Mar 29 2009

Technology to Boot

Unzipping a long leather boot should be an alluring act, unless of course, the zipper happens to get stuck and not only jams, but breaks teeth. This is the technological challenge that greeted me the other night when our neighbors invited us down for a quick coup de champagne. The occasion? Let’s just say Ricky and Lucy are the best kind of neighbors, the kind that invite you for champagne simply because it’s a Friday night. But there was a price: I had to fuss with the mangled zipper of Lucy’s boot, stuck mid-calf. After some struggle, I managed to zip it all the way up, but I couldn’t zip it back down.

Our children climbed up and down the ladder to the bedroom loft, falling into their own game while the flutes were filled and refilled and the adults discussed the events of the week. Beyond the zipper caper, we talked politics and the economy before the conversation turned – as most conversations these days – to Twitter.

Ricky said he didn’t really get it, so I took out my phone and pulled up Twitterific (the iPhone app) to show him. This surprised De-facto, who didn’t even know I was twittering. Well, not that I do it very often (twice a week). For me, Twitter isn’t as much of a social networking activity as it is a killing-time-while-waiting-in-line kind of activity. About 140 characters is all the distraction you need until it’s your turn to face the slowest bank tellers known to mankind (they all seem to work at my bank).

For you Facebook users, I’ll bet what you enjoy most are the status updates. All the other applications (like Funwall — not that fun) were a novelty at first but quickly became tiresome. The barrage of applications you were forced to add every time a friend wanted to send you something new finally compelled you to join one of those silly non-active groups, Stop sending me applications that force me to see a friends score, right? After a few weeks, I shut them all off so I could focus on what I like about Facebook: the peripheral awareness that comes without any effort about what my friends are up to. I have clever friends, so their updates are, well, clever.

This is what Twitter is. It’s Facebook’s status updates without the rest of the noise. That’s why it’s taking off. (It’s also why Facebook’s latest re-vamp looks more and more like Twitter.)

Two years ago, while facilitating a meeting about data security and identity theft – which probably should have scared me off social networking – I listened to experts commenting about teenagers using MySpace and Facebook. This was frightening. It dawned on me that I had no clue what they were talking about. After that meeting, I signed up for Facebook, just to keep up with it for my kids. Ditto for Twitter.
I’ve made my share of snide remarks about Twitter. I won’t defend it: Twitter is silly. I’m afraid some people spend so much time documenting their lives that they forget to live them. It’s like the white-sneakered tourists who walk around Paris behind their video cameras, never really seeing or experiencing the beauty of this city with their naked eye.

But I think that the consequences of participating in Twitter are not nearly as grave as those of not joining in: being locked out of understanding a technology that will no doubt dominate the lives of my children when they are 14-years old. Better to understand the ins and outs of this beast so I can help them navigate it smartly. True, by the time Short-pants is a teenager, there will have been (at least) thirty more iterations of social networking technology. But I think it might be hard to catch up if I haven’t witnessed the incremental changes that get us wherever we end up. And then there’s this: What if it’s not so silly? Who knows what Twitter will become?

If I were a dedicated Twitterer, I suppose you could have gotten the whole leather boot story in real time:

Lucy can’t zip up and she can’t zip down.

The boots are many years old so it doesn’t matter if we rip them. Is Lucy rationalizing or what?

Lucy is already thinking about the boots that will replace these.

Ricky has no interest in dealing with the unzippable boot, now or later tonight when they return home.

De-Facto has the WD40 out.

That boot is not going anywhere.

Facebook or Twitter, MySpace, Amazon, Ning… Hundreds of social networking sites – some entirely customizable – are out there to connect and distract us. You can view them as fad of the thumb-generation, another burdensome internet activity to challenge you and waste your time. Or you can see them as a technological tools that help us figure out who we are in relation to the people around us. I suppose it’s all about how you use them.

And If you’re wondering about the boot, did it come off and when, well, you’ll just have to follow me on Twitter, then, won’t you?

