Dec 30 2012

Unnecessary Narration

It is inevitable that spending several consecutive days in close quarters with the people you know most can be disastrous – even though you love them – if you don’t get a little space from each other. Vacations, they say, can make or break a couple. Too much togetherness reveals our most interesting habits. I remember an early getaway trip with De-facto; we went skiing in Switzerland and then took a train to Naples where we rented a car and drove around the boot of Italy. There was a moment during that trip when I said to myself, he’s a nice guy but obviously we are not going to work out. I’m not sure exactly what happened to turn that prediction around, but (I think) I’m glad for it. family_on_bridge.jpg

There have been some parallels on this trip, our holiday in Africa. They are a nice family but obviously this is not going to work out. I’m not afraid to admit to an occasional fantasy that they are absent from my current reality. It is short-lived, but a luxurious thought. It is free of little voices and constant questions. There are no demands for help to find or fix something that all of a sudden is dear to them, and then ten minutes later it is left behind on the floor for me to trip over. Most of all, in this fantasy, there is quiet. The chattering in the back seat ceases.

“She won’t play with me,” Buddy-roo complains even though she ignored her sister’s overtures to engage in a game, less than twenty minutes earlier.

“Can’t you just be quiet?” Short-pants screeches, even though an hour ago she was the one driving us all batty with a constant stream of words, attributing wild animals to her favorite literary characters by their first initial: “Hermione and Harry are hippos, Ron is a rhino, Neville is a nyala…”

Now it’s Buddy-roo who keeps on talking, spiteful in her aim to punish her sister. “Look! We’re all wearing something blue except Papa! I’ve got blue shorts, you’ve got blue pants, and mama has a blue shirt…”

From the backseat a litany of inconsequential facts continue to pour out of Buddy-roo like water from a fire hose. Everything is delivered with authority, especially the facts that she makes up on the spot. As an extrovert, she only really knows what she’s thinking if she says it aloud. She requires constant stimulation and if something isn’t filling the space, she will.

Short-pants, on the other hand, is a bona-fide introvert, à la Susan Caine, and if there’s too much of anything for too long – too much talking, music, tree_roots_entangled.jpgnoise, chaos – the meltdown can be impressive. But she has a sense of her own preference, usually removing herself from an over-stimulating environment with a polite, “I think I just need a little alone time.”

It’s hard to remove yourself politely from the backseat of an economy car in the middle of a wild game park, so the meltdown is unavoidable.

“Enough!” Short-pants slaps the car seat hard with her hand. “I’ve had it with the unnecessary narration!”

De-facto and I glance sideways at each other, suppressing our laughter. Her angry outburst shocks Buddy-roo into silence, bringing a temporary peace to the car. Two beats later, the both of them start crying in tandem.

~ ~ ~

When Short-pants was ten months old, we took her to the United States to introduce her to our family up and down the east coast. De-facto’s brother loaned us his 1970’s Volkswagon bus, an iconic touring vehicle that broke down every other day. Half of the photos from that trip are of De-facto with his head stuck in the rear of that bus, trying to sort out why the engine wouldn’t run much faster than 45 miles per hour.

It was slow going, but Short-pants was a good sport. When she got a little fussy, I’d entertain her with a crew of little plastic wild animals that had been given to us by one of our friends who hosted us along our route. There was a tiny impala, a giraffe and other wild, hooved beasts. Short-pants was fascinated by them, especially when I moved them up and down her legs and thighs, as though they were walking across her body. We must have discovered this simple distraction while near our nation’s capital, because I started humming Hail to the Chief as those little hooved creatures made the trek around her lap. I did not know the words to this anthem, so I used crooner syllables dah-dah-doo-wah throughout the entire song. I played this game with her for hours, while she kicked and giggled in her car seat.
Six months later, Short-pants’ was on another trip, this time to South Africa where De-facto and I were working at a conference. Our hosts organized a game drive and we took her along, on my lap. The open-to-the-air truck barreled down a long dirt road beside a grove of trees and made a sharp 90-degree turn. Right in front of us, in the middle of the road, stood a tall giraffe, nearly twenty feet tall. The truck halted and we all lurched forward, staring up, speechless, at the long-necked creature.

“Dat-doo-waaaahh!” Short-pants’ little voice expressed the awe of everyone on the drive.

