Jan 30 2011

The Auto-dictée

She was in a puddle on the floor. “I’ll never learn this!” The text Buddy-roo was trying to memorize had been in her assignment agenda all week, but somehow we hadn’t gotten to it. Her homework was already heavier than usual, it was all we could do to get through the obvious assignments, let alone a special one. With her 7-year-old level of knowledge, maturity and motor skills, writing out sentences and circling the subject and conjugating the verb takes a lot longer than you’d think. Add some math problems and spelling to that, and the night is shot. It’s a bit easier than it used to be, but it’s still a grind. De-facto and I take turns being firm but friendly about getting homework done, one of us taking over when we notice the other’s voice taking on that getting-to-the-end-of-my-rope edge.

An incoming email message coincided with our parental angst. A thoughtful father made an informal survey of some of the parents, wondering, “Is it just us, or has there been an increase in homework?” Within hours, a flurry of responses. I’m usually annoyed by group email conversations using reply-all, but this was different. I opened each message eagerly. Another parent drowning in homework. Another classmate of Buddy-roo’s spending two plus hours a night to get it done, like her. Another mother wonders why, with all this work, there’s also an auto-dictée. Another father wishes the time spent with his children in the evening wasn’t always spent dogging them to finish their assignments. What a relief to discover we’re not the only ones plunged into shock from the amped-up after-school workload. A few of the more experienced parents tempered the complaints, commenting gently that this particular year is a tough one for French school kids and we just have to gut it out. But the main message in this email string was clear: most of us are exasperated.

We’re not a tightly-wound gang bent on steering our children toward the grands écoles. Most of us (I think) are just trying to help our kids keep up. Or more important: not to be stressed out. And the message string wasn’t only a rant. The discussion was a heartening reflection on the parents, ultimately morphing into a back-and-forth of constructive solutions and possible responses. Do we approach the teacher and complain? If so how to do it? Individually? Collectively? What are the consequences? How do we understand her challenges? Will it make any difference? Or do we just persevere and wait for the year to finish?

Then a message from a harried mother, apologizing for hijacking the conversation, but could someone scan and send her a copy of the auto-dictée because her son forgot to bring it home. That was when it dawned on me, the way something can come to you too late, even though it’s been right in front of your eyes like a series of neon billboards. Auto-dictée? It’d been mentioned several times in the back-and-forth of parent emails. What was this auto-dictée?

Minutes later a message from someone’s father who’d typed in the text. “I’m sending it to you from memory,” he wrote. There was a weary tone to his words. “After working on it for hours with my son, I’m afraid I know it by heart.”

I called the mother of one of Buddy-roo’s classmates. Even while I was dialing the phone, I had a bad feeling this had something to do with that folded piece of paper in the agenda we’d been ignoring. She confirmed this, and explained the task: Unlike the usual memorization assignments where you have to recite a poem by heart in front of the class (I find this charming), the auto-dictée means to write out the passage from memory, without being prompted or having it read out loud first, as in a standard dictation. This would be a challenging assignment for Buddy-roo if we had started preparing earlier in the week. To begin to memorize it so she could write it unaided, on the night before it was due, left us little hope for success.

Buddy-roo stomped and cried, insisted that we were wrong, that the teacher said she only had to learn the poem, she didn’t have to write it from memory. Rather than fight her, especially this late on a Thursday night, I said, “Okay, let’s just learn it by heart.” I started to work with her, line by line, but it’d been a long day. I was tired. I was angry. It wasn’t going well.

“Hey Buddy-roo,” said De-facto, “Why don’t you teach it to me?”

She handed him the paper. He read the passage a few times and handed it back. Then he started, “Alors, les source…” and he hesitated. She prompted him. Each time he missed a word, she corrected him. She transformed into the teacher, guiding him through the poem. And when he’d finished, he said to her, “Now see if you can do it better than I did.” And she did. It wasn’t perfect, but she had the basics. We had no idea if she could write it from memory, but it was ten o’clock and you know what? That was good enough.

I did write a note to her teacher in the cahier de correspondance, explaining that we had understood the instructions of the auto-dictée too late, wondering if in the future she might give us more specific guidance on new types of assignments so we could help Buddy-roo to be prepared. In the end I wished I hadn’t. The note she sent back to me wasn’t very empathetic. She started with how I had incorrectly referred to the text of the auto-dictée as a poem. Had it been a poem, she wrote, it would have been in the cahier de poesie. (It was downhill from there.)

