Feb 28 2009

Ordered to Read

“Pick-up!” This was one of the mantras my mother was forced to repeat throughout my childhood. She spent a fair amount of her valuable time and breath telling us to put things away. It seemed ridiculous to me, when clearly it was just going to get messy again. Tomorrow toys would be pulled off of their shelves, shoes pulled from the closet, blankets unfolded and draped over the TV-trays to recreate the same cave I’d played in today. But she was insistent.

On Fridays, when the cleaning woman came, I found this request to be especially futile. Why would we hire someone to clean our house, and then clean it ourselves before she comes? When I shared this rationale with my mother, she dished out some mumbo-jumbo about how picking up is different than cleaning. Two tasks that, to me, seemed indistinguishable from each other. I did as she asked, but not without shrugging, grumbling, and promising myself I would never terrorize my children with this prodding to pick up all the time.

This promise I have broken, again and again, since my children could understand the spoken word. Not only do I ask them to pick up, I use the exact same language as my mother. Yesterday, before our cleaning guy arrived, I found a big mess upstairs. Then I heard these words coming out of my very own mouth: “I pay him to clean the house, not to pick up after you.”

Oh, fate laughs so cruelly at me.

But, it turns out, as much as I may be annoying my children (and planting seeds for the further annoyance of their children), all this business about picking up could be helping them learn to read! Researchers at Columbia University Teacher’s College and Ohio State University conducted a study to measure the associations between household chaos and early childhood reading skills. (Who thought this up?) The results are noted in an article called “Order in the House!”

If you think that once my house is all picked up I spend my spare time reading academic journals, guess again. I stumbled upon this via Slate columnist Emily Bazelon, who does a nice job of condensing the results of the research in her recent article, “Messy House, Messy Minds.”

The researchers created two groups based on the mothers’ reading skills: above-average and average. The participants in each group were asked about their reading habits with their children, and then the mothers were also asked about how ordered things are at home, probing for responses to statements like “It’s a real zoo in our home,” “The children have a regular bedtime routine,” and “We are usually able to stay on top of things.”

Bazelon notes:

A shout-out to all my endearingly, creatively messy friends (but not to my husband, who still shouldn’t leave his shoes in the middle of the front hall): It’s clear that by an “ordered home,” [the researchers] do not mean a spotlessly neat and clean one.

I appreciate her important clarification, and I second the comment (are you reading, De-facto?) about leaving shoes in the middle of the hall.

The take-away from this research:

Results suggest that the degree of household order is significantly and positively associated with early reading skills among children whose mothers are of above-average reading ability. These results suggest the potential for new approaches to encouraging literacy development in the home.

Aha! A point for merging the desired aesthetics of my adult life with the vigorous imagination of my children. Now I’ve got a new angle. The longer I can keep the new couch in clean condition, the more they’ll read, and the better their chances of going to Harvard Brown.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer

Short-pants and Buddy-roo, reading at Shakespeare & Company last summer

Feb 25 2009

Anger Management

Just so you know, sometimes she gets mad at him, too.


Feb 24 2009

You’re supposed to feel

Somebody always has something to say about how you’re supposed to feel. Once I worked for a man with bad hair, and he accused me of being too sensitive. “How much is sensitive enough?” I asked him. A lover once told me I was too mental, “You can’t think through your life, you have to feel it.” Both of these comments came at about the same time. I didn’t know what to make of it; was I too feeling, or not enough?

When I was pregnant – this seems like ages ago – I was informed by others, often complete strangers, how I ought to feel about becoming a mother. There were, apparently, designated emotions of excitement, anticipation, and joy, and the fact that I felt other feelings like dread, fear and suffocation – not on the condoned list – meant I’d crossed a line, putting the sacred institution of motherhood at risk. “Oh but you must be so excited,” people would correct me, denying me my inalienable right to feel miserable.

So I felt it anyway, just more quietly.

