Mar 24 2011

Somebody’s Mother

He plugged in the cable attached to my helmet, checked to be sure my visor was shut tight. Turning to his motorcycle, he straddled it, lifted and centered it, started the engine. I stepped on to the foot pedal and lifted my other leg high over the backrest, hoisting myself into the seat behind my friend Sebastian. I squeezed my arms around him to let him know I was good to go, forgetting that we had the benefit of being wired, allowing us to listen to music (Buena Visa Social Club and Madeline Peyroux) and to chat back and forth during the ride.

“Does that mean you’re ready?” he said.

We pressed through the light Sunday traffic, stopping and idling and starting again, weaving in and out of the lines of cars, splitting the lanes to move ahead. We weren’t overly impatient, but we both felt sense of urgency to get to the open road.

How long since I’d been on a motorbike? A while, maybe four years. It was in Milan, one unseasonably summer-like March evening, and in fact, it was on a Honda Phateon with Sebastian’s father. I was on my way to Rome, but stopped to see his dad, who had reason to be sad, and though I explained the visit as a gesture to cheer him up, it turns out that I was the one that needed to be reassured that he was okay. The night was too warm not to take out his motorcycle; he drove through the streets as only a seasoned-in-Italy driver can. The sky was clear, the moon friendly, summer felt close and everything was, eventually, going to be okay.

Stream of consciousness is like a river that flows where it wants, and one Italian motorbike memory becomes the tributary to another. I was a junior in college. He looked like Eric Clapton. Where did I meet him? Outside the Uffizi? Or near the Accademia where I’d stared up at the David for hours? I was only in Florence for a few days, but it was enough time to find a local guide with two wheels. Imagine being twenty, on the back of a Vespa with a handsome local; it’s a Rosetta Stone commercial waiting to happen. One night we sped out to Siena, winding roads with poplars silhouetted against the not-quite-night sky, the full hue of dusk my favorite shade of indigo.

Which made me think of another Italian ride, nearly a dozen years later, in my early thirties. Not on a bike, but in the back of a very fast car that my college roommate – who was visiting for a few weeks to Thelma-and-Louise with me through France, Switzerland and Italy – and I had no business being in. The owner and driver of the flashy automobile was someone we’d met a few hours earlier, flirting at a restaurant. Visiting the Termé de Petriolo seemed like a fine idea – “Just think of Rob and Laura Petrie,” my friend said to me, when I asked her for the third time where they said we were going – until we were speeding around narrow curves at a velocity much faster than was prudent. There were two conversations going in my head, at 150 kmh. The first voice, the father’s daughter, wondering how the hell I’d gotten myself in the back of this car in the middle of nowhere in the hands of two men unknown to us before, traveling at speeds that were putting our lives at risk. The other, watching the headlights skim across the rocks and cliffs as our car twisted through Tuscan hairpin turns, thinking this is thrilling and if I die here, at least I’ll go out having a marvelous adventure.

Hot springs have healing properties and it turns out they sober you up, too. Remarkably, no harm of any kind came to any of us, there was only laughing and swimming and then a more reasonable drive back to the city as the sun was rising and we found a café to have an espresso before we were dropped at our hotel.

I shudder to think how ridiculously dangerous that was, and how absolutely alive I felt through the entire experience and how it really did all turn out okay. My father always said I was naive enough to get myself in ridiculous situations but smart enough to get myself out. Lucky might be another word. Either way, I hope something more than this lucky intelligence is passed on to the next generation of daring girls.

What risks you can take when you’re young and single. I can’t do that now. I’m a parent.

Sebastian put the brakes on and I lurched forward against his back. “Sorry,” he said, but I knew he wasn’t being reckless. A car ahead had changed lanes and everyone’s brake lights had flashed. But he wanted to reassure me, probably because of the sharp intake of breath he’d heard, picked up by my microphone and sent to his headset, “we’ll be out of the city traffic soon.”

“I’m okay,” I told him, “I know that you know that I need to get home to my kids.”

This is what parenting does to you. It makes you worry about things that didn’t trouble you before. I makes you skittish. It makes you nervous. It makes you say affirmative, cautious things like, “I know you’ll get me home safely,” because now that you have offspring, the desire to be reckless, or worry-free, is muted, hampered by the hormones of responsibility. I have to be careful to stay alive to help them grow up, and not to scar their childhood with an untimely departure. I can’t die in some silly, tragic motorcycle accident on a curvy mountain road; I’m somebody’s mother.

