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.


Aug 30 2014

Still Carefree

From the other side of the dining hall, she stomped across the room, arms akimbo, her angry face narrowing in on me. Short-pants was scolding me with her whole body.

“Where were you all night? I didn’t see you before I went to sleep. You weren’t there when I woke up. Did you even come home?”

It took a concerted effort to contain my smile. My 13-year old daughter was admonishing me for what she believed had been an all-nighter. Already, it seems, the child is parenting the parent.

I wondered if I should tell her the whole truth. That after a long night of drumming, karaoke and ’round-the-campfire singing, I’d hung out with friends at the cottage, aka the party house, telling stories and drinking shots of fireball whiskey. That we busy_nightdiscussed and seriously considered a 3:00 am car trip – don’t worry, there was a non-drinker who would have driven – into the town a few miles away, to a 24-hour shawarma joint or to try out the all-night casino on the nearby Indian reservation. That the only reason we didn’t rally was that I was delivering a 7:00 am – yes seven in the morning – writing workshop and I knew I couldn’t pull an all-nighter and still pull it off like in the old days. I wondered if I should mention to her that I’d forgotten my key in the room and had to crawl in the window at 3:30 am, while she and her sister and De-facto snored in their beds. That I crawled into bed giggling, because everything about the whole night had left me feeling untethered, carefree.

“I stayed up very late talking to friends. I came in after you’d fallen asleep.” I tried to express this as a calm fact, realizing that I was feeling defensive. “And I was up and out early this morning, before you woke up, to facilitate my 7:00 session.”

Her anger turned to tears. She wrapped her arms around me and drew in for a big hug, whispering in my ear, “But I missed you, Mama.”

~ ~ ~

As creativity conferences go – and I’ve been to many, in the states, in Europe and the UK, in South Africa, too – the conference we attended last week, Mindcamp, might top my list. It’s casual pace and rustic setting at a YMCA camp just north of Toronto made for the right balance of escape, immersion and relaxation; a perfect storm for creative insights and expression. Many of the usual suspects from our tribe of practitioners and facilitators were present – coming north over the border from the US and Mexico, or traveling in from Europe, from South America and even New Zealand to lead and attend sessions on various aspects of creativity: cultivating the right mindset, using cool tools and techniques. One of the reasons I love going to these conferences is it’s great for taking a little risk and trying on an interesting topic or technique. But it’s also a place to sharpen the saw and pick up new ideas and exercises to broaden my own tool kit. Perhaps most important, it’s a place to see longtime friends, open-minded and big-hearted people who feel, to me, just like extended family, friends whom we’ve connected and re-connected with over the years and at whose suggestion I will stay up nearly all night drinking fireball whiskey.

We’ve been dragging our kids to creativity conferences all their lives. Both Short-pants and Buddy-roo had pre-natal experiences at CPSI or CREA. I remember the early days, dragging_kidshiring local babysitters through the hotel, or bringing our nanny along, or just juggling the supervision of their activities and meals in the thin slices of time between organizing and leading my own workshops. It was fatiguing, being mom and facilitator at once in such an intense setting, but I didn’t want to miss the conferences and I knew even just being in the company of this band of cool, creative adults would have a positive impact on our children.

When the girls were little, we managed all this on an ad-hoc basis, piecing together child-care while we ran our workshops. In the last few years at CREA, an unofficial kids program has entertained and inspired them, but we were involved in its coordination and responsible for filling in the holes. At Mindcamp, there is a full-on kid’s program with designated facilitators to do that, full-time, all day. That, coupled with the fact that the girls are now both old enough to dress themselves, find their way around, get their own food at the buffet table and get it from plate to mouth without our assistance, meant that they were extremely self-sufficient. We’d go the entire day without seeing them, just passing in the dining hall and getting a quick update on the amazing experiences they’d just had in their program.

Short-pants was even invited to co-facilitate a session. Originally designed for adults and kids mixed together, it had morphed into an adults-only workshop (sounds X, but it wasn’t) and because she’d already put some thought into it, her older co-facilitators invited her to continue with them anyway. I appreciated this as I think it’s better for her to get her feet wet under someone else’s wing, not only her mother’s (or father’s). I attended the session as a participant and I was struck by her poise and clarity in front of the group. Later it was reported to me by a friend that Short-pants had responded to a congratulatory remark by nodding at her heritage: “My parents and my grandmother are all facilitators, I guess it’s in my blood.”

I loved watching my girls from a distance, running amok with a pack of kids, engaging in precocious conversations with other adults at the conference who’ve watched them grow up over the years. It even happened big_balloononce or twice, when I wanted to stop and chat with them and they were antsy, distracted. They’d lean in and kiss me and run off to their next session or their new friends, leaving me to admire them as they sprinted away. I can’t say I minded too much. I’d been privy to their on-going chatter 24/7 for more than four weeks straight. I honestly didn’t mind seeing the back of their heads. And each night, on the passaggiata, an after-dinner creative stroll through the grounds during which you’d run into all sorts of creative events and activities, from giant bubble-blowing to drumming to illuminated hoola-hooping to a perpetually-laughing man, to name only a few, they’d run by, part of a pack of kids, waving to me as they passed, wild and carefree on a late summer night.

~ ~ ~

Mindcamp was our last stop on this epic family US-tour. We’d traveled from San Francisco to as far south as Santa Fe, then north again to Chicago and east toward Cape Cod. We even took the ferry to Nantucket for a few island days before driving to Toronto for the conference. We were on the road a total of 37 days and the trip odometer displayed 5,272 miles when we dropped off the rental car at the airport. With the exception of Buddy-roo’s small backpack, all the things we left behind had been mailed to us, and received, at subsequent destinations. After final search through the SUV that had carried us west to east in roomy comfort, we closed its heavy silver doors for the last time and handed the keys to the Avis agent.

Despite my initial resistance to the car time required for this trip, and the fatigue from having taken it, I must admit I was sorry to say goodbye to that car. It had become part of our family, carrying us across the country to see places of interest and people we love. It was the vehicle for our great adventure, the wheels that took us where we wanted to go, when we our_silver_bulletwanted to go there. Our driving-vacation was not without structure or commitments: we had to be certain places by certain dates and we tried to pack too much in, which kept us moving when we might have preferred to linger. Even so, it still felt footloose, like we were entirely mobile. Everything we needed was in the trunk of that silver bullet, and for days on end all we did was drive to a new place and see old friends. What’s more carefree than that?

I patted the car affectionately before we walked away. “I’ll miss you,” I whispered, so that not even De-facto and the kids could hear.

Back in Barcelona – back home – suitcases were emptied while the washing machine churned for hours and the girls sequestered themselves upstairs in their rooms to lay their hands on their own things. A restlessness usually accompanies the return from any trip, let alone a trip of this length and quantity of experiences, but this time something felt, and still feels, different. Perhaps it’s a consequence of a making a voyage rather than a quick trip. Having left behind the priorities and responsibilities of day-to-day life for so long, the endless list of little things that never got done before we left somehow feels like a new list, a list of things that don’t-need-to-get-done-after-all. There are things to do, but they don’t seem burdensome. Summer is waning, sure, and the return to school and work and the busy-ness of autumn are closing in on us, but it’s okay. For just a few more days, at least, things still feel carefree.