This inspired me, once I hatched small beings into the world, to be very mindful of the casual language we end up using around feelings. “Don’t be sad,” we say unconsciously to a small pouting child. What is that about? Telling a child that the rush of sadness that came over you just now is somehow wrong, you shouldn’t feel it? You have to be one of those happy shiny people all the time?

Not that we should overindulge their sadness or anger. But sometimes, doing a little bit of nothing does the trick. Emotions, like waves, follow their course, crashing on to the shore and receding back into the larger body of water. One wave follows the next, and they just keep coming.

Yesterday Short-pants was angry at me. She made this obvious by putting her feelings in writing and slipping the large note loudly under my door. I didn’t try to talk her out of it. “You are really angry,” I said, like I learned in
mean_mamaa book about how to talk with kids. And just like the book promises, if you wait a beat, the whole story pours out about what she wanted and what Buddy-roo wanted and what I did and didn’t do…the whole crisis is illuminated. The anger, once expressed, begins to dissipate, sometimes merely from the fact of not being denied.

Maybe anger has a half-life, and half of it goes away when you get that it’s just plain okay to feel that way for a little while.

But what about me? What do I do with my pent up I’m-fed-up-with-all-this? How do I get to express my longing? Or my sadness, my fear? Little eyes are always watching. I used to lock myself in the bathroom, just to have a moment alone to process. But little fists learn quickly how to knock incessantly. And besides, why should I shield them from what’s real?

Of course I try to contain the more difficult feelings, but when I can’t keep them in, I simply don’t. I’ve stormed into the girls’ room in a rage, their little faces shocked and their little bodies recoiling from the force of my angry words. I’ve backed up against the wall and let my body slide down it until I’m sitting with my forehead against my knees, heaving tears. About these outbursts I do not apologize; I explain. Later, when the feeling has ebbed, we sit on the stairs and I say something like “Mama was pretty angry, I wish I hadn’t been so loud that I frightened you,” or “Mama was pretty sad, wasn’t I?”

But what if something happens and you don’t feel anything? Like when you’re supposed to feel and you can’t figure out how? Or you’re just, numb? Can they see that too? Which is more damaging to them, I wonder: to witness rage, fear, and sadness or to watch their mother stoically stand at the counter, sponging over the cutting board in a circular motion again and again and again, just to get at the nothing that’s brewing within?

Feb 20 2009

City Girls

Ours were prissy little girls escorted to the well-ordered park around the corner by the dutiful babysitter. A few spins on the rocking-rooster, two turns up the ladder and down the slide, a dozen special-order cakes from the sandbox and then it’s time to go back home. Our kids were city kids. They were even afraid of dirt.

Years ago we bought a farmhouse about an hour north of Bordeaux. It sounds extremely elegant if you say it the way Short-pants does, “our country house,” but rustic is a better adjective. The old stone house is attached to an empty barn that’s attached to a run-down stable. We own the parcel of land across the road, too, where there is a sheep barn, or a bergerie (pronounced behr-gehr-EE, which sounds plenty elegant, but with its rotted doors and dirt floors, isn’t). country_houseThere’s even a bread-oven, which actually works if you stoke it with enough wood. There are lots of cobwebs (and, of course, spiders) everywhere.

The house came with electricity, running water and plumbing, though all of it is a bit gerry-rigged and so damn old you’re never sure when it’s going to fall apart. We did some initial renovation: tore down one wall, stripped the others of their cement to reveal the original stones, put in new oak boards in a room where the floor had completely rotted. We’re adding insulation and wallboard in what could be called the “cold room” as we used it as our winter refrigerator before we had one. Let’s not even talk about the kitchen: basically a sink, a fridge, a 3-burner stove and a table. It’s one big backache.

As for heat – the word rustic comes to mind again – there’s a cylinder wood-stove and a few ancient space heaters (came with the house) that are way too scary to use. It’s a long way from luxurious. It’s more like camping indoors.

