Nov 30 2010

Nobody’s Perfect

Try as I may to let our upstairs be the wild and creative universe of my children, eventually I reach a point when I can no longer endure the disorder. This is usually prompted by a predictable chain of events: Buddy-roo dilly-dallies through breakfast, and the absolute last time of departure (ALTD) to get to school on time is fast approaching so I volunteer to go up to her room and select an outfit. “Pants or a dress?” I pretend this is a fun errand. Upstairs I’m appalled at the clutter that collects in just a few days since it was last in a reasonably tidy state. “It’s okay, they’re being creative,” I say to myself, closing the drawers left wide open and snatching Short-pants’ eyeglasses up off the floor, barely managing not to flatten them, instead stepping on some tiny piece of plastic, an umbrella shaped thing that came home in the favor-bag from a birthday party. It smarts, a lot. I lose it. Get up here now and pick up your rooms! All the reasoning and thoughtful discussions go out the window. So much for being the ideal parent. But sometimes it just feels good to holler.

The results of the first trimester bilans come home. Buddy-roo’s scores are all over the board. Even Short-pants, who actually enjoys doing her homework, has inconsistent grades. I smile at anything equal to or above a score of 8/10. I try not to overreact to that glaring 5/10. I ask her how she feels about it. “I’m not that strong at geography,” she says.

I’m torn. I want to inspire her to try harder, do better. Another part of me remembers a consultant I worked with in my earliest career, Don Clifton was his name, talking about how good leaders were rarely straight-A students; they only excelled in the subjects in which they had strengths or that they felt were important. In other words, they prioritized.

We talk about how to do better in geography and I try not to harp on it. A final summary sentence about how hard she’s worked and how that really paid off with her grades. “Except that one,” I say. (But not out loud.)

I don’t want to pressure my kids to get everything right all the time. But is this a question of individual strengths and preferences or is it just plain lack of trying? It might be that she just got lazy – sometimes that’s all it is – and being reminded might help her do better the next time.

On the other hand, maybe she’s just not that strong at geography.

Buddy-roo can recite by heart entire passages from the movie Hello Dolly, or sing the most obscure song from On the Town without any practice. But ask her to conjugate the verb être, even though we’ve been over it a million times, she still can’t remember the six forms of the present tense without making a mistake. I don’t want to beat her up. But I know she can do it.

What’s the right balance of supporting and challenging your children? How do I inspire them to try to perform well – and take pride in their work – without thrusting upon them the stress of being a perfectionist?

I’m sure I make things more complicated than they need to be. My parents had no apparent angst about how to respond to my report card. Good grades were expected. If you got a B, it was met with a raised eyebrow. Getting a C was grounds for a discussion; you were called in to the living room and seated at the square card table. My parents were never cruel or harsh, and yet we lived in mild fear of disappointing them, and this was what you realized you’d done if you were called in to sit at that table. Would a psychologist today find fault in the way they held us to their standards? Maybe. But they weren’t trying to be perfect parents. They were trying to be good parents.

I sit in judgment of messy bedrooms or inconsistent grades, but what about me? Do I get it all right, all the time? Consider the piles of files and papers stashed in shelves in our office, I mean to sort through them but somehow never get to it. My taxes are never turned in without at least filing for one extension. I ran a workshop yesterday and it went well, but it was far from flawless. I’ve been writing a post about procrastination – for another blog I write with my colleagues – for three months now. (This is not even ironic anymore, it’s pathetic.)

I signed up for the NaNoWriMo challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November – ambitious if you’re composing a novel from scratch, but the last unfinished chapters of my novel are already outlined, which ought to make the job easier. I started with great fervor, overshooting the suggested daily goal by a few hundred words each day in anticipation of the mid-month business travel that would interrupt the daily exercise. That trip set me back several thousand words, and when I returned home I was bombarded with things not attended to in my absence. I knew I shouldn’t let it stop me, but once I was 10,000 words behind it was too overwhelming. So that novel I’ve been writing for seven years, it’s still not done.

Oh, guess what? I’m human.