That was when we realized she’d associated my lyrics of the President’s theme song with the little plastic animals. Now that she’d seen a real one, it had been named. Our family has its own words, and this is one of them. We don’t say giraffe; we say dat-doo-wah.

It happens now and then, these days, that she’ll mention a dat-doo-wah in the company of friends who then give her a blank stare, not knowing the folklore of this word in our family. She’ll laugh nervously, at her own joke, wondering why nobody else is laughing with her.

“You can’t just blurt it out,” we remind her. “You have to tell the story, or people won’t get it.” In this case, a little narration is necessary.

~ ~ ~

This morning the two siblings were attached at the hip in an amicable game of pretend fairies, but now they’re at each other’s throats, having strung up shirts from headrests of the car seats to draw the boundaries that shall not be crossed in the backseat of the car. The tears have abated but their sniping continues, an ongoing (and unnecessary) soundtrack of stay on your own side! and don’t touch me! dahdoowahThere’s nowhere to stop and let them out to run off their angry energy; we’re an hour away from our camp and we have to get there before the gates close, in just about an hour.

As if on command, a long, lanky giraffe appears on the side of the road.

“Look! Up ahead.”

Short-pants and Buddy-roo lift their eyes to see what I’m pointing at.

Dah-doo-wah!” their voices in tandem.

In an instant, the bitterness between them gives way to excitement. The words they exchange now are enthusiastic. Together they admire the elegant animal standing tall before them. Short-pants reports that the dah-doo-wah has the same number of vertebrae as a human. Buddy-roo wonders how this could be true, with such a long neck. Their chatter, as constant as ever, but at least the incessant narration has turned friendly again. Obviously, if this is going to work out, that was necessary.

Dec 24 2012

Flight of the Reindeer

They’ve gotten good on planes. They should be, they’ve been on enough of them. We take them back to the states every two or three years, they’ve flown around Europe and to the Caribbean. They’ve both been to Cambodia when we took an extended 5-week trip there in 2007, when it wasn’t a problem for either of them to miss school. This is Short-pants‘ third trip to Africa; Buddy-roo‘s second time. They have always done well on overnight planes and 12-hour drives. A perfect merger of nature and nurture; traveling is in their genes, and we’ve given them plenty of practice to get used to it.
It’s a lot easier to fly away to an exotic place for the holidays when the myth of Santa Claus no longer needs to be maintained. We managed a Christmas in Cambodia, but it required an extra suitcase, a good amount of advanced planning and a tiring amount of conversation about how would Santa know where to find us? Fortunately we were staying with friends who had not one but three Christmas trees set up in their otherwise tropical apartment, which added enough magic to mask the charade. But now that the girls know about Santa, we saw the possibility of a holiday trip with only carry-on luggage, and seized it.

“Why did you have to tell me?” Buddy-roo has been giving me grief about last year’s revelation about Santa. I tried to remind her that she had asked me, no less than five times, directly, “Who puts the presents under the tree?” I tried to evade her question but it seemed clear that she already knew and to continue would be a bold-faced lie. She was almost happy to be in on the secret, at least at first. Now her short-term revisionist memory has taken over – or else she figured out she’ll get less booty now that Santa’s been outed – and she wants him back.

“I liked believing in Santa,” she said, “you ruined it for me.”

Short-pants, too, wishes out loud that we hadn’t had our discussion about Santa, but she’s gentler on her mother. Her sadness is occasionally expressed, followed by, “but it’s okay, mama.”

My sister, who still believes in Santa, in the way that adults who still love the magic of Christmas do, sent over a beautiful book, The Flight of the Reindeer, thinking it might help heal the wounds of my children’s scarred Christmas. The book is filled with evidence that someone who really wants to believe can point to as concrete. In a whimsically factual way, it winks at every reader: Sure, there’s a Santa. If you want there to be.
It was my peace offering.

“This is a book about the magic of Santa,” I said, as they unwrapped it, “to keep his spirit alive.”

Short-pants’ eyes widened and she flipped the book open, ready to devour it. Buddy-roo studied me with pursed lips. “Why would you give us a book about Santa when you already told us he doesn’t exist?”

“I never said he doesn’t exist.”

“Yeah, Santa lives in our hearts.” She rolled her eyes. “But I want him to be real and I wish you hadn’t told us he wasn’t.”

“You can still believe,” Short-pants’ angelic voice. “I do.”

