Sep 24 2009

The Words

Words count for a lot in our house; me being the aspiring writer, Short-pants, a voracious reader, De-facto, an enthusiastic speaker (goes to Toastmasters) and Buddy-roo, the consummate chatterbox. Not to mention that in our household we speak two languages, so we have double the number of words to navigate. Words matter.

Hang around with us and you’ll occasionally hear one of the adults suggesting calmly (and not to each other), “use your words.” Pointing and grunting are frowned upon. Our children have been indoctrinated to speak in full sentences and even the magic words are pretty well embedded. Not that an occasional reminder isn’t necessary, but frequently enough to impress me, the girls make good use of please and thank you – and do so with real feeling.

Every household has its “words,” part of the family folklore that is generated by the cute or clever mistakes made by children as they learn about life and language. Often these words relate to scatological subject matter; a topic which I deliberately avoid in this blog because a) I find it unattractive, b) nobody cares about my children’s potty habits, and 3) it would be a nightmare if a Google search on my name produced something so distasteful and yet memorable. But it’s a subject we all talk about – at least privately – and it is often the cornerstone of a family vocabulary. My brother and sister and I made a blood pact never to divulge the words to another living person, a vow we all have kept. Even De-facto doesn’t know the words from my childhood, and never will.
Having said that, there is a word that De-facto and I introduced to our lil’ nuclear family that I will share – because my friends love it so much – the word we use for one’s “private parts.” It’s not that we have such a hang-up about the technical terms; we’ll get to them when the girls start posing probing questions about the birds and the bees. But honestly, I never wanted my 3-year old over-employing the word vagina in a loud voice at the supermarket, so we came up with a gender-neutral signifier instead: the business. Typical use at bath time: “Did you wash the business?” Another common usage: “If your business doesn’t hurt, why are you holding it?”

It’s a bit easier on the ear than the v-word or the p-word, and can be used discreetly in public, like a code. It only backfired on me once, when Buddy-roo, at the age of about 4, bounded into my office despite the closed-tight door, to announce something important. I shushed her in a panicked whisper: “Shhhh! Mama’s on a business call!”

Business?!” she shrieked as De-facto apologetically pulled her out of the office and shut the door behind them. I could hear her laughing in the hall, “Mama’s making a call from her business? Ha!”

Yes, well it seemed like a good word when we first came up with it.

Some of these invented family words come into common use because of an adorable mispronunciation or mal-interpretation that turns out to be quite astute. Buddy-roo is the originator of some of our best terminology. She of course utters the typical breafquist, an oft-mispronounced word. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cute when every child says it, but it’s not that original. Part of Buddy-roo’s linguistic charm is her strange non-rhotic accent which amuses us to no end because even De-Facto, who hails from Boston, doesn’t share her aversion for the letter ‘R.’ But accent and odd pronunciation habits aside, Buddy-roo excels at inventing words. And they make more sense than you’d expect. A few examples:

Rainbrella: the round, collapsible device one uses as protection from the rain. This makes so much more sense to us than umbrella, which, um, has nothing to do with the element against which it’s designed to offer protection. (I guess it makes sense if you speak Latin, which we don’t.) She also suggested the word Sunbrella, similarly styled and found at the beach. No doubt Buddy-roo’s French has informed the invention of these two words, as parapluie and parasol are both used for the rain or the sun.

Unlistener. This is a person, initially a child in the first grade – but you can imagine this applying to any segment of the population – who, despite being within auditory range, prefers to remain in the state of “not having heard it.” An unlistener can be quite selective, but ultimately, this is someone that you can’t really count on to receive or re-transmit information of any importance. Common usage: “You can’t ask him anything, he’s the biggest unlistener in the class.”

Smashed potatoes. So much more descriptive than mashed ones, don’t you think?
Short-pants, on the other hand, takes very seriously the correct acquisition of new words for her vocabulary. Last week, she got the idea to sleep with her dictionaries, reasoning that the words might seep into her brain by osmosis, a word she then had to look up. It makes for an uncomfortable night’s rest, as she feels compelled to stack under her pillow three dictionaries – English, French and French/English – to accommodate her hunger for words. Hard to say if it’s working, but we must admire her commitment to learning.