As a mother, I’m compelled to fend off the idealized image of motherhood (this is the point of my unfinished book by the way), which has made us a generation of parents that over-protects and over-provides. Our children, in turn, are under pressure to be the perfect children, to have dabbled in all the right extracurricular activities, to get the best scores, to be popular and social and yet independent and self-possessed. To go to the right school, the one most likely to help you get into the next right school. This all horrifies me, having grown up in a generation that did not study for SATs – they were aptitude tests, after all – and I’m fatigued just thinking about what’s ahead for the girls as they grow into young women hoping to find their place in the world.

(And yet I hope is that they will do well – in school and in life – so that they’ll have more choices when it comes to finding their place in this world.)

There is the adage, one I’ve subscribed to in theory but perhaps not in practice, that if you’re going to do something, do it well or not at all. The inclination to cross every t and dot every i and put your best work forward isn’t necessarily a bad thing – until it becomes compulsive and restrictive. Sometimes it’s just fine to be good enough, to let them be the messy, dreamy kids that they are, and to be the mother who does her best while juggling a lot, which sometimes means raising my voice or losing my temper. Besides, sometimes it just feels good to holler.

Nov 22 2010

The Escape of Memory

Day-to-day, small details are so easily forgotten. Even those scribbled on a Post-it, logged in an on-line to-do list or occasionally even emailed to myself. Before I had children, my mind worked nimbly. Now it’s like a sieve. Yet all I had to do was set foot on Danish soil and so began a flood of memories. Driving through the elephant gates of the Carlsberg complex, faces of friends who drank that local beer with me, more than twenty-five years ago, return with precise detail. Deposited in front of Tivoli Gardens for a dinner with clients, I glanced down the street at the lights of Copenhagen’s town hall square, and the memory of the daily crossing of the Rådhuspladsen came rushing at me like a mad parade.

Not just the images, I remember a whole chorus of feelings: how I nearly skipped across the square, jubilant and alive for the sheer adventure of living in a foreign country, or other days plodding across its weathered stones, unbelieving that I could ever construct a life that would meet my expectations, or simply because I felt sad, lonely and far away from home.

(How I long to be lonely now! There is always someone in shouting distance, interrupting or needing my attention. What a luxury, those angst-filled lonely days!)

An extra day in Copenhagen was designated for a tour of that distant chapter of my life. It started with a local train to the central station, where the sight of my feet upon the tiles with their black on terra-cotta design recalled side-trips to other European capitals that returned me home to this station with a backpack full of dirty laundry and dozens of stories to tell. If you had asked me, last week, to describe these tiles I would have drawn a blank. Seeing them triggered memories of people and places I didn’t even know were still stored in the back corners of my brain.

When I was a student in Copenhagen, I spent a lot of time just walking and wondering. Now, so many years later I was doing the same, but this time desperately trying to remember where was the doorway I used daily, to enter my school. Or that balcony I used to lean over, outside the architecture studio, or a hidden passage that was my favorite shortcut. I found most of these things – with only minor effort – but searched in vain for my favorite Café Peder Huitfeldt. I managed to find at least three little squares that could have been the cozy, out of the way square where (I think) it stood. Did it close after all these years or did I just forget how to get to that hidden place?

The night before, sitting around the dinner table with the family that I lived with as a student – everyone had congregated to greet me – I was struck by how we all blended together in exactly the same way as we did all those years ago. We are grayer and thicker, apparently wiser, unquestionably older. It occurred to me that my when they hosted me, my Danish parents were several years younger than I am now. They remember things I do not, regaling me with stories of my former foolishness. What I do remember – exactly – is the floor plan of the house they lived in then, the curves of their leather chairs, the design of my bed, the color of the sheets upon it, the way we sat together at the dinner table, even the weave of the tablecloth.

