Jul 18 2016

The Joyride

I sliced peaches into a bowl of vanilla ice-cream while Buddy-roo scrolled through the options in my computer’s movie folder. It had been an ideal summer day at the country house: bike rides down the lane with Winston running joyously beside us, a little bit of yard work, trimming grapes and pulling ivy off the walls of the stone house, De-facto making progress on a construction project in the bergerie. A late afternoon trip to the lake with sailing and swimming, followed by an apéro on the back terrace, then burgers and chicken from the grill with a chilled pale rosé. As soon as the sun set – and it sets late at this time of the year – we’d planned to gather around my computer to watch a movie. Buddy-roo, our media-kid, had been begging for one all day, and was sustained through the outdoorsy activity only by the promise of a movie after sunset. It was between Guardians of the Galaxy and Malificent, in her mind. I was lobbying for The Way Way Back, when I heard De-facto shouting from outside. I ran out to see him doubled over, just down the road. He motioned to me, urgently.

“Winston’s dead.” His voice strained. “A car. He ran into the road. Wouldn’t come when I called.” His chest was heaving, his face anguished. I held his hands; they were shaking.
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“I heard the sound. When he was hit. It was awful.”

“But where is he?” I needed to see Winston, lifeless, to believe it.

That was the worst – or the weirdest – part. De-facto couldn’t find the dog. They’d been at the edge of a track road that runs into a main road behind our house, a road on which cars speed by. Winston can be cheeky, but he usually minds us when call him to head back home. This time he’d dashed into the road and stood there, his head was probably extended upwards sniffing at something in the air. De-facto heard the car coming and yelled to Winston to get out of the road. Though he didn’t see it happen – the tall field grass was in the way – De-facto heard clearly the sound of car meeting dog. He’d cried out,”Nooooo!” but we did didn’t hear him, crowded around our kitchen island contemplating movie titles, 300 meters away.

De-facto ran to the road, expecting to find the mangled body of our beloved dog. There was nothing there. No evidence of an accident. No broken plastic pieces from a car. No blood, no hair. No dog. He looked in the ditches, but no sign of Winston. That’s when he ran back to the house, when he called me to come outside.

By now the rest of the family joined us. Buddy-roo saw De-facto holding my hand, his head bowed, and noticed the absence of our dog and collapsed in the road. Short-pants and my mother-in-love hugged each other, shocked at the news.

“We’ve got to find him.” De-facto’s anguish commanded us to the task. He started barking orders, which we all accepted dutifully. He and Buddy-roo drove off in the direction that the car had been going, to see if they could find Winston or its driver. I ran down to the spot in the road where the accident occurred to search again for his body.

I couldn’t piece it together, everything went into a spin. He couldn’t be gone. I pictured Winston’s empty basket, the bed he sleeps and his food and water bowls; how we’d look at them dog_pulls_metomorrow, empty, and how we’d grieve. We haven’t had him in our lives even two years. It took half of that time for him to get to know us, to let go whatever fear he carried with him from his life prior to us bringing him home from the rescue center. For more than a year, he was even standoffish, a dog that only loved us loving him. It was until very recently that I had the feeling he had actually started to love us back.

We’d become a family with a dog. And now – way too soon – our dog was gone.

There was nothing on either shoulder of the road. I scoured the ditches for a red-haired body with its blue harness. Maybe the impact had thrown him away from the road into the thick of bushes and trees. I was about to head home and change out of my sundress and flip-flops into long pants and boots in order to search in the weeds and briars beyond the ditches, when I saw De-facto, in our car, driving toward me.

“He’s alive!” He stopped the car. “Get in!”

We rushed back to the village – at least a 1.5 km distance – where I saw Buddy-roo standing with a young couple, staring at the front of their car. De-facto pulled in beside them; I didn’t wait for the car to stop before jumping out. There was Winston. Neatly wedged into the front grill of the car, his paws hanging out comfortably, his head moving from side-to-side. He panted and blinked, like nothing was the matter. He did not bark. He did not whimper. He looked only slightly relieved to see us after his little joyride.

The couple in the car had already called the pompiers, and though De-facto wanted to take the bumper apart and free Winston immediately, we persuaded him to wait. There was no blood, and Winston did not appear to be in pain, but who knew what kind of internal injuries he might have suffered. They would have tools to extract him carefully from the grill of the car and avoid further injury.
Winston_joyride
It was probably only 15 or 20 minutes, but if felt like hours before the firemen arrived. They probably did exactly what De-facto wanted to do, dismantled the bumper and stretched open the grill where Winston had been squeezed in. Winston stepped out, like slipping out of a train berth, and even stood up on the sidewalk for several moments before collapsing. There was not one cut on him. No external marks or bruises. All bones appeared to be straight. No blood, anywhere.

I’m still not sure why the driver of the car didn’t pull over sooner, why he drove past several turn-offs and driveways and continued all the way to the village. Winston must have had the ride of his life, a full front bumper view of a French country road for nearly 2 km.

The pompiers helped us locate a veterinarian, who, even at 10:00 on a Saturday night, opened his office to attend to Winston. After a thorough physical examination and a series of X-rays, Winston appears to have suffered only 2 cracked ribs and some mild internal swelling. He’s on anti-inflammation medicine now. He’s moving a bit slower, as you’d expect, but he walks, and even trots a little. He still manages to be underfoot, sitting in exactly the spot you want to stand, in front of the very cupboard you need to access, or just at the base of the refrigerator at the moment you want to open it. Not only is he alive, he’s his old self.

If things come in threes, then I’ve used up two of the three miracles I’m allotted in this life. A dozen years ago we almost lost Short-pants and even the doctors called her recovery a miracle. Searching the ditches for Winston’s body, I was transported back to those brutal days when we didn’t know if Short-pants would make it or not, standing on the threshold of grief, wondering if we’d have to enter its dark room. The pain of almost losing our dog reminds me of the pain of almost losing our child, which puts me in touch with the pain of so many people this year who did lose someone they loved: in Paris, Istanbul, San Bernadino, Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge, just last week in Nice, and dozens of other places that don’t get enough media attention but merit our mindfulness as well. There’s so much loss in the world, it’s hard to hold on to hope.
Winston_on_white
Short-pants felt terrible because, as she put it, she loves Winston the least in the family. It was a wake-up call to her, thinking he might be gone, to appreciate him more. Near-misses like this can be gifts, it’s true, to remind us to appreciate the present and the people – and animals – who are here for us to love right now, in this moment. We don’t know when they will be swept away from us. (Even if it’s if only for a few moments, in the grill of a stranger’s car.) Seizing the joy of the day is how we avoid regrets.

Yesterday Buddy-roo and I took Winston back to the vet for a controle to check that everything is okay. He’s been vomiting repeatedly and the vet took another X-ray to look at his internal organs. There’s some additional inflammation in his stomach and esophagus that’s causing it, and we hope the medicine will kick in soon and he’ll start eating normally again.

While he was getting his X-ray, Buddy-roo and I sat together in the waiting room, running through the events – and the rollercoaster of emotions – of the previous 24 hours. We keep going through it in our heads, again and again, what happened, what could have happened, what didn’t happen. We’ve all been shaking our heads, doing a dance between disbelief and relief. I’m exhausted from the rapid cycle through so many emotions in such a short span of time.

Buddy-roo reached over, took my hand and caressed it.

“Mama,” she said, her voice pitched perfectly between laughing and crying, “tonight, can we just watch a movie, rather than living it?”


Jun 23 2016

Watching Out

The air was hot and thick, moist, confronting me as I stepped out of the airplane. I marched up the jet-way, headlong into smells I’d never smelled before but recognized right away. Smells raw and pungent, like the dank smell of dirt, the scent of people who eat and wash differently, the smell of untamed industry and much less regulated pollution. The smell of a city. Not just any city, a city in Africa. mean_eye_on_you

“Did they scare you with stories about Nigeria?” one of the participants of my workshop asked.

