May 28 2015

Rockin’ Together

I used to pay attention to new artists and new music. In a previous life I went to a lot of clubs and concerts, and learned about bands before they were big names. My college roommate – we both started out working in rock’n’roll radio – is still friends with musicians that most people onlyrecord_labels dream of meeting. I met my fair share of rockers, too, knowing I was one of a hundred hands they shook that night, but it was still a thrill for me to have even a quick conversation with someone I’d previously admired on the liner notes of a record album or CD case. (I’ve just dated myself here.)

When the kids came along it wasn’t that I succumbed to Baby Einstein soundtracks (okay, I did a little) but we all know what happens. Time gets sucked away from you with a young swaddled creature in your presence. Less time to nose around your hobbies and follow your personal interests when you’re changing diapers and pureeing sweet potatoes. Less interest in venturing out to a club to hear live music when you know you’ll be up at 6:00 in the morning feeding cheerios to a toddler. And then, it happens: you get out of practice, and you start just listening to the same old bands and artists you always listened to. Your music library gets stale.

I’m not totally stuck in the music of my past. De-facto’s sister occasionally prepares playlists with new(er) artists and sends them to us for Christmas or birthdays. Or when I visiting my old roommate it’s easy to find an unreleased single of a new band, or a pre-release of a favorite artist in her CD player. Another college friend is a curator of new music, and I visit his website, Fingertips, when I have time. When I have time being the operative phrase. Still, my music playlists are seriously outdated.

And then the inevitable happens: I discover a new band, a band that I really like, because of my daughter. My youngest daughter.

Buddy-roo would spend her entire afternoon on YouTube watching music videos if there weren’t a bit of homework discipline employed in this household. When she wants to actually buy a song, she has to get my permission (and my iTunes code) because we share a music library on all our devices. That way I get to listen to (and monitor) what she’s listening to. As you’d expect, she’s into One Direction, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, and I cheerfully encourage her to enjoy that music with her earbuds on, or in the tube_headedprivacy of her own room. But not all of the artists she wants to listen to make me cringe. For instance the hit single, Cool Kids, by a band called Echosmith. Very catchy. It inspired me to download the whole album.

A friend of mine runs a company called Bandsintown, a nifty app that scans your music library and pings you when the musicians you like are playing at a venue in your city. A few weeks ago, it pinged me with news that Echosmith was coming to Barcelona. Buddy-roo saw the notification, and begged me to buy tickets.

I had to think back, what and when was the first rock concert I attended? I was 17 when I went to see Jethro Tull. In a big arena. Buddy-roo is 11. The venue was a medium-sized club – just right for seeing up-and-coming bands. But would they even let her in?

It is a miracle that we survived before the Internet. Some quick clicking informed me that underage kids could attend the concert, if accompanied by a parent. The ticket price was palatable, the club close enough to walk to from our apartment. The show was even on a Friday night. No school to contend with the next day. So why not?

Buddy-roo watched me book the tickets and danced around the apartment in ecstasy for ten consecutive minutes after the transaction was completed. Hard to say what was better, her anticipation running up to the event, or actually watching her experience the show, last Friday, when we turned up in time to have a Fanta (okay I had a beer) at the bar before the band started.

When the band came on stage, the crowd raised their smartphones, forming a complex constellation of glowing mini-screens in place of the swarm of bic lighters we used to hold up in the air. Buddy-roo jumped up and down, cupping her hands over her face, reminiscent of images of young girls screeching at an early Beatle’s concert. Not that it was Buddy-roo’s first time in a rock club. One of her extra-curricular activities, when we lived in Paris, was a rock band school, and she performed with her band at the year-end concert. She’s seen live music before, part of the entertainment at the creativity conferences we drag her to. But this was the first time she got see one of her favorite bands, the real deal, live in concert.
real_me_with_music
Short-pants stayed home. Not that she doesn’t love music – she’s a huge Neil Diamond fan, thanks to De-facto‘s influence (that didn’t come from me) – but she’s not much for crowds and loud music. She saw it as an opportunity for a quiet night to herself, and no doubt spent the bulk of the night reading, and playing word and math games on her iPad. De-facto came along with us to the concert, too, and sat on a banquette in the back of the club, watching Buddy-roo and I dance together closer to the stage. Not that he didn’t like the music. He did. And he was happy to discover this little club so close to home. But I think he wanted to give us a chance to share the music, mother and daughter. I don’t know how long she’ll be keen to go a concert with her mother, so I’ll rock it with her as long as I can.


Aug 30 2014

Still Carefree

From the other side of the dining hall, she stomped across the room, arms akimbo, her angry face narrowing in on me. Short-pants was scolding me with her whole body.

“Where were you all night? I didn’t see you before I went to sleep. You weren’t there when I woke up. Did you even come home?”

It took a concerted effort to contain my smile. My 13-year old daughter was admonishing me for what she believed had been an all-nighter. Already, it seems, the child is parenting the parent.

I wondered if I should tell her the whole truth. That after a long night of drumming, karaoke and ’round-the-campfire singing, I’d hung out with friends at the cottage, aka the party house, telling stories and drinking shots of fireball whiskey. That we busy_nightdiscussed and seriously considered a 3:00 am car trip – don’t worry, there was a non-drinker who would have driven – into the town a few miles away, to a 24-hour shawarma joint or to try out the all-night casino on the nearby Indian reservation. That the only reason we didn’t rally was that I was delivering a 7:00 am – yes seven in the morning – writing workshop and I knew I couldn’t pull an all-nighter and still pull it off like in the old days. I wondered if I should mention to her that I’d forgotten my key in the room and had to crawl in the window at 3:30 am, while she and her sister and De-facto snored in their beds. That I crawled into bed giggling, because everything about the whole night had left me feeling untethered, carefree.

“I stayed up very late talking to friends. I came in after you’d fallen asleep.” I tried to express this as a calm fact, realizing that I was feeling defensive. “And I was up and out early this morning, before you woke up, to facilitate my 7:00 session.”

Her anger turned to tears. She wrapped her arms around me and drew in for a big hug, whispering in my ear, “But I missed you, Mama.”

~ ~ ~

As creativity conferences go – and I’ve been to many, in the states, in Europe and the UK, in South Africa, too – the conference we attended last week, Mindcamp, might top my list. It’s casual pace and rustic setting at a YMCA camp just north of Toronto made for the right balance of escape, immersion and relaxation; a perfect storm for creative insights and expression. Many of the usual suspects from our tribe of practitioners and facilitators were present – coming north over the border from the US and Mexico, or traveling in from Europe, from South America and even New Zealand to lead and attend sessions on various aspects of creativity: cultivating the right mindset, using cool tools and techniques. One of the reasons I love going to these conferences is it’s great for taking a little risk and trying on an interesting topic or technique. But it’s also a place to sharpen the saw and pick up new ideas and exercises to broaden my own tool kit. Perhaps most important, it’s a place to see longtime friends, open-minded and big-hearted people who feel, to me, just like extended family, friends whom we’ve connected and re-connected with over the years and at whose suggestion I will stay up nearly all night drinking fireball whiskey.

