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.


Dec 23 2015

Time for Christmas

I’ve lost ten hours of my life to that bank. Ten hours I didn’t have to spare. Hours of fussing with the new on-line interface that won’t connect, or calling help-lines and being put on hold. Hours standing in line at a branch office, the only one that deals with my problem, a problem that can be addressed at only one desk, the one with six people waiting in front of it. I will lose at least three more hours opening a new account in a different bank, and trotting down to the previous one and attempting to withdraw all my funds. I suppose it will eventually get sorted and in the context of all the other horrible things that are happening in the world, this is a luxurious problem. But I’ll never get those hours back. clocks_times_three

It’s not a time when I can be generous with hours. An array of projects lie unfolded before me, marked by a mosaic of bright Post-it notes on the wall above my desk or Skype calls inked in my calendar. All of these need time and take time. Each one of them something important or at least fascinating to me, none I would be prepared to discard. Yet all of them, all at once, fill up the hours of the day, and quickly.

I have so many things I want to write. Website updates and posts about all those interesting projects. A book to finish editing (for work). A book to finish writing (for myself). So there’s no pleasure in the time spent on bank interfaces that won’t work, or calling our internet service provider about the strange undulation of our allegedly high speed, high quality fibre optic wifi, or hunting down viruses that have snuck into my computer, or scheduling doctor’s appointments I should have made weeks ago.

The girls, of course, need time from me, now more than ever. Short-pants is carrying the stress of her schoolwork. Always conscientious about homework, she manages it without assistance, but lately you can see the burden of the workload – it increases in intensity and volume every year — taking its toll on her. Each week, her introverted self gets depleted by Thursday. She explodes in anger or bursts into tears at the drop of a hat. Especially when it’s her sister who drops it.

Her sister, who is going through her own existential crisis, spiraling down into dark thoughts. Don’t laugh: I remember going through this myself when I was Buddy-roo’s age, conjuring up weird fantasies about what would happen if I was dead. Never enough to make it happen, but wondering about it, which leads to wondering about why are we here anyway, and for Buddy-roo, pondering what’s the point, especially if she doesn’t have a iPhone like all her friends?

The only antidote to their various bouts of teenage angst – both legitimate and dramatic – is time. Time spent sitting on the couch beside them, listening, chatting, or just being there and doing nothing at all. Time when I step away from the computer and give them my full attention. Time when they get to feel like they are the most important thing on my to-do list.
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And then there’s Christmas. The time of year for spirited joy and treasured family traditions. Time-honored traditions that take a lot of time. It’s a holiday that’s hardest on moms, even if dads play along. Or maybe it just hits me the hardest. Me and my mother, who used to get all wound up at Christmas and I never understood why until I was the one buying, wrapping, baking and planning. Though nobody’s holding a gun to my head to bake 4 dozen ginger-bread men and 8 dozen Christmas cut-outs (because that’s what the recipe makes) every year.

“Because it’s your tradition,” De-facto says, when, wincing at my sore shoulders, I ask myself out loud why I do this every year.

I do know why. The girls love it. They jump up and down at the mention of the seasonal baking. Now they’re old enough to really help – as opposed to when they were toddlers, when their “help” had a short attention span – and they do their share by mixing the ingredients to make the dough, rolling it flat and cutting out the angels and stars and fir trees and Santas. They know how to add the food coloring to the sugar, and how to sprinkle it on the cookies while the icing is still soft. That’s time well spent, and spent together, but it makes me long for a time when I was the one standing on the stool watching my mother read from her recipe card while she blended the ingredients with her foley fork, admonishing me, with affection, not to eat too much of the raw dough.

Because for me – and I know I say this every year – Christmas isn’t entirely joyful. It’s a time when I miss all those people who used to come together for the holidays, whose collective presence seated around my parents’ living room was the most comforting thing in the world. Christmas makes me want to regress to an earlier time, a time when I was the one marveling at the tree and its trimmings and shaking the decorated packages beneath it, when my only responsibility was playing the elf who distributed the gifts as we sat around and opened them one-by-one, and maybe setting the table or drying a few dishes after Christmas dinner. I long for those days when the hours between now and Christmas morning seemed an eternity, when time couldn’t move fast enough. If only we could put those restless, protracted hours in the bank when we’re young and impatient, and withdraw them later, when we’d appreciate them so much more. (Santa, can I open that account for Christmas?)