But hey, Buddy-roo managed to eke out a minimum grade on her auto-dictée, and even got a few words of praise from the teacher, despite her lack of preparation. She also volunteered, in a sheepishly sweet way, that I’d been right about the assignment. (That’s a first!) As for De-facto, he has no recall of the text he’d learned. But at least now he knows it’s not a poem.


Jan 24 2011

All that Magic

When I phoned to make my reservation, I braced myself. “It’s a magical morning here at the Disneyworld Yacht Club resort! Thanks for calling! How can I help you today?” It must have been a gag reflex that induced my coughing fit, the agent had to wait for me to recover before collecting information for my reservation. He chirped right along and I answered, wondering what he was like during off-hours. Did he get mad at his kids? Did he shout profanities at his wife? I shouldn’t complain: it was an effortless procedure to reserve my room, and any extra questions I had about my arrival in Orlando were answered in the most upbeat but efficient way. A final, effusive moment of customer service as he closed the call: “Ma’am, I do appreciate you making your reservation with us today, is there anything else I can do for you?’

“Well, yes, in fact,” I answered him, “You could be a little less cheerful.” He laughed. “Okay, ma’am, I’ll try.”

Perhaps I’ve been immersed in the French pessimism for too long – it’s not that I don’t wish I could get this kind of delighted-to-help you attention at home in Paris – but something about the happy-on-steroids tone of everything Disney provokes my sarcastic evil twin sister. Arriving at the Orlando airport, every wider-than-necessary smile and über-friendly remark as I made my way to the Magical Express transfer bus grated on me. On the magic bus, a TV commercial the length of the ride from the airport to the hotel offered up a numbing combination of deep, enthusiastic voices and flashing lights and colors. Then the exuberant welcome from every staff member as I entered the hotel lobby. I kind of wanted to scream. It was as if my heart couldn’t handle so much hospitality. Or hype.

The purpose of my trip was professional; that’s why I found myself in the world’s most famous family resort without my own. The participants of the training I was running hailed from many different organizations, but a handful were cast members, ergo the invitation to hold the workshop at Disney. We were hosted in a large meeting space at the far end of EPCOT, on the second floor of a pavilion that is no longer used. This meant each morning we strolled through the park to get to our meeting room, and the gate we were escorted through was just beside England and Canada. By the end of the week I knew by heart the music tracks that accompanied each country’s faux-setting. Further along in the park, near the iconic geodesic dome a sound track of futuristic schmaltz attempted (I think) to conjure up a feeling of the wonder of technological efficiency. Funny how the sterile technology we imagined years ago, when EPCOT was first designed, looks much different from the real technology we know today, which rather than simplifying and minimalizing seems to be sloppier, and more complicated and distracting.

Midweek one of the cast members participating in our program made a special announcement: everyone at the training was invited to a press event at the Magic Kingdom. This entailed V.I.P. passes to a private party in the evening when the park would otherwise be closed. My enthusiasm wasn’t entirely feigned; I appreciated the generous gesture. But did I want to immerse myself further into this cheerful, hand-waving, ever-smiling world? Later, when announcing the details about where and when the bus would collect us, I asked – as if it was to benefit the participants who might be worried – how we might leave the event mid-way if we didn’t want to stay. It wasn’t impossible, we were told, but it wasn’t easy to do. I wondered if I’d be better off staying in my hotel for a quiet night.

Opportunity is not something lost on me, however, and although I was reticent to commit to the event, I remembered some 20+ years ago when I worked in the media and I was flown to Disney to attend a promotional weekend. It was fun. We’d had easy access to every ride, attraction and Disney character roaming the park without ever waiting in line. It had, of course, ruined all subsequent visits to Disney where the snaking lines, though creatively managed, meant spending the same amount of time standing and waiting as playing and riding. It’s not every day you get invited to a V.I.P event, I reminded myself; probably a good idea to take advantage of it.

The coach circled around to the side of the park and we were driven through parts of the behind-the-scenes space that looks remarkably plain, ordinary. It was about as back-stage as you can get, but as soon as we walked through the hidden gate into Frontierland, a row of lively cast members lined the walkway with trays of drinks and snacks and high-spirited greetings. Throughout the park, rides were open and running, and line-less, so we stepped immediately into the elevator of the haunted mansion and without any delay into the carriages that meander through the caves of Pirates of the Caribbean. Our Disney colleagues who’d arranged our entry didn’t just dump us in the park and go off to do their own thing. They took us around, optimizing our time in the park and illuminating little details that we’d otherwise never notice. The restaurants that usually offer the typical fast-food fare of American families were instead set up with buffet tables holding a more sophisticated spread of food and drink. After we dined, we were prompted toward Main Street, USA where dessert and coffee accompanied the special light show and fireworks.