Aug 10 2014

We Leave at Dawn

I take it back. All that mush I wrote in the last post about our little adventure. The family car tour across the United States is taking its toll. Too many consecutive days of too many consecutive hours crushed together in an automobile makes it hard to forget about the misery of too much proximity. The constant call of the kids from the backseat, the packing, unpacking and packing again of the suitcases, the smushed stale or soggy sandwiches from the cooler, the cracker and pretzel crumbs all over the car, the overall organization required to keep a disorganized crew on the road and heading east. Nothing like a little adventure to tire you out.
on_route
Yes, we’ve seen some amazing places and reunited with old friends who’ve taken us in and given us luxurious shelter, tasty and nourishing food and a healthy supply of hooch. Yes, we’ve seen the beauty of America. There have been remarkable moments that I’m sure we’ll never forget. But there have been just as many moments when I wanted to lean over and strangle those who purport to be the people I love most in the world.

~ ~ ~

We left at dawn (again). That meant being up before sunrise, packing the cooler, nudging Buddy-roo, the professional sleeper, and her sister to wake up enough to walk themselves to the car, but not to wake so much that they’d stay that way for the first leg of the long drive. My mother-in-love, despite our admonition, set her alarm to coincide with our early departure to help us with the last of our preparations. Clothes had been selected and placed in the car in the girls’ designated seats – Buddy-roo has claimed the long back seat of our roomy 4WD Buick Enclave and Short-pants is content to read in the middle row bucket-seat – and all other luggage, except the dopp kits, had been stowed in the vehicle the night before.

My mother-in-love, wrapped in her white bathrobe, watched us with eyes both delighted for our visit and dismayed at our departure. Though our 5-day stay with her in Santa Fee is the longest place we plan to stay stationary on this trip, it didn’t seem long enough. She is in fantastic health for a woman in her 80s, spry and alert and more active than most women my age (me, for example) so chances are extremely good that I’ll see her many times again in our lives. But I’m still mindful of the surprises life throws at us when it comes to our parents’ generation, so I always take in a deep-breath mental photograph of her whenever we part company. She waved goodbye with that happy/sad face and even without a stitch of make-up on, and her still-sleepy eyes, she was as pretty as I’ve ever seen her.

Earlier, in Arizona, we’d driven along Route 66, where we’d stopped for lunch and achieved a classic roadside diner experience. In New Mexico, we took Route 56, which hovers beside the Santa Fe trail, another classic American passageway. The risks of a national route are slower traffic and multiple stoplights, but the reward is a distinctly scenic ride with charming windwheel_sftrailtowns, authentic roadside watering holes, kitsch historical points of interest and, to De-facto‘s delight, cheaper gas.

We saw the sun rise on the Santa Fe trail, and made good time – better than we expected – on the road much less traveled. The lack of trucks and traffic in general – we went for miles without seeing another vehicle – and the awe-inspiring western vistas kept us from killing each other on the 12.5 hour drive, our longest of the trip. Well, 12-hour drive; De-facto permitted us a 1/2-hour lunch break at a picnic table near the Edwards County, Kansas Sod House and Museum, apparently 1,561 miles from both New York and San Francisco, a veritable halfway point for our US trip, in both distance and duration. His rush: he’d made a hotel reservation in Kansas City. He had a fantasy about putting the girls to bed and going to a Casino with me on his arm.

“Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” he kept shouting, from the driver’s seat, in his best mid-western hillbilly accent. Mostly to tease me, since I have expressed on many occasions my lack of enthusiasm for the activity of gambling, and even more for the despairing spirit one encounters in an American casino. The windowless tombs with all the flashing lights, the unrelenting noise of the slot machines and the longing, lonely look of people hoping for that elusive big win. But De-facto’s a charmer and it’s a rare thing to see him part with his money so frivolously, so how could I not agree to go along?

I was raised with James Bond movies so I pulled out a dressier dress from the bottom of my suitcase and opened my jewelry bag for the first time in weeks and even donned my nude patent-leather heeled sandals. After so many consecutive days in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, standard road trip wear, it felt good to get duded up a little. We were the best-dressed people in the joint. Everyone else was in jeans, or even shorts and tank-tops – as the Kansas City casino crowd is slightly different than the Casino on La Croisette in Cannes. We may have looked good, but we bet poorly, so it took us about an hour to lose all our chips. We were up by 60% early on, but De-facto was having too much fun watching me throw the dice to cash in. “We’re just hittin’ our stride,” De-facto said, in his gambling-guy accent. I was rolling lucky at the craps table, for a while, but it was the Black Jack that really did us in.
in_the_car
The next day wasn’t quite a dawn departure, but we couldn’t dilly-dally. Friends were to congregate to meet us at a bar on the north side of Chicago at 7:00, so we needed to make another long slog, this time from Kansas City to the Windy City. There were non-interstate routes that might have been more appealing, but because we hadn’t gotten up at dawn again, we had a tighter schedule. It was raining. The highways weren’t as well kept as those we’d traversed previously. The truckers taunted us by pulling out and passing each other, making it hard for us to make up any lost time. We ate leftover pizza from the night before, rolling along at 75 mph.

~ ~ ~

In pretty much every state, it’s possible to find a radio station that’s a time machine, propelling De-facto and me back to our youth. One song after another, each tethered to a high school memory. Journey, Aerosmith, The Cars, Van Halen, Bad Company, ACDC, Tom Petty, Creedence, Steve Miller, Heart, The Who, The Stones, Zeppelin. You know this kind of station, the classic rock station. You kind of hate it because it’s so dated, but you kind of love it because you know the words to every song. And after you’ve been penned up in a box on wheels for six-plus hours, and you’re just a little bit punchy, it’s easy to get a bit over-excited. Rock’n’roll anthem Stairway to Heaven is a song that used to make me groan – I worked at a rock radio station and it was overplayed – but I caught myself cheering when I heard the opening chords. De-facto lowered the volume long enough to tell the girls that this was a rock’n’roll classic, commanding them to listen to the lyrics. Then he cranked the sound back up and we sang along, word for word.

“This isn’t rock’n’roll,” Buddy-roo said.

“It’s a ballad at the start,” I said. “Just wait, it’ll kick in.”

When it did, we were singing along at the top of our lungs and dancing like head-bangers in our seats. Buddy-roo, disgusted by our behavior, took the fleece she’d been using as a pillow and wrapped it around her head to drown out the noise and to keep from having to look at her stupid parents. This only inspired us to continue. She did get the last laugh; De-facto and I were so caught up in the music that we missed our exit. We had to turn around and backtrack to get back on the right road. It’s happened to us several times on the trip. We get lost in the music, and nearly get lost.

