Oct 29 2010

Just the Doing of It

We arrived in the dark. Not the optimal time to get started at the country house. There was everything to do as dusk turned to night, fumbling with rusty skeleton keys to open the doors, switching on the electricity, venturing out to the yard to uncover the water pump to open its valves, visiting each tap in and around the house to turn off what had been left on to prevent pipes freezing, unpacking the car, stocking the fridge with groceries we purchased at lightening speed at the hypermarket ½-hour away, its closing hour pressing in on us as we raced to the check-out. De-facto set to light the wood stove, which took forever to start burning and once lit, seemed to take forever to heat the room framed by the stone walls that have assumed the outside temperatures that get cooler with each passing day.

We huddled over our dinner, shivering. Without hot water (it takes hours for the heater to deliver) we left the dishes for the mice and the morning and bracing ourselves, headed upstairs to the unheated bedrooms. Quickly stretching the cold, clean sheets over dusty mattresses, we fell into our beds waiting for the warmth and dreams to come. In the morning, frost inside the windows, and a light layer of white on the meadow across the road, but the sky blue and clear and fresh and that feeling of how good it is to be here á la campagne.

I rose and wrapped my icy hands around a warm bowl of café-au-lait and slid into my wellies and out to the yard to inspect my grapes. Take note of the possessive pronoun that has been assigned to these eleven stalks inherited when we purchased the property. I share ownership of this house with De-facto and his brother, but the grapes – they are mine. I’ve assumed the role of vineyard caretaker. Last year’s vendange managed to produce a single, but thrilling, crate of grapes. It took several years of cutting and caressing the abandoned vines, but finally, I’d found the right result. The crop was small, but it informed and inspired my approach for the year to follow: Last winter I cut them back more than ever before. In April, new wires secured the vines. In July, suckering and pruning revealed bunches and bunches of baby grapes, and the promise of a robust harvest.

Only September took us to far away places that made a quick weekend trip to the country house impossible. Our first opportunity comes now, with the school half-term break otherwise known as La Toussaint. A bit late for harvesting, but I held out some hope that at least a portion of the grapes could be salvaged. My inspection grew more discouraging with each vine. The birds had picked them over, they’d fallen to the ground, or a skeletal bunch of grapes remained, scrawny raisins, taunting me.

I came too late to harvest anything significant – anything at all, for that matter.

Today, clippers in hand, a deeply inhaled breath of country air and I started pruning and clearing. The work is not easy. Some vines have crawled up into the trees and require a tug-of-war to pull them down. (I am somewhat lenient with them, otherwise they’d be trimmed and thinned but since I am not here for months at a time, they grow with a wildness that a disciplined viticulturist would not permit.) The long serpentine limbs fall to the ground and I cut them into smaller pieces, one at a time, to be hauled away to the compost. The thicker vines I separate and cut into kindling, taking them to the stable to dry to be burned in future winters. I pull out the thorny weeds and dry grasses that have grown wild at the base of the stalk, raking again and again until all I can see is a soft bed of the terroir. The vines look relieved, freed of the weight of their long branches and leaves. They stand spry and lithe, my knobby, skinny friends, unburdened and smiling at me.

The girls, dressed in a hodgepodge of old clothes and torn fleeces that we keep here – a wardrobe that can get dirty and ripped and who cares – kick their toes upward to the sky, swinging together so hard that I wonder if the old swing set will topple. They run back and forth from house to garden, woods to field, shaking sticks and making up songs and stories. The swing set transforms into a pirate ship or a schoolhouse, whatever they require as a backdrop. Their play is as temporary as anything can be – made-up games in a made-up world that are made-up in the moment. There is no practice for this; no preparation for a final performance, and no expectation of an outcome. This is play in its purest form, just for the doing of it. They play with passion and zeal until a new story is offered up or something else distracts them in that moment, like a neighbor passing by with a sheep dog, or my mother-in-love calling to them from the house, “hot chocolate!” which instantly frees them from this moment, without a measure of its value, and they move on to the next.

Clippers in hand, the rake rested against the thick stone wall of the house, I look around at the lawn cluttered with leaves and cuttings and consider my story with the grapes. It’s futile, really. Given the amount of time I can devote to these vines, given their ill placement with insufficient sunlight, given my real knowledge of anything beyond what I learned as a seasonal worker during school vacations, I will never be a great grape grower. I will never make a fine wine. It is the silliest, most pointless work I do, year-in and year-out, work that will never be successful. And yet I toil for hours, my hands raw despite the protective gloves, my back aching from the bending and scooping and hauling and carrying.