How do I remember certain things and not others? I cannot remember his name, that older man working on the film about the Danish resistance, who spun me into turmoil by inviting me to stay and work on it. My sister, heeding my father’s request, wrote me a carefully crafted letter urging me to come home and finish college. I do not regret that I conformed to their wishes, it was right to graduate with the classmates I’d started with, and a small Danish film credit would not have made such an impact on my career. Now I remember very little of that man, of our exchanges, his offer. Did it really happen? I can feel all the feelings of that wrenching decision, as if they were last week’s crisis. But the names, details, geography – it all comes in spurts and usually with a surprise, like seeing a movie you haven’t watched in ages. What makes me remember some places exactly and others not at all? What brings some experiences to the surface viscerally intact, and others are foggy images that dissipate if I try to focus on them – if they’re even accessible to me at all.

I speak the middle-aged language my parents spoke, spaced with lengthy pauses as I try to recapture what I started to say but forgot mid-sentence. I call Short-pants by Buddy-roo’s name, and vice versa. I beckon the children to the table for lunch when I mean to say dinner. I can’t remember numbers I’ve just added in my head. I forget almost all things that are not written down. I attribute this benign aphasia to the natural forces of maternal dementia, but it’s not consistent. Sometimes my memory has perfect pitch, with every detail in place. How does my mind decide what should escape it? How does it determine what to remember?

At the edge of the Rådhuspladsen there sits a big bronze statue of Hans Christian Anderson gazing off into the distance. When I lived here I visited him often, hoisting myself up onto the base of the statue, leaning up against his ice-cold legs. At age twenty, I was convinced he was looking off into my future; in our imaginary conversations he would reassure me about its promise. This weekend, meeting him again, his gaze looked less hopeful, more reflective. Standing before him now it seemed he wasn’t looking off into the future at all. No, he was pondering the past, probably trying to place me, just barely remembering something from long ago – something close, vaguely familiar – nearly within his grasp, but not quite.

Nov 15 2010

End Pieces

In the world of mots doux, the plot thickens as Short-pants attempts to discreetly verify the source of her mysterious love note. Last week she reported seeing the alleged scribe, Jean-luc, using a notebook with pink paper, the same paper as the little note she received last month. “He really had a pink-paged notebook?” It’s unusual, she agreed, but she’d seen it with her own eyes.

“Does this make you think he wrote the note, then?” She squinted one eye, displaying her suspicion. “First I need to see if there’s a page with the corner ripped out. Then I have to see if the handwriting matches.” She ran upstairs to her room and returned with a copy of Encyclopedia Brown, holding it up like a shingle she was about to mount above our door. “I’m in detective mode.”

I don’t bring it up too often but I want to stay plugged-in to how she’s feeling about the whole saga. Every once in a while I ask, as nonchalantly as possible, “Any further developments in the case of the pink love note?” No, she says, supplying me with the same status report as before, or musing about the stealth ways she might obtain more clues to solve the mystery. For now, she seems more engaged in the curiosity of the puzzle than the romance.

I suppose I’ve made peace with the maitresse after our appointment, and Buddy-roo’s struggles with the schoolwork seem to have (mostly) subsided. Reluctantly I must admit that it was probably just a period of adjustment for my little one, a passage in scholastic responsibility, leaving behind the days of symbolic homework and entering the world of the real deal. She seems to have accepted (sort of) the fact that there’s something (a lot) to do every night, so doing homework is no longer a three-hour procedure (usually). The defiant fits and helpless tears have diminished from nightly to weekly. Her flash-quiz scores have upped from twos and threes (out of ten) to sevens and eights. Her teacher still writes attention au soins! in red ink; it takes all the restraint I have not to write back that of course Buddy-roo’s work would be clean and neat and without messy smudges if she wasn’t required to use a fountain pen. Fortunately (for Buddy-roo) my capacity to be snarky in French is not yet fully developed.

The 10-day Toussaint vacation helped, giving her a break from the grind, and a chance to catch up. De-facto quizzed her daily on the 130 spelling words she’s been asked to memorize (so far) this fall, in anticipation of the full-on first trimester bilan – two weeks of daily tests on all the work they’ve covered since school started. It still feels like a lot of work for a second-grader to tackle, or for me to help her manage. In the end, it’s an adjustment for all of us, isn’t it?