Short-pants is a stickler for correctness, and this kicks in when she overhears me speaking French. My French is operable, but I don’t have the linguistic muscle that she’s acquired by starting it at such a young age. Since she feels compelled to correct my pronunciation and grammar, we’ve made a deal: I will receive her corrections enthusiastically, as long as she delivers them gently with the intention of helping rather than humiliating me. It’s a beautiful thing. She’ll wait until nobody is around and leaning toward me, in a conspiratorial tone, she’ll suggest something like, “Mama, you might want to say le instead of la with the word pain.”

Buddy-roo, I can already tell you, won’t treat me so kindly. Her corrections, when they start coming at me, will be marked with eye rolling and heavy sighs of disgust, which I will tolerate for only a short while before I tell her to mind her own business.

Sep 19 2009

Rear View Mirror

I used to be somebody.

I had a job – okay maybe not a big fat job, but a little fat job – with an uplifting title and a salary that seemed to me handsomer than I’d expected for that stage of my life. I had a secretary, employees who wanted to please me, colleagues who cared what I thought, and a few fans in the business who were happy to run into me at conventions. I left a tiny mark on an industry – a pinky print on a short period of its history, but nonetheless, I did one or two notable things.

Because my neck and shoulders used to hurt from too much telephone time, I wore a headset, making it impossible for my staff to know if I was actually on the phone or not. I preferred to keep my office door open, so my assistant made a changeable plaque for my desk that read NOW or NOT NOW, to silently inform people of my availability to converse. My office was a corner one, not as large as the other older executives – and admittedly it came with a view of a depressed New England city – but it was a light, bright office, and I was happy for all the glass, which I used to tally the performance of the sales people in the division on what we called the Window of Opportunity.

But the wanderlust started singing its siren song, rustling up the restlessness in me, beckoning me to quit my job and the up-and-coming life I had perfunctorily choreographed for myself. “You’ve got the coolest job,” people said, “how can you leave?” It was hard to explain that the consequences of not leaving had surpassed those of leaving, as scary as it was.

What followed was weird and wonderful; to stow my belongings and move to Europe, to be in my thirties and yet footloose, like a college student without a college. No job. No man. No itinerary. No dependents. I was a professional vagabond. Or at least that was my response to people asking that rather uninventive question, “and what do you do?”

I did this flittering about thing for just enough time to run out of money, and then (luckily) found myself in career-step again, in the same industry but on a different (and desired) coast of the Atlantic, bouncing around European capitals. But then, like Ground Hog Day, once again the restlessness took hold. So I stepped off the hamster wheel, again.
And well here I am. I don’t have to go to an office every day. I am more in control of my time than my friends with regular full-time jobs. I schedule long vacations when I want. I choose to accept assignments, or not. I work with a cool network of colleagues, so I still get the best of the team thing, but sans all the baloney.

I’m a working mother on my own terms; I was home when they were babies and now I’m home – more often than not – when the kids come home from school. I witnessed all the firsts, first hand (well except this one). Plus there’s this: I have time to fart around. You know, the sort of puttering not really doing anything but kind of reading maybe daydreaming, thinking about whatever, Walter Mitty-ish, distracted way of wasting time? I actually get to do a bit of that.

This is the part where I’m supposed to crow about how leaving the corporate grind was a redefining, liberating moment from which the good fortune of my life has been launched. I’m supposed to brag about how I’m so much happier now, without those external pressures, the full-on job, the bullshit of the corporate world. I’m supposed to say my life is exponentially improved and that quitting that job was the best thing I ever did, for me and well certainly – cue the trumpet fanfare – for my children.