I spent my entire childhood in the country (but at least we had heat). Beyond the apple orchard, vineyard and hay field that bordered our property, there were woods
girls_see_horses with streams and magic paths and secret clearings. This was enough entertainment to last a whole summer. De-facto grew up in the ‘burbs, but the kind that bordered land that was undeveloped and basically rural. We both knew how sticks and rocks and moss could replace any plastic piece in our toy box and how the fresh smell of the outdoors stays on your clothes and your hair when you’re out in it all day.
Maybe we knew it when we bought this old house (if we didn’t, we know it now): it’s is the best thing we’ve ever done for the girls. Sure, it’s a lot of work, there’s always something to be fixed. It’s never really relaxing. We only get here five or six times a year, during school breaks and for about 6-weeks in the summer, but that’s enough to put some country in these city girls. It’s good to see some dirt under their pink-polished fingernails.

Feb 16 2009

The Assignment

A short note pasted in Short-pantsCahier de Correspondence almost escaped my attention. It’s not the first time. I often forget to check. This cahier, not to be confused with her others – the cahier de poésie, cahier du jour, cahier d’essais (the notebook of tries), cahier de leçons – is designated for, as its title suggests, correspondence. It’s where you find school announcements or notes from the teacher. It’s also a vehicle for me to send information to the teacher, for instance to ask if Short-pants can be excused early to go to the dentist. It’s a 6” x 8” inch notebook, with sheets of paper glued on page after page, announcements the teacher handed out to the children, who dutifully took out their glue stick from their pencil cases and pasted them in. I think it’d be a lot easier if we could just e-mail, but this is how it’s done. France, for all its wonders, can be terribly archaic.

The only reason I found out about the note was because one of the other mothers – one who always seems to be totally on top of everything that happens to her son at school – mentioned it to me. For anyone who has (or had) school-aged children, you know the fence or bench or tree or wherever it is that parents congregate to wait for their children to pour out that main door at the end of the day – is akin to the water cooler at the office. Show up a bit early once a week, and you get the scoop on all the school news.


Basically the note says that the children have been given an exposé, or a report, to prepare with two other students. (The topic of this report can be found in another cahier, called, more simply, l’agenda). There are all sorts of rules about how the report must be presented, type of paper, supporting materials, etc. Oh, and the students have to meet together to make a plan, which the teacher wants to approve in advance.

Turning to l’agenda, I discovered Short-pants’ topic: the history of Paris. A fascinating but broad topic to cover in a short report presented by three 7-year olds. I asked her whom she’s been assigned to work with. She didn’t remember.

Let me tell you, I put that cahier de correspondence to hard use last week. Several notes burning back and forth with the teacher enlightened me about the task ahead. Two boys, Lucas and Edgar, share this topic with my daughter. I had to ask the teacher for their phone numbers and I made the calls. To my dismay (no, let’s be honest, it was relief, at least I’m not the only one), they weren’t totally up to speed on the requirements of this exposé either.

The pressure was on, since the winter break loomed and the deep research on this project had to begin. Or at least an outline had to be made. Edgar and his mom couldn’t make a meeting before getting out of dodge for the vacances scolaire. But Lucas and his mom agreed to come over on Saturday last, at least to discuss the project and make a plan for a plan.

Can I tell you how not looking forward to this I was?

My daughter is a self-starter. She does her homework on her own, she volunteers to set the table and other chores that earn her allowance without being asked. She spontaneously initiates spectacular drawing projects or writes a story and pastes the pages together to look like a book. But frankly, this exposé is a bit beyond her capacity. She doesn’t seem to be able to conceptualize it on her own, let alone collaborate with two other kids who are equally unmotivated for the project.

When the doorbell rang, Short-pants ran to greet Lucas (whom she hardly knows, but she was still thrilled to receive him) and his mother and I shook hands cordially. We sat around the table and started to talk about the topic. They’d brought books and DVDs (we hadn’t done anything to prepare, doh!) and Lucas was keen to do something around the Eiffel Tower. Short-pants’ said her favorite building in Paris is Notre Dame. Both moms now had an idea of how we might thread this report together, but should we suggest it? How much should we help? It was clear to me – I think to her as well – that we ought to be facilitative, inspiring the children to conceive the project as well as execute it. But even in this 1½-hour meeting, getting our kids to focus on the topic at hand was a bit like herding cats.