~ ~ ~

“Girls, look! We’re about to cross the mighty Mississippi!” De-facto, our own Clark Griswald, shouted it exuberantly, his fist in the air. Short-pants barely raised her head from her book, Buddy-roo re-arranged her feet against the back of the seat in front of her, their tandem sign language for who cares. I’m afraid they are saturated with national parks, 4-H styled museums the_Beanand points of interest, or just tired of being hitched to our wagon on this cross country tour, that their best defense is to ignore us. But we keep nudging them along. At every stop, Buddy-roo begs to stay just one more day. The most recent host becomes her new best friend, and that stop, the best on the trip. Both girls moaned about being dragged into Chicago, until they discovered the fountain and the Bean at Millennium Park. We couldn’t linger too long, though, as friends were expecting us at our next stop, in Ohio, and the heavy city traffic had already slowed us down.

We’ve been on the road twenty days, crossed ten states and we’ve still many miles to go. But the Atlantic draws near and another city beckons, with more family and friends waiting to see us. The road calls, whether we like it or not. Tomorrow, once again, we leave at dawn.


Aug 3 2014

A Little Adventure

The black band of highway stretched and curved through the dry desert hills. An occasional cactus stood at attention, in a half-salute. The cotton-ball clouds dotted the sky. The white markings in the center of the road slipped one by one under the car. The mountains on the horizon ahead loomed in shades of grey and blue until they weren’t in the distance anymore, and we were driving among them. This scenery had been breathtaking at first – and still was – but we’d grown accustomed to it after six hours on the road.
road_ahead_and_feet
“Are we there yet?”

“We’ll get there when we get there.”

The classic road trip call and response. We’re used to it because we drive a lot, back and forth to the country house, during the last spring break we drove to Croatia, Milan, Paris and back home to Barcelona. The girls are more patient that most, they’ve been trained to make long car rides. Even Buddy-roo, who gets nauseous on any curvy road or one with too many stops-and-starts, is a good sport. I collect air-sickness bags from the seat pockets of airplanes; they come in handy when Buddy-roo throws up in the car. I have at least a dozen on hand for this road trip, since we’ll be in a car for nearly a month straight, traveling west to east across the United States, from San Francisco to Cape Cod.

~ ~ ~

When I was eight, my parents had the idea to take the family on a trip around New York, so that we might learn about our home state. My brother, sister and I fidgeted in the back seat of my father’s Delta 88 while we drove from our home in the Finger Lakes to to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, to Fort Ticonderoga, Ausable Chasm, and the North Pole, NY at Whiteface mountain in the Adirondacks. That was the highlight of the trip, at least for me. Certainly it was the least favorite stop of my brother, who’d just turned 16. His discomfort was obvious when you saw the photograph in which he was forced to pose with Santa Claus for that year’s family Christmas card.

We stayed in modest motels and ate at family restaurants and diners. I remember loving the motel with rows of rooms wrapped around a kidney-shaped swimming pool with its blue twisted slide. There’s a picture of me in my red, white and blue two-piece sailor-styled bathing suit, its white skirt lifted by the wind, clearly loving this vacation. I also remember the disappointment of the guest house the following night, its tired upholstery, pilled white bedspread and a musty, closed-in smell. That it was only for one night was beyond my comprehension, I was indignant that we would stay there. (Ask De-facto, not much has changed on that front.)

At breakfast my father set a dollar limit for breakfast, barely enough to cover eggs and toast. He disappeared and returned with a stack of post cards that cost as much as two breakfasts. We begrudgingly wrote cards to friends, as commanded, and thus started the family tradition of writing postcards at the breakfast table. If you ever get a post card from me, chances are I wrote it with my morning coffee and a plate of eggs.

~ ~ ~

The girls and I had a long layover in Vancouver. De-facto was making his own way to San Francisco but our frequent flyer itinerary forced us to wait eight hours before our connecting flight. We stowed our luggage at the airport and took the sky train into the city. A security guard – Buddy-roo called me out for flirting with him – saw us studying the map and offered to help. girls_on_tracks Instead of connecting to a bus to get to the Granville market, he suggested walking along an unused train track. A more scenic route, he said. Buddy-roo, who’d been whinging earlier about the long plane ride, the lengthy layover, her hungry tummy, now started jumping up and down, begging me to take his advice.

Sure enough, just behind the parking lot of the train stop, a set of tracks rolled out from under a locked chain-link fence, a good sign that the tracks were out of use. We marched along the thick wooden rail-ties, feeling very happy-go-lucky and on-the-road. The theme song to the Andy Griffith Show came to mind. We could still see the street and it was broad daylight, so it felt pretty safe. If the fence across the tracks wasn’t enough to assure me that we wouldn’t encounter a moving train, the overgrowth of wild, thorny blackberry bushes along the tracks and between the ties was another strong clue. Short-pants is a blackberry picking fiend, it’s her favorite pastime at the country house and she had lamented leaving before the berries on our property were ripe. She, too, had been hungry and as a result, grumpy. But the sight of all these bushes lifted her mood instantly. The dense clumps of black raspberries were like magnets, pulling her from the tracks as we walked along. She’d lag behind and then run to catch up, her hands filled with sweet, fat berries to share with us.

When the road veered away and the chain link fences on either side of the tracks turned into cement walls twenty-feet high, I started to wonder if it was such a good idea to be having this hobo adventure. It occurred to me not to overreact, but at the same time some motherly-hormone kicked in and presented me with the worst-case scenario: an indigent needle-carrying hoodlum lurking in the bushes, surprised to see a happy, unsuspecting family skipping along the tracks, taking all sorts of terrible liberties with us. I had a fair amount of cash on me, and the more precious cargo: my daughters. Were I alone I’d have sprinted along without thinking of it. Worry is too strong a word, but I did wonder about the safety of our surroundings. This led to the conversation we often have about being smart, not scared – our motto, as Short-pants says – and we managed to navigate the tracks to our destination without any incident, and having experienced the freedom of going off-piste, and the thrill of having made it out alive. The girls’ whining had ceased, entirely. Nothing like a little adventure to help you forget your misery.
golden_gate
San Francisco treated us to visits with family and friends, a hike in Muir Woods, a beach day at the Presidio and a big birthday bash for De-facto (hint: ends in a zero). After a few days, we picked up the vehicle that will carry us east across the country for the next several weeks, and headed south with overnight stops in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix. We’ve stayed with friends and family, who treat us like royalty and protest that we should stay longer, but we are trying not to impose on anyone for too long. Besides, we’re a family on the move with the whole country left to traverse.

~ ~ ~

I can’t say I was thrilled about this taking this trip. I wasn’t looking forward to hours on end in the car. We just put in a new kitchen at the country house, I wanted to linger there over the summer and enjoy it. I don’t really like being in the states too much, I get overwhelmed by the enormity of everything: the stores, the portions, the people. I’ve done vagabond traveling in my life and loved it, but I had only my own backpack to manage. Supervising the preparation and maintenance of several suitcases and the other odd belongings that get picked up along the way (nothing without a handle, channeling my father’s car-trip mantra) could be classified as my Sisyphean task. My attempts to empower my daughters to keep track of their stuff have been in vain. I know I should let them live with the consequences of their sloppy suitcase habits, but in the end I’m the one who has to buy them another pair when their sneakers are left behind, so it’s hard not to be craning my neck vigilantly behind them. Even De-facto can’t manage to get out of Dodge without losing something. Already he’s had his bathing suit mailed to Santa Fe from Los Angeles.

