Aug 27 2009

On the Road

Have grip, will travel. That was my grandmother’s motto. My mother, too, loves to travel and has voyaged to many far flung places. Travel is certainly my drug of choice. And apparently, my girls have acquired this gene for being happy on the road. They’re happy to bob along behind us, backpacks in tow. No matter what the time zone, sleep seems to come easily to them. We still get a few cries of “Are we there yet?” But complaints are minimal, and the adventure of travel is generally embraced.

We left on a jet plane, Short-pants read her way across the Atlantic while Buddy-roo – in pig heaven with her private video screen – watched five movies (some repeats) without interruption.
Even long drives don’t daunt the wonder girls. Short-pants read her way across the New York Thruway. Buddy-roo had only as many movies as we had computer battery power. But that was enough.

Though they carry its passports, the United States is a country that feels foreign to the girls. At a rest-stop, Buddy-roo wondered out loud why the toilet seats were so much bigger than those in France. This led to a delicate conversation about the size of people’s behinds in a country where portions are perhaps more generous than we’re used to.

But everything is big here. Kitchen appliances are enormous. TV screens are expansive. Channel choices, exhaustive. (Buddy-roo, again, in pig heaven.)

At my mother’s home, a flash-back to my playful past: every Fisher Price toy I ever owned is there, stored away to be brought out for just this kind of occasion. I watched my children sprawled out on the living room floor, their little fingers nudging the little wooden people through the rooms of my old doll house – and school house, airport, castle, etc. (I had an extensive collection.) I always loved those little people, little being the operative word since during the last thirty years safety measures have forced Fisher Price to change the design of its little people to make them too wide to swallow, keeping in step with the general size and girth of things on this side of the Atlantic.

What else is most noticeably large? The welcome we received from our family and friends, all along the route. The amount of fun we had. And of course the satisfaction we’ll feel when we walk through our door – when we’re home at last.

Aug 17 2009

New World Order

We didn’t get in the car until nearly 10 pm. Because it had been such a beautiful day, because it was harder to concentrate on the chores that must be done to close up the country house and leave it in good order, because deep down we really didn’t want to leave – all these reasons why we didn’t manage to get the car packed as early as we’d hoped. That meant a night drive, good because it’d be cooler than a daytime highway trip. Good
fridge_magnets because the kids would sleep through most of the drive. Good because we’d miss the heavy traffic returning to Paris at the mid-August vacation switch. It was all good, once we were en route. A little U2, Counting Crows, and Springsteen for the drive home. Iced coffee in a thermos. A string of red tail lights driving ahead of us into the night. A route that was fluide all the way to Paris. De-facto and I hardly spoke; both of us looking forward through the windshield, thinking separate thoughts, together.

Rousing sleeping children is like waking the dead-drunk, but ours are now too big to be carried. When they were toddlers, we’d hoist them over our shoulders, their lifeless limbs dangling as we climbed the stairs and delicately placed them in beds for uninterrupted sleep. But now driving dreams get disrupted and big girls carry their own backpacks up four flights of stairs.

De-facto was parking the car. I commanded bathroom visits and promised bedside kisses to good girls who put on their pajamas. I made a quick run down to the courtyard to get the bags I’d left. When I returned, I heard the girls in their bedrooms, shrieking.

“But that doesn’t go there,” said Short-pants, between sobs.

“Mama!” Buddy-roo screamed, “Everything’s put away wrong!”

I hadn’t thought to warn them. We’ve rented and loaned our apartment to people with children before, while we’re out of town. Things get a little mixed up, that’s normal. Though I’d never seen anything like this. But then, we’d never had twin boys staying in our home before.

At first glance, the room appeared to be in order. The drawers were shut and the baskets and trays all tucked neatly in their cubbyholes. But a closer inspection revealed the complete disorder that was hidden. The girls’ toys had been put away, but in a totally random fashion. Not that it’s ever in perfect order, but – more or less – each toy has its general place and its associated little pieces are usually found not far away. There was nothing logical about how the toys had been stowed. Pieces of plastic food here, there and over there, too. A dollhouse separated from its furniture, puppets stuffed in the wooden block box, wooden blocks in the plastic food bin. The Pet Shop house, petless. I made the mistake of opening the large wicker toy box, which was filled to the brim with any loose toy that apparently couldn’t find its natural home.

I could only imagine what these rooms must have looked like at the height of play. Every single ball, stuffed animal, doll and toy must have been strewn about, and then, when it was time to leave, stuffed into the closest available container.

The girls looked panicked. They were both wailing. “But this is not how we like it.”