Except there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t wonder if it was the right choice. I miss some parts of that previous incarnation of me, despite my smug satisfaction about how sweet things have turned out. God knows I miss the secretary. But I also miss the brain-jolt that comes from working with a cohesive team, every day. I miss the camaraderie of pulling together to meet that weekly deadline, or face a tough first quarter, or celebrate a we-pulled-it-off performance. I miss the status – there I said it – of having a few initials by my name and the doors that opened to me as a result. I miss the truly disposable income that comes from a steady and hearty paycheck, you know, higher thread-counts and other little luxuries of life that aren’t must-have but sure are nice-to-have.
So did I make the right choice? Have I made a mistake? Or is this questioning simply a natural reaction, at this middle-ish point of my life, to reflect upon the choices I’ve made and experience the reward and regret associated with paths both chosen and un-chosen?

I have friends who’ve done well. They get profiled in the Alumni magazine. They appear in stories above the fold on the front page of the New York Times. They’ve made a major lasting impact in their fields. They live in apartments with foyers larger than my bedroom, or designer homes built with the profit from stocks I opted to sell so I could move abroad. Funny that it’s often when I think about these more traditionally successful people that the pangs for what I didn’t do seem fiercer. Then I saw this thoughtful post by Tim Kreider for the New York Times’ Blog, Happy Days. He calls this phenomenon the referendum, a (mostly, but not entirely) midlife examination, driven by the realization that time and choices are running out and as we take a measure of ourselves, we can’t help but make a comparison to our peers.

It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning.

Satisfaction alternating with dissatisfaction passes over me like ocean waves. One day I’m winning, perfectly delighted with the quasi-bohemian freedom of my life. The next day, I wonder if having and doing those other things would have made life easier or more enjoyable.

And some days I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off without kids. About this, Kreider writes:

Judging from the unanimity with which parents preface any gripe about children with the disclaimer, “Although I would never wish I hadn’t had them and I can’t imagine life without them,” I can’t help but wonder whether they don’t have to repress precisely these thoughts on a daily basis.

I can imagine my life without them. I can imagine the things I’d do on a whim. I can imagine empty, quiet weekends and uninterrupted conversations. But I didn’t choose a childless life, just as I didn’t choose the corporate life. And though I keep doing it, I know that looking back to evaluate these choices is not a particularly productive use of my time. There’s no do-over, Kreider reminds us, “Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control.”

So I march forward, an anonymous person with a busy-lazy life, with two children who fill me up as much as they wear me out. In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter which choices I made, as long as I own up to them and play them out fully, without the nagging voice of remorse – just the occasional, curious, mindful glance in the rear view mirror.

Sep 14 2009

The Vendange

We couldn’t get enough of our country house this summer, and even though the September back-to-school routine is a welcome one, we snuck out of town on Friday with hopes for an Indian Summer weekend à la campagne.

The weather cooperated with the gift of flawless blue skies and unhindered sunlight. A constant if somewhat reckless breeze raced through and around the stone house – slamming doors and flapping curtains – announcing the arrival of autumn. The sun was a bit lower as it arced across the sky, but still warm enough to dry our laundry and nourish our garden from which we harvested the last of the carrots and lettuce, and even a few last treats offered from a lone tomato plant.

But the news – the real news – is about the vendange. There were grapes to be harvested! After three years of attending to those stubborn stalks without any reward, this year the vines have produced plentiful bunches of succulent grapes.
“Who’s going to help with the vendange?” I shouted boastfully to the girls.

“We will!” they both shouted back in tandem.

And then, a few moments later, Short-pants asked, “What’s a vendange?”

How to explain the romance of the vendange? I’ve seen grape harvests in Western New York state, when I was a teenager, and in Switzerland where I lived for a year in my early thirties. Driving out to the vineyards in the back of a truck, jumping off with a crate in hand, gliding down each row of vines, filling the crates, bunch by bunch with round, ripe grapes. It’s backbreaking work, but harvesting bushels of fresh grapes for eating and for wine making is somehow so very satisfying. Something about the completion of a seasonal cycle, or else the anticipation of the (finally) well-deserved sampling of the end product.