~ ~ ~

We opened all but a few of our presents early, the day before we got on the plane to Africa. We knew Buddy-roo wouldn’t stand waiting until our return after New Year’s, and we wanted to travel light. Dragging the gifts with us, even though there weren’t that many, and explaining them to various border guards between South Africa and Mozambique – our Christmas destination – felt like a hassle to avoid. We opened our gifts in rapid fire after dinner, rather than unwrapping them leisurely, with breaks for ice-skating and Bloody Marys, two of our usual Christmas day rituals. Although a few thin items were slipped in my suitcase to be opened on the 25th, it feels good to dispense with the merchandise aspect of Christmas. Maybe, we’ll just be happy to be together. Well, and being someplace warm and sunny; that’s a gift, too.

Short-pants has deliberately decided to believe again. The book from her aunt has given her permission. It’s too heavy to take along with us, but up until our departure she had her nose buried in it, reading out factoids that helped her build a case in his favor. She tried to share her revived faith with her sister, who would have none of it.

“Stop,” she’d snap. “You’re only making me miss Santa more.”

~ ~ ~

The friends we are visiting in Mozambique – the same ones we stayed with in Cambodia years ago – keep moving to far-flung places. They used to live across the street from us, and the friendship between the adults and the children of our two families has endured since they left Paris, for many reasons, but certainly aided by the fact that we keep traveling to visit them almostSanta_in_Africa everywhere they light. As we prepared for this adventure together, I brought up the subject of Santa Claus. Were there still believers amongst us?

It turns out – to my surprise – there were. Two believers, the younger one for certain, the older probably just hanging in for the gifts. I’d alleviated the problem of carrying Santa’s goodies for our kids to Africa, but now I had a new one. Would the girls spill the beans?

When I brought it up, Short-pants grinned and started hopping around, singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town. This was just the excuse she needed to carry on believing. Buddy-roo scowled and crossed her arms. I braced myself for the if-you-hadn’t-told-us-we-wouldn’t-have-to-pretend retort. But instead her pout turned into a smile.

“Does that mean Santa will bring me presents in Africa, too?”

~ ~ ~

The flight was long, six hours to Dubai and another ten to Johannesburg. I can’t tell you how many hours we were in a car, either driving through Kruger Park admiring wild animals, or making our way across pot-holed roads or winding in and out of the dangerously crazy Mozambique traffic to get to our friends home in Maputo. We held our breath and crossed our fingers at the Mozambique border, hoping that the valid-for-6-months passport rule we read about on-line wouldn’t keep Short-pants out of the country, since hers is a temporary one, expiring in three months. Turns out it was a non-issue, or the charm offensive worked, as everyone got a visa and made it into the country. That our load of loot was light helped a lot; we meant it when we said we had nothing to declare.

Or I might declare one or two things: That I wish every one of you a merry Christmas. I hope your holiday is warm – if not in temperature, like ours, certainly in spirit. And no matter how far Santa’s reindeer have to travel to find you, may you be there together with the people you love most.

Dec 17 2012

Not So Simple Syndication

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Dec 15 2012

Come Home

I was going to write about yesterday, when Buddy-roo came home from school and announced to us, in a panic, that she had a 5-minute oral presentation due for next Monday. The project was assigned to her a month ago, but fell through the cracks of our parental supervision. Some might contend it’s her responsibility to keep track of her own assignments – but then of course, she’s only nine and I know when I was in the 4th grade I wouldn’t have tracked on an assignment of this nature without a little help from the adults. It was her problem, but it was also our problem, as much of the weekend would not be devoted to preparing the assignment.

I was going to write about one night just a few weeks ago, when Buddy-roo ran into the living room after dinner – and after any paper-supply store was closed – to inform us that she needed a life-size piece of blank cardboard. For the next day. She was to perform a skit with two other classmates, and she’d volunteered to bring in the prop: a large poster of Goldilocks sleeping in a bed. Maybe if I were an arts-n-crafts mom I’d have a closet filled with foam board and large cardboard and other supplies. Not that we don’t have a certain stock of creative materials on hand, but a poster-sheet of cardboard just wasn’t part of the instant inventory. Well, it was, but I’d given it to Short-pants the night before, to draw a map of the Jamaica for one of her school reports. That was a bit of a miracle, that I’d saved the poster from a previous year’s exposé on spiders. But two large cardboard sheets out of a hat, this maternal magician could not pull.