Riding tandem on a motorcycle is a gentle team building exercise. It’s easy to hold on too tight at the start, to be uncertain. You need time to get used to being on this particular bike with that particular driver. But soon enough, driver and rider find a synchronicity. Maybe the rider gets used to it and relaxes and the driver feels that and relaxes, too – or vice versa. Soon the two are leaning into curves as one, like Astaire & Rogers, dancing lightly around the winding turns of even the most serpentine mountain roads.

Which is how my friend Sebastian and I rode to and from Martinborough, an hour’s drive away. Together we drank in the stunning New Zealand scenery, the music, the conversation, the good weather. He was the designated driver and I was the designated wine taster. There was nothing dangerous about the day. It was all pleasure.

Still, even with our prudence, I had a moment on the back of his BMW F650 CSA. A swift, noisy acceleration to pass a car so we could speed ahead unhampered, Ry Cooder sliding his way through the speakers, the famed super moon rising on the violet horizon, it was one of those but if I died now, at least I’d die happy moments.

With little ones around, the prevailing thought is I can’t die yet. The survival instinct is heightened beyond my own desire to keep living. I cannot imagine not seeing them through their puberty and into adulthood, not to mention I’m too damned curious about who they’ll become to leave the theater this early. Devil-may-care days are gone for good; there’s something else at stake once you’ve become a parent, something else at stake other than you and the thrill of your own wild moment.

But it’s nice, just for a few seconds, leaning into that hairpin turn, with the sun on your back and the open road ahead, to know that a few risks, in moderation, can still be taken. The key is to take that not-afraid-to-live-fully feeling home, and infuse it in the first big hug that wraps around those children.

And then, when they’re older and they want to go to Italy on their own, just not to think about it too much.

Mar 20 2011


That was the word that got her.

Her first word was robot, and Short-pants used her most mechanical, robotic voice to pronounce it, spell it out and then say it again for closure. This elicited laughs from the crowd, and that, coupled with the fact that she’d volunteered to tell a joke at the beginning of the contest, put her in good standing as the cheeky-charmer of the group.

Our super speller made it through eleven rounds, successfully spelling out miracle, tariff, begonia, daily, allot, sonata, chalupa, nether, wintergreen and ostentatious. With ten kids still standing, a break was called. When the young spellers returned, they were informed that the they’d be given words that weren’t on the preparation list, or as De-facto put it, “they went off-piste and took out everyone.”

Short-pants finished in third place in the Paris Spelling Bee, along with seven other kids who tied for third with her.

She had a great time. She was so proud. De-facto reports that he was a nervous each time her turn came around, but that she seemed remarkably poised, enunciating clearly, with confidence. Short-pants also appreciated (along with her mother) the encouraging comments from many of you. Thanks for your good words and hopeful intentions.

Condemn is a word she hadn’t encountered before, or at least to spell it out loud. But as all veteran spelling bee contestants know, she’s condemned to spell it correctly for the rest of her life.

Mar 17 2011


Hand in hand we walked across the bridge, oblivious to the Seine beneath us or Notre Dame’s buttresses stretching out behind us. We were too absorbed in the volley of our spelling practice. I’d pronounce a word, and Short-pants would spell it out. Another word, another spelling out.

“P-R-E-F-E-R-E-N-C-E,” she spelled, with pride, “because the vowel you prefer is an E.”

It isn’t really, and I don’t favor any letters of the alphabet in particular, but these are the sorts of devices we came up with to correct the mistaken words, funny little stories or tricks to remember the spelling. Short-pants was batting nearly a thousand, the only word she missed on the walk to the Paris Spelling Bee was the word feud, which I realized we probably hadn’t quizzed her on because it’s short and therefore ought to be easy. These are the words that get you, the ones you don’t bother to study. And feud doesn’t follow the when-two-vowels-go-walking rule, so it’s tricky.

“Do you know what feud means?” I asked her. She didn’t, so I told her, “It’s a fight that goes on for a long, long time, like a feud between two families that lasts for generations.”

“It’s like the vowels are fighting,” she said, “because the first one’s supposed to do the talking but instead the second one is.”

That’s a good way to remember it.

At the school where the preliminary competition was held, English prevailed. The French don’t really do spelling bees, and this friendly contest is organized by three anglo-oriented organizations: Gifted in France, the Roaming Schoolhouse and The American Library in Paris. That library is a resource that I forget to use. It’s too far away – across the river on the other side of town – I feel like I need to take my passport to get there.