They had. I’d been warned. Nigeria is not a place you go lightly and nobody would have criticized me for refusing the assignment. The kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram was in the north – a good distance from Lagos in the south where I was going – yet a very troubling occurrence, one that remains unsettled. Nigeria is well known for its corruption, but also its violence and crime. This was not a place to wander about with naive curiosity. You have to watch out.

Still, I had a spring in my step. Traveling to new places is always an adventure, even if you have to exercise an extra dose of caution. Or maybe because of that.

~ ~ ~

My work is changing. I’ve always traveled to do it, since I started running workshops two decades ago. Originally it was in the domain of marketing and business, later with academics and scientists – still a primary customer. In the last year, though, I’ve been working to introduce our methodology to the sector of economic development. As a result, I’ve been traveling to countries in Africa: South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria. Or to Asia, last week I ran a workshop in Thailand. And there’s a project in the works for Mexican assignment next fall.

I’ve been dreaming of doing this kind of work and now I’m starting up a new venture to realize it. I have the enthusiastic support of the colleagues, but at the moment the lion’s share of the work falls on me: strategy, marketing, selling, managing projects and delivering programs. It’s all terribly interesting, satisfying, and potentially very important work. But it does result in way too much to do in any given day.

As the work piles up in front of me, sometimes so high that I can’t see over it, I have to sharpen my peripheral vision to keep an eye on my daughters. They are becoming more and more self-sufficient in practical ways: walking themselves to school, attending (mostly) to their own homework assignments, managing their wardrobes, making decisions about activities teenagersand friends. It’s easy to think they’re over the hump, on their way to adulthood. They might be on their way, but they’re not there yet. They have teenage brains. They may appear to be adults. But they are imposters.

They have become, Short-pants and Buddy-roo, suffering teenagers. Suffering is too strong a word. They are both too lucky to suffer. Lucky to have a safe home, to be consistently loved. Lucky to go to school and to imagine a wide range of professional choices in their future. Lucky to have opportunities to travel, to receive their most desired gifts every Christmas and birthday. Lucky to have their own iPads and smart phones. Still, they suffer the things that teenage girls must unfortunately endure, passing through this disconcerting phase, painful and poignant, dabbling in the awkward art of self discovery while navigating the perilous social minefields of adolescence. These are the things that cause their very vocal, or sometimes very quiet, suffering. These are the things to watch out for.

I always imagined that it would get easier as they got older. Of course there’d be some teenage rebellion – the passage of separation – which we’d have to take in stride. But in general, they’d need me less, right? It turns out it’s not at all easier, and they don’t need less from me. It’s not as physically demanding to have a 12 and a 14 year-old as it was to have two toddlers two years apart, but it’s mentally taxing. The crisis of the day – and often there’s more than one – requires a thoughtful response, one that is empathetic but not over-indulgent, one that soothes them as the same time prods them towards taking responsibility for their thoughts, actions and feelings. You cannot switch to auto-pilot parenting when with adolescent girls. Every thing matters. Every word matters. You have to pay attention. Especially if you’re miles from home.

~ ~ ~

I lived in Hong Kong for almost a year, more than 20 years ago. It wasn’t the best year of my life. The job that I’d come for wasn’t the one I found when I arrived. The man who was my partner, proved not to be. My adventurer-self pretended it was fine, tried to make the best of it. But inside I was spiraling down, cursing my choices. What saved me? My creativity training. Tired of the feeling stuck at a dead-end, I gave myself an assignment. I opened a notebook and wrote without stopping – a stream-of-consciousness brain-dump of words – allowing myself the fantasy of what would be the ideal way of life if things weren’t in the rut they were in. I wrote eight pages.you_are_here

Fifteen years later, I found that notebook, packed away in a box of my things that’d been stored in my mother’s basement. I was stunned to read what I’d written; the description of what I’d hoped my life would be like was almost exactly what it had become. Living in a European city, traveling, working with creativity, with a network of international colleagues with whom there’s respect and rapport. It only fell short in that my travels weren’t quite as exotic as I’d fantasized. But that was six years ago. Look where I get to go, now.

It’s not that those pages became a blueprint, a strategic path I deliberately followed. I wrote them, put them away and didn’t look at them again until years later. Some might say I’d released an intention for an ideal future and the choices I made, subsequently, reflected the vision I’d scribbled down. If so, they were choices made at a subconscious level. In retrospect my career path may look coherent, but it was haphazard in the making.

One thing that was noticeably absent from those prophetic pages: children. I hadn’t factored them in. It wasn’t that I didn’t want any, they just weren’t in the picture. I didn’t have a vision for what it would be like to have kids, let alone how’d it all fit in with the life I dreamed of for myself. It still surprises me. I look at them, all long and lanky, and I think, how on earth did that happen?

~ ~ ~

It’s easy to see the cracks in my parenting. For everything I’ve done well, there’s something I could have done better. A bit stricter on this. Maybe more indulgent on that. More consistent across the board. More present. More plugged-in. I can already bullet-point the earful of grief their therapists will hear from them. I know I just have to ride it out, until they’re in their forties, which is about the time I think most people forgive their parents for not being perfect.

They hate, most of all, when I go away on a trip. Short-pants marches around chanting, “No se puede ir,” when she sees me preparing my suitcase. Buddy-roo hurls herself theatrically on to the couch. “Why must you go away? Why can’t you work like normal parents?” exclamation

But I love it when I go away. I love getting up in the dark for a 5:45 am taxi. I love airports. I love walking down the jetway, the long tunnel to somewhere else. I love the outbound journey, infused with anticipation. I like the homeward trip, too, with its promise of the comfort of my own pillow and the reunion with my family. I count on the fact that even if they’re mad that I’ve left, they’ve forgiven me by the time I get home.

I know there are things I miss – maybe important things – working as I do, being away for a week or two at a time. And even when I’m home: I burrow into my computer screen, or prattle away on back-to-back conference calls that kick off just as the girls get home from school. I tell myself it means I’m not helicoptering around them, but rather, watching out for them from afar, out of their hair, leaving them to learn to sort things out on their own. Not all things, but some things. I guess we’ll only know if it’s enough guidance when we see how they survive these treacherous teenage years. But that’s why the work I do, and the travel it brings, is so important to me. It might be the key to how I survive their teenage years, too.


Jun 29 2015

The Triangle

The little red dot on my telephone indicated a message was waiting. I’d put my phone on silence during a meeting, and the breaks were so busy that I didn’t even check. I rarely get calls, so sometimes I forget to monitor the phone. If you ever leave me a message, don’t count on me getting it right away. Email is a much swifter way to reach me.

I dialed in to the voicemail and there was Buddy-roo‘s signature greeting, “Mama?” with an upward inflection at the end, as though, despite the recorded message, she was still holding out hope I’d answer. The message that followed was in a tone that conveyed anger not panic, which relieved me. The call I dread getting when I’m far away is from a fearful child. Anger I can handle, it’s a more assertive emotion, easier to manage from a distance. But if they call me all wound up and afraid, I’m gutted.
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What followed was a litany of irate complaints. She’d been at the end-of-year party at school, always an event filled with too much excitement and too much sugar, and she and her two girlfriends had gotten in a big row. Buddy-roo had stayed overnight with one of the friends the previous night, and my guess is the other friend felt left out. The mother of the other (allegedly excluded) friend got involved, blasting the girls for being rude. Buddy-roo was indignant, protesting that they hadn’t been rude, they’d tried to include her and she’d shunned their approaches. The mother’s reprimand was apparently caustic enough to elicit the father of the other accused girl to intervene, rebuking the outspoken mother for jumping to conclusions and for scolding them with such severity. Personally, I was very glad to be out of town.

