding collection. She is eleven, dancing in the elastic world between child and adolescent, one moment knee-deep in blocks, dollhouses and little plastic pets, the next moment in front of her mirror, anguishing over an invisible pimple or the loss of a favorite hairband. blue_mother

“Do you know what tomorrow is?” she asked.

I knew where this was going, but I didn’t answer.

“It’s Mother’s Day!”

Again, I offered no response. It’s never been a holiday – if you can call it that – I am too attached to. Not that I mind the setting aside of a day to appreciate mothers of the world, but inevitably the day disappoints. There’s always a residue of “last minute” and the sentiment is short-lived. The home-made cards and big-morning-fuss are sweet and tender, but by mid-day everyone’s put it behind them and I’m the one folding laundry, replacing empty toilet paper rolls and nudging people to do the chores they’re supposed to do without me asking. Not to mention the kitchen sink is filled with all the dishes used to make me my special breakfast in bed.

“Did you know it was Mother’s Day?” she asked.

I didn’t want to answer this question, either.

“You knew,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

I tried to explain how this is the sort of thing you don’t want to have to remind people about. You’re not supposed to make an announcement at dinner the week before, about how the coming Sunday is Mother’s Day so don’t forget to show me the love, folks. The idea is that I might be surprised and delighted by the gestures my family offers up without having to prompt them.

“But you should have told us so we could do something for you,” her voice revving up to a whine. “I haven’t done anything for you and it’s tomorrow!”

Part of me wanted to calm her down, to tell her she didn’t have to do anything because it’s a silly Hallmark holiday. Another part of me thought, really how could they not know? It’s in the window of ten storefronts on our street, it was advertised on web-sites all week and I received at least a half-dozen emails in the last few days promoting Mother’s Day specials. Mother’s Day always falls on a Sunday in May, so when May rolls around, how hard is it to pay attention? Why is it the mom that has to remember and organize everything?

“It just doesn’t feel right, to have to remind you,” I said.

~ ~ ~

We celebrated the Spanish Mother’s Day, which was on Sunday, a week ago. Short-pants delivered a cup of coffee with frothy milk to my bed. She does that every weekend morning, but this time it was presented with mom-appreciating aplomb. Buddy-roo paraded in with hand-made gifts she’d made the night before after bookmark_mamasearching the Internet for quick and crafty items. A bookmark she’d made smelled heavily of glue not yet dry, but charmed me with it’s design, and you have to give her credit for the quick recovery. De-facto left the bedroom and re-appeared with a bouquet of a dozen pink roses he’d hidden in her closet.

“She got mad that I’d put them in her closet without getting her permission,” he whispered, out loud. Buddy-roo glared at him and then turned to me and shrugged her shoulders.

The plan for the day was a family walk, up the mountain behind where we live to a small hillside restaurant for lunch. I’d asked for three uninterrupted hours to myself, first, to linger in bed with my laptop. The uninterrupted part of my request was not exactly achieved, but I was undisturbed enough to finish editing a chapter and feel like I’d made some progress on my manuscript, which is chugging along at a tortoise’s pace.

I don’t know what went wrong, exactly. Maybe the girls didn’t eat breakfast, or didn’t have enough to eat. Maybe De-facto’s repeated urging to finish homework before our walk annoyed Buddy-roo, who then kept asking her sister to help her, which put Short-pants in a bad mood. When it was time to put the dog on the leash and head out the door, both of my daughters were stomping and screeching at each other. Buddy-roo refused to go on the walk if Short-pants was going. Short-pants announced that she’d only go if Buddy-roo went, too.

After a few futile attempts to reason with them, reminding them how much I was looking forward to this Mother’s Day family walk, my annoyance was escalating, too. I was on the verge of screaming at them, “It’s my fucking day, put your damn shoes on!” As satisfying as that would have been, I’ve been a mother long enough to know that while such a command might achieve full compliance, it wouldn’t inspire the kind of we’re-happy-together experience that Mother’s Day memories are made of.

“Winston and I will be waiting outside,” I said, snapping the leash onto his collar and trying not to slam the door on our way out. I left it to De-facto to handle the girls. It was supposed to be my day off, wasn’t it?