“Do we have to be barefoot?” Buddy-roo asked.

“No,” I laughed, “that’s for making wine. We’re just picking the grapes.” I racked my brain to figure out where she would have learned about grape stomping. It has to have been a movie, maybe the DVD of Brigadoon has a scene like that? Or has she seen that famous episode of I Love Lucy?
The grape vines – left for us by the previous owner of the house – grow in four different spots on our property; the green grapes on patches of land that get more sun, the purple ones in more shaded areas. After rummaging through the junk in the barn – also left for us by the previous owner – I found a dirty crate and hosed it off and set out to collect my bounty.

“To the harvest!” I called out. Short-pants ran along beside me. She watched, and then followed suit, reaching to grab the stems and pull off the grapes in full bunches. Buddy-roo appeared a few moments later in her pink plastic high-heeled slippers. (I did not buy her
grapes_shoes these come-hither shoes. They are hand-me-downs from the girls who live down the road.) She folded her arms and watched us as we carefully set each bunch of grapes into the crate.

“Dressed for the harvest?” I asked.

She nodded. “In case we need to stomp on them.”

Isn’t it romantic to think that I might make my own wine someday? De-facto keeps asking, and I keep telling him – and everyone else who asks – that I harbor no fantasies of producing a fine wine, or even a modest or mediocre one. I am proud of my little harvest, but I am no oenologist. Besides, the yield of my crop isn’t enough to make but a few bottles, hardly worth the investment or effort. The idea of making wine is a lot more romantic than the actual activity. But if I ever change my mind, I know who will help me stomp on the grapes.

Sep 10 2009

Involved Enough

In Paris, parents are more or less locked out of school. During the maternelle years – ages 3, 4 and 5 – there’s a convivial morning ritual of accompanying young children to the classroom and returning at the end of the day to retrieve them. But once they hit the classe primaire, or CP – the equivalent of first grade – entry to the school building by parents is almost prohibited.
school_facade Children are dropped at a courtyard in the morning, and met outside the doors at the end of the day. French teachers do not make themselves particularly available to meet with parents. It’s not impossible – and when you do manage a consultation all the right things happen – but the maitresse does not go out of her way to distribute her phone numbers or email address. If you call to make a rendezvous with the school principal, getting past the gate-keeping secretary is a colossal task. A written letter is required, which is usually met with a written response. Something has to be really wrong to get an audience with the directrice.

This is to say what happens behind the school doors is a mystery.

This may have to do with the fact that the French believe that the state is responsible for educating the children of France. The state runs the school, so the school is in charge. Parents meddle as little as possible, sometimes because they believe the school administrators know best, but just as often because they know it’s futile to try and make changes. Being the squeaky wheel only threatens their child’s reputation and ends up being a waste of time.

So at the beginning of the school year, when the parent-teacher meetings are announced, we clear our schedules to attend. It’s the one time we get a peek inside that secret school world, the only time we get a hint of what really goes on in there.

I’m not your over-involved PTA type of mom (more like Harper Valley PTA) but I do harbor a slight curiosity about the curriculum and activities of my offspring. I also have a propensity for mild forms of activism and random acts of problem solving. I remember a few years ago when Short-pants was in the maternelle. The teacher – during that one, precious beginning-of-year parent meeting – lamented that a musician had approached her about working with the students, but unfortunately there was no budget for a music class.

I felt my hand rise up from my lap. I didn’t want it to. I knew it was in vain. But I couldn’t help myself. “Couldn’t we do some kind of a fundraising activity in the neighborhood?”

No pin was dropped. But had there been, it would have been audible. And I knew what they were all thinking: “Oh that’s the American.” I wanted to scream out at them, “Listen, I can’t believe I just said that either! But shouldn’t we at least try to do something?” Needless to say, there was no special music class that year.

I don’t mean to suggest that French parents don’t help out. They do. They bake quiches for school parties, attend special functions and performances and join the school advisory councils. Of course they care about their children’s scholastic welfare. But where American parents might be very involved in their children’s school, French parents are usually less involved, maybe just enough involved.