The chilly, gray days of November have settled in and wrapped around us. There are some good aspects: it’s an R month of oysters and the approaching holiday season, though not without its drawbacks, at least offers the promise of warmth, cheer and well-spiked egg-nog. But the mornings are far too dim, night falls way before suppertime and the cold drafts slip too easily through our ancient dormer windows. The courtyard seems especially somber these days; summer’s laughter barely an echo as we hunker down for the winter, bracing ourselves for the end of another year and all the changes that a new one will bring.

Nov 10 2010

All the Greats

We were four, side-by-side in the bed. Buddy-roo claimed the prized position between De-facto and me. Short-pants pressed in close on my other side. The girls crossed and kicked their legs, piling them on mine and over each other’s, vying for top placement. De-facto attempted to ignore us; I was sure any moment he’d pull himself from under the oven of covers and leave us to find peace in one of the girl’s empty beds. Then we’d have the big bed to ourselves for an all-girl cuddle, as they like to call it.

Short-pants offered an enthusiastic report (I think). She lost a tooth. One of the loose molars on the top row finally fell out. I sensed some dismay mixed in with her delight – she didn’t say it but I wonder if she’d expected the Tooth Fairy to come during the night. She lost the tooth after our goodnight rituals; she hadn’t told me. Was she now putting two and two together to guess the real identity of the Tooth Fairy? Would she opt not to bring this up because she wants to get a 1€ coin even if it means ignoring new knowledge? Or would she remain in the group of faithful believers? It’s not the first time the Tooth Fairy has been a bit of a slacker; perhaps Short-pants has just learned to be forgiving. Or else she just likes believing in the Tooth Fairy.

I have an aunt who likes to believe in the Blue Fairy, a magic helper who does all sorts of tasks you’d prefer not to do yourself, like cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. I love that what started as a polite ploy to prohibit any of us from helping her wash up (the Blue Fairy only comes if you leave the dishes on the counter and close the door behind you) turned into a myth that persists. My aunt speaks about the Blue Fairy with admiration and awe. I think she enjoys the act of pretending to believe.

Buddy-roo, despite a loose tooth that will not fall out – even with the adult tooth growing over it – had no comment about the tooth fairy. She was staring up at the ceiling, moving her lips as if counting or considering something important. This went on for a good 30-seconds before she verbalized her thinking.

“I had a great grandmother,” she announced, “and a great, great grandmother. And a great, great, great grandmother…” The recent visit of the mother-in-love just one of the reasons she’s thinking about all great things grandmother.

She continued, emphasizing distinctly each great in the series of great, great, great, greats. She was digging back into the lineage of women before her. I pictured the old sepia photographs, once hidden in tattered, black-paged albums until my mother’s big project to frame them and hang them together in one room to make what became of gallery of our ancestors. There were plenty of men on this wall, but it’s the women who stood out: my grandmothers, great grandmothers and other elegant, austere or well-hatted women standing in poses stylish for the portraits of their time.

Now that technology permits, we keep this family lineage on-line; my sister took the initiative and it’s been amazing, the information we’ve acquired by going social-network with our family tree. Now all those faded photographs on the wall have names to match and for once I understand who they are and how they are related to me.

“…and then there’s a great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother.” She kept going.

I told her how she stands on the shoulders of many women who lived interesting lives, like her great grandmother who moved, with a husband she’d known only for a few months, to Cuba, where she knew nobody. Or another great grandmother who passed through Ellis Island when she was a girl, younger than Buddy-roo. Or her mother, who was pregnant during that long voyage across the Atlantic. Or on De-facto’s side, a great grandmother who was married twice, to the two loves of her life, both marriages lasting more than thirty years.

De-facto, until now silent – pretending to be asleep – piped up, pointing out that Buddy-roo’s two grandmothers also had two grandmothers, meaning she had four great grandmothers. And each of them, in turn, had two grandmothers, which makes for eight great, great grandmothers, and so on, making this big story of all the grandmothers an exponential one. I had never considered this, how many great, great women existed just to make me, so that I could make Short-pants and Buddy-roo. There’s a long line of women with wisdom, style and sass who’ve been before us.