Buddy-roo spies the old wheelbarrow and asks if she can help. During our first year here, we bought a shiny new metal one and its wheel broke off after just a year of use. The old rickety wooden one that we found in the stable has a lot more character and still rolls strong.

“Can I be the horsie?”
“Tie me in.”
“I don’t have any rope.”
“You can use the imaginary rope I have right here.” She reaches out, as if to hand it to me.

This is my play, I guess, here at the country house, to tend the grapes. Even though it turns out just to be an agricultural exercise, even if there’s no harvest, I find it immensely satisfying. It’s all worth it, to love just the doing of it, regardless of the outcome. I’m pretty sure this is the trick to most things: being present with the doing of it, deliberately enacting the tiny tasks of life, one vine at a time. It’s just not always easy for me to cultivate this attitude of a mindful life. It takes the simplest of tasks and a playful child to remind me how.

I make the motions of harnessing Buddy-roo to the wooden cart. She provides the sound effects: Chtck. Ctchk. I fill the wagon to the brim with vines and leaves. She neighs, kicks the ground, and then gallops toward the compost pile with glee.

Oct 20 2010

Looking Away

“Tell me again about the day Grammy died.” Buddy-roo had crawled into bed and was curled against me like a spoon. I was just falling back to sleep. Her words startled me out of that barely-there-light-doze.

What was it that prompted her, in that instant, to think about my mother? The picture I’ve been meaning to hang on the wall by my bed, the one of mom with a suitcase in hand on her way toward airport security – an iconic pose for her – is still tucked away on the jewelry shelf in my closet, waiting for the perfect frame to be procured. There’s nothing near my bed that would have conjured up her question. I wondered, but opted not to ask. Buddy-roo has the right to think of my mother whenever she pleases.

I repeated the story of that Sunday morning. How my mother was in a bed in her study, barely conscious for days; how her breathing had been irregular but then calmed; how I don’t remember saying this but my siblings tell me I told her the plan for the day is to let go (she was an organized woman who liked a good plan) and how we three sat with her, watching her, holding her hands, comforting her. And how during that one 45-second interval, for whatever reason – to use the bathroom, to fetch a sweater upstairs, to get some more coffee – we’d all left her unattended and she chose that blink-of-an-eye moment to stop breathing. My sister returned, discovered her and called to us.

(I think we are guilt-free about the fact that we weren’t right there at her side when she took her very last breath. We’d been there with her all weekend, in the way we were so often together as a family, in proximity but doing our own thing. None of us were surprised that she stole away while we’d been simultaneously distracted. I’d wager she was waiting for us to leave her alone so she could die in private.)

“But when did they come to get her?” Buddy-roo asked.
“Well, then we called the funeral director and he drove his big station wagon right up on the front lawn and came in to take her body away.”
“But when did they come to get her?”
“It was about an hour after she died.”
“No. When did she go?”
“Well, when she stopped breathing. I suppose that’s when she left.”

Buddy-roo deftly changed the subject, apparently satisfied enough with what she’d gleaned from my explanation. Then, as she does, she moved casually on to the next topic – a movie she wanted to watch, a breakfast request, a story from school. Conversation over.

Today my feet up in the air, against the wall, the cool-down position after a pilates session, breathing in and out as my trainer ran through a relaxation sequence. After whale-kicks with ankle-weights, ab-crunching contortions and dozens of humiliating lunge-squats, it doesn’t take much to enter a light meditation. The scene that came to me, in that state, is one that I see often in dreams about my mother. She is standing on the back porch in her summer robe as I walk from the driveway toward the house. Her body tilts slightly to one side, just like her mother’s did – just like mine will someday – and she is smiling, unconditionally happy to see me.

Then the tears came. They were good and I let them flow and my trainer understood. Later at home I told De-facto who held me while I sobbed against his chest, and he understood. Now in the quiet of my writing studio, I understand what I knew but pretended not to, how impossibly hard it is to grieve when you are busy. The recent respite from travel and work brings relief and rest, but panic as well; grief no longer compartmentalized into 10-minute cubbyholes grows heavy and damp around me.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to frame that photograph of my mother with her suitcase, the one I intend to hang by my bed. It is so her, she is on the move. I guess I learned this from her.

