Dec 31 2011

Nothing Doing

We hover around the wood stove. Its cylinder drum radiates a fierce heat if you stand too close, but still it’s not enough to warm the entire room. We live mostly in this room, the main room of our country house, venturing outside only to acquire more firewood or to go the neighbor’s bench to tap into their wi-fi network. Unless you’re near the fire, you might as well be upstairs, or outside. It’s cold, and raw.

De-facto installed an electric heater in the new room in the back of the house – the guest room – so that the girls could have a warm place to sleep. The first night we were here they gutted it out in sleeping bags in the loft. I didn’t like the fact that I could see my breath when I was tucking them in, but that loft is the kid’s world and Short-pants especially was determined to sleep there.

At the country house our sleep is sound and heavy. We wake naturally, without any alarm, a luxurious break from the get-them-off-to-school morning grind. I rise and make my way downstairs to stoke the stove. De-facto has made a science of stuffing it full and closing the vents for a slow burn all night long. I have been chastised to save the thickest logs for these overnights. In the daytime, we burn smaller wood and the floorboards we removed to create the loft in the room that’s now too cold to sleep in.

The coffee press produces its black elixir, mixed with milk steamed in a dented saucepan on our beat-up three-burner cooking stove. The mug warms my hands as I sip from it, staring out the window at the wet trees. If it weren’t raining, if the sky were blue and the ground dry, I’d go out and prune the grapes and cut back the rose bushes. De-facto could climb up on the roof and reorder the misplaced tiles that are causing the gentle drip-drop in our bedroom. But it is raining, and I don’t even mind. The rain quiets us and turns us inward, the right spirit for the end of the year reflection and assessment.

Short-pants and Buddy-roo stumble out of their slumber, rubbing their eyes and scratching their bed-heads. Their pajamas reveal knobby ankles and long, thin forearms; their country house clothes are all just a bit too small for them. Things gets dirty and ruined so easily here, it’s become the stopping-off place between their good “city clothes” and the good will. They look like urchins, or something out of a bleak Dicken’s story.

I make them a tartine with butter and honey, and heat up some pain au raisin from the bakery. More milk is warmed, this time to make hot chocolate. The futon couch has been moved so it’s right next to the wood stove. We sit on it together. We don’t talk: it’s too early for words or it’s too quiet for words or else they just aren’t necessary. We stare at the stove, listening to it pop and crackle, listening to the rain against the glass panes, the dripping faucet, the creaking and groaning of the house. We sit like this for a long time, doing nothing but staring and listening.

It’s a lost art, the art of doing nothing, ill-practiced these days in our world filled with 24/7 news sweeps, iPhones that ding in the night and a constant stream of feeds and posts we’re supposed to like or not. People sleep less, rush more. We are compelled always to be busy at something. To do nothing is to stand still against the rush of activity in which the world is so seriously engaged. Productivity and efficiency and impact – these are the measures of success. But are they the best measures of contentment?

At home, it’s hard to do nothing. There’s always something calling: things that need to be straightened, organized, fixed, cleaned, started or finished. Not that there aren’t plenty of projects at this country house, but when it’s cold and rainy, most of them can’t be tackled. And since (up until now) we haven’t installed an internet connection, the distractions of email, social networking and other web activity disappear. There’s empty time and space, with no urgency to fill it.

Eventually there were words. A description of last night’s dream. A question about the smoke from the fireplace. A remark about how nice it is to have nothing to do. De-facto stirred upstairs – there is no insulation between the floors so you can hear every word, every footstep – we listened to him groan out of bed and run through his morning yoga poses before he trampled down the stairs and turned the corner into the kitchen to catch the three of us there, cuddled up on the couch, by the fire, doing nothing.

“What are we doing?” he said, grinning at us.
“Nothing,” said Buddy-roo.
“Are we happy?”
“Yes,” said Short-pants.

The country house isn’t my favorite winter destination. In the spring when the days lengthen and the sun is warm, it is much more pleasant. In the summer, there are soft grassy lawns and swings and blackberries to harvest. We leave the doors open and run in and out of the house in flip-flops. In the autumn, the temperature is still gentle and the crisp smell of leaves and the promise of Halloween summon a unique country house mood. But in winter, it’s damp and raw, rainy and windy. The house takes days to heat up. It always feels like the stones begin to retain the enough heat to go without double sweaters just as we’re about to close the house to head home.