Of course I had a photo opp with the famous Mickey and Minnie, and though I couldn’t resist making an aside about the sexual advances I endured during Mickey’s embrace, it was my only snarky comment of the night. That’s because before I could stop myself I started to have a blast. As the night sped by, I let go of the suspicious energy I’d been carrying all week, and I immersed myself in the full Disney experience. I ran through the park, jumping on my tip-toes, laughing, shouting out “look, it’s Donald!” I could feel the smile permanently pasted on my face the entire time, and looking around at all the (mostly) adults there, I wasn’t the only one. At every turn another delight was proffered – a just-baked chocolate chip cookie, cheesecake served in a creative plastic dispenser (my editor was off, “It’s a cheesecake tampon!” I shouted, causing even the Disney server to laugh.) An amazing projection show that dressed the Magic Kingdom’s castle in forty different costumes and colors, sent stars and photographs tumbling out its windows, an animated performance that dropped everyone’s jaw to the ground. And if that wasn’t stunning enough, the finale of fireworks left everyone buzzing.

This is what Walt Disney had in mind, I suppose. Certainly his world was designed to delight children, but he must have known how it would be just as important – and a much harder a task – to delight their parents and any other adults who found themselves, sometimes begrudgingly, in his park. At Disney last week I relearned something I purported to know: how to play. Not just going through the motions and being a little bit playful, but giving into the magic and surrendering willingly to the child inside.

I hadn’t mentioned to Short-pants and Buddy-roo that I was going to Disney. It felt wrong to boast about such a treat to them, and you may recall I wasn’t that enthusiastic about going. But now I’m thinking a visit to Disneyland Paris is imminent. I’m even dreaming of a Disney cruise as a future vacation. (They christened a new boat this week, too.) Who knew I could come around to being so enthusiastic? Maybe that extra little hug from Mickey was all it took to be seduced by the Disney magic.


Jan 7 2011

Porch Stories

That back porch could tell you some stories. It’s a porch that was good for licking melting ice-cream cones and sipping gin & tonics from tall glasses. It’s a porch where, as a young girl, I spent hours reading every book I could get my hands on, escaping into the thick forests of Narnia or sitting in a crowded courtroom with Scout Finch. It’s the place where I sulked and stewed, indignant that my parents would not let me go to town with my friends, forcing upon me an unjust incarceration in my own home. It’s a porch where sheets have been hung out to dry, in any and every season. I’ve swept its long, thin boards and shoveled snow from them more times than I can count. This porch I have shared with my family all of my life, an extension off the back of our home like a giant cradle where good things could and did happen, its balustrade like teeth in the smile of a happy childhood.

I remember a Saturday, last May, sitting alone on this back porch, steeped in an after-everything feeling. My mother was gone. She’d been buried for months, but now that her memorial service was behind us, it felt real in a way it hadn’t before. The house had been ordered and cleaned, the refrigerator emptied of everything but ketchup, pickles and a few jars of jam. The doors were locked, the alarm was set, and my ride had just called to say he was approximately thirty miles away, in a town with a name he mispronounced marvelously. I did not mind that traffic had delayed him; this gave me a little pocket of contemplative time.

I pulled out my journal and seated myself in one of the wicker rocking chairs on the porch, facing out over the grove of trees along the border of the property. It used to be you could see the lake beyond the thick of trees. Now the hedge is taller, fuller – as is every living thing that’s grown behind it – and the view, though still lovely, no longer includes the lake.

Just as I put the pen to paper, I had a flash, a sense of something different, something distinct from the sadness and grief that I’d known for the last many months. For a brief set of seconds, not even ten, I felt free. The feeling wrapped itself around me, singing a light song to lure me in and then, as quickly as it came, it slipped away.

It made me a little bit giddy, jumpy, kind of electric. Giddy like I felt that first day on campus, wandering around the cobblestone streets near my university. The sun was setting but I was rising, my whole life ahead, and this great collegiate opportunity about to launch me into it.

Or standing on the Metro North platform, after leaving the keys to my apartment on a table inside before closing the door behind me. I’d sold my car to a woman, a stranger, who then drove me to the station to go to New York for a quick overnight before flying to Europe – to live. I had with me only three suitcases and a red wide-brimmed hat. I giggled out loud as the train rushed into the station, the wind from its passage fierce against me as I held the hat firm on my head.