In my studio, on a low table just beside my desk, there is a collection of silver-framed photographs of my family: a portrait of my brother and his wife and children; my sister, sitting in front of the temple of Angkor Wat; my aunt dressed in a stunning red suit. They all smiled for the camera, which means that now they are smiling at me.

Two more photographs that stand on that table. In one, my father is barefoot at the beach. He’d been to a conference on the west coast, his first visit to the Pacific, evidently its call so enticing that he removed his socks and shoes and rolled up his suit-pants to feel the other ocean on his toes.

The other photograph is of my mother, with me. We are walking down the street with our arms around each other. It was taken during the first summer I lived in Paris, fifteen years ago when unbelievably I actually wore short baby-doll dresses with black paratrooper boots. I remember that evening, walking beside her, headed toward a favored restaurant, mother and daughter together. I was sharing my Paris with her.

Why, I wonder, have I chosen to keep and display pictures of my parents in which they are turned away from me? In both photographs, I noticed just today, they are facing the other direction, the back of their heads and their bodies the only reminder I have of them in this room otherwise filled with photographs of De-facto and my children and my family and friends – everyone else gazing straight at me.

Is it easier for me to look at them if they’re looking away?

My father, who’s been gone for over two decades, still appears in my dreams. I wake up happy, delighted for even a brief chance to visit with him in the dreamtime. My mother figures prominently in dreams these days, too, but I wake up sad, wanting more, feeling her absence. I am no stranger to grieving, I know that with time – our old friend time – the heaviness of losing her will dissipate and I’ll think of her without such a sorry weight. Someday I’ll wake up happy just to have seen her in a dream. But how long will that take?

Maybe that’s what Buddy-roo means. Maybe they haven’t come to get her yet – whoever they are, the ubiquitous they, the ones who work in tandem with time and help you let go of the people you love and hold near. When did she go, Buddy-roo? She hasn’t yet. Not until I let her go.

Oct 15 2010

The Love Note

She handed me the small sheet of paper, torn out of a notebook. It was creased from being folded and unfolded. I tried to make out what was written, the paper was ripped in such a way that none of the phrases were complete. Was it a code of some sort? It looked like it could be a practice test or part of someone’s homework, scratched in the deliberate fashion of a schoolchild working with the obligatory stylo-plume fountain pen.

“No mama,” Short-pants instructed, “turn it over.” On the other side, more words from (apparently) the same stylo-plume, but this message was clear: proclamations of her beauty and expressions of affection. Tu est super belle and bisous d’amour. The signature, from a boy in her class – call him Jean-luc – was written in the middle of a big heart.

I remember the thrill of all my schoolgirl crushes. What’s-his-name loved me, which meant we wrote notes back and forth and maybe talked on the phone. But at the age of nine that was enough to be an official couple, even if we never saw each other outside of the confines of the school building or schedule. These torrid pre-teen relationships were mercurial, lasting sometimes only a few days before I.D. bracelets were returned and another boy was the objective of, if not my affection, at least my attention.

“It’s a love note from Jean-luc,” she preened. “Olivier, who sits at the desk next to mine, passed it over. He told me that if I asked Jean-luc about the note, he’ll deny it because he’s so shy.”

I know Jean-luc. Last year he was one of the four classmates with whom Short-pants was teamed to produce an exposé. He’s very smart, very quick, rather precocious. Shy is not a word I’d use to describe him. He is the class boy-geek, and Short-pants could be classified as the girl-geek. They do make a nice pair, if you think in stereotypes.

“Well anyway, I didn’t do anything because Melanie Martin says that you don’t tell a boy how you feel because it will embarrass him. You just have to show him.”

You gotta love Melanie Martin. She’s the heroine of With Love From Spain, a book about a family’s spring-break trip during which the mother visits old haunts from her college year abroad. This entails introducing her husband and children to an old flame, which goes over (mostly) well, especially for Melanie who develops a crush on the son of her mother’s old boyfriend. I love this book because it introduces ever-so-gently the nuances and complexities of old relationships-turned-friendships and how it all works when the past meets the present. The book, which Short-pants has read no less than a dozen times, was a gift from none other than the Fiesta Nazi, a woman who wants everyone to love Spain as much as she does. Aside from Melanie’s wisdom about show, don’t tell, it contains a number of valuable nuggets about life in another culture. Like this one: Spaniards don’t believe in bedtime; they believe in nighttime.