In the meantime, the speed of how we experience time is variable but (mostly) out of our control. There’s nothing to do but take in this moment now: Buddy-roo squatting before the Christmas tree, keep_outbemoaning how many days there are still before Christmas while I put a “keep out” sign on my office door and scramble to finish wrapping presents. This is what she will remember, and some day she will long for it. That’s the most enduring gift I can give those girls, a string of Christmases to remember fondly, even if the memory is always a little bit bittersweet.


May 10 2015

An Extra Day

I picked her up at her friend’s house – as usual she resisted the departure – and we walked toward the metro to make our way home, Buddy-roo swinging her bag of tiny plastic Pet-shop animals, describing the trades she’d made and the status of her expanding collection. She is eleven, dancing in the elastic world between child and adolescent, one moment knee-deep in blocks, dollhouses and little plastic pets, the next moment in front of her mirror, anguishing over an invisible pimple or the loss of a favorite hairband. blue_mother

“Do you know what tomorrow is?” she asked.

I knew where this was going, but I didn’t answer.

“It’s Mother’s Day!”

Again, I offered no response. It’s never been a holiday – if you can call it that – I am too attached to. Not that I mind the setting aside of a day to appreciate mothers of the world, but inevitably the day disappoints. There’s always a residue of “last minute” and the sentiment is short-lived. The home-made cards and big-morning-fuss are sweet and tender, but by mid-day everyone’s put it behind them and I’m the one folding laundry, replacing empty toilet paper rolls and nudging people to do the chores they’re supposed to do without me asking. Not to mention the kitchen sink is filled with all the dishes used to make me my special breakfast in bed.

“Did you know it was Mother’s Day?” she asked.

I didn’t want to answer this question, either.

“You knew,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

I tried to explain how this is the sort of thing you don’t want to have to remind people about. You’re not supposed to make an announcement at dinner the week before, about how the coming Sunday is Mother’s Day so don’t forget to show me the love, folks. The idea is that I might be surprised and delighted by the gestures my family offers up without having to prompt them.

“But you should have told us so we could do something for you,” her voice revving up to a whine. “I haven’t done anything for you and it’s tomorrow!”

Part of me wanted to calm her down, to tell her she didn’t have to do anything because it’s a silly Hallmark holiday. Another part of me thought, really how could they not know? It’s in the window of ten storefronts on our street, it was advertised on web-sites all week and I received at least a half-dozen emails in the last few days promoting Mother’s Day specials. Mother’s Day always falls on a Sunday in May, so when May rolls around, how hard is it to pay attention? Why is it the mom that has to remember and organize everything?

“It just doesn’t feel right, to have to remind you,” I said.

~ ~ ~

We celebrated the Spanish Mother’s Day, which was on Sunday, a week ago. Short-pants delivered a cup of coffee with frothy milk to my bed. She does that every weekend morning, but this time it was presented with mom-appreciating aplomb. Buddy-roo paraded in with hand-made gifts she’d made the night before after bookmark_mamasearching the Internet for quick and crafty items. A bookmark she’d made smelled heavily of glue not yet dry, but charmed me with it’s design, and you have to give her credit for the quick recovery. De-facto left the bedroom and re-appeared with a bouquet of a dozen pink roses he’d hidden in her closet.

“She got mad that I’d put them in her closet without getting her permission,” he whispered, out loud. Buddy-roo glared at him and then turned to me and shrugged her shoulders.

The plan for the day was a family walk, up the mountain behind where we live to a small hillside restaurant for lunch. I’d asked for three uninterrupted hours to myself, first, to linger in bed with my laptop. The uninterrupted part of my request was not exactly achieved, but I was undisturbed enough to finish editing a chapter and feel like I’d made some progress on my manuscript, which is chugging along at a tortoise’s pace.

I don’t know what went wrong, exactly. Maybe the girls didn’t eat breakfast, or didn’t have enough to eat. Maybe De-facto’s repeated urging to finish homework before our walk annoyed Buddy-roo, who then kept asking her sister to help her, which put Short-pants in a bad mood. When it was time to put the dog on the leash and head out the door, both of my daughters were stomping and screeching at each other. Buddy-roo refused to go on the walk if Short-pants was going. Short-pants announced that she’d only go if Buddy-roo went, too.