But my mother-in-love has been politely asking to visit for too long. She’s awfully good about flying to Europe to spend time with us there, but she wanted to host us in her own home, and we wanted to grant her this as well as to enjoy her lovely hospitality. If we’re going to go all the way to Santa Fe, De-facto argued, we might as well visit some other people on the west coast, and then why not friends in Chicago and on the east coast too? And shouldn’t our American children, both born abroad, get a taste of the good ol’ US-of-A? It’s the passport they carry, after all.

You can see how the conversation went. During the weeks leading up to the trip I’d think about what it entailed and the dread would rise up within me. Yes, it would be an experience, a great adventure, something we’d always remember. Yes, we’d see good people we love to see. But this kind of touring doesn’t count, to me, as a vacation. It’s hard work, shuttling a family around for so many miles.

But, anyway, smiles everyone.

~ ~ ~

I’d been the one to set the alarm for 5:00 am, but I groaned the loudest when it went off. We’d been up this early the day before, too, to beat the traffic out of Phoenix and get up to the Grand Canyon early enough to enjoy the afternoon walking along the rim. De-facto called for a family hike down into the Canyon before we left, and that would mean getting up before dawn, again, in order to beat the heat but also to get on the road in time to make it to his mother’s house, in Santa Fe, for a late dinner. The night before, I’d extracted from the girls promises of cheerful faces in the morning, vows broken before their heads even left the pillows.

De-facto maintains marvelous poise in the company of grumpy women, he’s learned to keep his mouth shut and let time do its magic. Despite the girls’ protests, and my ambivalence, he herded us to the trailhead. It didn’t takecanyon_wall long for me to fall into the hiking zone, the path transported me instantly to my days on the Camino and the euphoria of walking in nature. The majestic beauty of this early morning walk wasn’t lost entirely on the girls, their complaints abated for a while as we snaked down into the canyon. But when we turned around to make our way back up to the rim, the combination of an uphill climb, the growing heat of the sun and a desire for a breakfast beyond the granola bars and orange slices made for a reprise of the chorus of complaints.

I slowed my pace, distancing myself from the grumpy girls so I could stay in my “Camino high” and marvel at the grandeur of the canyon. It’s the kind of vista that compels you to take in fully the moment. It’s the kind of vista that makes you amazed and privileged to be where you are. It made me glad that we’d pressed ourselves to get up and out early to make this hike, glad to be in the Grand Canyon, glad to on our big cross-country tour, in a car, with my family, making an important memory. Maybe, I figured, this trip wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and maybe it wouldn’t be as awful as I thought. Nothing like a little adventure to help forget your misery.


Jul 21 2014

That Big Fiesta

“Wait!” Buddy-roo screamed from the upstairs window of the country house as I walked to the car. “I want to give her another hug goodbye!”

I heard her pound down the stairs before she rushed out the door and took a hold of That Big Doll. tbd_hug_goodbye

“You’re sure?” I was afraid of the answer. For years I’ve been trying to remove this freaky nearly life-size doll from our lives. I managed to exile her to the country house, where she was tucked away in a back room, in a corner nearly out of sight beside a wardrobe. But when De-facto cleared out the room to lay a new floor, she ended up in plain sight again, standing by the fireplace in the main room.

When the Fiesta Nazi first encountered That Big Doll she got that nasty twinkle in her eye that I find especially endearing and suggested in a conspiratorial tone that it might be a humorous series of moments I’d we were to drag her along on an afternoon bar crawl at the fiesta in Pamplona. One could imagine instantly the clever (at least to us) stunts we might pull off, with our primary objective, of course, the free drinks we might secure with her in tow. But every time I brought this up, Buddy-roo would hear none of it. She stomped her feet and pounded the table, no, no, no. If I pursued the idea further, there were tears.

This year, as every year, I asked – a throwaway comment with expectation of the usual resistance – and I was surprised by her response.

“Sure,” she said, all cool I-don’t-care-like, “it’s time to let her go.”

I hadn’t asked if she was sure about it, afraid she might change her mind. Which is why when I blurted it out as she gave That Big Doll an extra goodbye hug I wished I hadn’t said it. What if she changed her mind now, so close to the getaway?

No need to be concerned. After the embrace, she handed me the doll so I could put it in the trunk. The knees don’t bend so it’s hard to put her in a seat, her legs only spread out in a suggestive V-shape – and we drove off to the promise of her next adventure.

~ ~ ~

When you carry a nearly life-sized plastic doll around under your arm, you have to be nonchalant about it. I channelled my father, remembering how he once took a three-foot long Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum box with him to meet my brother at the airport. In the ’70s, an advertising campaign featured wrigleys_flavorpeople walking around with huge boxes of Wrigley’s gum under their arms, signifying its big, long-lasting flavor. My sister’s boyfriend worked as a stock boy at the local five-and-dime store and when the Wrigley’s display was dismantled, gave the box to my sister after extracting her promise to carry it through the school cafeteria during lunch period, which she did without the embarrassment he’d intended. After that, she kept the box on display on top of a chest of drawers in her bedroom.

In those days you could pass through airport security without a ticket, to meet an arriving passenger as they got off the plane. My father trooped through the terminal toward the gate with this huge cardboard box under his arm. People turned their heads and stared. A woman – an enthusiastic stranger – came up to him.

“Where did you get that big Wrigley’s Gum box?”

“Shut up lady,” my father said, out of the side of his mouth, “You’re ruining the commercial.”

I carried That Big Doll through three train stations. I acted as if this were the most natural thing in the world, but couldn’t help but notice people’s reactions. They either laughed at me or, in an amusing stance of denial, pretended not to notice. I know my father would have approved: when I boarded my last train, toting a fairly large suitcase in one hand and That Big Doll in the other, a man seated nearby offered to help. He reached for my valise, intending to lift it to the overhead rack. I thrust the giant doll in to his arms for him to hold while and heaved the suitcase up myself.

~ ~ ~

Of course we dressed her in the fiesta whites. The red faja had to be wrapped three times around her tiny, not-at-all-proportional waist in order on_the_fence2 to hang properly. A red panuelo tied at the neck put her in full fiesta uniform, and it must be said she didn’t look quite as wanton once she was wearing the traditional white and red.

She spent most of the week standing at the window of our apartment, waving out the window. I had to wait to be in the right mood to take her out. Part of the joy of the fiesta is being unencumbered with responsibilities; there’s an agreement among my cuadrilla that there are no obligations, or that if you take on any kind of obligation, the others are not required to participate. It’s one week a year, for me, that I have nothing I absolutely have to do. I can follow the rituals of the fiesta or wander away to something else, on a whim, if I choose. Having a plastic doll to watch out for, even though I intended to leave behind, felt counter-intuitive.

But the day before I left (it was now or never) the spirit moved me and we slipped on her manoletinas and took her out to the street. The fact that she has a strange adult body but is only as tall as a little girl shocked and then amused the people she met. She made friends. She was held, carried, danced around and dipped. She was put into strange poses at café tables and bar stools. She did planks and push-ups in the street. She posed with anyone who asked, and some who didn’t. She applauded a band of mariachis and found herself wearing a sombrero. She was thrown under a bus (while it was stopped at a light) and if only I could have gotten my camera out in time to capture the bus driver in hysterical fits of laughter. She was good fun, in the daytime.