I imagine if we lived in the United States, I’d probably be complaining about all the meetings and activities and fundraisers I’d feel compelled to be involved in (or guilty about not attending). Here in France, I get to complain about how it’s hard to be involved in what’s happening at school – or harder to complain about what’s not quite right at school – because the school prefers that you stay out of their hair.

Yesterday, the first of three school meetings I’ll attend over the next two weeks: this one for the parents of bilingual students who take English classes in addition to the rest of their curriculum in French. The parents assembled – an eclectic group of mixed-culture marriages, or like us, English-speaking couples who’ve chosen to live in Paris – are used to volunteering to help with the English Section’s activities, like the Halloween party and the Christmas concert. Still, when the request was made soliciting a parent-liaison for each class, there was an awkward quieting in the room. Pins could be heard. Eyes were averted. Everyone wants to help, sure, but do we want to be that involved?

After the meeting, they served cocktails (yes!) on the school terrace (surnames A-M brought drinks, N-Z contributed food) and I mingled with the other Anglo parents, puzzling together some of the differences between French and Anglo schools. Everyone agrees it’s a little too rigid in France, but maybe it’s gotten bit too loose in other places like America.

Except of course when it comes to the school subject of the week: the windstorm about President Obama’s address to school children. It’s hard – sitting over here – to understand the vitriol directed at Barack Obama, a smart, even tempered, articulate man who wants to involve himself in the education of children by encouraging them to study hard and stay in school.
If I lived in the United States, I’d be grateful that the President wanted to talk to school-aged children. I’d have been one of the parents calling the school to plead for as much access to the speech as possible. I’d have offered to come down and facilitate a post-program debrief for the students to perpetuate a dialogue about his speech, about education, about the process of government – or maybe about the whole controversy and freedom of speech and the right for people to (intelligently) express an opposing view. I’d have been psyched.

But since I live in France, I’ll just watch the back to school speech with Short-pants and Buddy-roo, and we’ll have our own little discussion. Even on this side of the Atlantic, it’s pertinent. Obama’s message is universal.

Tonight there’s another school meeting – this time with the Buddy-roo’s main teacher, the French one. I’ll get to see the classroom. I’ll learn about the weekly schedule. I’ll get the explanation of which cahiers are for what and which colored pens are to be used for which homework assignments. I’ll be reminded about getting to school on time. Questions will be asked and answered. Chances are good there’ll be no solicitation for volunteers. I’ll leave the school still not really understanding what happens, but at least I’ll feel involved enough.

Sep 4 2009

Second Day of School

All at once, the streets are busy. Those late August mornings, tranquil and traffic-free, fade into an end-of-summer reverie. The city re-awakens and stretches her sidewalks to welcome the armies of small school-children carrying larger-than-laws-of-physics-should-allow backpacks. Their parents walk in step behind, sleepily pressing little ones along – or march brusquely in front, dragging sluggish children forward toward school courtyards that lay quiet and dormant all summer and now shriek with the collective noise of playing children. Everyone’s a little foggy, still operating on summer-speed, shaking out the cobwebs, rousing slowly to the reality of the rentrée and the routine of school and work. No matter the degree of excitement or trepidation any child might have about the return to school, the parents wax enthusiastic with proclamations of how great it will be to return to the groove of learning new things and seeing school friends. Inside, these same parents are thinking, “free at last.”

Who could imagine that after a nearly jobless (and rather agreeable) summer, an assignment would fall into my lap, a project coinciding with the advent of the first day of school? And that then at the last minute, De-facto’s assistance would be necessary too? Another nomination for negligent parents of the year award; we both missed the first day of school.

It wasn’t Short-pants we were worried about. She knows the drill, having been through more than one rentrée at this establishment. But it’s a new start for Buddy-roo, who not only changes schools this year, but gears up for the rigor of the first grade after lollygagging about in the ecole maternelle for three years. It’s the real deal for her: new school, new teacher, new classmates. The strong hand of one of her favorite adults would ease the transition, but she’d have to make do with the soft touch of her big sister.