After a few futile attempts to reason with them, reminding them how much I was looking forward to this Mother’s Day family walk, my annoyance was escalating, too. I was on the verge of screaming at them, “It’s my fucking day, put your damn shoes on!” As satisfying as that would have been, I’ve been a mother long enough to know that while such a command might achieve full compliance, it wouldn’t inspire the kind of we’re-happy-together experience that Mother’s Day memories are made of.

“Winston and I will be waiting outside,” I said, snapping the leash onto his collar and trying not to slam the door on our way out. I left it to De-facto to handle the girls. It was supposed to be my day off, wasn’t it?

~ ~ ~

At dinner that night we talked about what had happened. Buddy-roo apologized for missing the family walk. I told her I was disappointed, but I appreciated that she’d finished her homework in our absence and was in a good mood when we’d returned home. Short-pants, who’d rallied and joined us for the trek up the mountain and lunch at the café terrace, admitted that she’d enjoyed the walk even though her sister hadn’t accompanied us. one_day

“But it’s not fair,” said Short-pants, “that you get celebrated on your birthday, and you get Mother’s Day, too.”

“And Papa gets Father’s Day,” said Buddy-roo, “that’s not fair either.”

“Why isn’t there a Kid’s Day?” Short-pants said, with her mouth full of food.

“Please don’t talk with your mouth full.” I said, “and you do get Kid’s Day. It’s called Christmas.”

“You get Christmas, too.”

“Not like you do. And you also get Easter, and Halloween.” I was on a roll. “All those holidays are fun for kids, but they mean more work for moms. Is that fair?”

They shook their heads, in unison, quieted by my logic.

That’s why mothers get an extra day. And maybe even two extra days, since I snuck in a few special requests today, on American Mother’s Day, and everyone cheerfully complied.


Feb 19 2015

Getting Caught Up

I didn’t exactly push them out the door. At the moment they were leaving, I had pangs of regret that I wasn’t going with De-facto and the girls to France. Our country house holds for me the sense of being outside of the day-to-day, on retreat from my busy life. Things move slower there. Nature embraces us, distracting us from our mental to-do lists pointing us toward more physical roadactivity. We clear the yard of brush and fallen branches and leaves, tend the grapes, adjust the tiles on the roof, hack away at other renovation projects in progress. The dog goes in and out of the house as he pleases – Winston is at his happiest in the country – and we take him for long walks and runs, watching him sprint up and down the lane, halting to sniff about, then bolting away to explore the world without a leash attached to his collar. I love to cook in the new kitchen we installed there last year, and how we sit around the table talking to each other after dinner, without anyone running off to finish homework or be on a conference call with some client in a time zone 6-hours behind us in the thick of their workday. I love doing nothing when I’m there, which, when you think about it, is what a country house is for.

I was aching not to be joining them, despite the long drive, despite the cold house they’d encounter. But I was also looking at a long string of days to myself, alone at home, a luxury that I rarely experience. I get my solitude on long airplane rides and in somber hotel rooms when I travel for work, but I can think of only two or three other times in my life, since the girls were born, when I’ve had such a stretch of time to myself – six consecutive days – in my own home, left alone, without anyone else around to take care of.

I’d like to tell you that I shut the door behind them and crawled back to bed. Or that I sat at the piano for hours conquering the Mendelssohn piece I used to play flawlessly and now stumble through. Or that I immediately set about adding chapters to my manuscript. I’d like to tell you I read all week, went for aimless walks, binged-watched on Netflix. I considered using these days granted to me to do just that, to escape my routines and to rest, alone, quietly doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Or doing nothing. But that’s not what happened.

One of the reasons I gave to De-Facto for not joining them in the country is that I feel exhausted by care-taking: our children, our household, my clients, the dog, any outside projects. Some days – and I know I’m not the only mother who feels this way – it seems like all I do is take care of other people. I longed for five days just to care for myself.
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Taking care of myself, it turns out, was less about saying fuck you to the world and staying in bed with a Donna Tartt novel, and more about clearing the clutter that inhabits my life. Especially after the last grueling month, when De-facto was of town for two weeks and I was up to my ears in fairly demanding work and juggling the kids and finding myself scrambling to keep up. I had to keep my eye on the prize: do the most important things. That meant all the little tasks that weren’t urgent or (as) important were relegated to a different list. In principle, this is good time management, until all those minute, delayable tasks become urgent and important and merge together to become an albatross. It’s not just from the last month, this has been accumulating for a long time. And looking ahead to a trip I will make next week, an intense work schedule in March, and more travel in April it became very apparent to me. Taking care of myself meant getting these things out of the way or they’d hound me all spring and into the summer.