Yet it is in this condition that perhaps we learn the most from this old stone homestead, when it draws us in and requires us to wait and watch the weather, when it offers us nothing but a few moments to slow down our thoughts and hear them without the clutter and hurry-up of our day-to-day routines. What I love about the country house is how it asks us to do nothing, and, when that’s what we do, there’s nothing else like it.


Dec 28 2011

Revelation

It didn’t help that I was horizontal, trapped in bed by a gastro that’s been going around. De-facto and Short-pants were out on the last of the Christmas-eve day errands: buying bread for the foie gras, tabasco for the Christmas Day Bloody Marys and paper for the last few unwrapped boxes. Drifting in and out of sleep, I heard Buddy-roo occupying herself around the apartment, singing to her Pet-Shop animals (those Fisher Price toys have, maddeningly, still not yet arrived), pushing the baby-doll stroller around the kitchen island, or shaking the presents already placed under the tree.

I was on the mend, but I still couldn’t sit or stand upright for too long. She’d come in every fifteen minutes or so, climbing up on the bed to check on me. She’d brush my hair away from my forehead, give me an I’m-sorry-you’re-sick look; she was caressing me, I imagine, exactly as I have tended her maladies. I was grateful for her quiet company, until she broke the silence.

“Does Santa Claus really come, or is it you who gets up in the night to put his presents under the tree?”

Were I standing in the kitchen, attending to any household task, I could have looked the other way and made a light-hearted of-course-it’s Santa kind of comment to brush it away. But I was pinned like a wrestler beneath her, and she was looking me square in the eye.

“What do you think?” I said.

I’ve been conflicted about the continuation of the Santa Claus myth. The excitement he conjures up is charming, but it’s fatiguing to keep the charade going: wrapping his presents in special paper and making sure no trace is left, remembering which presents are from Santa and which are from us, the required oblique responses to questions about him, his elves and his reindeer. I’m eager for a time when the girls are non-believers and we can exchange the dozens of parcels under the tree for a family trip to somewhere warm with sand, surf and spa. Here it was, the moment to start turning this Christmas train around, and I was chicken.

“I don’t know,” she said, “that’s why I’m asking you.”

Up until now, they’ve both appeared to be believers. Short-pants diligently wrote her letter to Santa and warned her younger sister about the spying elves. When we baked and decorated my mother’s Christmas cut-out cookies, she worried out loud about which one to leave for Santa on Christmas eve. Buddy-roo seemed less devout. It was harder to get her to scribe anything to Santa; she even seemed a bit aloof. But then she told De-facto that “the best thing about Christmas is you can ask for whatever you want and it doesn’t cost anything.” She compared this with her birthday, when you didn’t know what you were going to get and somebody had to pay for the presents. So, it seemed, she still believed, too.

“Santa is the spirit of Christmas,” I told her, “he represents the magic of giving gifts without thinking about what you get back.”

I was stalling. I wanted her to find out from someone other than me, like a classmate or a cousin. Perhaps that’s what had happened and now she was coming to me for the ultimate truth.

“But who puts the presents from Santa under the tree?”

Her question was too direct. It was time to answer. Besides, I justified, this might lay the foundation for the dialogue between us in the years to come; how I handled this could be a precedent for future honest answers from her.

I told her. The truth. Then I braced myself for her response: a backlash of angry betrayal or tears of disappointment that all this magic was just a myth.

“Really?” Her eyes widened. “It’s you?

“And Papa, too.” I had to give him some credit.

She inched herself up closer to me, her smile widening. She threw her arms around my shoulders.

I wanted to say: You’re not mad at us? Instead I said: “It doesn’t mean that Santa doesn’t exist. He’s in all of us, at anytime of the year. He just comes out more generously at Christmas.”

“Who eats the cookie we leave out?” she asked.
“I do.”
“And the carrot, for the reindeer, who eats that?”
“Papa.”
“How come you get the cookie?”
“That’s how we roll.”

Now I wondered about Short-pants. She’d been doing such a fine job of believing – almost too good a job for her age – that I’d started to think maybe she was playing along to humor us. I did this: for three years I was well aware who was really putting those big-ticket gifts under the tree, but I didn’t fess up. The booty Santa brings is always more interesting. How do you think I got so many of those Fisher Price toys?