It could be that Buddy-roo and her friend were inadvertently (or even deliberately) rude to the third girl. I’d hope otherwise, but I know Buddy-roo has it in her to take the low road – she does occasionally with her sister – and I also know that she sees the world from her own vantage point (don’t we all?) which is sometimes rather distorted. But since I wasn’t there, and I was in another time zone and frankly in another frame of mind, I opted not to call back, at least not right away. In the absence of my feedback, Buddy-roo would have to sort this out on her own. It’d be interesting to see where she ended up.

As for the parents involved, they are both only acquaintances. I could venture a guess that the angry mother, who tends to be protective of her daughter, stepped over the line and the retaliating father, who in my brief experience is relatively good natured, was probably sorry to get drawn in, but something must have rattled him. These guesses of mine about shout_outas far as I want to go. I’d prefer to keep this argument in the domain of our children.

The next day Buddy-roo phoned again, this time while I was on a break. I contemplated letting her call go to the voicemail. I do want to encourage her independence, but I also want to be available to her when she needs guidance. I steeled myself and answered the call. I got an earful: one of the girls (the one whose mother was worried they’d excluded her) was now telling Buddy-roo they could only be friends if she refused to be friends with the other girl. Buddy-roo didn’t want to take sides, but if she had to choose she didn’t know what to do. Just a reminder about how awful teenage (and pre-teen) girls can be. Especially in groups of three.

Actually, I participate in a few trios of girlfriends. Two dear college pals who live in New York get on very well without me, but seem to embrace me fully when we’re all together. My fiesta circle has several trios within it, depending on who attends each year, and it seems to work without incident. I’ve tried to hold up these examples to Buddy-roo, whenever a conflict with her friends comes up. But I must acknowledge her not-yet-fully developed brain has a hard time talking in these terms. It’s still somebody else’s fault.

“Whatever you do, be kind,” I told her. “You don’t want to be one of the mean girls.”

I’m not sure that helped. But it was the only advice I could think of. And about as much as I wanted to meddle, until further notice.

When I returned home on the weekend, I asked Buddy-roo how things had turned out. In the end, the three girls had made up, though probably a fragile reconciliation. One of them left early for the summer, and with only two days of school left, Buddy-roo and the other friend had time to heal. Tomorrow is the last day of school and two months will pass. If I recall how things go at that age, come September they’ll greet each other with open arms, as if nothing had ever happened. Or they’ll end up in entirely different don't_be_meancircles as the classes get shifted around, and the crisis of this fight will fade into a vague memory.

But I wonder, and I watch, carefully, as Buddy-roo (and her sister) launch into what I recall was the most challenging time of my life when it came to making and keeping friends. How to help them avoid getting bullied without being the meddling parent who makes things worse? And, how to make sure they aren’t the ones perpetrating the bullying, deliberately or by default when they watch passively from the side? These years are a treacherous minefield among even the best of friends, especially when it comes to threesomes.


Mar 31 2015

Write or Call

I love a good long plane ride. The thought of hours cramped into an airplane horrifies many, but to me, a long-haul flight over the Atlantic or further is a gift of time and privacy. The hum of the airplane lulls me to extreme focus. I read, thoroughly. I write, prolifically. I’m in the zone. And then, after a few in_the_zonehours of productivity, I plug into the entertainment system and watch movies or catch up on TV series I rarely watch elsewhere. One after another, until we land. No phone calls. No texts or messages. Nobody calling me from the kitchen, or screaming “Mama!” from upstairs.

The thing about a flight like this, though, is that once you land and disembark from the sealed tube of delicious quiet, the world smacks you in the face. Portable devices begin to bing and beep, passengers are roused from the inward calm of their flight to face a bombardment of calls and messages and news of the outside world.

A few weeks ago I enjoyed one of those epic journeys, a 12-hour day-time flight and as expected, I was hit with the bushel of unread messages as soon as I landed. I eliminated the ones I could easily identify as a spam that snuck through the filter, or as one of the newsletters that get less attention when I’m traveling and screen time is limited. (My appetite for reading never matches my on-line stamina and after a trip like this I’m inspired to purge the overload of subscriptions I’ve too ambitiously taken on.) Then I scanned what was left, assessing which ones were mission critical, and then I saw the emboldened letters of my daughter’s name. Short-pants had written me an email message. I opened it right away.

The message contained four or five well crafted paragraphs telling me about her day. How a boy she might be a little sweet on had stared at her in class. Her favorite teacher gave an interesting homework assignment. She made up an equation: the boy + the teacher + the subject she loves = her smiling all the way home from school. How she missed me but knows I’m away doing the work I love to do. It startled me a bit, how articulate her phrases, the absence of any spelling mistakes or punctuation errors, capital letters where there were supposed to be caps. It was a grown-up message.
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Over the next few days, we wrote back and forth. A message or two each day, each one from her rich with descriptions of not only her activities, but her observations – some of them rather keen insights – about why things happened and how she felt about them. She’s always been good with words, reading like a fiend since she was a peanut, writing charming little notes, winning a spelling bee, but something has shifted. It’s no longer cute and precocious. It’s thoughtful and reflective, the words of a lovely young woman.

~ ~ ~

Every day, at about the same time, my phone rings. Even if I’m not in the mood to be on the phone – I’m more of a writer than a talker – I answer cheerfully. Buddy-roo walks out of the school and her first instinct is to turn on her telephone and give me a call. I want her to feel like that call is always welcome, so unless I’m truly in the thick of something else, I’ll answer. She chatters away, slightly breathless as she walks up the hill toward our home from school, filling me in on who told whom what in the courtyard, and how much homework she has, and what she had for lunch. Much of it is banal, but I ask as many questions as I can, to keep the exchange going. I want her to create a habit of telling me what’s happening in her life.

Buddy-roo experiences highs and lows at maximum velocity. She’s having the best day ever or else her life is a catastrophe. One day, after a tearful call that lasted a good portion of her walk home, she turned her key in the door, dropped her heavy backpack on the floor and threw herself on the couch.

“My friends all think I’m too dramatic!”

I don’t disagree with her friends, but I figured they’d already made the point. I didn’t pile anything on top of it. What I don’t want to do is keep her from telling me what she’s feeling, even if what she’s feeling seems exaggerated. Who knows how long she will keep open this doorway locked_into me, showing me her raw thoughts and feelings as they occur. Dismissing her ups and downs as drama, right now, would surely close the door and lock it tight. So I listen and ask questions that might make her think beyond the hailstorm that she perceives is pounding upon her. Okay, and I hint a little, that maybe her friends are on to something. But mostly, I try to be there to answer her call, while she’s still dialing.

Short-pants hardly touches her telephone. An occasional text, but calling is not her thing. I had to give her lessons about how to talk on the phone, otherwise she just sits there breathing while you do all the work. Getting Buddy-roo to write a quick email – let alone a thank-you note to someone who’s given her a present – is like pulling teeth, but she’s expert at chatting away on the telephone. They are products of the same parents and the same environment, and yet, so different. As babies, toddlers and now as they crash into their adolescence, the things that make them distinct from each other become that much more apparent, more palatable.

One writes, the other calls. But at least they both want to tell me what’s happening in their lives. I’ll take that while I can get it, and relish every word.


Jan 27 2015

School Daze

I wrestle with the guilt. The shame that we have put our children in such a traditional school, one with the classrooms arranged in rows, facing forward, one in which they are expected to consume and memorize the expertise imparted by an authority in the front of the room, a school with teachers who never coordinate their lesson plans or homework assignments, instructing the students without (or with very little) cross-collaboration with the other teachers. A school which measures success on having the right answers rather than the right questions. A school which is old-fashioned.

I feel guilty, especially considering my profession – purveyor of creative thinking, problem solving and innovation – that I’ve settled for less than the kind of desks_rowseducation I know would be far more useful and inspiring for my children.