Maybe other people don’t mind the nagging list. They just ignore it or they don’t even see it. I inherited my mother’s productivity compulsion. It bothers me that I haven’t submitted medical insurance claims because the paperwork sits in a tray on my desk. It irks me that an iTunes upgrade wiped out my playlists but I haven’t had time to find them on my back-up disk or to rebuild them with fresh music. Try as I do to minimize paper filing, there are still papers that need to be kept, and put where I can find them. This pile is one that sneers at me from the mess on my desk which has reached a level of chaos now spreading to piles on the floor.

These nagging tasks aside, there are the bigger projects that suffered during the last month: professional assignments that are perfect examples of my extraordinary capacity to overestimate what I can do and underestimate how long it will take to do it; documentation and research and web-site maintenance; preparing for new initiatives that require new strategies and thinking.

So I split my time: half of it making progress on the big projects, and the rest tackling the nagging tasks. Those, somehow, were the most satisfying: changing the vacuum cleaner bag that was bursting at its seams; cleaning the dog poop off the bottom of one of Buddy-roo‘s shoes, which had been on our balcony for three weeks waiting for this attention; sewing a button on a sweater, one that fell off before Thanksgiving; running an anti-virus scan on my computer and upgrading to Yosemite; shoring up medical forms and tax receipts; taking the lone Christmas ornament that we found on the tree after packing away all the decorations and simply taking it upstairs to put it in the box in the closet! I reorganized my desk, washed the throw rugs from the just_tryin_to_livebathroom floors, washed and dried every piece of dirty clothing in the house, folded it and put it away, which required a little extra organization in the girls’ wardrobes. Things are coming together. I’m still not caught up, but I’m no longer drowning in random, rogue tasks.

What I needed was a vacation from my life, so I could get caught up with my life. Isn’t this ridiculous? That life is so fast and furious and filled with duties and obligations – let alone the things I want to do – that I find myself scurrying around trying to catch up? How did I get so caught up in getting caught up?

I’ll never be all caught up. I know this. There’s always something to be done, and new opportunities add new things to the list. But at least when my family returns home tomorrow, I’ll be more caught up than before, and more than ready to catch up with them.


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.)


Dec 28 2014

The Let Down

The days leading up to Christmas are filled with such eagerness. The hidden shopping bags, do-not-enter warnings and the sound of gifts being wrapped behind a closed door. The setting up and trimming of the tree, and the moment that the decorated packages are placed beneath it. The restraint that we’d promised ourselves obviously abandoned mid-December, boxes with ribbons and bows multiply in the ramp up to Christmas. Then there’s the relished ritual of making cut-out cookies and decorating them with frosting and colored sugar, complete with festive carols blaring in the background. Ella’s Swinging Christmas maybe not the most traditional collection Santa_glasses but I’ve made sure that years from now it’s the one my girls will remember. The case of champagne – or here in Barcelona, it’s a case of cava – is carried home and the a treasure of foie-gras and special cheeses fills the refrigerator. School finishes and the shortest days of the year keep us close and home. We light the menorah, too, to celebrate the ritual of my mother’s religion, not that she practiced it piously but because it acknowledges another holiday that overlaps and shares a spirit of family and gratitude. Candles flicker, lights blink on the tree, the quiet of Christmas eve settles in and the anticipation mounts.

We can’t escape the commercialization of Christmas. It’s impossible, living the world we live in, not to absorb the materialism that has overtaken this holiday. We do our best to minimize it without taking away the delight that comes from receiving a small pile of new items that help to refresh a wardrobe, restock a bedroom bookshelf or add energy to the toy box. I remember this delight: as a child studying the Sears & Roebuck Wishbook and dreaming about what might be mine if Santa answered my pleas. I’d flip through the catalog for hours, staring at those pages so long I knew them by heart. Even now, looking at an archive of old Wishbook pages from the ’60s and ’70s, I’m stunned at how many of them I recognize. I never got everything I asked for and I knew I wouldn’t, but my mother always managed to buy enough of the most coveted items so that those first moments of Christmas morning, coming downstairs to see what toys Santa had left – unwrapped for immediate pleasure – were exalting. All the waiting had been worth it.