Mar 28 2009

More Blame

“Once again. Not happy.” Buddy-roo‘s defiant proclamation, this morning, from the foot of the bed. Her (initial) complaint is still a mystery, some inadvertent slight by her sister. It’s very early. I’m too weary to care.

I lift my head off the pillow. Her arms are crossed. Her bottom lip protrudes. It’s a very mad face. I start to snicker. (Can you blame me?)

“It’s cuz of you, mama.”

Of course, I knew that.

Mar 27 2009

Who’s to Blame?

She hadn’t even finished making her way down the stairs and into our room to fold herself between us for the morning cuddle when she started issuing complaints. Buddy-roo‘s disposition at this hour of the day (7:00 am) has never been cheerful, nor quiet, but it seems now – at the age of five – to be growing in petulance. We’ve tried to discourage her by ignoring it, forbidding it, making fun of it, and then ignoring it again. We haven’t (yet) found the cure for what ails her every morning. Given that her bed is built into the wall, we can’t even say she got up on the wrong side of it.

No precaution or response on our part seems to change this daily outburst from its current crankiness to something more subtle and cheerful, like her sister, Short-pants, who we hardly hear descending the stairs from her room before the door creaks open and she slides soundlessly under the sheets and into my embrace. Sleep then quickly takes her back into its possession, inviting us to return as well.
Not so Buddy-roo. Something is always wrong. Even though she may have slept well all night in her warm nested cubbyhole. Even though a cup of apple juice is waiting for her on my bed table to quench her morning thirst. Even if her big sister takes the place on my side of the bed – even when she’s the first to wake up and crawl in with us – leaving Buddy-roo the coveted center spot between her parents. Even if there’s no school. Even if pancakes have been promised. It’s a miserable moment, this first one of her day.

For the record, she does cheer up as the day goes on. But the first fifteen minutes are brutal.

This morning her complaint: “I didn’t want the light to come so early.” She preached to a sleeping choir. Her grievance mounted into a full-on whine and then the ultimate attribution:

“It’s cuz of Papa.”

I, too, am quite practiced at faulting him for things that don’t go my way. But this is over the top. It’s not like he left the shade on her skylight open, or he made a boisterous noise that woke us all from deep slumber. Or like he willed the sun to rise. There’s no way to assign the blame to him, as enjoyable as that would be.
But with her, there’s always some other force or person to blame for all her terrible times. Without a moment’s reflection, everything is because of someone else. She lives, remarkably, without responsibility. And without guilt. About this I am actually a little envious.

But is she different than any one of us? Only in her honesty. I think deep down we all like to blame someone else for our misfortunes. We blame Wall Street, the banks, the Fed. We blame the sub-prime lenders and also the people who signed up for their unrealistic loans. We blame Edward Liddy and Timothy Geithner. We blame Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh; they blame the New York Times and Jon Stewart, who in turn blames Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer. For a while, Saddam Hussein was a convenient guy to blame. Then we blamed Bush and Cheney (still do). Now we’ve got Obama, who’s actually said he’ll take responsibility for the economic mess, but not without first refusing the blame for it. (Can you blame him?) But how quickly we’ll forget and lose our capacity to forgive him for not fixing it fast enough or well enough. He won’t escape the blame, either.

I’m not exempt. It’s always the rotten fault of my clients. Or it’s the French. And of course my kids, they’re to blame for the train wreck they’ve made of my life. And then there’s De-facto. It’s his fault, after all, that I got pregnant in the first place.

See? It is cuz of Papa.

Mar 25 2009

The Lonely Lunch

She was sobbing on the stairs this morning. Short-pants – who does homework without being asked and is usually happy to hoist that enormous book-bag on her back and head off to school – wouldn’t budge. “I don’t want to go to school.”

She’d been following De-facto out the door, but then opted out, in protest, and planted herself on the steps. She watched her own sour facial expressions in the mirror, happy at least to have her own company while she pouted. I went and sat beside her, this put my own pre-ablution image in the mirror, too, which I did my best not to look at.