At one point I just cradled my head in my hands and silently cursed the teacher. If the kids were 14-years old, this would be a lot of fun. (Okay, fun? Who am I kidding? But at least it would be more, say, engaging.) I just think this assignment is not age-appropriate (to use an over-used American parenting term). I looked across at Lucas’ mother. “I think this assignment is more for the parents than the kids,” I said. She nodded in full agreement.

We did our best. As the meeting went on, Lucas’ mother and I became more interested in each other, sporadically abandoning the discussion of Parisian history to share a bit of personal information about ourselves. Then we’d turn back to the kids, who’d be playing a game with their fingers, making zero progress during our tangent. We’d try to focus them again. We’d ask questions. How about this? How might you express that? What happened there? I cannot lie: by the end we were pretty much summing it up for them. It was that, or sit around the table all day.

Now we have an outline, a rough draft we will share with the third child (I’m prayin’ there’s no objection). Six of Paris’ monuments have been selected, from different periods of her history. Another meeting after the school vacation will (hopefully) pull it all together – that is, of course, after we get Edgar’s buy-in and the teachers stamp of approval.

After they left, I asked Short-pants how she felt about the meeting. “Great!” she said, her usual response. She’s generally optimistic. “How do you feel?” she asked. I reviewed the morning’s working session in my mind. Lucas was pretty sweet, drawing all the monuments as we discussed them. I really liked his mother, a lot. She seems like a cool lady.

Curse the teacher all I want, a few good things might come of this assignment after all.

Feb 15 2009

My Share

I happened upon a thoughtful blog by a mother (her name is Stefanie Wilder-Taylor) who suggests that sharing is overrated. She makes a case for avoiding the trap of relentlessly pressing our children to share:

We as a society are big on sharing. It seems that we find it to be a reflection of our own and our child’s good manners. I’m not immune to the pressure to make my children share but lately I’ve been wondering why we insist on forcing this issue when it clearly doesn’t come naturally.

It’s not that she doesn’t want her kids to share, of course she does. But she also wants them to have boundaries. As much as we try to teach our kids to be polite and generous – and I believe we need to, now more than ever – we also want to help them grow a backbone.

There are two kinds of sharing going on in this house: Short-pants (usually) doesn’t hesitate. “Of course you can take it,” she’ll say. It makes you want to cry. Buddy-roo is more calculating. She keeps track. A piece of candy shared from her stash is an investment in future loot. One child is Mother Theresa and the other is Captain Quid-pro-Quo.

Like Wilder-Taylor, I’m not immune to the “honey, you need to share it” mantra that must come to me when I tap into the collective unconsciousness of conscious parents. I do say it less often than I used to, since a friend pointed out something I hadn’t considered. “Nobody really likes to share,” he said (in his deep, occasionally officious voice), “Maybe you should try asking them to take turns.” I think he’s right. Sharing implies an indefinite and unchecked relinquishing of that favorite toy. Taking turns gives you light at the end of the tunnel.

A Shouts & Murmurs essay that ran in the New Yorker last summer (by Simon Rich) nails it by demonstrating what it might be like if adults were subjected to the same indignities as children:

Lou Rosenblatt: Can I drive your car? I’ll give it back when I’m done.
Mrs. Herson: I’m sorry, do I know you?
Lou Rosenblatt: No, but we’re the same age and we use the same garage.
Mrs. Herson: No offense, sir, but I really don’t feel comfortable lending you my car. I mean, it’s by far my most important possession.
Brian Herson: Mom, I’m surprised at you! What did we learn about sharing?
Mrs. Herson: You’re right . . . I’m sorry. Take my Mercedes.

We’re constantly telling our kids to share but are we willing to share as effortlessly or selflessly as we expect them to? Watching the US congressmen and senators wrestle over the stimulus bill last week – it’s a bit of a stretch, I suppose, but this is a form of sharing – I couldn’t help but wonder: what would their mothers say?