We’ve been dragging our kids to creativity conferences all their lives. Both Short-pants and Buddy-roo had pre-natal experiences at CPSI or CREA. I remember the early days, dragging_kidshiring local babysitters through the hotel, or bringing our nanny along, or just juggling the supervision of their activities and meals in the thin slices of time between organizing and leading my own workshops. It was fatiguing, being mom and facilitator at once in such an intense setting, but I didn’t want to miss the conferences and I knew even just being in the company of this band of cool, creative adults would have a positive impact on our children.

When the girls were little, we managed all this on an ad-hoc basis, piecing together child-care while we ran our workshops. In the last few years at CREA, an unofficial kids program has entertained and inspired them, but we were involved in its coordination and responsible for filling in the holes. At Mindcamp, there is a full-on kid’s program with designated facilitators to do that, full-time, all day. That, coupled with the fact that the girls are now both old enough to dress themselves, find their way around, get their own food at the buffet table and get it from plate to mouth without our assistance, meant that they were extremely self-sufficient. We’d go the entire day without seeing them, just passing in the dining hall and getting a quick update on the amazing experiences they’d just had in their program.

Short-pants was even invited to co-facilitate a session. Originally designed for adults and kids mixed together, it had morphed into an adults-only workshop (sounds X, but it wasn’t) and because she’d already put some thought into it, her older co-facilitators invited her to continue with them anyway. I appreciated this as I think it’s better for her to get her feet wet under someone else’s wing, not only her mother’s (or father’s). I attended the session as a participant and I was struck by her poise and clarity in front of the group. Later it was reported to me by a friend that Short-pants had responded to a congratulatory remark by nodding at her heritage: “My parents and my grandmother are all facilitators, I guess it’s in my blood.”

I loved watching my girls from a distance, running amok with a pack of kids, engaging in precocious conversations with other adults at the conference who’ve watched them grow up over the years. It even happened big_balloononce or twice, when I wanted to stop and chat with them and they were antsy, distracted. They’d lean in and kiss me and run off to their next session or their new friends, leaving me to admire them as they sprinted away. I can’t say I minded too much. I’d been privy to their on-going chatter 24/7 for more than four weeks straight. I honestly didn’t mind seeing the back of their heads. And each night, on the passaggiata, an after-dinner creative stroll through the grounds during which you’d run into all sorts of creative events and activities, from giant bubble-blowing to drumming to illuminated hoola-hooping to a perpetually-laughing man, to name only a few, they’d run by, part of a pack of kids, waving to me as they passed, wild and carefree on a late summer night.

~ ~ ~

Mindcamp was our last stop on this epic family US-tour. We’d traveled from San Francisco to as far south as Santa Fe, then north again to Chicago and east toward Cape Cod. We even took the ferry to Nantucket for a few island days before driving to Toronto for the conference. We were on the road a total of 37 days and the trip odometer displayed 5,272 miles when we dropped off the rental car at the airport. With the exception of Buddy-roo’s small backpack, all the things we left behind had been mailed to us, and received, at subsequent destinations. After final search through the SUV that had carried us west to east in roomy comfort, we closed its heavy silver doors for the last time and handed the keys to the Avis agent.

Despite my initial resistance to the car time required for this trip, and the fatigue from having taken it, I must admit I was sorry to say goodbye to that car. It had become part of our family, carrying us across the country to see places of interest and people we love. It was the vehicle for our great adventure, the wheels that took us where we wanted to go, when we our_silver_bulletwanted to go there. Our driving-vacation was not without structure or commitments: we had to be certain places by certain dates and we tried to pack too much in, which kept us moving when we might have preferred to linger. Even so, it still felt footloose, like we were entirely mobile. Everything we needed was in the trunk of that silver bullet, and for days on end all we did was drive to a new place and see old friends. What’s more carefree than that?

I patted the car affectionately before we walked away. “I’ll miss you,” I whispered, so that not even De-facto and the kids could hear.

Back in Barcelona – back home – suitcases were emptied while the washing machine churned for hours and the girls sequestered themselves upstairs in their rooms to lay their hands on their own things. A restlessness usually accompanies the return from any trip, let alone a trip of this length and quantity of experiences, but this time something felt, and still feels, different. Perhaps it’s a consequence of a making a voyage rather than a quick trip. Having left behind the priorities and responsibilities of day-to-day life for so long, the endless list of little things that never got done before we left somehow feels like a new list, a list of things that don’t-need-to-get-done-after-all. There are things to do, but they don’t seem burdensome. Summer is waning, sure, and the return to school and work and the busy-ness of autumn are closing in on us, but it’s okay. For just a few more days, at least, things still feel carefree.


Feb 9 2014

When She Wants

I waited for her just inside the courtyard gate, watching the other kids find their parents or nannies, one by one. Buddy-roo walked out of the school dragging her feet, her heavy backpack a huge weight over her shoulders to blue_kidmatch her heavy heart. She’s a fine actress: not that she covers up her feelings but rather she can dramatize them to the fullest when it serves her purpose.

I offered an upbeat greeting, a big smile and how was your morning? in an attempt not to succumb to the gloom I knew she wanted me to see. As soon as we left the school courtyard and made it around the corner, she burst into tears.

“Today was the worstest day of my life!” She recounted, between sobs, how she’d been punished for something she didn’t know was wrong: playing games on the tablet in the media center (aka the library) when she was supposed to be using it to read a book. And that last week she had forgotten (neglected) to write down two important assignments in her agenda – two poems she had to memorize, one in French and one in Catalan – both she’d have to recite the next day. This is her biggest challenge at school, either she doesn’t pay attention when the assignments are given, or she doesn’t remember to write them down, or she doesn’t remember to do them. (Or all of the above.)

“I’ve really been trying hard to keep up with my homework but now I’ve ruined it all” she said, “and now I’m going to look stupid in front of everyone.”

She clamped her arms around me and buried her head in my coat.

“I didn’t want to move here,” she said, “Our life was just fine in Paris. The school there understood how I like to be taught. I never got yelled at. I’ve been yelled at four times already this year. And I never had so many things to memorize at once.”

“Sounds like you had a rough day,” I said, already dreading the afternoon. It was Wednesday, the day of the week she gets out of school early, so she had enough time to catch up on her homework, but I knew she’d want and need my help and I had other things I’d hoped to accomplish. Plus I’d purchased tickets for the two of us to attend the Custo show as part of Barcelona’s fashion week. She was thrilled when I surprised her with the tickets, it would be a mother-daughter outing and a special treat for her because she loves all things fashion. But if she didn’t finish the assignment, I couldn’t really justify the night out, on a school night no less. I had to be parental (I hate that).