“It’s Wednesday,” she spit out between sobs. “It’s my lonely lunch.”

Most elementary schools in France don’t hold classes on Wednesday. Many of these same schools do have classes on Saturday, posing obvious problems for working parents struggling with childcare mid-week or wishing to steal out of town with the family for the weekend. Short-pants attends a school that, thankfully, gives us our Saturdays, however it requires her presence on Wednesdays – though only in the morning. At noon, most of the children rush out to meet their parents, who take them home for lunch and then on to the activities on their rosters: gymnastics, judo, music, fencing, chess. But
school_courtyardwe’re rarely among that cluster of waiting parents. Short-pants stays and eats at the cantine.

We’ve enrolled her in a theater class on Wednesday afternoons. It made perfect sense, to us: school in the morning, stay for lunch, go to theater and finish at 3:00. She really likes the class. Last year – even as the youngest student – she had an important role in the end-of-year play. But none of her classmates are signed up. She says she feels a bit lost at lunch, with nobody to sit with, and then there’s a long stretch of time alone in the courtyard before the theater class starts at 1:30.

I’ve remedied this by coming to get her at noon on random Wednesdays, making a big deal out of lunch out at a café with mom, and returning her to the school in time for theater class. These are memorable lunches. Her little voice ordering from the menu, her proud smile across the table from me – she’s thrilled to be having such sophisticated one-on-one time with mom.

But we haven’t done it in a while.

I knew what she was going to say before she said it. “I want mama to come take me to lunch.” Then she started to cry. Actually, she started to wail. She’s not the tantrum type. But this was close.

I leaned my head against hers. Oh I wanted to say it, I wanted to say it so bad: okay I’ll come get you and we’ll go to lunch, just you and me. I mean it wasn’t impossible. I had a long ‘to-do’ list, like every day. But I could re-arrange that and give up 90 minutes to go hang with her.

But I didn’t.

It was the near-tantrum state the stopped me. I didn’t want to respond affirmatively, didn’t want the out-of-control crying to be rewarded. If this is how she gets her way today, I thought, then she’ll use it tomorrow. Yes, it’s just one lunch, one day. But this is how we start down the slippery slope. So I didn’t say a word. I didn’t dare. To be caught in a web of promises? I’m out of town next week, and it’s too hard to look further ahead.

“Come on,” De-facto finally said, “We’re going to be late.”

She stood up and followed him out, shrieking. I felt like shit.

Later I told him that it took everything in me not to tell her I’d come get her and take her to lunch. “Me, too,” he said, “but I knew we couldn’t, not like that.” I guess this is telepathic parenting.

At least he didn’t hang her out to dry. On the way to school, they found a few newspapers (I don’t want to tell you this, but apparently they rummaged through a trash bin) and cut out the Sudoku puzzles (she’s a pro) so she’d have something to do in the courtyard after lunch. Leave it to De-facto to find a creative (and cheap) solution.

This evening I met a friend for drinks. Her kids are older – young teenagers. She shocked me with a story about serious, heavy drug use in their school and the fine line she and her husband are walking to stay connected to their 14-year old daughter.

It’s odd, isn’t it, how my girls are constantly vying for my attention and craving time with me, and sometimes I find it all so fatiguing. Yet in a few years, their little fingers will slide out of my grip. How important it is to listen and connect while the door is still so wide open. Soon enough, that door will close – but then at least a foundation will be laid.

I’m not saying I didn’t make the right decision not to pander to a tantrum this morning. But maybe now I’ll be more proactive about scheduling our Wednesday lunches.

Mar 23 2009

The Grande Illogic

I’m embarrassed to admit that even though I live in the city that gave birth to café society and there are three-dozen more charismatic cafés within five-minutes walking distance of my home, sometimes I go to Starbucks. This is because of the comfortable armchairs.