“But what if I get children, like you and Papa got me?” (I love Buddy-roo’s choice of verb. She isn’t going to have children, or give birth to them, she’s just going to get them, like, at a store or something.) “What will they call her?” She pointed to her sister.

“She’ll be an aunt to your children,” I said.

“But won’t she be a great something?”

Considering her unwavering faith in the Tooth Fairy, Short-pants is poised to be a believer in the Blue Fairy, which puts her in good stead to become a greatest kind of aunt.

“Of course I’ll be a great aunt,” Short-pants volunteered, “I’m a great sister, aren’t I?”

Nov 1 2010

All the Saints

Because the interior walls of the country house are not at all soundproof, we usually overhear the girls talking to each other as they ready themselves for bed. Last night they were wired from all the sugar and excitement of trick-or-treating. They also get to share a room with the mother-in-love when she joins us at the country house so going to bed is always a bit of an adventure, sharing those last just-before-sleep moments with their grandmother.

“Oh, will you stop it,” Short-pants screamed, “You’re talking about dead people again!” Buddy-roo protested. She was missing my mother and remembered sharing a bedroom with her when we took our family vacation to Punta Cana. And for that matter, she was also missing Grandpa Artie, De-facto’s father, who died before I was in the picture and long before Buddy-roo was considered, let alone conceived, but she has a special kinship with him because they share the same birthday.

(While I was in labor for Buddy-roo, we worked on the New York Times crossword – a visitor had brought it and left it – and were more than slightly stunned when the central word around which the entire puzzle was written was his name, A-R-T-I-E.)

My mother-in-love came up the stairs and into their room and heard their dispute. She made the expected, gentle inquiries. Short-pants remained exasperated. “She keeps talking about dead people and it’s useless.”

“But I miss Grammy,” Buddy-roo countered. Mother-in-love launched a sensitive and sensible explanation of how the people we love who die are never really gone; they stay with us when we think of them. So it is good to remember them.

“See?” Buddy-roo defended her nostalgia.
“I still say it’s useless,” said Short-pants.

I remember how famously my mother and my mother-in-love got on. De-facto’s mother admires everyone without envy, and she’s a great listener and a strong woman in her own right with as many fascinating accomplishments as my mother. Sipping iced-tea on the back porch, exchanging stories, admiring their grandchildren – I loved that that the girls could enjoy the company of both grandmothers at the same time. Though the way my mother was with the girls was different than how my mother-in-love engages them, the feeling of having both of them side-by-side had to be a real treasure. At least it was for me.

That my mother is gone makes me even more appreciative of the visits we have with De-facto’s mother. I always knew – but now I really know – how crucial it is to drink in every moment, every encounter, every single visit with her. She is so good to us, worthy of sainthood (who else volunteers to defrost your refrigerator?) and we shouldn’t ever take her for granted.

We worked our fingers to the bone. De-facto put up wallboard in the new room and I tended the grapes. She weeded along the front, side and back of the house, mulched any patch of exposed ground, trimmed roses, structured our new compost, hauled firewood, made a soup, colored puppets with the girls and a dozen other tasks to improve the quality of our country living. She is a powerhouse in a way that is surreal; she is as wise as her years demand but just as spry and fit as a woman twenty-five years younger.

For Halloween she dressed as the Countess Duvet who lives in the graveyard. She moved in – very temporarily – to the abandoned barn across the street, with candles and theatrics in order to add another trick-or-treating stop on our sparsely populated road.

“I eat my supper off the tomb of the Count,” she said, with a dramatic accent that made her claim believable. The girls jumped and squealed, not quite sure whether she was funny or frightening.

She cannot replace my mother but her presence somewhat palliates the loss, because she is my friend, because she knew my mother and loved and admired her, too. Having loved and lost her own mother, she respects the necessary passages of each generation. My mother-in-love knows everything I know, and so much more. But she won’t spoil it: she smiles at me, watching as I mother and cook and work and love and garden and grieve, and just puts her hand gently on my back from time to time to let me know she cares, which is just enough to remind me that there are saints here on earth.