Since Buddy-roo gets out of school just before lunch on Wednesdays, we’ve made it a ritual to stop at a favorite neighborhood cafè known for its frankfurters. This is also the moment each week that I allow her a Coca-cola. It’s always a prized moment for her: lunch alone with her mom, a hot-dog and a coke. I reminded her that this was ahead, on our way home, yellow_red_barstoolshoping it would buoy her spirits. It did help to abate her tears, and a slight spring returned to her step as we walked toward the café.

“You know,” I said, once she was halfway through her hot-dog, “you’ll need to memorize both those poems before we go to the fashion show tonight.” I braced myself for her push-back: the usual resistance accompanied by complaints about having homework and being hounded to do it.

“I know,” she said.

What? No barrage of excuses or reasons not to? Could it be that she’s starting to accept responsibility for her work? Is little Buddy-roo growing up?

Later at home I let her lollygag for fifteen minutes before pressing her to start. I know sometimes I need to fuss a bit before I plunge in to my work; a few minutes of clicking on Facebook links and reading favorite blogs stirs my brain until I am warmed up. I gave her the 5-minutes-til homework warning, anticipating again her resistance but instead she walked into my office carrying her backpack, setting it down without any exaggerated sighs or even a hint of whining and retrieved from it the books she needed. We made a list of what she had to complete by six o’clock, the time we needed to walk out the door to arrive at the event on time.

“I’m really looking forward to the fashion show tonight,” I told her, “so I hope you can finish everything so we can still go.” I saw this as a gentle threat and hoped it would make clear the ultimatum, using a more positive tactic to avoid negative finger pointing, but still drawing the line.

She did a few short written assignments first, easy tasks but this permitted her to check some things off the list quickly. She attacked her work with an unusual efficiency. I’ve seen her spend an hour on a grammar exercise with only five phrases to fix, but now she was humming right along. When she started in on her poetry, I stared at my own to-do list, wondering how I would concentrate on it with her sitting on the floor behind me, reading her lines out loud. But she was taking such initiative that I didn’t want to spoil her momentum. What I wanted to write could wait until tomorrow. Instead, I’d clean out some of the emails in my inbox, something that didn’t require full concentration. pink_elephant

If you’ve ever listened to a 10-year old memorize a poem, you know it’s a humbling moment for any of us with even the mildest aphasia. My steel-trap memory disintegrated during the production of my children’s placentas, and has never been fully recuperated. Hard facts I could once recall rapid-fire often sputter out or elude me all together. My reliance on Google search to look up things I already know is maddening. The other day I was telling De-facto about feminists I admired, and I could not for the life of me summon the name of the author of The Feminine Mystique. Only an iPhone search delivered Betty Friedan. Of course, I knew that. At a certain age, I suppose, there is a widening difference between knowing and remembering.

She started with the French poem, reading two lines out loud twice. Then she put the paper down and recited them. Two more lines, twice, and then the next. Within 20 minutes she could recite the whole poem by heart, without looking. The Catalan poem posed more of problem; she didn’t really understand what it meant, so she was mostly memorizing sounds. But her accent was impeccable, or it least it sounded sharp and confident to me. She learned the second poem almost as quickly. It wasn’t flawless, she had to peek once in a while, or ask for a one-word prompt to remember the line that followed. More important than reciting the poems perfectly – both were still a little bit bumpy – was the way she’d attacked them: vigorously and without getting distracted. It’s rare that she works so diligently. She must have really wanted to go to that fashion show.

We had quasi-VIP passes. We met my Spanish teacher – this excursion was part of a culture and language program – in front of the Mercat del Born, an old covered market that, during a renovation had revealed a tract of Roman ruins. Construction was halted and the the building was turned into an archeological museum and library. This was the location of Barcelona’s fashion week events, with a catwalk that wrapped around the dugout of ruins. We first went for some tapas at a nearby café, to go over some Spanish vocabulary pertaining to the world of la moda, fashion. When we returned, we were skirted to the front of the long line snaking outside the market, and ushered to our seats, a few rows back from the catwalk. Buddy-roo delighted at the flashing lights and the pulsing music, the models sashaying by, sporting next year’s collection. And Custo happens to be a catwalk_girlsfavorite brand of mine, even before I moved to Spain. There was a Custo store on our street in Paris; its merchandise fit well my bohemian chic taste in clothing and occupied a large part of my closet until that store closed a few years ago. Fashion savvy Buddy-roo assessed each model as she strutted by, rating each outfit by its originality and style, and of course, whether or not she’d wear it. At the end of the show, when all the models paraded by, followed by the designer himself, she turned to me with the look of supreme satisfaction.

After, the fashionista crowd gathered in a tent outside the venue. I wouldn’t have minded to stay and quench my thirst, but the next day was a school day so Buddy-roo and I made our way through the throngs of well dressed people out to the street to find our taxi home. We flagged one down and slid into its back seat together. Buddy-roo threw her arms around me and gave me a fierce hug.

“This was the bestest night of my life. I’ll never forget it!”

My father used to offer me a particular piece of unsolicited advice: how I should tone down the highs and bring up the lows, just to try to take life a bit more evenly. I never appreciated his suggestion. I liked the thrill of elation too much and was prepared to pay for it with the pendulum swing of emotions. Of course now I can understand his advice, guiding Buddy-roo through the worst day and the best night of her life, but I know better than to offer it to her.

“It was a great night, wasn’t it?” I said. “Thanks for learning your poems so we could go out.”

Right then and there, in the back of the taxi whizzing through the Barcelona streets, she recited both poems for me, flawlessly. She truly has a brilliant memory, when she wants.


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.
leopard
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.


Oct 8 2013

Taking Care

It wasn’t like we didn’t know we’d be uprooting ourselves, leaving the familiar routines and our favorite people. This had all been contemplated last spring before we filled in the paperwork to apply to the new school. At every social occasion, once that decision had been made, I’d survey the room and nod to myself that I would miss these people. During our last months in Paris I reviewed the routines that had become so natural to me, the morning school drop-off and coffee klatch afterward, the passages courvertesregarde_le I’d walk through on my way to the beauty nurse or to get my hair cut, the favorite bar stools at my neighborhood hangout, the friendly banter with my pharmacist or the lady at the patisserie, knowing that these would soon become part of my fond memories of Paris and I have to carve out new rituals in their place.