I meet several times a week with a friend to do what we call free-writing, an exercise that involves selecting a random sentence – from a pool we’ve dreamed up or borrowed from books – and using this phrase as a prompt to write stream-of-consciousness for ten minutes. Then we read whatever we’ve written to each other, because it’s a curious experience to hear yourself say your own words out loud, even if it is just a shitty first draft.

It’s basically calisthenics for cobwebbed writing muscles, and much easier to do if you’re sitting in a roomy, crushed-velvet armchair with big fat cushions. That Starbucks was non-smoking before French law required also contributed to the origin of this embarrassing habit.

But what is it with Starbucks and their insistence on illogical cup sizes?

I know I’m not the first person to complain about this; a Google Search on “ordering at Starbucks” produces about 542,000 results, and surely it’s been a frequent topic of ire on blogs long before I started writing one. But now it’s my turn: I can never order correctly, and the whole ordeal taxes my brain and illuminates the severity of my maternal dementia. Why does it have to be so hard?

What I want to say is simply this: “I’d like a medium café-latte, please.” But when I do, the Starbuck’s employee inevitably asks, “Tall, Grande or Venti?”

I’m sorry, but I think all these words mean the same thing: big. I don’t want big, I want medium. But there is no such thing at Starbucks as a medium. In their world of white and green cups, it’s all grande.
Waiting in line I’ll repeat to myself, “grande, grande, grande,” but when the server-person turns to me with that expectant look, I can’t help it. I fumble around, and I blurt it out every time, “Medium.”

I think this is because I’m a very visual thinker, so I see the three size options on the display stand by the cash register, and there’s that one I want right in the middle, it connotes (to me) medium. I don’t think it’s a language thing. Grande, or grand – however you want to write it – is not the word for medium in French or English, or Italian for that matter.

Starbucks, I suppose, given its origins can’t help but respond to the ‘Merican need for all things over-sized and over-the-top, and they’ve named their drink-sizes accordingly. Honestly, isn’t it all a bit ridiculous?
But wait. Now, at the Starbucks on rue des Archives (and elsewhere I suppose), a little pamphlet is handed to you along with your change. I say little because it’s palm-sized, however, it contains twelve pages (count ‘em) of explanation about how to personalize your order.

If it takes twelve pages to explain to your customers how to order your product, is it possible that you’re making things a bit more complicated than they need to be?


Short-pants is reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears with her English class. She says the teacher doesn’t mean for them to perform it as a play; they’re just reading out loud together. (The teacher gets points from me on that one.) Yesterday I was listening to her recite her lines – she’s actually volunteered to read the lead role and has already memorized the damn thing – and when she got to the part about the chairs, it all made sense.

While interloping in the bears’ house, Goldilocks tries the big chair (too big), the medium chair (too hard) and the little chair (just right). It’s easy to figure out when you just say it like it is.
Why can’t Starbucks just use good old fashioned plain language to describe its beverage sizes? Although I suppose ordering a medium (moyen or moyenne?) could still be too hard. But not the chairs. They’re just right.

Mar 20 2009

Ungovernable Pleasure

After visiting the void – at the Centre Pompidou the other day – I strolled by another exhibit that bears mention, a cluttered and eclectic assemblage of found objects donated to the museum by the artist Daniel Cordier. Its position, immediately adjacent to the nine empty rooms of The Void, was striking. These two contrary exhibits, side by side, must have been a deliberate act.

Oh, there was stuff! An odd collection of things, natural and man-made, primitive and contemporary, cast all around, laid out on the floor and set up on musuem-ish stands. Large carved-out tree trunks, actual sugar silos from India, stood like statues on the floor. It was all very woody; I think there were even pieces of driftwood, reminding me of those silly corkscrews we made in Girl Scouts. Mounted on the wall, an array of objects of curiosity, amongst more pictures and drawings of objects of curiosity. Cordier chose to ignore the functionality of these objects and focused instead on their form, making art out of otherwise everyday items. Art that, it could be said, resembles a tag sale.