The French school is not a bad education. A good portion of the students at the lycée are from local Catalan families who’ve chosen it because of its fine reputation. It provides a rigorous education that prepares children well…for an earlier decade. It’s not – nor was the school they attended in Paris – the kind of school in which I would have expected to have enrolled my children. But we have not managed to find – have I looked hard enough? – a school that fulfills that progressive expectation. When we have found an institution that comes close, it is not close enough to our budget, or close enough to avoid an hour-long commute, each way, every day.

Homeschooling? I’m not that kind of mom. I need a break from them during the day and I need to throw myself into my work. Is that selfish? Or just honest?

“But they’ve lived in different cultures.” This is the protest I hear from my friends when I express out loud my disquiet. “And they already speak four languages.”

Yes, I know we’ve given them a wider horizon. I know they see the world differently living abroad and traveling the way we do. I know that learning languages is probably an advantage, it helps you understand not only the words, but the people and culture that speak with those words. This, I think, Google Translate will never achieve.

I watch them memorize facts and prepare for tests, not for life. They tick off boxes to get their homework assignments done rather than delving into projects and gobbling up the subject. Maybe that’s a tall order, that it wouldn’t feel like work, that they would relish school. Is it so far fetched? What if school was fun? What if they worked on projects in a way that explained the world to them, that taught them things they cared about? What if school seemed more relevant to their lives now? What if school engaged the students to be more creative, rather than killing their creativity?

~ ~ ~

Each September there’s a school meeting at which the teachers and administration are collected to address the assembled parents about the year ahead. I’m inevitably disappointed after this meeting, to the degree that I wonder why I even attend. I long for a visionary administrator – this is an oxymoron, I suppose, except I know it is possible – who will launch into an inspiring presentation about the education they hope to provide the educate_the_monkeystudents. I want teachers who will get up and talk about helping students learn to love to learn, to help them think and ask and be curious. Instead, meetings at the French school begin with, and rather abruptly, the rules and regulations. What time classes start. The signatures necessary for students to leave the campus. The punishment for being late. The punishment system in general. The rules about carrying backpacks and doing homework. I leave shaking my head: What am I doing, with my kids in this kind of school?

Just a few weeks ago the school sponsored a meeting for teachers and parents during which we were assigned 5-minute slots – yes, five minutes – back-to-back with each teacher. This is barely enough time to explain what’s happening, let alone to dialogue about any issues. The parents dash from classroom to classroom to keep on time, only to find themselves waiting in line because a teacher took too long with somebody else, looking bewildered and muttering to ourselves is this really the way to get meaningful parent-teacher interaction?

I made the mistake of asking, gently, one of Buddy-roo‘s teachers if there was any way she might consider adding other forms of instruction to address different learning styles of her students. The handout she’d distributed for the myth of Isis and Osiris was rather dry, not to mention that it was unintelligible because it was a photocopy of a photocopy. When I was helping Buddy-roo study for the test, it was clear she didn’t understand the story, let alone why it matters. So I gave her an assignment: go to YouTube and find five videos about Isis and Osiris and watch them. Buddy-roo transformed after watching the videos, and she could retell the story and even draw some conclusions about why it was an important myth.

Ludique? Nous n’avons pas le temps!” She explained they didn’t have the time to be playful. Her excuse: there’s a big test three years from now. They have to prepare for it, seriously.

Seriously? We can’t make learning even a tiny bit fun, or at least interesting?For a test that’s years from now?

I knew better than to press further. It was already a risk to even suggest something like this. But I couldn’t help myself, I had to see how she’d respond. On the way home I worried if she might punish Buddy-roo because of her meddling mother. I should know better than to taunt a schoolmarm. Or should I know better than to put my kids into such an old-fashioned, rigid system?
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~ ~ ~

Last week I attended a TEDx conference here in Barcelona, one dedicated to the topic of education. A roster of fascinating speakers paraded on stage, each one with an uplifting story: a cross-disciplinary teaching team, project-based learning, an entrepreneurial education program, or a futuristic view of how to teach our children well, for the coming century, not the last. It was all terribly inspiring, and yet I finished the daylong conference feeling even more discouraged. The evidence is there that there are better ways to teach our children, using multi-disciplinary curriculum, team teaching and technology. I know it’s happening in forward thinking school systems, in other places in the world. But the inertia in the system we have chosen is bigger than us. Or I don’t have the stamina to take it on.

As parents, De-facto and I can shore things up around the edges. We invent games for doing homework, we use Post-it notes to help them think about what to cover in their school presentations, we try to help them cultivate their imagination at home, we drag them to creativity conferences and camps. But I know it’s not reinforced at school, at least not consistently. There are some bright spots: Short-pants does have an imaginative English teacher who uses inventive methods in her class, and both the girls rave about their maths teachers. And yes, they’re learning lots of languages. But are they learning what to do with those languages?

I know it’s not easy being a teacher. I don’t think I could do it, spending the entire day with large throngs of pre-adolescents. I know they’re underpaid, even at private and semi-private schools like the Lycée Francais. I know they’re saddled with huge classes, and unruly, overly-entitled students. I know the system they’re working in is focused on testing rather than understanding. But I wonder, do they feel guilty, too? These teachers must read what I’m reading, see what I seeing on-line about schools and the future – it has to be part of the zeitgeist of the world of education. Do they feel as powerless as I do?

I’m trying to do more for the girls. Teaching them to code, rejecting the archaic gender bias and reminding them they are good at math and science, encouraging their passions, nourishing their creativity. But then every morning I send them out the door to go to a school that I’m not convinced can give them the education to prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet, to enter a world that will be very different than the one I encountered after school, to solve possibly insurmountable problems that we’ve hoisted upon their generation. And what do I do? I wave goodbye and close the door, taking inhttp://www.danwalkerartworks.com/ the quiet that descends after their departure. I wrap my hands around a fresh cup of coffee, set my gaze toward my computer to plot my day, attacking my own list of things to do and learn, scrambling to keep up with my own life, let alone to envision what needs to be done for them to create theirs.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? Burrowed in to our day-to-day, it’s hard to lift our heads and look at the horizon and think strategically about our lives, our work, our kids and their schooling. Until I carve out the time for that, I’m left with the guilt. Until, I guess, it gets so bad that I do something, which might be simply to decide to stop feeling guilty. They are still bright eyed, curious, open-hearted girls, and they’ll do just fine. But I keep wondering, could we do better?

(Photo credit: “You are the Bows” is artwork by Dan Walker.)


Oct 13 2014

More Than We Can Chew

They all headed out and left me to the quiet apartment, on a mission that might take several hours. This gift of time to myself, on a weekend morning is something to cherish. Not that I need to make such a distinction between weekday and weekend, except the buzz – outside in the world and inside on-line – has a different meter on a Saturday or Sunday than during the week. I closed the door behind them, wishing them well, and then, time_on_my_armthe choice: do I go to the computer and write (or fuss about on-line)? Do I climb back into bed with a good book? Do I attend to one of those projects not important enough to displace work during the week, but too hard to complete with my family underfoot?

I’m one of those people who likes to make things neat before I sit down to work. Not 90-degree order, but a modest tidiness in my immediate environment. Open drawers and cupboards annoy me. I don’t like to leave dirty dishes in the sink. I am capable of walking by the couch without adjusting the throw pillows, but if they’re askew, why not fix them? I like a bit of order before I create. Today I knew it was essential to do a bit of household organizing, picking up around the apartment. When De-facto and the girls returned, they wouldn’t be alone.

I did a sweep of the apartment. Shoes left in the hall were tucked away on shelves and in closets. School bags and leather purses perched on benches, tables and desks. Any stray little plastic toys, Pet Shop creatures or Fisher Price people – yes, they still occasionally play with these – were stowed out of sight. Once I thought I’d made a thorough survey of the apartment, I sat down to use the rest of the time for more creative pursuits. But I was ready. Or as ready as possible.

I heard the family out in the street. Buddy-roo has a distinctively sharp and opinionated voice, and with my balcony doors open – Indian Summer luxury in Barcelona – I could hear her loud and clear. They’d gone out without keys, requiring use of the interphone. The sound of the buzzer instantly followed by the fervent barking of a dog. And so it begins.