Nor was I naïve about losing the support network we’ve built over the years; other mothers to call when Buddy-roo forgets to bring the necessary books home for her homework, babysitters and child-care helpers to ease the after school commute home or to cover when both De-facto and I travel for work. We’d discussed rejecting any work that took us both out of town at the same time, at least for the first few months, not only to provide continuity of parental support for the girls as they adjust to the new environment, but to give us the time to find someone we could trust and who could tolerate our children for a week at a time. In Paris, the part-time nanny who’d helped when the kids were babies had moved on to another day job, but her brother could handle afternoons and she’d move right into our home when we traveled, taking over the household. She was like family; she knew the girls as if they were her own, what they liked to eat and how to manage their emotional swings. We knew this would be hard to recreate. Not impossible, but it would take time to find someone who could take care of them like that.

As quickly as we vowed not to be out of town simultaneously, the demands came. A project slated for June was rescheduled to September, in Moscow. Not a problem, until De-facto received a request to give a keynote at a conference in London that very same week. I grumbled when I found out he’d accepted; we’d agreed not to travel at the same time and my job had been in the calendar first. But keynoting is the thing he loves to do and wants to do more, so how could I grumble, really, at his plum assignment?

We hobbled together a plan involving a university student who tutors the girls in Spanish (and Catalan) and our new cleaner who speaks not a word patchesof English, so I could fly off for a week hoping the two days De-facto would be gone would go without a hitch. But the real hurdle was still ahead. Despite the proclamation not to travel at the same time, another assignment came in, a pretty juicy and interesting job one that would require the both of us to go to Altanta, together. I remember thinking it was too much and volunteering to stand down and stay at home.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” De-facto said, “this will force us to find someone.”

He was right about that. Each day that ticked by I tried to sort out how we’d manage it. I attended all the welcome coffees hosted by seasoned mothers at the school – gestures to help newcomers get acquainted with the school community and begin to make friends – putting the word out that we needed to find a reliable person to move in with our children for a whole week, and fairly soon.

I expected to be met with judgment – how could you move our children to a new city and leave them there within a month of getting settled in a new apartment with a new school? But this was only my self admonishment. The women I discussed this with were empathetic and resourceful, suggesting former nannies, possible babysitters and at least three of them volunteering to take the girls if we ended up without any other option. I was heartened by their support, but none of the solutions felt easy to orchestrate. Uprooting the girls and putting them in the house of someone they didn’t really know felt a bit harsh. It seemed an imposition to ask a family to take them in for seven full days, but the idea of cobbling together a few days with one family and then moving to another felt like a nightmare to choreograph. I’m already mildly obsessed with notes and schedules for the girls when I travel. Coordinating a mid-week hand-off with people I barely knew would require more organization than I wanted to endeavor. We needed someone to move in with the girls in our new home, for more than a week, and in only a few week’s time.

~ ~ ~

It was good to get away. De-facto walked me out to hail a cab and waved as it pulled away. I settled into the seat as the driver headed to the airport, relieved, for the first time in a long while, to be heading somewhere alone. I have always enjoyed traveling solo, and it could be said that these last months did not deliver my minimum requirements of solitude. In the airport lounge waiting for boarding call for Moscow I was almost giddy to be going somewhere, somewhere else and on my own.

I am a better mother if I get a break now and then.
st_basils_colorful
The thing about my business travel is once you get there you don’t get out much. The meetings I run are immersive and intense, and most of the day is spent inside the hotel or conference center. This trip was no different except for the view out the meeting room window, a constant reminder that we were someplace very different and that Red Square, and the babushka selling the Matryoshka nesting dolls I would buy to take home to the girls, was only a stone’s throw away.

The week sped by while I juggled the progress of the meeting with the remote organization of things at home. De-facto had left. Someone else had arrived. She’d dropped them at school. The hand-off was made. De-facto returned. The girls marched along with each step of the plan without complaint, un-phased by the changing of the guard, and a new guard at that. We’ve trained them to be flexible, or they’re remarkably resilient – or both.

~ ~ ~

While I was in Moscow I got word from an agency, one suggested to me by one of the mothers at one of those morning coffee meet-ups. They had a candidate for me to meet, a mature woman who could speak French with the kids, but Spanish if there were an emergency and even a little bit of English. She would come stay with the kids and feed them, get them to school, nudge them on their homework but go about her own jewelry-making business during the day. The price was fair, her references reliable. Then last week she came by to meet us to see if it was the right fit. Short-pants was friendly enough, but as she’s on the threshold of her teen years she decides, sometimes, not to be enthusiastic. Buddy-roo played shy girl at first, hiding in the (as yet) unfilled bookshelves of out living room and behind half open doors as I gave a tour of the apartment and shared what would be the schedule for the week we’re away. But by the time we’d made it upstairs to show off the girls’ universe, she’d come around.

“These are the Fisher Price Toys,” she boasted. “They were my mom’s but now they’re mine.”
pack_of_boys_n_dogs
Buddy-roo described the ongoing story line for each of the pieces that were set up, in play if you will, on the floor of her room. The family in the house that always has visitors, or the couple that ran away with all their things piled on the houseboat. (Sound familiar?) Then she turned to her collection of stuffed animals. The new nanny sat down on the bed as Buddy-roo introduced each one, one by one. I stepped backward out of the room, into the hall, listening to their conversation. Soon I slipped downstairs to finish my work for the day.

A half an hour later they came down, hand in hand. We went over the final details for her stay, I showed her the kitchen and told how we’d stock up with food before we left. We went over all the drop-offs and pick-ups and bed times and special perks. She seemed cool, like someone I’d hang out with. She wore gray Chuck Taylors and cool hand-made earrings, but she hadn’t hesitated to get on the floor and play with a 10-year old. When she picked up her bag and moved toward the door, Buddy-roo ran up and threw her arms around her, begging her not to go. For me, a huge relief, the dull ache I’d been carrying all month, seemingly sorted out. It’s not ideal, I wish we knew her better. I wish we’d had the chance to do a trial run. But I have a good feeling about her, and I trust Buddy-roo’s sense on this one too. And now I can go, with at least a minimized stress concern, knowing that someone can be there with the girls, taking care.


Aug 5 2013

Out of my Depth

She threw her towel on the sand and sprinted to the water’s edge, halted only briefly by the shock of the cool water at her feet before she plunged forward, into the ocean. A frothy wave rolled directly at her, pushing her back toward the shore with its force. She faltered, but stood up and dove into the next wave, and again and again until she was on the other side of the wall of waves that break at the shore’s edge. Short-pants‘ fearlessness in the ocean has always surprised me. She is tentative about many things that other children dive into effortlessly; getting her to ride a bicycle requires cajoling and bribing. But the water calls to her, her courage summoned from the rhythm of its fierce waves.
in_the_waves
I stood on the shore watching her bob in and out of the water, alternating her practice of diving under the wave and surfacing on the other side, or chest-bumping it defiantly as it rolled toward her. The tide was high and that made the surf fiercer. Several times during her ocean frolic I’d called her and motioned her to swim back into the lifeguarded zone, away from the rip tides on either side. I’d tried to do it playfully, but still, I was watching her like a hawk.