It was all a bit too interesting to take in, after digesting nine rooms of nothing.

So I turned and quietly walked out. Not in protest, just in preference.

A single sentence, buried in the middle of a text the artist had written to describe the exhibit, mounted just outside of the rooms that hosted his collection is what got my attention. Addressing the haphazard quality of his work, he wrote: “It reflects the ungovernable disorder of pleasure.”
On my way out of the museum, I tried to keep my head in those first empty rooms with their poignant memories and limitless possibility. But thoughts of the other exhibit kept encroaching, stalking me, insisting I consider this notion of pleasure and its chaotic and uncontrollable nature.

The juxtaposition of these two worlds, I realized, is the paradox of my life with children, in a nutshell.

Mar 19 2009

Much Ado About Nothing

This could be just another case of the Emperors new clothes, I told myself, riding up the escalator to see an art exhibit about nothing. De-facto took the girls to the Centre Pompidou to see it at last weekend –- a gesture to give me a few hours of coveted quiet. They returned from the museum, boisterous and enthusiastic. “There were big, empty rooms, and we ran all around,” said Buddy-roo. I gave De-facto a scratching-my-head look. “Go see it,” he said.

“Nothing seems to me to be the most potent thing in the world.” This quote from Robert Barry, an artist featured in the exhibit, “Voids. A Retrospective.” He’s one of nine “radical” artists so fascinated with nothing that they all created exhibitions made up of completely empty spaces.
The exhibit is just that: nine consecutive empty rooms. In the corridor, large panels of text describe the story of each artist’s dance with nothing. My favorite was Laurie Parsons, who in 1990 decided not to present anything for her third solo exhibition. She sent out invitations with the gallery address, but without her name or the date of the show. Eventually, she even deleted this show from her resumé, nearly erasing any trace of its existence. To respect her intentions, the exhibit literature reads, “the room devoted to her exhibition has no label.”

Because there is nothing to absorb the sound, a room with nothing in it is filled with a great quantity of noise. My footsteps echoed brightly against the empty walls. A row of spotlights hanging from the ceiling pointed at nothingdoorways1 along each wall. Without paintings or fixtures to absorb or deflect the light, it was almost blinding. I noticed, for the first time -– and I’m no stranger to this museum — the raw pattern of the parquet floors. Without anything in it, I saw the room for real: small imperfections in the walls, scuff marks on the floor, a lonely wire hanging from the ceiling.

I looked around at all the nothing. And then, something came to me.

A memory of another room –- an almost empty one -– in a building I once inhabited a long time ago, a renovated schoolhouse with long windows and cathedral ceilings. The rooms of the apartment were open to each other and filled with light. I remember just days after moving in, the man I lived with surprised me with a silver ten-speed bicycle for my birthday. We had only a few pieces of furniture, a handmade Shaker table, sideboard and a desk. I jumped on the bike right away and rode it around inside the apartment, a thin imprint from the tires marking a trail in the new carpet. When he wasn’t looking I took off all my clothes and rode the bicycle around in a circle again, in the nude, just to make him laugh. I remember how when he saw me, his head fell back and bounced upright again with a wide smile.

Well there’s a memory that came out of nowhere.

Whenever I walk through a museum, a blanket of quiet concentration wraps around me. As my eye is drawn to each work of art, the clutter of the day-to-day recedes from view, and a calm, focused state of mind sets in. It’s
room_door1like drinking a dose of culture, a thick and nourishing, aesthetic milkshake.

I found myself again in that art-altered state, but it was different. With nothing on the walls or in the empty room to draw my attention, my attention turned inward, to my own things, to my own empty.

The four bare walls in the next room stared me down, and even though they were of the same chalky white plaster as the first room, and the wood was the same strip-floor pattern, this empty room was different.