I was going to write about the debacle of helping Short-pants to set up a meeting with three of her classmates to work on that very report about Jamaica, ultimately requiring a Doodle poll which still couldn’t unite all the parents in a single conversation about a time and place that would work. The result, a just-under-the-wire meet-up, putting us once again in an at-the-last-minute dash to organize the map on that recycled piece of cardboard, and to practice the oral presentation for the report.

I was going to write about another assignment – it seems every time I turn around Short-pants has a team presentation requiring the juggling of agendas of other students and parents to find that precious two hours to get in sync – this one about rationing in wartime Britain. There was no mutually workable date until the night before it was due, so we scrambled to pull it all together swiftly and memorize the presentation – they have to do the oral part without notes – once again, pulled together, just under the wire.

I was going to write about the last minute demands that make me feel like some kind of short-order mom, and how I’ve had it with them coming home from school with all their I-need-it-for-tomorrow panic attacks. And once again about all the things I have to chase after, scribbled notes in cahiers from teachers for quick turnaround on lost or missing materials and newly required supplies I have to chase around town to acquire.

But now I’m not.

Because while Buddy-roo stood there, holding her map of the south Atlantic states, in shock and overwhelmed by the work she’d have ahead of her this weekend, De-facto read out loud a headline from his Yahoo home page, about the massacre of students and teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. He clicked through and read the details, sketchy still at that moment, but enough to leave us wordless.

So instead, this is what I’m going to write: how Short-Pants and Buddy-roo can come home from school, anytime, anyday, and ask for anything the need, new ink cartridges, erasers gone missing, more glue sticks, cardboard poster boards, help organizing a meeting of their schoolmates, helpful reminders about what’s due and when. I may not be able to rally for them; but they can ask for anything they want and everything they need – even if it’s at the last minute – just as long as they come home from school. Please, please, just be sure to come home.

Dec 11 2012


I tiptoed up the stairs, knowing how if you are laying in our bed the sound of footsteps echo in our hallway and you can hear them drawing near. I slipped the key into the lock and turned it slowly, quietly pushing open the door and then easing it closed behind me, noiselessly. In the apartment, I set my suitcase down gently, surveying the cluttered living room. I was home, and so far nobody knew.

Too wired from the travel, but exhausted from the adrenaline-dip that follows every job, I was restless. I wanted to unpack, but I was afraid it might make too much noise. I didn’t feel like climbing into bed, but I didn’t want to stay up either. Mostly, I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I snuck into the bathroom to wash my face when I heard De-facto and Short-pants talking to the neighbors in the hall outside our apartment. They’d gone next door to wait for me, but I had eluded them with my stealth return. The rush of hugs a clear indication of how happy they were to see me. I was happy to see them, too. Mostly. I also wanted them to leave me alone.

Buddy-roo was at a sleepover with a friend, which in retrospect was a good decision on De-facto’s part. Sliding back into the household is hard enough. Her particular brand of attention can be overwhelming and I wasn’t yet ready to be that enthusiastic mom who re-channels it with grace.

The thing about being away is that you get used to your own company. You get used to looking at only your stuff and nobody else’s. You get used to that quiet hour before bed and the luxury of having only yourself to get ready in the morning. The clients and meetings can be demanding, but their requests fall within a reliable frame. And once the door to the hotel room is closed, there is nobody calling you to get out of bed to scratch their back, check for a fever or scare away the monster under the bed.

I remember when De-facto and I were “dating.” Ours was a long distance relationship for more than three years and we’d jet back and forth between Boston and Paris, getting to know each other one long weekend at a time. There was always an adjustment period, during which awkward feelings and questions threw darts at the initial delight of our reunion. It’d take a day or two to get in sync again. I suppose that hasn’t changed. I know how it feels when he returns from a long business trip and I’ve been running an efficient household without him. Surely my return interrupts the rhythm he and the girls have established. Not to mention how jarring it is for me.