Later, back at the beach house – friends from Paris had rented it for two weeks and kindly invited us to spend a few days there with them – I told Short-pants she seemed fearless in the surf.

“Were you worried about me?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “I love to see you bold and daring like that.”

Her shoulders expanded, pride filling every cavity of her chest.

“And I also want you to be safe in the ocean. It can be dangerous.”

“In other words,” said my friend – she’s Irish and has no problem telling it like it is – “your mother was terrified.”

~ ~ ~

This is the maternal – the parental – conundrum. We want our kids to seize the world around them. We want to encourage their adventures and help them build skills, strength and confidence. But there is so much that could go wrong; so many dangers to meet, some mere obstacles to overcome, others truly life threatening. We want to steer them, guide them through the minefields of growing up without being over-protective. We know they need to fall and fail, and pick themselves up and recover. But what if they’re on the edge of something they might not recover from?

De-facto and I like to think we found the middle ground. We didn’t childproof the electric sockets; we just taught the girls not to stick their fingers in them. We didn’t put up a gate, we showed them how to crawl backwards down the stairs. We never safety-latched our cupboards; we moved the seriously toxic stuff to higher shelves and designated cupboards they could play in. When one of them fell or stubbed a toe, we’d wait a beat, and walk, not run, with words of passive concern: “You’re okay, aren’t you?” At some point we realized that Short-pants thought “okay” meant ouch because we’d said that to her every time she hurt herself.

We might have been, perhaps, a bit cavalier about her boo-boos. We thought it was just a flu, that thing that turned out to be a brain abscess, putting her in the ICU for six weeks. If there was ever a time that I felt I was truly in over my head as a mother, this was it. No parenting book can prepare you for tending to your child in a hospital, still, you can’t panic, for their sake and for yours. But even after all that – especially after that, not wanting to live in fear or make her feel fragile – we try to take bumps and bruises in stride, and despite my own terrifying memory of those moments when we thought we might lose her, to keep sending her out into the world with all its dangers.

~ ~ ~
beach_shadows
We stood together at the water’s edge, admiring how the morning sun cast our shadows long and lean. They were nearly the same length, demonstrating that at 12 she is fast approaching my height. There were only a few other early swimmers in the water. De-facto was at a different part of the beach, taking his own surfing lesson. Buddy-roo, who’d excelled spectacularly in boogie-boarding the day before, had opted out of this morning’s beach excursion, choosing to take her opening swim in the pool back at the house.

Short-pants and I waded hand-in-hand into the water, it seemed to take forever to get beyond the shelf of the sandbar. We charged at the waves, stepping over them until they lapped against our mid-sections and then we began her favorite game of calling out “Under!” or “Over!” – one command for diving beneath the wave as it passed, the other required confronting the white foam surf and letting it splash in your face. It felt like we were the only two people in the world, frolicking in the surf, my daughter and me, laughing at the waves, diving over and rolling under.

I kept an eye on the shore – or so I thought – to keep within the distance of what had been pointed out as the safe zone. But too late I realized we’d succumbed to the longshore drift. Not only had we slipped sideways down the beach, we’d also drifted out from the shoreline. In fact, I could no longer touch bottom, which meant Short-pants couldn’t either. The current was stronger now, and I knew we were entering a danger zone.

“Why don’t we swim back toward our towels?” I said. Just then a wave pummeled us. She winced, her hair splayed over her face, spitting the salty water out of her mouth. “Take my hand, let’s swim together.” I could feel the current tugging us the direction we didn’t want to go. I pointed us diagonally, not to swim directly against it, but I knew we’d have to work hard to swim back in.

The shore seemed forever away. The waves relentless, hurling themselves at and over us. The sound of the surf was a constant roar. The swimming was hard but we were making slow progress. I also knew how quickly the surf can tire you out and I couldn’t gauge how tired Short-pants was already. We’d actually drifted into an area where there were a few surfers, one of them within shouting distance. Here was another human being, just ahead of us, and he had a floating device. I yelled to him. The surf was too loud, he paddled away.

“This is a good time to swim on your back,” I told her. We turned and kicked together. I held her hand tight; I would not lose her in this surf. It would not happen, not on my watch, the thing I dreaded, that terrified me most about her love of the sea. Moments earlier I’d marveled at the beauty of the waves cresting in front of us, blue-green walls of water, arcs perfect and smooth, like a picture window into the sea. That should have tipped me off, we’d never swum out far enough to see waves like that before. It was my fault, I’d gotten lost in the rhythm of the waves and the pleasure of being side by side with her, dancing together in the ocean.
lone_surfer
Another surfer came within sight. We’d made headway and he was a bit closer. I called and waved, he looked up and turned his board our way. Just this gesture buoyed me. I tugged Short-pants, who was still paddling and kicking beside me – she was holding her own – toward him. Just before we reached him, my foot hit the sandy bottom. Three steps later, Short-pants could stand too.

“Okay?” he asked, seeing that we’d stopped swimming and started walking. I nodded, and thanked him. But I was thinking, ouch, that was a little too close.

We trudged onward toward the beach, still fighting the force of the waves as they withdrew from the shore to slide back into the ocean. Finally we made our way to dry sand.

“Mama, I think you overreacted, waving and calling to him for help.”

“Look,” I said, pointing at the surfers in the water. “We were way out there.” Her jaw dropped as she noted the distance. I also pointed out how far down the beach we’d drifted from where we’d left our towels. “In a situation like this, you don’t realize how tired you can get, fighting the current. If there’s someone nearby, it’s a no-brainer; you should ask for help.”

We sat on the beach to rest and talk about what happened. I played down, slightly, how dangerous it might have been; I didn’t want to spoil her love of the waves. But I didn’t dismiss the danger completely. A little fear – or rather respect – for the ocean is something I was happy for her to acquire. Not that my respect for the ocean had kept us from getting in trouble, but maybe it’d had gotten us out of it in time.

“I didn’t realize,” she said. On her face, full recognition of the danger, and then the relief of having escaped it.

I’d succeeded at not panicking her during the swim back to shore, but I didn’t want this to trigger a phobia about the ocean. We walked up to the beach cafe at the top of the dune, for hot chocolate and a croissant, after which I suggested we go back into the water to do some wave-jumping before we called it a morning. She hesitated. I could see the fear taking its grip. I insisted. This experience should make her smart about the ocean, not scared of it. I took her hand and walked with her into the water. We didn’t go out as far, we weren’t quite as daring. But we got back on the horse; we rode the waves again.