I thought about joining the empty room with my empty head. But I could not — as someone more disciplined at meditation would — turn away all the images that came to me. They seemed too precious, little gifts presented to me in empty boxes. Like the one I gave to my sister, when I was old enough to think of giving her a present for her birthday, but too young to have the means to purchase anything. I rummaged through the store of boxes my mother had stacked in the back room and found a small, square, white box with a thin bed of white cotton inside. I wrapped the box. My sister opened it, guessing, probably, as she tugged at the ribbon, that it was empty. How she marveled at the imaginary item, treating it as though it was the most treasured gift she’d ever received.
Given the excess of this decade, fueled by the shallow economy of obsolescence and the coercive vanity-inducing power of the media, an art exhibit about nothing feels like a vacation from the obligations of consumerism. Without the clutter of things, there is room to think, or room to unthink. And room to remember. There is room to count what matters. There is an unburdening.

Robert Barry described nothing as a way to be “free for a moment to think about what we are going to do.”

Another one of the empty rooms reminded me of a moment last summer. We’d cleared out our apartment – no small task with two small children – to re-plaster and re-paint after a particularly grueling roof repair that had lasted too long and damaged the ceiling in every room. When the painters were finally done, De-facto and I laid on the floor of our empty living room, holding hands and staring up at the pristine ceiling while the children ran around us in wide, noisy circles. Only the largest pieces of furniture remained in the room, draped in plastic. All the carpets had been rolled up and the little side-tables and child-sized chairs had been evacuated. An entire wall of shelves had been cleared out, all the books and pictures and objets d’art packed away in brown cardboard boxes. I felt no urgency to move the furniture back, or to unpack those cartons and restore the room to its cluttered, lived-in state. I liked its new wide-openness.

Later, two friends happened by, in the neighborhood taking their fresh new baby for a walk. We got the idea to call our friends Lucy and Ricky from downstairs, and an impromptu pasta dinner party ensued. I remember sitting at that festive table –- set up smack in the center of what was an otherwise empty room -– watching my children and listening to my friends. I remember wondering if I had the courage to never unpack those boxes, if I could just leave them and let the room rest. Empty of all the objects that I’ve acquired, there’d be nothing to distract me from what is most essential: family, friends, food and wine. Nothing beats that.

Mar 12 2009

The Assignment II

As I write this post, Short-pants is probably standing in front of her class, side-by-side with her two little colleagues, transmitting her recently honed expertise on the history of Paris. Yes, today is the exposé.

A few readers have actually inquired about the status of this assignment, which I chronicled here, so I suppose an update is in order.

Last weekend the triumvirate was assembled; Short-pants and the two boys she’s been teamed with got together to hammer out the details of their presentation. This project has had more than a few hiccups. We made no progress during the winter break. It was an arduous task to find a time when all three students and mothers could coordinate a meeting. This pushed us to the last minute. On top of that, further dialogue with the teacher revealed that the topic was not exactly the history of Paris, as we’d thought, but the gargoylehistory of Paris’ quartiers. I’m not sure what that means: how Paris came to have its little neighborhoods? Or how the nautilus of arrondissements spiraled out into what it is today? That all three mothers failed to notice this distinction in the original assignment is another satisfying indicator that I am not alone in my failings. The other mothers didn’t think it was a problem to ignore this little detail, since the kids had already bought into the idea of telling Paris’ history through famous monuments. A part of me thinks we should have readjusted; we hadn’t made much progress down the other track. But another part of me just wanted to be done with this thing. You can guess which part won that debate.

Assembled around the table, we became a study in contrasts. Edgar had already written up a 3-page report on the Eiffel Tower. Even I was intimidated by his even, deliberate handwriting on the pages of feuille quadrillée (graph paper). He’d also underlined the headings with different colored felt-tip pens. Impressive. Lucas and his mother brought a variety of colorful cards on weighty paper stock and a roll of light-brown craft paper, with an idea for the visual component of the presentation. Short-pants, well, let’s just say she’d had a lesson in Wikipedia.