~ ~ ~

The day before, we’d hiked up to the dog pound at the base of Tibidabo mountain on the outskirts of the city. De-facto and Buddy-roo had been up there several times during the last month, meeting the animals and talking with the volunteers and even helping to walk some of the dogs to get a feelchoose me for their temperament. After each visit they’d return with tales of barking hounds and puppy-dog eyes. Buddy-roo was remarkably patient about the process, seeming not to mind that after each trip they came home empty handed. Maybe it was too hard for her to choose from among all the dogs vying to be selected by her.

Because it was her choice. She’s the one who’s been yapping at us for years about getting a dog, and she succeeded at the get-a-dog-challenge, so we knew sometime around her birthday (coming up in two weeks) we’d be adding a pet to our family. A large portion of the responsibility of caring for this dog will fall on her, but it still has to be a team effort. Given how much of the day she’s at school, that means De-facto and I will need to do some dog walking. Will I regret this? The parental leash around our necks has eased considerably in the last year: the girls can get to and from school on their own, they’re okay to be home alone for a few hours, we can go out to dinner without having to bring in a babysitter. Life was just getting easier, and here we go complicating it with the addition of a family pet. It’s a lot of work and we lead busy lives. Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

The fact that I was accompanying them to the pound meant that a decision was imminent. A few of the dogs Buddy-roo had her eye on had already been adopted by other families. Or else they had even the tiniest bit of Rottweiler in them, requiring extra paperwork and registration with the city hall, a step of administration we hoped to avoid. We strolled along the long row of cages, cueing a chorus of barking and bickering with every set of dogs we passed, peering in each cage with the hope of discovering the one who’d be our dog. We narrowed it down to the three favorites who were summoneddoggies_waiting for us and put on leashes. We’d get to walk them, with a trained volunteer, all at once. As we passed the main office, the vet came out and explained we were welcome to walk the three dogs, but two of them were already reserved. It was by that process of elimination that Buddy-roo made her choice. The mid-sized rusty-colored mostly cocker spaniel was ours, if we wanted him. We could reserve him and take 48-hours to decide for sure.

The focus of the discussion around the dinner table that night: what would we name our new dog? It didn’t surprise me that De-facto was suggesting the same names he floated back when we choosing names for our children. It’s a good thing we ended up with two daughters because we could never agree on even one boy’s name. He wanted Linus, a name I like well enough but it would have been butchered in France. I’d counter with a clever but ridiculous name, Buster. We’d volley back and forth with our favorite names, always ending at an impasse. But now, both Linus and Buster were in the running again, though both seemed more workable as canine options. Jordi, the ubiquitous Catalan name, also made the short list, as did Winston, a name the girls know of because of a song by a band called Bound Stems that gets a lot of play on our long car trips. Nothing was decided, except to wait and see how it felt when we had him on our own leash – then we’d know the right name.

~ ~ ~

The dog charged into the apartment, putting his nose to the floor and and sniffing along the baseboards to every corner and cranny, his long toenails percussive on our wooden floor.

“They said he’ll want to smell everything, at first, to get oriented,” said Buddy-roo, giggling as the dog darted wildly around the apartment. “Good boy, Winston!”

She had, apparently, decided on his name.

I knew he’d want to sniff around and scope out the territory. That’s why I’d straightened things up earlier, so he could do his scent-tour without the distraction of any stray items to chew on. The dog is 3-years old, which means we shouldn’t have a lot of puppy issues, but I also know that dogs like to chew things, usually the precious things you don’t want them to chew. And that when you take on a rescued dog, you don’t always know what you’re getting, in terms of training or behavior. I eyed the two fauteuils thatcuddling_winston had been my mother’s and my grandmother’s before her, and wondered what was to become of them with our new resident. Plus Winston was stinky, after living in a cage with three other dogs. We let him do his sniff around, and then we put him in the bathtub so we could stand to smell him.

After his bath, he was still a bit frantic, understandably. A new home, new smells, new people, a tub of hot water and soap – it’s a lot of novelty to take in after a month in a cage. Winston’s nose kept pulling him around the apartment, he had to check out every room, again. Despite my preparations, I hadn’t noticed a small pair of panties that had slipped under the bed, far enough to be out of my view, but just in the line of sight of a medium-sized, curious dog. And not just any pair of panties, a delicate pair with lace and ribbons and elegant stitching, the kind that costs no small amount of cash.

“Winston!” Buddy-roo let out a peel of laughter when she saw him trotting around with a strip of orange silk ribbon hanging out of his mouth. How fitting that the first chewing casualty from our new dog would be my favorite pair of underwear.

“Winston!” De-facto scolded, as we huddled around the dog. His teeth were clamped together, there was no pulling those panties out. He wouldn’t open his mouth, and I watched his drool drip from the dainty little bow held tight between his gums. We tried a number of strategies to get him to open his jaw, to no avail. We certainly didn’t want to reward him for this behavior, but it seemed the only way to get him to open his mouth was to offer him some food. The vet had given us a few doggie treats for the way home. Buddy-roo held one up, in front of the dog, and the moment he opened his mouth De-facto grabbed his jaw open and pulled out the panties, without getting bitten himself, and more remarkably, without tearing the lace or silk. No surprise that De-facto is expert at getting his hands on my panties.

~ ~ ~

The dog has been in our home for a week now, and I can report that he is, in the broad sense, a good and easy dog. He’s affectionate (and especially good at receiving affection). He’s calm, most of the time. We still have to manage his excitement around comings and goings, but we’ve made some progress since his arrival. He does have a fierce bark, but at least he only barks on two occasions: when it’s time to go out for a walk, or when the buzzer or the doorbell rings. We have some training to do on this front, but I have to say I appreciate his instinct.

Despite the underwear incident, it turns out he’s not much of a chewer. Our shoes remain untouched wherever we take them off. De-facto and the girls are always leaving their clothes on the floor, but Winston seems uninterested in chewing on them. He pays no attention to the family heirloom armchairs, and doesn’t jump on the table to try for our food. His thing is paper. So we’ve had to monitor the bathroom bins and toilet paper rolls, or else we find a trail of used cotton rounds and paper squares throughout the house. We are in the process of teaching him to stay out of the bathrooms and the kitchen, and to walk with us rather than to pull us along like a sled-dog. On that front, we probably need as much training as he does. So once we get our Internet connected – we are still waiting for the technician, who’s bound to cause some barking – we’ll be watching a full compliment of the Dog Whisperer videos, I’m sure.
winston_in_my_office
Okay, there’s been an occasional fracas: De-facto got bit by Winston and another dog when their sniffing turned to growling and then to fighting. We’re all getting used to each other and ritualizing our routines. Overall, Winston’s assimilation into the family has been relatively easy. He’s happy to walk up the mountain with us or go for a run, but equally content to laze around on the couch while the girls toil at their homework and we slog away at our computers. I hope he’s happy here. I hope he grows to feel like part of our family. He’s growing on me, a little more each day. As I write this, Winston is curled up beside my desk, taking an afternoon nap. I can see some rapid eye movement behind his eyelids, and his legs kick occasionally in his sleep. Maybe it’s a doggie-dream of running wild in a field, heading towards a bottomless bowl of kibbles, unencumbered by the leash and our commands to heel or sit at the crosswalk. Or maybe he’s kicking his way towards through a sea of soft, silk lingerie, sniffing around for the perfect pair of fancy lace panties, without anybody there to chew him out for it.


Jun 7 2014

He Likes You

At that age, I remember, romance was awkward and bartered or brokered by your friends. That cute boy, one seat up and two rows over, put butterflies in your stomach. In the lunch line you mentioned it to a friend, or else she already noticed. With your permission, or sometimes against your wishes, she’d find him later in the hall and ask him if he liked you.
hearts_eye_on_many
Often nothing came of these declarations of like. Sometimes a short, non-romantic romance would result, with smiles across the classroom and if you were lucky a quick hand-holding on the school steps, phone calls at home. For two weeks you’d be “going steady” until he got tired of being teased by his friends, or somebody else expressed affection for you via proxy messenger. You never did the dirty work on your own. You sent a friend to break the bad news to your once coveted beau of one seat up and two rows over.