~ ~ ~

blue_bird_on_yellowIt wasn’t until much later in the day, after all the vacation-house group activities – the late breakfast, the food shopping, lunch, cleaning up for the evening’s barbecue party – were finished that I had a few moments to be alone. Standing in the shower, I ran through the morning’s events, re-hashing everything we did, letting myself consider what could have happened. I leaned my head against the cool tiles, the water cleansing the salt and sweat off my body, and I wept.

I’ve managed not to beat myself up too much for this little adventure. I should have known better – I do know better – but I was in over my head, literally, forgetting my own best advice. Maybe it was useful, I told myself, that this happened. What terrified me earlier in the week was her nearly cavalier attitude about the waves. Each time I’d motion for her to come back between the lifeguards’ flags, she’d comply, but not without a groan. Making this error together, I could help her out of a pickle she might not have escaped on her own. This gave her a taste of the ocean’s formidable strength and why you shouldn’t go out of your depth, unless you know what you’re doing.

Of course, even when you think you know what you’re doing, you can still get in over your head. You can be an experienced swimmer and still make a mistake and get caught in the rip tide. Just like you can be an experienced mother, and still get out of your depth. The ocean is humbling that way, and so, I guess, is motherhood.


Jun 18 2013

High Tea, Sloe Berry

Some mothers are really good at birthday parties. They effortlessly host a dozen screeching kids and don’t seem to mind the pack of them running around and trashing the house. They make props and invent games that fill an entire afternoon. They bake elaborate cakes with towers and flags and multi-colors of frosting topped with decorative elements you can eat. They seem to enjoy the party as much as the birthday boy or girl.
balloons_in_air
I’m not one of those mothers.

I still make a big fuss all day long, and there are cards and presents and colored streamers hanging from the ceiling. A cake gets baked and decorated. But it’s usually just a family affair, with maybe a friend or a neighbor included. I’m not a complete grinch: we’ve thrown the occasional gang-of-kids party, but we’ve successfully minimized that sort of hullabaloo, generally keeping birthdays small and quiet.

Inventiveness is still required. Last fall, I tracked down Buddy-roo’s favorite busker, and invited him over for our family party. She was entirely surprised. He gave a little concert, including a live acoustic guitar version of happy birthday as she blew out the candles. He stayed for cake. She was over the moon.

When one of my sweetest friend, the Pastry Ace, was hired to start up the new Rose Bakery Tea Room at the Bon Marché department store, it clicked that this could be the perfect place to pay homage to Short-pants’ birthday this year, once again avoiding an elaborate in-house production. I presented to her the idea of high tea at a chic address, and she bit. We did an advance trip in early May. All the pieces fit.

~ ~ ~

When I weaned Short-pants, just after her first birthday, I left town to make it easier on the both of us. I escaped with my girlfriends to the hills of Navarra, the culture of the Basques and their local drink, patxaran. Because I was no longer breast feeding, I imbibed with abandon, and fell in love with the deep red liqueur. It’s reminiscent of cough syrup, but without the medicinal aftertaste. A little bit of fire water, patxaran is an elixir that aides digestion, revs up your libido and leaves you with a syrupy smile.
the_elixir
That trip turned out to be an amuse-bouche for the north of Spain. Soon after, a pilgrimage to Pamplona was incorporated into my every-summer routine. Each year, I replenish my patxaran supply, bringing several bottles home to Paris to last until the following July. I mentioned to the Fiesta Nazi that I really wanted to get my own endrina bush – this is the Spanish name for the berries that produce patxaran – so I could brew my own. All the lovely Basque men I’ve met brag about their mother-in-law’s home-made patxaran. I see myself as the kind of woman who makes hooch for her beloved son-in-law. But I need some practice before the girls come of marrying age.

We asked every respectable (and frankly, non-respectable) Spanish person we knew in Pamplona about where might I get my hands on an endrina bush. It became apparent that it’s not something you go and buy at a nursery and plant in your garden. It was impossible to get a specific answer about where to find it or even what it looked like. The response was always something like, “It’s just…you find it…around.” Then I realized the endrina is a weed.

Last summer, the Pastry Ace visited us at the country house. It was the end of August and a string of warm, sunny, dry days inspired us to pull our mattresses out to the back terrace so we could sleep out – all of us together – under the stars. She made us cakes and pies and one night cooked up a mean ratatouille; her talents stretch beyond things pastry and chocolate. We’d go for long morning walks and she’d point out the different trees and herbs and organic goodies that a chef perpetually looking for ingredients can’t help but see and that I had missed altogether, though I walk these same roads and trails every summer. She discovered a mirabelle tree, covered with fruit, on the other side of our barn. We’ve owned this house for seven years, and we’d never harvested its fruit. We didn’t even know it existed.
endrina_landscape
One afternoon, Pastry Ace walked into the kitchen with a smug smile on her face and some blueish berries in her hand. She knew of my hunt for endrinas, and was even able to help me name them in English: sloe berries. She’d found them growing wild by the side of a nearby dirt road. She’s also found some growing in a hedge, on the edge of our property. Can you imagine my bliss? Endrina bushes growing on my land.

The berries were immediately harvested and transported back to Paris, where I scoured the Internet for tips on making patxaran, and wrote to my Spanish Facebook friends for advice. I once visited a patxaran factory, I remembered this detail from that tour: mix the berries with good alcohol, don’t use the cheap stuff. I stocked up on some quality anís to mix with my precious endrinas, which means my home-made brew has nothing to do with saving money by making it yourself, but everything to do with the craft of distillation and the pride of its provenance.

~ ~ ~

Every July I rush back from the fiesta in time for Short-pants’ birthday party, though I’m not necessarily in the best of shape, usually recovering from many consecutive days of patxaran consumption. This year, she asked if we could have an early party in June, too, so she could include a few school mates. Last Saturday we made another excursion to the Rose Bakery Tea Room, this time with friends, and her sister, in tow.
tea_service
Because we were VIP guests of the chef, we were received like royalty, seated at the best table, coddled and catered to. The girls ordered white hot chocolate and it came with an extra pot of whipped cream on the side. Short-pants licked the little bowl clean. The tea service trays were presented with aplomb, stacked with savory finger sandwiches, bite-sized scones with clotted cream, tasty cakes, pastries and custards. Everyone started with wide eyes and finished with sticky fingers.

Short-pants beamed the entire time. She’s always a good sport about the the fact that her birthday parties are rather modest, and perhaps because of that, she appreciated the fuss of this tea party that much more. I enjoyed it too, especially when the elaborately ornamented chocolate birthday cake was placed in front of her, and I hadn’t been required to bake it.