Or giddy like the first night in my first Parisian apartment, listening to Miles Davis with a bottle of Burgundy, or the Indian summer weekend I moved into my second Paris apartment, unpacking boxes and listening to a mixed tape given to me by a younger De-facto, wondering if the next time I moved house it might be with him beside me.

The thread in all these giddy moments: I had just let go, but I had not yet grabbed on to what would be next. That next was still unknown or unclear, and yet – and there was trust involved – ripe with promise. The prevailing thought: What can happen now? Anything.

~ ~ ~

When I was in college I slipped away one long weekend to take part in a seminar that was an offshoot of the Werner Erhardt personal growth movement. The reasons I was compelled to go are better left for another post, or it suffices to say that I’d taken my sophomore slump a little too seriously. The workshop did me a lot of good. A few of my friends remained involved in the program, but I was done after attending two levels. I couldn’t afford it on a student’s stipend and the pressure to proselytize, though not overbearing, was implicit enough to put up red flags warning me to keep my distance.

I remember going home to tell my father about the workshop. I wanted to express to him how it had changed me, how I felt so much more alive and in touch with myself. He interrupted me, reminding me of the occasion when I had eaten, in its entirety, my first Big Mac.

It was on the way to summer camp Yaiewano, circa 1972. The challenge must have been issued when I had pronounced it impossible. Not that my father was so interested in my consumption of a special-sauced hamburger, but I imagine he was trying to teach me something about setting and preparing for a goal, or turning an idea once considered implausible into something entirely feasible.

“Your Big Mac story,” he said to me, in that voice of his that could be comforting and frightening at the same time, “is one of many stories that you will have in your life, as is the story of this seminar. I hope you make the most of every single one.”

He was expert at having the last word.

But he was right. It’s easy to tell yourself a story and then begin to believe it’s your only one. Sometimes when it feels like Short-pants’ hospital story comes up too frequently I tell her just what my father told me. It is an important story, one that changed her life irrevocably, but it’s not her only story. I want her to know that. I want her to own that.

~ ~ ~

A thoughtful reader sent me an email, this week, with an excerpt from The Love Queen of Malabar, a memoir about the friendship between its author, Canadian Merrily Weisbord and the Indian poet Kamala Das. The timing – that this fell in front of me while I was musing on the subject of stories and freedom – was uncanny. This passage especially:

A writer moves away from family, old relationships, very far with the speed of a falling star,” she says. “Otherwise the writer is destroyed, and only the member of the family remains: the mother, sister, daughter, wife. The writer at some point must ask, do I want to be a well-loved member of the family? Or do I want to be a good writer? You can’t be both at the same time.”

I often wonder about this. Except it was the shock and awe of having children that (finally) propelled me to get serious about writing. My earlier story ideas languished, but the manuscript about the paradox of motherhood is the one that is (nearly) done. The number of posts I’ve written about my mother is growing out of control, but her departure from this earth provoked a stream of words from me like nothing before in my life. These roles of mother and daughter have not inhibited my word count.

But have I told the truth, the real truth, my truth? Not entirely, and I probably won’t, as long as my partner and children and siblings are alive and can read what I’ve written. That’s not out of fear, it’s out of respect.

Still, there is a shift now that my mother has joined my father in the land of gone. Sad as I am, I am also free. I was never deliberately constrained by her, but as long as she was alive, her influence was present. It wasn’t a conscious, I couldn’t write that, what would she think? kind of influence – if anything, I carved out a good portion of my identity by doing exactly what my parents thought I should not do. But therein lies the kernel. Some part of me has always been his child, her daughter. Now that they are gone, I am free to do as I please without worrying them, free to be who I am, without pleasing or displeasing them, free to write the story that is mine, unencumbered. Not that there is something so terrible to tell, or that I couldn’t have written already for them to see. But now, free of their reaction or judgment – negative or positive – the core stories within me are mine to tell.

This is what comes to me, then, after reading every post I’ve written during the Reverb10 challenge to reflect on the last year of my life. It’s as if I am once again alone on that back porch, staring out at the trees, wondering how it is they grew so tall. Let go. Grab on. What can happen now? Anything.

I’m participating in Reverb10, and this post is in response to a prompt from author Molly O’Neill: Prompt: Core story. What central story is at the core of you, and how do you share it with the world? (Consider your reflections from this month. Look through them to discover a thread you may not have noticed until today.)


Jan 2 2011

Silent Sunday