Then the rest of my family would arise or arrive and once breakfast and its dishes were finished, we’d sit in the living room, going around one-by-one opening our gifts with oohs and aahs. A break halfway through for Bloody Marys and cheese and crackers, and the gift opening would resume. We’d stretch it out all day, to the delight of some and distraction of others, until, finally, the space beneath the tree was evacuated of its treasures, a few stray ribbons the only evidence of the abundance that once existed there.

After the last lovely box was unwrapped, the final thank yous circulated and someone was compelled to say, “Wasn’t that best Christmas ever?” We’d nod and sigh and begin the process of tidying up, collecting the scraps of wrapping paper and ribbon that hadn’t landed in the trash bag. There was the satisfaction ofSanta_figurines a stack of new possessions, but also a sadness: Christmas was, for all intents and purposes, over. Yes, the Christmas dinner was still ahead and more time together as a family. But the electricity-producing part was over. It was always a bit of a let down.

And you knew it shouldn’t be. You didn’t want it to be. But you couldn’t help it. Something hollow in your gut, no matter how your brain would explain to you that it had been a great day with beautiful gifts and favorite people around. There’d been such a build-up, and so much of it crafted by marketing masterminds. Even in those simpler Sears catalog days, it was a strong feeling. You just had to work through it. By the next morning things were fine. It had been a great Christmas, maybe the best one. But you had to move through the sad bit before you could calibrate back to normal.

I watch Buddy-roo wrestle with this. Despite all the gifts she received this year, many of them specific requests and a few things she’d admired in my presence and then forgotten about, adding to her delight as she unwrapped and re-discovered them, when we were done opening everything, she got all mopey.

“If only I’d gotten an iPad cover.”

I gave her the really? look, more of a scorn, and she ran upstairs in tears. I followed, because this is important. I wanted to acknowledge her feelings; they’re real. I also wanted to give her a reality check: you’re lucky to even have an iPad. Let alone all the new presents that just arrived. But I wanted to deliver both these messages in the right balance, because it’s complicated, even the mildest form of post-festum let down.

The thing is, I know where she gets this from. Because I had it when I was her age, and I still feel it now. Some years more than others. For different reasons. It’s the adrenalin drop after all the build-up. Even though you got truly terrific presents, it’s the not getting that one thing you kept answering with every time someone asked, what do you want for Christmas? It’s how we keep saying it’s not about the gifts, but then if that’s the truth, why is there so much hype about them? Mostly, though, it’s feeling a bit disoriented in the aftermath of all the activity and anticipation, lost and alone even though you’re with the people you love most and who love you most.

My father used to tease us, when an important event approached, like a birthday or a much-anticipated holiday, by telling us he’d heard on the radio that it’d been cancelled. winston_as_santa This is a family joke I’ve perpetuated, and Short-pants and Buddy-roo laugh and roll their eyes whenever we say it. So I don’t know if they’d believe me if I suggested that next year we cancel Christmas. I’m serious. What if we took away the merchandise and commercial part of it, that makes it so much work, and creates such expectations and disappointments, and just did something simple together? It’s not a new idea. Lots of families choose to travel rather than plunge into the trim-the-tree-open-presents-at-home routine. We’ve done it before. We spent Christmas away, in Cambodia and in Mozambique. Both times with warning that there’d be fewer presents because the trip was the gift we were giving ourselves. Yet as Christmas day approached, because the kids were young, because we’re victims of the media, we’d cave in and start shopping. Granted, the booty was contained, but it was still booty.

This seems so appealing right now. But chances are in eleven months time with the Christmas season in full stride, I’ll be sliding right into my role as executive producer of Christmas: shopping, baking, planning menus, coordinating our Christmas Eve open house. I’ll buy the extra paper so that when De-facto sticks his head in my office and says, “do you have any wrapping stuff?” I can answer affirmatively. I’ll watch the girls get excited and help them select gifts for each other and for their father. Christmas is, most of all, magic for the kids, and it’s still magic for us, watching the kids. I’d wager that the let down, if we didn’t do anything, would be more than the little let down that follows Christmas now. As long as we have kids, I think it’s a guaranteed tradition.


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.