~ ~ ~

The collection of hermetically sealed glass jars were wrapped in opaque plastic bags and stowed in the back of my closet. I’d learned that when endrinas are transforming into patxaran, light is an inhibitor, so I kept them stashed in the dark. Every week, I’d pull the jars out and turn them upside down for a minute, re-mixing the contents gently, before setting them upright back in their dark corner. Some people talk to their plants; I’d talk to my berries, encouraging them through their cocoon phase.

The distilling was sufficiently completed in March, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I found the right moment to filter and bottle my home brew. bottling_patxaran Short-pants was reading on the couch when I stripped the black plastic from around the jars, revealing the rose-colored liquid. Maneuvering the 3-liter glass container over the sieve required more than two hands, so I called her over.

“Honey, can you help your mama make her hooch over here?”

She sprang up and ran to help. I gave her the metal strainer and she held it steady, catching the berries as I poured the liquid through it. The smell of the alcohol was strong; the aroma of fermented berries filled the kitchen. There we stood, mother and daughter together, stirring up a concoction that in any other kitchen would have been a batch of cookies, or a birthday cake. Instead, I was teaching my daughter how to make moonshine, because, well, I’m one of those kinds of mothers.


May 12 2013

Don’t Knock ‘Em

The two of them sat the table trading knock-knock jokes while I chopped vegetables, listening to them laugh uproariously at their so-called punch lines. I’ve heard them telling each other these corny jokes for years. Or as the recipient of the dreaded “knock-knock” command, I have always replied, as a dutiful mom, with a cheerful and curious, “who’s there?”

What surprises me most: that so many of these terrible knock-knock jokes are the very same ones that I used to hear and repeat when I was exactly their age:
chaplin
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Boo.
Boo who?
Why are you crying?

(I’m not saying it’s a good joke. I’m just saying it’s stood the test of time.)

Short-pants and Buddy-roo ran through at least a dozen knock-knock jokes – their full repertoire – and then they started making up their own. Like this one:

“Knock-Knock?”
“Who’s there?”
“Hog.”
“Hog who?”
“Hogwarts. Get it?”

Both girls doubled over in laughter.

I try my best to be encouraging to my children, especially when it has to do with cultivating a sense of humor, a necessity for surviving to and through adulthood. But this one crossed the line. The joke was lame. Somebody needed to explain this to them.

“Guys,” I said, in that I’m-about-to-tell-you-something-you-need-to-know voice, “I’ve always chuckled at your knock-knock jokes, because it’s charming, the way you deliver them. But you’re approaching the age right when you might want to refine them just a bit, to make sure they’re funny.” I went on to describe the nature of humor, how it’s based on a play on words with a surprise element, or in the case of a knock-knock joke, a clever dual meaning of a word or phrase with an unexpected outcome.
shadow_girls
I looked up from my cutting board to see both of them staring at me. I could see that my suggestion that their humor wasn’t up to par was a serious blow. The corner of Buddy-roo’s mouth started to quiver, just moments ahead of a grand wail and the rush of tears. Short-pants regarded me with disbelief. Another #fail for mom, like the Santa spoiler, I’ve managed to make a mess of things when all I thought was doing was offering a sound piece of counsel.

It brings to mind a story De-facto tells about one of his college friends, a woman who tells it like it is and also happens to be athletically adept. Driving her sons and their friends home from what had been a particularly pathetic soccer game, she overheard them congratulating each other on the fine plays they’d made. She endured their reciprocal adulation until she could take it no longer, at which point she railed into them, with specificity, about all the shortcomings that had resulted in their loss, a rant that started out with, “You guys are not that good.” I could picture her looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing their stunned faces, called out by their mother for their exaggerated pride.

I’m all for encouraging my children and developing their self-esteem. I try to be deliberate with my praise, pointing out the specific things I like about the pictures they draw, and the parts of the stories they tell that tickle or touch me. I try to praise the effort more than the result. I use as much appreciative inquiry as I can, and I try to pose concerns to them in the form of a question that might inspire them to to correct and improve. (Okay, sometimes I just plain yell at them to pick up their dirty clothes or hang up their wet towels, because the third try at “how might you put your clothes away?” approach didn’t achieve the desired results.) All this to say I try to take a positive route with my children, especially about sensitive errors. Example: to Short-pants when she’s practicing her viola, “You got the rhythm perfect that time, great. This time, listen to be sure you’re playing in tune as well.” All delivered with you-can-do-it assurance.
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Sometimes, though, you have to just say it like it is. I think we do a disservice to our children if we don’t give them direct feedback, or if we sugar-coat it so much that they don’t learn how to receive criticism that isn’t softened at the edges. I’m not suggesting a humiliating attack – though that might feel satisfying to deliver – but a straightforward appraisal is good practice for the real world. Not everyone gets a medal, and if you don’t get one, you need to be able to hear – and learn from – the reason why.

Short-pants’ expression of shock and surprise morphed into one of feigned consternation, a look she gives me when we’re teasing each other or she’s pretending to be mad at me.

“How about this one?” she taunted, “Knock-knock.”
I felt compelled to oblige. “Who’s there?”
“Leaf.”
“Leaf who?”
“Leaf me alone if you don’t like my jokes, will ya?”


Feb 14 2013

Valentimes

Last night, a frenzy of jet-lag induced productivity resulted in a batch of just-in-time handmade Valentines. At about 9 pm, when I should have been coaxing Short-pants and Buddy-roo to brush their teeth and crawl into bed, I remembered that we hadn’t made any heart-shaped cards or messages for their papa. Out came the construction paper, Mr. Sketch markers, magazines and scissors. The dining table was instantly covered in scraps.

De-facto had left for a week-long trip that morning, almost exactly 24 hours after I’d returned from a week-long trip, giving us just enough time to hand off the baton of childcare and bring me up to speed on the upcoming homework assignments, rehearsals, birthday parties and the rest of the long Buddy-roo_Vcardlist of social or scholastic responsibilities. It was barely enough time to reconnect, and not enough time for me to get those girls’ fingers in glue and glitter to make Valentine’s cards without him knowing, so that we could slip them into his suitcase.

Instead, the meeting of touch and tech, as their handmade masterpieces met the glasstop of the scanner and went digital so they could be attached to emails that zapped out of my inbox this morning. Once the girls were in bed, I made my own handmade cards for the them, scanned the one I’d crafted for De-facto and attached it to an email, pasted everyone’s head on a couple of Jib-Jab cards. By now I’d passed the window of drowsiness when I could fallen into a sound night’s sleep. My second wind had kicked in, and with it I scurried around the house in the dark, the girls snoring audibly upstairs in their rooms as I moved from love messages to work emails, scrambling to clean out that in-box, to catch up from being gone, to try and get ahead so my time wouldn’t be so crunched at the end of the week.