Feb 12 2009

Selective Memory

Yesterday, on my way out, I reached for my keys, which are usually stored in a shallow ceramic dish on a shelf next to the door. They weren’t there. I checked the usual alternate spots: Kitchen island? No keys. Dining table? No keys. On top of the microwave? No keys. On the bed table? In the office, on the desk? On top of the washing machine? I searched any place that a set of keys might light, and here’s what I found: no keys.

I’m relatively organized. Not that I run an everything-at-a-right angle shop here, but I make it a practice to pay attention where things end up. This is how I avoid spending too much time picking-up after my family. It’s like I’m continuously playing the card game concentration (or memory, as some call it). I spot something, usually in an incongruous place, and I remember its coordinates, like mental GPS. When somebody else who lives with me is missing something (“Seen my wallet?”) I can nonchalantly direct them to it (“Bottom shelf, bathroom”).

I know it’s not the end of the world to misplace a set of keys from time to time; I don’t need to be too hard on myself for an occasional memory lapse. Except here’s what’s disturbing: After a double canvassing of every room in our apartment, I slapped my sides in exasperation and that’s when I heard the noise. I slipped my hand into my coat pocket, and just then, at the exact moment my index finger touched the cold metal of one of the many keys on my chain, it all came back to me. A rush of a memory of something that had happened only five minutes before: Yes, I’d picked them up and put them in my pocket before I went to the kitchen to get a drink of water and returned to the foyer and picked up my ice-skates.

Within 30 seconds of the key-grabbing event, it had slipped from my gossamer memory, so completely out of my mental reach that I spent five minutes combing every room in the house for something that was on my person all along.

What kills me is how I did not remember picking up my keys only five minutes before, and yet, I can remember – vividly – this episode from McMillan & Wife circa 1972: Sally (a sassy Susan St. James) is kidnapped, and her husband Mac, the police commissioner (Rock Hudson) is trying to track her down. During the obligatory ransom call, he insists upon talking to her. “Are you okay?” he says. “Mac,” she says, “I haven’t been this nervous since our wedding night.” The captors grab the phone, and hang up.


But Mac knows it’s got to be a clue. Sally is not only sexy; she’s smart. For the rest of the show (and it was long, like an hour-and-a-half) he’s racking his memory for what was distinctive about their honeymoon. The Eureka moment at the end of the episode: they’d spent their honeymoon near a harbor with a terrible smell of fish. Wherever Sally was now, blindfolded and locked in some closet, she must be smelling the same odor. Mac put it all together and rushed out to the port and saved her from the kidnappers.

It’s equally frightening that I also remember the quirky Sargeant Enright, and of course the McMillan’s housekeeper, Mildred, played by the ubiquitous mother-in-law of ‘70s television, Nancy Walker.

Why do our minds hold on to some things, and not others? How can I not remember something I physically enacted not five minutes before – slipping that heavy, noisy, set of keys into my pocket – yet I can remember, in embarrassing detail, this Sunday Night Mystery TV episode from more than twenty-five years ago? Something’s fishy.

Feb 9 2009


Photo by Pablo Puga

Photo by Pablo Puga

My mother used to say that if we learned how to ice-skate and water-ski, we’d be popular. This became embedded in our family folklore; it was sport to tease my mother about it. When she’d complain about the hours I’d spend talking on the phone, I’d remind her that if she hadn’t suggested I take up water-skiing I wouldn’t have so many callers. If there were too many invitations in one weekend, which meant she was driving me here and there and back again, it was, “Geez mom, you shouldn’t have taught me to water-ski.”

I wasn’t a bad water-skier. I could throw the ski over the gunwale, jump in after it, slip my feet in the binders, rush the rope through my grip until it was taut, deliver the thumb’s-up signal, and stand up on the first go. (Okay the first few times I tried, it wasn’t that easy. My friend Penne drove the boat in circles for an hour before I got it right. But after a bit of practice I was pretty confident.)