At night something changed. The mood on the street was different. Instead of being the quirky doll-dressed-in-white, her plastic shapeliness took on a different connotation. The pranks and stunts ceased to be clever, and started to feel not-so-funny. She wasn’t received with amusement, but instead with lascivious grins or looks of disdain. Given that there was also a campaign to raise awareness about violence against women at this year’s fiesta, That Big Doll – who on her own is just wrong – felt even more wrong. We took her back to the apartment, and left her at her window perch.

It was my intention to leave her in the back of some bar, or in a random doorway, tbd_runninghappy to be rid of her for good. But I couldn’t do it. Even Fiesta Nazi agreed, it was hard to leave her. That Big Doll had grown on us, being such a good sport at the fiesta. Instead of leaving her to be spoiled in the street, we left her in a closet to surprise our landlord. And she’ll be there next year, if the spirit moves us, to take her out again.

That Big Doll absolutely had the big adventure I’d hoped for. And Buddy-roo was tickled by the pictures of her antics; check out her Tumblr if you want to see for yourself how she survived that big fiesta.


Jun 19 2014

The Other Man

After I’d called to arrange to see him, at his place, I felt dirty. I hadn’t been with anyone else for a long time. What would it be like? I mean, you get used to someone. Someone who knows what you like. Someone who knows how to make you feel good. Someone who knows your secrets. It’s an intimacy you develop over time. You’re with the same person for years. You build a trust. Why would you go anywhere else? It could ruin everything.
tryst_cafe
I stared at his number, grinning up at me from the WhatsApp dialogue cloud. He spoke English and French, if that would make me more comfortable than having to do this in Spanish, a language I’m still acquiring. In fact, he was French. He’d know how to do this.

I looked carefully at myself in the mirror, fussing with my hair. There’s a kind of conversation you have in these moments, close to the mirror, face-to-face with yourself. The candid, truthful tell-it-like-it-is self-talk, where you call yourself by your last name. Are you really going through with this?

His place was in a ritzy neighborhood, near Turo Park. At least it’d be fancy. I have two friends who live on the park, but I didn’t want to see them on my way there. I didn’t even tell them I was going. I wanted to be discreet.

Later, standing before him in my robe, he combed his fingers through my hair, grabbing it and pulling it from the roots, marveling at its thickness.

“How long have you worn it this way?” he said. “It suits you.”

I thought about my coiffeur in Paris and the first time I went to see him, eight years ago. I was mired down with a too-busy-with-two-toddlers-to-care hairdo, a straight and blunt pageboy cut. He persuaded me to sport a messier, spiky hairdo. There were tears as he cut my long, even locks into layers, but in the end, there was no question that the new, wilder look worked much better. Not only that, it helped me get my mojo back. I was different after that haircut, more like my previous pre-mom self.

“Don’t worry,” he said, leaning in. “It won’t hurt.”

He put his hands on my shoulder and turned me toward a long, flat, reclining chair. He moved behind me and eased me into the black leather seat, cradling my head carefully as against the porcelain sink. I heard the water before I felt it, and his hands squeezed the water through my hair, making sure it was damp before he applied the perfumed shampoo. His strong fingers massaged my head, and I felt myself letting go.
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Sitting in front of the mirror at his table, I watched the chunks of my hair fall to the ground. He had his own way of trimming it, circling around my scalp in a quick rotation, each pass clipping off a bit more. It was different than what my usual coiffeur does, but I had no choice now. I was in the hands of this man. He would butcher my hair or, who knows, maybe he’d make it better. There was no turning back. I exhaled, nervously.

“Close your eyes,” he whispered. “You just have to trust me.”

What is it, this thing we have with our hairdressers? I know I’m not the only one. The Fiesta Nazi, one of my favoritest friends in Paris, has been going to the same woman for thirty years. My mother saw the same man for just as long. Do a survey of the women around you. I’d wager most of them have a steady hairstylist, one to whom they are fiercely loyal.

Finding the right one is like dating. You have a lot of one-night-stands where the walk of shame is just about walking out of the salon wishing you’d never gone in. You’ll go to anyone who’s recommended, politely explaining the various quirks and hairlicks you’ve lived with your whole life. It’s always about finding the right balance between their expertise and your knowledge of your own head. Once you happen upon the hairdresser who gives you a good cut, time after time, and who makes the best out of how you look from the neck up, well, you hold on tight. You only leave because you have to, or because of a very, very compelling recommendation. Which is what took me, eight years ago, to my coiffeur in Paris, the second most important man in my life.

When De-facto and I first talked about moving to Barcelona, I checked out the flight schedules to Paris. If I could think ahead and get a good fare, or fly through Paris on my way to other places, could I get back every six weeks or so? My hair grows like a field of weeds, I used to cut it every four weeks. I could stretch it if I had to, but the last days before the next appointment were sloppy ones. Remarkably, since we’ve moved to Barcelona – just under a year – I’ve managed to have legitimate reasons to travel to Paris almost every month. Each time I paid a visit to my coiffeur. Until now. It’d been 10 weeks since I sat in his chair. The mop on my head was a Medusa mess.

“Mama,” Buddy-roo shook her head at me. “Your up-hair is all down.”

She was right. No amount of product could keep my thick mop in the preferred vertical position. I’d pinch and twist it to stand up, but within 5 minutes it wilted. I looked like I’d slept with a bowl on my head.
md_hair_not_suffering
A number of people have noted that eventually, if we stay in Barcelona, I’ll have to find a new hairdresser. I’ve acknowledged this with a mildly-affirmative grunt. I don’t want a new hairdresser. I love my Paris coiffeur. He is the second most important man in my life. De-facto knows this and indulges my almost monthly trips to Paris to see another man, if only in a cranial sense. But he’s given me my style. He’s played with my color, moving me from blonde to red to my current shade, honey-badger. He experiments enough to keep it fresh, but not enough to ruin the look he has created for me. He’s a coiffeur coveted for his runway experience, but he’s not as hard on the wallet as you’d think, especially given the consistent quality of my color and cut.

But I feel like I cheated on him, going to see another hairdresser. Even though the other man did a perfectly fine job. He was quick and confident with his shears, he stayed true to the spirit of my original hairstyle, cutting my hair very much like my signature look. I had to wash and style it again myself the next day, but it does, mostly, what I want it to do. It’s good enough. Just good enough to carry me through until I can get to Paris again to see the second most important man in my life.


Jun 7 2014

He Likes You

At that age, I remember, romance was awkward and bartered or brokered by your friends. That cute boy, one seat up and two rows over, put butterflies in your stomach. In the lunch line you mentioned it to a friend, or else she already noticed. With your permission, or sometimes against your wishes, she’d find him later in the hall and ask him if he liked you.
hearts_eye_on_many
Often nothing came of these declarations of like. Sometimes a short, non-romantic romance would result, with smiles across the classroom and if you were lucky a quick hand-holding on the school steps, phone calls at home. For two weeks you’d be “going steady” until he got tired of being teased by his friends, or somebody else expressed affection for you via proxy messenger. You never did the dirty work on your own. You sent a friend to break the bad news to your once coveted beau of one seat up and two rows over.