Going to a French public library was just too much for me to fathom. I’m no stranger to French bureaucratic services; I’ve done my time waiting in line at the préfecture. But it’s been a cold, bleak, winter. I just couldn’t face another functionnaire.

Besides, I’m not convinced that honing the children’s library skills isn’t a bit like teaching them to speak a dead language. Sure it’s nice to know, but will they use it? I can still picture the card catalogue in my high school library, a boxy wooden piece of furniture. And those little labels, typed on the secretary’s Corona and inserted into the tiny square frame on the front of each of its long drawers. You’d flip through the index cards, worn and dirty from years of fingering by semi-curious students, all the while repeating, like a mantra, the title or author you were actually looking for, half the time forgetting and having to start over. All this to find one book, so you could look at its bibliography in order to do it all over again to get another book.
I’m not saying that knowing how to research in a library isn’t important. Or maybe I am. If Short-pants becomes a serious scholar in need of original historical texts, no doubt she’ll be forced to develop her library skills. But even that’s not certain: a friend doing PhD level research at the Bibliotèque Nationale told me he wasn’t allowed in the stacks. He was pointed to a computer connected to the library system and told to write down the titles he wanted. This list was then handed to a smug librarian, who disappeared, returning 20 minutes later with his requested books.

If you have time (an hour), it’s really worth watching the video of this lecture, A Portal to Media Literacy, by Michael Wesch. He’s an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Digital Ethnographer at Kansas State University and the same guy who produced the famous (and much shorter) video about Web 2.0, The Machine is Us/ing Us. Wesch wants us to test the assumptions we make about teaching students in today’s digitally powered world. Our education system was invented in a different century; it might be obsolete. This is why I believe developing a skill-set for researching on the internet is important.

Or maybe I was just too lazy to take Short-pants to the library.
Prior to this meeting of the troika, we spent about an hour Googling her monuments. She seemed to like Wikipedia the best. I explained the whole Wiki phenomenon. “Really?” she said, “Anybody can add whatever they know about Notre Dame?” That didn’t sit right with her. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s why you always have to double check the facts.” I’m sure I’ll be having this conversation with her again a few hundred times during her scholastic life.

We printed out a several pages of information for each monument. We read through them together and then I asked her what she thought were the key points to put in her report. She wasn’t sure. We read them again. She shrugged. “Well, let’s not get too far ahead before we meet with the others,” I said, sliding the printed pages in a folder. Then I had a beer.

Later I asked De-facto if he thought Short-pants ought to be able to read a few paragraphs and then summarize, or if I was expecting too much. “In my experience,” he said, “7-year olds usually plagiarize.”

The craft-paper is being put to use to create a large map of Paris, with its quartiers (aha!) outlined in dark ink. We used the colored cards to draw a notre_dame_pinkpicture of each monument (six in total), to be tacked on this map at the start of each oral report. Each child has composed his or her own texts to read. The teacher wrote in the initial assignment, “you may help them research, but do not do the work in their place.” That’s a tall order. I spent every evening this week nudging and prodding her along. I did my best not to help.

This morning, Short-pants was giddy. I asked her if she wanted to practice her presentation or just wing it. She wanted to test it out on us. Standing tall and straight, she held her notes in one hand, waving the other for emphasis. De-facto, who goes to Toastmasters, coached her a little about remembering to look at the audience, about timing, and how and when to pass out the photographs (downloaded from Google Images). She was receptive to his suggestions.

At the door, I buttoned her coat, and gave her a big good-luck hug.
“I’m excited,” she said, “and a little nervous.”
“Nervous is okay,” I said, repeating some advice my father gave me more than once, “it means you respect your audience.”
“Oh, I do,” she said.
Then she turned and headed down the stairs.

Mar 8 2009

Moderate Drinking

The front and center headache that woke me up at 6:30 am this morning is milder now, and reminds me of the fun I had last night. A couple of glasses of white with early evening oysters, something robust and red to accompany dinner. champagne And after a rather meandering walk home, a final flute of champagne with good friends who live in the building. You can’t say I wasn’t lubricated.