I got dumped this way as often as I did the dumping. That was middle school romance.

That was also the ’70s. I have to imagine, based on the influence of the increasingly vulgar advertising and sexually explicit media that it’s very different today. I’ve read accounts of experimentation at ages almost too young for me to imagine. I brace myself for the worst.

Then I look at Short-pants and I can’t fathom this kind of behavior from her. She hasn’t folded into the fast social cliques. Maybe we’ve accidentally found a school where this kind of pressure isn’t part of the landscape. Or else it is, and she just doesn’t see it given her charming naiveté. She doesn’t ask to go out with her friends. She’s not that keen on sleepovers. She’s friendly with a gang of kids at school, but she rarely asks to bring anyone home or go anywhere else. At her age I was begging my mother to let me hang out with friends after school, champing at the bit to go out to the “rec center” every weekend night, already eyeing boys in my class and older. Short-pants, though more social than before, is pretty much a homebody. She’d rather sit in her room and read.

This week, though, she’s come home from school nearly every day with an update about a potential suitor. Eduardo (not his real name) is quirky but not an outsider. Based on her description of him, I’d wager he’s fairly extraverted and possibly one of the class clowns. He makes up pet names for her – not mean ones, but silly ones, with a slightly affectionate tone – and he’s constantly tapping her on the opposite shoulder, stealing her bag and running away, finding ways to engage her which come right up to but never quite cross the boundary of annoying.
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I explained to her, trying my hardest not to be patronizing, that this is how pre-adolescent boys display their affection. And it’s been confirmed. Every day this week a different classmate approached her with a comment, a variation on the theme: “Eduardo likes you. Do you like him?”

“How do you respond?” I asked her, yesterday.

“I don’t,” she said. “I just laugh it off.”

Phew.

I extended my arm to her and pulled her into my room. Some of our best conversations happen laying on the big bed staring at the ceiling. These heavier talks happen more easily, I think, if you don’t have to look your mother in the eye.

We talked about the possible scenarios at play: Eduardo really likes her and he’s sending scouts to find out if it’s reciprocated. Or he’s unable to express it any other way and everyone else is trying to help. Or because she’s the slightly offbeat girl, he’s targeted her for teasing and as soon as she likes him back he’ll point at her and laugh.

That last scenario seems a bit harsh, and I emphasized that it’s probably not the case. But in matters of teenage social interactions, one must be prepared for any eventuality. Her eyes teared up a little at this – I glanced sideways quickly, pretending not to notice – and I felt a bit shitty for having even suggested it. Except in the end I think it’s better to have considered it and discover it’s not the case rather than the other way around.

“Here’s the more important question,” I said. “Do you like Eduardo?”

She fell silent, considering my question.

“No,” she said, in a most grounded way. “I don’t like him.”

She thought about it some more and added, “except as a friend.”

I told her not to get caught up in all the noise from his friends and to start liking him simply because he likes her, or says he likes her. The reason to like a person – I kept it deliberately gender neutral, too, because, well, you never know – is because they are kind or funny or smart or you find them physically appealing. Or hopefully some combination of those qualities.

“You should never feel you have to like someone just because they like you.”

Saying this out loud thrust me into a time machine, back into those awkward middle and high school moments of (at the time) great social consequence. I wanted so desperately to have a boyfriend – all my friends did – that sometimes I just accepted the placeholder. It took me a decade of dating to love_in_a_dinerreally get that the first question wasn’t who liked me, but who I liked. And even with that knowledge, I still made a mistakes with some of my adult romances, falling hard for someone who pursued me so passionately that I was blinded to how bad he was for me.

“I’m not ready to have a boyfriend,” she said, “not yet.”

“That’s probably true,” I said, relieved.

Given her proclamation, though, it won’t be long before she is.


Apr 19 2014

Time and Time Again

They warned me. The ubiquitous voices of been-there-already parents, well-meaning strangers and card-carrying members of the cliché club. It all goes by so fast. They were referring to my children’s childhood, and how quickly it time_flieswould pass. When I was knee-deep in diapers and breast pumps, unable to find even a few minutes to brush my teeth, trying to coordinate conference calls with nap time, I’d just turn the other way and roll my eyes. Deep down I knew that someday I’d agree with them, but it didn’t make me any more receptive to their unsolicited commentary.

Now time screams by and each day the hands spin faster and faster around the clock. Those two tow-headed toddlers are long and lean. Short-pants is nearly as tall as I am. Buddy-roo is not far behind her in height. They can dress and feed themselves. They manage abstract concepts and demonstrate emotional intelligence. They are becoming interesting. Now that the extreme parenting required in those early days is – thankfully – behind me, I find myself observing my children with awe and amusement. I have to throw out an occasional bone: a reminder to set the table, help out with a complex homework question or to lob in some carefully-cloaked advice. I watch them knowing I will soon be irrelevant. They are sprinting toward a horizon that’s not mine to reach.

~ ~ ~

I don’t know why I thought that moving to a new city would give me more time. I imagined an uncluttered life, a tabula rasa, starting fresh without obligations that steal time. I must have been remembering my first year in Paris, when I’d go off on a Sunday morning and explore a different arrondissement block by block just for the sake of wandering, returning home as the sun set, nourished by the long quiet hours. I had only a few friends in the city, and fewer invitations to meet up with them. That was the mid-90s, and although I had an email address – a Compuserve number – the volume of messages in my inbox was a small fraction of what calls for a response today. The public internet existed, too, but it was nascent in its ability to eat up blocks of our time. That first year, though lonely, allowed me to stop and think about who and what I wanted to be and do. I foolishly incorporated that memory into my expectations of the move to Barcelona.

Laugh at me now. Living in a new place, everything takes longer. The errands that used to be on the way to somewhere aren’t quite as efficient. Getting around isn’t second nature. I’m operating in a different language. Spanish classes twice a week are helping with that, but these take up time, too. A move with kids adds another dimension of things to monitor and manage. I’m running faster than ever, once again on a hamster wheel but this time one of my own inadvertent design. The mantra that I hate to repeat comes too often to my lips: There’s never enough time.

~ ~ ~

Last week I spent time in Italy at the CREA conference, where I facilitated a workshop about time and creativity. It was a reprise of a 3-day workshop I’d done before, only this year, paradoxically, it was scheduled as a one-day program. The workshop wasn’t about time management, but rather an opportunity to reflect on the relationship with time and how we view it and use it. Not that I’m any kind of expert on this subject, but I took on the assignment because it’s one I need to explore over and over again. I wrote time_is_nowabout this before, when I chronicled the previous workshop, but it’s still true: we teach what we most need to learn.

Think of all the language around time: how we spend time, save time, waste time and kill time. We use time up, we take time out. Time is money, time waits for no thing and for no one. Time flies. We’re running out of time. We often talk about time in terms of Chronos, its passage in hours, days and years, counted and quantified. Contrast that with Kairos, the propitious moment of time, the opportune moment. This is the Carpe Diem approach, making the best of the now. These two notions of time dance together through our lives. While we can’t escape Chronos, we can be more deliberate about Kairos. All it takes, really, is paying attention to what’s happening right now. I had a lot of Kairos moments on the Camino, because I slowed down and paid attention. The only thing that stops me from doing that now is me. Sometimes I’m so busy keeping up, I forget to savor the little moments that, when pieced together later, are what add up to a lifetime of time well spent.