I don’t believe knowing how to water-ski made me popular, but it is true that when one of my friends suggested it, I didn’t hesitate to join in. And being able to join in is a huge part of how you gain confidence as a child, certainly as an adolescent. I think that’s what my mom was getting at: you could do fun things with fun people – if only you knew how. Growing up on a lake, ice-skating and water-skiing could be useful.

But for some reason I never learned to ice-skate. I went out on the ice two or three times, in a borrowed pair of skates, holding the hand of some boyfriend who was not nearly as patient as my friend Penne was at the helm of her boat. (No doubt he was more interested in other things than teaching me how to skate.) Because of this, as an adult, I avoided opportunities to go ice-skating. Every year the city constructs a huge rink in front of the Hotel de Ville, but I invented plenty of good excuses not to use it.
Then De-facto found an old pair of ice-skates (Hans Brinker-styled) in the basement of our building. They happen to be exactly my size. He sharpened the blades and presented them to me. Whenever he could persuade me to go skating with him, he was just as patient as Penne was, ushering me around the rink while I struggled to keep my balance. But my progress was, well, slow.

Saturday he was energetically rousing the girls to get to the rink; we’d signed them up for a lesson, and for good measure I agreed to take it with them. “But I already know how to skate,” Buddy-roo said. (She lies, by the way.) “You’re never too good at something to learn more about it,” I’d humored her. “You have to practice to get really good. It’s called mastery.”

The night before, I admittedly had one glass of wine too many (okay, maybe two). When De-facto saw my head hidden under the pillow, he offered to let me off the hook. I burrowed my head further under the covers and considered the pleasure of a longer lay-in, especially given that he would remove the noisy creatures from the house. Sleep was reestablishing itself fast, until I heard the voice. My father, dead more than 20 years, still manages to converse with me, usually at the most inopportune moments (like this one).

He called me by my full name. This got my attention when I was 15, and still does. I turned to face the other way under the comforter, hoping a mere repositioning of my sleepy head would remove his voice from my inner consciousness. No luck. He reminded me that all week we’ve been promoting this skating lesson to the girls, including my promise to take the lesson with them. My father reminded me that if I simply blew off the lesson because I had a head-ache and cotton-mouth (okay, he didn’t actually use that term), I wasn’t really setting a good example to inspire these young, observant minds looking to me for cues on how to live their lives. What kind of message would that send? His final words (the ones that cinched it): “What about mastery?”

My father was usually right when he was alive, and this is a talent he’s retained in his grave. Since I couldn’t argue with him, I shoved one leg out of bed and then the other and pattered painfully into the kitchen. “You’re coming after all?” De-facto said. “Coffee,” I groaned.

A half-hour later, on the ice, I’d mastered my mild hangover and was slowly mastering my balance on skates. I was the tallest (by a lot) of ten students standing in a line in front of the teacher. The girls were with me, one on each side, bawling. It was too cold. They were too tired. They didn’t like the lesson. They wanted to go home. “I understand,” I kept saying, I did feel their pain, “but I need you to stay and learn to skate with me.”

At one point I leaned over the railing of the rink, bending backwards to stretch out my back. I looked left and saw De-facto, leaning over the rail, further down. Our eyes met and the mutual understanding was immediate: “Aren’t our children pathetic?”

When it became evident that the girls were not extracting anything from the lesson, and in fact their more-or-less continuous wailing was inhibiting the other students, De-facto skated over and removed them to the children’s section where they could balance with colorful chairs or big plastic penguins. I continued with the lesson all by myself, walking backwards girls_on_ice, carving Vs in the ice and trying to balance on one leg and then the other. Not only was I the tallest (and oldest) student, I was the most dedicated.

When they left the rink, De-facto and the girls came by and leaned against the railing for a moment to watch me. “Way to go, mama!” a little voice shouted. “Shut-up.” I said. (Not out loud, though.)

I’m still a bit unsteady on the ice. But I’ve made huge progress; even that one lesson helped a lot. Now I actually look forward to going ice-skating.