Sep 30 2014

Why Live Here

When it rains in Barcelona, it rains decisively. The morning might start out sunny, but by midday the dark clouds have slipped over the crest of the mountain, wrapping their gray billowy arms around the church perched at Tibadabo and crawling down toward the sea, dropping their contents with deliberate force. The rain might start out as a prolonged sprinkle, dotting your shoulders as you wait for the bus – and you hope it’ll hold off until you make itgray_and_sun home – but when the sky opens up, the rain teems down. Rain pounds the balconies and pelts against the big glass windows in our living room. Rain falls strong and fierce. The sky pours its soul out on the city, filling the streets with angry, wet weather.

The next day, usually, the sky is clear and sunny. Rain rarely lasts for consecutive days, like in my beloved Paris where the cloudy ceiling lingers for weeks at a time, dampening your mood and your shoes with its prolonged presence. Barcelona’s rain comes down hard and then it stops and there’s sun. That’s a good reason to live here.

~ ~ ~

The Internet-connecting technician designated to come flip a switch somewhere in our building – and that’s all he has to do since I’ve already hooked up the router to the phone and to our computer and our little home network is four-bars strong but for the fact the bars connect to nothing – was supposed to come two weeks ago. There were subsequent promises from our new provider, about an arrival between 8 am and 2 pm on one day, or 4 pm and 8 pm another, jailing us in our home for fear of missing the arrival of this man with a tool belt and a magic stroke that will connect us miraculously to the rest of the world. Each appointment has evaporated into a non-event. When I called to inquire why nobody arrived, the customer service agents seemed as confused as we were.

This weekend I went back to the store, a brave endeavor given the Saturday morning press in such a place. I lined up with the regular working chaps who can’t, like me, peek in on a less crowded Tuesday morning to buy a phone or organize their Internet. After waiting for the couple ahead of me to decide which plan to take, and to painstakingly select their new phones, it was my turn. After recounting the debacle of our hook-up, I learned the real reason for our delay: there is a problem in our sector, all the installations in our neighborhood are delayed. I was shown a long list of other new clients, wireless neighbors of mine, waiting for service to commence. yellow_circuit_boxes Apparently all the competitive service providers are still obliged to rely on Telefonica, Spain’s old state phone company, for this last technical step in the installation. And apparently, our wait for hook-up has been extended until October 20th. That would be four weeks away. Nearly two months from the start date of our contract.

For De-facto, when it rains it pours. Not only was he trapped in the house for nearly two full days last week, waiting for the mystery technicians who never showed – we’re guessing they were never going to come, it was just a ruse to get us off the phone – but his computer conked out on him, too. First the flashing screen and the hard drive grinding to a quiet, definitive halt. It’s under Applecare so will be repaired, but it’ll take two weeks – forcing him to use one of the two old machines we have on hand. Both of these computers worked dutifully for many years, but as it happens with old Macs, the rainbow colored wheel-of-doom starts to spin, programs take forever to open and web-pages load at snail speed.

De-facto doesn’t get on well with electronics to begin with. I’m the one who hooks things up and regularly goes through his laptop arranging bookmarks and filing systems and urging him to upgrade and back-up. He takes pride in being a luddite, and gave up his decade-old Ericsson regular feature phone only because it ceased to function. Part of our new Internet package includes a smart phone for him – at least that’s working – so he shouldn’t be adrift, except, well, he hasn’t quite mastered his new Android phone. This would explain the cursing and occasional pounding of the desk radiating from the office next to mine.

~ ~ ~

Soon we’ll all have telephones. Short-pants already does. When she started walking to school on her own two years ago, it seemed the right thing to do. I was afraid she’d fall into the head-down-at-her-phone crowd, but she hasn’t caught the texting bug. Occasionally I’ll get a flurry of “I love you more” texts from her, but her correspondence with friends is very limited, I think she doesn’t even know their phone numbers. I almost never see her at_the_phonewith her phone out. The phone is her tool, not the other way around.

I, too, will have a new phone. It’s on order, and when it comes in – next week I’m told – the not-so-smart phone I’ve been using for the last year will be handed down to Buddy-roo. She’s champing at the bit, eager to have what her sister has, ready to stay in closer touch with her friends. It’ll help her coordinate the after-school meet-up-to-walk-home rendezvous with her sister, and we’ll be able to reach both of them with important messages. They can’t use the phones in school, but surely she’ll be flipping them open as soon as they walk out of the gate.