The next morning Short-pants brought up the love note again. “Do you think I should tell Jean-luc that I like him, too?” I gave her the standard answer-a-question-with-a-question response, “What do you think?” She paced around the kitchen island, mulling this over in an active meditation. “I could ask Olivier to tell him that I like him.”

Now I knew I was in tricky territory, I didn’t want to burst her love-bubble, but here was a chance to prepare her for one possibility: that just maybe the note wasn’t for real, that the note was a joke. On her.

“Why don’t you think it’s for real?” De-facto had asked me the night before. I explained my theory about a note on pink paper and how maybe some girls in the class don’t quite get Short-pants and this kind of a joke would be a typical response. “Yeah,” he said, after considering it, “much too crafty to be perpetuated by a male.”

Short-pants is a prime target for teasing. She’s a bit of a loner. At school, during the récré, she often rejects invitations to play with her peers. She’d rather wander around the courtyard and talk to herself. She is über-sweet, kind, empathetic, angelic. The fact that she’s so nice, to everyone, could work in her favor – so far I think it has – but I’m waiting for the day when the girls in her class are old enough to get mean, the way pre-adolescent girls can be so mean. Short-pants will be an easy one to bully.

The recent incident at Rutger’s University is an extreme case, but it’s served to raise awareness about how bullying is a real problem in our schools. Back in the day (my day) you didn’t talk about it, you certainly didn’t tell your parents, you just suffered. But I think the bullying is more severe now, and as parent, I feel compelled to watch for clues, even if it’s just the seeds of something that turns out to be a harmless prank. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent. But I believe there’s an important distinction between being overprotective and preparing our children so they can fend for themselves.

“I think Melanie Martin had you headed down the right track,” I told her. Bolstering my argument with her favorite literary character couldn’t hurt. Deep breath. Then I said it: “Do you think Jean-luc really wrote the note?”

“I don’t know,” she said, pondering the possibility that he hadn’t, “it looks like his writing.”

I brought up the pink paper. She admitted this was a bit of a stretch.

“You never know, though,” I softened my blow, “maybe it was some scrap paper he found.”

She studied me, taking this all in.

“Maybe it is a real love note, maybe it’s not. But if I were you, I’d wait and see before playing your hand. If you start asking around, you’re giving away too much. If it’s not real, you save face. If it is real, then Jean-luc will have to work a bit harder to get you to swoon for him.”

“Melanie Martin is right!” She marched out of the kitchen, turning back to offer a quick but heartfelt, “thanks mama.”

I grabbed the edge of the butcher-block centerpiece of our kitchen, as if to steady myself for any and all victories and heartbreaks ahead. This is just a small love story. Or if it is couple of girls having fun at her expense, it’s only a mild teasing. The thing is, I do want her to know romance and to be open to its magic. I also hope she’ll learn to be discriminating and solid on her own two feet.

Short-pants came back into the kitchen. “What does swoon mean?”

“Look it up,” I said. This one, she can figure out on her own.

Oct 9 2010

The Appointment

The fluorescent light flickered on and off in the dingy stairwell. I climbed five flights to the top floor, pushed open the heavy metal door and walked down the narrow corridor. I could see into the classroom at the end of the hallway, its rows of tiny school desks with equally scaled chairs lined up in order, like prisoners tied together in a chain gang.

Earlier that morning – I had to rally the girls to get out the door to be on time for my 8:30 am meeting with the maitresseBuddy-roo stopped on the landing just outside our apartment door and looked out the window. From the top floors of our building, you can see the courtyard and into the classrooms of her old school, a place that represents the oasis of songs, crayons, painting and games that are the first years of l’école maternelle. “Mama, look,” she said, the longing palpable in her voice, “those kids – that’s my old class!” She called out the names of her old classmates, shouting to them even though they could not hear her. She heeded reluctantly when I called her to follow me down the stairs.

I stuck my head in the classroom door, peeked around to see the teacher, a young woman in her late twenties or early thirties whom I’ve viewed only from a distance each afternoon as she escorts the children through the school doors at the end of the day. Madame Deville sat motionless behind her desk. She raised her eyebrows, coolly, and twisted her lips into a smug smirk.

Asseyez-vous madame.” She pointed to a small chair, one suitable for one of her 7-year-old students, facing the desk. My footsteps awkwardly audible in the tomb-like silence of the room, I approached the chair. Slowly I lowered myself into a crouch. The chair was still lower than I expected; I fought to keep my balance as I dropped into the tiny seat. Already, the status had been established.