~ ~ ~

At dinner that night we talked about what had happened. Buddy-roo apologized for missing the family walk. I told her I was disappointed, but I appreciated that she’d finished her homework in our absence and was in a good mood when we’d returned home. Short-pants, who’d rallied and joined us for the trek up the mountain and lunch at the café terrace, admitted that she’d enjoyed the walk even though her sister hadn’t accompanied us. one_day

“But it’s not fair,” said Short-pants, “that you get celebrated on your birthday, and you get Mother’s Day, too.”

“And Papa gets Father’s Day,” said Buddy-roo, “that’s not fair either.”

“Why isn’t there a Kid’s Day?” Short-pants said, with her mouth full of food.

“Please don’t talk with your mouth full.” I said, “and you do get Kid’s Day. It’s called Christmas.”

“You get Christmas, too.”

“Not like you do. And you also get Easter, and Halloween.” I was on a roll. “All those holidays are fun for kids, but they mean more work for moms. Is that fair?”

They shook their heads, in unison, quieted by my logic.

That’s why mothers get an extra day. And maybe even two extra days, since I snuck in a few special requests today, on American Mother’s Day, and everyone cheerfully complied.


Apr 29 2015

In the Kitchen

It all happens in the kitchen. The heartbeat of a home, the source of our meals, the place where everyone ends up congregating at a party. The kitchen stands for warmth, nourishment and togetherness. The stove and oven cook food that gives us comfort and strength, its refrigerator and lil_kitchencupboards conveniently store everything we need for sustenance. A kitchen has a family connotation. Before I had children, I thought all a kitchen needed was a bottle of champagne in the fridge and a bottle of vodka in the freezer. Once we had a family, I realized – or remembered – what a kitchen really means.

Just after Short-pants was born, we tore down a wall in our Paris apartment to make our kitchen, dining and living spaces into one big room. In her bouncy chair on the table, or on her play-blanket on the floor, she could remain in line of sight while I warmed her milk or made a vegetable puree. During those early years when she and Buddy-roo could too easily walk into trouble, we could keep a safe eye on them. As they grew, the girls would stand on chairs on the other side of the kitchen island and help me chop vegetables or decorate Christmas cookies while De-facto watched from the couch behind them.

That open-styled kitchen – an “American kitchen” in French real estate terms – hosted many dinners, Thanksgivings and spontaneous pop-up parties (after school meeting and performances) just because it was easy to host a gang in such a big open space. Everyone would stand around the kitchen island and keep the cook company. And when I was the cook, I still got to be at the party.

Our Barcelona apartment has many fine features: a larger space than we inhabited in Paris, more rooms, enough for the girls to have their own bedrooms and both De-facto and I to have separate offices. The in-suite bathroom in the master bedroom is a boon and the girls have two sinks in their bathroom; no fighting for mirror time in the morning. But when it comes to the kitchen, it’s a disappointment. At first glance, it seems nice enough: marble countertops, light wood cupboards that reach all the way to the ceiling (no need to stand on a stool to scrub away grease that collects on top). But it’s too small: 6 X 9 square feet. Look closer and it’s a bit worn. The appliances are tired, not particularly energy efficient. But my big grievance: this kitchen has a door. oh_no_pasta

It’s a wide door that slides open to a small dining area that’s open to the main living room, so at first glance I thought it would be fine. But in fact, when in the kitchen I am entirely separated from the rest of the apartment. I find myself cooking dinner, alone, because even if the girls are on the couch, they’re in another room. I can’t see them and I can hardly hear them. I can’t participate in their conversation unless I keep stepping out of the kitchen. And when we entertain, I’m in there all alone, checking on the hors d’oeuvres in the oven, or else four people have planted themselves in the kitchen with me and I am constantly grabbing my guests by the shoulders and moving them from side one side to the other in this tiny room, to get into a cupboard or access the sink. Inevitably, somebody is standing exactly where I need to get to.

We rent this apartment, so there’s nothing to do about what is clearly a first world problem. But it’s raised my awareness about the impact of a kitchen on the life of a family.