If our new Internet hook-up ever becomes a reality, then our home be humming at full connectivity. At present you can only get a signal in one corner of the apartment, fortunately that’s where De-facto and I have our offices. The girls bedrooms have been wi-fi free zones, which meant they had to be under our noses when they went on line. That’s about to change (one hopes). Computers and telephones and iPads will connect in every room on both floors of our apartment, which will make our work much easier, but probably not without an impact on our family life. At dinner last night we talked about drawing up a contract covering use of electronic devices, modeled after this one (an excellent example of parenting) that made the rounds two years ago. We started a list of all the things that might be included in our agreement: no electronic devices at the table during meal times, no texting while walking, no screen time until homework is done, surfing and viewing on age-appropriate sites.

The latter is a tricky one. It’s easy to suggest that they avoid content with a lot of violence; I’ve seen Buddy-roo click away from something because she knew it would be disturbing. But how to get them to avoid the sexy stuff? The minute you mention not to look at it, they’ll want to. I have a friend who catches her daughter watching porn on the iPad, and forbidding it doesn’t seem to help. I gave it my best shot anyway, in a command I meant to be clear but it was probably a meandering way of saying “don’t watch people having sex.” Apparently De-facto, Short-pants and I were all facing Buddy-roo during this part of the conversation.

“Why’s everyone looking at me?” she said.

~ ~ ~

This morning, rain, again. A steady percussion on the little balcony outside my office. De-facto fidgets in the next room, restless in his (truly) wire-less condition. In better weather, he’d hop on his bike and troll up the mountain, or go for a run. If I had my druthers, I’d prop my pillows against the headboard and climb under the covers with the laptop and work from bed. It’s that kind of day.

Alas, there is no wifi in the bedroom, and anyway, I have a conference call on Skype which requires a stronger, more reliable connection than the one we borrow from our neighbors. I have no choice but to trek out in the sloppy weather to a umbrella_dayshared office where I’ll have desk space, creative camaraderie and resilient wifi. But on a wet day like today it’d be my preference to stay home and dry.

On the way there, I’ll go by the phone store to buy some more credit for my temporary phone. I’ll nudge them again about the technician and our Internet hook-up, just to give me the satisfaction of at least trying to do something to move things along. It’s unlikely to help, we’ll probably have to slog along with our make-shift connection for a few more weeks. But at least tomorrow the rain will stop, and the sun will shine. I keep reminding myself, that’s why I live here.


Sep 7 2014

Up in the Morning

It starts to happen, as our children get older, that the cherished memories we have of their childhood lose their clarity, and the boundary between sun_shineswhat we remember and what really happened begins to bend and blur. I want to tell you that when Short-pants was a baby, not quite a toddler, we’d hear first stirrings as she’d stretch and come to life slowly in her crib, taking in the new day. Then we’d hear her little voice call out enthusiastic, “Up in the morning!”

I’m not sure if that’s exactly true. It might have started that early, but maybe not until later. I do know that when she could finally escape on her own, over the railing of her crib, she’d toddle into our room and crawl up into our bed to make this morning declaration. She would pronounce each word with delight, as though lyrics of a song, all this while wearing a supremely self-satisfied smile.

A dozen years later, it’s still the first thing she says to us when we bump into each other in the kitchen, or if she slips in to our room while we’re still in bed: “Up in the morning!”

Getting the girls up in the morning and ready for school has long been my task. This involves assuring their state of dress and putting breakfast in their bellies, commanding the final assembly of book-bags the brushing of teeth until De-facto, a few minutes prior to the must-be-out-the-door moment, lifts himself from bed, throws on whatever clothes might be handy and walks them to school. Occasionally I’d be the one to escort them, but most days this has been our routine, in Paris as well as in Barcelona.

When Short-pants entered collège (middle school) two years ago and started walking to school on her own, she developed, instantly, an admirable sense of self-responsibility. She sets her own alarm, dresses and prepares her backpack, eats whatever you put in front of her or makes breakfast for herself, monitors the time closely and steps out the door in plenty of time to make it to school without having to rush. She likes the morning walk, and though accepting of our company on days we join her, has admitted to us that she prefers to walk to school alone.

So far this year, though, she’s been accompanied by her sister, who’s just started at collège. Buddy-roo is a professional sleeper and not such a happy-in-the-morning person. She is rallying, though, as part of the get-a-dog campaign. A campaign she’s won, by the way, as last spring not only did she demonstrate the capacity to wake herself earlier and more self-sufficiently, no_walking_with_parentsshe also achieved fine grades at school. Grades were not the objective; being conscientious about about her work was the goal. But by doing that she surprised us all – and mostly herself – with a recommendation from her teacher. (The dog, incidentally, an impending acquisition. Watch this space.) Part of the rite of passage to this higher class level involves making the trek to school without a parent, whether by walking or public transport. Since the girls start school at the same time now, they walk together.