Je vous attends,” she said, a cruel way of saying and I’m waiting for you to start. I began to make my case as Buddy-roo’s defender and protector. She smiled and her teeth gleamed. Her short brown hair lengthened in an instant and turned into curly writhing serpents. A deep and diabolical laugh welled up from the back of her throat.

Okay, that’s not what really happened.

The day before, I had an appointment with my dermatologist for an annual look-over. It is humiliating to strip and stand exposed as she examines every mole and freckle on my body, making comparisons with the photographs she took on my first visit years ago. But after too much teenaged basking-in-the-sun-with-baby-oil, and subsequent sunning habits that I didn’t cease until the last decade, it’s a necessary medical precaution for me.

The doctor found nothing pre-cancerous but furled her brow at my hairline, which is red and flaky, a mild kind of eczema that flares up from time to time. “Stress?” she asked. I nodded. “C’est la rentrée,” she answered for me. I wonder how long can we blame the rentrée? In France, you’re allowed to say “Happy New Year” only until the end of January. Does the post-summer-start-of-school-and-work transition get to bleed into October?

I made a joke about how we’ve been terrorized by my youngest daughter’s teacher. The doctor started spewing advice, whole story about how a teacher refused to recommend her daughter for a medical-school track, a daughter who is now an accomplished doctor. “You know what’s right for your child. Change classes.” I made the mistake of trying to explain how this is easier said than done. All the Anglo-bilingual kids are in one class with a rather complex schedule to accommodate the hours of English instruction; if she changed classes, she couldn’t take English. “But why does she need to learn English at school? You speak it at home, don’t you?”

What I wanted to say was, “Hey, you’re my dermatologist, not my psychologist. Go back back to my moles.” Instead, I let her blather on, her voice morphing into the muted-horn sounds of Charlie Brown’s teacher while I stared out the window. But then it all became crystal clear: I’ve been trying to buffer Buddy-roo from the angst created by Madame Deville – the false enthusiasm and remaining upbeat despite my own discouragement and frustration, trying to keep my bias in check so as not to make things even heavier for my daughter – I’ve taken it on myself. I’m absorbing the stress, and this isn’t good for anyone.

No matter what comes out of this meeting, I told myself, the most important thing I can do is to be more lighthearted about it all. Buddy-roo will pick up on that, and maybe that’s the key to helping her relax and find her stride at school. (sigh)

Leaving the dermatologist’s opinion aside, I was otherwise well-consulted as I prepared for the meeting with Madame Deville. Readers made suggestions in the comments and in private emails. Friends talked about it with their friends, and phoned with me with advice. Other mothers – some who’ve already met with the teacher and some who haven’t – empathized and advised. I realized, once again, the absolute necessity of a support network. Especially when you’re in foreign territory, it’s crucial. (Thanks everyone!)

My strategy, in the end, was to go in with an open mind and an open heart, armed with questions and ultimately to ask for her help about how I could best support Buddy-roo. I was counseled by natives not to let her bully me; if the asking questions routine didn’t produce results, they said, I should put my foot down and be firm about my concerns. For this I was prepared, too.

When I entered the classroom, Madame Deville jumped up to greet me and escorted me to a desk where we both sat together, equally uncomfortable in two child-size chairs. It was not a contentious encounter; she was warm and friendly.

I was able to convey to her our philosophy at home: how we see mistakes as opportunities to learn; how when Buddy-roo gets an answer wrong we’ll say, “Hmm, I didn’t get the same answer, let’s both try it again” rather than issuing a harsh rebuke; how we’ve tried to reinforce a growth mindset, which means we praise our children not for being smart or having talent, but for working at something and taking on a challenge. But that even though we are encouraging Buddy-roo to keep at it, she’s overwhelmed by the challenge of all this homework. I wondered if other children in the class were suffering the same way and if so would it be possible to slow down even a wee bit and give us a chance to get used to it and develop some study habits before piling on more?

Non, because there’s a big fat test, mandated by the state, at the end of the year, and already it’s a stretch to get the class prepared for it. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the teachers to make sure the kids will perform. Hmm. Now I understand the demands on her.

But you shouldn’t worry, she said. All the children at this level have a hard time adjusting. It just takes time. And they all come around. (At what price, I wonder?)