The decision was not so difficult; De-facto and I cocked our heads to one side or another and shrugged. We do value the importance of rituals, and this is the kind of occasion that deserves to be ritualized. But when it was her real and true very – I mean very first – day of school, when she started at the maternelle, we were both there. We’ve helped her through lots of firsts. Isn’t it time she starts toughening up a little and handling her own? Aren’t we doing her a disservice by coddling her through the initiations of her life? And won’t accepting this work allow us to cover her tuition? (I think that was the clincher.)

“You tell her,” I told him.

Buddy-roo took it well. “Okay,” she said, “but will I still get a goûter?”
Assured that her snack would remain intact, she didn’t seem to mind. It may have helped that this all came down about the same time that I opened up the two shopping bags of school supplies to sort them between her and sister. Remember the excitement – a satisfied anticipation – of having new school supplies? Though these implements are used for schoolwork, not necessarily a favorite topic, when they’re just out of the package, unused and colorful, and the smell of a new school year rests upon them, it’s all good.

De-facto wondered why I hadn’t taken the girls with me to shop for the school supplies, speaking of rituals. Here’s why: the liste de fournitures provided by the school is so onerous, so entirely detailed and specific – down to the exact centimeter of each ruler (which must be made of transparent plastic and not metal) that it’s just plain easier to do alone. The first year I was tested in the art of buying school supplies, I took Short-pants with me and we fumbled around the paper-supply aisles of the BHV department store. “What’s this mean?” I’d ask her, but she had no more experience with French school supplies than I did. After reading the list again and again and getting nowhere, I finally nabbed a salesperson to help me decipher it. Short-pants stood by bored and restless. There’s nothing to choose. It’s all just a checklist of boring items: types and colors of pens permitted and not permitted, one of these being specific brand of fountain pen, refillable only with blue ink, notebooks made of a particular style of graph paper, paintbrushes of a stipulated size. Erasers are to be white. Blank paper sold in large pochette envelopes must be double-checked, to be sure it’s the correct centimeter size. It gives you a head-ache just to read the list, let alone to acquire its contents.

But it was all worth it when the living room floor was plastered with fresh packages of paper and colored pens and pencils, erasers, rulers, folders and books, and the girls jumped in a jubilant dance. Each time I pulled out a new item, a gasp of delight. “Wow!” marveled Buddy-roo, “I get my own glue-stick?”

Later I was busy drawing up a professional org-chart to navigate the girls from our house to school via several hand-offs – our early morning departure required Ricky and Lucy taking over the breakfast shift and then delivering the girls to the hands of other good friends in the neighborhood who have kids enrolled in the same school – the girls took inventory of their new supplies. And then one of those moments when it’s all justified, when the hassle and annoyance of being saddled with an tedious list of school supplies vanishes: “I’m so excited,” Buddy-roo said, wiggling her hips, “I’m going to school so I can learn how to read!”

That’s about as Alleluia as it gets, if you ask me.

The choreography of their first day worked flawlessly, thanks to reliable neighbors in the morning, and our trusted babysitter in the afternoon. An exuberant report that evening disclosed the details of the day: talk of old friends and new friends, who sat where and why, first assignments and new cahiers, and a whole slew of paperwork for me to fill out not once, but twice (but that’s another post) and in general we encountered a pair of enthusiastic students.

De-facto and I made up for missing the first day of school by walking them to school – the both of us, together, which is rare – on the second day.
walk_to_schoolBuddy-roo, having survived day one, knew the ropes. She fastened her shoes, hoisted her pink backpack on her shoulders, and sped down the stairs ahead of her sister. We walked along, the four of us, a family in full force, one amongst many in the army of families making the morning march to school.

Once there, we lingered, catching up with the other parents, waiting to watch the girls make their way into the building, waving back at them until the last possible moment. Then, hand in hand, De-facto and I turned and walked toward home, free at last.