I asked her if Short-pants still believed.
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation. “She still believes.”

“Will you give me a present, then?” I asked. She nodded solemnly, to match the tone of my request.

“Please. Don’t. Tell. Her.”

I remembered how crushed she’d been, running to her room in tears when she learned that the Bastille Day fireworks weren’t really in honor of her birthday, something De-facto and I had perpetuated as a charming story – we thought – as the fireworks in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where she was born, started just a few moments after she was born.

“At least not until after this Christmas.”

Buddy-roo promised, and it was a promise she kept. In fact, she played along so well with the entire ruse that I realized that I’ve set no precedent whatsoever for any honest answers in the coming years. But we had peace at Christmas, in a festive kind of way, which is what I needed, and what I wish for all of you for the remainder of the holiday season.


Dec 22 2011

A Blinding Grin

It happened the day before my first junior high school dance. I’d been to the orthodontist several times, enduring that mouthpiece filled with the cold, white, plaster of Paris concoction – both before and after getting those extra, unwanted teeth pulled – leaning forward and breathing, barely, through my nose while the imprint of my teeth and gums hardened. My casts would join a hundred other sets of jaws displayed in glass cases along every wall of the office, in Dr. Zappler’s museum of overbites. Still, I was surprised when an army of razor edged silver bands were cemented on each and every tooth, connected by a single wire that joined me, unwittingly, to the club of children with braces.

The monstrous dental chair faced a picture window looking out over a lake, a calming view before the tempest of tears that would follow when I got home and went directly to the mirror over the bathroom sink. My mouth was overtaken with metal, a silver smile behind swollen lips unaccustomed to the foreign objects in my mouth. My inside of my cheeks were sore. My heart dropped.

Because there was a boy, sort of a bad boy – or he soon enough would become one – and my crush on him was fierce. Just thinking about him conjured up a stirring in my 12-year-old body, a tickle that was a bit confusing and a bit intriguing. I guessed that if he would ask me to dance or possibly steal a first kiss, it could only get better. It was rumored that he might, friends had reported that he’d been glancing over at me frequently in the cafeteria.

Staring in the mirror, all hopes of his attention darkened. My first seventh grade dance would be the one where I sat alone on the wooden bleachers while my friends rocked back and forth with their boyfriends in that arduous circle otherwise known as a “slow dance.” My life was ruined.

Contrast this with Short-pants, who was thrilled about the acquisition of her braces. She marched home from the orthodontist triumphant with a blinding silver smile. She showed them off, beaming wide and proud to everyone she met, “Notice anything different?”

A few things have improved in the world of orthodontia. Instead of the wide bands wrapped around each tooth, she has but a tiny button cemented on the center of each one. You can barely see the wire that connects the teeth, there’s not as much metal in her mouth. Most important, Short-pants thinks it looks like she has diamonds on her teeth. Her smile is bejeweled.

I told Short-pants about my memory of getting braces, and the timing, and how different my response was from hers. (I left out the “stirring” part.) She listened thoughtfully.

“Did he dance with you?”
“No.”
“Mama,” she fell into her Mother Teresa voice, “if that boy didn’t dance with you just because you got braces, he wasn’t worth liking.”

Then she flashed me a beautiful, blinding grin.


Dec 18 2011

No Protecting

He was wearing seersucker Bermuda shorts. He’d already kicked off his white boat shoes, they were laying on the floor in front of my seat. He wore a light charcoal colored T-shirt betrayed (or enhanced) by the stains of a long backpacker tour. His Justin Bieber hairdo was greasy, like the shirt. His muscled thighs were thick and he sat low in his seat so his knees fanned out to the sides, encroaching on the woman next to him, his young girlfriend who didn’t seem to mind, and on me on the other side, not so thrilled about sharing my airspace with him. He never once looked at me nor spoke to me; he only grunted when I asked if he might move his shoes, and his knee, to make a bit of legroom for me.