Today, De-facto tugged me out the door at quarter-to-twelve. He was in a rush because he likes to get on the ice before it gets crowded. The security guards wouldn’t let us in – we were too early – so we crouched outside the entrance, replacing our boots with our skates. When they unlocked the doors, we stomped straight through the changing room and right out onto the ice. The rink was absolutely ours; we were the only two people skating. The clock in the Hotel de Ville tower struck twelve, sounding off its hollow mid-day echo. Hand-in-hand we carved a wide arc along the perimeter of the rink.

Popular? I don’t think so. Content. That was it, content. I guess I have Mom and Dad – and De-facto – to thank for that perfect little moment.


Feb 4 2009

Couch of the Valkyries

“Careful, the couch!” This is the Valkyrie cry in our home, since I am prepared to slay any small (or large) being who might casually soil our newly acquired piece of furniture. This may seem a harsh punishment, but if you knew how long I have been waiting to buy a new couch, you might empathize with me.

For years, I’ve been trapped in this apartment with a hideous canapé, a cream-colored (read: off-white and stained) sofa-bed with far too many cushions to add any aesthetic presence to our living room. The seat cushions were famous for their capacity to spontaneously slide forward and down toward the floor. More than once, I sat on what I thought was the edge of the couch, only to hit the parquet myself. The four square cushions that were supposed to line up along the back of the couch were too easily crunched and crushed, or completely removed and transformed into a fort or a roof or series of stepping stones on the floor, permitting dry passage to the foyer without menace from the alligators. That old couch was a boat, a barge, a bridge – about anything you wanted it to be. It absolutely stimulated young, playful imaginations, which was, in the end, the only thing I liked about it.

Then last month, an astro-furniture convergence smiled upon me when three planets finally aligned: Saturn, the planet of limits moved into the 5th house of small children, and conjunct Jupiter, the planet of expansion, and Venus, the planet of beauty, in the 4th house of home and 60%-off. The kids are now finally old enough (and coordinated enough) to pay attention to rules and warnings. A little Christmas cash augmented our budget, permitting this purchase despite the recession. De-facto even agreed that after last summer’s repainting of the living room, the old couch looked pretty tired.

Forget that we had to bulldog the new couch through the front door, since I neglected to measure before purchasing. Absurdly, it was a few centimeters too large. The tiny grease mark on the side that resulted from its dramatic breech birth (feet first, after their removal) into our apartment is barely visible. The new couch matches the carpet, and makes our living room look, well, grown-up. De-facto likes it, too, he says it really ties the room together.


But then, the law had to be laid down. Short-pants and Buddy-roo were summoned to the new couch, invited to admire it, and ideas were solicited for how we might keep it clean and pretty. My children are smart and their suggestions were on the money, so they now have some ownership of the new couch mantra: no shoes, no eating, no drinking, no drawing. Except that occasionally I have to remind them. The minute one of them even looks the couch with their shoes on, or comes within a meter of it while holding a cookie in hand, I’ll shout out: “Careful! The couch!” I can’t help it. I just blurt it out. The other day, Short-pants dips her head and looks at me over her glasses, “I know mama, don’t worry.”

I hate this, really. I don’t want to be yelling at them about a couch. With the old one, I didn’t care. I might casually throw out a gentle warning, “feet off the couch…” but that was only to reinforce good manners. There’s nothing they could have done to hurt that old gray lady. But now I’m nervous, constantly walking the tightrope between the desired aesthetics of my adult life and the vigorous imagination of my children’s. I want them to be creative, which often means being messy and manipulating their environment to match what’s happening in their minds. I just don’t want to look at it, in my living room. And I don’t want it to damage my new, beautiful, stylin’ couch.

This morning, a plastic pink cup found perched on the arm of the new couch – fortunately no trace had been left – but then Buddy-roo’s name came in a shriek and then a stern reprimand of “what did we all agree to, about the couch?” She stood, frozen. Eyes on the couch, then on me. Then that face, the mouth curves down into a precious kind of pout, and an eruption of tears, “I really miss our old couch.”

Not me. I’m glad it’s gone. But this can’t go on.