Jun 23 2016

Watching Out

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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


Jun 29 2015

The Triangle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dec 18 2011

No Protecting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shout Quietly Please is a painting by Dan Walker.