I like the taste of alcohol. I like the buzz. I like to belly up to a bar, it’s a place I feel at home socializing. In my youth (mostly) I tried other vices but my preference is the legal one. I drink often in moderation and on occasion in excess. Don’t worry, sometimes I deliberately don’t drink. But the point is: I like to.

That’s why Anna Fricke’s post, Moderation and the Modern Mom, in the New York Times blog Proof got my attention by combining two pet subjects at once: alcohol and motherhood.

I could have written that post. Not nearly as well as she did. What I mean to say is that I could, like many women, substitute a few of my anecdotes with hers and describe the same experience. Not that stepping up on a narrow bar only to fall into a fortuitously placed barman’s arms was a brilliant idea. (But it is a good story.)

Fricke candidly chronicles an important passage in the life of a modern mother. We used to party indiscriminately – now we must discriminate. The reasons for prudence change as the children age: Concern for the health of the fetus is replaced with fear of contaminating breast milk, is replaced with the necessity to avoid the 7 am agony, when the kids come bounding into the bedroom expecting you to be as well-rested and hydrated as they are. Then there’s our own health to consider. Or the stamina that we seem to have lost. For good reasons, nobody parties like we used to.

In the end, it’s not the alcohol that Fricke misses:

It’s the immaturity. The selfishness. The wasted days frittered away recuperating from the wasted nights. It all turned around so quickly. I wasn’t prepared to be this person.

And that was one of the key points of her post. It’s not the booze; it’s the feeling of being able to be spontaneously foolish and careless. Most of us rally to the responsibility that momhood requires, and it’s not like we don’t reap the benefits of having these little loving beings in our lives. But once in a while I need to say it out loud: I never really wanted to grow up.

But oh, a rush of comments. Lots of readers, like me, empathized or identified with her and lauded her exceedingly honest reflection. Not everyone was so supportive. It’s no surprise that some people would be uncomfortable with her candor, she ‘fessed up to some embarrassing things that have to do with serious subjects: alcohol abuse and drunk driving. But I was stunned at the righteousness from people who either weren’t impressed with her ultimate self-actualization or simply didn’t get it. Some AA-ish advice was gently offered with good intention, but many comments were accusatory, acerbic and frankly, mean spirited. That she herself was making a case for not drinking (the other key point of the post) was lost on these people, who used the comment section to feel superior or project their own painful experiences on to her.
Well, like I said, alcoholism is a touchy subject, not one to be handled lightly. And motherhood is an equally hot-button topic. Everyone has an opinion about what pregnant women and nursing mothers – any mother for that matter – should feel and do. Mix the two together and I guess you have a lethal cocktail.

Mar 7 2009

What was I thinking?

In (what’s left of) my mind, I have an idea about what I want this blog to be. While I’ve hung my shingle on the hook of motherhood and its resulting mindlessness, it is my hope not to be limited to that.

The paradox – that I love these children of mine, but I don’t love the train-wreck they’ve made of my life – spills over into my writing. I don’t want it to be all about them. But somehow, it ends up being all about them. Any mother can sing you this song.

Each day, groping about at my quotidian tasks, little patchworks of prose – on all manner of topics – miraculously assemble themselves in my mind and I say to myself (oddly, in the voice of Toad, from Frog & Toad), “I will write a post about that someday.” And I duly make a note of it.

Yet what has the strongest pull, what ultimately draws me to the keyboard and overrides that ever present resistance that all writers wrestle, is usually some silly (or painful) reflective anecdote about being a mom. I suppose that’s my branding, whether I like it or not, and I seem to respond naturally to the memes that have to do with mothering.
I do believe that I can (and should) occasionally veer from the core subject matter, as long as I circle around and find my way to home territory for grounding. Most of the thoughtful blogs I read do just that. I need only give myself permission.

I am a woman with a private and professional life that spans beyond the subject of coping with children. I have other things to say. And I would say them, if I could only remember what they are.