This is just the guy that keeps me up at night. I see him, when I’m walking Short-pants and Buddy-roo home from school. We pass by a lycée, its clumps of teenagers spilling out into the middle of the street. The girls look ridiculous, awkwardly pinching their cigarettes between superficial puffs. The boys shout vulgarities at each other across the street, the mating-call of the adolescent male. They shake their haircuts into place and wave their arms in the air, revealing five inches of black boxer shorts above the waistband of their jeans. I realize this is the current fashion – as a teenager I was slave to such timely styles, too – but still I constantly fight the urge to go grab their belt-loops on each side and hike those low-rider pants up until they fall correctly on the hips. Either that or give them the full wedgie they appear to be begging for.

This was that guy. He had the look, the bad-boy cool, which is really just a mask for his lack of confidence. Adolescent girls are easily blinded to this fact, which is why they always fall for him, with disappointing results. Even that I can take: teenage heartbreak is a part of growing up. But he’s the one that messes, purposely, with your daughter’s self-esteem. He kisses and tells, doesn’t-kiss-but-tells-he-did-anyway, callously adds her to his list of cavalier conquests. I knew this guy in high school, and in college. That’s why I can smell him a mile away.

At least I was on the aisle seat, so I leaned left and studied my Sudoku puzzle while the airplane taxied down the runway. Except on the other side of me there were two young American women, maybe just 20-years-old, swapping stories about their travels. Their conversation was loud, one of them in particular insisted upon broadcasting to a wide radius around her seat. I’d already turned on my noise-reducing earphones but I could still hear her clear as a bell. I was impressed with her capacity to incorporate the word like a minimum of three times in every sentence. Plus, you couldn’t help notice that rather than sharing her thoughtful insights about traveling, she was, like, showing-off, how, like, in-the-know she’d become.

I knew this girl, too. I was once her. Over-inflated, full of myself because finally I was out in the world, doing all the grown-up on-your-own things I’d dreamed of doing. I’m sure I spoke with the same overzealous disclosure, a would-be reflection on my experiences that was really just a chance to boast. But hopefully, at least, I did it with a little less volume, so only my immediate seat-mates were compelled to roll their eyes, not the entire cabin of the plane.

What saved me was that my in-flight entertainment screen wouldn’t work, even after two re-boots, so I was moved to another aisle seat further back, amongst sleeping, movie-viewing people who had no desire to impose or impress.

Sitting in the dark, in the rear of the plane, I wondered what it was that summoned my harsh judgments against these two young people. I worry about that type of guy preying on my daughters, that despite all the seeds I’ve already planted and all the prescient mother-daughter conversations yet to come, that they won’t recognize and steer clear of him. And I’m afraid that despite all the reminders about using their inside voice or any tips on art of conversation that I would hope to impart along the way, they will become that girl, that nearly intolerable it’s-all-about-me airplane conversationalist.

But there’s nothing I can do about it. They will meet that guy. They will encounter that girl, too, whether it’s in their circle of friends or in the mirror in front of them. They’ll meet bullies who torment them, friends who flip on them, humorless teachers who squelch their spirit. I can’t protect them. Even if I could, I shouldn’t. So much of life is what you figure out on your own.

When they’re little babies, there are compelling reasons to protect them. Now, as they grow, too much protection is helicoptering. I don’t want to do that. I want them to grow up fully, with the benefit of their own realizations and experiences. I want to help them to be free-range kids. I want to let them fail, at least a little, and figure out, on their own, how to recover. That’s how I learned to smell danger a mile away, that’s how they will, too.

Still, the urge is there. To warn them. To make them wiser. To help them skip the awkward phases of maturing and get through it faster, easier, better than I did. I know I can’t control what they choose to do in their lives, but I hope I can at least teach them how to make good choices. But how much longer do I have? They’re growing up fast.

On my way home from New Zealand, I stopped midway, in Los Angeles, to visit some friends. They have two teenaged children who look you in the eye, ask if they can help, share interesting, relevant facts about themselves when asked, and possess a sense of humor that is intelligent and thoughtful. This gives me much hope that when Short-pants and Buddy-roo are teens that they could be palatable individuals. I suppose part of that comes from steering them the right direction, and the other part, maybe, from holding your breath, crossing your fingers and just getting out of their way.

Shout Quietly Please is a painting by Dan Walker.