I got dumped this way as often as I did the dumping. That was middle school romance.

That was also the ’70s. I have to imagine, based on the influence of the increasingly vulgar advertising and sexually explicit media that it’s very different today. I’ve read accounts of experimentation at ages almost too young for me to imagine. I brace myself for the worst.

Then I look at Short-pants and I can’t fathom this kind of behavior from her. She hasn’t folded into the fast social cliques. Maybe we’ve accidentally found a school where this kind of pressure isn’t part of the landscape. Or else it is, and she just doesn’t see it given her charming naiveté. She doesn’t ask to go out with her friends. She’s not that keen on sleepovers. She’s friendly with a gang of kids at school, but she rarely asks to bring anyone home or go anywhere else. At her age I was begging my mother to let me hang out with friends after school, champing at the bit to go out to the “rec center” every weekend night, already eyeing boys in my class and older. Short-pants, though more social than before, is pretty much a homebody. She’d rather sit in her room and read.

This week, though, she’s come home from school nearly every day with an update about a potential suitor. Eduardo (not his real name) is quirky but not an outsider. Based on her description of him, I’d wager he’s fairly extraverted and possibly one of the class clowns. He makes up pet names for her – not mean ones, but silly ones, with a slightly affectionate tone – and he’s constantly tapping her on the opposite shoulder, stealing her bag and running away, finding ways to engage her which come right up to but never quite cross the boundary of annoying.
laugh_it_off
I explained to her, trying my hardest not to be patronizing, that this is how pre-adolescent boys display their affection. And it’s been confirmed. Every day this week a different classmate approached her with a comment, a variation on the theme: “Eduardo likes you. Do you like him?”

“How do you respond?” I asked her, yesterday.

“I don’t,” she said. “I just laugh it off.”

Phew.

I extended my arm to her and pulled her into my room. Some of our best conversations happen laying on the big bed staring at the ceiling. These heavier talks happen more easily, I think, if you don’t have to look your mother in the eye.

We talked about the possible scenarios at play: Eduardo really likes her and he’s sending scouts to find out if it’s reciprocated. Or he’s unable to express it any other way and everyone else is trying to help. Or because she’s the slightly offbeat girl, he’s targeted her for teasing and as soon as she likes him back he’ll point at her and laugh.

That last scenario seems a bit harsh, and I emphasized that it’s probably not the case. But in matters of teenage social interactions, one must be prepared for any eventuality. Her eyes teared up a little at this – I glanced sideways quickly, pretending not to notice – and I felt a bit shitty for having even suggested it. Except in the end I think it’s better to have considered it and discover it’s not the case rather than the other way around.

“Here’s the more important question,” I said. “Do you like Eduardo?”

She fell silent, considering my question.

“No,” she said, in a most grounded way. “I don’t like him.”

She thought about it some more and added, “except as a friend.”

I told her not to get caught up in all the noise from his friends and to start liking him simply because he likes her, or says he likes her. The reason to like a person – I kept it deliberately gender neutral, too, because, well, you never know – is because they are kind or funny or smart or you find them physically appealing. Or hopefully some combination of those qualities.

“You should never feel you have to like someone just because they like you.”

Saying this out loud thrust me into a time machine, back into those awkward middle and high school moments of (at the time) great social consequence. I wanted so desperately to have a boyfriend – all my friends did – that sometimes I just accepted the placeholder. It took me a decade of dating to love_in_a_dinerreally get that the first question wasn’t who liked me, but who I liked. And even with that knowledge, I still made a mistakes with some of my adult romances, falling hard for someone who pursued me so passionately that I was blinded to how bad he was for me.

“I’m not ready to have a boyfriend,” she said, “not yet.”

“That’s probably true,” I said, relieved.

Given her proclamation, though, it won’t be long before she is.


May 31 2014

All that Promise

In those days way before 9/11, you could accompany a departing passenger through security and wave goodbye at the gate. My parents drove me to the airport and stood beside me as I checked my bags. The agent handed me my ticket, her fingers red from the ink on the back of each of its multiple pages. On the way to the gate, my father made conversation by asking consecutive “what do you suppose” questions, thinking they would inspire me or keep me from getting nervous. Now, years later, I suspect he was living vicariously through me. When they announced that my flight was boarding, I hugged my mother and father goodbye, walked to the gate agent and showed her my ticket and without looking back, headed down the jetway.
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Later that day, I watched the other freshman on my hall moving in, their fathers like Sherpas behind them with boxes and blankets, their mothers overseeing the move-in or sitting on the bed chatting with the new roommate’s parents. I’d arrived on campus in a taxi and happened to find a dorm counselor – still a friend to this day – who helped me carry my suitcases up to my room. I was glad to be there without the burden of parents, liberated from any of the eye-rolling data points my mother might share, conspiratorially, with the parents of my new peers. College was a time to go off on your own, and that is, literally, just what I’d done.

My new roommate’s parents had driven her up from Philadelphia. I escaped their sympathy – “but you’ve come all by yourself?” – by slipping out to take a walk. I headed nowhere in particular, wandering the streets around the stately campus. It was the first week of September, the leaves had just started to turn. The late afternoon sun, low in the sky, cast my shadow long on the sidewalk. Just like my future, it stretched out before me. I’ll never forget that moment and its sublime promise: anything can happen, and it’s all going to.

~ ~ ~

I made that walk again, last weekend, returning to my university to celebrate a big reunion. I wasn’t particularly rah-rah when I was a co-ed, and I haven’t been the heartiest alumna, but lately I’ve been crossing paths with more of my college compatriots, and this reunion – my 30th – seemed like a good occasion to be more deliberate about reconnecting. I spent much of the weekend running to different events and parties with friends and old classmates, but stole a moment one morning on my own to take a quick detour, one that I knew would take me back to where I’d strolled that first day on campus. I walked up that same street, alongside an iron-gated quadrangle and under trees thicker and taller than when I was there years ago. No shadow was cast – it was a different time of the day and there was cloud cover – but I could picture the long shape that once loomed before me and the emotions that had accompanied it. All that promise. Have I fulfilled it?

~ ~ ~

How did I end up at one of my parents’ cocktail parties? This was my thought, the first night of the reunion. There was a big dance on the campus green to kick off the weekend’s festivities, but we got to reconnect at a pre-party just for my class, under a big tent near the athletic center. I looked around at my classmates, and though I recognized many faces, whether they were people I knew reasonably well or only smiled at passing them on my way to a lecture hall, I was stunned at how we’re getting older. They’d all remained, in my memory, young and wrinkle-free because dog_in_mirrorI hadn’t seen most of them since 1984. Now to see the graying or receding hairlines collected together was a bit of a shock. Maybe it’s just that I tend to live life from the inside out, looking out at the world knowing the the years are adding up, but always feeling, inside, a static, youthful age. An event like this holds up the mirror, a reminder of how relentlessly time passes. Not that we’re in such bad shape, in general my classmates have taken care to attend to their fitness and appearance. But we aren’t the feisty spring chickens we used to be.