We ran into only two acquaintances while we were waiting for the competition to start. The spelling bee is not obligatory and none of Short-pants classmates were keen to participate. But she was; her enthusiasm from participating last year had not waned, despite the fact she hadn’t made it beyond the first round. She’d been eager to sign up again and appeared to relish the occasions when we’d grill her on the words, not all of them easy. Salutatorian? Eviscerate? She’d rattle off each letter and then I’d say, “Do you know what it means?” The answer was usually no, so I’d try to make an easy definition for her, one that might help her remember the spelling. We’ve learned a lot of vocabulary over the last weeks, too.

The preliminary test was a written deal, so the students assembled were prepared to write twenty-five words and ten bonus words for tie-breaking purposes. The shortlist of finalists compete orally, in a stand-up-and-spell event which is coming up this Sunday, March 20th.

Children and parents milled around, last minute quizzing and pep talks before the students were invited to enter the classrooms for their test. I heard one woman round up a gang of girls, one can only assume that she had a couple of daughters and maybe she was chaperoning some of their friends – it was hard to tell and I hadn’t paid much attention until I heard her say, “Okay let’s rock it, girls. I didn’t come here today for nothing.”

Indeed, spelling is a competitive American sport.

My parting words to Short-pants, I’d like to think, a bit more reserved: “You’ve worked really hard. You’re ready. Go give it your best and try to have fun.”

“And relax!” she added, parroting something I said to her the night before. That was my father speaking. He’d counsel me to prepare for a test ahead of time, and then, the night before, go to a movie, just to relax. I never managed to follow this advice, but I always thought it was a good idea.

~ ~ ~

“How do you spell significant?” My sister’s response when she heard the news that Short-pants had qualified for the final round of the spelling competition.

“S-I-G-N-I-F-I-C-A-N-T.” Short-pants rattled off the letters, and this wasn’t even on the new list of words she had to memorize. Between the list for the first written round, and another list for the final oral round, Short-pants has perfected her spelling of nearly 600 words during the last two months.

My sister seemed genuinely impressed.

“Do you know why I asked?” she said. Short-pants couldn’t guess.

“I was in a spelling bee once, too. That’s the word that kept me from winning.” My sister, just like De-facto and I, had brushed close to victory in the final round of her spelling bee, but had been knocked out of the competition by a word she would then spell correctly for the rest of life.

Short-pants laughed out loud. “Oh, like mama misspelled alcohol and papa went down on crocodile.” She proceeded to spell both words without error.

~ ~ ~

I’m a long way from home. It took me 26 hours in the air and three travel days to get to New Zealand. Twelve time zones ahead, I watch the sun rise on a new today while I know it’s setting on yesterday back in Paris. I picture De-facto and the girls going through the evening routine of dinner and homework while I’m getting dressed for the day and heading to breakfast. It feels like I’m in the bow of a long, long boat, with the rest of the world aft in the mid-ships and stern. There’s even a digital delay; every morning I wake to dozens of emails that have accumulated while I slumbered. I answer them and then my computer remains quiet until the evening. It’s rather nice for concentrating and focusing. A bit eerie, though.

I’m not a whinging traveler, I take great pleasure when I’m en route and I have never minded traveling alone. This trip has put me with good colleagues and intelligent company. I’ve been on a bushwalk around the geothermal reserve park at Hells Gate (so named by George Bernard Shaw because going there shifted him from atheist to believer); I’ve been treated to a Māori hangi dinner and cultural performance that threatened to be touristy but ended up just being delightful; I saw the southern cross, and I understand now why I came this way.

But I have to admit – possibly due to the unfolding catastrophes in Japan – I’m feeling a bit uneasy. When things go haywire in the world, I think it’s a natural instinct to want to draw your loved ones around you. Only my arms won’t reach that far.

Because of the time difference and my busy agenda here, the overlap of awake and available windows for chatting with my family are narrow. I’m left to spell out my affection in emails. Because of the distance traveled, it makes sense to stay on a while (with De-facto’s blessing) to visit friends I’ve long wanted to visit. But that means I have to send my “you worked hard, give it your best” pep-talk to help Short-pants gear up for this weekend’s spelling bee via Skype. I’d rather be closer. But I’m not.

So I’m hoping you might help me out. Would you leave an encouraging word in the comments section for Short-pants, to let her know you’re rooting for her to do well at the spelling bee? A little support, advice, affection, some cheering-on, whatever comes to mind – it’ll help me feel better about missing the event, and it might give her a boost until next week, when I get to make a bee-line back home.

Mar 8 2011

Determined Women

One morning in November of 1977, my father woke up to discover his wife pictured on the front page of the daily newspaper. She stood with her arm raised defiantly in the air waving a placard, cheering beside her cohorts, the delegation of women from New York State who were attending the Equal Rights Amendment caucus in Houston, Texas. The photograph had been picked up by the Associated Press wire service and appeared in newspapers nationwide – my mother received clippings from friends and family from all over the country.