I did my best to reassure them, explaining that this was not a 2:00 am kind of problem; this was the sort of thing that could be more effectively addressed in the morning light after a good night’s sleep. Already they were handling the toys, trying to put them in their rightful positions. I had to square off their shoulders and point them toward their mattresses. They climbed under the covers reluctantly, the both of them still sniffing final tears.
This could be a good thing, I thought, shutting the light behind me after goodnight kisses. They’re starting to appreciate the value of a little organization, how it’s easier to find things if you put them back where they go, how your things stay in better condition when they are put away nicely rather than stuffed in a toy box. All that logic I’ve been trying to cram down their throats must be seeping in.

Or have I saddled them with the anxious ball-and-chain phobia of needing things always in order? Am I burdening their up-until-now unfettered imagination? Stealing the last creative impulses of their childhood? Have I created two more neurotic people for the world, checking and double-checking that their post-it notes are at right angles on their perfectly ordered desks?

Laying in bed I could hear Buddy-roo’s tears winding down into a whimper, soon replaced by the even breathing of her slumber.

My last, smiling thoughts before drifting off to sleep: Welcome to my world, little girls.

Aug 12 2009

Window of Time

The bedroom we sleep in at our country house has no windows except for a skylight in the ceiling. When we bought the house it was barely a room, its rafters exposed and the underside of the terracotta-tiled roof in full view. The first summer we were here, we put in a proper ceiling and cut in the skylight to add some natural light. There was talk of cutting a window in the 18”-thick stone wall so that we could see the cornfield behind the house. But like many of the dreams we have about this rundown, part-barn, second home of ours, that was added to the list of things we’ll get to, eventually. This renovation is a long-term project.

There’s something to be said, however, for living in a house before you renovate it. The assumptions that you make when you first stand in a room are tested over time. Though the country kitchen of my dreams is still years away from being realized, the placement of its appliances will be different – having used the room and divined its natural circulation – than if we’d put a brand new kitchen in straight away.
And after sleeping in the windowless, womblike back bedroom for four years, I’m not sure we’ll ever put a window in that wall. I have the best sleeps in this room, thick and heavy with velvety dreams. It’s like being in a tank, oblivious to the outside world, protected from noise and light, impervious to everything, except a small child who decides it’s time for you to get up.

This morning I was curled around Buddy-roo in the center of our big bed, having both fallen back to sleep during the ritual morning cuddle. Short-pants had slipped out from under the covers earlier; I remember hearing her uneven steps around the foot of the bed. De-facto was exceptionally industrious, rising early to lay a belt of cement beside the house to add security to the foundation (don’t ask), preferring to work in the cooler morning hours.

“Mama.” I felt a skinny finger tapping my shoulder. Since Buddy-roo was motionless beside me, it had to be Short-pants.
“Mama, I’m hungry.”
I groaned. I was in the middle of such a delicious sleep.
“Mama, I want something to eat.”
“Ask Papa.” I mumbled.
“He said he’s too busy.”

It didn’t really make sense that De-facto would say he was too busy to make breakfast for one of his daughters. And Short-pants knows how to pour a bowl of cereal for herself. But when you’re half-asleep things don’t necessarily make sense. Maybe, I thought, if I don’t respond, she’ll leave me alone. I could still fall back to that dreamy slumber, if I just didn’t move.

I could hear her breathing behind me.
“Mama,” her voice sweeter than ever, “I’m really hungry.”

Later, after stirring honey into a bowl of yogurt – and explicitly explaining to her how to do it – I sat beside her on the rickety bench by our table. She silently spooned yogurt into her mouth while I cupped my hand around a bowl-like mug of café-au-lait. We sat together like that, wordless, and watched the sun pour through the window across the dusty floor. I can sweep that floor three times a day, but here in the country, it’s always dusty.

“Did Papa really say he was too busy to make you breakfast?” I said.
She shook her head no. “I didn’t ask him.”
“Why did you have to wake me up? I was having such a nice sleep-in.”
I was about to launch into the little lecture I’ve given before, about how impolite it is to wake us up early when it’s a weekend or vacation morning.
“I just wanted to have some time alone with you,” she said.

I wanted to be angry. But how can you be mad at someone who simply wants a little bit of undivided attention? It’s true that I’m always in the middle of something. I spend too much time doing and not enough time being. I live my life feeling barely caught up, always running someplace and I’m already late, taking care of something I forgot to do, perpetually spewing the busy mom’s mantra, “just let me finish this….”
When the girls were babies and I was up to my ears in their 24/7 care, people told me “it will go by so fast, enjoy it while you can.” At the time – given that some days I couldn’t even find a moment to brush my teeth – I resented this clichéd comment. But now I’m finding out how it might be true for me. While I wouldn’t go back to those diapered, toddler years again, I do sense that right now is a unique window of time, a window when they are (relatively) independent and yet still interested in having anything to do with me. I know it won’t last forever, this window. I want to take advantage of it while it’s here and now. Spending time with them is not something to be added to the list of things I’ll get to, eventually. They are my most important long-term project.