~ ~ ~

There are times when she is shy, painfully uncomfortable talking out loud in front of people. At the conference I invited Short-pants to attend a small group session with me, one where you reflect on the events of the day. She was eager to come and participate. When it was her turn to talk, though, she struggled to find the words, and even had a hard time looking up at the others in the small circle of chairs. I’m not troubled by this, she’s gregarious enough at home with family and in the company of close friends. It’s that I’m always surprised by her timing: it’s never quite logical, when she goes all shy, and when she steps up to take the stage.

On the last night of the CREA conference, a musical ensemble called Cluster performed an entertaining and interactive a cappella concert. After singing several songs and medleys, demonstrating their capacity for harmonizing and blending their voices to sound like musical instruments, they asked for three volunteers from the audience. Short-pants shot her hand up in the air, without even knowing what she was volunteering to do. Once on stage, she learned that she would conduct the singers, and that in her hands was the opportunity to go faster or slower, louder or softer. She was the youngest of the volunteer conductors, but probably the most deliberate, waving one hand to lead the singers through a version of The Beatles’ Let it Be with fierce concentration. she_conducts The audience applauded her wildly, for her courage more than her conducting prowess, and she won the opportunity to conduct a second time, as part of a competition, with the winner of another trio of volunteers. Once again she took the stage, this time the song was O Sole Mio, which she’d never heard before, but she managed to wave both arms this time and finish to more wild applause, enough to make her the victor once again. She stood tall and proud on the stage, beaming broadly, surveying the audience that had crowned her, taking in the moment fully.

From the moment she ran up to the stage until she came back to hug me when it was all over, time stopped. I didn’t think about what we’d been doing before, I didn’t wonder about what would happen after. I stood in the back of a big round room, my eyes riveted on her, my hands cupped over my mouth, feeling nervous and surprised and delighted all at once. She grabbed that moment for herself and in turn gave me one, too. That and a little elbow nudge in the side about our old friend time. It’s too easy to focus on how fast time goes by, watching your children grow up. Better just to pay attention, while it’s all happening, which is when they remind you how to seize the day.


Jan 20 2014

How Fitting

The saleswoman directed us to the fitting room, a long row of closets where we could undress and try on our selections. Short-pants and I had toured the lingerie department thoroughly, in search of new bras. We used to find them easily in the girl’s section, the starter bras for budding young women. I’d noticed the week before that those easy-to-buy standards were not only a bit ragged, they were too tight. It was time to buy her a real bra.

I’d wager that most women remember the acquisition of their first bra, and not always happily. It’s a question – and I’ve asked different circles of girlfriends over the years – that’s always met with groans. How could such a simple step into womanhood have so many unpleasant stories? My experience is a classic example: My mother, noting that my nipples were popping through my favorite striped turtleneck sweater, drove me to McCurdy’s department store. It was “out of town,” meaning it was a 30-minute drive (that was a good distance in those days) so you didn’t go there for every-day things. It was a special trip. This was where we went to do Christmas shopping, or to buy back-to-school clothes. I remember coming home after those late August shopping trips and laying all the new outfits on my bed and feeling the discordant mix of excitement about going back to school along with a deep sadness about the waning of summer and its late sunsets long after dinner, stretching the hours of play to the maximum.

In the same shopping plaza as McCurdy’s, there was a lingerie store called The Ethel Abraham Shop. It was classy place. My underwear worldview, in house_of_underwearthose days, was fairly polarized. You bought underwear at a department store like McCurdy’s, or by mail-order from Frederick’s of Hollywood, which was reserved for people kinkier than my mother or her circle of friends. Lingerie was an evocative word. It spoke of the unspoken: sex. Or so I thought, until Ethel’s little boutique became part of my awareness. Its balance of quality silk and satin with just a very tiny hint of sensuality (at least what ended up in our home) opened my mind to the possibility that you could wear silky underthings without being one of the models in the Playboy magazines I’d found stacked in the bottom drawer of an old junky cupboard in the backroom of our house.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s turquoise Chevy Impala, I pictured us going to Ethel Abraham’s, imagining what it would be like to walk out of the store with one of her distinctive boxes. They were usually plain on the outside, but when opened a bright flowering print exploded from the interior of the box. A metaphor, I suppose, for the lingerie she sold: something beautiful but kept inside, hidden beneath a simple, unremarkable exterior. My father used to go to Ethel’s on the day before Christmas and pick up gifts for the women in his life: my mother, his sister and his mother. The shop carried a lovely array of nightgowns and robes, silky and lacy and soft to the touch. One year he gave my mother an elegant pink quilted robe that came in a long flat brown box. When she opened the lid, her face conveyed her delight. The robe was folded in the bottom of the box and I couldn’t see it until she held it up for us, but I knew right away it was from The Ethel Abraham Shop because of the flower print on the inside of the lid.

Forty years later, cleaning out my mother’s backroom, I found that box, or one just like it. My mother recycled boxes for years – she piled them on a table next to the cupboard with the hidden Playboys – and you could find any size you wanted for any occasion. This was especially handy for gift-wrapping at Christmas. The box from Ethel’s was used and re-used and re-used again, saved because of its beauty or perhaps because of its nostalgia. I had a hard time throwing it away and even included it in the shipment of things I sent to France. It was only there, out of the context of my family home and its thick web of childhood memories that I could see it for what it was: a dilapidated, overused 40-year old cardboard box. Even the pattern on the interior had faded. I finally put it in the recycling bin and watched the garbage truck pick it up and haul it away, but not without a deep sigh.

My mother parked the car in front of the entrance to McCurdy’s. I was mildly disappointed, and yet at the age of eleven or twelve or whatever, I was old enough to reason that I wouldn’t be fitted for my first bra at Ethel’s. I was excited enough about the acquisition I was about to make to erase any disappointment. I was also a bit nervous. Like any adolescent girl, I was self-conscious about my body. I knew I’d have to strip and let my mother examine me. I was embarrassed just thinking of it.
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It played out pretty much like my worst nightmare: the racks of the bra department were thick with cupped, hanging devices that looked like a jungle to navigate. The saleswoman was right out of central casting: pointy-heeled shoes with skin-tight pants in a leopard print (when leopard was out of fashion), a thin sweater over her thick middle and cat-eye glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. When she asked if she could help us it was more of a screech than a request. Her voice was incapable of any volume but public broadcast.

My mother answered, matching her volume. “Yes, we’re here to buy a bra for my daughter. It’s her first one.”

Every other shopper in the department turned to look at me, the newbie. I suppressed the instinct to turn and run out of the store – I really wanted a bra, all my friends were wearing one – and just dropped my head, cringing inside, praying that being “out of town” meant none of the people who could overhear this conversation might actually know me.

The saleswoman ran her eyes up and down my chest and torso, then reached out and put her hands on my shoulders, pushing them back and thrusting my very small breasts toward her.

“Stand up tall, sweety, let me have a look at you.”

A half-dozen white “trainer” bras were placed on the glass counter for my mother to inspect, which she did by holding them up so that everyone in the store could inspect them, too. When I could escape to the dressing room, I pulled the curtain closed, fussing with it to keep it fully shut in order to achieve the privacy I felt I deserved. My striped turtleneck came off and on the chair and before I had a chance to clasp one of the bras around my body, my mother had thrown the curtain open.

“Let me see, honey.”

She was helping me to adjust the straps when the bobcat-dressed lady barged in and asked for viewing rights. She pushed her way in, taking over for my mother, instructing me to bend over into the bra, and fill the cups – not that I had much to fill them – before standing upright. Her cold hands poked and prodded to make sure it fit correctly, adjusting the shoulder straps and then snapping the strap in the back – ouch! – to see how tight it was.

I was sure everyone in the lingerie department could not only see into my dressing room, but could hear my mother and this tacky woman discussing how to fit a bra to my barely-existent breasts. They kept handing me different models, and ripping the curtain open before I’d hooked them on. I felt like a mannequin being dressed and undressed in the window. I was cold, cranky and tortured. I just wanted to get a bra and get out of there.