I would never have called my mother an activist, but I think she classifies. Throughout her life, she was engaged in local and state (and even a little national) politics. A Rockefeller Republican – for real, she knew him – she managed to be fiscally conservative but socially tolerant, something that’s hard to find these days with the cacophony of the current political climate in the US. She was pro-choice and anti-discrimination. She worked for the passage of the ERA because she believed it would give women the opportunities that they deserved. Growing up with my mother, I couldn’t help but be cognizant of the strides women had made. I admired Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. I would be a feminist too, just like my mom.

It helped a lot that my father stood beside her. He respected her immensely and the support and encouragement she gave to him was reciprocated. As a little girl, watching and learning about male-female relationships, this was the ideal scenario to observe. It created an expectation, one we ought to cultivate in all little girls, everywhere.

A small aberration: in college I attempted to distance myself from the radical segment of the women’s movement by giving a speech about how I didn’t call myself a feminist. It was an exercise for a class titled Persuasive Communication, which happened to be taught by the resident feminist on campus, a woman who once phoned the request line at the college radio station to complain about the lyrics to The Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb. My speech, I’m afraid, wasn’t terribly persuasive, but it was a pass/fail course and I still got credit for standing up in front of the room. A few years later, when I went to work in the real world, it didn’t take long before I regretted the talking points of that speech. I came to understand that the existence of the radical is what moves the middle, it draws attention to issues that are otherwise swept under the carpet. There is good reason to stand with your strident sisters.

But what do girls today know of the battles fought by our grandmothers and great grandmothers so that we could be liberated? My daughters have seen the photograph of their grandmother practicing her feminist politics, but they don’t understand where she was and what happened, or that even though the amendment was never ratified, it still had an important impact on women’s rights.

“Women, for real, weren’t allowed to wear pants?” Buddy-roo said, in response to my list of all rights women had to fight for. Short-pants was fixated on the idea of equal pay for equal work, shocked that a man might be paid more for doing the exactly same job.

“Does Papa make more than you?”

“When we do the same kind of work, we make the same amount.”

“Did you have to fight him for that?”

I explained that because the previous generations of women protested and pressed for change, now I don’t have to fight, at least not as much as they did. My soapbox continued, delving into the complexities of women’s advancement and how although great strides have been made – here’s where the girls were starting to tune out so I raised my voice – we shouldn’t take them for granted ever. I told them how women are still paid and treated differently in many professions, especially when it comes to top management, and how there are some people who want to take away a woman’s right to medical care and advice that allows us to remain independent.

“But Papa said women were taking over the world,” said Short-pants, a reference to a speech De-facto made to his Toastmasters club. His speech combined his story of renting a muscle car with a summary of an Atlantic Magazine article about the end of men ruling in the workplace. He practiced it for her so many times that she memorized it, too. “Men. Love. Cars.” She’d repeat these opening words of his speech, emphasizing each word, just as he did.

“Even so,” I said, “we have a long way to go.” I thought about the veiled women who might prefer to be uncovered, and about the atrocities against women that are permitted and promoted in other cultures. Some day I’ll make the girls more aware of this particular brand of religious and cultural inequity, but it didn’t have to be today. They were still getting their heads around the idea of being prohibited from voting, playing sports or simply wearing trousers.

All of this just the warm-up for an inspired cultural excursion to a little museum down the street, the Galerie des bibliotèque-de-la-ville, which happened to be exhibiting a collection of photographs of French feminist movement. Short-pants was eager to come along, Buddy-roo not so much, opting to stay at home and watch a Barbie movie that I would later try to interpret for her through a feminist lens: “See, the princess didn’t need the prince to rescue her, she had her own creative ideas and they worked together to solve the problem.”

What better way to celebrate Women’s History month than an edifying stroll through French feminist history, of which I know very little. But even if I didn’t recognize the names of the women in all those photographs, I could recognize their spirit; there was a look of determination in the eyes of every portrait we saw.

I pointed this out to Short-pants, as we walked past the framed photographs, reading the paragraph about each woman’s contribution to the feminist movement. I told her about how the simple choices that she and I count on would not exist were it not for the spirit of these courageous women. What I didn’t her – not yet – is how lately it feels like women’s rights are being assailed in the United States, and that ultimately having a foot on French soil may be the thing keeps her free and fierce.

“When I grow up,” she said, nodding at the photographs, “I’m going to be just as determined.”

“That’s just what it takes,” I said, hoping she never has to put her fist in the air to get what she wants. But if it comes to that – because she’s got a bit of her grammy in her – I think she’ll be up to the task.