Madame Deville went on to describe Buddy-roo as an absolute delight in the classroom: jovial, enthusiastic and among the most participative students in the class. The big challenge: she’s too easily distracted by the friends around her. She’s a bavardeuse, a chatterbox, only unlike other children who can bavarder and still pay attention, Buddy-roo is entirely distracted by her secondary conversations.

She’s not telling me anything I don’t know.

At home, Buddy-roo moans and gripes about going to school, how hard it is, how she wishes she didn’t have to go. At school, she is – allegedly – jovial and participative, one of the happiest students, according to her teacher. Am I getting played here? And by whom?

When the bell rang, we put on our coats and walked down the stairway together, making our way through the wave of students coming up to their classrooms. I thought about what it must have been like for Buddy-roo and Short-pants on their very first day of school, climbing up this dimly-lit, dystopian stairway surrounded by throngs of strange children. How much we ask of them, at this young age, and how little control they have.

My last point to the teacher when we reached the bottom of the stairs: Buddy-roo has started to say things like “I’m not good at French.” I don’t want this belief to be embedded in her brain. Not that this calls for disingenuous praise (and everybody gets a medal), but I don’t want her to get discouraged. Madame Deville seemed to understand my concern. I’m just not sure if the system that supports her will allow her to give Buddy-roo the support I’m asking for.

At least I know she’s not an evil Medusa, and she’s not a witch. (She does, oddly, bear a slight physical resemblance to Christine O’Donnell, but let’s not go there.) She’s a nice lady. She seems to like my daughter very much, and wants her to do well in school. As for the posturing I heard about at the class meeting, this was not apparent during our conversation. Maybe she’s more comfortable one-on-one. Or it could be that she’s had a number of individual parent meetings in the last two weeks and little by little our appeals have softened her.

In front of the school, we shook hands and I watched her walk toward the courtyard to pick up her class. Nothing was really resolved, but I felt better. Not because of anything she said, but because at least she seemed human; she was warmer and more reasonable than I’d expected. I lingered in front of the school, talking to other parents, filling them in on the meeting. “Maman!” I heard Buddy-roo call out. She was walking in line behind her teacher, holding hands with one of her classmates. She waved at me vigorously, beaming ear-to-ear like the happiest student in the world, and disappeared into the school.

Oct 5 2010

Yeah, baby.

Buddy-roo pressed her pinky finger against her lip, “Preparation H!”

She and Short-pants doubled over laughing. They didn’t really understand the joke; you can’t find this product in France, neither of their tender bottoms have ever required treatment for hemorrhoids. But they giggled out loud because they know that it’s supposed to be funny; no doubt when they watched Goldmember with their father, this joke must have cracked him up.

What to do? Laugh at loud or react in a way that would hopefully discourage them from repeating this and any other lines they’ve learned from watching the film. I turned sharply toward De-facto and gave him the look. “What?” he said, “It’s a funny movie.” I guess there are worse films for them to see, but Goldmember is not first among the DVDs I would have selected for family viewing pleasure.

But what is a suitable video? A Disney film in which the mother deer (or bear) dies in the first scene? A film in which an elephant, who’s mother is also killed in the first scene, returns to the jungle to civilize the wild animals so that they live like humans? Barbie and her princesses, or Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or any of those films where the female character waits helplessly for a strong, handsome man to save her from peril and make things right? (Shrek attempts to dispel this stereotype, but it has to go up against an entire library of princesses waiting to be rescued.)

A greater concern – to me – is the violence that is has become an habitual part of Hollywood films. At least the relatively small amount of violence in the Austin Powers‘ films is so campy that it couldn’t possibly be a shock to a generation of movie-viewers accustomed to life-like murders, realistic Hollywood shoot-outs and car chases with miles of carnage left behind. Except that we don’t watch those gun-toting crash-bang films with our kids; Short-pants and Buddy-roo are plunked in front of the feminist-irritating Disney favorites, or more often, they watch the real classics. Last Saturday, De-facto and I got to sleep in while the girls watched Barbara Streisand and Walter Matthau in Hello Dolly. Or the favorite electronic babysitter option: The Electric Company.

As much as we try to protect our children from violence, our world is violent and they manage see its violent images. If we happen to watch the television news while they’re in the room, it’s in front of them. If they look through the news magazines that end up in the bathroom, there are photographs of war and brutality. We try to filter the media that they take in, but we can’t control it every inch of it.

Anyway, Austin Powers is a comedy.