I’m still trying to make peace with time. Each day I wrestle with tendencies that have plagued me my whole life: overestimating what I can do and underestimating how long it will take. On top of that I’m greedy. I say yes more than I should, but it’s hard to turn down interesting opportunities. Then, when all my plates are overloaded and I’m barely keeping them spinning in the air, I throw myself back against my pillow, pressing the knuckles of my hand to my forehead, lamenting my foolish busy-ness and longing for a string of slower days with nothing to do.

When I was walking the Camino I slowed down, and so did time. It took all the hours of the day – or most of them – to get from when resting place to the next. In between there were only the distractions of nature, and the clock_bellysound of my own footfall. Today, rushing home after dropping Buddy-roo at school, chatting out loud to myself about the things I planned to get done before noon, grumbling about the cold rain, the lights in the kitchen that need to be fixed, my suitcase on the floor in the hallway, still unpacked after two days home, a surge of impatience swelled in my chest. Forced to wait at a busy crosswalk, I looked down at my boots, the worn, brown hikers that carried me 550 kilometers last year. They reminded me to breathe. Sometimes I wonder if all the presence and steadiness I gained from walking the Camino has already worn off. I’m not sure I expected it to change me entirely, but I felt different when I returned. Then my world of work and family wrapped itself around me again, many patterns remain.

Except the winding up takes a little longer than it used to. The dervish in me spins out a little sooner. My recovery is faster. All it took today was looking down at my feet on the pavement, and the miles of track and road and grass that I’ve covered stretched like a wide wake behind me, a slow and welcome drag on the engine that motors me forward.

I pulled those boots out from the back of my closet because I’m breaking them in again, reminding my feet about how they fit. And a month from tomorrow, I’ll travel back to Astorga, where I left off last summer. I plan to finish the Camino, ending in Santiago on Easter weekend. Not one single professional assignment has landed in March, and De-facto is willing to pilot the household alone again for a couple of weeks while I take time to finish what I started.

Which might be why I stayed up till the wee hours last night, making cut-out hearts and pasting and coloring, making Valentimes, as Short-pants and Buddy-roo – and just about every little kid you know – used to say. De-facto doesn’t care about the holiday, there’s nothing Hallmark about him, but I had to let him know. This is a guy who, time after time, never stands in the way of me doing what I want to do. He gets to be my Valentime. back_of_Vcard

This morning, shrills of delight from the girls as they found feathered heart pens by their breakfast bowls, heart shaped lollipops and my home-made cards hidden in the pockets of their school bags. Short-pants handed over some Valentines she’d made last weekend, pink and red and peppered with crooked but affectionate words. She motioned for me to turn the card over to see the back, on which she’d drawn a laptop computer with a heart in place of the Apple logo.

“Because you spend a lot of time on your computer,” she said.

I winced. No mother wants this to be how her child remembers her.

“But mama, you love to write.”

I’ve never been a huge fan of Valentine’s Day. I never snubbed it – who wants to be left out of the holiday of hearts? This year I think I’ve figured out why it’s worth celebrating. Hopefully, the people we love know it because we show them in little ways, every day. Valentine’s Day is when you take that extra bit of time to slow down and make sure you tell them.


Feb 4 2013

Hierarchy

“I love Mama the most. Then my sister. Then Papa.”

I cringed to hear Buddy-roo‘s ranking, even though I came in first. Aren’t we supposed to love everyone in the family the same? Except I remember doing exactly the same measurement, when I was just about her age. My sister always got first billing, with my mother close behind. My father and brother alternated third and last place. It didn’t mean that I didn’t love them. But for some reason, I needed a hierarchy. Someone had to be on top.
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I looked at Short-pants to see her reaction to being in second place. She seemed unfazed.

“I love everyone the same,” she said, filling in my supposed to box, except I think she really meant it.

“Wait,” Buddy-roo corrected her earlier pronouncement, “I love my sister first, because she always gives me my favorite chair.”

One of Short-pants’ household jobs is to set the dinner table, and she’s deliberate about making sure Buddy-roo is seated in her preferred chair, the one in which the caning was recently replaced. It’s lighter and smoother, unblemished. Sometimes the chairs get moved around as they get used for other things during the day, but Short-pants always looks for it and puts her sister’s favorite glass there, too.

Funny how setting the table becomes and act of generosity, or revenge. Someday, perhaps, Short-pants will be annoyed at her sister that she will withdraw her attention to detail and put her at any old chair, with any old glass. Or worse, she’ll deliberately set her sister’s place at the chair with the broken leg, the one we only use when the company at our table requires every chair around it. On those occasions it’s Buddy-roo who sits in the broken chair; we wouldn’t offer it to a guest and she is the lightest among our family. She takes one for the team, willingly. But how would she feel if it was designated to her because she was on the outs with the table-setter?

I know about this because I was once a designated table-setter. And I used to wield my power.

My mother had a set of salad bowls, I think they were a wedding gift. One of the little bowls had been left overnight in a sink full of water, damaging its finish. It looked as though it had leprosy. My mother always scolded us if we left a wooden utensil or bowl soaking in water – now I admonish my family for this too – all because of how it had ruined that one salad bowl.
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Who knows how or why, but my sister and I started the practice of giving the “bad” bowl to whomever we were mad at. We shared the duty of setting the table, and relished this opportunity to express our displeasure at anyone in the family. If you got the bad salad bowl, you knew you were in the dog house. I’m not sure everyone else in the family fully understood the code, maybe my brother did. If we weren’t particularly angry with anyone, the bad bowl ended up on his placemat. He was the default recipient.

Years ago, at my grandmother’s memorial service, my cousin stood up before the congregated family and friends and talked about how she’d always felt that she was Grammy’s favorite. We all nodded when she added that she was certain that all the other grandchildren felt the same way. That woman had a very specific relationship with each of her nine grandchildren, and each one of us felt like the one she loved most.

“Which daughter do you love the most?” Buddy-roo asks this more frequently than Short-pants, but both of them have posed the question. My answer always a variation on the same theme of how they are different people so I love them in different ways, but that if you add it up, side-by-side it’s the same amount: infinity.

Or they’ll ask this: “Who do you love more, Papa or us?” Sometimes I’ll tease them, “I love Papa the most, on Tuesdays in months that have an R.” loveBut other times I tell the truth: “I had to love Papa first so that we could make you. I don’t love him more, but I’ve been loving him longer.”

I could spiral into worry about why they’re asking these questions, but I don’t. I think it’s a normal passage for their age. As they begin to see themselves as separate from their mother and father, there must be some assurances required along the way. And the proclamations, the hierarchy of who they love most, I think it’s natural, too. I hope they’ll outgrow it. But it makes me think about how important it is to help them feel the most loved, and yet loved the same as everyone else. I hope I can swing that one. I had good role models, which I think is what it takes.

And for the record, I love my brother the most, and just as much as I love everyone else.