Dec 10 2011

The Recovery

At dinner that night I glanced down at my watch to see that it was nearly half-eight. That’s 8:30 in the morning home in Paris. I’d meant to call the girls during their breakfast, to catch up in general but especially to wish Short-pants well for her viola recital that evening. I leapt up from the dinner table and rushed to the meeting room, where I’d left my computer. I punched the phone number into Skype, counting each hollow ring, one after the other, until our message machine picked up. I tried the babysitter’s number, too, her phone providing the same lonely sound with no answer either. She was probably already walking them to school.

So many times had I said out loud to my colleagues I must call the girls tonight so I reach them at breakfast. How hard can it be to remember one simple promise to myself? Pretty hard, apparently, as the dinner conversation with colleagues and clients – accompanied by a glass of wine – distracted me enough to miss the thin window of opportunity to talk with them. Another example in my list of failed parenting moments.

Except it was about to be Thursday for me, Wednesday for them, the day they get out of school at noon. So I figured I had still had a chance to wish Short-pants luck before her recital if I could just stay up until half-past midnight to call and reach them at lunchtime in Paris. But my eyes were drooping shut by eleven o’clock, I surrendered to sleep fast and heavy – as one does within the wake of jet-lag – but at least I’d set my alarm, which went off shortly before 1 am.

“Mama!” Buddy-roo’s enthusiasm at hearing my voice, instant reassurance that they hadn’t forgotten me.

“Hey,” I said, yawning and groggy. “How are you sweetie?”

“Mama, when are the Fisher Price toys going to get here?”

These old toys of mine were sent with the other things from my mother’s house, a shipment that left the states in October and has not yet cleared European customs. I assured her that I’d filled out all the paperwork and I was just waiting to be given a delivery date.

Her enthusiasm disappeared for the rest of the conversation: How are you doing? Fine. How was school? Good. Did you have fun at the birthday party last weekend? Yes. I opted not to ask about homework, as much of a chore this year as last. We dog her enough about it, that there’s nothing I can do from so far away to move things along. Best not to touch upon a sore subject.

“Can I talk to your sister?”

I heard the phone clunk down on the counter and the footsteps the followed as she ran off to get her sister. I desperately wanted to speak to Short-pants before her concert to let her know I was thinking about her, so that she’d tune her viola knowing that, even from far away, I was rooting for her. Mostly that she’d know she wasn’t forgotten. It’s hard enough, I think, to have an event like this that your parents cannot attend. Worse if it goes by without a crystal clear message that being absent doesn’t mean uninterested.

Short-pants came on the phone.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes, Mama,” she said, “I’ve practiced every night. I know it by heart.”

This conversation an echo of so many exchanges from my childhood. Within it I heard my father’s carefully chosen words to acknowledge preparedness over perfection. And her response, like mine probably was, couched with the intent to please. Add this moment to all the rest – good and bad – where you catch yourself parenting as you were parented.

As a young violist, just about Shortpants’ age, I remember my father once complimented me after an orchestra concert and I told him, with some embarrassment, that I’d actually lost my place during one of the pieces.

“What did you do?” he’d asked.

I told him how I’d faked it until I could find my place in the music and rejoin the rest of the orchestra. I remember his long fingers, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose to adjust them as he summoned his thoughtful response.

“It’s not the fall,” he said, nodding, “it’s the recovery.”

This advice I’ve passed on to others, but I seem to forget to apply to myself.

Despite all the self-talk about how the kids are fine, they’re better adjusted because we’re not hovering over them all the time, how seeing us go away and return is good for their self-esteem, how they’ll be more independent as a result, the truth is I feel like shit about missing this recital. It was her first one ever, and I wasn’t there. I wish I could have beamed myself home, and that it wasn’t the babysitter and her family who’d be there clapping in the audience, but me and De-facto amongst the other proud parents.

I could hear Buddy-roo crying in the background, asking to have the phone back. I reminded Short-pants how much I love her and told her to break a leg, an odd turn of phrase to use, given that her broken leg at age four had its own complications. But she knew what I meant.

“Why do you have to be gone so long?” Buddy-roo asked, through tears. I told her it was because I had to go so far away. It was hard to console her, knowing I had still another full week before I could even say I’ll be home soon.

“When you get back home,” she said, “then will the Fisher Price toys come?”

I assured her they would.

“Okay,” she said, composing herself. I may have fallen from her good graces for being gone so long, but I think I know just how to make a full recovery.