Except there’s a lot of sexual innuendo. It’s all silly slapstick and sophomoric humor. Is it still too much mojo for them? If I have to choose between letting my girls watch a film that was violent or sexual, I’ll choose the latter. Sexual content I can explain. I can put it in context. I can address their questions. But violence? How do you ever make that acceptable?

Which begs the question how do I want my daughters to learn about sex? Do I want it to be a clinical discussion? Should there be dramatic overtones of true love and finding the one? Will it come from Lady Gaga? Is Austin Powers such a horrible introduction to the world of sex? Sure, the woman are objectified (especially the Japanese twins), but then, so are the men. Everyone is having a good laugh. There are no sexual victims. All the main characters in the film think that sex is good and pleasurable. If anything, it’s the Holy Grail.

For now, I think it’s it all going over their heads anyway. It appears that the 20 back-to-back euphemisms for male genitalia haven’t registered with them (yet).

Yesterday, Buddy-roo did not want to leave the park after school. Then she complained all the way home. Her life is too hard. She misses her old school. Why does she have so much homework? Why does she have to go to school at all? Why can’t she stay at home? Why don’t I home-school her? Unhappy with each of my responses, she stormed ahead of us; I found her pouting in front of the front door to our building. She cried all the way up the four flights of stairs. Once in the apartment, things did not improve. I could see the evening spiraling down, something much harder to manage when I’m flying solo, which is the case this week because De-facto is out of town on business. In fact, he’s in Holland, where they speak freaky deaky Dutch (not far from Belgium, the home of Goldmember himself).

“Any and all kids who eat their dinner and do their homework without complaining, whining or dilly-dallying get to watch a movie before bedtime,” I pronounced. And then, don’t ask me why, I added, “the movie of your choice.”

Goldmember?” both of them, in unison.

I backed myself into this one. There was nowhere to go. “No whining? No fussing? None of this, wait let me do something else first?”

Heads nodded solemnly. Then, in tandem, their elbows folded in order to place their pinkies on their bottom lips. How could I say no?

The mood changed instantly. Dinner was executed without a hitch. It took over an hour for Buddy-roo to do homework, but she stayed at the table and slogged through it. It wasn’t easy-peazy, lemon-squeazy, though she smugly used this phrase, borrowed from the film, after writing out a few of her lesser-challenging spelling words.

Homework completed. Jams on and teeth brushed. We three curled up on the couch with Austin and his cast of characters. I can’t say I wasn’t cringing, I kept the remote in hand to mute the sound and distract the girls with a question about the plot when I couldn’t stand the puns any longer. Then at nine o’clock, about halfway through the film, we pressed pause (as agreed) and they ran upstairs without prompting (as agreed) and slipped into bed without any fuss.

And all I can say is Yeah, baby.

Oct 2 2010

La Maîtresse

My children go to Hogwarts. You wouldn’t think so just looking at the primary school building, a fairly nondescript 20th century construction. But just across the street, adjacent to the courtyard where children clamor uncontrollably during the récré, there’s an imposing, majestic building that houses the school’s cantine and the classrooms for the older students. Classified as historic by the city of Paris, it screams of Hogwarts. Standing before it at dusk on a blustery autumn evening, its façade is severe and intimidating; Harry Potter could easily be sweeping by you in his invisibility cloak, escaping the punitive snarl of Professor Snape.

France’s education system is known for its severe and intimidating structure, one that places academic performance above things extracurricular or social. Short-pants and Buddy-roo’s school feels particularly rigorous; they have homework every night, the book-bags that they carry home each day weigh as much as they do, they are tested often and their class ranking is public.
I have the sinking feeling that the girls have learned far too early to see mistakes as something to fear rather than to learn from. At the same time, they are getting a solid education. I’ve heard too many troubling stories about US schools passing students just to move them along. That won’t be happening here, at least not at our beloved Hogwarts.

This stern ambiance is palliated somewhat by their participation in the English section, led by two creative and ambitious teachers who also care about the learning climate and the community. They invite feedback, they ask us to help plan a Halloween party or a holiday celebration so that the kids get a feeling about the culture, not just the structure of their parents’ language. The English teachers are accessible and willing to engage easily with parents. They even use email. How modern.