Mar 2 2011

The Land of “Non

They paired up automatically, so accustomed to their organized method of moving from point A to point B. I suppose it must happen ten times a day: down and out of the school at each recess and back up the stairs for class, or when they descend the dark stairway to go to lunch, and again at the end of the day before they rush out the door into the arms of waiting parents and nannies. They fall into line, two by two, ready to be herded along.

Holding hands (sort of) they followed the teacher across the street and to the bridge to Ile St. Louis. We parents – the five who’d volunteered to assist with the trek to the children’s library – fell in step, guiding any stragglers back into the line and pressing the lollygaggers for a bit more speed.

I’m not that parent who eagerly volunteers to help with every activity at school. The adult hours I have are precious to me and I’ve never been a rah-rah-stir-up-the kids kind of mom. But Buddy-roo’s pleas for me to be a chaperone on one of her monthly library trips were too insistent to say non. Besides, I like a good library.

The maitresse received us with a formal enthusiasm and we responded in kind. Despite my occasional grievance about the amount of homework she levels on our children, I do try to give her the benefit of the doubt. Buddy-roo seems to be fond of her, and there are anecdotes of her individualized attention to students in the class that indicate she truly cares about helping the kids learn and succeed. It’s hard not to respect a woman who passes
the entire day with nearly thirty 7-year-olds and still smiles. During the Christmas concert rehearsals, the parents had an impossible time controlling this unruly pack of kids. Watching their teacher do it inspires awe.

“I’m counting down from twenty,” she said, “and when I’m done, all children will be quiet.” The French word she used was sage, which also connotes being well behaved. She started counting backwards and by the time she was at eleven, the foyer outside the library was soundless except for the shuffling of winter coats and an occasional cough.

That’s when we entered the library. A staff member watched the children file in, and the five adults accompanying them. “Non, non, non.” We were too numerous, he said. It was not possible for everyone to be upstairs in the storytelling room. I was one of the three mothers relegated to wait on the ground floor. We sat at the table and whispered to each other, recalling our younger days in childhood libraries. I was cheered by the whimsical décor and the stacks of bright, colorful books so I pulled out my iPhone and snapped a few pictures.

Non,” said the librarian sitting at her desk, “c’est interdit.” I explained that I wasn’t making a phone call, just taking a photograph. “C’est aussi interdit!” That was also forbidden.

Finally we three moms-in-waiting were invited up the curved staircase to join the children. “Maman!” Buddy-roo broke her vow to whisper, “Why weren’t you here for the story?” I explained that there’d been too many people. Except I hadn’t seen anyone leave before we were summoned, so I’m not sure what was the reason for being banished below.

Children were rifling through boxes of books, strategically placed around the room to permit easy access from many angles. The mother-helpers were reading stories to small clusters of children, other kids were reading to themselves or rolling around on the cushions on the bench by the window. A pillow fight ensued.

Mais non!” the upstairs librarian admonished the children fiercely. A few moments later he yelled at them for letting the cushions drop to the floor. “Non!” I heard it again and again, he was constantly correcting some child for some act of anti-library behavior. It doesn’t help that there is something particularly dismissive about the French way of saying non. Is it because it’s another language, not my native one? Is it because of its clipped sound, sharper and more abrupt? Is it the pleasure that seems to accompany its repeated use?

Children – in France and elsewhere – must hear no or non hundreds of times a day. No, you may not watch a movie during breakfast. No you may not wear your princess dress to school. No you may not talk in the cafeteria. No you may not, until you’ve done your homework. No you may not, just before bed. No you may not, it’s time to go to bed now. All day long a series of negative commands are fired at them, reminders of all the things they cannot do. Slowly we’re beating the optimism out of them.

Not that I’m opposed to no. In the how to raise kids debate, De-facto and I lean toward setting limits. (Or so I think, but do we ever really see ourselves clearly as parents?) I believe kids need structure and boundaries; too much freedom and too many choices can be overwhelming and anxiety-producing. Though I’d pale in comparison to a Tiger Mom, I see the value in being strict. It just feels so restraining to be negative and forbidding about it. Isn’t it possible to set limits and use yes?

I try to say yes, when I can, or at least say no without saying no. Yes, you may have another piece of candy, tomorrow after lunch. Yes, you can watch a movie, after you’ve done your homework. Yes, you can wear it on Saturday when we have a princess tea party. Yes, you can sleep with me, next time Papa’s traveling. It may just be a no in disguise, but at least there’s hope within it, hope for a future possibility, something to look forward to, an alternative to the restrictive, option-less brick fortress that stands around the land of of non.