All of a sudden, I’m a mom again. I have to attend to boo-boos and aches and pains and the combing and braiding of hair. I have to get excited about art projects and stop whatever I’m doing to watch the latest ballet move. I have to press little noses to the grindstone on their homework. I resume my role as Vice President of Errands: the book of verb conjugation I have to buy (for tomorrow); the trousse d’écolier is missing a glue stick or it out of ink cartridges for the fountain pen; the music teacher requires the purchase of a metronome and a battery-powered tuner – the tapping of feet and my old-fashioned tuning fork aren’t sufficient. One girl needs metro tickets for a field trip, the other baked goods for a school party. These requests are presented haphazardly and of course, at the last possible minute.

What’s remarkable is how quickly you get out of practice. I was only gone for two weeks, but I’ve gotten sloppy. Last night, when De-facto came home from an evening out, I’d just barely put the girls to bed. He grilled me on our activities.

“Did they do their handstands?”

Short-pants has to achieve this for her gym class, so they’ve started practicing every night at home to strengthen her arms. I shook my head; I’d forgotten.

“Viola practice?”

I hung my head in shame. “No.”

I had to confess to him that I’d fallen asleep on the couch while Short-pants and Buddy-roo played on my iPad. Some stellar parenting, that.

He smiled. “A little rusty, are you?”

Instead of getting perturbed, he pokes fun at me, which, I suppose, is just what it takes to help me make the adjustment to being back home.

Dec 2 2012

Being Away

It usually starts with tip-toeing around the apartment in the early morning darkness, adding the last toiletry items to my suitcase and leaving a post-it note on the kitchen island with a last minute instruction about some detail that must be attended to in my absence. If time permits, a soft kiss on angelic foreheads of sleeping children and a light touch on De-facto’s shoulder before ever-so-gently closing the door behind me and heading down the stairs carrying suitcase and computer bag. Once out on the street, my rollaway valise is noisy against the cobblestone streets, rickety-rickety until the pavement turns smooth and the taxi stand is in sight.

A taxi ride to a train or a plane that takes me far away, and I find myself in a conference hotel somewhere, with the prospect of two or three or five nights without my family in reach.

“It must be hard, with all your travel,” people say.

It’s not. I like the fact that when I’m on a job – my work is intense, immersive and full-on – that I can be singular in focus. I can work until the work is done without having to switch gears to domestic matters. I need the hour of absolute quiet to wind down before going to sleep, and I need the hour of solitude upon walking up to keep my energy intact for the next day’s work. I actually like the break from my family.

I have colleagues who check in every day, more than once, keeping in touch with spouses and children. Oddly, De-facto and I don’t bother. He travels as much as I do, often leaving me at home with Short-pants and Buddy-roo for a week or more at a time. We’ll go days without talking to each other when one of us is on the road. An occasional email message will assure us that the other is still alive, but they’re usually short and sweet.

When the girls were little we thought it would be important to call home and touch base with them, like that would somehow be reassuring. It did just the opposite. My call would inevitably occur at the worst possible moment, interrupting the flow constructed by De-facto or by the babysitter. I remember De-facto was out of town and the girls and I were happily in our groove when he called to check in. At first, it was a delight for them, to hear his voice and have a chat. But once he hung up, they began to wail. All I heard for the rest of the day was how much they missed Papa.

I guess it’s a courtesy we give each other, De-facto and I, and it works both ways. When you’re gone, you’re gone; go do your thing and check in when you can. And when you’re home, you’re home; just keep calm and carry on.

It doesn’t mean I don’t think about them or that I don’t miss them. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love for one of those cherubs to crawl in for the morning cuddle (quietly) or that I don’t long to have a strong hug from De-facto and his thoughtful ear to talk to about all that’s happening. But we’ve somehow struck a balance that permits each one of us to pursue the professional and personal activities that will nourish us, without turning the idea of being away from home into a big deal or a bad thing.

The girls voice their disappointment about our absences, but they soldier on with one parent – or with our good caregivers when both De-facto and I must be away – and I think this is important for them to understand: Mama and Papa do interesting things. Someday, I tell them, you’ll go off to do interesting things too. They’re learning to be a little independent, forced to manage without my care every waking moment. And most important, they know first hand that when I go away, I come back. This must give them some sense of security, and it gives me a sense of freedom, much needed.

Plus the reunions are always so sweet.

It’s rare that I have two week-long programs back-to-back, but that’s the case for this trip. I’m only halfway through and knackered already, but I’m happy. Happy to be able to travel and do the work that I do; happy to have a family at home that, even though they might miss me, doesn’t mind so much, me being away.

The photograph of the Parisian street by Peter Turnley.