The weekend was a mash-up of nostalgia and discovery. The campus is changed. I can still find my way around, though I noted the absence of a buildings where I’d spent the bulk of my time, now demolished and replaced by new landmarks. I visited a favorite professor, one who challenged me and made me think harder and deeper. He says he can no longer read and analyze, but at least takes pleasure from painting and listening to Irish music. I left his house soberly, guessing it might the last time I’d see him. There were those two inseparable girls who never managed to make eye contact with me when I was an undergraduate, still joined at the hip and unable to acknowledge my presence. Back then I’d wondered what was wrong with me. Now I wondered what was wrong with them. The nice surprise from that guy who seemed way out of my league all those years ago; it was with him and his lovely wife that I had one of the most thoughtful, engaging conversations of the weekend. Finally the after-party on the last night, like stepping back thirty years, a hundred people packed into a cinderblock-walled dorm room, crammed in the kitchen, lining the hallways talking and drinking out of red plastic cups, dancing with abandon in the dark with friends from way too long ago.

I’d like to tell you that the reunion was one oh-my-god-how-are-you hug after another, all-elbows with friends from the past, our shared history bonding us together inextricably. Maybe I’d hoped for that when I signed up, but even then I knew that the weekend would be filled with moments of reconnection and disconnection. It wasn’t at all the impress-fest that it could have been – I found people to be very genuine – but there was an element of standing across from each classmate encountered and trying to figure out who not only who they’d become, but who I’d become. They all seemed to fall right back into place with each other, I was still trying to figure out where I fit in. There were moments when I felt like an outsider, not an uncommon feeling for me, but a mildly discomforting one to carry at such an occasion meant for reuniting. It wasn’t until we were all assembled on the steps of the library for the class photo that I felt that feeling of detachment slip away. Instead of standing face-to-face, we’d all turned to arrange ourselves together on the steps, side-by-side, facing a photographer perched on a ladder. I felt thirty years slip away, and all those people were beside me, with me, shoulder-to-shoulder, facing exactly the same thing. A shorter future than before, but not without its continued promise.

~ ~ ~

A few of my friends sported a P’15 or a P’17 on their name tags, indicating their children were currently enrolled at our alma mater. At the big footstepscampus-wide dance, my sophomore roommate ushered me over to re-introduce me to her son. Only moments earlier I’d been laughing with the son of another classmate. Both young men were charming, articulate, good looking. Just the kind of guys I’d wish upon my daughters about a decade from now. Less than a decade, actually, for Short-pants. She’ll be thirteen this summer. College may not be just around the corner, but it’s not far down the bend. I would never press her to attend the same college as I did. But what if she wanted to?

I went to one of those universities that gets a boatload of applications every year and only a small percentage get accepted. I’m pretty sure that if I applied today I wouldn’t get in. My guess is that Short-pants has a reasonable chance; she’s bright and quirky, fits the profile. But is she bright enough? Does she need to ramp up her extra-curriculars? Would it help if I were more involved as an alumna? Should I be adding an extra zero to my checks for the annual fund? Do I have to start thinking about this stuff already? Do I have to think about it at all? Nobody’s strong-arming me, but the gentle suggestion from friends who’ve been there is do what you can, just in case she wants to apply.

I have a great appreciation for my undergraduate experience, and though I’ve been subtle about expressing it over the years, a strong loyalty to an institution that helped me come into my own, on my own. It’d be a kick to see a P’23 or a P’25 on my reunion name tag some day. I’ll happily drive them to the airport and wave goodbye. I can picture them roaming around the streets of the campus, wondering about what’s ahead. But if it’s going to happen, it’s really up to them. That’s the promise of the future, isn’t it? Anything can happen. And it’s all going to.


May 12 2014

The Days Away

I closed the refrigerator door, giving it that extra press to be sure it was firmly shut, eyeing the notice attached to the door with a magnet. Short-pants had a school field trip coming up and these were the instructions about what to bring: a small backpack, a metro card, a bottle of water, a hat, rain gear, comfortable shoes. I’d suggested that we assemble her bag in advance because I was leaving the day before her trip, and I wouldn’t be able to help her the night before. But now I was about to leave – the taxi would come for me in ten minutes – and we hadn’t done it.

“You’ll have to prepare your backpack yourself,” I told her, thinking that wasn’t the worst thing in the world. She’s at an age now where she should be able to collect a few necessities in a bag on her own.

“I thought we were going to do it together.”

It wasn’t that she didn’t now how. It’s that she relishes anything we can do together. She likes to hang out with me. A game of Bananagrams together delights her. She still comes in and cuddles with me in the morning. Or out of nowhere, standing in the kitchen, throws her arms around me in an unsolicited hug.
full_hearted
“You know how to do this,” I assured her.

She lifted her head up from her cereal bowl. “Do you have to go?”

This is always the part when my heart sinks and I swallow hard. There’s nothing to say to appease her, so I usually just shrug and give her a hug.

The thing is, I do have to go. If I didn’t get on an airplane every once in a while to go off on my own, I wouldn’t be the mother they love. I’d go stir crazy and my grumpiness alone would have an effect on them. I think it helps them to be independent, to see me doing my own things and coming home happy to see them. I know it keeps me sane.

Still, it’s hard. That chattering chorus sings behind me as I drag my suitcase out the door: you are neglecting them. You are missing important moments, and they won’t be long forever. You’re selfish. What kind of mother leaves her children, especially on mother’s day? This cacophony serenades me every trip, and though I can see my way out of the noise it makes, I am still surprised that I fall victim to these skeptical voices. They represent something I profess to reject: the firm hand of societal expectations about motherhood. But they are firmly embedded in our culture. I don’t necessarily pay them heed, but every time I leave I have to step over their sharp edges to get to the door.

~ ~ ~

While I’m gone I hardly check in. When I’m away for work, which is usually pretty intense, the timing never seems to fit what’s happening at home. If it’s an escape trip, well, where’s the escape if you’re constantly phoning home? Plus it’s disruptive. When the girls were younger and De-facto called home from the road, it did more harm than good. They’d be playing along, living in the present that is the world of young toddlers, and his call would remind them that he was gone. The tears that came after hanging up seemed hardly worth the quick check-in, which was usually a pretty inane conversation anyway.

It’s the same for us. There’s a certain disconnect when one of us is away – for work or fun – and the other is home administering the day-to-day routine. The conversations are filled with lost-in-translation moments that leave us feeling further apart than before the call. We’ve gotten into the practice of keeping correspondence to a minimum, which means staying present, mentally, in the place that we’re working or visiting, doing the things that we do without the angst of not being home. It seems like a waste to be someplace interesting only to spend your time there wishing you weren’t. airplane_fliesNot that I don’t ever call and say hello – but it might happen every few days, not a few times a day. This way, by the end of the trip, I’m missing him and the girls pretty fiercely, which makes the coming home part, all the more sweet.