~ ~ ~

A kitchen is a store of fertile childhood memories. I remember, in my mother’s kitchen, pacing around and around the stove and counters and table that together made an enormous island. I remember the drawers, one above the other, that I could pull out to create a short set of stairs to reach the top shelf on the snack cupboard. I remember my mother shifting her weight from foot to foot while standing at her kitchen sink, washing the dishes by hand and putting them in the drainer for me to dry with a dish towel. I remember the wide wooden board that she’d pull out from a slot between the drawers and cupboards to create extra workspace, and how at Christmas, it’d be covered with wax paper and cookies freshly frosted, waiting to be decorated with colored sugar.

I remember my father standing at the stove making Welsh Rarebit on Saturday afternoon, pressing the tiny square buttons to raise or lower the heat on the burners. I remember the bar he’d set up on the the kitchen counter whenever they entertained, and his law partner and best friend chastising my sister and me for putting an ice tray back in the freezer without heart_in_a_boxre-filling it. Like it was yesterday, I can remember my father leaning against that same counter, the morning of my grandmother’s funeral, mystified at his own grief.

I can tell you the color of every floor we ever had in that room, the linoleum of my early childhood and the carpets of two renovations that followed. I remember the decorative carving on the shelves that held my mother’s delicate demitasse teacup collection, shelves my high-school friends and I emptied and filled with beer bottles when my parents were out of town, the cups carefully replaced in exact order prior to their return. I remember standing in the kitchen looking out the window at the sheets on the clothesline the day my mother died, and feeling her absence so fiercely, that this was her kitchen and always would be and she will be standing in it forever, in my memory.

A kitchen like that, a room with so many stories, that’s what home is all about.

~ ~ ~

When De-facto and I bought our country house, in 2006, it didn’t have much of a kitchen. Some formica-topped furniture that didn’t attach to anything, a wood cooking stove, a sink. We brought down an old 3-burner electric stove – the one we’d replaced when we’d renovated in Paris – and a fridge we inherited from who-knows-where. The house, that first summer, required massive attention so we focused on fixing walls and floors. We slept in a tent outside while we made the inside livable. There were enough kitchen pieces to cobble together a meal, and we manage to function in that make-shift kitchen, kind of like camping inside. Not just that first summer, but year after year. Each time I’d suggest that it should be the next project on our list, I’d be persuaded that creating another bedroom or insulating a wall and finishing the side room was more critical. I succumbed in part because De-facto (and his brother who owns the house with us) had good arguments. The kitchen was workable, after all.

Last year I finally put my spatula down and fronted the cash to turn the skeletal cooking space we’d been enduring into a real kitchen. A workable kitchen, with plenty of counter space, mice-proof (mostly) cupboards, a light and fan above the stove, an eye-level oven, a cupboard with vertical shelf just for cutting boards, cookie sheets and long casserole dishes. A local contractor took his time – because he could, we were gone all winter – building and fitting the cupboards, giving us a new kitchen that matches the rustic feel of an old country house. I even persuaded De-facto, usually parsimonious farmer_sinkabout such acquisitions, that we should invest in a Cadillac sink, a mammoth porcelain farmer’s sink that matches the original one. I like an auxiliary sink, for cleaning vegetables, or putting champagne on ice. I even shipped over a stool from my mother’s kitchen, and it tucks just under the lip of a big square island, a centerpiece for people to stand around and lean on while preparing a meal, together, in a room that’s not only functional, but hospitable.

We just spent ten days at our country house over the school spring break. After a few initial rainy days, we were graced with sun and spring temperatures. We opened all the windows and aired out the house. I washed all the laundry that had piled up over our winter visits. De-facto mowed the lawn and planted the garden while I pruned the hedges and liberated the rose-bushes that I neglected last year. And every evening, when it was time to make dinner, I could spread out all the ingredients in front of me, with ample workspace to chop onions, slice vegetables, marinate chicken, roll out a pie crust – whatever we needed to prepare the family dinner, all of this in the spirited company of my daughters, in a kitchen I hope they’ll always remember.