~ ~ ~

Last week, on the night before the first day of school, we sat around the table after dinner, a family meeting to review the girls’ household chores. Since we’d been gone most of the summer, everyone was a little out of practice. I wanted to give the girls an opportunity to switch up their tasks and also to add new and different ones; as they get older and taller, there’s more they can do to help around the house. They are good natured, mostly, about the jobs we ask them to take on. Except one: Despite years of making it a required activity, I still can’t get them to replace an empty toilet paper roll or move the finished cardboard tube in to the trash, let alone to the recycling bin. Not sure why these tasks are so challenging to accomplish, but the three people with whom I live with seem unable to complete either of them. Though everyone has pledged, once again, to do their best.

For some reason, my annual clock rotates on a scholastic calendar, and I always think of this time of year as a time to change habits or get started on new projects. Or return to old projects, which is an objective of mine this year. I have a languishing manuscript. It needs a bit of re-work and a few chapters to end it. I’ve been working on it for a decade, and its time to finish and publish.

One way of changing a habit is asking for help from the people around you; this insight came to me during a session at Mindcamp, which resulted in the idea of setting aside just an hour a day to work on my manuscript. But not just any hour. The first hour of the day, before my fresh-from-the-dream-state imagination is spoiled by reading the news or email or by all the don’t-forget-your-maths-book kind of conversations that are part of shooing children out the door to school. It’s not the first time I’ve thought of this, but I’m just not enough of a morning person to get up before the girls, and askeven when I manage to rise before them, as soon as they’re up, they’re in my hair.

I decided to ask my family for help. After all, when they ask for something, I’m happy to do what I can to support them. Wouldn’t they show me the same courtesy? De-facto made what I perceived to be a slightly patronizing remark and Short-pants corrected my grammar, so I had to pound the table a moment to make them understand that this was actually something about which I was feeling very tender and even slightly vulnerable. A moment of discomfort around the table was followed by a how-might-we discussion about the people setting their own alarms and getting their own breakfasts. Everyone agreed we could try.

“Think of it as an experiment,” I said, “to help me get back in the habit of working on my book. We’ll see how it goes.”

“Up in the morning,” said Short-pants.

~ ~ ~

It is a mild surprise that they’ve adapted quickly to the new morning plan. Not that it’s been flawless: they forget and walk into my office to ask for something and I have to remind them that this is the kind of thing they have to ask me about the night before, so I can focus on writing in the morning. I get a knowing-nod and tip-toes out of the room.

Whether Short-pants and Buddy-roo leave for school together or separately, they leave early. At eight o’clock, or shortly after, I hear the door slam and their steps in the stairwell. By the time they’re out the door, I’m typing at full-speed. I don’t know if what I’m typing is any good, but I’m typing, and that’s as good a start as any. By the time I move on to the other tasks on my to-do list, professional and personal, I’ve logged at least an hour on my pet project, and that feels huge.

De-facto and I have gained hours that we didn’t have before, hours once taken up with walking Buddy-roo to school or picking her up at the end of the day and bringing her back home. Plus her day is longer than it was in the primary school. Add to that my extra writing time in the morning, and this year could be a whole new world for me. More time, the thing I’m always lacking.

Only a few days in to our new reality, I was at my desk, partly working and partly wondering if it wasn’t time for the girls to get home. De-facto walked behind me, through my office to the little balcony that looks out on the street. I kept waiting for him to pass back through my office, but he didn’t return. I stuck my head out the door to find him leaning against the rail, looking down the street.
balcony_watch
“Waiting for the girls?” I said.

“I miss them,” he said.

I thought about how I’d hardly seen them in the morning and how they’d been gone all day. I wasn’t just missing them, I was aching for them. Maybe just because we’ve been so together all summer, it’s just an adjustment that takes getting used to. I wondered if this up-in-the-morning-writing-routine was going to work. I’m happy to have the creative space, but there’s definitely a price to pay.

“Me, too,” I said. “It’s a long day.”

De-facto wrapped his arm around me and we stood on the balcony together, our eyes fixed on the street below, waiting for their two heads to come into view so we could wave frantically and welcome them home.


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.