And I will get to them. I will, as soon as I finish this post.

Aug 9 2009

Fine Art

If you liked the painting of our courtyard featured in the previous post, then you should know it’s painted by a friend of mine who’s an artist – my singing, painting, writing, wondering, wandering and wonderful friend, Caroline. You can see and learn more about her artwork here.
She used to live in Paris but she moved away more than a year ago. I miss her terribly.

She’s a professional vagabond these days; traveling across the United States with her clever, cool and very funny “I really love zees guy” film-making husband.

Nobody knows where they’ll end up. San Francisco? New York? But wherever and whenever, I’m certain she’ll collect her painting supplies. She does accept projects on commission (and can work from a photograph) and more than a few of my friends are thrilled with the portraits she’s painted. Ricky is one of her patrons; she’s done at least three paintings for him.

So, just a suggestion: bookmark her website for future reference, in case you ever want to present a unique and artistic gift to someone you love.

Aug 8 2009

If the Shoe Fits

After a long and painfully quiet spell, life has returned to the courtyard of our building. That’s because Ricky and Lucy have returned, finally, from their extended (remember, they live in France) summer vacation, which gave us a perfect reason to pull together one of our semi-spontaneous courtyard dinner parties.
Paris is known for its hidden, enchanted courtyards, and the one in our building is especially sweet. Sometimes when I open the door to the street, passers-by get a peek at the casually manicured foliage within, craning their necks to see more before the hefty door closes. The perimeter is lined with leafy plants and bushes. Flowers bloom in a charming sequence over the course of the summer. A small tree – though big enough for young children to climb – stands stoically in the center, offering adequate shade at high ten a.m. but otherwise letting specks of sunlight dance on the cobblestone surface below.

Ricky and Lucy’s door opens right on to the courtyard, so weather permitting, they can move their dining table outside (well, Ricky moves it while Lucy reminds him not to scratch it) and with a few odd chairs set around it, and some candles and wine glasses, we’re dining al fresco. And get this – after Ricky carries the wide, heavy table through the 18th century-sized European door, he turns around, dons his apron and throws together some gastronomic-quality eats.

“We haven’t got that much food,” he said when he phoned to say they were home. “Don’t worry,” I told him, “we’ll bring down our leftovers.” Of course, when I looked at what was left in the fridge, it was pretty lean. Some cold pasta with chorizo. A cucumber. Half a bag of salad greens. Not much, but it’d do. They were just getting home from their holidays and we were just getting ready to leave; everyone would be forgiving.

We traipsed down – en famille – four flights of stairs to the courtyard to find Ricky had laid out a table that looked ready for a Gourmet magazine photographer. Dollops of tuna fish with capers on tiny cucumber pillows, yellow peppers tossed in olive oil and spices, prosciutto folded around slices of dried mango with toasted pine nuts on top. A little while later, our leftover pasta – after a makeover with his fresh green herbs – got passed around and tasted like a whole new dish.

We sipped chilled rosé and traded stories. Short-pants and Buddy-roo occupied themselves running between the courtyard and Ricky and Lucy’s studio, playing hide-n-seek or acting out some scene from a favorite movie. Until it got quiet – a little too quiet. Just as we were debating who would get up to go see what kind of trouble they were in, the curtain on the closet opened and out came Buddy-roo, shuffling along in a pair of Lucy’s high-heeled shoes.

“Those are great ones,” Lucy said, “the rubies make them way-fancy while the comfortable heel makes it easy for you party all night long.” Her commentary easily giving Monolo the Shoeblogger a run for his money. Buddy-roo fell immediately into runway form, turning and giving us a view of all sides of the shoes before shuffling back toward the closet.
Short-pants appeared to replace her, her too-small feet skating forward in a pair of shoes.

“Oh those,” Lucy fell right in sync with the girls, inventing her commentary for this fashion show on the spot. “My favorite little Italian sandals. Toes are totally revealed. The strap in the back makes the ankle look thinner. And check out that heel. Not too high, but very sassy. Plus the color – so rosy, it turns any outfit into something sexy.”

Lucy was on a roll, so the girls kept parading out in her shoes. Buddy-roo slid forward in black patent leather pumps. “Oh,” sighed Lucy, “these are god’s gift to womankind. A partnership between Cole Haan – think brazen and chic – and Nike Air – think comfortable sneakers. In these black beauties, you look elegantly at ease from day to night.”

“Give us a Dorothy,” I called out, like a heckler. Short-pants twisted one of her big toes, turning the foot to the side, just like Dorothy showing off her ruby slippers in the Wizard of Oz.

De-facto shot me an amused look as if to say what are you teaching them?
Buddy-roo peeked out of the closet and paraded toward the door in a pair of shiny silver sandals. “Ho shoes,” said Lucy, “they’re like, come hither. There is only one reason to wear these gems.”