Later, in the parking lot, a bag of new bras in my hand, I eyed the sign for The Ethel Abraham Shop. When I had real breasts, I told myself, I’d go there. It had to be more civilized.

~ ~ ~

While perusing the racks for the right style of bra for someone Short-pants’ age, I came upon several models that appealed to me as well. The straps on my best black bra were on the verge of disintegrating, I needed a new one to wear under my favorite black sleeveless sweater. So as we speak_the_truthwere bra hunting for her, I collected some for myself. We entered the dressing room – at the Corte Ingles, a much upscaled version of McCurdy’s – with our hands full. The saleswoman didn’t stay around to assist us, a slight disappointment as I’ve outgrown the need for privacy while bra shopping and it’s actually nice to have someone at your beck and call to fetch better sizes and make suggestions based on a full knowledge of the inventory. There were intercom phones in the dressing rooms, in case we needed to call for a size change, but our hands were full with multiple sizes of the same models.

“Do you mind if we use the same dressing room so I can help you?” I asked.

Short-pants wasn’t at all reluctant, she seemed delighted to be sharing the experience with me. We both stripped to the waist and took turns trying on what we’d brought in. I showed her how to bend over and fit herself into the bra, just as I’d been taught, but with a deliberately gentler explanation. She seemed genuinely eager to learn the nuances of putting on a bra. We hooked and unhooked each other, admiring the fabrics and the patterns – teenager’s bras are far more interesting today than in my day – laughing at the ones that were too tight, too big or just too quirky. We stood side-by-side under the fluorescent lighting, staring at each other in the mirror, mother by daughter, in different phases of our lives, but still two women standing together in their bras. Freeze this frame in your memory, I told myself. She won’t want to do this with you forever.

In the end, none of the bras I’d tried on fit. But Short-pants selected two pretty white ones and a deep burgundy satin number, something a little bit soft and ever-so-slightly sensual.

“The thing about nice lingerie,” I told her, while standing in line to pay, “is you wear it for yourself. It’s a gesture of self-respect, having something pretty on, but just for your eyes only.” I didn’t mention that sometimes I keep De-facto in mind when I select my bra and panties for the day. She’ll figure that out on her own.

“Like the purple one?” she asked.

I nodded. “Wear that one on the days when you feel a little down. It’ll give you something to smile about, every time you remember how you’re wearing something beautiful underneath, something just for you.”

~ ~ ~

I learned about the pleasure of lingerie when I moved to France. It’s said that French women spend 20% of their income on their undergarments. It’s certainly a habit I picked up while living there. But recently, in New York on a very quick transit stopover, I spent a Sunday afternoon with two college friends and the subject of lingerie came up. After a long lunch, including a bottle of wine, we walked back out on to the street debating what to do. pink_negligeTwenty years ago this same trio would have gone to a movie or hit a favorite jewelry shop. Last Sunday we went to Sugar Cookies, an exclusive lingerie shop. It was about to close, but stayed open for the three of us. We opened the curtain between the side-by-side fitting rooms and tried on nearly every bra in the store. I wished Short-pants could have been there to see us, each with dozens of silk and lace contraptions going on and coming off, modeling for each other, frank feedback flying back and forth, giggling, oohing and aahhing, viewing ourselves in the beautifully made undergarments. Unlike my experience at Corte Ingles, where nothing came close to fitting me, nearly everything I tried on seemed to work. An hour later, I laid a pile of lacy things on the counter. The saleswoman rang them up and wrapped them, and my friends and I walked out of the door swinging our bags, exhilarated by the items that only we – or perhaps a special somebody – would get to see.

I’ve overcome any collateral damage from my early bra-buying trauma, though it’s never been a task I’ve relished. At least that awkward first occasion produced the awareness to construct a different experience for my daughters. It occurred to me, giggling with my girlfriends in the dressing room, and reflecting on my shopping trip with Short-pants, too, that trying on bras can actually be something fun to do. How fitting to discover this hidden pleasure, just in time to pass it along.


Dec 15 2013

Absolute Power

I pulled the basket of silverware out of the dishwasher and set it on the counter for Buddy-roo. It’s one of her assigned chores to empty it and put the silverware away in its drawer. A few of the forks had been placed with their tongs downward in the container. I took one out to inspect it and, as suspected, it was caked with food from the previous night’s dinner.

“The silverware should be put in the dishwasher with the handles down and the silver part facing up.” I announced this to the entire family with the exasperated authority that only a mother possesses. “Otherwise it doesn’t get properly washed.”
shes_got_the_power
“Your mother has just issued an edict,” said De-facto.

Short-pants had been studying French history, something to do with Louis XIV’s decision to revoke the Edict of Nantes. De-facto was reading from her notebook, quizzing her for an upcoming test.

“That means she has absolute power,” said Short-pants.

“Does she?”

The girls nodded in unison. This led to a discussion about the governance of our household. Was it really a matriarchal monarchy? Was I a cruel despot or a benevolent ruler? Should I be ousted? Would such a revolution result in anarchy?

“Actually,” said Short-pants, “it’s more of an oligarchy.” She’d plucked that word off a list for her upcoming spelling bee. We’d looked it up the day before. “Both of you get to tell us what to do.”

“That’s right,” said De-facto, “but your mother makes the rules. Like the Edict of Silver High.”

~ ~ ~

Last week I got to spend five days in Paris, without man or kids in tow. I had many errands on my list, including a routine medical check-up that I opted to have conducted in French rather than Spanish. I made visits to the beauty nurse and my coiffeur, met up with friends, even went to a party and danced until 3 am. I had a brunch date with no reason to rush home afterward, permitting me to stroll around the neighborhood window shopping, doing a bit of nothing. I stayed in my studio and enjoyed hours of solitude. I cleaned up after no-one but myself. It was reminiscent of my early days in Paris, clown_carrotbefore there was a family wanting and needing my attention.

While I was basking in my imaginary exile, I could easily envision what was happening at home with De-facto at the helm. No doubt the laundry was piling up, beds were left unmade, bikes and scooters were parked in the living room, leftovers shoved in the fridge in the pot they were cooked in with a plastic bag barely covering them. Ours is a whole different household when it’s under his patriarchal rule.

I don’t mean to assert that all fathers – or all men, for that matter – are slobs. My brother keeps his desk organized at right angles and grabs the towels for the wash before you’ve even had a chance to finish drying off. Our tenant in Paris takes good care of our apartment; he keeps it clean and in good order. But the stereotype of the messy man has evolved from some nugget of truth and De-facto could be the poster boy. My girls happen take after their father, with haphazard filing systems and dirty clothes stuffed under their beds.

I can’t complain (too much) about what happens when I’m away from home. I don’t take it for granted that I get to go away for several days at a time, that De-facto can easily function as a single parent, self-sufficiently cooking for himself and the girls, managing school runs and acting as the overlord of the homework brigade. I have friends who prepare meals and store them in the freezer, planning ahead so the family will have something to eat each day during their absence. Other friends give me the snake eye if I moan even a bit about what happens when I’m gone; they have little or no chance to escape from their kids and husbands. I get to go away on my own a lot, lingering somewhere after a job, escaping every July to the fiesta or just going off for a fun weekend alone in Paris, something they remind me is not standard practice for every couple.

~ ~ ~

They made an effort to pull the place together before my return. Carpets were straightened, dishes moved from the sink to the dishwasher. A laundry had even been endeavored, the clean clothes were draped, somewhat awkwardly, over the drying rack. Coats that were surely left on chairs all week were hung in 3_on_a_bikethe closet, shoes stashed on the shoe-rack at the last moment. Bikes had been stowed in their designated compartments. I’d been gone long enough so that the feeling of missing my family would have overpowered any discomfort at the condition of the apartment. The reunion was so joyful that they got cocky and started to boast about the carefree life under the patriarchy.

“Was it anarchy here, then?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” said Short-pants.

“No,” said Buddy-roo, grinning, “It was manarchy.”