This is a stark contrast to many of the French teachers in the school, in particular the new teacher assigned to Buddy-roo’s class, whom I’m call Madame Deville. She’s replacing a teacher who was a bit of a cold fish, so when we first saw that there was a new, younger teacher, many parents rejoiced. Not for long. The homework assignments those first days were barely cloaked barbs at the adults for not assembling the full complement of school supplies or turning in the paperwork in a timely fashion. The homework the next week was daunting, with explicit and rather complicated instructions about which cahier and in what order to learn twenty random words that appeared to have little in common, plus the “house of 10” multiplication table and also this week’s poem to illustrate and memorize so that it can be recited in front of the class. To a second grade child who’s all of a sudden terrified of making a mistake, this is overwhelming.

Just getting Buddy-roo to sit down and concentrate has always been a bit tricky, but now there is a particular angoisse to her procrastination. She constantly has a reason to interrupt her work; to sharpen and re-sharpen her pencil or get the right pen or re-arrange her papers or to double check the cahier for the length of the assignment or get a drink of water. I know nagging will not help and I don’t want to add to her stress, but my best efforts to remain cheerful and encouraging have already been stretched to the max. Make it fun, I keep telling myself, inventing a game to inspire her to put those words in alphabetical order. But who am I kidding? That’s not her idea of fun. Not for hours every night.

(The other night at a neighborhood bar, a friend of ours who’s son is also in Buddy-roo’s class performed an hysterical monologue demonstrating how he’s ready to hang himself after helping his 7-year-old son do homework for two hours one night. We’re not the only ones who are suffering.)

I don’t expect Buddy-roo to display a seamless scholastic-competence at the young age of seven. But I do want to help her avoid getting stereotyped in an education system where your reputation gets cemented rather early, where teachers are inclined to point out your weaknesses and hold you to them. It makes me wonder if this school is right for her, for both of them. But if not here, where? Where can they get this rich bilingual, bicultural experience and strong academics plus the social and emotional support?
Does any school offer all that? Any school we can afford, that is?

At the class meeting, Madame Deville counseled the assembled parents complaining about the homework to set their worries aside, citing a French law that states it is illegal to force school children of this age do written homework. The children won’t be graded on their homework, she assured them. But if they don’t do the homework, will they be able to keep up in class? She shrugged.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make that meeting – I was away on business – but I feel as if I was there because it has become the talk of the school, especially this particular moment: “Veuillez avoir de la bienveillance,” Madame Deville scolded, warning that when notes in the cahier de correspondance don’t use the formal French politesse, our “aggressive words” put her in a bad mood and she’ll it take out on our children. Stunned parents are still hashing this over as they cluster together at morning coffee klatches and the afternoon sortie d’école. One father asked me if I thought this meant that if he wasn’t polite enough it would cause the teacher to be more punitive to his son in particular, or to the class in general? In general, one hopes. But no-one is sure. Everyone is reeling from this.

De-facto, bless his soul, steps empathetically into her shoes and reminds me how much we dreaded hosting a dozen kids for not even three hours at Short-pants’ birthday party. It’s not an easy job to spend the entire day, every day, with 31 young children. If she receives a scribbled, annoyed note from even a handful of the parents on any given day, that would certainly put her in a bad mood and impact her ability to tolerate the antics of the children. He has a point, I suppose, but I don’t think it calls for a pronouncement to the parents in such a finger-wagging way.

I should go on record: not all the French teachers at Hogwarts are so persnickety. Buddy-roo’s teacher last year was absolutely lovely. At a meeting this week, Short-pants’ teacher praised the class and told us she wouldn’t test the children on their reading assignments because she wanted them to experience reading as something one does for pleasure. So they’re not all prickly.

I am attempting, against the tide of tirades about Madame Deville, to keep my mind open. I cautiously address her each time I write a note in the cahier de correspondance (she mandated the parents, at the aforementioned meeting, to use her surname; the salutation of “Madame,” without her last name was insufficient). I use all the little flowery phrases from my book about how to write French letters. It’s already a challenge for Buddy-roo to like school. She doesn’t need an overzealous schoolmarm bearing down on her because her mother is too proud to play along.

Last week I politely requested a private meeting with the Madame Deville; I have been granted a ½-hour appointment with her next Thursday morning before school starts. I’m eager to see her close up. Is she the wicked witch of Hogwarts-Paris as everyone has begun to believe? Or is she just trying to get her “I-may-be-young-but-I’m-strict” stake in the ground so she doesn’t get pushed around? That’s what I hope to find out.

Any tips on a good strategy for this meeting?