Buddy-roo looked up at her. “Really? What reason?”

“Never mind,” said Lucy, realizing where she was headed. I almost nazed my wine.

“More peppers, anyone?” said Ricky.

It’s so nice to have our courtyard back to normal.

Aug 5 2009

Really, So Sorry

I’d like to suggest a new definition of the term RSS, otherwise known to mean Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. Mine is: Really, So Sorry.

Really, so sorry because I’m going to ask you, if you happen to be someone who has subscribed to my blog via RSS, to do me the favor of re-subscribing. This way I can have a better idea about who’s using my blog and how much. Even though my stats are very modest, it’s nice to know, ya know?
So if you would, please click here or just move your cursor over to the sidebar of my blog and tap away at that sweet little orange button that says Subscribe via RSS. It takes just a moment. (It will route you to my FeedBurner page, where you can select the RSS reader of your choice.) It’s pretty effortless.

This request applies only to RSS subscribers. If you signed up by typing your e-mail address into the subscribe field on my sidebar (which means each time I publish a post you get a little e-mail saying so) then pay no attention to any of this technical mumbo-jumbo. Things are business as usual for you.

Really, so sorry. Thanks for taking a moment this emerging geek-girl out.

Aug 3 2009

Random Evolution

It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that my two daughters came out of the same womb. At first glance, their blue eyes and blonde heads – and their complete familiarity with each other – make it obvious that they’re sisters. But spend some time with them, and you’d find they might as well have crawled out of
Shortpants_listtwo entirely different gene pools. It’s a real case for nature over nurture.

Short-pants says things like, “When you’re old, I promise to take care of you.” She even wrote, voluntarily, a list of things to do when Mama and Papa are too old which includes the tasks of making breakfast, buying what we need, earning money and doing everything we ask her to do. It’s enough to actually make you look forward to getting old.

Buddy-roo, on the other hand, approaches aging differently. She asks the question, “When you die, can I have that necklace?”

I don’t mean to paint Buddy-roo as jewelry-grubbing hound. Except she is a material girl and she’s very aware of the material world. Not that she is unkind or impolite; on the contrary, she is lovely and funny and sweet. Her requests are innocent. She’s just a wee bit demanding, especially when it has to do with things and having them. No amount of parental re-programming seems to have been able to counter this innate trait of hers. She is the poster child for the economy of obsolescence.

The other day I stopped in front of a store to admire a dress, a sequined little number that glistened in the window. “Do you like it mama?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “It’s pretty wow, isn’t it?” “Why don’t you buy it?” she asked. “I don’t have to buy it,” I answered, spotting a opportunity for a teaching moment, “I can just admire it and appreciate how beautiful it is every time I pass the store window.” Short-pants chimed in, “It’s true, we don’t have to have things to enjoy them.”

“But why don’t you buy it, mama?” I tried to explain again, but she persisted. “You should buy it now, mama. It will look too beautiful on you.” She found it incomprehensible that my attraction to the dress didn’t include an immediate aspiration to purchase it.

Does this come from me? It certainly doesn’t come from De-facto, who hasn’t bought himself a new piece of clothing since the late ‘90s. All I could think to do was stare at her.

“And when you’re tired of wearing that dress,” she said, “you can give it to me.”

Last week I was sequestered, more or less, with a gang of mathematicians and scientists who were charged with generating ideas for research projects under the subject heading Maths of Life. (As a passport-carrying American, I’m more inclined to say math, but being on this side of the Atlantic, I went with the European usage.) This particular workshop brought together the domains of maths and biology, asking a collected brain trust to think about the application of mathematics (oh, it is plural after all) to better understand – or even to accelerate – evolution. They were throwing about words like genes and genomes and genotypes and phenotypes. And stochastic. This was a word I heard a lot. Stochastic means, according to one of the maths experts, the incorporation of randomness.
Oh but don’t I witness this at home! How much of whom my little creatures have become is simply the incorporation of a random combination of genetic codes? The strange splitting and mixing of De-facto’s chromosomes with mine, the seemingly random and yet stunningly deliberate mix of our DNA creates a humbling little piece of evolution. In this case, the continuation of a surname, born out in two very distinguished pathways.

When we returned home after being away for a week, Short-pants complained about our absence. I reminded her that sometimes her Papa and I have to go away to work, to earn money to keep our household going, to have food to eat, clothes to wear, so we can do cool things like take music and theater classes and travel to interesting places.

“But why don’t we just sell some of the things we own?” she asked, “Then you wouldn’t have to go to work and we could all stay home together, all the time.”

Buddy-roo, on the other hand, greeted us with a different sentiment than her sister. She poked through my suitcase, pretending to help me unpack. And then, when she couldn’t stand it anymore:

“Didn’t you bring me home a present?”