~ ~ ~

Three trips in May means I’m gone seventeen days and all or part of four weekends. I missed the Spanish Mother’s Day a week ago and the American Mother’s Day yesterday. I’ll be missing the French Fête des Mères at the end of the month, too. I remember hesitating before booking all these trips, one for work, two for personal visits, and wondering if the time I was allotting myself at home between them was sufficient. I can tell you now it’s not. My overdose of voyaging has put me off my drug of choice. I’m longing for my own bed and my own people and even, maybe, a bit of humdrum routine. This is the plan for June, but right now next month seems ages away. I can’t complain. I get to visit some festive and exotic, interesting places: Sevilla last week, Tanzania this week. But at the moment my family feels too far away. I’m surprised to be counting the days that I’m away from home, and even more surprised to be counting the days until I get back.


Apr 28 2014

Write On

I still have to do it by hand. The keyboard is okay for emails or business proposals. But a post doesn’t come to me in perfunctory punches on plastic keys. There’s something about the pen in my hand, the side of my palm against the paper, connected to my wrist, my arm, my shoulder, to my body, where you’ll find my heart. If it’s going to have any guts to it, it has to start out as a hand written piece. My first drafts are always in my journal or on some scrap of paper beside my bed. The words come sometimes so fast that my hand can’t keep up and then I think I should be writing directly on the keyboard. But the instant I switch to my laptop – and I’ve tried this – the words dry up and I stare at the empty screen. Maybe it’s just habit, or maybe there’s something to the heart-to-pen circuit.
spilt_ink
Why am I telling you this? Because I’m participating in a “blog tour” about writing, and I’ve been given four questions to answer. A bit of backstory: five years ago when my manuscript was going nowhere, I took the advice of a few friends to try my hand at blogging. A few posts later I’d fallen in love with the medium. I loved that I could publish my writing without a gatekeeper. I loved that I could design my own look, choose my typeface and select my images. I also appreciated the community of bloggers who read each other’s posts, commented on and promoted each other’s blogs and in general supported anyone who wants to join the club.

I used to spend a fair amount of time nosing around in the blogosphere, but after a couple of years it got harder to keep up. Life got busier with more work and more travel and the bulk of time I’d permitted myself to read all my favorite blogs shrank considerably. But there are a few I manage to keep up with. One of them is Magpie Musing, a quirky, intelligent blog by a woman who shares my name, my love of books and a fascination with things in a state of desuetude. The other belongs to Amanda McGee, whose writing is good enough to eat. It’s Maggie at Magpie Musing who lured me into this assignment, but it was Amanda’s post that inspired me to accept.

~ ~ ~

How does your process work? It could be a topic I’m grappling with (again) that comes to the surface, or a comment by Short-pants or Buddy-roo that gives me an idea. Sometimes De-facto will hear me rant and respond with “that sounds like a blog post.” I’m a student of the Nathalie Goldberg school of freewriting, so I’ll write the nugget of that idea at the top of the page and let the pen go. Judgment is suspended and all words and phrases that come to mind get scribbled down, little gems both poignant and awkward, fodder to be fine-tuned and polished later. The more you get on the page, the more you have to work with, so I allow a full purge to create a first draft. If you read Annie Lamott‘s book Bird by Bird, she talks about the shitty first draft, and that’s exactly what I produce. It’s messy and wordy and occasionally embarrassing, but it’s a step beyond the daunting blank page, and for that alone it is a precious victory every time.
hatchets
When the computer gets involved, the editing starts. Words are arduously rearranged, lines chopped, paragraphs deleted. I’m still too wordy. I could use a good editor to catch typos and omit needless words. Sometimes the labor goes too long and I come to a point where I just have to ship it. But only after a good night’s sleep and a fresh read in the morning. Then I hit publish.

Why do you write what you write? The reasons have morphed since I started. At first I thought I was writing to get a wider audience. When my mother subscribed, I realized I could write to tell her things about my life that were hard to convey to her in person. When she passed away this blog saved me from heartbreak by giving me a place to express my grief. I still haven’t deleted her from the subscriber list. You might read between the lines and hear me whispering to her, with pride about how the girls are growing, or exasperation about how the girls are growing.

I write for my daughters, too. Just in case twenty or thirty years from now when/if they enter the mother’s club – if they are curious – there’ll be an archive about their childhood from my point-of-view. I can’t be sure they’ll care. All I know is how many times I wish I knew what my mother had been going through when she was mothering me. I used to ask, but her responses were not particularly revealing. If my daughters ever want that depth from me, well, it’s here for the taking.

If you really, truly, want to know more about why I write, read this.

How does your work differ from others in the genre? It’s hard for me to characterize how what I do is different. What I love about the world of blogging is the wide diversity that exists; blogs with ten readers and those girls_on_rockswith thousands, each with its own voice and purpose. In that way, different is normal. Somebody once told me this was a literary blog, which I took as a huge compliment. De-facto calls it a contrarian mom blog. I’m not sure this is so distinct, but it’s the crux of what I write. Every day I experience an acute ambivalence, the duality of amazement and angst about having these creatures in my life. I try to craft each post as a short narrative that makes a point about this paradox. I want to tell stories that make you love my kids, and at the same time, make you roll your eyes along with me.

What are you working on? This writing exercise reminds me that I’m not. There’s a manuscript that’s nearly finished, but stuck on a back burner. There’s another story waiting to be told, but its words haven’t made it to the blank page. I won’t even bother to go into the excuses. I’ll just say thanks to Maggie and for the nudge – here’s her blog tour post, by the way – and see if I can’t get back to that big writing project and finish it. Maybe I could publish chapters of my manuscript on this blog. Should I?

~ ~ ~

Like a tree, this story branches out. Each blogger invites two more to muse about their writing process, a digital chain letter that’s been going on for months. I have a long history of breaking chain letters without apology. This one I’m passing along, though I gave my invitees guiltless permission to bow out if the exercise wasn’t something for which they had time or interest. To my surprise, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to find two bloggers happy to play along.
tree_art_by_Blair
Lori, of Groovy Green Living, is someone I knew in real life before we linked on the internet. She’s a ferocious advocate for our planet, and for our health in an increasingly toxic world. Her blog not only inspires you to act, choose and shop in a responsibly green way, it tells you, in very practical terms, how.

Kristen at Birthing Beautiful Ideas describes herself as a feminist mother, philosophical doula and snarky storyteller. She has great post titles, too. One of my favs: The Pre-labor Cervix is not a Magic 8 Ball.

I encourage you to take a look at their blogs, especially next Monday to acknowledge them for carrying on the baton for this meme. And if you’re still curious about bloggers and how they write, then visit this Twitter hashtag: #mywritingprocess

Writing my blog has been a source of tremendous pleasure. It’s helped me grow as a writer, a mother and a woman. But it wouldn’t be the same if there weren’t any readers. So let me finish my writing about writing by thanking those of you who click through and read Maternal Dementia, whether it’s every post or just once in a while. There’s so much to read on the web. Your time is precious. I thank you for spending it here on my blog with Short-pants, Buddy-roo, De-facto and me.

(Photo credits: Spilt Ink is artwork by Dan Walker. The tree in the last image was painted by Blair Bradshaw.)