Mar 31 2015

Write or Call

I love a good long plane ride. The thought of hours cramped into an airplane horrifies many, but to me, a long-haul flight over the Atlantic or further is a gift of time and privacy. The hum of the airplane lulls me to extreme focus. I read, thoroughly. I write, prolifically. I’m in the zone. And then, after a few in_the_zonehours of productivity, I plug into the entertainment system and watch movies or catch up on TV series I rarely watch elsewhere. One after another, until we land. No phone calls. No texts or messages. Nobody calling me from the kitchen, or screaming “Mama!” from upstairs.

The thing about a flight like this, though, is that once you land and disembark from the sealed tube of delicious quiet, the world smacks you in the face. Portable devices begin to bing and beep, passengers are roused from the inward calm of their flight to face a bombardment of calls and messages and news of the outside world.

A few weeks ago I enjoyed one of those epic journeys, a 12-hour day-time flight and as expected, I was hit with the bushel of unread messages as soon as I landed. I eliminated the ones I could easily identify as a spam that snuck through the filter, or as one of the newsletters that get less attention when I’m traveling and screen time is limited. (My appetite for reading never matches my on-line stamina and after a trip like this I’m inspired to purge the overload of subscriptions I’ve too ambitiously taken on.) Then I scanned what was left, assessing which ones were mission critical, and then I saw the emboldened letters of my daughter’s name. Short-pants had written me an email message. I opened it right away.

The message contained four or five well crafted paragraphs telling me about her day. How a boy she might be a little sweet on had stared at her in class. Her favorite teacher gave an interesting homework assignment. She made up an equation: the boy + the teacher + the subject she loves = her smiling all the way home from school. How she missed me but knows I’m away doing the work I love to do. It startled me a bit, how articulate her phrases, the absence of any spelling mistakes or punctuation errors, capital letters where there were supposed to be caps. It was a grown-up message.
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Over the next few days, we wrote back and forth. A message or two each day, each one from her rich with descriptions of not only her activities, but her observations – some of them rather keen insights – about why things happened and how she felt about them. She’s always been good with words, reading like a fiend since she was a peanut, writing charming little notes, winning a spelling bee, but something has shifted. It’s no longer cute and precocious. It’s thoughtful and reflective, the words of a lovely young woman.

~ ~ ~

Every day, at about the same time, my phone rings. Even if I’m not in the mood to be on the phone – I’m more of a writer than a talker – I answer cheerfully. Buddy-roo walks out of the school and her first instinct is to turn on her telephone and give me a call. I want her to feel like that call is always welcome, so unless I’m truly in the thick of something else, I’ll answer. She chatters away, slightly breathless as she walks up the hill toward our home from school, filling me in on who told whom what in the courtyard, and how much homework she has, and what she had for lunch. Much of it is banal, but I ask as many questions as I can, to keep the exchange going. I want her to create a habit of telling me what’s happening in her life.

Buddy-roo experiences highs and lows at maximum velocity. She’s having the best day ever or else her life is a catastrophe. One day, after a tearful call that lasted a good portion of her walk home, she turned her key in the door, dropped her heavy backpack on the floor and threw herself on the couch.

“My friends all think I’m too dramatic!”

I don’t disagree with her friends, but I figured they’d already made the point. I didn’t pile anything on top of it. What I don’t want to do is keep her from telling me what she’s feeling, even if what she’s feeling seems exaggerated. Who knows how long she will keep open this doorway locked_into me, showing me her raw thoughts and feelings as they occur. Dismissing her ups and downs as drama, right now, would surely close the door and lock it tight. So I listen and ask questions that might make her think beyond the hailstorm that she perceives is pounding upon her. Okay, and I hint a little, that maybe her friends are on to something. But mostly, I try to be there to answer her call, while she’s still dialing.

Short-pants hardly touches her telephone. An occasional text, but calling is not her thing. I had to give her lessons about how to talk on the phone, otherwise she just sits there breathing while you do all the work. Getting Buddy-roo to write a quick email – let alone a thank-you note to someone who’s given her a present – is like pulling teeth, but she’s expert at chatting away on the telephone. They are products of the same parents and the same environment, and yet, so different. As babies, toddlers and now as they crash into their adolescence, the things that make them distinct from each other become that much more apparent, more palatable.

One writes, the other calls. But at least they both want to tell me what’s happening in their lives. I’ll take that while I can get it, and relish every word.


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.